Adam Mickiewicz Essay - Mickiewicz, Adam (Poetry Criticism)

Mickiewicz, Adam (Poetry Criticism)


Adam Mickiewicz 1798-1855

Polish poet, dramatist and novelist.

One of Poland's foremost poets, Mickiewicz is credited with establishing the romantic movement in his native country in the nineteenth century. His poetry is typified by patriotic reminiscences of Poland prior to the country's dismemberment, as the result of war and political weakness, in the 1790s. Working against the traditions of classicism, Mickiewicz created lyrical, emotional poetry with a strong religious and mystical element. Using straightforward and simple language, he evokes an ideal state of national unity. Often, he is compared with fellow romantic Lord Byron and fellow Slav Alexander Pushkin.

Biographical Information

Mickiewicz was born on December 24, 1798, in or near Novogrudek in rural Lithuania. Mickiewicz benefitted from an education still conducted in Polish and was exposed to many old folk traditions. He came of age intensely aware of the national shame which followed the recent demise and partition of Poland. He attended Wilno University where he joined a secret society of students called the Philomaths; this group was committed to creating literature to supplement their educational experiences. As a term of his scholarship, Mickiewicz was required to teach school in the small isolated town of Kowno after graduation. There, he began to write poetry more seriously, adopting the romantic style which would define his career. In 1824, the poet was exiled to Russia for his participation in the Philomaths, whom the Russians deemed dangerous subversives. His experiences in Russia were to greatly impact upon his writing, largely through his exposure to great writers such as Pushkin, Nickolay Alexeyevich Polevoi, Ivan Ivanonich Zoslov and Juliusz Slowacki. His exile from Poland intensified his patriotic fervor. After spending nine months in Odessa, he wrote the Crimean Sonnets (1826), in which he experimented by adding exotic influences from the Orient. By this time, Mickiewicz's reputation as a poet was firmly established; he enjoyed the patronage of the Polish exile community. While traveling through Europe, he met authors such as Johann von Goethe and August von Schlegel. He settled in Rome where he experienced a religious awakening which was reflected in his Gospel-like volume The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage (1832). Through the 1820s and 1830s, Mickiewicz composed the great works of his career: Konrad Wallenrod (1828), Forefather's Eve (1832) and Pan Tadeusz (1834). In 1840, he acquired a position at the College de France. He fell under the influence of Andrew Towianski, a mystic, but later renounced these beliefs. He gradually devoted less time to writing in favor of taking direct action against political developments in Europe. He died of cholera while organizing forces against Russia in the Crimean War.

Major Works

Mickiewicz's poetry is extensive, occupying a position of respect and admiration within the canon of Polish literature. Mickiewicz's verse is intensely patriotic, lyrical, and sentimental, built upon mythical scenes of knights, castles, and love scenes. He forged many of his works around the folk tales and songs of his native Lithuanian region of Poland. His work is typified by ideal fantasies about life in the past in Poland and about political self-determination. His first major work Ode to Youth (1827) extols the Polish youth of his university days. In 1822, he published Poezje I which contains his famed Ballads and Romances. This work was popular with the uneducated and poor because, unlike previous Polish poetry, it was accessible to those without a formal education; readers were impressed with the clever way that the poet reworked the folk tales well known to them. In this work, Mickiewicz established his reputation as a romantic poet, creating a new style of poetry which contrasted sharply with the classical style which typified Polish literature until this point. The following year he published Grazyna (1823), an epic poem featuring a Lithuanian prince and a fourteenth-century castle. This work firmly established the romantic qualities of Mickiewicz's poetry. The same year he completed two parts of his most ambitious work, Forefather's Eve. He would return to this epic poem again throughout his life. A trip to Odessa during his exile to Russia resulted in Crimean Sonnets, published in 1826. He revisits many of the same themes that Pushkin examined during his earlier visit to the region. Mickiewicz uses the sea and land as metaphor for life, philosophy and happiness, employing an Oriental element as well. Mickiewicz published his final major work, Pan Tadeusz, in 1834. This work embodies his memories of the Poland of his youth, before the wars which divided the country.

Critical Reception

Critics consider Mickiewicz to be one of the greatest Polish writers, a literary giant credited with reforming Polish literature and establishing the Polish romantic movement. The famed modern Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1969) states “Mickiewicz is for Poles what Goethe is for Germans and Pushkin for Russians.” Scholars praise Mickiewicz's straightforward style, arguing that although his voice sounds natural and his approach is direct, his work is not simple; achieving such freshness and accessibility testifies to his high level of skill as a poet. In addition, critics have been impressed with the poet's ability to adapt sources and employ poetic influences while making his work uniquely his own. Initially, literary critics stressed Mickiewicz's rejection of the classical style of poetry. However, increasingly, they are reexamining his work, noting that his first poem Ode to Youth is firmly entrenched in classicalism, and posit that his work builds upon the tradition, never fully abandoning the principles of the earlier movement. In addition, much focus has been placed on the patriotic nature, the enthusiasm and the fervor of Mickiewicz's writing. Increasingly, critics question why Mickiewicz is not widely known outside Poland. They posit that Polish is an extremely difficult language to translate. Critics such as Christopher Adam Zakrzewski (1998) argue that much of the sublime and evocative nature of Mickiewicz's poetry is lost in translation, and Wiktor Weintraub (1985) reminds his readers that Mickiewicz's intense nationalism is meaningless to those who do not understand the historic circumstances.

