Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2179
The life and work of Count Zygmunt Krasiski are inextricably linked to the political and social unrest that prevailed in Poland as a consequence of its loss of independence at the close of the eighteenth century. With their territory partitioned among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the Poles decided that the...
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- Critical Essays
The life and work of Count Zygmunt Krasiski are inextricably linked to the political and social unrest that prevailed in Poland as a consequence of its loss of independence at the close of the eighteenth century. With their territory partitioned among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the Poles decided that the best way to regain their national sovereignty lay in making common cause with the military forces of revolutionary France. The first Polish legion to fight alongside French troops under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte was formed in 1797, and two similar units were subsequently organized in 1798 and 1800. In all, some twenty-five thousand Poles were to serve in these three legions. In gratitude for the contributions made by these volunteers to his military victories, Napoleon decided to grant the Poles a small measure of national independence by creating a political entity known as the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 out of Polish territories that had been under Prussian occupation since the time of the partitions. The Poles, however, had far grander political aspirations than those embodied by the tiny duchy and eagerly looked forward to a military conflict between the forces of Napoleon and those of Czar Alexander I in the hope that a French victory would enable them to redeem their eastern provinces from Russian annexation. Their hopes appeared to have materialized when Napoleon invaded Russia in the spring of 1812 with a multinational coalition numbering more than 600,000 men. The euphoria of the Polish gentry on the eve of the invasion is vividly depicted within the pages of Mickiewicz’s epic poem entitled Pan Tadeusz (1834; English translation, 1917). Of the 100,000 Poles who accompanied Napoleon on this ill-fated campaign, only a small fraction were destined to return unscathed from the steppes of Russia.
Among Napoleon’s devoted Polish adherents, none was more steadfast than Zygmunt Krasiski’s father, Count Wincenty Krasiski (1782-1858). The count’s family was one of the oldest aristocratic houses in Poland, and its vast wealth entitled him to be ranked with the nation’s magnates. Above all else, however, Wincenty Krasiski considered himself a professional soldier, and he entered French service as colonel of a cavalry unit in 1806. Having become a personal favorite of Napoleon, he was soon made a general in the elite Imperial Guard and fought with great valor in the battles of Elyau and Wagram as well as in the Peninsular War in Spain. General Krasiski also served the emperor with great fidelity in Russia, remaining with him throughout the entire retreat from Moscow up to his defeat at the Battle of Nations near Leipzig and his subsequent abdication at Fontainbleau. With Napoleon in exile on the island of Elba, General Krasiski accepted the magnanimous grant of amnesty offered by Czar Alexander and, in 1814, led the remnants of the Polish forces who had fought on behalf of the emperor back to their homeland.
Accompanying General Krasiski on the occasion of this departure from France were his wife and son. His wife was the former Princess Maria Radziwill, a somewhat older woman whom he had married primarily for her preeminent aristocratic status. After being childless for nine years, save for an infant daughter who died during childbirth, the couple was overjoyed at the birth of a son in Paris on February 19, 1812, while final preparations for the invasion of Russia were underway. The boy was christened Napoleon Stanisaw Adam Feliks Zygmunt, a series of names from which the bearer eventually selected the last as his preferred designation. Both mother and child remained in Paris for the next two years while General Krasiski was entangled in Napoleon’s ill-starred military ventures. Once back in Poland, General Krasiski and his forces were integrated into a reconstituted national army under the command of Czar Alexander’s brother. The plan being entertained by Alexander was to set up a hereditary monarchy to be called the Kingdom of Poland in which the office of king would be filled by the Russian czar himself. The establishment of this semiautonomous state was duly ratified by the representatives of the victorious coalition at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Paradoxically, it was General Krasiski, the erstwhile adversary of Czar Alexander, who became one of the staunchest defenders of the Kingdom of Poland’s legitimacy. As its trusted servant, he succeeded to the occupancy of several increasingly important governmental posts and was eventually appointed acting viceroy in Warsaw.
Young Zygmunt received his entire early education from distinguished tutors within the confines of the family palace in Warsaw, and because of his father’s ambitions for him, he was kept at his lessons for the greater part of the day. From the very outset, the boy was somewhat of a prodigy. At age four, he was priviledged to display his talents in the presence of Czar Alexander himself by reciting the defense of democracy that is delivered by the protagonist of Voltaire’s play Brutus (1730; English translation, 1761). In 1822, when the boy was but ten years old, his mother died of a hereditary lung disease. In the hope of filling the void in his son’s life, General Krasiski redoubled his commitment toward fostering Zygmunt’s emotional welfare. As a consequence of this inordinate display of affection on the part of his father, Zygmunt developed a deep psychological need for paternal approbation that was to stay with him for the rest of his life. His intellectual development benefited greatly from this close association with his father, for General Krasiski was a man of broad cultural interests who regularly played host to the literary and political elite of Warsaw. By age fourteen, the boy had made such progress in his education that he was sent to the Warsaw Lyceum to prepare for the university and completed the prescribed studies in a single year. After this, the fifteen-year-old boy matriculated in the faculty of law at the Alexander University of Warsaw, an institution that had been founded in 1816.
