Czesław Miłosz was born at Šeteniai (Polish: Szetejnie), Lithuania, in what was then part of the Russian Empire, into a Polonized Lithuanian family of the Lubicz coat-of-arms. Although he did not speak Lithuanian, he emphasized — as had Adam Mickiewicz and Józef Piłsudski — his family connections with the ancient Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which for centuries had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He spent part of his childhood, about the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, in Russia. His law studies were at Vilnius, then part of the Second Polish Republic.
After World War II, in 1951, as cultural attaché of the communist People's Republic of Poland in Paris, Miłosz broke with his government and obtained political asylum in France. In 1953 he received the Prix Littéraire Européen (European Literary Prize).
In 1960 Miłosz came to the United States, and in 1970 he took U.S. citizenship. In 1961 he began a professorship in Polish literature in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1978 Miłosz received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He retired that same year, but continued teaching at Berkeley. In 1980 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
When the Iron Curtain fell, Miłosz was able to return to Poland, at first to visit and later to live there part-time.
In 1989 Miłosz received the National Medal of Arts and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
His book The Captive Mind (1953) is considered one of the finest studies of intellectuals under a repressive regime. He observed that those who became dissidents were not necessarily the ones with the strongest minds, but rather those with the weakest stomachs. The mind can rationalize anything, he said, but the stomach can take only so much. He also said that as a poet he avoided touching his nation's wounds, for fear of making them holy.
Czesław Miłosz is honored, at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust, as one of the "Righteous among the Nations." Poems by him were placed on a monument to fallen shipyard workers in Gdańsk.
His books and poems have been translated into English by many hands, including Jane Zielonko (The Captive Mind), Miłosz himself, his Berkeley students, and his friends and Berkeley colleagues, Peter Dale Scott, Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass.
Miłosz spoke English with a Polish accent. Once, during a 1966 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, he startled students with a reference to "the Juice in Poland" (he had meant "the Jews in Poland").
Miłosz took pleasure occasionally in deflating academic pomposity, as when he recounted the stir he had caused in referring at a literary conference to "turpism" (same root as the English "turpitude"), which some in the audience took to be a new literary movement.
Though somewhat reserved in manner, in the 1960s he would playfully greet a Polish-Argentinian-American coed with, "How's your sex life?"
Miłosz died in 2004, at his home in Kraków, aged 93. His first wife, Janina, had died in 1986; and his second wife, Carol, a U.S.-born historian, in 2002. Miłosz was buried at Kraków's Skałka Church.