Juliusz Słowacki Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Juliusz Sowacki was born in the year 1809 on September 4 (August 23, Old Style), and hence his life unfolded amid the political turmoil that arose as a result of the partitioning of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria during the closing decades of the eighteenth century. The annexation of Polish territory by its more powerful neighbors occurred in three stages. The first partition took place in 1772; the second, in 1792; and the third, in 1795. The town of Krzemieniec, Sowacki’s birthplace, was situated in the province of Volhynia in eastern Poland and came under Russian occupation in 1795. It was here in 1805 that the eminent Polish historian Tadeusz Czacki established a lyceum that was to bring great renown to Krzemieniec. The town was, in fact, called the “Volhynian Athens” and achieved a rank second only to Wilno in terms of importance as a cultural center in the eastern regions of the old Polish Republic. At the time of the poet’s birth, his father, Euzebiusz Sowacki, was a professor of literature and rhetoric at the famed lyceum. His mother, Salomea (née Januszewska), was a well-educated woman with a strong penchant for reading literature of a sentimental nature. The bond between mother and son was exceptionally strong, and a number of literary critics have gone so far as to ascribe a mother fixation to Sowacki because of his lifelong need for her emotional support.

A few years after Sowacki’s birth, his parents moved to Wilno because of his father’s appointment to a chair in literature at the University of Wilno. His tenure in this position proved to be a brief one, owing to his sudden death in 1814, when his son was only five years old. After three years of widowhood, Sowacki’s mother decided to enter into a second marriage with Dr. August Bécu, a medical professor at the University of Wilno. Dr. Bécu was himself a widower, with two daughters from his previous marriage. The members of the new household nevertheless lived together quite harmoniously, and Sowacki seems to have developed a genuine attachment to all the members of his adopted family. The future poet was somewhat frail as a child and prone to ill health. As the only boy in the family, he was pampered by his mother and his two stepsisters. Because Dr. Bécu’s home was a meeting place for the intellectual elite of Wilno, Sowacki received an early exposure to literary and political controversy. The fact that literature was a matter of importance within the family induced Sowacki to read voraciously in several languages. This idyllic existence came to an abrupt end in 1824, when Dr. Bécu was struck by lightning and died as a result.

After the death of her second husband, Sowacki’s mother returned to Krzemieniec, where she was able to live quite comfortably on the pensions that she received as the widow of two university professors. Since Sowacki had already completed his secondary education, it was deemed best that he remain in Wilno and enroll at the university there. Although his mother always encouraged his literary interests, viewing them as social graces, she insisted on his training for a career in law. Shortly before Sowacki’s matriculation at the university, the Russians had discovered the existence of clandestine political organizations among the city’s youth and took stern measures to suppress them. Many students were among those arrested, and some were forced into Russian exile. As a result of this repression, the intellectual climate at the university became one of cautious conservatism in all fields. Being somewhat aloof by nature, at least outside his family circle, Sowacki formed few intimate relationships among his peers. His only close friend was Ludwik Szpicnagel, and his only love interest was Ludwika niadecka. Both were his seniors by a few years and had fathers who were professors at the university. Szpicnagel was to commit suicide, and niadecka proved unresponsive to Sowacki’s courtship. Despite these tribulations, Sowacki completed the prescribed course of studies within three years and even managed occasionally to visit his mother in Krzemieniec. After receiving his law degree, he returned to Krzemieniec for a six-month stay before embarking on a career as a civil servant.

In 1829, at the age of nineteen, Sowacki became an employee of the ministry of finance in Warsaw. There he felt free to pursue his literary interests more seriously. Except for a short poetic narrative published anonymously, none of his poetry had ever appeared in print. He had, however, written a number of poetic works while he was a student at the University of Wilno, and he now planned to publish them collectively in a single volume. Inspired by the lively theatrical life in Warsaw, he also decided to try his hand at writing for the stage and swiftly completed two dramas. The first was called Mindowe Król Litewski, a play based on events drawn from the history of medieval Lithuania. The second bore the title Mary Stuart and dealt with the early life of the Scottish queen. These two plays were to make up the contents of the second volume of his collected works to date. Before Sowacki could complete arrangements for the printing of either volume, however, an anti-Russian insurrection broke out in Warsaw and quickly spread to other parts of the country. Although Sowacki had been largely apolitical up to that time, the upheaval in Warsaw was to alter his life irrevocably.

During that period, Warsaw was the capital of an entity that later came to be called Congress Poland, because it had been created at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. Although its official name was the Kingdom of Poland, the Russian czar, Nicholas I, was its mandated ruler, and the czar’s brother, Grand Duke Constantine, was commander of its armed forces. Such Russian dominance of their country was deeply resented by most Poles. Another source of dissatisfaction lay in the fact that the reconstituted kingdom embraced but a small portion of the territory that Poland had controlled before the partitions. Thus, Krzemieniec and Wilno were not even a part of the kingdom and lay deep within the Russian-occupied eastern provinces. The insurrection began in November, 1830, when Nicholas I announced that he intended to use Polish troops, along with Russian forces, to suppress revolutions that had recently broken out in France and Belgium. The foremost Polish historian of the day, Joachim Lelewel, formulated the motto “For Our Freedom and Yours” as an appeal for international support, and the insurrectionists duly urged the Russian people to join them in their revolt against czarist tyranny.

The conflict between Russia and Poland was to last ten months before reaching its inevitable end. Sowacki initially greeted the outbreak by writing an ode to freedom in its honor, but despite his personal enthusiasm for the goals of the revolution, he engaged in no further political activity on its behalf for the next few months. Then, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Sowacki left Warsaw early in March and went to Dresden. He remained in Dresden until July, at which time he received orders from the Polish revolutionary government to undertake a diplomatic mission on its behalf. His instructions called for him to go to London via Paris. He traveled posthaste and reached Paris in six days. After five hours in the French capital, he rushed off for Boulogne. Having just missed the daily boat for England, he chartered a vessel of his own to take him to Dover and ordered the Polish flag to be flown from its mast. After spending several weeks in London, he decided to return to Paris. By this time it was clear that the insurrection was doomed to defeat, and Sowacki therefore made no attempt to return to Warsaw. The Polish capital did, in fact, capitulate to the Russians on September 8, 1831. Facing certain arrest if he returned to Poland, Sowacki thought it best to remain in France for the time being. Some ten thousand Poles were to leave their homeland for sanctuary in the West in a move that has come to be called the Great Migration. Unlike most of the other émigrés who left Poland to escape...

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