Polish Romanticism Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

George Brandes (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: "The Romantic Literature of Poland in the Nineteenth Century (1886)," in Poland: A Study of the Land, People, and Literature, William Heinemann, 1904, pp. 192-308.

[Brandes, a Danish literary critic and biographer, was the principal leader of the intellectual movement that helped to bring an end to Scandinavian cultural isolation. He believed that literature reflects the spirit and problems of its time and that it must be understood within its social and aesthetic context. Brandes's major critical work, Hovedstroomninger i det 19de aar-hundredes litteratur (1871; Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature, 1872-90), won him admiration for his ability to view literary movements within the broader context of all of European literature. In the following excerpt from a work first published in 1903, he discusses some influences on Polish Romantic literature, comparing it with Romantic literature of other countries.]

The period 1820-1850 was the richest and most important as regards poetry [of Polish Romanticism]. And in this period the three fundamental factors which determined the literature were evidently these: the national character, European romanticism, and the exceptional political situation.

The national character, as it had been developed down to this period, was specially adapted for the influences of romanticism. It was intelligent and magnanimous, splendour-loving and visionary, with a propensity to chivalrous virtues and religious aspirations. Then as now it lacked the ballast which the Germanic nations have in their native phlegm, and the Latin races in their native logic. It was akin to the French in its fickleness, different from it in the nature of its capriciousness; for the Frenchman is capricious when his native rationalism leads him to shatter his historic heritage, the Pole when temperament or enthusiasm carries him away. It was akin to the Italian in its idolatry and its vivacity, but differed from it in its want of shrewd political sense, and of that plastic tendency which has made the inhabitants of Italy pagans under all forms of religion.

When European Romanticism reached this nation, it did not fare as in Germany, where it was engendered in the non-political societies of provincial towns, and allied itself to the indefinite idealism, the want of social feeling, and the aversion to reality, which had laid hold of the minds of thinking men—nor as in England, where Romanticism found itself in direct antagonism with the ingrained bias of the people for the useful and the practical, and where it allied itself with the old Norse tendency to an indomitable independence and defiance in the free individual, even towards his fatherland—nor as in France or Italy, where a Latin and classical element, essentially foreign to Romanticism, prevented its conquest of the intellectual heart of the people, and limited it to a purely artistic intoxication of short duration.

In Poland, where the national character was peculiarly adapted to assimilate Romanticism, the common national misfortune had moreover given a romantic bias to minds. Romanticism, therefore, did not isolate souls either in egotism, as in Germany, or in wild independence, as in England, but bound them together in a visionary feeling of compatriotism. Neither was it contingent upon a dislike to reality, but upon the sense that the fatherland was already an unreality, something which must be believed in, and could not be seen with the bodily eye. Finally, the Latin element, even if stronger than in any other non-Latin country, was but an importation, and made no serious resistance.

Here, with far greater force than elsewhere, romantic enthusiasm swept away all barriers, spread out in far wider circles—because of the national character, which is not rational, but fantastically heroic—and harmonised far more thoroughly than elsewhere with existing times and conditions—because of the national fate, which occupies all thoughts, and round which all day-dreams revolve.

We shall recognise this peculiarity most plainly if we turn our attention to countries and literatures where the political situation was akin to that of Poland. It is true that a counterpart is nowhere to be found, but there are analogies more or less strong.

Let us consider, for instance, the Flemish literature, which arose in Belgium about 1830. It resorts to great historical romance in the style of Walter Scott, in order to excite Flemish national feeling. Henry Conscience's romance, The Lion of Flanders, is the leading work, a book of the same kind as Rzewuski's Memoirs of Soplica. This literature is strongest in the pure lyric. But it is the product of a peaceful nation, a nation not prone to exaltation. It is a literature of the common people, which clings to the earth, not like the Polish, a soaring and flaming poetry, which throws its light over the whole horizon, and loses itself in the clouds.

Or let us consider Finland, with her Runeberg, who has analogies with Mickiewicz. Fanrick Stals Sägner, which treats of the contest for Finland in the year 1810, is certainly the nearest European counterpart to Pan Tadeusz. The author describes the Finnish national character, as it appeared during the war, just as Pan Tadeusz presents the Polish national character of the same time. There is no national hatred in any of these poems. The only Russian officer who figures in the Finnish poetic cycle, Kulneff, is the type of a noble enemy, high-minded and gentle; the only Russian officer who figures in the Polish epic, Rykow, is an honourable man, incorruptible, faithful, and brave.

