Tadeusz Różewicz Różewicz, Tadeusz (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tadeusz Różewicz 1921–

Polish poet, playwright, and short story writer.

Różewicz is one of Poland's most important and influential writers. Although universal in theme, his work is said to speak especially to the generation of Polish adults whose memories of youth, like his own, are synonomous with memories of the horrifying experiences of the Second World War.

Early exposure to brutality and death radically affected Różewicz's view of life and people. He writes from a point beyond despair, one where humans lack all grace and honor and are merely animals. Różewicz is not, however, a nihilist. His work is most compelling in his portraits of individuals inching toward some semblance of meaning in a world that appears to have gone mad.

Różewicz scorns the conventional techniques and philosophies of literature and often questions the validity of poetry itself. Viewing romanticism as ludicrous, he equates pain with truth and creates verse that sometimes verges on the journalistic. A recent addition to his translated work is "The Survivor" and Other Poems.

(See also CLC, Vol. 9.)

Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tart, cool, devoted to "a poetry which may again become anonymous," Rosewicz writes about a ruined world and the fragmentation of personality. His poems written from the museum at Auschwitz [and collected in Faces of Anxiety,] concentrate upon details like the pockets of children bound for the gas chambers "bulging / with string and stones / and little horses made of wire." "Et in Arcadia Ego," a long poem about a visit to Italy, expresses through a series of vivid contrasts the inability of a poet brought up in wartime Poland to accept the paradise around him. Rosewicz's work is not unlike that of his fellow countryman Zbigniew Herbert, but it is sharper, less tender, and uncompromisingly against all "poetic" flourishes, which he sees as deceits…. (p. 557)

Julian Symons, "New Poetry: From Auden to Ogden Nash," in Punch (© 1969 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 257, October 1, 1969, pp. 556-57.∗

CzesłAw MiłOsz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Tadeusz Różewicz issued from a white-collar worker's family in a provincial town and during the war was a soldier in a guerilla unit of the Home Army. His desperate tone of derision, critics like to explain, expressed the reaction of a whole generation "contaminated by death." His first volumes, Anxiety (Niepokój, 1947) and The Red Glove (Czerwona rękawiczka, 1948), received immediate notice. By contrasting the scenes of war he had witnessed, which asked for the brush of a new Goya, with the entire heritage of European culture, he arrived at a negation of literature because it seemed to be no more than a lie covering up the horror of man's brutality to his fellow man. Thus, if poetry could be practiced at all, it should seek to destroy all literary conventions. Różewicz's opposition to metrics, rhyme, and even metaphor had a moral meaning. He built his verse with simple words, sometimes scarcely bound to each other syntactically; this practice led critics to compare his technique of construction to building with blocks. His corrosive irony (not deprived of self-pity), deforming the beautiful phrase, signified an awareness that one epoch in the history of mankind had come to an end. He wanted to be naked, to shed the security provided by creeds or philosophical systems. Thence his predilection for re-evaluating words, which makes his poems sound like a primer. (p. 462)

Różewicz, by drawing the inference that man is alone in a universe without metaphysical justification and that the only reality is his exposure to other men, hit upon (without realizing it at first) the central theme of French existentialists. His poetry is a moralist's search to define himself through his relationship with another man, yet the moment he seems to establish an agreement with the world, he annihilates it with a self-destructive passion. (p. 463)

Różewicz is a poet of chaos with a nostalgia for order. Around him and in himself he sees only broken fragments, a senseless rush. True, he wrote a certain number of tender poems on the most innocent people—children, very old men—but his world is situated between the holocaust of the last war and the threat of future annihilation by nuclear weapons.

His poems of 1949–1955, though unorthodox in form, could be printed because of his genuine abhorrence of atomic armament and his defense of peace, which he identified with the cause of the Communist bloc. They are often sentimental and inferior in quality to his other works…. Self-contradictory, an antipoet writing poetry, defending man, to whom he refuses dignity,...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The traumatic experiences of World War II pervade all of Różewicz's writing], directly and indirectly. Of course, he is not the only Polish writer to explore this theme. But his treatment of it has seared itself on the minds of his contemporaries. As one of the most talented writers among them [Anna Kamieńska] has said:

We were all twenty-four then, and we all survived being led to the slaughter, but only Tadeusz Różewicz expressed this experience on behalf of the entire generation so graphically, so brutally, and so simply. His 'I' became the voice of his generation.

