Walenty Wańkowicz, "Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz at Judahu Cliff", 1828, Photo: Piotr Ligier / National Museum in Warsaw

The greatest of Poland's Romantic poets - a poet even in exile, an ardent columnist, political activist and visionary - best known for his epic Pan Tadeusz. Born 24/12/1798 in Nowogródek, died in 26/11/1855 in Istanbul.

 

Table of contents:
European life and struggles
Renewing the revolutionary cause
Literary legacy: early Romanticism and verse
Literary legacy: epics, and Pan Tadeusz
Literary legacy: mystic verse, political directives, the Slavic mission
Cultural legacy: Poland, Konrad and a herald of European unity


Mickiewicz was born in Nowogródek in Lithuania and always thought of the region as his homeland. He studied at Vilnius University and went on to teach at the provincial school in Kaunus. He was among the founders of the secret patriotic Towarzystwo Filomatow / Philomaths' Society. An active member of the organization, he was arrested with a group of friends and imprisoned in the Basilian Monastery in Vilnius (1823-1824). He spent the years from 1824 to 1829 in central Russia, specifically in Odessa, Moscow and St. Petersburg, as a member of elite progressive circles in the Russian intelligentsia.

European life and struggles

Mickiewicz embarked on a grand tour of Europe in 1829, visiting Germany, Switzerland and Italy. He attended Hegel's lectures in Berlin, and made contacts in the international artistic community in areas he visited. Following the outbreak of the November Insurrection in 1830, he made a fruitless attempt to return to his homeland. He settled in Paris in 1832 and remained there except for brief stays in Lausanne (1839), where he lectured on Latin literature, and in Rome (1848), where he attempted to gain the support of Pope Pius IX for liberation movements burgeoning in Europe, referred to collectively as the Spring of Peoples.

Life in Paris was difficult for the poet. He lacked any regular sources of income, and the émigré community was fragmented by incessant political infighting. Mickiewicz participated in public life, working with organizations like the Towarzystwo Literackie (Literary Society) and the Towarzystwo Narodowe Polskie (Polish National Society). He was editor of the magazine "Pielgrzym Polski" ("Polish Pilgrim") in 1833 and wrote for it as a columnist. His friends included the Reverend H. de Lamennais, Count de Montalembert and George Sand. His marriage to Celina Szymanowska in 1834 became a source of even greater troubles. The couple had six children before Szymanowska became afflicted with a mental illness.

Renewing the revolutionary cause

Mickiewicz withdrew from public life until 1840, when he was appointed to head the newly created faculty of Slavonic Literatures at the College de France. Mickiewicz, J. Michelet and E. Quinnet formed the College's democratic opposition to the July monarchy. In 1841 the poet joined the circle around Towiansky, the leader of a sect that believed in a new revelation and a renaissance of spiritual life (in France at that time, there were dozens of religious sects of this kind). Mickiewicz's active propagation of Towianism, and even more so his radical political and social views, resulted in his being suspended as a professor.

While in Rome in 1848, Mickiewicz created the Legion Polski (Polish Legion), which served the province of Lombardy in its liberation struggle. Mickiewicz set down the legion's aims and program in the text Skład zasad / A Set of Principles. With a group of French colleagues and émigrés he then founded a publication titled "La Tribune des Peuples," which advocated a radical social program. Publication of the paper was suspended when the Russian Embassy protested, and Mickiewicz was placed under police supervision following the coup d'etat in 1851.

The poet's final patriotic act came in another attempt to form a Polish Legion to fight against Russia, after France joined the Crimean War. With the aim of organizing the extensive émigré community in Istanbul, Mickiewicz arrived in that city in September 1855, where he passed away unexpectedly, probably from cholera. He was buried in the Polish cemetery at Montmorency, north of Paris. His coffin was moved in 1900 to a sarcophagus in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, in a ceremonial reburial.