Two years before Krasiski entered the university, Czar Alexander had been succeeded by his brother Nicholas I. In addition to being an inveterate enemy of constitutional government, the new czar immediately instituted a policy aimed at rooting out all seditious activity among his Polish subjects. When a tribunal of senators from the Polish parliament was convened to preside over a treason inquiry involving a secret patriotic society in 1828, the sole member of the commission to vote in favor of convicting its ringleaders on this capital offense was Krasiski’s father. This action on the part of the elder Krasiski mortified his son and alienated him from most other students at the university. In the early part of 1829, this situation was exacerbated when the general ordered his son to show up for lectures on the day that the rest of the student body had decided to attend the funeral of the president of the parliamentary commission, who, in defiance of the Russian authorities, had directed a verdict of acquittal against the secret society’s ringleaders. On the following day, Krasiski’s fellow students mobbed him and tore the university insignia from his uniform. The rector of the university, moreover, advised Wincenty Krasiski to remove his son from the institution for a period of a year so as to permit passions to cool. The general decided thereupon that it would be best for Zygmunt to complete his education in Geneva. During the months before he left for Switzerland in the fall of 1829, the youth distracted himself from the recent unpleasantness at the university by writing a number of tales and romances, which were duly published the following year.
Despite his intense homesickness, Krasiski found a number of compensations in Geneva. At the university, he was free to study whatever subjects appealed to him. He also formed a close friendship with a student from England named Henry Reeve, whose subsequent career in journalism included service as editor of the Edinburgh Review as well as political analyst for The Times. Henrietta Willam, also a native of England, became his first lover. Knowing that his father would never allow him to marry an Englishwoman without any claim to aristocratic lineage, Krasiski experienced profound emotional distress over the hopeless nature of his passion. Henrietta was obliged to return to England with her family in the spring of 1830, and their physical separation enabled Krasiski to terminate their relationship through correspondence. In the following summer, Krasiski himself left Switzerland to take up residence in Rome at the request of his father after the outbreak of the so-called July Revolution in neighboring France. These disorders soon spread to other countries and eventually led to an insurrection in Poland on the night of November 29, 1830. Upon learning of the uprising, Krasiski wrote a letter to his father requesting permission to return to Poland for the purpose of joining his compatriots in their struggle to win national independence. His father, however, was totally opposed to the insurrection and had even fled to St. Petersburg to be at the side of Czar Nicholas in this hour of crisis. It was not until May, 1831, that Krasiski received a response from his father, in which he was instructed to remain in Italy for the duration of the insurrection. Although his first impulse was to disregard these instructions, he eventually decided to yield to parental authority. Reeve and other friends of his reproached him bitterly for placing filial subservience above patriotic duty. The hostilities were to continue until the latter half of October, at which time the last Polish units capitulated to the Russians. Because of the unsettled conditions prevailing in Poland, Krasiski decided to wait awhile before going back to his homeland and returned to Geneva instead. There, in addition to writing the patriotic novel Agaj-Han, he read so intensely that his eyesight became severely impaired. Krasiski then went to Vienna for medical treatment from physicians specializing in eye disorders.
When Krasiski finally went home to Poland in August, 1832, he spent the next few months on the family estate, located approximately fifty miles due north of Warsaw at Opinogóra. In October, he accompanied his father to St. Petersburg on a visit that lasted five months. He was presented at the Imperial Court there, and Czar Nicholas was sufficiently impressed with the young man’s demeanor and family background to offer him a post at court or in the diplomatic service, an invitation that Krasiski declined on grounds of ill health. He did, however, receive the coveted privilege to travel abroad and was henceforth to spend most of his time residing in France, Switzerland, and Italy rather than in his subjugated homeland. Krasiski commenced work on The Undivine Comedy in the early part of 1833 while still in St. Petersburg and completed it in Vienna and Venice within the same year. The writing of Iridion was also begun in St. Petersburg. Krasiski continued to work on the play in Rome and other Italian cities until 1836. After this, he was to restrict his literary enterprises to the publication of discourses in prose and works of poetry. One of the main reasons why Krasiski decided to try his hand at poetry must surely have been the encouragement to do so that he received from Sowacki when he made his acquaintance in Rome during the spring of 1836.
While still at work on Iridion, Krasiski fell passionately in love with a Polish woman, Joanna Bobrowa, whom he met in Rome. Five years his senior, she was the wife of a wealthy landowner and the mother of two small children. Krasiski was so taken by her that both The Undivine Comedy and Iridion were dedicated to her when these plays were published. The elder Krasiski was distraught over this illicit affair and managed to pressure each of the parties into terminating the relationship in the summer of 1838. Shortly thereafter, Krasiski met a beautiful Polish woman, Delfina Potocka, and fell deeply in love once again. Although married, Countess Potocka was estranged from her husband and lived abroad. She had been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin and was even rumored to have been his mistress. (It is interesting to note that one of the nineteen Polish songs that Chopin composed is a musical setting of Krasiski’s poem entitled “Melodia.”) Krasiski’s affair with Delfina Potocka continued up to the summer of 1843, at which time he consented to marry the Countess Elbieta Branicka at his father’s insistence, despite the fact that she was virtually a stranger to him. Feeling little affection for his wife, Krasiski continued to correspond with his beloved Delfina for several years after his marriage to Elbieta. With the passage of time, however, he came to appreciate the fine qualities of his wife and to view his marriage in a positive light. When Krasiski died of tuberculosis in Paris on February 23, 1859, scarcely three months after the death of his father in Poland, he was survived by his wife and three children. His body was returned to Poland and interred at the family estate of Opinogóra, where the Polish government currently maintains a museum devoted to the accomplishments of the Romantic movement.