What is lacking in Runeberg is the lofty national self-criticism, which distinguishes Mickiewicz, and the poets of Poland as a whole. His Finns are heroes, heroes "in winter dress," heroes in tatters sometimes, but always heroes. They have almost no faults. In spite of all their glowing love for their countrymen, the poets of Poland are far more synthetic, painting the frail as well as the strong side of the inherited character of their nation. To be sure they have had a far richer material at their command; they were not an undeveloped people like the Finns, whose language even lacked all literary form and polish, but a people with the lights and shadows of a thousand years of civilisation.

The peculiar situation of Poland necessarily modifies the points of view from which we contrast Classicism and Romanticism elsewhere.

When we read Mickiewicz's poem, Romanticism, with its dogma that the superstitions of the people are worth more than classical rationalism, we note in this enthusiasm for a belief in ghosts, and this hatred for cold acumen, which observes through the microscope, something which is common to Romanticism in all countries, nay, something wearisomely romantic. The romanticists everywhere feel a satisfaction in leading the swelling currents of new emotion into spiritual beliefs and popular superstition. Everywhere also there is a connection between the advent of Romanticism in literature, and the great religious reaction of the nineteenth century against the indifference to all dogma of the eighteenth.

But there are two circumstances which nevertheless give Polish Romanticism a peculiar character. Firstly, the opposing catholic tendency had not the mediaeval feudal stamp as elsewhere. Secondly, the double contrast of Classicism and Romanticism, Liberalism and Conservatism, did not obtain here as in so many other countries. In France, for instance, Romanticism from the beginning was suspected not only as hostile to enlightenment but as legitimist. Victor Hugo's first odes and ballads were both anti-Voltairean and loyal. The most distinguished opponent of the Romanticists was the celebrated liberal, Armand Carrel, the recognised leader of the French republicans. In Poland, on the contrary, the opponents of Romanticism (men like Sniadecki, Beku, Osinski) were usually officials, and conservative in their political convictions, while from the very first Romanticism was rightly regarded as oppositional.

As the recognised laureate of a whole nation in the first half of the nineteenth century Mickiewicz occupies a position, which finds a parallel in that of Oehlenschlæger and Tegnér. But apart from all other dissimilarities, there is this difference between Mickiewicz and the two Norse poets, that when the latter employed their talents to glorify their nation, they chose the material of its legendary world or worked out themes from its antiquity, its middle ages, or even a more distant past, substantially without ever describing the life they themselves had had the opportunity of observing, while Mickiewicz, especially where he is at his best (as in Pan Tadeusz and certain parts of Dziady) reproduces a life he has seen with his own eyes, or a life the memory of which still hovers in the air about him.

This is the secret of his superiority over a whole army of contemporary national poets; it is this which gives his Romanticism and that of several of his contemporaries in Poland a comparatively modern stamp. At that time they did not yet feel in Europe that the poet must be the offspring of his age as a rule; they were too strongly attracted by distant times or foreign countries. The results in their descriptions of mankind, oftener than not, were beings who never existed and never could exist, beings whose spiritual life was created by the subtraction of a great many qualities which only modern men can have, and by the mechanical addition of qualities which the poet's reading had taught him were found in the past. Not in consequence of a correct theory, but by virtue of a sound instinct, Mickiewicz resorted to an old subject or a distant period only when political considerations made it easier for him to express what he had at heart, when the fundamental thought concealed itself behind an allegory, as is the case in Grazyna and Wallenrod.

Throughout the romantic literature of Poland, we find here and there traits so realistic that they do not seem to belong to the period. In some of the poets the observance of reality is carried so far, that they even introduce living or recently deceased persons into their poems. But that which is peculiarly Polish, is that hand in hand with the hankering after reality and futurity there is an unconquerable tendency to abstraction, allegory, and superstition. They are at once realists and spiritualists.

Two circumstances united to make their poems abstract and allegorical: first, the propensity to mysticism which lay in the inmost recesses of their souls and which, after having slumbered for a while, was easily awakened in them all, since they had been educated as Catholics from the first; in the next place, the political oppression, the consideration of the censorship which compelled them to describe their thoughts by circumlocution, and etherealise the outlines of the beings whom they painted.

