Juliusz Słowacki, drawing by Antoni Oleszczyński (1794-1879), source: CBN Polona
Juliusz Słowacki, drawing by Antoni Oleszczyński
(1794-1879), source: CBN Polona
 

Poland's great Romantic poet, playwright and visionary philosopher. Born 1809 in Krzemieniec, died 1849 in Paris

Słowacki spent his early years in Krzemieniec and Vilnius. When his widowed mother, Salomea, to whom he was strongly emotionally attached, married August Becu, a Vilnius University professor, the future poet gained access to the local intellectual community. He became acquainted with Adam Mickiewicz, Joachim Lelewel, and Jan and Jędrzej Śniadecki. His law studies of 1825-28 were followed by employment at the Government Revenue and Treasury Commission. In 1831, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski offered him a job at the Diplomatic Office of the National Government. As a diplomatic courier, Słowacki left for Dresden and then for Paris. Between 1832-36, he stayed in Geneva, where he was greatly inspired by the Alpine scenery (W Szwajcarii / In Switzerland). While in Rome, in 1836, he made friends with Zygmunt Krasinski, one of the few readers who immediately appreciated the value and innovativeness of Słowacki's poetry. In 1836-37, he travelled to Greece, Egypt and Palestine, and in 1837-38, he stayed in Florence. This exotic trip, the mystical experience of the Holy Land, and his subsequent studies of Italian literature, painting and sculpture were reflected in Słowacki's poems and dramas of this period, most notably in Hymn o zachodzie słońca / Hymn at Sunset, Podróż do Ziemi Świętej z Neapolu / Journey to The Holy Land from Naples, Rozmowa z piramidami / Conversation with the Pyramids, Poema Piasta Dantyszka herbu Leliwa o piekle / Piast Dantyszek of Leliwa Coat of Arms' Poem on Hell , Beatrix Cenci).

In 1842, in Paris, Słowacki met Andrzej Towiański, and for a while associated himself with his Circle. He left because of differences of opinion, as well as his long-lasting conflict with Mickiewicz, the dominant Master. Yet it was largely to Towiański that Słowacki owed the final shape of his philosophical system. Towiański's philosophical and social views also inspired Słowacki to - albeit largely unproductive - political activity which involved setting up, with his few supporters (including Cyprian Norwid), a Circle during the Kraków Uprising and the so-called Galicia Massacre. He also wrote a few political manifestos, most notably Głos z wygnania do braci w kraju / Voice from Exile to Brothers in the Country and Do Emigracji o potrzebie idei / To the Emigration: On the Need for Ideas. During the Spring of Nations, he published Głos brata Juliusza Słowackiego do zgromadzonych i w klub chcących się zwiazać Polaków / The Voice of Brother Juliusz Słowacki to Members and Prospective Members of The Polish Club . When the Wielkopolskie Rising started, he set up a Confederation and, despite suffering from advanced tuberculosis, went to Paris to speak at a National Committee Meeting. Ordered by the police to leave Poznań, he returned to Paris and died there shortly afterwards. He was buried at the Montmartre Cemetery. In 1927, his ashes were transferred to the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, next to those of Mickiewicz's.

Słowacki earned some acclaim for his patriotic poems published in the press during the November Uprising, a highly traumatic time for him. These poems included Hymn, Kulig / Sleigh Ride and Oda do Wolności / The Ode to Liberty. His three volumes of early verse novels, poems, dramas and lyrics, published in Paris in 1832-33, went largely unnoticed by Polish émigrés who were preoccupied with political arguments. Moreover, Mickiewicz, who was by then a recognized national poet, spoke unfavourably of the work, calling Słowacki's poetry a beautiful church without God.

Only part of Słowacki's work was published in his lifetime. He failed to gain much praise though his poetry, with its extraordinary variety, rich phrasing, linguistic innovation and artistic sensitivity stood out even in the rich context of Romantic literature. His poems, such as Rozłączenie / Separation, Hymn (Smutno mi Boże) / How Sad I Am, My God, Testament mój / My Testament, Do Ludwiki Bobrowny / To Ludwika Bobrowna, Grób Agamemnona / Agamemnon's Tomb, Ojciec zadżumionych / The Father of the Plague-Stricken entered the canon of literature for future generations of Poles, yet were so innovative that the poet's contemporaries struggled to understand them and only a few, most notably Zygmunt Krasiński, Cyprian Norwid and Kornel Ujejski, expressed appreciation.

