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Jan Kochanowski

Jan Kochanowski, engraving by Aleksander Regulski (1839-1884); source: CBN Polona
Jan Kochanowski, engraving by Aleksander Regulski (1839-1884); source: CBN Polona

Poet, translator and playwright. Born 1530 in Sycyna, died 1584 in Lublin. The greatest Polish and a major European Renaissance man of letters whose poetic genius was the first of such brilliance in Poland and remained the only one until the explosion of talent in Romanticism.

Jan Kochanowski, of the noble clan of Korwin, was born in Sycyna. The exact date - day and month - is unknown. He was a son of Piotr Kochanowski, Sandomierz lawyer and judge, and Anna Białaczowska. According to Julian Krzyżanowski, the distinguished historian of literature whose sources must have been credible, Jan's father was a miser and a scrooge. It must have been the circumstances that have forced him to be that. A squire of average means, he had to support a particularly large family, Jan having had eleven brothers and sisters. Two of his brothers, Mikołaj and Andrzej, also tried their hand in literature, though their talent and fame were nowhere near those of Jan's. Andrzej is noted in the history of literature mostly for his translation of Vergil's Aeneid, while Mikołaj is remembered for his rendering of Plutarch's Moralia.


To make a career, a nobleman of medium wealth had to follow the path leading through learning and magnate courts, and so in 1544 Kochanowski was admitted to the liberal arts department at the Krakow Academy. Although he was ultimately not to earn an academic degree, he found himself in one of Europe's major centres of humanism. He then continued his studies in Królewiec and Padua. While in Królewiec (in 1551-52 and 1555-56), he was associated with the court of Albrecht, the Prussian duke and Polish senator, his likely sponsor. Incidentally, Albrecht was a major and mighty protector of the Polish Reformation.

Kochanowski stayed in Padua three times, in 1552-55, 1556-57 and 1558-59, studying under such distinguished humanists as Francesco Robortello and Bernardino Tomitano. He made friends with Łukasz Górnicki, Stanisław Porębski and Andrzej Nidecki, the leading Polish humanists, and stayed friends with them after his return to Poland. More importantly, though, he greatly expanded his classical education, absorbing Renaissance ideas, Italy being their birthplace and leading centre. Upon return from his last stay in Padua, he travelled across France and Germany, meeting in France Pierre Ronsard, the greatest poet of French Renaissance and champion of vernacular literature.

Career of a courtier

Upon his return to Poland in 1559, Kochanowski started the career of a courtier at eminent aristocratic families, such as the Tarnowskis, the Tęczyńskis and the Firlejs. With Bishop Piotr Myszkowski's backing, he was appointed courtier and secretary at the royal court of Sigismund-August in 1563. His attitude to the king was ambivalent, his writings revealing both approval and disappointment; the latter may have been triggered by inadequate development of his career. He accompanied the king during the military maneuvers in Lithuania in 1567, targeted against Ivan the Terrible, and at the Sejm proceedings in Lublin when the Union of Lublin was reached (1568, 1569).

After the death of Sigismund-August, Kochanowski sided with Henri Valois, taking part in his coronation in 1573. After the king's shameful flight from Poland, his disappointment prompted him to give up courtly life.

Although he did not consider his courtier career particularly successful, he finished it as a wealthy man, owing in part to the then quite common practice of lay ecclesiastical career. The backing of Bishop Piotr Myszkowski had helped Kochanowski to become a parish priest in Poznań and Zwoleń. He paid chaplains to do pastoral work for him, while he earned profit by collecting tithes from town land and noble villages. He parted with the parish priesthood when he gave up the courtier career. Though he never returned to the royal court, he approved of Stefan Batory and his political conceptions. He settled in Czarnolas, his father's property, and married Dorota Podlodowska in 1575. Of the six daughters she bore him, three died in infancy. The only son was born after Kochanowski's death.

Life in Czarny Las

Dworek Jana Kochanowskiego w Czarnolesie, fot. Jan Włodarczyk / Forum
Jan Kochanowski's mansion in Czarnolas, photo: Jan Włodarczyk / Forum

Despite the tragedy of losing children, life in Czarnolas was peaceful and harmonious. This found reflection in Kochanowski's work, rich and mature in those years. The poet died a sudden death at the age of 54, his creative powers at their peak. He suffered a heart attack in Lublin, where he had arrived hopeful for king's assistance with the case of his wife's brother who had been murdered in Turkey. The funeral, which took place in Lublin, was attended by many secular and Church dignitaries as well as by king Stefan Batory. Kochanowski was laid to rest in the chapel of the Zwoleń church, next to his parents. The tombstone with his effigy is still there.

