Adam Mickiewicz Essay - Mickiewicz, Adam (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mickiewicz, Adam (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Adam Mickiewicz 1798-1855

Polish poet, dramatist, and novelist. For further discussion of Mickiewicz’s life and career, see NCLC Volume 3.

Lauded as Poland's national poet, Mickiewicz founded the Polish Romantic movement with the 1822 publication of his Ballady i romanse (Ballads and Romances). His poetry has been described as sentimental and evocative, and his literary works explode with ardent patriotism. The intensity of his nationalism and his desire for the liberation of Poland are reflected in such works as Dziady (1832; Forefather's Eve) and Pan Tadeusz (1834; Master Thaddeus), a novel-length poem. Much of the modern criticism of Mickiewicz's work focuses on the patriotism that is so characteristic of his literary endeavors, and on the influence of Lord Byron on his poetry. Other scholars assess individual works, examining the style, structure, and subject matter of poems, novels, and lectures.

Biographical Information

Born near Nowogrodek, in the Lithuanian section of Poland, Mickiewicz was brought up within the petit Polish nobility and educated at the University of Wilno. There he immersed himself in nationalist politics and was accused of political conspiracy. Imprisoned in 1823 and exiled to Russia in 1824 for five years, Mickiewicz watched helplessly as Poland fell to the Russians. During his exile, Mickiewicz associated with prominent Russian and European authors, including Alexander Pushkin. He traveled to the Crimea and studied the works of several writers, including Lord Byron, who heavily influenced Mickiewicz's philosophy and writing. Subsequent travels took him to Dresden, Paris, and Rome. He settled in France and in 1840 was made professor of Slavonic Studies at the Collège de France. After being dismissed four years later on the charge of political subversiveness, Mickiewicz took up the mysticism preached by Andrew Towiański but later rejected these teachings. In 1848, Mickiewicz began working for the cause of Polish liberation and founded the newspaper La tribune des peuples, which was soon banned by the French government. Nevertheless, Mickiewicz continued to fight for Polish freedom. At the outset of the Crimean War, he was in Constantinople organizing opposition against Tsarist Russia, and it was there that he died.

Major Works

Mickiewicz's Ballady i romanse ushered in the Polish Romantic movement. The work contains an essay, “On Romantic Poetry,” which has been described as his poetic manifesto and has been compared to the Preface to William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1800). Works such as Master Thaddeus, Forefathers' Eve, and the narrative poem Konrad Wallenrod (1828; Conrad Wallenrod) display Mickiewicz's passionate patriotism and earned him a reputation as a brilliant writer and scholar. The works reflect the influence of mysticism, prophesy, folklore, and religion on Mickiewicz's thinking. The epic poem Pan Tadeusz, set in Lithuania just before Napoleon's 1812 expedition to Russia, requires—like many of Mickiewicz's writings—an understanding of Poland's tumultuous history. The poem's language and structure, as well as the gravity and significance of its subject matter to the Polish people, have earned Pan Tadeusz acclaim as a national treasure.