Słowacki voiced his opinions to the émigré circles and literary critics in his digressive poem Beniowski (1840-46). Cantos 1-5 came out in 1841; the remaining ones, their alternative versions and fragments, were published posthumously. The reconstructed poem consists of ten cantos written in ottava rima. The plot is set in Podolia and Crimea at the time of the Confederation of Bar, and the protagonist is a Polish nobleman modelled on a Hungarian nobleman whose popular memoirs were published in 1791. The poem tells the story of a poor, carefree young man who travels across the country and meets different people, many of them based on historical characters: Aniela, Swentyna, Father Marek, Tadeusz Dzieduszycki. The story serves as a pretext for a multi-layered poetic game, with the narrator, speaking with the poet's voice, its true protagonist. He comments on, changes and parodies the story, talks to the reader, and speaks to the assumed critics. Słowacki plays with genres; he is in turn epic, solemn, lyrical, ironic. He intersperses the story with sentimental recollections, thoughts and reflections on his art. Beniowski was interpreted as Słowacki's ideological and artistic creed, and earned him a little more recognition than his earlier works.

His earlier poem, Anhelli, published in 1838, also conveyed an unfavourable image of the emigration as well as a covert polemic against Mickiewicz. Received unfavourably by the readers, it had been written in a Lebanese mountain monastery and influenced by the poet's religious experience of the Holy Land. Its language, like that of Mickiewicz's Księgi narodu i pielgrzymstwa polskiego / The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage, was styled to resemble that of the Bible. Unlike Mickiewicz, however, Słowacki denies the redemptive value of émigré pilgrimage. Symbolically, the plot is set in Siberia. The exiles quarrel and fight with one another and are unable to come up with one idea; they degenerate morally and physically. Anhelli, a young man of pure heart, walks with a chaplain in a space suggestive of Dante's hell. He has been chosen for a sacrifice equal to that of Christ's, yet the sense of this sacrifice is unclear. He dies a lonely death and when a knight arrives to call for revolutionary action, angel Eloe does not allow him to wake Anhelli.

Vivid and linguistically beautiful, Anhelli abounds in symbols that yield themselves to a variety of interpretations. Some researchers were right in seeing the poem as a harbinger of the poet's maturing philosophy of Genesis from the Spirit, a metaphysical system which was the most original of Romantic messianisms. Like Mickiewicz and Krasiński, Słowacki understood history as a process of mankind's development in pursuit of the divine ideal, recognizing the need for suffering, sacrifice and action in individual and collective lives, and ascribing a particular role to the Polish nation. Drawing inspiration from Towiański as well as from Neoplatonism and the natural sciences, he effectively built a cosmologic system from the start of the universe to its ultimate "angelisation". Słowacki's universe is an organism made up of individual spirits in the process of progressive biological and spiritual evolution. The change he introduced to the Biblical Book of Genesis is a manifestation of extreme Romantic individualism: the spirits which existed in God demanded to have forms in order to develop their divinity. They emerged from the Absolute, creating time and space. However, a split occurred at the moment of emanation. Some spirits emerged through light, creating suns and stars, the world of angelic existence; others, through laziness and negligence, created the destructive element of fire, thus beginning the Earth. Słowacki interpreted original sin in terms of the decline of the spirit, which had lost its sense of divinity, and saw its redemption through the heroic effort of continuous self-development. Reincarnation allows spirits to preserve their identity. Metempsychotic memory is, however, the privilege only of mystics, visionaries and poets. The internal imperative of development - i.e. rebirth in higher and higher forms - calls for the destruction of all existing forms. Spiritual reality is hierarchical and the position within it depends solely on merit. This applies both to individual spirits as well as to "communities of related spirits", i.e. nations. The Polish nation has attained a spiritual seniority and so is at the top of the hierarchy of communities. The aim of progressive evolution is for individual spirits, owing their divinity to themselves, to achieve a superhuman state of "angelisation".

Słowacki's philosophy of Genesis is extremely individualistic and heroic. Glorifying activism, suffering, sacrifice, destruction and revolution, it makes do without the interference of Providence, tradition and Church, and provides a context explaining the poet's political and social views. Słowacki's philosophy of Genesis was laid down in Genezis z Ducha / Genesis from the Spirit and Król-Duch / King the Spirit, and was translated into the language of politics in Odpowiedź na Psalmy przyszłości / Reply to the Psalms of the Future.