Renaissance poet

Renaissance culture flourished in Krakow, at magnate courts and, more than anywhere, in Italy in Kochanowski's times. A reaction to dogmatic Middle Ages, Renaissance humanism evoked the standards of antique culture and propounded freedom of human reason and the right to intellectual independence in studying the world. Priority was given to man who was unrestricted and aspired to the Hellenistic ideal of harmony. Humanism's top maxim 'homo sum, a me alienum esse puto' ('I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me') expressed affirmation of all areas of human existence: the spiritual, the corporeal, and the social. Contrary to the medieval ideal of asceticism, man was given the right to happiness, yet was expected to aspire to perfection.

The Renaissance opposition to medieval dogmas and insistence on independent pursuit of truth created a climate conducive to the reformatory movement in the Church. The movement attacked the Church for being dogmatic and intellectually petrified; law-abiding Catholics attacked it for greed, unjustified riches and chaplains' inappropriate lifestyle. This and the sense of threat to doctrine and authority made Pope Paul III convene a Council in Trent. Debating intermittently in 1545-63, the Council was to work out unambiguous interpretations of the Catholic doctrine and propose an organizational reform of the Church. The Reformation flourished in Poland, too, with its numerous Calvinist and Lutheran churches doing well even after king Sigismund-August adopted the decisions of the Council of Trent.

The struggle against the intellectual as well as economic domination of the Church was closely related to the powerful nobility movement called 'the execution of rights'. It was at its peak when Kochanowski returned from Padua. The nobility, its wealth rising, education improving and privileges growing, fought to dominate the state. Access to the sea gained after the defeat of the Teutonic Order opened to it major European trade routes. Intellectual and religious commotion at magnate courts and at reformed churches as well as the highly popular political writings of Łukasz Górnicki, Andrzej Frycz-Modrzewski, Stanisław Orzechowski and others raised common interest in political and social matters. Increasingly conscious of its power, the nobility aimed to reduce royal prerogatives and domination of the magnates and the Church, and managed to abolish church courts and to considerably reduce property privileges due to royal endowments for aristocratic families and Church dignitaries.

In accordance with the principle 'homo sum...', all the major themes of the time found reflection in Kochanowski's work, from philosophical musings over human life to political and social issues to scenes from court and gentry life to stories shared at meals.

Kochanowski had started to write in Italy, using sophisticated Latin to create odes, songs, elegies and epigrams. Not everything survived; whatever did was published with his later Latin works in Krakow in 1584 as Elegiarum libri IV.

The vast majority of his work is, however, in Polish. His conscious choice, it agreed with the Renaissance trend to write in vernacular and caused the Polish language to undergo a quality change in mere thirty years. The Polish of Kochanowski and the later Polish is different from what it was before. There had never been such a profound linguistic revolution in Polish history.

Kochanowski was aware of his role in literature and of the role of a poet. He was the first to formulate the ethos of the artist whose talent, a gift from God, is both a privilege, a duty, and a suffering. He expressed it most forcefully in the poem Muza (The Muse), his literary manifesto dating probably from ca. 1570 and professing faith in the immortality of his poetry, a sense of a unique mission and of greatness which makes one responsible to the world and lonely at the summit. The poem pays a tribute to Bishop Piotr Myszkowski, who generously supported the poet, enabling him to work unencumbered, and expresses gratitude for the patronage of the enlightened and the wealthy who contribute to the development of culture. Indeed, the institution of patronage was known before, but it flourished particularly well in the Renaissance and was maintained in the following centuries.

