Cyprian Norwid, photo: National Digital Library Polona
Romantic poet, novelist, playwright, sculptor, painter, and draughtsman. Born in 1821 in the town of Laskowo-Głuchy. Died in Paris in 1883.
Norwid spent his youth studying painting in Warsaw. In 1842 he departed for Germany, subsequently venturing on to Italy, where he continued his studies in the visual arts. In 1846 he found himself in Berlin, where he was arrested and imprisoned for political reasons. Though brief, this period of imprisonment most probably caused the health problems he would face throughout the remainder of his life. Norwid then left Berlin for Brussels, where he accepted the status of an emigrant. In Rome, to where he traveled soon afterwards, he developed friendships with Zygmunt Krasinski and with the Order of the Fathers of the Resurrection. In 1849 he arrived in Paris, where he developed contacts with outstanding representatives of the Polish and international émigré communities (for example Frederic Chopin, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, Georg Herwegh, Aleksander Hercen). An amorous disappointment and a dearth of resources caused him to travel to New York in search of better fortunes. He attempted to earn a living by selling his sculptures and drawings, though did not meet with much luck. He returned to Paris in 1854, settling there permanently. He was primarily known within the artistic community as an orator, draughtsman, and engraver (he was accepted into the Société des Artistes in 1868). Relentless financial troubles and advancing deafness caused Norwid to take up residence in the St. Casimir Institute in 1877. The institute was in fact a shelter for impoverished Polish war veterans and orphans, and Norwid spent the rest of his life there. Upon his death, he was buried at the cemetery in Ivry, very near the Institute. In 1888 his remains were transferred to the Polish cemetery at Mortmorency, where they were placed in a group grave.
Norwid was an eccentric and recluse, his contact with his environment made more difficult by his advancing deafness. Few of those closest to him proved capable of recognizing his intellectual and artistic originality. Letters were his most active form of social contact: he maintained a lively correspondence with many. His letters on one hand constitute an epistolary collection of the highest quality, and on the other are a valuable reference source for any who seek to interpret his views.
Norwid attempted to participate in the public life of his times in a variety of ways. He made an effort to involve himself in the political activities of the Hôtel Lambert and in the campaigns of the Fathers of the Resurrection (e.g. during the Spring of Nations, he worked with the Fathers to oppose the political activities of Mickiewicz and his "Sklad zasad" / "Set of Principles"). He published many essays that commented on current political events. In these he attempted to formulate programs that would be adapted to the changing times. In particular, during the time of the January Insurrection in Poland he wrote numerous memorials and political letters; in general, however, these did not have much impact.
In his literary works, Norwid similarly and ceaselessly engaged in dialogue on the essential philosophical, artistic, and social issues of his age. Unfortunately, almost no one chose to undertake this dialogue. He garnered a measure of recognition for his early literary efforts, produced while he was still in Warsaw. Once an émigré, however, he published only a small part of his output, and even this was considered by most readers to be unclear and manneristic. The sole selection of his works to be published during his lifetime was titled "Poezje" / "Poems." Published in Leipzig in 1863, the book drew little response.
Ruined Chapel, oil on canvas, photo: T. Żółtowska-Huszcza, in the collection if National Museum in Warsaw
Norwid's output could have represented an opportunity for a new, more mature phase of Romanticism - and this is precisely what the poet intended. The problem, however, was that this phase did not find sufficient space to develop. Norwid wrote at a time when pure Romanticism was on the decline - dominated by the poetics of Mickiewicz - and Positivism was burgeoning, bringing focus to a different set of issues and saw the advent of new literary conventions. As a writer, Norwid was critical of both these trends, yet simultaneously drew on them. He acknowledged the greatness of Romantic literature, but he criticized messianism for rendering the nation absolute and glorifying suffering, and for resorting to pathos in depicting exceptional heroes and extraordinary actions. Norwid's own views were most akin to the national philosophy of August Cieszkowski and his concept of action as a conscious transformation of social life through the realization of philosophical ideas in reality, in accordance with divine ordinance. He took note of the materialism embodied in early capitalism and commercialism, he acknowledged the superficial nature of inter-human relations, but he simultaneously recognized the significance of technical progress. His worldview was closest to what today might be termed Christian personalism. He focused on the individual, normal people, the everyman. However, these he placed within a universal problem set. He glorified the everyday and the concrete, though he clearly saw it as embodying a sacral reality. He made the development and modernization of society his program; however, he conceived of this occurring through the fulfillment of a divine plan. He referred to art as work, but in his mind concrete, often physical labor remained mystically linked to "Logos" - the word of God embodied.
Norwid was an exceptional poet, writer of both lyric and epic poetry, novelist, and playwright. His poetry is challenging, intellectual, filled with aphorisms, and largely stripped of the descriptiveness and melodic tone typical of Romantic poetry. He constructs his verses of ellipses, detail, and multi-layered metaphors, uses variegated, irregular versification to underline his point.
