Zygmunt Krasiński Biography

Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The life and work of Count Zygmunt Krasiski are inextricably linked to the political and social unrest that prevailed in Poland as a consequence of its loss of independence at the close of the eighteenth century. With their territory partitioned among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the Poles decided that the best way to regain their national sovereignty lay in making common cause with the military forces of revolutionary France. The first Polish legion to fight alongside French troops under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte was formed in 1797, and two similar units were subsequently organized in 1798 and 1800. In all, some twenty-five thousand Poles were to serve in these three legions. In gratitude for the contributions made by these volunteers to his military victories, Napoleon decided to grant the Poles a small measure of national independence by creating a political entity known as the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 out of Polish territories that had been under Prussian occupation since the time of the partitions. The Poles, however, had far grander political aspirations than those embodied by the tiny duchy and eagerly looked forward to a military conflict between the forces of Napoleon and those of Czar Alexander I in the hope that a French victory would enable them to redeem their eastern provinces from Russian annexation. Their hopes appeared to have materialized when Napoleon invaded Russia in the spring of 1812 with a multinational coalition numbering more than 600,000 men. The euphoria of the Polish gentry on the eve of the invasion is vividly depicted within the pages of Mickiewicz’s epic poem entitled Pan Tadeusz (1834; English translation, 1917). Of the 100,000 Poles who accompanied Napoleon on this ill-fated campaign, only a small fraction were destined to return unscathed from the steppes of Russia.

Among Napoleon’s devoted Polish adherents, none was more steadfast than Zygmunt Krasiski’s father, Count Wincenty Krasiski (1782-1858). The count’s family was one of the oldest aristocratic houses in Poland, and its vast wealth entitled him to be ranked with the nation’s magnates. Above all else, however, Wincenty Krasiski considered himself a professional soldier, and he entered French service as colonel of a cavalry unit in 1806. Having become a personal favorite of Napoleon, he was soon made a general in the elite Imperial Guard and fought with great valor in the battles of Elyau and Wagram as well as in the Peninsular War in Spain. General Krasiski also served the emperor with great fidelity in Russia, remaining with him throughout the entire retreat from Moscow up to his defeat at the Battle of Nations near Leipzig and his subsequent abdication at Fontainbleau. With Napoleon in exile on the island of Elba, General Krasiski accepted the magnanimous grant of amnesty offered by Czar Alexander and, in 1814, led the remnants of the Polish forces who had fought on behalf of the emperor back to their homeland.

Accompanying General Krasiski on the occasion of this departure from France were his wife and son. His wife was the former Princess Maria Radziwill, a somewhat older woman whom he had married primarily for her preeminent aristocratic status. After being childless for nine years, save for an infant daughter who died during childbirth, the couple was overjoyed at the birth of a son in Paris on February 19, 1812, while final preparations for the invasion of Russia were underway. The boy was christened Napoleon Stanisaw Adam Feliks Zygmunt, a series of names from which the bearer eventually selected the last as his preferred designation. Both mother and child remained in Paris for the next two years while General Krasiski was entangled in Napoleon’s ill-starred military ventures. Once back in Poland, General Krasiski and his forces were integrated into a reconstituted national army under the command of Czar Alexander’s brother. The plan being entertained by Alexander was to set up a hereditary monarchy to be called the Kingdom of Poland in which the office of king would be filled by the Russian czar himself. The establishment of this semiautonomous state was duly ratified by the representatives of the victorious coalition at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Paradoxically, it was General Krasiski, the erstwhile adversary of Czar Alexander, who became one of the staunchest defenders of the Kingdom of Poland’s legitimacy. As its trusted servant, he succeeded to the occupancy of several increasingly important governmental posts and was eventually appointed acting viceroy in Warsaw.

Young Zygmunt received his entire early education from distinguished tutors within the confines of the family palace in Warsaw, and because of his father’s ambitions for him, he was kept at his lessons for the greater part of the day. From the very outset, the boy was somewhat of a prodigy. At age four, he was priviledged to display his talents in the presence of Czar Alexander himself by reciting the defense of democracy that is delivered by the protagonist of Voltaire’s play Brutus (1730; English translation, 1761). In 1822, when the boy was but ten years old, his mother died of a hereditary lung disease. In the hope of filling the void in his son’s life, General Krasiski redoubled his commitment toward fostering Zygmunt’s emotional welfare. As a consequence of this inordinate display...

(The entire section is 2179 words.)