One of Kochanowski's earliest Polish-language works was his hymn Czego chcesz od nas Panie za twe hojne dary (What wilt thou from us, O Lord, for thy generous gifts?). Some sources suggest it was written before Kochanowski returned to Poland and was sent from Paris. As a poetic form, the hymn was common in the Middle Ages. Addressed to God or a saint, it expressed subjection, conveyed a sense of insignificance of mortal beings and pleaded for intercession. Kochanowski's hymn is a beautiful expression of man's gratitude to the Creator for the beauty and harmony of the world. The poet's God is not a strict, punishing Father, but a Big Artist who has made the riches of Nature and the beauty of all beings. It was noted that such God was not really attributable to a specific religion, his image having no Catholic-specific features. The hymn, written in thirteen-syllable, rigorous and at the same time natural and melodious verse, became very popular and made it to Catholic and Protestant songbooks alike.

In his court period Kochanowski started to write Fraszki (Trifles), minor poems with sharp points, their tradition going back to antique epigrams and Anacreontics. Continuing to write them throughout his life, he covered a vast spectrum of themes, from philosophical musings, praise of court and gentry life, the beauty of women, portraits of friends and acquaintances to anecdotes from social life. Fraszki provide a superb, vivid image of the customs and lifestyle of the time, their sharp and succinct language being the only area where the poet ventured a little bit of noble bawdiness.

Kochanowski mostly wrote narrative poems in his court period. Highly diverse, they ranged from incidental poems to political and social essays. Among the former stand out the epitaths O śmierci Jana Tarnowskiego (On the Death of Jan Tarnowski) and Pamiątka wszytkimi cnotami hojnie obdarzonemu Janowi Baptyscie na Tęczynie (In Memory of Jan Baptysta of Tęczyn, Generously Endowed with All Virtues). Incidental poems, dedicated to statesmen whom Kochanowski truly respected, were not intended as flattery, but emphasized virtues such as patriotism, valiance, wisdom, integrity and ability to sustain friendship.

The funny poem Zuzanna przypisane Jej M. Paniej Elżbiecie z Szydłowca (Zuzanna, Ascribed to the Honourable Elżbieta of Szydłowiec) is quite a perverse praise of woman's virtue. Broda (The Beard) is an argument for supremacy between feminine virtue and moustache.

In the poem Szachy (The Chess) Kochanowski used the work Scaccia ludus by the Italian poet Marco Girolamo Vida, moving the plot from Mount Olympus to the royal court and adding some local touch. A chess tournament is taking place at the court of the Danish king Tarses; the hand of the king's daughter is the prize. The tournament is described with expertise in the subject and with psychological sensitivity (the daughter is clearly in favour of one of the players and helps him discreetly); the verse is eleven-syllable.

The period's two most important poems, Satyr albo Dziki Mąż (Satyr or a Wild Man) and Zgoda (The Agreement), were an important voice in public matters. Dedicated to Sigismund-August, Satyr is narrated by the antique Satyr who has converted to Christianity and is in hiding in Poland. He does not, however, like what he sees here: the lifestyle of nobility, egoism and extravagant spending, verbosity of the Sejm (Parliament), poor condition of education and, last but not least, religious fierceness. Like in many other of his works, Kochanowski comes across as an advocate of patriotism, harmony and moderation in all walks of life. He takes the Catholic position with regard to the Reformation, yet does not condemn heretics, but calls for an end to arguments until the decisions of the Council of Trent. Writing in thirteen-syllable, the verse typical of formal narrative literature, Kochanowski paints a vividly satirical picture of the customs of the noble Republic.

Similar themes were tackled in his slightly earlier poem Zgoda. The allegorical Agreement instructs Poles with regard to their duties to the motherland, condemning falling ethical standards, greed, egoism and lack of care for the interests of the country, and calling for harmony and unity as fundaments of order and happiness.

Another warning against fatal consequences of national vices came in Kochanowski's prose Wróżki (Prophecies), a dialogue between the Parson and the Landowner, in which the former talks to the latter about the many vices of the landowning class that may result in the demise of the country.

Kochanowski's political views had the same features that were inherent in his vision of the world: moderation, a sense of harmony, and a need for order. In the perfect world made by God, he wanted to see a perfect society built on agreement, friendship and care for the welfare of all. He was thus moderately Reformatory and moderately Catholic. While critical of the nobility, he avoided exaggeration and stubbornness in debate.

The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys

A serious, solemn warning for the noble Republic came in Odprawa posłów greckich (The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys), Poland's only Renaissance drama originating from the antique tradition. Kochanowski came to know Renaissance theatre and Greek drama when he was in Padua. He possessed a thorough knowledge of works by Euripides and Aischylos, and borrowed the theme of his play from The Iliad, whose fragments he had translated.

