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by Bamber Gascoigne

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)


Poet, playwright, and political activist, the leader of Polish Romanticism. Mickiewicz's best-known works include Forefathers' Eve, Grazyna, Konrad Wallenrod, and the long narrative poem Pan Tadeusz. Much of Mickiewicz's work was written in exile in Russia, where he was banished in 1824. After release he spent the rest of his life in Western Europe, where he became the spiritual leader of Polish emigrés.

"Litva! My country, like art thou to health,
For how to prize thee alone can tell
Who has lost thee. I behold thy beauty now
In full adornment, and I sing of it
Because I long for thee."

(from Pan Tadeusz)

Adam Bernard Mickiewicz was born in Zaosie, near Nowogródek, in the former grand duchy of Lithuania, into an impoverished noble family. Now western Belarus, it was a recently acquired province of the Russian Empire. According to one of Mickiewicz's friends, the poet claimed, "My father came from Mazovian stock, my mother Majewska from converts; I'm thus half Lechite and half Israelite, and I'm proud of it." Little is know of his early years, which he spent in Nowogródek. His father, Mikołaj Mickiewicz, practiced law; once he was badly  beaten as a result of his involvement in a divorce proceeding. Mikołaj's family owned little or no land, but they had two houses in the town.

Mickiewicz grew up in peaceful times until 1812, when Napoleon's army marched in June into Lithuania bound for Moscow. Later he wrote enthusiastically in Pan Tadeusz about the "spring of harvest". Until the age of ten, Mickiewicz was educated at home, and then went to a school run by Dominicans. Betweenthe years 1815-1819 he studied at the Imperial University of Vilnius. During his first year, he became involved with a certain Aniela, but his first great love was Karolina Kowalska, whom he met in Kowno. She was the wife of a regional doctor; they often invited him to supper, and on weekends they would make excursions to the countryside. "Imagine if you can," he wrote to his friend after spending a night with her, "a goddess with hair playing down her shoulders, amidst white muslins, on a magnificent bed, in a beautiful room."

Though Mickiewicz passed his qualifying exams, he never actually graduated: his master's thesis was not accepted because of "ortographic errors." In 1819 he was appointed to a teach literature, history, and law in the distric school of Kowno. With the exception of the 1821-1822 academic year in Vilnius and summers in the Nowogródek area, he lived there until 1824.

Mickiewicz's early interest in the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire soon changed into admiration of the two great Romantic writers, Schiller and Byron. In Vilno he took part in a semisecret group known as the Philomaths (Lovers of Knowledge), founded in 1817, and Philarets (Lovers of Virtue), which protested Russian control of Poland. Mickiewicz wrote for the society a drinking song: "Hey, let's live life to its fullest! / After all, we only have one life to live. . . . " Following a confrontation between students and Russian officers, Prince Czartoryski initiated a secret investigation of student societies. He also put Mickiewicz and some of his friends under watch of the local authorities.

In 1823, Mickiewicz was arrested with many other Philomaths by the Russian police. After a six-month prison term, he was exiled to Russia. Mickiewicz never saw his home again. He lived in Odessa, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. During this period he was befriended by many leading Russian writers, including Aleksandr Pushkin, who translated some of his ballads. While in Odessa Mickiewicz had a short affair with Karolina Sobanska, the daughter of Count Adam Rzewuski; she was a talented musician, who was also a Russian intelligence agent Tchaikovsky's symphonic ballad The Voyevoda (1891) had its literary source in Pushkin, who had brawn inspiration from Mickiewicz. 

After spending the summer of 1825 in the Crimea with Sobanska and Count Jan Witt at the latter's villa, Mickiewicz was transferred to Moscow, where his improvisations caused a sensation. "What a genius!" was Pushkin's reaction. "What sacret fire! What am I compared to him?" Mickiewicz considered his colleague "very witty and impetuous in conversation; he has a profound knowledge of contemporary literature, and a pure and elevated understanding of poetry."

As a poet Mickiewicz gained first attention with Balady i romanse (1822), which had on its background a disappointment in love. The book included ballads, romances, and a preface about western European literature. It has been claimed that Frédéric Chopin's four ballades owe their literary impetus to Mickiewicz's ballady. The two standard-bearers for Polish national aspirations knew each other from Polish émigré circles in Paris. According to the American Chopin biographer James Gibbons Huneker (1857-1921), the Second Ballade, op. 38, dedicated to Robert Schumann, had been composed under the direct inspiration of Mickiewicz's 'Le Lac de Willis." (Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom by Jonathan Bellman, 2010, pp. 19-24)

With this collection Mickiewicz opened the romantic era in Polish literature. It was followed by the fantastic dram a Dziady (1823-32, Forefathers' Eve), in which Poland has a messanic role. The chosen nations would be in the oncoming kingdom of God, Mickiewicz believed, the Poles, French and Jews.