Literary legacy: early Romanticism and verse

Mickiewicz left behind a literary output both vast and varied. It encompasses poetry, epic poems, dramas and essays, and includes many fragments and unfinished works. After attempts at writing in a classical vein, in 1822 he published his "Poezje" / "Poems" vol. I, which are considered to mark the beginning of Polish Romanticism (2nd expanded edition, 1829). In his "Przedmowa" / "Foreword" and in the ballad Romantycznosc / Romance, he formulated a new program of literature that would refer to folk beliefs and imaginings, to the world of feelings and the imagination as opposed to the "eye glass of the learned man," to a sensitivity to nature and the presence of the "unseen." This poetry blurred the rigid borders of genres, drawing equally on poetic folk tales, ballads and musings (the best-known works being the aforementioned Romantyczność / Romance, Świteź, Świtezianka, Trzech budrysow and Parys / Paris).

The second volume of his Poems (1823) contained Dziady / Forefather's Eve parts II and IV, as well as the historical poem Grażyna. Powiesc litewska / Grazyna - A Lithuanian Story. Emerging from the tradition established by Scott and Byron, this epic story about a Lithuanian princess who dresses as a man to stand at the head of armies that battle the Teutonic Order was the poet's first attempt to create a Romantic notion of patriotism, and to conceive the homeland as a local commonwealth.

Following a voyage through Russia in 1829, Mickiewicz published his Sonety / Sonnets (Crimean and Odessan), which in sophisticated classicist form describe the poet's mystical feelings of oneness with nature and his experience of nature as sacrum.

Literary legacy: epics, and Pan Tadeusz

Published in 1828, Konrad Wallenrod. Powieść historyczna z dziejow litewskich i pruskich / Konrad Wallenrod - A Historical Tale from Lithuanian and Prussian Annals is a model Romantic historical epic. Set in the 14th century, it carefully describes the local culture in a story about a character caught between contradictory systems of values. The tale tells of a Grand Master of the Teutonic Order who discovers his Lithuanian roots and experiences an onset of patriotism. He proceeds to lead the Order to destruction, thus betraying his sense of honor and the chivalrous code. The work was read as a metaphor of the moral conflicts felt by participants in patriotic conspiracies.

Fragments of the epic poem Powieść Wajdeloty / Wajdelota's Tale and Alpuhara later became autonomous works, and continue to be parts of the living poetic tradition, remaining among the works most favored by participants at recitation contests.

Mickiewicz created the third part of Forefathers' Eve in Dresden in 1832. It combines with parts II and IV, written earlier, to constitute a whole that is characteristic of Romantic drama in that it is fragmentary, loosely structured, stylistically varied. Parts II and IV refer to pagan rituals aimed at reviving the souls of the dead. They present folk beliefs focused on the unity of the seen and unseen worlds and on the possibility for interference between the two. The two sections seem to confirm a simple, intuitive moral code. Part IV also introduces and portrays one version of the Romantic hero: the unhappy lover, Gustaw. Part III, on the other hand, is set in times contemporaneous to Mickiewicz and is about the imprisonment and trial of the youths who joined the Philomaths' Society. It takes place in prison cells and the salons of Tsarist bureaucrats. Parts IV and II are linked through their protagonist: between the two sections the unhappy lover Gustaw transforms into the patriot and insurrectionist Konrad. The climaxes in sections II and IV are the Great Improvisation (a monologue in which Konrad speaks out against God for making his nation the victim of a crime) and the Vision of Father Peter (who in a moment of piety and love of God experiences a vision of a Poland reborn in the future). The last section of the Dresden episode of Forefathers' Eve is the epic Ustęp / Passage, which is directed against Tsarist despotism and concludes with the poem Do Przyjaciół Moskali / To Our Friends Muscovites.

In Paris, Mickiewicz wrote and published what is perhaps his most important work: Pan Tadeusz czyli ostatni zajazd na Litwie. Historia szlachecka z roku 1811 we dwunastu ksiegach wierszem / Pan Tadeusz, or The Last Foray in Lithuania. A Tale of the Gentry in the Year 1811 Set Down in Verse in Twelve Books (1834). Drawing on the traditions of the historical novel, poetic novel, epic poem and descriptive poem, Mickiewicz created a "national epic" that has no equivalent in literature. The author used means including lyricism, pathos, irony and realism to re-create the world of the Lithuanian gentry on the eve of the arrival of Napoleonic armies. The colorful group of Sarmatians depicted in the poem, often in conflict and conspiring against each other, is united by a patriotic bond reborn through shared hopes for a rapid restitution of independence. One of the main characters is the mysterious Friar Robak, a Napoleonic emissary and in the past, it turns out, a hotheaded nobleman. In monk's guise, Friar Robak seeks to make amends for sins committed as a youth by serving his country. The poem's end is joyous and hopeful, a mood the author knew was not confirmed by historical events. Mickiewicz designed the work to "uplift hearts" in expectation of a brighter future.

