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A reflection on Gift by Czeslaw Milosz, by Tim Summers

Here is one of my favourite poems by the Catholic poet Czeslaw Milosz.


A day so happy.

Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.

Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.

There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

I knew no one worth my envying him.

Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.

To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.

In my body I felt no pain.

When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

These are the words of an old man for whom bodily aches, and regrets and resentments about the past, have become habitual; as I think they become to many of us as we age. I can identify with Milosz. (I am sure that he writes, here, in his own voice: these are favourite themes, as I am about to remind you.)

To feel no pain, no envy or desire to possess, and most of all no regret and no anger - this is happiness. It is rebirth, heaven. This garden is like a restored Eden, where there is freedom from the accumulated damage done by life.

In the first of my reflections for this email list a few weeks ago, I shared another work of Milosz in old age, "Awakened" - a prose poem which describes a kind of 3am mystical experience - the poet's profound peace, as he lies in bed, arising from his sense of a "closing of accounts... connected with the thought of death". "You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago.” Clearly the same man as the speaker in "Gift".

The late poetry of Milosz has a luminous spiritual hue. Unusually, the last work is the best work. As with Yeats. But the late poetry of Milosz is not about the circus animals' desertion, the loss of his powers. Rather it is the opening up of vistas, the vision of a lovely garden and a blue sea and sails. And Milosz sings, always ambiguously, of "the human hope of the resurrection of the dead."

Resurrection can happen in this life too. This is what we know from Dostoevksy. Remember his hero, the Elder Zosima:

“Do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it, and if we did want to know it, tomorrow there would be paradise the world over."

“My dears, why do we quarrel, boast before each other, remember each other's offences? Let us go to the garden, let us walk and play and love and praise and kiss each other, and bless our life.”

The garden is just waiting to be enjoyed here and now.

“Paradise is hidden in each one of us, it is concealed within me, too, right now, and if I wish, it will come for me in reality, tomorrow even, and for the rest of my life."

The image is a photo of Czeslaw Milosz in middle life. Too good to leave out.

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