Critical Reception

Modern criticism of Mickiewicz's work is largely favorable. Many critics focus on the structure and style of Mickiewicz's writings, while others explore the way in which his patriotic philosophy permeates his work. Helen N. Fagin surveys Mickiewicz's literary achievements, noting that Poland's loss of political independence served as the impetus for the idealism of Polish Romanticism. In comparing Mickiewicz to his European Romantic contemporaries, Fagin contends that the Polish poet's complete dedication to the problems of his native land did not allow him the luxury of contemplating the nature of the individual and the individual’s relation to society. Additionally, Fagin observes that there is a dearth of adequate English translation of Mickiewicz's poetry. In addition to composing poetry, drama, and prose, Mickiewicz also translated poetry. Christopher Adam Zakrzewski studies Mickiewicz's translation of Lord Byron's “Darkness.” Mickiewicz's poem, “Ciemność” has been criticized in the past for inaccurately reflecting the original. Zakrzewski suggests that this unfavorable assessment is unfair, as “Ciemność” is more than an attempt at strict translation. Rather, the poem reflects Mickiewicz's individual creative endeavor. Not only did Mickiewicz compose a variety of literary works, he was also an esteemed scholar in the area of Slavic literature. Samuel Fiszman evaluates Mickiewicz's lectures in Paris on Slavic literature (Les Slaves). Fiszman observes that Mickiewicz draws similarities between Slavic and Western literatures, but that the Polish scholar also highlights the differences that make Slavic literature original, unique and particularly brilliant. In the Paris Lectures, comments Stephan Treugutt, Mickiewicz discusses the role of Lord Byron in crafting the ideal of a poet in Poland and other Slavic natures. Treugutt goes on to examine the influence of Byron as well as Napoleon on the Polish Romantic poets, including Mickiewicz. To Romantic poets, Byron became a symbol of individualism, revolution, and worship of freedom, Treugutt notes. Similarly, Napoleon was idealized as a “poet of action” despite his failure to accomplish his mission as liberator. Izabela Kalinowska-Blackwood investigates whether Mickiewicz's attitude in the Crimean Sonnets is exploitative and colonialist, as was often typical of the West's view of the East. The critic finds that the character Mirzra, the Tatar guide, is not portrayed as one-dimensionally “Oriental” but rather that he functions as a participant in the dialogue of the poem. Colleen McQuillen focuses her analysis on Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz. McQuillen maintains that the epic poem both literally and figuratively translates the private lives of the characters into public experience. The voyeuristic exploits of the characters are the means by which this allegorical transformation is achieved, explains McQuillen. Furthermore, McQuillen believes that it is this harmonistic relationship between the lyric and epic aspects of the poem that make it deserving of the honor of being called Poland's national literary achievement.

Principal Works

Do Joachim Lelewela (poetry) 1822

*Poezje, I (poetry and drama) 1822

Poezje, II (poetry and drama) 1823

Sonety [Sonnets] (poetry) 1826

Sonety krymskie [Sonnets from the Crimea] (poetry) 1826

Oda do Młodości [Ode to Youth] (poetry) 1827

Trzech Budrysow [The Three Sons of Budrys] (ballad) 1827-28

Farys [The Faris] (poetry) 1828

Konrad Wallenrod [Conrad Wallenrod] (novel) 1828

Do Matki Polki [To a Polish Mother] (poetry) 1830

Dziady, III [Forefathers' Eve; also published as The Ancestors] (drama) 1832

Księgi Narodu polskiego i Pilgrzymstwa polskiego [The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage] (poetry) 1832

Pan Tadeusz; Czyli, ostani zajazd na Litwie [Master Thaddeus; or, The Last Foray in Lithuania] (poetry) 1834

Drames polonais. Les confédérés de Bar; Jacques Jasiński; ou Ls deux Polognes [Forefathers' Eve, Parts One, Two and Three] (unfinished drama) 1867

Poems by Adam Mickiewicz (poetry) 1944

Adam Mickiewicz: Selected Poetry and Prose (poetry and prose) 1955

Adam Mickiewicz: Selected Poems (poetry) 1956

Adam Mickiewicz: New Selected Poems (poetry) 1957

*This work includes the poetry Ballady i romanse.

†This work includes Parts II and IV of the drama Dziady.


Helen N. Fagin (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Adam Mickiewicz: Poland's National Romantic Poet,” in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 42, No. 4, November, 1977, pp. 103-13.

[In the following essay, Fagin offers an overview of Mickiewicz's literary career, observing that Mickiewicz's Romanticism is characterized by his patriotism, and that his poetry reflects his intense love of country and humankind.]

Józef Witlin, one of Poland's contemporary writers and literary critics, wrote that, “To the world at large Polish literature is known as an unknown literature.”1 This seems to be especially true in regard to the literature of the romantic period, which is considered to be the richest in...

(The entire section is 4514 words.)

Christopher Adam Zakrzewski (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Toward a Reassessment of Mickiewicz's ‘Ciemność,’” in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol. 19, No. 4, December, 1977, pp. 468-80.

[In the following essay, Zakrzewski offers a reexamination of the poem “Ciemność,” one of Mickiewicz's translations of Byron's poems. Suggesting that many unfavorable evaluations of the poem by earlier critics result from a flawed method of approach, Zakrzewski maintains that the poem is not a simple exercise in translation but rather a creative endeavor.]

This paper is a re-examination of “Ciemność,” one of Adam Mickiewicz' most controversial poetic renderings from Lord Byron. Apart from re-opening the question of...

(The entire section is 5295 words.)

Samuel Fiszman (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Comparative Aspects in Adam Mickiewicz's Lectures on Slavic Literature,” in Polish Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1981, pp. 19-45.