There were, in particular, two great persons, at that time recently deceased, who had set the forces of imagination in motion all over Europe, but who aroused greater enthusiasm here than in any other country outside of their native lands: Napoleon and Byron.

It was the period when the cult of Napoleon was spreading over Europe. The real being was forgotten; genuine historical research had not yet begun. Napoleon had become a legend, which had deeply affected Henry Beyle, of which Victor Hugo, Béranger, and Heinrich Heine, each in his own way, made themselves priests, and which Thiers unfolded as a great epopee, accessible to the crowd. However little cause the Poles had to thank Napoleon, they had attached such great hopes to him, that after the desolation of the last years of his life and his impressive death had cast a transfiguring light over his life, they continued to pay honour to his shade as their liberator and saviour.

As the years passed by after his fall, he became the superhuman, supernatural man to the popular fancy. To the Romanticists he became an enigma. In those days the eighteenth century was regarded as the time of frivolous exposition. Here was a phenomenon which could not be judged by ordinary standards of intellectual observation. This awakened anew the quality of admiration, which had been lost in the preceding century. They thought that the prosaic English hated him because he was incomprehensible to them. No human being had been able to strike him down, nor any general but General Frost and General Hunger. In the preface to Dawn (Przedswit) Krasinski dates a new epoch from Napoleon. He says:—

"The age of Caesar has returned in that of Napoleon. And the Christian Cassar, who is superior to his predecessor by the achievement of nineteen centuries, and who was perfectly clear as to himself and the object for which the divine spirit, which leads the course of history, had sent him—dying, said on his rock of exile: 'The beginning of a new period will be reckoned from me.' These words contain a complete revelation concerning him and the future." Mickiewicz in his mystic period reveres Napoleon as a demi-god. He was no Gaul, he had no esprit, no wit, he felt himself drawn to the East. "Like all the greatest men," says Mickiewicz with a turn which foreshadows Disraeli, "Napoleon felt himself mysteriously at home in the East." His life demonstrated to Mickiewicz the existence of the invisible and mystic world. He believed in omens, and acted on them; he had direct intuition. Therefore he is the man of the Slav race; for the Slavs are a people of intuition. And thus for Mickiewicz he becomes the source of everything which the Polish people of that time admire.

Again and again Mickiewicz contends that Napoleon created Byron, and that Byron's life and glory had awakened Pushkin, so that Napoleon had also indirectly engendered the latter.

Since poetry, according to Mickiewicz's definition, is action, Napoleon's life becomes the loftiest poetry. Nay, even more; his mission was to liberate nations and thereby the whole world. (Preface to L'Église et le Messianisme.) And while St. Helena comes near to being a place of suffering like Golgotha, a glimmer of the Passion of Christ falls over the life and death of Napoleon.

The same propensity to uncritical transports, the same enthusiasm for the dazzling, is brought to light in the relations of these Slav poets to Byron. Thus poets so diverse as Mickiewicz and Słowacki meet on common ground for years in their Byronism. As Washington had made no impression on them while Napoleon fascinated them, so not one of them cared for Shelley, while Byron was on everybody's lips. They believed in all seriousness that Byron was the greatest lyric poet of England.

To make Byron's intellectual descent from Napoleon more obvious, Mickiewicz, who had evidently no knowledge of Wordsworth, or Coleridge, or Keats, or Shelley, wrote: "I regard it as certain that the flash which kindled the fire of the English poet came from the soul of Napoleon. How could we otherwise explain this man's existence in the midst of the jejune English literature of his day, a survival of the former century? . . . Byron's English contemporaries, in spite of the example of his genius and the influence emanating therefrom, produced nothing which can be compared therewith; and after the death of the poet, English literature sank back to the level of that of the past century."

Every sentence here is a blunder. Every one of the contemporaries of Byron named above, so far as poetry is concerned, several times reached his level, and in some respects even excelled him. But undeniably no one of them was so dazzling as he; they were neither dandies and poseurs in youth, nor theatrically heroic as men. Even he who would by no means rob Byron of his undying honour as a poet, and of his never-to-be-forgotten services as a friend of freedom, must feel that in Poland he is estimated as much by his false prestige as by his real greatness.

