The History of Polish Literature by Czeslaw Milosz

Every literature should be so fortunate as to have a Nobel laureate write a textbook history of its development. The only down side I can see to The History of Polish Literature — so far, that is, I am up to the middle of the 18th century, although that’s just a little less than the first third of the book — is that Milosz published the main manuscript in 1969, and added a brief Epilogue in 1982. The half-century mark since its publication is creeping up, and just a few things have happened in Polish public and cultural life since then. (A friend who is a Polish novelist was eight when the revised edition was published; Milosz does not mention her.)

Milosz may have set out with a purpose that he called “purely utilitarian,” to wit, to provide “as much information as possible within a limited number of pages and, at the same time, to avoid the scholarly dryness which, more often than not, comes form the author’s lack of emotional involvement with his subject.” He can’t help going well beyond that utility. “At no moment during my work did I feel boredom,” he writes, “indeed, I was playing more than toiling, and several passages preserve, I hope, a trace of my smile.” (p. xv)

Both the play and the purpose shine through, illuminating a journey through a European past, lit up by the joys of creating and of literature. He begins in the Middle Ages, as Polish was coming to be written down for the first time, and as the chronicles of Poland were moving from legend to history. Milosz considers literature in both Latin and Polish. Indeed, the oldest examples of literary Polish known to Milosz were “accidentally discovered in the nineteenth century when the binding of a Latin manuscript was found to be made of scraps of these Polish sermons.” (p. 12) Milosz sketches Polish history as he goes along, tying developments in literature to developments in politics and society. He keeps both aspects lively, and his descriptions are very handy for a reader who is interested in the subject, but has not necessarily retained a deep knowledge of Central European history.

One of the themes that emerges from the first chapters (mostly the third, an eighty-page excursion into “Humanism and Reformation”) is how thoroughly Poland was immersed in wider European currents. The sons of the nobility went to study in Bologna or Milan, or later at the Sorbonne; once the Reformation starts, time spent at Wittenberg is a mark of a young Protestant. Literary Poles draw on ancient Greek models, often via Italian re-workings. As the Cold War recedes further into history, it’s less common to divide Europe as starkly into East and West as was done at the time, but it’s heartening to see someone insisting on Europe’s historical integration at a time when the Iron Curtain showed few spots of rust.

Another theme is the importance of political literature, broadly construed, to Polish cultural life. Polish nobles were proud of their republic — and not without reason, during this period a larger share of the population could vote to elect the Polish king than could vote to elect the British Parliament — and produced sizable body of discourses, polemics and theoretical works on ideal governance. For example:

De Republica Emendanda [On the Reform of the State, by Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, 1551] is a sort of codification of those democratic ideas which found their radical expression in the social teachings of the Arians. It is a thorough investigation of the essence of the Christian State, its ideal structure, and the rights and duties of its citizens. The main theses can be summarized as follows:
a) “Kings are established for the people and not the people for the kings.”
b) Laws should be the same for all estates. (Frycz did not question, of course, the division of society into gentry, burghers, and peasants.) Laws should be ratified by a representation of all citizens, and not by the gentry alone. All estates should be equal before the law, since all are useful to the State, each in its own way. The State should treat the burgher and the peasant as free citizens. The privileged position of the gentry is a usurpation.
c) A good judiciary system implies three parties: the judge, the plaintiff, and the accused; therefore, a nobleman cannot be a judge of his peasant. … (pp. 40–41)

As writers’ lives become more clearly documented, Milosz devotes longer passages to individuals, such as Mikołaj Rej (1505–1569), “Called the father of Polish literature and very popular in his lifetime.” Literature was as rough and tumble as the rest of Polish public life, and because Rej was a Protestant, Jesuit writers spread an image of him as “a glutton, a drunkard, a lecher, a gossiper, a man of obscene language, and a blasphemer.” (p. 56) Though Rej learned some Latin, he never learned enough to write in it, and always used the vernacular. “His writing grew out of the light verse and little jokes which he was fond of composing to amuse his friends. … He handled verse and prose with equal facility and, let us say, with equal garrulousness, borrowing freely from other authors (an accepted practice at that time).” (p. 57) Milosz places Rej’s poetry on a path that will develop into the Polish Renaissance. Rej’s prose he finds

