Romanticism and Positivism – The History of Polish Literature by Czeslaw Milosz

What could Polish literature do after Pan Tadeusz, a poem that Milosz said, “gradually won recognition as the highest achievement in all Polish literature”?

For starters, literary eminence was contested by Mickiewicz’s contemporaries. “Besides his unrequited love, the other passion running through [Juliusz] Słowacki’s life was his desire first to equal, then to compete with, Mickiewicz for the position of ‘national’ poet.” (p. 233) Słowacki grew up in a literary household; his father held the chair of literature at the University of Wilno (now Vilnius), and his mother showed talent in the same area. Słowacki was “an introvert, well-read in Polish, French, and English literature, he was to be a lonely man all his life, the epitome of a melancholy Romantic.” (p. 232) His early poetry was “somewhat analogous to Shelley’s,” and later moved “toward an ever greater exuberance of sound and colors, toward what may be termed a revival of the Polish Baroque.” (p. 233)

Słowacki’s life was uneventful, dedicated exclusively to creative work; and when he died at the age of forty, he left behind a poetic structure of huge dimensions. In his last phase, he passed beyond the boundaries delimiting Romanticism and was, in fact, a symbolist poet, with his own mystical doctrine of poetry as capturing the ineffable through the music of verse and images. (p. 233)

He wrote plays in verse that “Professor Backvis has called ‘amazing literary cocktails,’ mixtures of Shakespeare, Calderón, Lope de Vega, and old Polish poetry.” (p. 233) With one of those, Kordian, Słowacki intended to oppose and rival Mickiewicz’s play Forefathers’ Eve. The first part of an ultimately unrealized trilogy, Kordian was often performed in post-World War II Socialist Poland because it offered the view that the Polish insurrection in 1830–31 failed because its aristocratic leaders betrayed the masses.

More often staged, though, is another tragedy, Mazeppa, completed in 1839. Mazeppa, a colorful personality, was, at that time, a part of European literary lore, a kind of European Buffalo Bill. His adventures were related in the eighteenth century by Voltaire, later on, he showed up in the poetry of Byron, Victor Hugo, and others; and popular drawings presented him being dragged, naked, by a wild horse. This refers to an anecdote noted down by Polish memorialists such as Jan Chryzostom Pasek. … Słowacki’s tragedy, thus, gives a Romantic treatment to the mores of the seventeenth century. (pp. 236–37)

Słowacki’s works drew from European streams, and his travels later in life took him to Rome, Greece, Egypt and Palestine. Time in Greece inspired “Agamemnon’s Grave,” a short poem that Milosz says meditates on the fates of Greece and Poland. Greece had won its independence from the Ottoman Empire not many years before, while Poland was still subject of three different empires.

Near the end of his life, Słowacki increasingly turned to mysticism. From this phase

came works which, neither in his lifetime nor for decades after his death, exerted any influence, as they were completely out of step with prevailing literary fashions. The labors of his last stage foreshadow and often surpass French symbolism … In the short, mystical lyrics written in this period he attains the highest perfection of his art, and they alone would have assured Słowacki a position as one of the best Polish poets. (p. 240)

In step with future times, Słowacki wrote ambitious poems or prose-poems that Milosz characterizes as “extraordinary” and “grandiose,” saying of one that “No other such attempt exists in Western poetry.” He notes that “Słowacki’s vision of a cosmic evolution is strangely similar to the thesis proposed some hundred years later by a French Jesuit anthropologist, Teilhard de Chardin.” (p. 241) Milosz sees some of Słowacki’s work as “sublime in its depth of thought and breath-taking in its virtuosity,” and notes that a later generation saw him as “a predecessor or French symbolism and, in some aspects of his thought, a precursor of Friedrich Noetzsche.” (p. 243)

If Słowacki was a mystical counterpoint to Mickiewicz, Aleksander Fredro offers another alternative in what Milosz calls “the purest incarnation of Polish humor.” (p. 249) Fredero joined the Napoleonic army at age 16 and saw most of Europe from horseback. After Napoleon’s defeat, he returned to his family’s estates and began to write for his own amusement. His formal education, Milosz notes, “was almost nil.”