Nevertheless Napoleon and Byron have this merit in common, that they drew the Poles out of their purely national absorption. Polish literature had been national in the sixteenth century, but it had lacked the stamp of common humanity which makes a literature accessible to Europe at large; in the eighteenth century it had been cosmopolitan, but in such a fashion that it ended in the French imitation of classical culture without the deeper national stamp, which makes a literature interesting to Europe. Sniadecki was a friend and admirer of Delille, Bogomolec imitated the plays of Molière in a conventional and foreign style. This literature had become petrified in its slavish reverence for rules. Now all barriers were broken down. A time of national wandering had returned. The material boundaries were no longer fixed, and the intellectual boundaries widened at the same time. The Poles fought under Napoleon in the most diverse countries, and Napoleon's hosts brought troops of the most diverse races through Poland. So, too, in the intellectual world, when the nations mingled intellectually, the Poles found in the poetry of Byron the common European despair and thirst for liberty, supplemented them with their national peculiarities, and introduced them after the manner of Byron to their countrymen.

Of the great poets whom the romantic school in Germany had first revealed to the romanticists in all countries, Shakespeare and Dante made the greatest impression in Poland. Słowacki especially appropriates Shakespeare's style and manner of treatment. Nevertheless what made the most impression in Shakespeare were the horrible events, the murders and mutilations, which appear in some of the historical plays and legendary tragedies. The Polish fancy was attracted by that side of Shakespeare which is most strikingly represented in his earlier drama, Titus Andronicus, with its accumulated horrors. Only rarely is this tempered by the influence of the Shakespearean comedies, as in Ballandyna.

But perhaps the kinship which the Polish authors of this time felt for the great exiled Italian, whose poem was separated from them by so many centuries, is most significant. They were unhappy and exiled as he was; like him, they looked on at the political destruction of a state by acts of violence, and sought, as he did, consolation in penal sentences and prophecies. Krasinski especially is under his influence, and through Krasinski, Słowacki. It is the influence of the Inferno which can be most plainly traced. Only rarely, as in some of Krasiński's poems, does a form like that of Beatrice point towards a regenerate world and a happy life.

Now just as the special fate of the nation determines its receptiveness of foreign influence, it modifies, as we have seen, the point of view in judging of opposing forces like classicalism and romanticism, reaction and progress. It acts on the character of the literature so strongly, because it first acts on that of the writers.

They have much in common. They are all of aristocratic birth, all educated in the Roman Catholic Church, all passionate patriots. But they have this in common especially, that they all left their country between twenty and thirty years of age, and never returned. Even those authors among them who had not taken part in the rebellion of 1830, went away to a foreign land in order to write freely. Therefore they all become emigrants and pilgrims, work as leaders who have no firm connection with their people, and are never sure of a following, and live in a state of hope constantly deferred as to a general revolution in European politics.

All this together evoked a political Romanticism of a special kind, very different from the reactionary German and the humanitarian French varieties.

But what especially interests us in these men is to note the influence of the emigrant's life on the emotional life of the author.

They are enthusiasts by nature, and as romanticists, enthusiasts by theory. The emigration gives their emotional life something morbid, impatient, meaninglessly restless, because it doubles its exaltation.

Let us see what forms an elemental emotion like love takes on with them.

Mickiewicz, who had long been in love with Eva Ankwiczova, had even been religiously affected by her childlike faith, nay, by her visions—she had seen him in white robes with a lamb in his arms—suddenly leaves Rome just as Eva's father is on the point of giving his consent to their union, which he had for some time forbidden, and never again seeks to see his loved one, the memory of whom nevertheless fills his chief work, Pan Tadeusz.

Krasinski, who had paid homage to his friend, Madam Delphine Potocka, in the most extravagant language as his soul's sister, his muse, &c, as a minor, abandons his loved one in obedience to his father, and marries another lady in accordance with his father's wish. But at the same time he writes to the deserted lady, whom he sings in his poem, The Dawn: "Pray for me, that my eternal love for thee may not drag me down to hell. Pray that I may sometime fight my way to God in heaven to meet thee again!"

Słowacki becomes acquainted with Maria Wodzinska, while in Madam Patteg's pension on the lake of Geneva. Both the two young people cherish a strong passion for each other, and Słowacki's delicate and intellectual poem, In Switzerland, survives as a memorial of the happy hours of this love in beautiful surroundings. But the middle-aged daughter of Madam Patteg, Eglantine, who is enamoured of Słowacki, languishes and raves in her jealousy, and makes scenes. This is enough to make the poet draw back from his beloved, and the Wodzinski family depart. Słowacki moves over to the other side of the lake of Geneva, writes a poem to Eglantine, The Accursed, and then returns to her again.

