Antoni Słonimski Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

The poetic output of Antoni Słonimski forms a relatively small part of his voluminous work. He was especially prolific as an author of nonfiction. During the 1930’s, and again during the 1960’s and 1970’s, Słonimski’s name was associated with the feuilleton even more than with poetry. He undoubtedly was one of the most accomplished masters of the felieton, a specifically Polish hybrid consisting of elements of literary essay, political column, and satirical lampoon. Before World War II, his popularity was also the result of his vitriolic criticism (particularly theatrical reviews), comedies in the manner of George Bernard Shaw, and science-fiction novels with some of the flavor of H. G. Wells. In 1966, he published Jawa i mrzonka, two short stories consisting of first-person monologues. Toward the close of his life, he published his memoirs, Alfabet wspomnień (1975).


Throughout the sixty years of his literary career, Antoni Słonimski successfully reached a large readership and exerted a powerful moral influence on opinions and attitudes in Polish society. His political position was that of an independent intellectual with pronounced liberal and democratic views. Especially in the 1930’s, as both right-wing and left-wing groups in Poland grew dangerously radical, Słonimski stood out as the most prominent defender of common sense, human rights, and civil liberties, always the first to ridicule totalitarian or chauvinist follies in his immensely popular feuilletons. He maintained the same position during the war, which he spent in exile; in postwar Poland, his intransigent stance exposed him more than once to the ill will of the Communist regime. In the last decades of his life, Słonimski, while he was still actively participating in Poland’s literary life, was generally considered to be a living symbol of the best traditions of the Polish liberal intelligentsia. His funeral in Laski, near Warsaw, underlined his influence as it became a silent demonstration by independent-minded intellectuals.

Unlike Słonimski’s unquestionable moral authority, his reputation as a poet has been subject to many critical revaluations. He entered the literary scene in approximately 1918, as cofounder of an iconoclastic poetic group, Skamander, whose innovation consisted primarily of denying the validity of the post-Romantic tradition under the new circumstances of regained national independence. Very soon, however, the young rebels from Skamander, acclaimed as the Polish Pléiade, achieved prominent positions in the literary establishment while becoming artistically more and more conservative, especially if compared with various avant-garde movements of that time. Słonimski, in particular, could have been viewed as the most rationalistic, traditional, direct, and “public” among the Skamander poets.

By no means an artistic innovator, he was still highly esteemed for his integrity and immediacy of appeal; his “Alarm,” for example, written in 1939 in Paris and repeatedly broadcast to Poland, has certainly become the most remembered Polish poem of the entire war period. In the postwar years, Słonimski’s willful defense of traditional artistic devices did not obstruct his own interesting development as a poet, and his final rapprochement with the Christian philosophical tradition (although he remained an agnostic) enriched his late poetry with a new, metaphysical dimension. Against the background of twentieth century Polish poetry, his appears, even in the eyes of his opponents, as an unmatched example of clarity, precision, and moral sensitivity, happily married to a sense of humor.


The son of a Warsaw physician, Antoni Słonimski was born and reared in a family proud of its Jewish ancestors, including an eighteenth century inventor and mathematician. The poet’s father was a member of the Polish Socialist Party and professed the progressivist and rationalistic ideology of Polish Positivism. Initially, Słonimski chose the career of an artist rather than that of a writer. He studied painting in Warsaw and Munich, and although his first poem was published as early as 1913, he was not yet giving his writing any serious thought. Instead, he was making his living by drawing cartoons for satirical weeklies. Only in 1918 did he publish his first sonnets, which he later considered his actual debut.

In the last years of World War I, Słonimski entered into friendly relations with several other young poets, especially Julian Tuwim and Jan Lechoń. Together they created in 1918 a poetic cabaret, “Picador,” which two years later evolved into a poetic group called Skamander (joined also by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz and Kazimierz Wierzyński). In a few years, the five Skamander poets gained an astonishingly large following; for the next two decades, if not more, the mainstream of Polish literary life was dominated by them and their informal school. Their influence found a particularly efficient outlet in Wiadomości Literackie, a literary weekly of liberal orientation, to which Słonimski was perhaps the most prolific contributor. Not only were most of his poems and articles published there, but also his caustic theatrical reviews and, above all, his “Kroniki tygodniowe,” the enormously popular weekly “chronicles” or feuilletons. The success of these chronicles reduced for a while Słonimski’s lyrical productivity. While between 1918 and 1928 he had published many books of poems, during the next decade only one new collection appeared. Instead of poetry, in the 1930’s he wrote mostly nonfiction of various sorts, ranging from purely nonsensical parodies to serious publications, including a report on his trip to the Soviet Union, Moja podróz do Rosji (1932), interesting as a document of his fascination with “progress” and, at the same time, his unequivocal repugnance for the horrors of totalitarianism. At that time, his uncompromising liberal stance earned for him many violent attacks from both Left and Right.

As a Jew and an outspoken liberal, Słonimski had every reason to fear both Nazis and Communists; Słonimski left Warsaw in September, 1939, and found his way to Paris via Romania and Italy. After the fall of France, he escaped to London. He stayed there with his wife until 1946, editing the émigré monthly Nowa Polska; his wartime poetry collection, Alarm, was reedited several times during the early 1940’s. While in London, he also began to work for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Even though he was officially repatriated in 1946, he soon returned to the West, to serve, until 1951, first as chairman of the literary section of UNESCO, then as...

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