And yet comedies in verse were to become his specialty. … His plays — stemmed directly from the Polish comedy of the eighteenth century. With Fredro, therefore, the genre of Polish comedy in verse, whose origins go back to the komedia rybałtowska, reached its peak. … Fredro did not trouble with any thesis; he was simply possessed by a demon of laughter. … His verse has a classical clarity and neatness, but even though he adopted the versification of eighteenth-century comedy, he put it to quite a different use. He molded his meter perfectly to everyday speech—which explains why his idioms have become so much a part of the Polish language that they are quoted even by people who know nothing of their origin.
In a way, it would be true to say that Fredro was the last writer of the old Respublica. (p. 250)

While Polish poetry flourished in the Romantic period, appearing wherever there were Poles, even in exile and deportation, prose “encountered serious obstacles. Censorship was severe. Even more deleterious was the downward trend in education, resulting from the policy of the occupying powers.” (p. 254) Russia closed the universities in Warsaw and Wilno, and pushed Russification throughout the school system. Prussia and Austria both aimed toward progressive Germanization in the schools. Milosz notes two genres that developed under these conditions: historical novels and gawęda, “a loose, chatty form of fiction … in which a narrator recounts episodes in highly stylized, personal language.” (p. 255)

Milosz closes his examination of Polish Romanticism with an in-depth study of Cyprian Norwid, “who remained practically an unknown poet throughout the nineteenth century but whose influence, since about 1900, has grown stronger in every decade.” (p. 266) This study shows two themes of Milosz’s history: first, how writers react to the people they have read, both imitating and rejecting, giving shape to literary movements while retaining their individuality; and second, how later writers take up long-neglected predecessors, giving new life to the old, while exploring the new.

Norwid admired the “Great Romantics”; he knew Mickiewicz personally, and enjoyed the friendship of both Słowacki and Krasiński. … Yet both his philosophy and his literary technique went beyond the Romantic trend. At the start of his career, he was hailed as a poet of considerable promise; as he matured, critics rebuked him more and more frequently, bewailing the impenetrable obscurity of his style and his jarring syntax, until no one would publish him. If measured by the standard of public opinion, his poetic life ended as a failure. Only subsequent transformations in sensibility brought about a reappraisal that assigned him the position of precursor of modern Polish poetry. (p. 268)

Milosz places Norwid in a broader context: “Norwid’s intense historicism, his refusal to practice a narrowly utilitarian poetry, and, at the same time, his rejection of ‘art for art’s sake’ paved the way for a specific kind of literature that meditates on history and art and that it, perhaps, uniquely Polish.” (pp. 279–80) Polish writers participate in the wide movements of Western culture, as Milosz shows throughout his book, but they also make particularly Polish contributions to those movements. One of the pleasures of the post-Cold War period has been seeing the return of this dialogue between Poland and Europe.

Milosz ties the next major movement in Polish literature, Positivism, to the Polish uprising against Russian rule in 1863. Subtle analyst that he is, Milosz of course traces influences before and after the political event, and has previously noted writers such as Słowacki and Norwid whose legacies run through decades independent of political events. Nevertheless, the political engagement of generations of Polish writers ensured a tight relationship between developments in politics and in the world of letters.

The unsuccessful uprising brought about not only the disintegration of the nobility as a class. It meant a break with the past in other ways as well. The shock of the many deaths in battle or on the gallows was so violent that the whole complex of attitudes called “political Romanticism” was subjected to a drastic revision. Young people in Warsaw, known as “Positivists,” took their name from a term introduced by the French philosopher Auguste Comte: Positive Philosophy. (p. 283)

The Polish Positivists further drew on Darwin, and on English utilitarians such as Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill. They saw progress in science and the industrial revolution, and they had a generally optimistic outlook. “In a tragic country, they were reacting against a national past that had piled misfortune on misfortune.” (p. 283) They took a critical view of the Polish past, and “sharply opposed the Romantic view, in which Poland was presented as an innocent victim of vicious neighbors.” (p. 284) They began with an optimistic, liberal, progressive view, in which science and industry could do much to overcome outdated feudal structures and foreign oppression. “Among Western writers they particularly cherished Dickens, Mark Train, and Alphonse Daudet.” (p. 285) But as autocracy persisted, pessimism increased, and through the 1880s intellectuals gave more and more support to various clandestine Marxist organizations.

