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.
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.
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.
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.