The "experience" created a profound problem of faith among Polish writers. It was not the problem of faith in God, which had tormented European intellectuals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but rather of faith in man and all man's works. (p. 72)

This feeling lies at the heart of all Różewicz's art. He has always had a deep suspicion of general ideas, of theories, of philosophies. He regards the entire cultural heritage of the Western world as a construct of semblances and deceptions that hides a colossal lie. Spiritual values to him are illusions, or, at best, projections of idle yearnings. Especially emphatic is his rejection of art. (pp. 72-3)

Life, not civilization, is the pervasive motif of Różewicz's poetry of the 1940's and early 1950's. And it is as gruesome a picture of life as can be found in any post-war writer, for it is largely drawn in terms of death. In these early poems, Różewicz is obsessed with the body—but it is a body brutalized and mutilated by war. Man often seems to be nothing more than an animal, or a mere mechanism supplied with a tube that facilitates the ingestion and excretion of food. If he has survived the war, he is indifferent to the sufferings of those who perished ("Waiter, the Check"). Yet Różewicz is no nihilist like Gottfried Benn (despite certain similarities of imagery). Man is not invariably a beast. Frequently he yearns for moral and ethical guides, for clear distinctions between good and evil, much as Chekhov's characters do. While Różewicz does not believe that such guides and distinctions can be found, he seems to think that man must at the very least avoid cruelty and insensitivity in human relations, and strive for sincerity and directness. Różewicz has often been dubbed a moralist; perhaps "qualified humanist" would be the better term. A character who turns up often in his work is an old woman, who embodies those positive virtues. She is set in contrast to the male, who is ever ready to strike poses, pursue chimeras, and drench the world in blood. (p. 73)

From the mid-1950's onward, Różewicz's poetry no longer treated the war so starkly…. The body continued to fascinate him. But now, carnage yielded to carnality. There was a growing emphasis on the themes of sexual obsession, pleasure-seeking, money-grubbing and playing at culture; they were seen as frenzied activities which served merely to mask the terrible boredom of a society whose principal value was the acquisition of consumer goods. (p. 74)

Poland had not yet achieved the affluence of her neighbors to the west; but Różewicz seemed to foresee the same fate for a people just emerging from Stalinism and thirsting for material goods. The subtitle of the play Witnesses, or Our Little Stabilization has become a proverbial expression for the new Polish petty bourgeoisie, whose only aspirations center around material objects and money, whose only moral imperatives are an easy adjustment to any situation and a refusal to seek out challenges lest the comfortable "stabilization" be shaken.

At the same time, many of Różewicz's men yearn for something more, for a kind of Arcadia. This theme appears as early as 1947 ("Mask"), but it is especially insistent from the early 1960's onward. It may be the Arcadia of pre-war Poland, with the moral, national and religious values that in retrospect look like verities; the Arcadia of innocent childhood; the Arcadia of foreign lands (Italy in particular); even the Arcadia promised by socialist realism. But there are no Arcadias. Indeed, it is such pointless and frustrated yearnings that create the tensions which confer a unity on many of Różewicz's poems. Man thirsts for values, yet distrusts all values. He seeks a paradise lost, yet knows it is lost beyond recall. He hopes to flee to exotic foreign climes, yet he cherishes the familiar surroundings of his provincial town and his simple home. He is uncomplicated, almost morally radiant, yet capable of cruelty, even savagery.

There is nothing distinctive about Różewicz's characteristic hero except his lack of distinction. He most likely lives in society's lower strata, perhaps running a newspaper concession or serving out his time as a minor bureaucrat. He speaks in the "voice of an anonymous man," to use the title of one of Różewicz's volumes of poetry (Głos anonima, 1961). He is a man who finds it possible to be and not to be simultaneously ("Précis")—the very antithesis of the hero of nineteenth-century Romantic poetry, who played such an important part in defining the Polish national consciousness, especially in the poems of Mickiewicz and Słowacki.

Art is no more a solution to these problems in Różewicz's later works than in his earlier ones. If anything, his hostility...

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Roberta Tovey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The translation [of "The Survivor" and Other Poems] is fine, though an occasional over-dramatization mars the earlier poems which tread a very subtle line between the effective and the melodramatic. Różewicz does better when he is not writing overt social criticism or trying to be philosophical, when he leans too heavily on his references, his Shakespeare or T. S. Eliot, and his poems return self-consciously to their beginnings to create an ending which is unnatural, pat. His philosophy lies in the smaller subjects—the artist-turned toymaker ("Méliès") or in the poem "Homework Assignment on the Subject of Angels."… He likewise succeeds less in his didactic proofs of modern indifference than in the words he heaps together—so carefully that the effect is actually terse, never lush. The colloquial rubs shoulders with the elegant, the movie-montage and bare newspaper reporting mix with the capricious and romantic, the conversational rhythms catch themselves against almost biblical repetitions.

