Polish Romanticism Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Polish Romanticism

Influenced by the general spirit and main ideas of European Romanticism, the literature of Polish Romanticism is unique, as many scholars have pointed out, in having developed largely outside of Poland and in its emphatic focus upon the issue of Polish nationalism. Both of these characteristics stem from the fact that after 1815 Poland as such disappeared from the map of Europe, continuing to exist only as a concept in the minds of its population. The Vienna Congress of 1815, which represented an end to the era of Napoleon Bonaparte and to the political heritage of the French Revolution, orchestrated the division of Poland into two states—the Cracow Respublica, which became incorporated into Austria in 1848, and the Kingdom of Poland (or Congress Kingdom), which lost its constitutional independence to Russia following the failed November Rising of 1830, an attempt to overthrow Russian domination in Poland. The noted Polish literary critic Julian Krzyżanowski, stressing the significance of these historical events for Polish literature, has noted that, "The Kingdom of Poland, the small state which, theoretically, was constitutional and seemingly independent, and thus the natural centre of Polish cultural life, ceased to be such a centre, not only because its university and societies of learning were closed down and because all manifestations of independent thought and creative works were suppressed ruthlessly by police and military methods, but also because it lost a large part of its intellectuals, that is, the social group which created cultural life."

The Polish intelligentsia, along with leading members of its government, left Poland in the early 1830s, during what is referred to as the "Great Emigration," resettling in France, Germany, Great Britain, Turkey, and the United States. While the Polish émigrés were enthusiastically received in their new countries, they longed to return to Poland after what they hoped would be an all-European revolution that would restore the Romantic principles of liberty and individual as well as national rights. Since many foremost Polish emigrants relocated in Paris, that city emerged as the most important center for Polish Romantic literature in the period between 1830 and 1850. Characterized by its rich intellectual environment, the Polish émigré community carried on a lively political, philosophical, and literary tradition that nourished its writers and poets. Because these Polish artists could not conceive of a lost fatherland, their works were intensely patriotic, revolutionary, and enriched by elements from Polish history and folk tradition. As George Brandes has written, "It is as if the poets had felt that their mission was to give the people spiritual nourishment and a spiritual tonic to support them on their way." Adam Mickiewicz, with his expressive, nationalistic verse, emerged as the chief poetic voice of the Polish émigré community and exemplified the dominant traits of the movement. Besides his love for Poland, the other chief influences on his style were the spiritualism of the mystic Andrew Towiański and the notion of the poet as freedom fighter, at that time most closely identified with the English poet Lord Byron. Mickiewicz's Ballady i romanse (1822), a collection of ballads and romances, marked the beginning of Polish Romanticism; Dziady (1832; Forefathers' Eve), a celebration of the Polish past as well the most important work of the Polish theater, and Pan Tadeusz; Czyli, ostatni zajazd na Litwie (1834; Master Thaddeus; or, The Last Foray in Lithuania) reflect his devotion to and concern for the liberation of his homeland. In these and numerous other pieces Mickiewicz combined mystical, prophetic, folkloristic, and religious elements to convey his hope for the future of Poland. As literary historians point out, Mickiewicz's importance also lies in the fact that he popularized several new or long-unused genres—for example, the ballad, the satire, and the confessional autobiography—in addition to expanding the language of Polish literature to include biblical, regional, stylized, and archaic words, and stressing syntax and rhythm over traditional meter. A patriot above all else, he renounced his literary career while in its prime and devoted the last twenty years of his life to politics.

Zygmunt Krasinski, a friend of Mickiewicz, also wrote to inspire political and religious hope in his countrymen. Unlike his predecessors, who called for victory at whatever price in Poland's struggle against Russia, Krasinski emphasized Poland's spiritual role in its fight for independence, advocating an intellectual rather than a military superiority. His works best exemplify the Messianic movement in Poland: in two early dramas, Nie-boska komedyia (1835; The Undivine Comedy) and Irydion (1836; Iridion), as well as in the later Psalmy przyszłości (1845), he asserted that Poland, like Christ, was specifically chosen by God to carry the world's burdens, to suffer, and eventually to be resurrected. Deeply influenced by Mickiewicz's poetry, but, like his friend Krasinski, more mystical than political by nature, Juliusz Słowacki is also regarded as one of the greatest Polish Romantic poets and dramatists. In his best-known works, the poems Anhelli (1838) and Król Duch (1847) and the dramas Balladyna (1862), Kordian (1899), and Lilla Weneda (1869), Słowacki explored the course of Polish history, particularly the nation's subjugation and partition by other European nations. Intended to offer solutions to Poland's political problems, Słowacki's works convey his belief that independence could be won only through the cooperation of the Polish people and their spiritual purity. Thus, his Anhelli, a symbolic poem about a group of exiles, exemplifies his apprehension about the squabbles that jeopardized the unity of the Polish émigrés, while Beniowski (1841), one of his most acclaimed poems, is a satire that ridicules the émigrés' ideas and plans to free Poland. While Mickiewicz, Krasinski, and Słowacki are generally considered the three leading bards of Polish Romanticism, the movement encompassed numerous other figures including philosophers, theologians, scientists, and critics. Literary historians have continued to write about the writers, works, and ideas of Polish Romanticism—as Czesław Miłosz has described it, "A jungle of criss-crossing currents, of madly daring ideas, of self-pity and national arrogance, and of unsurpassed brilliancy of poetic technique.