The passions, indeed, seem strong, but the characters are weak. These poets leave their loved ones, not to save themselves from the consequences of passion, nor from fear of ties (like Goethe), nor because they have ceased to love, or feel themselves drawn in another direction; they behave as if they had become a little unhinged.

As nomads or emigrants they are dependent, not lords of their fate, and far too fantastical to lay out a practical plan of life. They have no abiding place, no home. Their upheaval from their paternal soil affects their characters, makes them unstable, and increases their propensity to a mystic intellectual life.

When in the beginning of the forties, Towiański, a Polish nationalist visionary, a cross between Père Enfantin and Cagliostro, suddenly appears among them, most of them fall under his power. And even those who do not follow him, become none the less mystics, at least at some period in their life. They die young, worn out long before old age, either in monastic subjection, like the once indomitably defiant Słowacki, or, like Krasinski, in a mental condition of uninterrupted melancholy, to which he gave expression in the words: "Thy people has been given to other races to eat, for the renewal of their blood."

They were all religiously inclined or religiously educated. They expected that an object was to be accomplished directly or indirectly in every great event, consequently also in all that most nearly concerned them; they traced a divine plan in what they experienced in life. They did not understand that a nation could be annihilated, blotted out from the number of the living. When these Roman Catholics looked out over human life and history, they could not conceive that the bad and the hard-hearted, the cruel and the ruthless, should prosper so greatly, and that God should make no sign. They thought that the Almighty must have concealed a mysterious meaning in all things, so that at last everything must turn to good.

If they believed it possible to decipher this meaning they became preachers, seers, and prophets; when they despaired of finding this, they held their peace in disconsolate grief. But all their thoughts and dreams revolved about the mysterious significance of the great shipwreck their State had suffered.

There is something deeply romantic in this. The romantic intellect is . . . a kind of atavism. It questions, as men in remote superstitious times did. It asks for the significance of what happens, while the modern intellect asks for its cause. Thus these minds hardly ever seek the causes of Poland's fate, but they seek with anguish, with poetic frenzy, and the added passion of the religious visionary, to penetrate the darkness, to learn the significance of that fate, and phantasy, enthusiasm, and passion give the answer.

Generally they start from certain historical assertions as dogmas. In the past of their nation we note traits of character, peculiar and important, to be found in no other nation. These traits emanated from pre-historic Slav antiquity, and the future of the nation depended on loyalty to these primitive national institutions (the assemblies of the people, and the Slav communism in property, although the latter is more Russian than Polish). The misfortune of the nation was due to its defection from these. In other words, they fastened on a little group of cognate ideas and principles, which, as Spasovicz has expressed it, being inherent in the nation from its origin should indicate its vocation. The great and learned historian of that time, Lelewel, a writer somewhat earlier than the Romantic school, and one who in many respects had a very strong influence on their fundamental theories, formulated this theory, which for one or two generations was undisputed in Poland.

It might seem that the poets would have served their people better if they, with their greater insight into the powers which are effective in history, had presented the causes of the disappearance of the nation as a State; their readers would then have gained some insight into the means of withstanding the national decay, and of aiding in a resurrection. But, in reality, their poetry, by its very obscure and prophetic character, has had a greater bearing on the future of the nation than a lucid or even a logical and convincing poetry could have had. Their overexaltation which explained nothing, but which was in itself so explicable, inspired readers with an enthusiasm which, in the political conditions they were in, was very useful, nay, necessary. It inspired perseverance, self-reliance, firm faith in the future, and obstinate optimism, which were so much the more remarkable, as no country seemed likely to offer a more fruitful soil for pessimism.

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, even if this should lead them on for some hundreds of years. Therefore in their works they concentrated all their thoughts upon their own nation, condensed and compressed patriotism, hope, hatred of treason and wrong, confidence in the final victory of the right, focussing these emotions round a common centre in a perfectly unique fashion. Hence they are not seekers of truth but soothsayers.

In this way their poetry acquired a peculiar stamp both religious and artistic. The idea of nationality which permeates everything with them, was embraced with a religious heartiness in its essence, and the contest for it was accepted as a duty of a religious nature.