The plot is set in Troy. Ulysses and Menelaus, envoys from the Greek Sparta, have just arrived. They demand the return of Helena, Menelaus' wife, who had been abducted by Paris-Alexander in an act of violence against the holy principle of hospitability. If denied, they threaten with a war. The court of Troy - like any other - is riddled with conflict, self-interest and bribery. There is a voice of reason (old Antenor), but Priam, the king of Troy, is old, weak and has not much political acumen. Alexander, in turn, cares only for himself and his love for Helena, ignoring the good of his country. The long debate over the demands of the Greeks (related to Helena by an Envoy) is remindful of the proceedings of the Polish Sejm sessions, with their commotion and particularistic interests. Finally the Envoys are dismissed and Helena remains in Troy. Cassandra, Priam's possessed daughter, sees the future - the death of her family and annihilation of the kingdom - yet fails to persuade her compatriots to be reasonable and take appropriate action. When the truth of her prophecy is confirmed by a captured Greek who says that Greek army is approaching the walls of Troy, it is too late to prepare for the neglected task of the defence of the country. Unusually, the drama has an open end: the annihilation is a future possibility. This open-endedness is a most severe warning for the king and nobility: do something at once or else you will end up as the Trojans did.

Kochanowski rigorously followed the principle of construction of antique tragedy, with its unity of time, place and action. The play is made up of five episodes and three choirs, and, except for one rhymed song of the choir, is written in varied white verse. The Envoy's account of the proceedings and Cassandra's visions are vivid, colourful tales of outstanding artistic merit. The drama's strength of effect is also due to its well-balanced pathos which is typical of Greek tragedy.

Odprawa posłów greckich was put on stage in Kochanowski's lifetime. The performance took place on 12th January 1578 in Jazdów near Warsaw in the presence of King and Queen on the occasion of the wedding of Chancellor Jan Zamoyski with Krystyna Radziwiłłówna. The (presumably considerable) cost of the staging was paid for by Zamoyski. A platform served as a stage; the set design, based on Italian Renaissance performances, included the facades of Priam's palace, painted on canvas stretchers and gilded. The actors - young men from respectable families - played male as well as female roles. Maidens (again, from respectable families) appeared in the choir. Everything was prepared by the physician Wojciech Oczko and supervised by Kochanowski. Due to illness, the poet could not, however, attend the performance.

Kochanowski introduced the model, structure and language of antique tragedy to Polish culture. Adam Mickiewicz spoke highly of Odprawa… in his Parisian lectures. The stage popularity of the drama was smaller, though. There were two major, open-air performances of the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in the Wawel Castle courtyard in 1923 and 1930, directed by Teofil Trzciński, with sets designed by Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz. Other performances included one by Stanisław Koźmian in Krakow in 1884 and the other by Wilam Horzyca in Lvov in 1936. In the 1960s Witold Rudziński composed his opera. TV adaptations followed. And several of the drama's phrases have stayed for good in the Polish language, notably the one about the unfortunate kingdom on the verge of extinction, or the wish for reason to accompany young age.

David'd Psalter and Songs

Kochanowski's major contribution to Polish culture was Psałterz Dawidów (David's Psalter). Not so much a translation as a free paraphrase of the Biblical Book of Psalms, it took the poet many years to complete and involved some serious philological studies of various Greek and Latin translations. Written in varied and rich verse, it contains philosophical and personal themes alongside the core religious aspect. The Psalms had been paraphrased before (for instance by Mikołaj Rej), but it was owing to Kochanowski that they gained a perfect Renaissance form and expressed the Renaissance concept of God who transcends religions. They have consequently become prayer literature recognized by Catholics and Protestants alike, especially after the accomplished composer Mikołaj Gomółka wrote music to them in 1580 under the title of Melodie na psałterz polski (Melodies to the Polish Psalter).

Kochanowski's lyrical talent manifested itself best in Pieśni (The Songs). He wrote them throughout his life, and they dominated his work in Czarnolas. After all, landowner's life was particularly close to the ideals of Horace's 'golden measure', and Horace was for Kochanowski a role model both in terms of outlook on life and poetry.

