Joseph Wittlin

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Zbigniew Folejewski

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[Joseph Wittlin] is above all a genuine poet, sufficiently original and sufficiently talented so as not to have slavishly to follow any programs and manifestoes. In Poland between the wars there were many programs and many manifestoes, but what is even more important is the fact that at the very thresh-hold of political independence, a few years after Versailles, Polish poetry produced such magnificent phenomena as Łąka (Meadow) by Bolesław Leśmian, Karmazynowy poemat (Crimson Poem) by Jan Lechoń, Czychanie na Boga (To Ambush God) by Julian Tuwim, Ballady (Ballads) by Emil Zegadłowicz, Parada (Parade) by Antoni Słonimski, and … [Hymns] by Joseph Wittlin. The authors, all young poets, expressed their individual feelings, hopes and doubts, in forms which were more or less novatory, but each was sufficiently original and suggestive to gain its own position in Polish literature. (p. 69)

In Wittlin's Hymns the leading note which will stay with the poet all his life is a tone of fright at the thought of what the war and the post-war developments have done to men, fright at the thought of dehumanization, the nightmare of the twentieth century. What was expressed in poetic form in the Hymns will forty years later be echoed by the symbolic title of Wittlin's latest volume, Orpheus in the Underworld of the 20th Century.

There are many personal and quite a few objective, descriptive motives in his Hymns. The collection shows us a sensitive poetic personality, not pessimistic, but somewhat weary in his world outlook. Wittlin, like many of his contemporaries, watched his world emerge out of the misery of war, in the process of which too many human values had to be sacrificed. This amalgamation of bold dreams and prosaic details of daily reality, in which a "spoonful of soup" can become a symbol of life and death, is the poetic matter of this volume. The poem, "Hymn to a Spoonful of Soup," is perhaps the most shaking and the most revealing in the volume, both from the ideological and from the formal point of view. At the same time, the vision of the soldier whose human reactions are being reduced to the desire for a spoonful of soup will prove productive in Wittlin's later work. (pp. 69-70)

Wittlin remained a poet of few words. In each consecutive edition of his Hymns some new poems were added. Although Wittlin never published another volume of poetry, the few poems published during the war, were very impressive, many of them unsurpassed in lyrical depth. Wittlin's "Stabat Mater," for example, will certainly remain one of the most memorable patriotic lyrics in which the poet's personal and national sentiments are expressed in a simple and at the same time artful form. (p. 70)

The vision of the soldier from the "Hymn about a Spoonful of Soup" gradually developed into a full-length novel, [Salt of the Earth]….

Salt of the Earth [is] one of the most meaningful and artistically accomplished novels in modern literature…. [Although] this novel belongs to a large group of works devoted to the problem of war, it is unique in its perception of what happens to human beings when they are caught in this gigantic, merciless machinery of modern war apparatus with bureaucratic rules, paragraphs, orders and counter-orders, where individuals are only numbers. In the main structural theme, the hero, a simple, barely literate railroad worker, is confronted with all the puzzles of the collective machinery and with the intricate balance between the serious and the ridiculous in the process which is supposed to change unruly individuals into efficient soldiers....

(This entire section contains 851 words.)

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There are, of course, many literary parallels that could be drawn here, but there are hardly any direct influences. The work closely parallelsThe Brave Soldier Sveik by Jaroslav Hasek. The device of revealing some of the author's convictions by seemingly naive, humoristic reactions of the uneducated hero is common to both these works. But there the analogy ends. The uniqueness of Wittlin's novel is strengthened by the poetic quality of his style. This note of lyricism, paired with a very carefully precise construction of the whole vision, accounts for the artistic effect of a fulfilled work of art. (p. 71)

There is a serious and melancholy concern in Wittlin's novel with a Franciscan love of life and a note of quiet humor in the story of this unheroic hero. This attitude, the ability to discover elements of human love and dignity in the midst of the miseries of war, exile, poetry and frustration, is found in all Wittlin's writing. Both in his early collections of essays [War, Peace and the Soul of the Poet and Stages] … and in the recent Orpheus in the Underworld of the 20th Century we can see the stages of the same road, the road of a modern Odysseus dreaming of his lost Ithaca. (pp. 71-2)

Zbigniew Folejewski, "The Creative Path of Joseph Wittlin" (a revision of the foreword to a Polish program held at the Polish Club in Toronto, September 29, 1963), in The Polish Review (© copyright 1964 by the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, Inc.), Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1964, pp. 67-72.


F. C. Weiskopf


Zoya Yurieff