More concerning The History of Polish Literature by Czeslaw Milosz

I thought that the next bit I wrote here would be about something lighter, or at least something fictional, but Milosz has well and truly grabbed and held my attention.

The middle section that I have just finished, particularly the nearly 100 pages (out of 530 in the main text) Milosz devotes to Polish Romanticism, is the crux of his account of Polish literature. It’s the period of the most widely known works of Polish writing, and the time of the first works with which Milosz’s own prose and poetry, as well as that of his peers, is in dialog. There are some monuments amidst earlier Polish literature, such as Kochanowski’s poems, and in his earlier chapters Milosz has also scrupulously laid out where he sees the early foundations of Polish theater and narrative writing, but the achievements of the great Romantics of the nineteenth century are the ones that stand out as living works for Milosz.

He dispenses with the first half of the eighteenth century in a mere five pages, calling it the “Saxon Night.” He writes, “Around 1700 the weakness of a stagnant economic and political system became only too apparent. A rigid class division into masters and serfs was stronger than ever in the nearly ruined country. Wars had devastated towns so completely that some of them had lost up to 90 per cent of their inhabitants. The country as a whole sustained a population decrease of about 30 per cent due not only to wars and epidemics but also to the utter misery of the peasants.” (p. 153) Milosz’s marginalia strengthen the impression: Further Lowering of the Educational Standards, Devout Obscurantism, The Military Weakness of the State. Nor does he think highly of the period’s writing. “Rhymesters abounded throughout the ‘Saxon Night,’ but their verbosity, the legacy of a decaying Sarmatian Baroque, makes their efforts painfully dull reading.” (p. 155) Fully half the chapter is devoted to “Precursors of Change.”

And it was quite a change. “If the Renaissance is called the Golden Age of Polish letters, the short but intense period of the Enlightenment is, in many respects, a link between this seemingly lost heritage and the literature of modern times.” (p. 159) The period coincided with the reign of the last King of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski (r. 1764–95). Though his election was marred by irregularities (this had become close to the norm in Polish royal elections), he was a vigorous monarch, in tune with the times; under his auspices Poland gained a government with Europe’s first written constitution on May 3, 1791, a day still celebrated as a national holiday on par with Independence Day. Many Enlightenment ideas originated in France; Milosz writes that “the ideas of such French writers as Diderot, Voltaire, d’Alember, and Rousseau began to penetrate Polish minds.” (p. 159) Political ideas and commitments crossed the Atlantic as well. Kazimierz Puławski and Tadeusz Kościuszko fought for their ideas of freedom in Poland, and after crossing the ocean won fame as heroes of the American Revolution. (Kościuszko returned to Poland to lead an uprising against Russia in 1794, and failed.) Enlightenment ideas spread through the education establishment; the Pope’s dissolution of the Jesuits in 1773 ended the Society’s dominance of education in Poland and opened the door to new practices. Tastes changed, too.

The Polish literary language at this time underwent a true revolution. The ideal of the men of the Enlightenment was a clear, precise style, modeled upon French Classicism and the poetics of antiquity. … Purity of language was stressed and “macaronic” incrustations combatted. Periodicals and leaflets of the time were filled with fierce polemics centering around the rules of good taste. Baroque “over-abundance” in literature and in the theater was rejected as barbarous. It was toward the Polish poets of the Renaissance as models of a limpid and balanced style that attention now directed itself. (pp. 162–63)

Milosz notes that the Enlightenment also coincided with mystical ideals and associations, such as Freemasonry. Poland’s extensive Jewish population saw increasing literacy and increasing interaction with its Gentile neighbors. This was also the time of messianic movements such as the one described here.

None of this ferment could save the Polish state. Its neighbors – Prussia, Austria, and Russia – meddled in its politics, swayed royal elections, and eventually carved out slices of its territory for themselves. (The rulers of Prussia had once held much of their lands as vassals of the Polish kings, but that’s another story.) Three partitions in the second half of the eighteenth century culminated in 1795 with Poland’s disappearance from the map of Europe.

But Poland was not yet lost, and literary Poland even less so. Polish legions fought for Napoleon (the national anthem was the marching song of one of them), and a short-lived Duchy of Warsaw was created under Napoleonic auspices. Poles rebelled against Russia in 1830; the aftermath of the rebellion’s failure led to many deportations to Siberia, and to the Great Emigration to Paris. In 1848, during the springtime of nations, a Polish general led temporarily victorious Hungarian forces; insurrection spread in both Prussian- and Austrian-controlled Poland. Yet another revolt, in 1863, provides the other bookend of the Romantic era.