Principal Works

Do Joachim Lelewela 1822

Poezje, I (poetry and drama) 1822

Poezje, II (poetry and drama) 1823

Sonety [Sonnets] 1826

Sonety krymskie [Sonnets from the Crimea] 1826

Oda do Mlodosci [Ode to Youth] 1827

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

Farys [The Faris] 1828

Konrad Wallenrod [Conrad Wallenrod] 1828

Do Matki Polki [To a Polish Mother] 1830

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

Ksiegi Narodu polskiego i Pilgrzymstwa polskiego [The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage] 1832

Pan Tadeusz; Czyli, ostatni zajazd na Litwie [Master Thadeus; or, the Last Foray in Lithuania] (verse novel) 1834

Poems by Adam Mickiewicz 1944

Adam Mickiewicz: New Selected Poems 1957

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


William R. Morfill (essay date 1879)

SOURCE: Morfill, William R. “Polish Literature.” Westminster Review LV, no. II (April 1, 1879) 359-86.

[In the following excerpt, Morfill discusses Mickiewicz's Crimean Sonnets, Pan Thadeusz, and Konrad Wallenrod, lamenting the poet’s relative obscurity outside of Poland.]

Of all the writings of Mickiewicz, his lyrical pieces strike us as the most beautiful, and show the [Polish] language in its strength and grace. His works are but little known except to his own countrymen, and there was both pathos and irony in the expression used by a Polish lady to a foreigner, “Nous avons notre Mickiewicz á nous.” As yet, no translation into English has...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

Arthur Prudden Coleman (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: Coleman, Arthur Prudden. “Mickiewicz and Northern Balladry.” InThe Slavonic Year-Book (American Series, I): Being Volume XX of the Slavonic and East European Review, pp. 173-84. Menasha, WI: The George Banta Publishing Company, 1941.

[In the following essay, Coleman explains Mickiewicz's incorporation of northern folk ballads into his poetry.]

In four lines of the opening stanza of the Ode to Youth Mickiewicz describes in vivid images the world which he desired, as poet, to espouse. “O Youth!” he says,

                                                                                … give me wings
And I will soar above the...

(The entire section is 5380 words.)

Jean Fabre (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Fabre, Jean. “Adam Mickiewicz and European romanticism.” In Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855: In Commemoration of the Centenary of His Death, pp. 37-59. Zurich: UNESCO, 1955.

[In the following essay, Fabre stresses that Mickiewicz was the quintessential romantic poet.]

‘How’, said Valéry, ‘can people discuss the subject of “romanticism” rationally?’ Is not the very word one of those ‘abstract’ and ‘conventional’ terms, the purpose of which seems to be ‘to provide a pretext for an infinite series of disagreements’? Some of these ‘disagreements’ occur to the mind at once. Every critic in every country will be tempted to define...

(The entire section is 6524 words.)

Czeslaw Milosz (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Milosz, Czeslaw. “Romanticism.” In The History of Polish Literature, pp. 208-33. London: Macmillan Company, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Milosz describes the nature of Mickiewicz's poetry, the events of his life, and his importance to Polish literature.]

Adam Mickiewicz was born on Christmas Eve in Nowogródek (or perhaps in Zaosie, a village near that town), in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. His father was a small-town lawyer, a very typical representative of the petty gentry. The poet's mother, belonging to the same class, had been a servant girl at a neighboring manor before her marriage. The region, which had once been ethnically Lithuanian, now had...

(The entire section is 10461 words.)

Konstanty Zantuan (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Zantuan, Konstanty. “Mickiewicz' Konrad Wallenrod: An Attempt at Reappraisal.” Comparative Literature Studies VI, no. 2 (June, 1969) 148-66.

[In the following essay, Zantuan urges a new interpretation of Konrad Wallenrod.]

… I mirror all things most truly.

A. Mickiewicz

In an interesting study of the influence of literature on the development of opinion, Professor Gillies significantly observes that “comparative literature brings out much more forcibly than literary study … the close relationship between literature and the realities of life.”1 The statement can be enhanced by application to the...

(The entire section is 7308 words.)

Monika A. Dudli (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Dudli, Monika A. “Pan Tadeusz and the Epic Tradition” and “Some Conclusions.” In Pushkin, Mickiewicz and The Overcoming of romanticism, pp. 33-55. Stanford, CA: Stanford Honors Essays in Humanities, 1976.

[In the following essay, Dudli examines the unique aspects of Pan Tadeusz, comparing it with Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.]

Where Pushkin's choice of genre, the novel in verse, synthesized a number of eighteenth-century and contemporary strains, and yet unmistakably anticipated the forms and themes of the nineteenth century, Pan Tadeusz is a work of culmination and reminiscence, in form as much as in content. It is difficult to classify...