Thus it came to pass that the Polish poetry of the Romantic period, which superficially gives such a defective picture of the condition of the country and of the people, taken as a whole constitutes a sort of modern Bible, an Old Testament with its books of the Judges and the Prophets, with patriarchal descriptions (as we find in Rzewuski or in Pan Tadeusz), with psalms (like Krasiński's), here and there with representations of a Judith, of a struggle of the Maccabees, or of a persecuted Job, and now and then with a hymn of love, more ethereal, but far weaker than that of old Palestine.

The whole may be regarded as a collection of national books of devotion.

The literature most distinctly assumes this character from the time (1830) when the Polish nation next conceives hopes, rises, and is crushed, and when its young generation is sent to Siberia, and its poets emigrate, so that we get three kinds of Polish literature—that of those who were transported, of those who emigrated, and of those who remained at home.

In the eyes of the Poles the cause of Poland, far from sinking from this moment, becomes for them the holy cause, the country the holy country, the people the martyr people, the people of freedom who suffer for the whole of humanity. The symbolic importance they had once given to Napoleon as the saviour of the nations, Poland itself now assumes, only the picture shines with still more glowing colours.

Stephen Garczymki writes thus during the cannonade of the redoubts of Warsaw:—

"O my nation! As the Saviour's wounded head for ever impressed its bloody image upon a veil, so wilt thou, my nation, stamp the bloody image of thy fate upon the whole of this generation. Thou wilt throw this generation into the face of Europe as were it Veronica's veil, and the history of thy suffering will be read thereupon. And the time will come, ye nations of Europe! when your eyes and thoughts will be fixed as if by enchantment on the bloody image of the crucified nation."

Thus also cries the Abbot in the second part of Mickiewicz's Dziady in the great vision scene, which symbolises the attitude of Russia, France, Prussia, and Austria towards Poland.

He has risen, the tyrant—Herod! O Lord! see the whole of young Poland given over into the hands of Herod! what do I see? These white streaks are roads which cross one another, roads which are so long that they seem without end! Through deserts, through drifts of snow they all lead to the North. . . . See this multitude of sleighs, which drive away like clouds, which are driven by the wind, all in the same direction! O heavens, they are our children. . . .

I see the whole of this troop of tyrants and executioners hastening to seize my fettered nation. The whole of Europe mocks at it: To judgment! The mob drags the innocent to judgment. Beings who are nothing but tongues, without hearts or arms, are their judges. And cries rise from all sides: 'Gallus, it is Gallus who shall judge this nation!—Gallus has not found it guilty, he washes his hands. But the kings shout: Sentence it, give it to its executioners, the blood be upon us and our children. Release Barabbas. Crucify the Son of Mary, crucify him! He has scoffed at Caesar!'

Gallus has delivered up my nation; it is already bound; see, they exhibit its innocent face, soiled with blood as it is, with a crown of thorns in derision about the forehead. And the people hurry and Gallus shrieks: 'See, this is the free, independent nation.'

O Lord, already I see the cross. How long, how long time yet shall my nation endure it? Lord, have pity on thy servant, give him strength that he may not fall down and expire on the way. His cross has arms so long that they stretch out over the whole of Europe; it is made of three nations which are as dried up as three withered trees.

They drag my nation away, there it is, there on the throne of sacrifice. The crucified one says: 'I thirst,' and Ragusa offers him vinegar, and Borus refreshes him with gall, and his mother, Freedom, who stands at the foot of the cross, lifts her head and weeps. . . . And see, the Muscovite soldier runs up and thrusts his spear into his side.

This is the picture which impresses itself most deeply on the memory, when one has studied the Polish poetry of the first half of the century; the pale profile of a martyred nation which consoles itself that its suffering is its honour, and that it suffers for the common cause of nations.

But the value of this romantic literature is not limited to its significance for the people of Poland. Even if European ignorance of the language in which it is written has made it impossible for it to have a wide influence, it yet has influenced the minds of other literatures (as Mickiewicz influenced Pushkin, and as his Book of the Polish Pilgrims was copied by Lamennais in The Word of a Believer); even now surprises and charms the foreigner by the intensity of its emotional life, by its love for the ideal, and, when it attains its highest level, by its vigorous pictures of nature in Poland, of the steppes of the Ukraine, of the forests of Lithuania, and of the human life in recent and distant times, for which these surroundings form the natural and indispensable background.