For the political events shaped education and of course literature. For example, after the 1830 uprising, czarist authorities closed the University of Warsaw in 1831. “The University of Wilno [Vilnius], regarded as a hotbed of dangerous ideas, soon shared the same fate.” (p. 198) Official campaigns of Russification and Germanization placed limits on Polish cultural life. They also prompted the formation of clandestine institutions, a tradition that would be a key cultural resource during the far harsher occupations of the twentieth century.

Around 1820, a movement among the youth, the expression of which in literature came to be called Romanticism, spread through Poland, and it took on organizational forms similar to those of the revolutionary brotherhoods in Germany … During the so-called Great Emigration which followed [the failure of the 1830 rebellion], several thousands of officers and soldiers and a number of the most active intellectuals left the country, migrating first to Germany, then to France. Paris, for some two decades, became the center of Polish cultural and political life. (p. 197)

Before considering individual authors, Milosz offers some general thoughts on Romanticism as a whole, its interplay with public life, and its place in Polish literary history:

Heroic insurrections, participation in revolutionary movements all over Europe, retaliative executions carried out by the occupying powers, and deportations to Siberia unavoidably shaped the Polish mentality. … [W]hen Poland lost her independence, the concept of “Polishness” gradually emerged as an ethereal entity requiring loyalty and existing even without embodiment in a state. It is extremely difficult to make an impartial appraisal of the Polish mentality in the period we are dealing with. If the history of the country can be called “abnormal,”* its thought and literature were no less so. An old tendency to idealize the “golden freedom,” which had distinguished Poland from her neighbors, the autocratic monarchies, underwent a mutation: enormous talents for self-pity were displayed, and Poland was presented as an innocent victim suffering for the sins of humanity. …
To place Polish literature of this time in a proper perspective is a task that has never been brought to a conclusion. A jungle of criss-crossing currents, of madly daring ideas, of self-pity and national arrogance, and of unsurpassed brilliancy in poetic technique asks for constantly renewed explorations. If the term Romanticism is treacherous, denoting as it does different phenomena in each country, it would be doubly dangerous to apply its most widely accepted meaning to Polish literature. … Contrary to the brand of Romanticism which in many countries was identified with a withdrawal of the individual into his own interior world, Romanticism in Poland acquired an extremely activist character and was clearly a consequence of many ideas of the Enlightenment. (pp. 200–01)

The development of Polish Romanticism is also pan-European in scope. French philosophy, as noted above, played a role; German drama, such as Schiller’s The Robbers found its way in translation to Polish stages, and August Wilhelm Schlegel’s lectures on aesthetics also found a ready audience in Poland. “Among the writers on the border line of Classicism and Romanticism, we should place Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, whose knowledge of English gave him direct access not only to the works of Pole and Samuel Johnson, but those of Gray and Byron as well as to English and Scottish ballads.” (p. 207)

Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), the towering figure of Polish Romanticism, was born in a small town in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. “He was fourteen when the Napoleonic army, in its expeidition against Russia, entered Nowogródek and Napoleon’s brother, Hieronymous, King of Naples, took up quarters in the family house. The echoes of that event, as well as the landscapes and human types of his native province, were, in his mature age, to become the material for Mickiewicz’s epos in verse, Pan Tadeusz.” (pp. 208–09) His first poems “were imitations of Voltaire, written to amuse his friends.” (p. 209) After extremely happy years at the University of Wilno, he moved to Kowno [Kaunas] to teach school, as required by the terms of his university scholarship. “In Kowno Mickiewicz gradually discovered Schiller, Goethe, and Byron and started to write ballads. The appearance of his first book of poems, Ballads and Romances (Ballady i romanse), in 1822 opened for good the era of Romanticism in Poland.” (p. 210)

But Mickiewicz did not stay in Kowno. His involvement with clandestine youth organizations led to arrest and half a year of detention, followed by forced relocation to St Petersburg. “[T]hus began what, for the Polish poet, proved to be a triumphant exile. … he was greeted by the young Russian intelligentsia as one of “theirs.” Moreover, his Freemasonic connections were of help.” (p. 217) From St Petersburg he moved to a teaching position in Odessa. “The teaching job was purely nominal, and Mickiewicz lived, as he said himself, ‘like a pasha,’ surrounded by women, one of whom in particular, Karolina Sobanski, appears in his poetry.” (p. 218) In Odessa, Mickiewicz wrote a cycle of twenty-two love sonnets, and his more famous Crimean Sonnets, which were particularly popular in Russian translation. His work from Odessa also incorporated aspects of Islamic poetry, as well as many Turkish words. Transferred for a while back to Moscow, Mickiewicz obtained a passport and left Russia in 1829. He traveled through Germany, paid his respects to Goethe in Weimar, and then settled for a time in Rome, where he also met James Fenimore Cooper. “The period of his sojourn in Rome was market by a return of intense and even devout religious feelings, and the profundity of the so-called ‘Roman lyrics’ is somewhat reminiscent of the English metaphysical poets.” (p. 221)

