10 Polish Quotes About Death
#lifestyle & opinion
default, Deer in the Bieszczady Mountains, photo: Adam Lawnik / East News, center, sarny_en.jpg
Sooner or later, death will come for all of us, without exception. In this article, Culture.pl discusses this universal topic through 10 carefully selected quotes by acclaimed Polish writers and poets. From the grim to the humorous, these citations correlate to such things as Eros and Thanatos, preparing oneself for dying or the remembrance of the dead.
Life is a sinister gift from death. Dying lies in every moment. We create, love, fight in the interims of agony – that’s life.
From ‘Motory’ (Motors) by Emil Zegadłowicz, trans. MK
The grim reality is that every human dies sooner or later. That’s just how biology works: we age, our organisms get weaker and eventually we pass away. There’s no escaping that. Therefore, one could argue that everyone is born with a death sentence. That’s what the first sentence of this quote seems to point to.
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The citation comes from the 1937 novel Motory (Motors) by the acclaimed writer and poet Emil Zegadłowicz (1888-1941). The novel portrays a few weeks in the life of Cyprian Fałn, focusing on how gender influences the mind while addressing various social issues of Interwar Poland. Due to its bold treatment of such topics like sex and nationalism, the book was banned until the 1980s.
In the latter part of this rather pessimistic quote, Zegadłowicz seems to be suggesting that we live in constant fear of death, which causes agony – and that all efforts intended to bring something positive into our lives are somewhat overshadowed by that fear.
The moment of unbuttoning a blouse that covers somebody’s steep breasts is what it is, but it’s not a moment marked by fear of death. All other moments are.
From ‘Marsz Polonia’ (March Polonia) by Jerzy Pilch, trans. MK
This quote comes from the 2008 novel Marsz Polonia (March Polonia) by the celebrated contemporary author Jerzy Pilch. In the book, an aging narrator searching for a life partner arrives at a high-society party. There, he experiences a series of oneiric events that playfully reference such lofty things as martyrology or Romanticism. The novel has been compared to Stanisław Wyspiański’s classic 1901 drama The Wedding, the action of which also takes place at a party and evokes a number of so-called national Polish myths.
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Pilch’s citation addresses an issue that’s also raised by Zegdłowicz’s quote – breaking away from the agonizing fear of death. While Zegadłowicz mentions three things that can steer your mind off mortality, however, Pilch points only one – physical love. By doing so, Pilch seems to be bringing up the Freudian dichotomy between Eros and Thanatos, where the first correlates to the human sex drive and the latter to instincts of destruction and death.
According to Freud, Eros and Thanatos oppose each other. Following up on his idea may lead one to the conclusion that physical love can annul the fear of death.
To the corpse
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Bukowa Kalenica nature reserve, photo: Renata & Marek Kosiński / AG
You lay, having died, I’ve died as well
You – from the arrow of death, me – from the arrow of love
From ‘Do Trupa’ (To the Corpse) by Jan Andrzej Morsztyn, trans. MK
The interplay between love and death is also the theme of this quote, which is the beginning of the 1661 poem Do Trupa (To the Corpse) by Jan Andrzej Morsztyn. Morsztyn (1621-1693) was a prominent Polish politician – he held, for instance, the office of grand royal treasurer – and also a noted baroque poet.
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In To the Corpse, the narrator compares his situation, of a man hopelessly in love, to being dead. Like a corpse, he cannot move; he’s paralysed by his feelings. In the later parts of the poem, you find other comparisons of this sort: the corpse is bloodless, whereas the poet is pale, having lost his blush as a result of his unrequited affection.
Towards the end, however, the poetic voice points out certain differences that make his state even worse than that of the corpse. At least the deceased ‘feels nothing’, whereas the poet ‘feels great pain’. The corpse will ‘fall into dust’, finding peace, while the narrator will have to live on suffering ‘his fires’.
This somewhat humorous poem goes to show that, contrary to what some may claim, occupying yourself with love doesn’t necessarily prevent you from thinking about death.
Leave the dead alone, let them live in peace.