Interestingly, two of the most important Positivists, Aleksander Swiętochowski and Bolesław Prus both lived long enough to see the generational wheel turn further, and the radical ideas of their youth become the very things against which a new generation was rebelling. Swiętochowski, though born in 1849, lived to see the collapse of the old empires in World War I, experienced almost all of independent interwar Poland, and died just a year before Poland was again extinguished in 1939. By the time that Prus, author of numerous novels spanning several genres, died in 1912, “the modernist movement in literature and art, which rejected the tenets of Positivism, was in full swing, while in politics the upper hand was being taken by revolutionary socialists who condemned political realism and the pussyfooting prudence of the old generation.” (p. 303)

Milosz pays particular attention to two writers from this period who stood outside the main stream of Positivist literature: Eliza Orzeszkowa and Henryk Sienkiewicz. Orzeszkowa “was self-taught and earned her living as a professional writer at a time when it was difficult for a woman to gain access to the working world. Her writings are permeated with a love for human beings; their technique is old-fashioned and, perhaps, not up to the level of the exceptional mind which she revealed in her correspondence.” (p. 303)

“Orzeszkowa drew her material from her acquaintance with the ‘little people’ in her native province: Jewish families in small towns, petty gentry, farmers, and peasants.” (p. 305) Milosz thinks that her novel On the Banks of the Niemen is her best. Because of its setting, that work is in dialogue with Pan Tadeusz and, later, with Milosz’s own autobiographical novel, The Issa Valley.

Milosz says that “to appraise [Sienkiewicz] objectively is quite a task,” (p. 308), and while he mostly can, I cannot. Sienkiewicz was my gateway into Polish literature, and I love his stories and characters quite beyond reason.

His trilogy of historical novels — With Fire and Sword, The Deluge and Pan Michael (called Fire in the Steppe in the modern translation that I read) — “reached everybody in Poland who was able to read, and became a ‘must’ for every adolescent. Translated into other languages, it enjoyed tremendous popularity, especially in Slavic countries.” (p. 311) The three parts of the Trilogy follow a continuing cast of characters through the Polish-Cossack wars, the Polish-Swedish war, and the Polish-Turkish wars.

On the whole, these are novels of military adventure with a due proportion of love involvements and miraculous escapes. The pace is quick. The main figures are supermen or superwomen with whom the reader identifies. The element of suspense is nearly constant; but dramatic scenes are interlaced with humorous ones. Among the comic chracters, the most striking is [Pan] Zagłoba, an old, one-eyed nobleman with a huge belly, a kind of bumblebee buzzing with jokes, a resourceful braggart and coward, though cunning and able to perform feats of courage when cornered. (pp. 311–12)

Zagłoba is the Polish Falstaff, and I wish he were as widely known. “Sienkiewicz’s ideal is a pious, healthy, Roman Catholic soldier, not overburdened with ideas but endowed with a great capacity for fencing, drinking, and love-making.” (p. 312) Not everybody found that appealing, including Milosz, who notes that “in the Trilogy’s second book the highly intellectualized segments of the population, above all, the Protestants, are either eliminated from the pages of the novel or are given roles as traitors and collaborators with the Swedes.” (p. 312) Milosz admits that such criticism, or even sharper words from Bolesław Prus, has had little effect on Sienkiewicz’s enduring popularity.

“On the other hand, admiration or disdain for Sienkiewicz has long been a gauge of political orientation in Poland. In general, his writings promoted a conservative mentality.” (p. 313) Which, in part, surely explains my Polish friends’ general lukewarm feelings toward Sienkiewicz. On the other hand, coming to his work as a foreigner, innocent of any implications, was a joy. He made Poland vivid, introduced me to characters I still recall 20 and more years later, brought a formerly obscure part of history to life, and did it all with a verve to rival Dumas.

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  1. […] but also for his editorship of the lushly presented magazine Chimera and for his discovery of Cyprian Norwid. Ironically for a protagonist of a youth movement, he lived to an advanced age, dying in wartime […]

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