Roberta Tovey, "Brief Reviews: 'The Survivor and Other Poems'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 176, No. 12, March 19, 1977, p. 34.

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Were I to recite in full detail all the elements which compose the play White Marriage I would still not convey its extraordinary quality….

It is at once satire, fantasy, poem….

What is pictured is bourgeois society (with peasantlike underpinnings), especially in regard to sexual relationships. The young are kept uninformed of such matters; most of the married women have been subjected to unions with men who treat them as properties. The men chase their female servants—cooks, maids and other such—like brutes. They reduce these women to wildfowl and they display little warmth to or understanding of their daughters. Thus, on the one hand we observe the silly decorum of pseudo-cultivated society (piano playing, amateur theatricals, poetry recitals); on the other, the manners and morals of the barnyard.

One might suppose, then, that all this would be transformed into a sort of women's lib parable, an earnestly fanciful denunciation of the old-time Polish bourgeoisie. Instead, along with hilariously phallic humor, deft stabs of ridicule, the play is suffused by a very special delicacy and tenderness, a kind of comic benevolence, a purity which dissolves derision and dispels any suspicion of preachment. There is an insinuating mockery here but it always remains joyous, sane and surprisingly touching. At certain moments a somber note is struck to provide a framework for and a contrast to the general airiness. The loveliness of both adolescent girls [the main characters] bathes the crudities inherent in some of the proceedings with a light which turns all to serene beauty.

Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'White Marriage'," in The Nation (copyright 1977 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 224, No. 17, April 30, 1977, p. 539.

Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rozewicz is not only a wonderful writer, he has a quality so precious that you are astonished when you sense its presence: he possesses a beautiful mind. So did Anton Chekhov, so did Heinrich von Kleist—it is a quality that adds grace to truth, that makes you love truth no matter how sobering or dark it is. "White Marriage" is about mortality, about youth and age and families and love and sex and human flesh and human spirit and the awakening of young people to the exquisite, erotic joy and sadness of life. It weds celebration and satire in a luminous theatricality….

The thirteen movements of this theatrical tone poem are brilliant in their effect and variety. You've never seen a play at once more sexy or more spiritual. Almost every moment is irradiated by earthy humor and a sweet wisdom: Grandfather bewailing his unaging horniness; Pauline stripping with impudent seductiveness as she and the flustered Benjamin rehearse a scene from Catholic martyrology for Bianca's wedding party; the wedding ceremony in which Bianca can only offer poor Benjamin a "white marriage"—an unconsummated union. Rozewicz treats with respect and irony both Pauline's urgent sensuality and Bianca's equally urgent chastity. With perfect empathy for male and female, he treats sexuality as a fate and a mystery, a glory and a joke, the thrilling tournament between ape and angel in man.

Jack Kroll, "Two Polish Girls," in Newsweek (copyright 1977, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXXIX, No. 19, May 9, 1977, p. 115.

Rochelle K. Stone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Poezje zebrane is a collection of sixteen books of poetry by Tadeusz Różewicz and] marks the thirteenth anniversary of Różewicz's emergence as one of Poland's outstanding postwar poets…. Różewicz was the first poet of his generation to confront the moral upheaval, the shattering of reality caused by the Nazi holocaust. His Niepokój (Anxiety; 1947) was the most outstanding postwar poetic debut. Rózewicz "the witness" became the conscience, the voice of a generation who escaped death while "led to slaughter" and the voice of the "gray man with a small stone-like and merciless imagination," obsessed with recording accumulated war images, bringing humanity to trial.


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Jonathon Aaron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Różewicz] tends in his poems to reflect a cold fury, the rage of someone who has been personally betrayed…. [His poems] show the anguish of a person unable to relinquish the hope in which he no longer has the slightest faith. (pp. 119-120).

The dramatic directness of ["The Survivor"] is typical of Różewicz. It expresses the bleak self-reliance of his search, of what comes across in this collection ["The Survivor" and Other Poems] as a career-long attempt to find that "teacher and master" within himself. The world being what it is, he has nowhere else to look. Różewicz's lines are short, his syntax simple and severe. Only rarely does he allow himself the luxury of a metaphor. His poems...

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Alice-Catherine Carls

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Characteristic of Różewicz's poetry are the tensions which enclose his poetic material in a dense weaving: tensions between stories of his own life and instants from others' lives, reflected through biting humor or intense compassion; tensions between his search for values and his desacralization of art; tensions between a particular memory and broad frescoes assembled like surrealist mosaics. The forms of the poems [in Niepokój] also reflect Różewicz's lack of concern for a consistent rhythm: the tone and length of the poems change from page to page, not to mention the use of free verse next to prose poems. But through this poetical wandering which disobeys all the rules of versification, something like a...

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