Too wordy and rambling for the modern reader, [it] finds its virtues when read aloud. It reproduces everyday talk in a way curiously reminiscent of the French writer, Rabelais. Innumerable expressions of joviality reveal the visible pleasure the author took in releasing a stream of words. (p. 57)

Milosz next takes up Jan Kochanowski (1530–1584), a poet whose striking Laments are the best-known older Polish poems, and which I could almost come to grips with back when my Polish was much better than it is now. Agan, Milosz places the Polish poet in his European context: “He was a contemporary of the French poet Ronsard, who was six years his elder. The year that Kochanowski left Poland as a twenty-two-year-old youth to continue his studies in Padua Torquato Tasso was a child of eight. In England, about that time, Edmund Spenser (1552?) and Sir Philip Sidney (1554) were born.” (p. 60) His place in Polish letters? “Kochanowski set the pace for the whole subsequent development of Polish poetry. … At first glance there is nothing striking or extraordinary about it; classical, limpid, it is simply an act of perfect ordering of the language. It flows naturally, so to speak, without any apparent effort; one might call it a pure ‘breathing’ of Polish.” (p. 60) Nor did he neglect politics, as one character in a long poem Milosz characterizes as “journalism in verse” (p. 62) says, “I would rather uphold your side because the Muscovite despot has never paid much heed to constitutions.” (p. 63) Kochanowski is also the author of The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys, which Milosz calls “the finest specimen of Polish humanist drama,” (p. 68) and whose influence through centuries of Polish theater Milosz traces in succeeding chapters.

By the time Milosz takes up the Counter-Reformation and Baroque of the seventeenth century, literature in Latin has dwindled to the point that he only considers one poet by name, and notes that he is the last Polish poet to use Latin exclusively. This period also sees Poland’s apotheosis as a European great power, with King Jan Sobieski decisively defeating the Ottoman armies at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Paradoxically, the Polish kings were among Europe’s weakest compared with the power exercised by the country’s great nobles, who grew in wealth and might at the expense of both the monarch and lesser nobility (to say nothing of the peasantry, about which little was in fact said). Simultaneously, and perhaps in compensation, the ideology of Sarmatism — extolling the noble estate as the seat of all virtue, bearer of liberties, and bulwark of the Polish nation — reached its peak. Poland also saw a return to Catholicism, losing its reputation as a “paradise for heretics,” i.e., Protestants.

Of the period’s prose, Milosz notes that the most interesting example is

a memoir which remained in manuscript form until the nineteenth century, when it was printed for the first time. No purer example of a Sarmatian szlachta [noble] could be imagined than its author, Jan Chryzoston Pasek. He also shared many characteristics of the gentry in his native province of Mazovia, famous for its anti-Protestantism, its turbulence, anarchy, and obscurantism, its bravery, drinking, and also for its poverty. Pasek received some education at a Jesuit school in his native district; namely, he learned to declaim pompous speeches in Latin or in a mixture of Polish and Latin, also how to write extremely bad verse. Such equipment was to suffice for all his life, as there are no traces that he ever read any books. … Battles, duels, drunken brawls, boasting and joking in good company were his life for eleven years [in the army]. But even after his retirement from the army and his marriage (to a rich widow), Pasek could not settle down. Undisguised hatred for his neighbors, lawsuits, acts of scarcely concealed banditry finally caused him to be condemned by a tribunal and sentenced to exile …
Pasek’s famous Memoirs was written in his advanced age—perhaps we should say written but rather noted down, for they are mostly spoken tales which Pasek had probably told innumerable times before putting them on paper. … [T]he narrative is amazingly swift, colorful, and racy, endowed with great comic force and free from prescribed devices. …
Because Pasek’s narrative reads like a novel, [Adam] Mickiewicz observed that Pasek anticipated the genre of the historical novel, invented by Sir Walter Scott. The Memoirs, thanks to its realistic and vivid descriptions, the richness of material … set the pace for the future Polish historical novel. (p. 145–47)

Back when I studied the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, I read a good bit of Pasek’s Memoirs (in translation), and Milosz gets them exactly right.

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