(The entire section is 8754 words.)

David Matual (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Matual, David. “Solov'ev's Evaluation of Mickiewicz as Man and Artist.” Slavic and East European Journal 29, no. 1 (1985) 63-72.

[In the following essay, Matual presents Russian writer and scholar Vladimir Solov'ev's theories on and praise of Mickiewicz.]

Since the period of his Russian exile in the 1820s, Adam Mickiewicz has enjoyed a generally favorable reputation as a poet among the Russian reading public. No less a figure than Puškin himself, whom Mickiewicz met in 1826, praised his artistry and humanity in the poem “On meždu nami žil.” Yet the same poem ends on a note of disappointment and resentment. In the final lines Mickiewicz is branded an...

(The entire section is 4625 words.)

Tadeusz Slawek and Donald Wesling (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Slawek, Tadeusz and Donald Wesling. “The Exiled Voice in Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz.Acta Litteraria XXXI, nos. 1-4 (1989) 311-40.

[In the following essay, Slawek and Wesling maintain that Mickiewicz celebrates a mythic, ideal tradition of Poland in Pan Tadeusz.]

Pan Tadeusz, written in Paris (1832-34), emerges from a political and cultural situation wound through with paradoxes. It is a long epic poem in twelve books dealing with various aspects of the social life of the landed gentry, in Lithuania, closing with the arrival of the Polish legions in the service of Napoleon and their departure for the ill-starred Moscow adventure of 1812....

(The entire section is 12549 words.)

Christopher Adam Zakrzewski (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Zakrzewski, Christopher Adam. “Misers of Sound and Syllable: Reflections on the Poetic Style of Adam Mickiewicz.” Canadian Slavonic Papers XL, nos. 3-4 (September-December, 1998) 401-12.

[In the following essay, Zakrzewski extols the simple style and pure language of Mickiewicz's poetry.]

Pоd sinhy gоr Tavridy оtdalinnоj
Piviц Litvy v razmir igо stisninnyj
Svоi micty mgnоvinnо zaкlycal.
[In the lee of distant Crimea's mountains,
Litva's songster would lock his thoughts
In an instant within its strait measure.]

Alexander Pushkin, “The Sonnet”

In this bicentenary year of his birth, Adam Mickiewicz...

(The entire section is 5071 words.)

Aleksander Fiut (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Fiut, Aleksander. “Milosz and Mickiewicz.” The Polish Review XLIII, no. 4 (1998) 411-18.

[In the following essay, Fiut compares and contrasts the life and writings of Czeslaw Milosz with Mickiewicz.]

There can be no doubt that, for Czesław Miłosz, Adam Mickiewicz is the most important figure in the whole history of Polish literature. Furthermore, Mickiewicz is an intriguing problem and an unsolvable puzzle for Miłosz. Mickiewicz evokes fervent admiration as well as irritation. He seems to be someone very well known, almost a neighbor, since his imagination was nourished by the same, tenderly loved, landscapes. Simultaneously, some of Mickiewicz's ideas...

(The entire section is 3512 words.)

Bozena Shallcross (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Shallcross, Bozena. “Intimations of Intimacy: Adam Mickiewicz's ‘On the Grecian Room’.” Slavic and East European Journal 42, no. 2, (summer, 1998) 216-30.

[In the following essay, Shallcross reinterprets Mickiewicz's poem “On the Grecian Room …,” arguing that the poet employs the room as a device to highlight issues about domesticity and elitism.]


Conquer and describe.


Of his entire oeuvre, a single poem—although one not commonly anthologized, nor adequately interpreted—best represents...

(The entire section is 6513 words.)

Juras T. Ryfa (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Ryfa, Juras T. “The Portrait of a Hero and the Problem of romantic Artistry in Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz.Russian Literature XLVIII (2000) 409-24.

[In the following essay, Ryfa questions the romantic nature of Count Horeszko in Pan Tadeusz.]

Adam Mickiewicz's narrative epic poem Pan Tadeusz (1834), the pinnacle of Polish romanticism, has been at the center of critical attention for the last sesquicentennial. During this period, sundry articles and impressive books on a variety of subjects were written, and numerous conferences, seminars and symposia were held, so that from the viewpoint of contemporary scholarship it would seem that all...

(The entire section is 5622 words.)

Further Reading


“Mickiewicz, the Polish Poet.” The Athenaeum 97 (September 1829): 553.

Argues Mickiewicz's literary importance.

Frick, David A. “Mickiewicz and the Poetics of Prophecy.” The Polish Review XXIX, Nos. 1-2 (1984): 135-40.

Reviews two critical works on Mickiewicz by Wiktor Weintraub.

Milosz, Czeslaw. “Mickiewicz and Modern Poetry.” The American Slavic and East European Review VII (1948): 361-68.

Refutes claims that Mickiewicz writes within the European romantic tradition.

Morelowski, Jan. “Elements of Law in the Works of...

(The entire section is 163 words.)