Polish Poetry Analysis

The Middle Ages

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Poland’s acceptance of Christianity in its Western form in 966 resulted in the long-lasting domination of Latin as the language of written communication. It was three centuries later that Polish emerged as the language of literature. Paradoxically, the first known poem in Polish is, at the same time, the most accomplished literary product of the whole medieval period. “Bogurodzica” (Mother of God), an anonymous religious hymn from the thirteenth century preserved in a fifteenth century manuscript, consists of two stanzas with a highly complex parallel construction and sophisticated verse structure. Such a masterly piece could not have been created in a cultural vacuum; some tradition of oral poetry in Polish must have existed around that time, although nothing except “Bogurodzica” has been preserved in a written form.

Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Polish literature was characterized by the prevalence of religious poetry. The increasing participation of laypeople in religious life brought about the growth of popular devotional literature in the vernacular. Its lyric genre breaks down thematically into Lenten and Easter songs, Christmas carols, hymns to the Virgin Mary, and so on. While being, for the most part, adaptations from Latin, some of these poems manage to strike an original note. “ale Matki Boskiej pod Krzyem” (the lament of the Mother of God at the foot of the Cross), a first-person monologue, is distinguished...

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The Renaissance

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Western European Humanism made its way into Poland as early as the second half of the fifteenth century, but it was only a hundred years later that the golden age of the Polish Renaissance came into full swing. Meanwhile, a few poets emerged who represent the period of transition.

Biernat of Lublin

The first Polish poet whose biography is at least partly known is Biernat of Lublin (c. 1465-after 1529). Raj duszny (1513; paradise of the soul), his translation of a Latin prayer book, was thought until quite recently to be the first Polish book ever printed. His major poetic work, however, was Zywot Ezopa Fryga (c. 1522; the life of Aesop the Frygian). The first part of this work is a rhymed biography of the legendary Aesop; the second part presents a collection of fables supposedly told by him. The work expresses the philosophy of plebeian Humanism, but its style, versification, and humor are still of a distinctly medieval kind.

Mikolaj Rej

Another transitional figure, although much closer to the Renaissance mentality, was Mikolaj Rej (1505-1569), called, perhaps with some exaggeration, the father of Polish literature. A country squire with almost no formal education, he wrote prolifically all of his life and wrote exclusively in Polish. He therefore was not typical of the Renaissance epoch, which demanded from a writer equal fluency in Polish and Latin. Rej’s stubborn defense of the vernacular was, however, also a result of the more general phenomenon of the awakening of national consciousness in the beginnings of the Renaissance. He was quite original in his appreciation of specifically Polish traits and ways of life. His poetry is mostly didactic, descriptive, or satiric, and it ranges from enormous versified treatises or dialogues to brief epigrams. As a poet, Rej undeniably lacks subtlety and artistic balance; his strengths are his passion for the particulars of life and his straightforward...

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Other Renaissance poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Compared with Kochanowski’s perfection and Szarzyski’s intensity, other poets of the Polish Renaissance seem definitely minor figures; however, some of them are not without significance. Sebastian Grabowiecki (1540-1607) was an author of quite refined devotional lyricism. Sebastian Fabian Klonowicz (1545-1602) wrote lengthy descriptive poems that abound with picturesque details. Szymon Szymonowicz (1558-1629) is best remembered as the author of the half-bucolic, half-realistic Sielanki (1614; idylls), a highly valuable contribution to the pastoral genre.

The Baroque

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

After a brief, though brilliant, golden age in the Renaissance, Polish culture, prompted by the rapid progress of the Counter-Reformation, entered the prolonged era of the Baroque. In poetry, the new Baroque style soon evolved into two different manners, sociologically distinguished by the cultural horizons of royal or aristocratic court life, on one hand, and those of the petty gentry’s manor life, on the other. While the former, more cosmopolitan, manner strongly resembled the Western European Baroque of Giambattista Marino and Luis de Góngora y Argote, the latter style, often called the Sarmatian Baroque, was much more local and conservative. Apart from these two trends within the vernacular, the tradition of classical poetry written in Latin was still cultivated. Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (Mathias Casimirus Sarbievius; 1595-1640), who has been dubbed the “Polish Horace,” achieved pan-European fame under the name of Casimire as an author of Latin odes as well as of the influential treatise De perfecta poesi (early seventeenth century).

Polish Marinism had its most illustrious representative in Jan Andrzej Morsztyn (1613-1693), who could also be compared with the English Cavalier poets. A courtier and statesman, in his opinions he was close to French libertinism, and his poetry shunned any didactic purpose. While considering writing a kind of entertainment, he nevertheless focused on the poetic analysis of the paradoxes of worldly happiness. The paradoxes of love are illustrated in Morsztyn’s poetry by a wide variety of striking conceits, in which there is as much frivolity as metaphysical fear. The complex interplay of symmetries, oppositions, and contrasts makes many of his brief poems masterpieces of construction. Besides Morsztyn, the Polish line of wit was represented by, among others, his relative Zbigniew Morsztyn (1624-1698), author of erotic poetry as well...

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The Enlightenment

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the mid-1760’s, new tendencies began to dominate the Polish cultural scene. Under the reign of the last Polish king, Stanisaw August Poniatowski (1732-1798), the ideology of the Enlightenment rapidly gained ground, coinciding with a renewed interest in Western (especially French) cultural novelties. In poetry, the last decades of the eighteenth century were marked by another brief resurgence of neoclassicism. The purification of language (after the damage done by Baroque writers with their habit of interpolating Latinisms into their already ornate style) went hand in hand with a return to discipline and clarity in writing. Classical genres, including descriptive poems, mock epics, odes, epistles, satires, fables, and epigrams, were revived during this period.