Norwid's most important epic poems are Promethidion, Quidam, and Rzecz o wolnosci slowa / On the Freedom of Speech.
Promethidion. Rzecz w dwoch dialogach z epilogiem / Promethedion - A Work in Two Dialogues with an Epilogue is composed of two parts that bear philosophically instructive, though highly verbose titles: "Bogumil. Dialog, w ktorym jest rzecz o sztuce i stanowisku sztuki. Jako forma" / "Bogumil. A Dialogue in which there is something on art and the stance of art. As form" and "Wieslaw. Dialog, w ktorym jest rzecz o prawdzie, jej promieniach i duchu. Jako tresc" / "Wieslaw. A Dialogue in which there is something on truth, its radiance and soul. As content." In this work Norwid presented his program of "new Prometheanism," which extols labor in general and labor that incessantly produces beauty in daily life in particular. Norwid describes this concept as lying in opposition to Romantic Prometheanism, which he deems an apologia of rebellion, struggle, and extreme action. The poem offers reflection on the function of art in public life. Norwid underlines the special significance of the visual arts (which in their essence involve labor), including the applied arts (which he sees as adding beauty to the daily life of common individuals).
The epic poem Quidam tells the story of an individual lost within the chaos that ensues when a civilization descends into crisis. The title character Quidam (some man) travels from Greece to Rome, where old Roman civilization is in the midst of its decline in the face of the new, rising Christian civilization. The hero wanders about the city, finds himself unable to make choices, and ultimately loses his life accidentally and unnecessarily. Roman reality, which Norwid describes vividly and realistically, is an obvious metaphor for Europe of the writer's time.
Three postacie w zasłonach na twarzy, paper, pen, watercolor, photo: G. Policewicz, in collection of the National Museum in Warsaw
The epic poem Rzecz o wolności słowa / On the Freedom of Speech is a historical and philosophical outline of humankind. Apart from criticizing European civilization and Polish public life, a recurring motif in Norwid's writings, in this work the poet also takes on the subject of the social and sacral functions of language.
In 1865-66 Norwid created his most beautiful cycle of poems. Titled "Vade-mecum," the collection contains a number of masterpieces, including Bema pamieci żałobny Rapsod / Mournful Rhapsody in Memory of Bem and Fortepian Chopina / Chopin's Piano. The first of these is an homage to the heroes of Poland's November Insurrection and the Spring of Peoples. In the rhythm of a funeral march and a Classical style, Norwid praises the power of the soul, but also acknowledges the weight of legend, which he deems as shaping history. Norwid wrote the second of these poems after the destruction of the Zamoyski Palace, during which a grand piano that Chopin had played was thrown out onto the street. The work contains a reflection on the greatness of art, which embodies the element of divine good in the world. The poem expands on philosophical metaphors: "good as fulfillment" and "evil as lack." The original, irregular versification and lines that break off abruptly contribute to the works' dramatic tone.
Norwid was also a master of the 19th century novella. His many works in this realm are characterized by original content, precision of language, and the author's ability to build generalizations from details, episodes, and single objects. Czarne Kwiaty. Biale Kwiaty / Black Flowers - White Flowers are a masterpiece of poetic prose. "Black Flowers" gives a concise account of the author's last meetings with Stefan Witwicki, Frederick Chopin, Adam Mickiewicz, and Paul Delaroche. These portraits of great individuals just prior to their death have become a permanent part of Polish culture. "White Flowers" on the other hand is a journal of events, a lecture on Norwid's theory of silence, absence, and tragedy deprived of pathos.
Norwid's other outstanding novellas include Ad leones, Bransoletka / The Bracelet, Cywilizacja / Civilization, and Stygmat / Stigma.
Ad leones - the story of a sculptor who begins work on an emotionally inspired work titled "Christiani ad leones" and ends by producing an object titled "Kapitalizacja" / "Capitalization" - was an illustration of the pressures that contemporary, commercialized civilization exerted on the artist. In this novella, Norwid masterfully translated the language of sculpture into the language of literature.
In the novella Cywilizacja / Civilization, the metaphor is obvious: a ship bearing this name and carrying a multitude of passengers sails towards disaster. The work is notable for the author's ability to depict a cross-section of society using a series of fragments, detail, and individual observations.
In Stygmat / Stigma, Norwid uses two dimensions, the detailed (unrequited love) and the general (the lives of nations), to develop his theory of stigma as a mark of the past and of environmental influences in the life of individuals and communities.
Norwid authored numerous plays, all of which are characterized by refined dialogue, rich characters, and highly meaningful props. In his dramas he combines a realistic convention with allegory, tragedy, and the grotesque. The best known among them include Za kulisami / Backstage, Kleopatra i Cezar / Cleopatra and Caesar, and Pierscien wielkiej Damy / The Grand Dame's Ring.