Pieśni were written in four-line syllabic stanzas of varied format. Extremely vast in scope, they expressed the entire outlook of life of the Renaissance poet: his attitude to God, affirmation of nature and wildlife, thoughts on his work, patriotic care, admiration for female beauty, praise of quiet family life, need for moderation and perfection, lack of unhealthy ambition. There was approval of happiness enjoyed here and now as well as a realization of the poet's special place, his "wings" allowing him to touch heaven.

Some of the best-known songs were included in the cycle Pieśń świętojańska o sobótce (The Midsummer Night's Song). They made it to song books and were copied, becoming anonymous. They were extraordinarily suited for daily use, their four-line stanzas of paired rhymes almost imposing a tune. Their lyrical tone and pastoral scenery set the standard of a song describing idealized rural living for the following few ages. The songs, set within the frame of the Midsummer Night festivities, are sung one by one by twelve maidens grouped round the bonfire. The songs are about the beauty of nature, love, suffering. Even those who are unable to recognize the author will be familiar with such quotations as the one about the quiet, merry village whose praise cannot be adequately sung, or about the woman admitting to the vice of loving to dance.


A particular position in Kochanowski's work is taken by his Treny (Laments). While modelled on lamentations and songs of mourning of Greek poetry, they were inspired by a profound personal tragedy, the death of the poet's infant daughter Urszula. The elaborate cycle of nineteen poems of varied verse is not only a poetic monument to the dead child and a testament to father's despair, but also a record of an existential drama and of how it was lived through. Here a Renaissance man who believes that God is benevolent, the world is harmonious and happiness will be intact as long as ones lives an ethical life of moderation, faces an absurd death of his young, innocent, talented and loved-by-her-family child. His entire outlook on life a shambles, he asks dramatic questions as to the sense of his system of values. Having felt doubt and despair he, being a Renaissance man, will ultimately accept this experience as part and parcel of human existence. The culminating point and the solution of the drama comes in Tren XIX - Albo sen (Lament 19 - or a Dream). The poet's mother appears to him, nurturing little Urszula, and convinces him that the girl, free of worldly care and suffering, is happy in heaven. The drama of the Renaissance mind is solved: death belongs to the order of life, and man should accept God's verdicts, incomprehensible as they may be. Interestingly, this is the only instance in Kochanowski's work where there appear attributes of Catholic faith - a vision of heaven in which saved souls commune with God in eternal happiness.

Kochanowski's Czarnolas period was very prolific. He wrote incidental poetry, such as epitaths, epithalamia and Anacreontics, as well as treatises in prose (O Czechu i Lechu. historia nagoniona (On Czech and Lech), O cnocie (On Virtue), Ortografija polska (Polish Spelling). His crowning achievement, one that paved new roads in literature, were, however, Pieśni and Treny. He was considered the greatest Slavic poet already in his lifetime. His works promoted the best standards of Renaissance humanism, and he introduced classical tradition to Polish culture. He refined the Polish language, introducing a variety of styles and versification. His poetry reflected the Renaissance principle of the supremacy of man and expressed the whole range of human feelings, from solemnity of religious experience to love, despair and suffering to festive merriness. There has not been a Polish poet who would not have been indebted to Kochanowski. His work has been translated into numerous Slavic and West-European languages.

Initially Kochanowski's work circulated in copies, many incomplete or distorted. Some may have got lost. The poet was for a long time opposed to having them printed. Persuaded by Piotr Myszkowski, he finally agreed to publishing Odprawa posłów greckich and Psałterz Dawidów in 1578, Treny and Pieśni trzy (Three Songs) in 1580, Fraszki in 1584. His work continued to be collected and published after this death.

There is a Kochanowski museum and his monument (erected in 1980) in Czarnolas. His other monuments are in Lublin (1931) and Zwoleń (1961).

The main publications of his works are Dzieła wszystkie (Complete works), vol.1-4, Warszawa, 1884-1897; Pisma zbiorowe, ed. A. Brückner, Warszawa 1924; Dzieła polskie, ed. Julian Krzyżanowski (special 10th edition), Warszawa 1980. Subsequent volumes of Dzieła wszystkie were published from 1983; the project has not been completed.

Author: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, Polish scholar, historian of ideas, January 2006.'s picture
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Jan Kochanowski


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