The story takes place over five days in 1811 and one day in 1812. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had already been divided among Russia, Prussia and Austria after three traumatic partitions between 1772 and 1795, which had erased Poland from the political map of Europe. A satellite within the Prussian partition, the Duchy of Warsaw, had been established by Napoleon in 1807, before the story of Pan Tadeusz begins. It would remain in existence until the Congress of Vienna in 1815, organized between Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia and his defeat at Waterloo.

 

Trailer for Ryszard Ordyński's 1928 production of Pan Tadeusz

A verdict about this great masterpiece of Slavic poetry was written by Zygmunt Krasiński, one of Mickiewicz's great successors in Polish literature:

No European nation of our day has such an epic as Pan Tadeusz. In it Don Quixote has been fused with the Iliad. The poet stood on the border line between a vanishing generation and our own. Before they died, he had seen them; but now they are no more. That is precisely the epic point of view. Mickiewicz has performed his task with a master's hand; he has made immortal a dead generation, which now will never pass away. … Pan Tadeusz is a true epic. No more can be said or need be said.

From a letter by Krasinski quoted by Kallenbach in Adam Mickiewicz (Kraków, 1897)

Mystic verse, political directives, the Slavic mission

Mickiewicz's other important works include his so-called Lausanne lyrics. Written in 1839-40, this series of poems is saturated with the poet's mystical sense of unity with nature. Mickiewicz offers his reflections on time, eternity and transcendence. His essays at this time were in the vein of Romantic messianism, also common in French thought (Saint-Martin, de Maistre, de Lamennais, the Saint-Simonists) and in German philosophy and literature. Though there were many currents of messianism, nearly all proponents of them shared the conviction that the ongoing period of suffering and chaos would be followed by a Great Transformation comparable to the second coming of the Savior. This change would see Christian principles applied to all social relations and in politics. Depending on the version of messianism, the savior role was assigned either to outstanding individuals or to specific communities or populations.

Already in evidence in his preceding works (primarily in part III of Forefathers' Eve), Mickiewicz gave full expression to his messianic themes in Ksiegi narodu i pielgrzymstwa polskiego / The Books of the Polish Nation and of the Polish Pilgrimage (1832). Published in missal form, the work was nearly biblical in style, designed to comfort and offer guidelines to the many emigrants who arrived in France following the downfall of the November Insurrection in Poland. The publication was distributed free of charge; in it the poet expressed his conviction about the special role that Poland had to play as a leader in the struggle of peoples against the tyranny of governments, and about Poland's religious and political responsibilities to humankind. A papal edict condemned the book for its use of religious arguments as justification for the pursuit of a radical social program, which included the enfranchisement of peasants and the introduction of universal civil rights that would liberate women and Jews.

The lectures Mickiewicz delivered at the College de France were recompiled based on students' notes and published in their entirety as the Cours de la litterature Slave in 1849. In Courses I and II, Mickiewicz discussed Polish, Russian, Czech and Serbian literature in the context of histories and cultures in these nations, revealing these national literatures to Western intellectuals. In Course III, he presented the contemporary literature of his time, often in a polemical manner. In the fourth Course, Mickiewicz reverted to his messianic philosophy of history, presenting his views on the philosophical and religious life of the Slavs. Underlining the spiritual crisis of a western Europe dominated by a restrictive rationalism, he saw the spiritual depth of Slavs as a counterbalance. According to Mickiewicz, the Slavic peoples were the retainers of "living truths" and therefore capable of leading humanity towards moral rebirth. By this time, the poet had extended the messianic mission to the entire Slavic world as well as France, which gained the title of a "nation of action."