Za kulisami / Backstage is structured as "theatre in theatre." One level of the play consists of the fantastic tragedy "Tyrtej," the second is that of the theatre where "Tyrtej" is being performed. The hero of the tragedy is an Athenian poet who is sent to Sparta. There he appears as a symbol of respect for love and beauty, which is lacking in the militarized city-state. The hypothesis of the tragedy, stating that disdain for artists and art is a sign of the decadence and decline of a culture, also proves to be applicable to the image of contemporary Polish society, which plays out backstage. The actual text of the drama and the stage directions in it describe the staging methods and resources to be used: ballet, pantomime, scenery, and music.
Kleopatra i Cezar. Tragedia historyczna ścisle w rowni do grania jako i do odczytow napisana: z uwydatnieniem gestow dramatycznych i onych ciagu / Cleopatra and Caesar - A Historical Tragedy Strictly and Equally Written to Be Performed and Read: With Dramatic Gestures and Their Series Underlined references Shakespeare's "Anthony and Cleopatra." However, the interpretation of the heroine's character is different here as Norwid depicts her as a strong, wise, and deep woman. The historical framework he adopted once again allowed Norwid to build an opposition: between a living culture (in this case Rome) and a dead, departing culture (Egypt).
Pierscień Wielkiej Damy czyli ex-machina Durejko. Tragedia w trzech aktach z opisem dramatycznego ciagu scenicznych gestów - I ze wstępem / The Grand Dame's Ring, or ex-machina Durejko - A Tragedy In Three Acts with A Description Of a Series Of Stage Gestures - And with an Introduction is an example of Norwid's unique form of "white tragedy," deprived of pathos and bloodshed, but possessing a narrative that describes destruction. The story centers on a poor artist who is thoughtlessly and wrongly accused by Countess Harrys of stealing her ring, and the character of the countess is one of the most colorful in the gallery of "great dames" which Norwid created in his plays.
Unnoticed during his lifetime, absent from Polish culture of the 19th century, Norwid was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, during the so-called Young Poland period. Zenon Przesmycki (also known as Miriam), a poet, essayist, translator, and publisher, contributed to this markedly. He saved the manuscripts of Norwid's works from oblivion and systematically published them in the periodical "Chimera" (1901-1907), of which he was publisher. He also put together collected editions of the writer's works, including "Pisma zebrane" / "Collected Writings," "Wszystkie pisma" / "Complete Writings," and "Pisma polityczne i filozoficzne" / "Political and Philosophical Writings." His efforts were continued later by Stanislaw Pigoń and Waclaw Borowy, and subsequently by Juliusz Wiktor Gomulicki after World War II.
Members of the Young Poland movement discovered in Norwid something akin to their own worldview: above all, the fate of a tragic poet misunderstood by his contemporaries, the idea of art that proffers beauty, and the concept of the symbol as a tool of cognition and expression of the essence of being. Stanislaw Brzozowski, an exceptional thinker of the age, above all valued the poet's acknowledgement of poverty and the beauty of industrial civilization, as well as his understanding of labor. A number of writers drew on Norwid's output. This group included Tadeusz Micinski, Stanislaw Wyspianski, Stefan Zeromski, Jan Lechon. Poets of the inter-war period as well as contemporary poets value the genius inherent in Norwid's lyrical poems, as well as the conciseness and accuracy of his language, his ability to convey philosophical messages, and his rich reflections on the world of culture. Norwid's poetry influenced such outstanding writers as Julian Przybos, Milosz i Mieczyslaw Jastrun. Milosz additionally underlined his view that Norwid was the creator of the modern concept of the artist: not a pure soul, but an artisan who should be reasonably rewarded for his efforts.
During the 20th century, the richness and artistry of Norwid's dramas were finally recognized. Noc tysieczna druga / The Thousandth and Second Night and Krakus were both staged in 1908. Kleopatra i Cezar / Cleopatra and Caesar was staged with great success by Wilam Horzyca (Lviv, 1933), with important productions also mounted subsequently by Kazimierz Dejmek (Warszawa, 1967) and Kazimierz Braun (Lublin, 1968). Horzyca also brought Norwid's Za kulisami / Backstage to the stage (Torun, 1946). Pierscień Wielkiej Damy / The Grand Dame's Ring was first produced for the stage by Irena and Tadeusz Byrski (Kielce, 1958); since then, the play has been a permanent fixture in the theatrical repertoire.
Norwid's output remains the research focus of many exceptional literary theorists, including Zofia Stefanowska, Irena Slawinska, Zdzisław Łapiński, Ewa Bieńkowska, Jan Bloński.
The poet's biography was presented in narrative form by Hanna Malewska ("Żniwo na sierpie" / "The Harvest on the Sickle," 1947) and Lew Kaltenbergh ("Dno czary" / "The Bottom of the Goblet," 1965).
In 2001 the National Library published an album of the drawings of Norwid titled "Anioły" / "Angels." The library possesses three albums of Norwid's drawings on microfilm.
Source: "Literatura polska. Przewodnik encyklopedyczny", Warszawa 1984 (collective work), A. Witkowska, R. Przybylski, "Romantyzm", Warszawa 1997; February 2003