This group of poems showed to foreign countries the presence of a sum of life, whose strength people had begun to doubt, and which they did not know how to value. We must always, in the first instance, demonstrate that we are alive; for, as Schiller says, the living are right. In the next place, we must know how to show to friends and enemies that we are in no respect behind them, that we dare to measure ourselves against them, and that we have other rights besides the mere right to live, namely, the rights that pertain to culture and to intellectual superiority.

In both these respects the romantic poets of Poland have demonstrated what it was necessary for them to show to Europe.

Czesław Miłosz (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Romanticism," in The History of Polish Literature, 1969. Reprint, second edition, by University of California Press, 1983, pp. 195-280.

[A celebrated Polish poet, essayist, and novelist, Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. In the following excerpt from a work first published in 1969, he explores some of the main historical events that contributed to the character of Polish Romanticism, asserting that "Polish Romanticism was thoroughly imbued with historicism."]

After the third partition [of Poland], the Respublica disappeared from the map of Europe, but it survived in the minds of its inhabitants. To keep the three areas of the previous Polish state apart, profoundly united as they were by a common language and tradition, was no easy task for the occupying powers. And it was not only in Polish minds that the Respublica remained alive: as late as 1848, Karl Marx called for a reconstruction of Poland based on the map of 1772, i.e., before the first partition. The fall of the Polish state coincided in time with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte's star, and the hopes of the Poles went out toward this man. Indeed, so great was the impact of the Napoleonic legend upon the Polish mentality that it entitles us to include several decades of Polish history in this [essay].

In 1797, a Polish Napoleonic legion was created in Italy. Loyal to the French ruler, in spite of his callous treatment of Polish troops (out of several thousands of Polish soldiers who were sent to Haiti to put down the revolution of Toussaint L'Ouverture, only a few hundred returned), the commanders of the Polish Napoleonic troops saw their fidelity recompensed in 1806 when the Napoleonic army entered Warsaw (in Prussian hands since the third partition). Napoleon's victory over Prussia led to the creation (in the treaty of Tilsit) of a tiny Polish state called the Duchy of Warsaw. A constitution modeled upon France's was granted by Napoleon in 1807, and the Napoleonic Code was introduced. The constitution recognized the peasants as free and equal citizens, but did not give them ownership of the land. This should be stressed, as it explains the difference between the peasant's status in central Poland and his status in Russia and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. After the Napoleonic constitution went into effect, the peasant in central Poland was still obliged to work in the fields of his landlord, but he was not a serf.

The new Duchy of Warsaw was soon engaged in a successful war against Austria on the side of Napoleon and in this way was able to extend its boundaries to incorporate the territory taken from the Austrian-occupied provinces. Later on, in 1812, the Duchy supplied Napoleon with some troops for his invasion of Russia. In his army of over a half-million men, Poles accounted for about 100,000.

Napoleon's defeat and withdrawal took the faithful Polish units west again, and their commander, Marshal Józef Poniatowski, died on the battlefield near Leipzig. When the Holy Alliance of monarchs assembled at the Congress of Vienna to redraw the map of Europe, one of the most difficult problems, in view of the subterranean tensions between the victors, was the Polish question. The powers agreed, at last, to recognize the creation of a Kingdom of Poland (known later in history as the "Congress Kingdom") bound in a personal union to Russia. The Russian czar was to be crowned king of Poland, but was to pledge that his rule would respect local law and the parliament. Thus, an autocratic czar was to be a constitutional monarch in Poland. The paradox inherent in such an arrangement proved later to be the seed of failure. Russia, Prussia, and Austria retained large areas of the old Respublica's territory. Unable to settle a troublesome dispute over Krakó w, the Congress proclaimed it a free city under the international supervision of the three neighboring powers. It remained thus from 1815 to 1846.