The uprising of 1830 found him in Rome; he did not head for Poland immediately, and when he left Rome he went to Paris — Milosz speculates that he may have been carrying messages to French radicals. By the time that he was close to the Polish border, it was clear that the Poles had lost, and Mickiewicz moved on to Dresden, “then full of Polish refugees.” (p. 222) There, he completed the third part of Forefathers’ Eve, which Milosz calls “a morality play revived as well as a Promethean poem.” (p. 222)

Written extremely fast—Forefathers’ Eve, Part Three, sometimes sounds as if it had been dictated to a medium—and published in Paris the same year it was composed (1832), it remained a splendid dramatic poem until 1901, as only modern stage directors dared to present it on the stage. Mickiewicz … spoke of the essence of the Slavic theater of the future as an interplay of the natural and the supernatural; thus, the Slavic drama, in his intention, was to be an heir to Greek religious tragedy and the medieval religious theater. As to staging, he anticipated a flowering of architecture, painting, and music that would make possible the presentation of such dramas. (p. 223)

Moving to Paris in 1832, and having spurred Pushkin to write The Bronze Horseman as a reply to one of his poems, Mickiewicz wrote

a work of pure poetry. Pan Tadeusz had very little to do with the ideological conflicts of the day. Indeed, when starting that long poem, he treated it as an island to which he could escape, “closing the door on Europe’s noises.” … Pan Tadeusz is something unique in world literature, and the problem of how to classify it has remained the crux of a constant quarrel among scholars. Is it a “novel in verse”? an epos? a fairy tale? (p. 227)

Milosz gives examples and convincing elements that could place the work in any of those categories, yet it stretches beyond all of them.

Pan Tadeusz is also a vast panorama of a gentry society at the moment it is living through its last days. … The richness of the human types, taken as they are, without any bile or moralizing, so conquers our attention that we forget about the limited field of observation. A manor, a village of gentry farmers, a half-ruined aristocratic castle quite suffice while peasants move somewhere far in the background and tradesmen appear only in the person of wise Jankiel, a Jewish innkeeper… The element of politics is not lacking, for the action takes place on the eve of the Napoleonic expedition against Moscow and is completed by it. But it is politics of a not very complex sort. … (pp. 228–29)

Its initial reception was mixed:

A handful of writers saw it as a masterpiece, although Mickiewicz himself did not. … But Pan Tadeusz gradually won recognition as the highest achievement in all Polish literature for having transformed into poetry what seemed by its very nature to resist any such attempt. In it, Mickiewicz’s whole literary training culminates in an effortless conciseness where every word finds its proper place as if predestined throughout the many centuries of the history of the Polish language.
After Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz wrote nothing more in verse, except for a few lyrical poems of rare perfection. (p. 229)

He settled into his life as an exile. He taught at the College of Lausanne, and then held the first chair of Slavic literatures at the Collège de France in Paris from 1840 to 1844, when his outspokenness provoked the French government into revoking his appointment. In 1848, he passed into direct political action, organizing a Polish legion in Italy. The defeat of the revolutions sent him back to a modest job in France, but the Crimean War drew him into organizational activity again in the cause of fighting against Russia. While visiting a military camp near Constantinople, in 1855, he contracted cholera and died suddenly.

Mickiewicz is for Poles what Goethe is for Germans and Pushkin for Russians. There is an additional element, that of his biography as pilgrim, leader, and fighter. Thus, if Byron after his death in Greece fired the imagination of the early Romantics (and of Mickiewicz himself), Mickiewicz through his life of service to the Polish cause grew into the embodiment of a “national bard” and a spiritual commander for the generations to come. … Curiously enough, Poland’s greatest poet never set foot in Warsaw or Krakow. He was a posthumous child of the old Respublica. (pp. 231–32)

* The question of Poland’s “normality” was a live one until at least the end of the twentieth century, and possibly even into the present day. One of the questions in my oral exams as part of this program was whether Poland was then, in the mid-1990s, a “normal” European country. Answering it involved, in part, the long discourse about what it means in Poland to be a “normal” country, a discussion that starts in the Romantic period and then continues for most of the next 160 years.

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  1. […] 1967 the University theatre had been running a production of Forefathers’ Eve, a play by Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet. Written in 1832 but dangerously contemporary in its portrayal of […]

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