[In the following essay Fiszman reviews the lectures Mickiewicz conducted in Paris on Slavic literature, demonstrating that the lectures are informed throughout by Mickiewicz's comparison between the Slavic world and the world of Western Europe.]

Comparison between the Slavic world and that of Western Europe constitutes the fundamental comparativist level in Adam Mickiewicz's Paris Lectures. Mickiewicz often reminds his audience that “the object of this course is, above all, to point out the relationships between Slavic and European...

(The entire section is 11510 words.)

Stefan Treugutt (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Byron and Napoleon in Polish Romantic Myth,” in Lord Byron and His Contemporaries: Essays from the Sixth International Byron Seminar, edited by Charles E. Robinson, University of Delaware Press, 1982, pp. 130-43.

[In the following essay, Treugutt analyzes the influence of Byron—as a symbol of individualism, revolt, and the worship of freedom—and of Napoleon—as a “poet of action,” although one who failed to accomplish his mission of liberation—on Mickiewicz in particular and Polish Romanticism in general.]

While paying a visit in 1979 to the Institute of Russian Literature in Leningrad, I unexpectedly discovered a copy of The Works of Lord...

(The entire section is 4633 words.)

Izabela Kalinowska-Blackwood (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Dialogue Between East and West in the Crimean Sonnets,” in The Polish Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, 1998, pp. 429-39.

[In the following essay, Kalinowska-Blackwood evaluates Mickiewicz's Crimean Sonnets, in an effort to discern whether Mickiewicz viewed his Oriental subject matter in the stereotypically exploitative manner by which the East is often apprehended by the West. The critic finds that the Tatar guide, Mirza, is portrayed in the verses not as a stylized and superficial Oriental element, but as a participant in the dialogue of the poetry.]

Since the publication of Edward W. Said's study Orientalism two decades ago, both...

(The entire section is 4676 words.)

Colleen McQuillen (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Private Pleasures Made Public: Voyeurism in Pan Tadeusz,” in The Polish Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, 1998, pp. 419-28.

[In the following essay, McQuillen studies Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz as both a literal and a figurative translation of the private lives of the characters into public experience. The allegorical adapting of private life into public spectacle is accomplished through the voyeurism of the characters in the poem.]

Między stawami w rowie młyn ukryty siedzi;
Jako stary opiekun, co kochanków śledzi,
Podsłuchał ich rozmowę, gniewa się, szamoce,
Trzęsie głową, rękami, i groźby bełkoce.
Between the ponds a...

(The entire section is 3809 words.)

Jean M. Szczypien (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Echoes from Konrad Wallenrod in Almayer's Folly and A Personal Record,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 1, June, 1998, pp. 91-110.

[In the following essay, Szczypien examines the influence of Mickiewicz, specifically his Konrad Wallenrod on the works of Joseph Conrad. In this analysis, Szczypien finds that Konrad Wallenrod is the most Byronic of Mickiewicz's work.]

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski became Joseph Conrad upon the publication of Almayer's Folly in London on 29 April 1895. He had taken the third of his given names for a pen name, partly in deference to an English-speaking public but...

(The entire section is 6509 words.)

Bożena Shallcross (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Intimations of Intimacy: Adam Mickiewicz's ‘On the Grecian Room,’” Slavic and Eastern European Journal, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 216-30.

[In the following essay, Shallcross assesses Mickiewicz's poem “On the Grecian Room in Princess Zeneida Volkonskaia's House in Moscow,” and contends that Mickiewicz portrays a sense of loss and disappointment regarding the way nineteenth-century culture viewed history. Shallcross further discusses the way in which the poem “de-domesticizes” the home.]


Conquer and describe.


Of his entire oeuvre, a...

(The entire section is 6534 words.)

Further Reading


Adam, Christopher. “Crimean Sonnets.Revue Canadienne des Slavistes 40, Nos. 3-4 (September-December 1998): 413-32.

Discusses the difficulties in translating the Polish poems into English and then presents his translation of Mickiewicz's Crimean Sonnets.

Czajkowska, Krystyna. “Unknown Mickiewicz Letter.” Polish Perspectives 22, No. 3 (March 1979): 61-64.

Comments on the volume of letters by the author and the challenge of collecting them for publication.

Gerould, Daniel. “From Adam Mickiewicz's Lectures on Slavic Literature Given at the College de France.”...

(The entire section is 187 words.)