Adam Mickiewicz was born on December 24, 1798, on the farmstead of Zaosie, near Nowogródek, a small town in Lithuania. After the Tartars’ savage destruction of Kiev in 1240, the area previously known as Byelorussia and the Ukraine were annexed by the warlike Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In four centuries, however, the Lithuanian gentry was almost completely Polonized, and after the union with the Polish Crown in 1386, Lithuania’s territory was greatly reduced. In the district of Nowogródek, while the gentry was predominantly Polish (old immigrants from Mazovia), the peasants were Byelorussian. Mickiewicz’s father, Mikolaj, was a lawyer and a small landowner. His mother, Barbara Majewska, né Orzeszko, was also from the middle gentry. Both families had a strong military tradition.
It is noteworthy that Mickiewicz, the national bard of Poland, the ardent patriot who gave such superb literary expression to the life and aspirations of the Polish people, never even saw Poland proper nor her cultural centers, Warsaw and Krakow. Moreover, during his lifetime, Poland did not exist as a sovereign state, for Mickiewicz was born after the so-called Final Partition of 1795, when Poland was divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary.
Mickiewicz, one of five sons, started his education at home and then continued at the Dominican parochial school in Nowogródek. Later, he studied philology at the University of Wilno, where he excelled in Latin and Polish literature. He was greatly influenced by a liberal historian, Joachim Lelewel, who later became a leader in the Insurrection of 1830-1831. At the university, Mickiewicz was one of the six founders of the Philomathian Society, a secret society that emphasized Polish patriotism and tried to influence public affairs. After spending a short time in Kowno as a district teacher of Greek and Latin, Polish literature, and history, Mickiewicz returned to Wilno, where he maintained close relations with his friends in the Philomathian Society. In 1823, Mickiewicz and several of his friends were arrested by the Russian authorities for plotting to spread “senseless Polish nationalism” and were confined in the...
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