Cultural legacy: Poland, Konrad and a herald of European unity

Mickiewicz's work has had a permanent impact on Polish culture, influencing collective consciousness, literature and art. For over two centuries it remained a permanent element of literary education and served as a basis for shaping feelings of patriotism. His poetry has strongly impacted the Polish language and imagination, even making its way into everyday speech. Literature of the 19th and 20th centuries is full of metaphors and quotations from as well as references to the works of Mickiewicz. He has inspired writers including Juliusz Słowacki, Bolesław Prus, Stanisław Wyspiański, and Stefan Żeromski. Contemporary poets like Czesław Miłosz and Tadeusz Różewicz continue to draw on his work to this day.

Konrad from Forefathers' Eve became the archetypal Polish tragic hero. Forefathers' Eve has proved a challenge for the best Polish theatres, and the Great Improvisation for the most outstanding actors. Each staging has been a major cultural event (the most significant productions being those of Stanislaw Wyspianski - Krakow 1901; Leon Schiller - Lviv 1932, Warsaw 1934; Mieczysław Kotlarczyk - Krakow 1945; Kazimierz Dejmek - Warsaw 1967; Konrad Swinarski - Krakow 1973). In the year 2000, Andrzej Seweryn staged fragments of the work in French translation in Brussels.

Numerous attempts have also been made to bring Pan Tadeusz to the big and small screen. Ryszard Ordyński's 1928 film was the largest Polish production of the interwar period (and has been recently rereleased). Adam Hanuszkiewicz created a television mini-series (1970-71). Andrzej Wajda's screen version from the year 2000 generated significant attention and recognition around the world.

Mickiewicz has also inspired painters and graphic artists (illustrations to his works were produced by Gerson, Andriolli, Smokowski and Lesser), as well as composers (Chopin, Moniuszko, Szymanowski, Paderewski, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov composed pieces based on the poet's works).

Adam Mickiewicz himself, often depicted as the symbol of the National Poet, was the subject of many portraits, drawings and medallions, his likeness reproduced by Wankowicz, Oleszkiewicz, Norwid and Delacroix among others.

Famous statues of Mickiewicz can be found in Warsaw (Cyprian Godebski), Kraków (Teodor Rygier), Poznan (B. Wojtowicz) and in Paris (E. Bourdelle).

Mickiewcz's philosophical and social views also proved potent. His singular mixture of religion, Romantic nationalism and social radicalism caused many political groups, ranging from those on the left to those on the extreme right, to cite him as an inspiration. His Slavic "messianism" proved significant to the shaping of national identities in the countries of central and eastern Europe that did not enjoy independent statehood.

In current discussions about the shape of a united Europe, Mickiewicz is cited as a pioneer of the vision of a federation of free nations and citizens, and as a herald of the concept of the homeland as a commonwealth built upon cultural bonds and a shared system of values. These thoughts on the poet are reflected in the collective work titled "Le Verbe et Histoire. Mickiewicz, la France et l'Europe" published recently in Paris (2001).

Numerous souvenirs that remain of Mickiewicz can be seen at the Polish Library in Paris, where the poet's son Władysław founded a commemorative museum in 1903.

Mickiewicz's works have been translated into more than twenty languages, either in whole or in part, and in many cases multiple times. The most important Polish editions include "Pisma" / "Writings" vol. 1-11, 1860-61; "Dzieła" / "Works" vol. 1-16, 1948-55 (Wyd. Narodowe / National Publishers); "Dzieła" / "Works" vol. 1-16, 1953 (Wyd. Jubileuszowe / Jubilee Publishers). Literature on Mickiewicz is vast and continues to expand. The "Kronika zycia i tworczosci Mickiewicza" / "A Chronicle of the Life and Work of Mickiewicz" vol. 1-9 (vols. 2 and 3 are currently being prepared), published by the Intytut Badań Literackich / Institute for Literary Studies, is a valuable source of information about the poet.

Source: based on "Literatura polska. Przewodnik encyklopedyczny", Warszawa 1984 (zbior.), A. Witkowska, R. Przybylski, "Romantyzm", Warszawa 1997, February 2003

Read more about Adam Mickiewicz and read a selection of his sonnets at www.sonnets.org/mickiewicz.htm

Read the full text of Pan Tadeusz at www.gutenberg.org