Dziady, forbidden by Russian censorship, was inspired by the unsuccesful November Uprising of 1830. The title of the play was taken from an ancient folk celebration in Belorussia, held on All Souls' Day; it honors the memory of the dead and was common in Lithuania during Mickiewicz's youth. The second part dealt with the theme of earthy suffering. Guslarz, who is a kind of a priest and witchdoctor, calls up the ghosts for a group of peasants - ill-treated tenants, children who cannot reach heaven because they have not suffered on earth, a virgin shepherdess who had experienced neither love nor grief - who offer help. The ghosts eventually vanish, except one, the Spectre. Part III was a patriotic piece, written after the suppression of the November Uprising of 1830-31. It depicted the martyrdom of Poland and presented a vision of the future country in which the sufferings are equated with the Passion of Christ. This vision concludes with a prophecy about a mysterious future savior, bearing the name "44." Part IV was a monodrama. The protagonist is the spirit of a young suicide victim, who appears in the parish house. He is consumed with a passion that leads to insanity and death.

During his exile Mickiewicz wrote among others Konrad Wallenrod published in St. Petersburg in 1828. It inspired the Polish youth in the struggle against oppression, although its central theme was not strictly political. Considered somewhat problematic because of its alleged immorality the work tells of a pagan Lithuanian prince who was captured as a boy by the Teutonic Order. Later in life, as a grand master of the Order, he undermines its activities, still  inwardly a pagan.

Wallenrod sings in the praise of the vengeance of the Arab King Almanzor, the king of the Moors, against the Spaniards, and adds: ". . . do you wish to know how the Lithuanian will revenge! . . . Now we see different manners, Prince Witold; now the Lithuanian lords themselves come and surrender to us their own country, asking revenge against their oppressed people." The Russian censors approved the work after removing the line "The only weapon of a slave is treason."  'Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)' by Theodore R. Weeks, in Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present, edited by Stephen M. Norris and Willard Sunderland, 2012, p. 144)

In 1825 Mickiewicz visited the Crimea and published his erotic Sonety krymskie (1826). He was inspired by the the steppe, and the rich, mystical landscape, but at the same time he felt isolated and his Polish nationalism intensified. In his poetical works Mickiewicz expressed a romantic view of the soul and the mysteries of life, often employing folk themes. His approach was fresh and new - when writers had depicted with polished language the life of the educated classes, Mickiewicz used colloquial expressions and portrayed peasants.

Mickiewicz was permitted to leave Russia in 1829 "for health reasons," never returning back. He went to Germany, where he visited Goethe, who was about the celebrate his eightieth birthday. Goethe admitted that he knew very little about Polish literature ("but then there's so much a man has to do in this life"). (Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic by Roman Robert Koropeckyj, 2008, p. 127) From Weimar Mickiewicz continued to Switzerland, and Italy, where he befriended James Fenimore Cooper. He had appealed to the American people to aid Poland during the rebel against Russia in 1830-1831. Cooper accompanied the exiled revolutionary on the rides about the walls of Rome. When Mickiewicz tried to join the insurrection, the authorities stopped him in Prussian Poland. In Dresden he met refugees and used their hard fate as material in the third part of Dziady.

"Fair words and fairer thoughts are mine;
Much do I feel, writing early and late;
My soul like a widow's must still repine -
To whom my songs shall I dedicate?
To thoughts and words I give birth each day -
Why do they not my sorrow appease?
Because my soul is a widow gray
And only many orphans sees."

(from 'The Pilgrim's Song,' 1832)

In the poem 'To Muscovite Friends,' Mickiewicz mourned his Decembrist friends and said, aiming at Pushkin and Vasily Zhukovski: "Perhaps with mercenary tongue he praises his triumph / And rejoices in the martyrdom of his own friends, / Perhaps in my country he bleeds with my blood / And to the Tsar boasts of his damnation as of services." Pushkin's reaction followed in 1834: "Our pacific guest has become our enemy - and with poison / Fills, to please the violent mob, / His verses."

For a period Mickiewicz lived in Paris. He lectured on Roman literature at the University of Lausanne in 1839 and on Slavonic literatures at the Collège de France (1840–44). The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage, written 1832-35, was criticized by the Catholic Church as blasphemous.

Mickiewicz's lectures attracted an international audience but his academic career ended when he was accused of using his position for political activities. For a time in 1848 he edited the radical newspaper La Tribune des peuples. He also became the center of enthusiastic followers, both Polish émigrés and French intellectuals.

