Young Poland – The History of Polish Literature by Czeslaw Milosz

“Modern Polish literature,” writes Milosz, “begins with the generation that emerged from adolescence around 1890.” (p. 322) If Romanticism is the first literary movement with which Milosz and his contemporaries were in dialogue, this generation, called “Young Poland” (Młoda Polska) after 1899, are his immediate forbears, the literary uncles (and much more rarely aunts) who shaped the culture in which Milosz was raised and educated. Young Poland had parallels across Europe, although not always contemporaneously; Milosz mentions Young Germany (Junges Deutschland) and Young Scandinavia, while Young Italy (La Giovine Italia) and the Young Turks offer other points of comparison. “Cosmopolitanism is the proper word here, because European culture, in an age when one traveled without passports, was felt to be all of a piece, and young people, whether they were Frenchmen, Poles, or Russians, pored over the same Latin and Greek classics, read the same German philosophers and French poets.” (p. 322) Milosz’s invocation of free travel highlighted the differences between the period about which he wrote, and the time in which he wrote his history (1969), when the Iron Curtain divided Europe. Almost fifty years on, openness across Europe is closer to the era before the first World War.

Milosz traces Young Poland to an effort to come to terms with the material benefits of scientific progress and the perceived lack of accompanying moral or spiritual progress. As its start, it was

a return to the Romantic revolt after a hiatus of several decades of naive confidence in unlimited bourgeois progress … These rebels against the Establishment had no program except negation. They combatted recognized art and literature, proclaimed the end of Parnassian poetry and of naturalism in prose, made alliances with anarchists in politics, and saw Western civilization as having reached a stage of decadence. (p. 323)

He adds that while the greatest impetus for the movement came from “the innovative activity of a few isolated, energetic individuals interested primarily in poetry and philosophy” (p. 324) — Stanisław Przybyszewski, Zenon Przesmycki, Edward Porębowicz, Antoni Lange, for example — “we would be wrong to reduce the new ferment to literary fashions.” (p. 325) That ferment, Milosz writes, “was a true crisis of the scientific Weltanschauung, lived through by those who had been imbued with it and who were searching for a way out in philosophers that offered some hope to the individual.” (p. 325) The crisis expressed by Young Poland is one that still resonates today; established religion has been undercut by scientific thought and cannot regain its dominance, “Yet science could not give them any foundation for Value. Although their religious beliefs were undermined, they could not renounce the search for the meaning of life and death.” (p. 327)

Zenon Przesmycki, known by the pen name “Miriam,” emerged as the leading figure of Young Poland, not only because of the strength of his poetry and his translations (of Rimbaud, among others), 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 Warsaw in 1944.

Poland’s first science fiction was also published during this period, including In the Fourth Dimension (1912) by Antoni Lange and a trilogy by Jerzy Żuławski (On the Silvery Globe, 1903; The Victor, 1910; The Old Earth, 1911) about the first human settlers on the moon.

Numerous writers found ways out of the dilemmas posed by Young Poland. The long-lived and prolific poet, editor and translator Leopold Staff (1878–1957) emerged as one of the most significant. He edited a series of philosophical works that brought, for example, Kierkegaard to Polish audiences. His range as a translator “was wide—from Friedrich Nietzsche … to St. Francis of Assisi, the Latin poems of Jan Kochanowski, Heraclitus, the Greek Sophists, and Old Chinese poetry (through French versions).” (p. 343) He not only drew on many sources for inspiration, he never quite settled down. Milosz writes, “Staff’s proteanism confounded his contemporaries because he was nearly always up-to-date; and at the very end of his life, after World War II, he fell under the influence of very young poets.” Indeed, the second half of Staff’s life overlaps with the first half of Milosz’s as a poet, and the contentions of Staff’s age are some of the things against which a youthful Milosz rebels.

Although the poetry of the period is clearly closes to Milosz’s heart, he details achievements in drama and prose as well. In the theater, he concentrates on Stefan Wyspiański, who lived only 38 years but who achieved a revolution in Polish drama. Wyspiański led the first staging of Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve, a work long thought unproduceable because of its supernatural elements and technical demands. As Schiller wrote about Wyspiański, “He created the idea of ‘pure theater,’ an autonomous theater which possesses its own aesthetics and its own craft and where literature has no more right than the actor, while the actor is as much a component of theatrical act as the décor.” (p. 354) The novelists Milosz mentions—Stefan Żeromski, Władysław Reymont, and Wacław Berent—address both historic and contemporary themes, but none of them rises to the heights of achievement that Milosz sees taking place in poetry and drama. Reymont won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924, mainly for his four-volume epic The Peasants, but “his energy seems to have been spent on that major endeavor of his literary career.” (p. 371) Young Poland, like most turn-of-the-century movements, was eclipsed by World War I, a struggle that, among many other results, put Poland back on the map of Europe for the first time since 1795.


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