Czeslaw Milosz

Banquet speech

Czeslaw Milosz’ speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1980

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I accept this highest honor on behalf of all men and women for whom I am not so much an individual as a voice, and someone who belongs to them. They should be invoked here, and they come from more than one country. First of all, I think of those who cherish the Polish language and literature, wherever they live, in Poland or abroad; I also think of my part of Europe, the nations situated between Germany and Russia, the nations in whose future of freedom and dignity I believe; and particularly my thoughts go to a country where I was born, Lithuania. Moreover, since I have lived a long time in exile, I may be legitimately claimed by all those who had to leave their native villages and provinces because of misery of persecution and to adapt themselves to new ways of life; we are millions all over the Earth, for this is a century of exile. Neither should I bypass here my new home country, America, where not only I found, as many before me, hospitality and well-rewarded work, but also the friendship of American poets. And though the University of California, where for twenty years I have been teaching Slavic Literatures, counts among its professors several Nobel Prize winners in science, today it is particularly pleased being able to add to their number its first Nobel laureate in humanities.

There is a paradox inherent in the poet’s calling. Savagely individualistic, pursuing goals which are visible only to his few intimate friends, he grows accustomed to be branded as difficult and obscure, only to discover one day that his poems constitute a link between people and that he must assume, whether he wants it or not, a symbolic role. Living a long time abroad, I gradually became a poet of the young generations in Poland, and, as I guess, my adventure has some auspicious features of a general import. Poets and their readers may be separated by distance but if a spiritual unity between them is preserved, borders and barriers, thatever their nature, have not power. I think that we, both in Poland and outside, accomplished an important thing by refusing to recognize a division of Polish literature into two separate bodies, depending on where a given writer lives. Credit should here be given to those of my colleagues who have not been swayed by absurd doctrines, and to the young who have promoted free exchange of ideas, whether through lectures, periodicals or books. Volumes of my poetry published by their independent presses are most precious items on my bookshelves. No lesser homage is due to the astonishing energy and perseverance of a few persons who founded abroad institutions dedicated to publishing books and periodicals in Polish, such as the Literary Institute in France, that has been active without interruption since the end of the war and has been engaged in issuing books both of authors in exile and of those from Poland. Such a continuity and unity of a culture, maintained in most unfavorable circumstances, speaks against romantic moods of irrevocability and nostalgia, attached by the nineteenth century to the notion of exile.

I am a part of Polish literature which is relatively little known in the world as it is hardly translatable. Comparing it with other literatures, I have been able to appreciate its rich oddity. It is a kind of a secret brotherhood with its own rites of communion with the dead, where weeping and laughter, pathos and irony coexist on an equal footing, history-oriented, always allusive, in this century, as before, it faithfully accompanied the people in their hard trials. Lines of Polish verse circulated underground, were written in barracks of concentration camps and in soldiers’ tents in Asia, Africa, and Europe. To represent here such a literature is to feel humble before testimonies of love and heroic selfsacrifice left by those who are no more. It is my hope that the distinction kindly granted to me by the Swedish Academy indirectly rewards all who guided my hand and whose invisible presence sustained me in difficult moments.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1980, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1981

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1980

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