Bishop Ignacy Krasicki

Among the circle of poets close to the royal court and supporting the king’s reformist policies, the most outstanding was undoubtedly Bishop Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801). An extraordinarily gifted satirist, he made a stir in 1778 by publishing anonymously his Monachomachia albo wojna mnichów (monomachia, or the war of the monks), a mock epic in ottava rima ridiculing the obscurantism and indulgence of monks. As a satiric poet, he reached his climax in Satyry (satires published between 1779 and 1784), a series of penetrating ironic observations of contemporary morals that succeeded in being didactic without an intrusive rhetoric....

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Other Enlightenment poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Generally, though, the stylistic options of the Polish Enlightenment were contained between a strict classicism and a pre-Romantic sentimentalism. The former is exemplified by the work of Bishop Adam Stanisaw Naruszewicz (1733-1796); its belated extension can be seen in the conservative and rigid stance of the so-called Pseudoclassicists, including Kajetan Komian (1771-1856) and Ludwik Osiski (1775-1838), during the first decades of the nineteenth century. The trend of sentimentalism, on the other hand, surfaced in lyric songs and eclogues by Dionizy Knianin (1750-1807) and Franciszek Karpiski (1741-1825), who at their best were able to produce fine examples of simplicity and emotional directness. Another link between the Enlightenment and Romanticism can be discerned in the poetic work of the versatile writer Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz (1757-1841): He was the first to popularize the genre of the ballad through both his translations and his original poetry.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In Polish literary history, Romanticism is not simply another period. Its growth coincided with political events that made literature, and particularly Romantic poetry, the most powerful means of shaping the national mentality. One of the most conspicuous features of Polish Romanticism, however, is the enormous disparity between a few literary giants and all other poets of the period, as regards both their artistic innovation and their spiritual leadership. It is significant that the specifically Polish notion of the wieszcz (a “bard,” but also a prophet) has been applied only to Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Sowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiski; twentieth century opinion has added Cyprian Kamil Norwid as the last of the great...

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Other Romantic poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In contrast to the achievement of the four great émigrés, the so-called “domestic” offshoot of Polish Romantic poetry was of rather inferior quality. Among the multitude of poets who wrote at that time, only a few names rise above the average. Kornel Ujejski (1823-1897) reached a large readership with his poems of patriotic lamentation. Ryszard Berwiski (1819-1879) was a bard of social revolution and an ironic observer of contemporary society. The strongest suit of Teofil Lenartowicz (1822-1893) was a lyric poetry imbued with stylistic references to folklore.

The post-Romantic and neo-Romantic periods

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The 1863 defeat of the January Uprising, another insurrection against the czarist oppressors, generated a distrust in Romantic ideology and particularly in Romantic poetry: The ensuing epoch of Positivism was definitely an antipoetic age. In literature, there was a general shift toward realistic and naturalistic fiction and drama. Only a few names of relative significance emerged in the field of poetry during this period. Adam Asnyk (1838-1897) owed his popularity to the post-Romantic conventions through which he expressed his anti-Romantic convictions. Maria Konopnicka (1842-1910) wrote in accordance with Positivism as far as its reformist tendency was concerned; her poetry of social criticism and defense of the oppressed is...

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Independent Poland and the war years

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The twenty years of independent Poland (1918-1939) can be visualized as a gradual turn from light to darkness, from initial optimism and hope to final catastrophe. This change found its reflection in the evolution of poetry. The first decade of the interwar period was characterized by an explosion of new, mostly avant-garde programs and a multitude of poetic groups, periodicals, and even cabarets. Many of these initiatives were ephemeral, but some of them developed into influential schools and trends. As far as popularity was concerned, there was only one poetic school that managed to hold sway over public opinion for two decades, if not longer. Five poets who emerged as a group called Skamander—Julian Tuwim (1894-1953), Antoni...

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Postwar Poland

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

After World War II and the imposition of Communist rule on Poland, many poets worked in exile. Despite censorship, a great deal of émigré literature found its way into the country, and its popularity was remarkable, to mention only the examples of Miosz, Wierzyski, and Wat. Those poets who remained in Poland or were repatriated faced a situation of more or less limited freedom of speech. In spite of that, postwar Polish poetry scored many artistic successes. The immediate postwar years brought about the debut of Tadeusz Róewicz (born 1921), who propounded a new, ascetic style devoid of metaphors and sparing in imagery. After a general decline of literature during the years of Stalinism, one of the first harbingers of the...

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End of the twentieth century onward

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

There seems little cohesion or uniformity in approach of the poets born after 1950. If there is a common thread, it seems to be a focus in the individual, the inner world, the self. This is in direct opposition to the committed poetry of the previous decades that spoke to and for the people. These newer voices include Marcin Baran (born 1963), Krzysztof Koehler (born 1963), Zbigniew Machej (born 1958), Jacek Podsiadlo (born 1964), Marcin Sendecki (born 1967), Jerzy Sosnowski (born 1962), Marcin wietlicki (born 1961), and Robert Tekiel (born 1961).

The whole world then focused its attention on Polish poetry in 1996 when Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The choice seemed surprising at first; then more...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Baraczak, Stanisaw, and Clare Cavanagh, eds. and trans. Polish Poetry of the Last Two Decades of Communist Rule: Spoiling Cannibals’ Fun. Foreword by Helen Vendler. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991. Despite an oppressive government and a society permeated by despair, the twenty-nine poets represented in this collection created a poetic renaissance, especially in the lyric genre. An important anthology.

Carpenter, Bogdana, ed. Monumenta Polonica: The First Four Centuries of Polish Poetry, a Bilingual Anthology. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1989. Parallel English and Polish texts. Covers an extensive...

(The entire section is 519 words.)