Pan Tadeusz (1834), which is regarded as a monument of Polish national literature, expressed Mickiewicz's nostalgia for his homeland. Superficially the humorous epic of the Polish gentry in the early 19th century tells of the feud between two noble families, but against the "old country's" virtues Mickiewicz recounts the euphoria when Napoleon's troops liberated Poland and Lithuania in 1811-12. The masterpiece was born three year after Frédéric Chopin's famous 'Revolution Etude.' Chopin's ballads captured the same charm and fire typical for Mickiewicz's poems and his polonaises have been regarded in some respect as a national manifestation.

Soon after the publication of Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz married Celina Szymanowska. The marriage was unhappy. The family lived on the brink of poverty and his wife suffered a nervous breakdown. Mickiewicz's espousal of the mystical and political doctrines of Andrzej Towianski (1799-1878) caused his dismissal from the college.

In the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 Mickiewicz's idealism renewed. He attempted unsuccessfully to enlist Polish regiments to help Garibaldi in the Italian struggle against Austria. At the outbreak of the Crimean War, Mickiewicz went to Turkey to raise Polish armies in Turkey. He died during a cholera epidemic in Constantinople on November 26, in 1855. His body was first transported to Paris. In 1890 Mickiewicz's remains returned to Poland and were buried with the Polish kings in the national shrine in Crakow. After his death, his son Wladyslaw destroyed documents that might have been in contradiction to the public image of his father. During the Nazi occupation of Poland in the Second World War, Mickiewicz's poems strengthened the resistance and were used against the postwar Communist regime. 

For further reading: Adam Mickiewicz, the National Poet of Poland by M. Gardner (1911); Mickiewicz by J. Kleiner (1948, 2 vols.); Palmira i Babilon by W. Kubacki (1951); The Poetry of Adam Mickiewicz by W. Weintraub (1954); Czytajac Mickiewicza by J. Przybos (1956); Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature, ed. by W. Lednicki (1956); Kronica zycia i twórczoski Adama Mickiewicza, ed. by S. Pigon (1957); Adam Mickiewicz, Poet of Poland by Manfred Kridl (1970); Adam Mickiewicz by David J. Welsh (1970); Adam Mickiewicz by Maria Gardner (1971); Swiat teatralny mtodego Mickiewicza by Michal Witkowski (1971); Adam Mickiewicz: Leben und Werk, ed. by Bonifacy Mizzek (1998); Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic by Roman Koropeckyi (2008) - Huom.: Mickiewiczin runoja on julkaistu Slaavilaisen kirjallisuuden kultaisessa kirjassa (1936), myös useita yksittäisiä runoja on suomennettu.

Selected works:

