"My decision to write The Land of Ulro was an act of perfect freedom in the sense that I didn't aim either at pleasing, convincing, conquering or seducing my contemporaries. It was as if I said to myself that a writer in his lifetime can afford to produce one maverick work."
What a grand statement! (Though I am inclined to ask: why only one "maverick work"?)
With these words Czeslaw Milosz introduces English-language readers to his tangled literary memoir The Land of Ulro in which he hunts ideas through the pages of Blake and Swedenborg, Hölderlin and Baudelaire in order to explicate Polish writers often unknown outside the Polish language (and sometimes within it).
The real object of this bookish hunt is the author's distant cousin, the mystical nobleman Oscar Milosz ("O.V. de L. Milosz"), born in Russia, famed as a French poet, wedded to Kabbalah (and Jewish on his mother's side) who found his soul's landscape among the unfussy country manors of old Lithuania. In his elegant, elderly cousin, Czeslaw finds a half-lit mirror, rocking on a stand in a room stuffed with taxonomy specimens and tarnished silver.
The book borrows its title from Blake's Ulro, a world not unlike our own, blighted by the tyranny of reason and ego, lost to creative Imagination. I don't share Milosz's fascination with Blake's clumsy flat-earth cosmology, and I am repelled by the "anti-Nature" notion they share: that humanity is Fallen before it gets here. Still, I can see how for Milosz, the Polish-Lithuanian native son of an area of ever-changing flags and occupiers, the idea of fallen man may have been appealing, as I can picture Blake's horror at the struggle for life in the fetid slums and "dark satanic mills" of the London of his era.