Mickiewicz’s work in philology at the University of Wilno instilled in him the values of eighteenth century classicism. Accordingly, his first significant poem, “Oda do mlodości” (“Ode to Youth”), reflected the tradition of the Enlightenment, but it also contained some of the pathos of Romanticism. In the ballad “Romantyczność” (“The Romantic”), this pathos becomes the dominant tone. The poem concerns a woman who is mocked and regarded as insane because, in despair, she talks to the ghost of her beloved. Mickiewicz treats her sympathetically, concluding: “Faith and love are more discerning/ Than lenses or learning.” Revealing a Slavic preference for faith and feeling rather than Western rationalism, Mickiewicz returned to these youthful ideas in his later, more complex works.
Mickiewicz’s shift toward a thoroughgoing Romanticism was influenced by his reading of Italian, German, and English literature, by his study of early Lithuanian history, and by his love for Maryla Wereszczaka. With his first two volumes of poetry Mickiewicz raised the stature of Polish poetry. His first volume contained short poems, mainly a group of fourteen “ballads and romances” prefaced with a survey of world literature. “The Romantic,” the programmatic poem of the Polish Romantic movement, expresses his faith in the influence of the spirit world on man.
Forefathers’ Eve, parts 1, 2, and 4
The second volume of Mickiewicz’s poems contained the second and fourth parts of the incomplete fantastic drama, Forefathers’ Eve; a short poem, “The Vampire,” connected with that drama; and a short tale in verse, Grażyna. The genre of the fantastic drama was in fashion at the time. Forefathers’ Eve, complete with ghosts and demons, was based on a folk rite that involved serving a meal to the spirits of the departed on All Souls’ Day. Part 2 of Forefathers’ Eve (the first part of the poem to be written) is an idealization of this rite, in which Mickiewicz probably had participated as a boy in Lithuanian Byelorussia. He explained that “Forefathers’ Eve” is the name of a ceremony celebrated by the common folk in memory of their ancestors in many parts of Byelorussia, Lithuania, Prussia, and Courland. The ceremony, once called “the Feast of the Goat,” originated in pagan times and was frowned upon by the Church.
In the first part of Forefathers’ Eve, for which he only completed a sketch, Mickiewicz appears in the guise of Gustav, a name taken from Valérie (1803), a sentimental novel by Baroness von Krüdener. Gustav kills himself, disappointed in his love for Maryla. In a revised version of part 2 of Forefathers’ Eve, Mickiewicz added a section expressing his love for Maryla. He depicts Maryla as a “shepherdess in mourning dress” whose lover, Gustav, has died for her. His spirit appears and gazes on the shepherdess and then follows her as she is led out of a chapel. In the fourth part of the poem his ghost appears at the house of a priest and delivers passionate, sorrowful monologues, pouring out his sad tale of disillusioned love while casting reproaches upon Maryla. He recommends to the priest the rites of “Forefathers’ Eve” and finally reenacts his own suicide. Gustav is Mickiewicz’s version of the self-dramatizing Romantic hero, but he is also a tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense, since he is defeated by a mistake in judgment—his overwhelming love for a person who proves to be unworthy.
Mickiewicz wrote Grażyna, an impersonal narrative poem, at about the same time he wrote the highly personal and passionate Forefathers’ Eve. Grażyna resembles the tales or “novels” in verse characteristic of the Romantic movement in Western Europe but lacks the supernatural elements and the exoticism which distinguish such works. The poem concerns the Lithuanians’ struggle in the fourteenth century against the German Knights of the Cross. Mickiewicz was inspired by the ruins of a castle near Nowogródek, by his study of early Lithuanian history, and by his reading of Torquato Tasso, Sir Walter Scott, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. In the narrative, the Lithuanian prince, Litavor, plans to join the Teutonic Knights against Duke Witold. These traitorous intentions are foiled by Grażyna, Litavor’s brave and patriotic wife. Dressed in her husband’s armor, she leads the Lithuanian knights in battle against the Teutons instead of accepting their help against her compatriots. Mickiewicz modeled his heroine on Tasso’s Clorinda and Erminia, although the type goes back to Vergil’s Camilla and ultimately to the Greek tales of the Amazons. This stately narrative reveals Mickiewicz’s extraordinary gift for vivid characterization, even though the poet himself did not attach much importance to the work.
Sonnets from the Crimea
At the end of 1826, Mickiewicz published his first cycle of sonnets, the so-called “love sonnets.” There were few Polish models in the sonnet form, and he turned for a model to the Petrarchan sonnet, with its elaborate rhyme scheme and rigid structure. His second cycle of sonnets, Sonnets from the Crimea, was vastly different in thought and feeling and was met with hostile criticism from Mickiewicz’s classically minded contemporaries.
While in Russia, Mickiewicz had made a trip of nearly two months through the Crimea, and it was this journey which produced the eighteen poems that constitute the Sonnets from the Crimea. He made the trip with, among others, Karolina Sobański, with whom he had an ardent love affair; critics have speculated that the three sonnets “Good Morning,” “Good Night,” and “Good Evening” reflect their relationship. With his Sonnets from the Crimea, Mickiewicz introduced to Polish literature the Romantic poetry of the steppe, the sea, and the mountains, as well as the Oriental elements of European Romanticism, represented by Byron and Thomas Moore in England and by Pushkin in Russia. The sonnets express an attitude toward nature that is characteristically Romantic and at the same time “modern”: Nature is valued for its own sake as well as for its symbolic reflection of the poet’s psychological states. The sonnets are further distinguished by their exotic vocabulary, the fruit of Mickiewicz’s study of Persian and Arabic poetry, mainly in French translation. (Near Eastern and Oriental literature was popular throughout Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century.) The rigid structure demanded by the sonnet form enabled Mickiewicz to communicate his psychological experiences with utmost conciseness, and these poems are among his finest.
Mickiewicz had conceived the idea of his next major work, Konrad Wallenrod, while in Moscow in 1825. Like Grażyna, the poem is set in medieval Lithuania during the conflict between the Lithuanians and the Knights of the...