Bolesław Leśmian (Lesman, by birth) was born most likely on the 22/01/1877, in Warsaw (he claimed it was in 1878). He died on the 5/11/1937, in Warsaw.
From around 1880 he spent his childhood and youth in Kiev, where he graduated from a secondary school of language (1897) and the law faculty of St. Vladimir University (1901). From 1903 to 1906 he travelled Western Europe, visiting Munich, Paris and Brittany. In France, he married the painter Zofia Chylińska. From 1906 until 1911 he lived in Warsaw and cooperated with the Artistic Theatre there (1911). He returned to France in 1912, where he stayed until 1914.
During the First World War Leśmian lived in Łódź, where he acted as literary director of the Polish Theatre in the 1916/1917 season. He assumed the post of notary in Hrubieszów in 1918, and in 1922 moved to Zamość. In 1929, as a result of funds misappropriated by his business partner, Leśmian got into financial straits with which he would contended for the rest of his life. Probably thanks to friends’ intercession, he escaped a prison sentence and his financial obligations were divided into installments. In the 1930s he journeyed repeatedly to Western Europe. In 1933 he was chosen for membership in the Polish Academy of Literature and in 1935 he and his family moved to Warsaw, where he died from a heart attack on the 5th of November 1937, and was buried in Powązki Cemetery.
Leśmian made his debut as a poet in 1895 in Wędrowiec / Vagrant, a magazine published in Warsaw. In the following years he composed more poems (also in Russian), as well as literary and theatre criticism. From 1901 until 1907 he wrote for Chimera edited by Zenon ("Miriam") Przesmycki. Leśmian’s first volume of poetry Sad rozstajny / Diverging Orchard was published in 1912, but was hardly noticed by critics. In 1913 two volumes of Arabic fables were released, Klechdy sezamowe / Sesame Fables and Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza / The Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor. A selection of tales by Edgar Allan Poe, translated and prefaced by Leśmian, also appeared in 1913. His second volume of poems, Łąka / Meadow, published in 1920, was as unpopular among the readership and critics as his first. Another poetry collection, Napój cienisty / Shady Potion, was released 16 years later and in 1938 the posthumous volume Dziejba leśna (Forest Happening) appeared. In Paris in 1956, the story collection Klechdy polskie / Polish Fables was published, probably written along with the Arabic fables circa 1913. In following years other works by Leśmian would be published, such as those found in magazines and manuscripts, including Zdziczenie obyczajów pośmiertnych / Barbarization of Mourning Traditions.
Leśmian’s contemporaries perceived his work as a belated echo Young Poland, the artistic period of the turn of the century, which is the reason why the majority, with rare exceptions such as Ostap Ortwin, dismissed it with disregard. They were unable to discern its inventiveness and originality, which have over time contributed to Leśmian being recognized as the most eminent poet of his day and one of the most important Polish poets of the 20th century, whose works have now found popularity among literary scholars and readers.
The value of his works is reflected mainly in a coherent concept of the world that combines the system of ideals with the system of the poetic language. Unlike his contemporaries who found inspiration in the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Leśmian chose to follow the more contemporary lead of Henri Bergson, a choice expressed in his essays in addition to the manner he structured the unique, fundamental mechanics and dynamics of his poetic reality, where each and every object, each phenomenon, exists in a ceaseless process of becoming.
According to Leśmian’s philosophy of artistic work, there is a close correspondence between the structure of language and the structure of the world. This concept is supported by views discussed in the sketch Rytm jako światopogląd / Rhythm as a Worldview, in which the author acted in defence of the accentual verse, specifically of the accentual-syllabic verse - claiming that, owing to its variety of metrical and strophic structures, this type of verse can most successfully reflect the immeasurable diversity of forms that demonstrate the permeating world “élan vital”.
An even closer mutual correspondence and correlation is present between philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality and means of the poetic language that are to capture and express the nature that, in Leśmian’s poetry, is voiced through word formation, syntax and phraseology. In his works there are numerous coinages, archaisms, as well as references to folklore (of lexical, syntactical and structural nature) that enrich the poetic language and world, thus making the latter unique and – in its own way – magical. As Julian Przyboś wrote: “When I browse through worldwide poetry, I find very few examples of a similarly heroic fierceness in the fight over the ‘likelihood of a different reality’ with the use of the poetic word.”
Author: Bartłomiej Szleszyński, Polish Studies Department of University of Warsaw, April 2003
Translated by MP, 30/09/2013