  • Oda do mlodósci, 1820
  • Poezje I. Balady i romanse, 1822
  • Poezje II, 1823
  • Dziady, 1823-32 (complete version published in 1901)
    - Forefathers' Eve (translators: D.P. Radin, 1925, 1944; Count Potocki of Montalk, 1968) / Forefathers (in Poems, 1944) / Dziady = Forefather’s Eve: Dresden Text  (translated from the Polish by Charles S. Kraszewski, 2000)
    - Improvisaatio: katkelma Dziady (vainajain muistojuhla) nimisestä runoelmasta (suomentanut Otto Manninen, 1934)
  • Sonety krymskie, 1826
    - Sonnets from Crimea (translated by Edna Worthley Underwood) / Crimean Sonnets (selection, translated by Frank H. Fortey, in Gems of Polish Poetry, 1923)
  • Sonety odeskie, 1826
  • Konrad Wallenrod, 1827
    - Konrad Wallenrod: An Historical Poem (translated by M.A. Biggs, 1882) / Konrad Wallenrod: A Tale from the History of Lithuania and Prussia (translated by Irene Suboczewski, 1989)
    - Konrad Wallenrod (suom. V. K. Trast, 1930)
  • Poezye Adama Mickiewicza, 1828
  • Farys, 1828
  • O krytykach i recenzentach Warszawskich, 1828
  • Ksiege Narodu Polskiego i pielgrzymstwa polskiego, 1832
    - The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage (in Konrad Wallenrod and Other Writings of Adam Mickiewicz, 1925)
    - Puolan kansan aikakirjat maailman alusta Puolan kansan marttyyriuteen saakka (suomentanut Jyrki Iivonen, 1998)
  • Giaour / Byron, 1833 (translator)
  • Adama Mickiewicza Dziadȯw część trzecia, 1833
  • Pan Tadeusz; czyli, Ostatni zajazd na Litwie. Historja szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812, we 12 księgach, wierszem, 1834 (2 vols.)
    - Master Thaddeus; or The Last Foray in Lithuania (translated by M.A. Biggs, 1885) / Pan Tadeusz; or, The last foray in Lithuania: A Story of Life among Polish Gentlefolk in the Years 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books (translated by George Rapall Noyes, 1917) / Pan Tadeusz; or, The last foray in Lithuania (translated by Watson Kirkconnell, 1962) / Pan Tadeusz; or, The last foray in Lithuania: A Tale of the Gentry in the Years 1811 and 1812 (translated by Kenneth R. MacKenzie, 1964) / The Forests of Lithuania (selection, translated by Donald Davie, 1959) / Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania (translated by Bill Johnston, 2018) 
    - Pan Tadeusz eli viimeinen pakkoluovutus (suom. V.K. Trast, 1921)
    Film 1999, dir. by Andrzej Wajda, starring Grazyna Szapolowska, Daniel Olbrychski, Michal Zebrowski, Alicja Bachleda-Curuš
  • L'Église officielle et le vie Messianisme, L'Église et le Messie, 1845 (lectures)
  • Les slaves, 1849
  • Cours de la littérature slave professé au Collège de France, 1860 (5 vols.)
  • Literatura słowiańska. Tłumaczenie Felixa Wrotnowskiego, 1865 (4 vols.)
  • Drames polonais: Les confédérés de Bar. Jacques Jasinski; ou, Les deux Polognes. Avec préf. de Ladislas Mickiewicz, 1867
  • Pierwsze wieki historji polskiej; dzieło pośmiertne, 1868
  • Wiersze różne polityczne, 1868
  • Historja Polski w głównych jej zarysach, 1871-
  • Mélanges posthumes, 1872-1879 (2 vols.,
  • Korespondencja, 1875-1876 (4 vols., edited by Ladislas Mickiewicz) 
  • Dziela, 1880-
  • Korespondencja, 1900-1904 (5 vols., edited by Dyonizy Zaleski)
  • La Tribune des Peuples, 1907 (edited by Ladislas Mickiewicz)
  • Mickiewicz: The National Poet of Poland, 1911 (selections) 
  • Konrad Wallenrod and Other Writings of Adam Mickiewicz, 1925 (reprinted in 1975; inludes Konrad Wallenrod, Forefather's Eve Part 2, The Books of the Polish Nation and of the Polish Pilgrimage, 'Faris' and other poems, 'Romanticism', 'The Nixie', 'The Three Brothers Budrys', 'The Sages', 'The Master of Masters', 'To a Polish Mother'; translated from the Polish by Jewell Parish et al.)
  • Dzieła wszystkie, 1933 (8 vols.)
  • Dzieła poetyckie, 1933
  • Grażyna, powieść litewska, 1941 (published in London)
  • Wybór pism, 1943 (published in Moscow)
  • Poems by Adam Mickiewicz, 1944 (edited by G.R. Noyes)
  • Mickiewicz in Music; Twenty Five Songs to Poems of Mickiewicz, 1947 (edited by A. and M. Coleman)
  • Dziela, 1948-55 (16 vols., edited by Leon Ploszewski)
  • Selected Poetry and Prose, 1955 (edited by Stanislaw Helsztynski)
  • Selected Poems, 1956 (edited by Clark Mills)
  • Pisma poetyckie. Wyd. emigracyjne w stulecie zgonu. Do druku przygotowala Maria Danilewiczowa, 1956
  • New Selected Poems, 1957 (edited by Clark Mills)
  • Poems, 1957 (edited by Jack Lindsay)
  • Dzieła wszystkie, 1969-
  • Konrad Wallenrod; and, Grażyna, 1989 (translated by Irene Suboczewski)
  • Gwiazda z gwiazdą: wiersze, fragmenty, zdania, 1992
  • Dzieła, 1993-2006 (17 vols.)
  • Prelekcje paryskie: wybór, 1997
  • A Treasury of Love Poems by Adam Mickiewicz, 1998 (edited by Krystyna Olszer)
  • The Sun of Liberty: Bicentenary Anthology, 1798-1998: Polish-English Edition, 1998 (edited and translated by Michael J. Mikoś; introduction by Zygmunt Kubiak)
  • Dziady = Forefather's Eve: Dresden Text, 2000 (translated from the Polish by Charles S. Kraszewski)
  • Prose artistique: contes, essais, fragments = Proza artystyczna: opowiadania, szkice, fragmenty, 2013 (wstęp i opracowanie, Joanna Pietrzak-Thébault)

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