Genezis z Ducha. Modlitwa / Genesis from the Spirit. A Prayer (written in 1844-46, published posthumously) is a lecture on evolution from the creation of the universe to the emergence of man. Its form is that of a prayer to God as the witness of creation. Its narrator has a dual role: that of an individual spirit recollecting his past and that of a global spirit re-creating the evolution of species from the lowest form to humankind. When the most deserving spirits achieved human form, God "placed a seal of durability on the world of form". Further development is to take place in the social world.

Król-Duch / King the Spirit, written in 1845-49, survived in many versions; it owes its final shape to Słowacki's posthumous publishers. It is an interesting attempt to create a poetic myth of the origins of the nation. The poet now moves the evolution of Genesis to the world of history, the same rules applying: of activity, sacrifice, combat against the existing form and against one's laziness. The spirit at the top of the hierarchy embodies itself in the leader of the community: the commander, the politician, the visionary. The line of the leaders of mankind's spiritual revolution starts from Er the Armenian, the figure from Plato's Republic, and the successor of antique culture. Then come the first kings of Poland - Popiel, Mieszko and Bolesław Śmiały (Boleslaus the Bold). They all represent different ideas of power, are credited with different contributions to the development of the nation and make different mistakes. Yet they all set on course the history of the nation which is to attain "Christ's aims". Using a suggestive, vivid and emotional language, Słowacki lends his vision of the history of philosophy an unusual breadth, setting the legend of creation in the context of the universe and in a sacral space populated with myths and cultural symbols.

Odpowiedź na Psalmy przyszłości / Reply to the Psalms of the Future (written in 1845, published anonymously in 1848) is a passionate polemic against Zygmunt Krasiński. True to his understanding of the Spirit as a perennial revolutionary who destroys the existing forms and develops through calamities and revolutions, Słowacki opposes the apotheosis of nobility and the call for national solidarity. He sees the people as the new agents of development, able to overthrow the petrified social structures. His poem uses the conventions of various genres, including an invocative prayer, a dialogue and a pamphlet. It is truncated, visionary and vivid, and its quotations ensured its longevity in the language of democratic circles.

Słowacki is also the author of a number of dramas representing various conventions: historical (Maria Stuart / Mary Stuart, Mazepa, Horsztyński), legendary and fairy-tale (Lilla Weneda, Balladyna), symbolic and mystic (Ksiądz Marek / Father Marek, Samuel Zborowski), and many others. His finest dramas include Kordian and Balladyna.

Like Krasiński's Nie-Boska komedia / The Un-Divine Comedy and Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefathers' Eve, Kordian (published in 1833) is a great metaphysical and political drama. Intended as a poetic challenge to Mickiewicz, it takes place both in the historical world and the beyond, real protagonists appearing side by side with symbolic ones. The central theme is that of the failure of the November Uprising. In "Preparation", forces from hell create and send to Earth leaders of the uprising. In Act I, Kordian experiences an unhappy love. In Act II, his travels leave him disappointed with contemporary Europe. In the monologue which culminates Act II, he transforms himself into a political activist, a fighter for the national cause. Act III, taking place on the eve of the uprising, presents a discussion of various standpoints on crime and the morality of bloodshed. Abandoned by other conspirators, Kordian intends to assassinate tsar Nicholas, just crowned the king of Poland. However, overcome by 'Fear and Imagination', he proves unable to commit this bloody act. Sentenced to death for an attempted coup, he is saved, probably through the intervention of Duke Constantine. It is not stated explicitly, however, as Słowacki had planned a sequel, Kordian being the first part of an unfinished trilogy. Nevertheless, the poet succeeded in creating a most intriguing Romantic hero - an individualist disappointed with the world, a revolutionary implicated in a tragic conflict of values. Received unfavourably by its contemporaries, Kordian continues to feature in theatre repertoires despite the difficulties of staging.

Balladyna (published 1839) combines a number of genres: legend, folk tale, historical drama, grotesque. It shows the influence of Shakespearean drama (King Lear, The Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth), yet is one of the most original Romantic works. The plot is set at the time of Poland's legendary origins. There is King Popiel, deprived of power by a usurper; the noble prince Kirkor, aiming to restore King Popiel's rule; the queen of the Gopło Lake and the elves; and two beautiful sisters, one good, the other bad. Balladyna, greedy for power, gains ascendancy through a number of crimes, including the killing of her sister Alina, the contender to marry Kirkor. In the finale, Balladyna dies, struck down by divine justice. The variety of genres, of language and of characters (passionate Balladyna, serene Goplana enamoured of a village simpleton, the tragic mother of the two sisters, the village community) have been key to Balladyna's lasting stage success and its many diverse interpretations.

