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.
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.
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.
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.