The Kingdom of Poland, whose nominal head was Czar Alexander I (crowned the Polish king), possessed a strong army, trained mostly by former Napoleonic officers who were magnanimously forgiven their fighting against Russia. The army was the "pet" of the Czar's brother, Grand Duke Constantine, an unbalanced, if not half-insane man, who resided in Warsaw and behaved not unlike a boy playing with tin soldiers. Inhuman discipline in the army led to many desperate acts, including suicide, on the parts of both officers and subordinates. Grand Duke Constantine (who appears often in Polish literature) had, probably, a kind of passion for Poland. In any case, he cannot be held responsible for the proliferation of secret police "services"—of various kinds; these were fostered by Russian civil commissars such as the famous Novosiltsov. Steadily increasing friction weakened the already tenuous connection between the administration and the parliament, not to speak of public opinion, and reflected Alexander I's gradual abandonment of a liberal policy in Russia. Yet, for a decade and a half, the precarious order of things arranged at the Congress of Vienna gave the Poles, regardless of the province they inhabited, considerable opportunities for cultural and economic development. Much was done for the economy in the Kingdom by the minister of finance, Lubecki; while the network of schools created by the Commission for National Education freely continued its activity. A new university in Warsaw was founded in 1816. The University of Wilno (situated in the territory annexed to the Russian Empire) was considered the best institution of learning in all Russia, while an excellent new lycée was established in Krzemieniec in Volhynia. Krakó w, of course, preserved its traditions as an ancient capital, and its university profited from the reforms introduced by the men of the Enlightenment. Generally speaking, in both the Kingdom of Poland and in the Russian-occupied provinces there were no attempts to curtail teaching or publishing in the Polish language.

Around 1820, a movement among the youth, the expression of which in literature came to be called Romanticism, spread through Poland, and it took on organizational forms similar to those of the revolutionary brotherhoods in Germany. Clandestine contacts were established with young Russians, who, after their attempt at seizing power in December of 1825, were to be known under the name of Decembrists. When the new czar, Nicholas I, unleashed his rule of unmitigated police terror upon the country, the revolutionary spark was ready to flare. In November 1830, a group of young officers of the Polish army revolted and, during a dramatic November night, succeeded in bringing Warsaw over to their side. The insurrection of 1830 amounted, in fact, to a war between Poland and Russia. The parliament voted an act which dethroned the Czar as king of Poland. Military activities lasted practically throughout the year of 1831, but Poland was at last defeated. During the so-called Great Emigration which followed, several thousands of officers and soldiers and a number of the most active intellectuals left the country, migrating first to Germany, then to France. Paris, for some two decades, became the center of Polish cultural and political life. The order upheld by the Holy Alliance of monarchs was looked upon by Polish writers and political leaders as a diabolical conspiracy against the peoples of Europe. Many of them placed their stakes, therefore, on revolutionary groups in Western Europe like the Italian Carbonari and the French Utopian Socialists. The Emigration was divided within itself: The conservatives grouped around the so-called "Hôtel Lambert" (a private residence in Paris). They were partisans of a constitutional monarchy for Poland and members of the aristocratic Establishment. The democrats, whose main organization was the Democratic Society, placed their hopes in a revolution of European peoples against the tyrants. Still further to the left were the Polish People's Communes (Gromady Ludu Polskiego), composed mostly of former rank-and-file soldiers residing on the mainland of England and on the island of Jersey. They advocated a revolution in Poland that would lead to a division of landed estates among the peasants in the spirit of Christian communism. The causes of the defeat of the 1830 revolution became the subject of infinite debates among the émigrés. According to radical democrats, the Poles could have won by proclaiming economic freedom for the peasants, arming them, and carrying their revolutionary fervor to the Russian masses. All Polish writings of the period abound in mystical appeals to the Napoleonic myth as a force which would abolish the reactionary order oppressing Europe.

The Kingdom of Poland, after the insurrection of 1830-1831, preserved but weak vestiges of autonomy. The University of Warsaw was closed down in 1831. The University of Wilno, regarded as a hot-bed of dangerous ideas, soon shared the same fate. The czarist government also began a campaign of persecution directed against the Greek Catholic Church in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a church of Byelorussian peasants. The very existence of non-Orthodox Eastern Slavs was considered an offense to the principle of unity between the czarist throne and the Orthodox Church, a unity vital for the Russian monarchy.

The 1830s, in spite of the loss of the most energetic leaders, who had escaped to the West, witnessed some abortive conspiracies, which grew in force with the advent of the 1840s. A Roman Catholic priest from the neighborhood of Lublin, Father Piotr Ściegienny, succeeded in weaving a vast clandestine network among the peasants with a program of communist revolution. His propaganda booklet was conceived as a presumed letter from the Pope to the peasants, calling for banishment of the lords and for fraternity with the Russian peasant as a brother in the same fate. The participants in that conspiracy were sent to hard-labor camps in Siberia. There, some of them became Dostoevsky's cell mates, and he mentions them in his Notes from the House of the Dead. The unrest in Poland increased with the approach of the fateful year of 1848, the "spring of nations." Edward Dembowski, a young...

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