The Romantics found it difficult to accept Słowacki's works; they found them too mystical and revolutionary. They were even more unacceptable to Positivists, running counter to their rationalism and organic work. Paradoxically, however, it was in the age of Positivism that Słowacki's works started being published and discussed. "Pisma" / "Writings", including mostly works published in his lifetime, came out in Leipzig in 1860. In 1866, Antoni Małecki published three volumes of "Pisma pośmiertne" / "Posthumous Writings" and a two-volume monograph.

The poet's birth centenary, in 1909, was marked by the publication of the first scholarly edition of "Works", vol. 1-10, edited by Bronislaw Gubrynowicz and Wiktor Hahn. The celebrations coincided with the height of Słowacki's popularity, Positivism giving way to the Young Poland cultural movement which considered Słowacki its forerunner. In 1901, Ignacy Matuszewski's Słowacki i nowa sztuka / Słowacki and The New Art was published, a book which showed a close philosophical and artistic kinship between Słowacki's romanticism and the Neoromanticism of the Young Poland movement. The movement particularly cherished the poet's philosophy of Genesis and the works written in his mystic period, its iconic hero being King the Spirit interpreted as a lonely poet-visionary, a Self searching for the truth of its divine element, an outstanding individual fighting against biological and social determinism, a romantic version of Nietzsche's Superman. Słowacki was an inspiration for Stanisław Przybyszewski, Stanisław Wyspiański, Włodzimierz Tetmajer, Tadeusz Miciński, Stanisław Brzozowski, and Jerzy Żuławski. The poet's philosophy of Genesis was invoked by Wincenty Lutosławski, the world-renowned acolyte of Plato and the last philosopher to include messianic ideas in a system of metaphysical insights. Słowacki's thinking provided Lutosławski with concepts of fundamental significance for his philosophy, such as the understanding of the world as a spiritual reality, the belief in reincarnation, and the conception of evolution as self-development. The poet's works were hallmarks of the institutions of national revival which Lutosławski founded: the Eleusis Society (Związek Elsów, from latin: Eccelsia Lex Suprema) and the Schools of National Education.

Słowacki's works were also invoked by artists grouped around the Poznań bi-weekly "Zdrój" (they called their programme "the Polish expressionism") and provided inspiration for illustrators and painters such as Ferdynand Ruszczyc, Jan Matejko, Michał Elwiro Andriolli, Wojciech Gerson, Jacek Malczewski and Artur Grottger. Balladyna inspired Władysław Żeleński to compose his opera Goplana (libretto by Ludomił German) and Ludomir Różycki based a symphonic poem on Anhelli.

When the Young Poland movement's fascination with Słowacki passed, other recognized writers and poets, most notably Jan Lechoń, Władysław Broniewski, Julian Przyboś, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, Stanisław Grochowiak, Ernest Bryll and Teodor Parnicki, continued to admit to spiritual kinship with his poetry.

The theatre career of Słowacki's dramas started at the turn of the nineteenth century and has continued until today, his works featuring strongly in the standard repertoires of professional, experimental, and amateur groups. Józef Kotarbiński directed Kordian and Ksiądz Marek in Kraków in 1899 and 1901, respectively. The anniversary year, 1909, was marked by a festival of Słowacki's ten dramas and the stage at Św. Ducha Square was named after him. In the 1920s, Leon Schiller directed monumental performances of Słowacki's dramas in various Polish towns. In 1941, Mieczysław Kotlarczyk staged Król-Duch / King the Spirit at the Tajny Teatr Słowa (later called the Rhapsodic Theatre, the stage where Karol Wojtyła - later, Pope John Paul II - made his acting debut). Among the most interesting post-war stagings of Słowacki's works were the convention-breaking performances directed by Adam Hanuszkiewicz at the Warsaw National Theatre.

Słowacki's works have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Major editions: "Dzieła wszystkie" / "Collected Works", vol. 1-17, Wroclaw 1952-76, ed. of vols. 1-11 Juliusz Kleiner, ed. of vols. 12-17 Władysław Floryan; "Korespondencja" / "Letters", ed. Eugeniusz Sawrymowicz, vol. 1-2, Wroclaw 1962-63.

Author: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, March 2003.
Revised by: James Hopkin, September 2010.