From ‘Na Ustach Grzechu’ (Speaking Sin) by Magdalena Samozwaniec, trans. MK
While Morsztyn directly addresses a dead man in his poem, this quote seems to be saying that it would be best not to do that. More so, the citation at hand advises not to bother the dead in any way at all, but to simply leave them alone. This advice is given in a humorous, paradoxical fashion that plays with the impossible idea of a dead, yet living human being.
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A witty sense of humour is what characterizes many of the writings by the author of this quotation – the valued satirical writer Magdalena Samozwaniec (1894-1972). The quote comes from her breakthrough novel Na Ustach Grzechu (Speaking Sin) published in 1922. The book is a parody of Trędowata (Leper) a highly popular sentimental romance novel by Helena Mniszkówna from the year 1909. Where Mniszkówna’s romantic story is serious and dramatic, Samozwaniec’s narrative is absurd and grotesque...
The idea to leave the dead to themselves, even though presented comically by Samozwaniec, does seem to have a certain sense to it. One could argue that there’s no point in dragging those who’ve already found their peace back into this agonising – as Zegadłowicz puts it – world.
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Kampinos National Park, photo: Renata & Marek Kosiński / Forum
The eternity of the dead lasts as long
As you keep paying them with your memory
It’s an uncertain currency, it’s every dawn
That someone loses their eternity
From ‘Rehabilitacja’ (Rehabilitation) by Wisława Szymborska, trans. MK
Some of us believe that life goes on after death. Various religious systems, for instance, deal with this topic, promising an eternal afterlife to those who abide their laws. One can have no certainty, however, that ascribing to a particular religion will grant a never-ending life after death. After all, faith is grounded in belief, rather than conclusive evidence. Some religious authorities even argue that true faith cannot exist without doubt or the lack of certainty.
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Meanwhile, on Earth, what’s left of those who have passed away is their memory, carried on by the living. Like all memories, this one is subject to fading as well. The frailty of remembrance about those already gone is the subject of the quote at hand, a verse from the poem Rehabilitacja (Rehabilitation) by the Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012). The poem, which also deals with such issues as falsifying history or the poet’s role in describing past events, comes from the 1957 volume Wołanie do Yeti (Calling Yeti).
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– Death does, however, have its bright sides…
– The only one that comes to mind is the thoughtlessness with which it mechanically sweeps away both the dispensable and indispensable.
From ‘Ziemia Obiecana’ by Władysław Reymont, trans. MK
We’re all equal in the face of death. Regardless of whether you’re a highly respected member of society who can count on being remembered long after death, or an outcast with no meaningful relations whatsoever, you’re bound to part with this life. The universality of death is what’s addressed in this quote, a dialogue from the 1899 novel Ziemia Obiecana (The Promised Land) by Władysław Reymont, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The classic novel follows the efforts of three friends Karol Borowiecki, Maks Baum and Moryc Welt to become rich in the industrial city of Łódź in the late 19th century. The story offers a disillusioned panorama of the rapidly developing city, showing how its ruthless capitalism impacts the citizens.
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Death’s universality is said to be its ‘bright side’ because, at least to some people, it makes life more bearable. If you have little or nothing to live for, it can be comforting to know that, at least at some point, you and the very successful and satisfied will be made equal, or dead.
You die at a random moment in your life. And the fate of man, which occurs between birth and death, sometimes seems nonsensical. After all, who’s capable of thinking, just in case, that every passing moment might be their last gesture? Often death catches one ‘in flagranti’, before one’s had time to take any precautions.
From ‘Granica’ (The Frontier) by Zofia Nałkowska, trans. MK
Just as death doesn’t choose who to take away, eventually putting an end to all lives, it also doesn’t choose, in most cases, a particularly meaningful moment to strike. Of course, history is full of examples of spectacular, deliberate deaths, like Caesar’s dying at the hands of his friend Brutus – but for most people it comes at a pretty ‘random moment’, as the quote at hand says.
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The source is the 1935 novel Granica (The Frontier) by the acclaimed writer and dramatist Zofia Nałkowska (1884-1954). Set in the realities of Interwar Poland, the story tells about the career and love affairs of Zenon Ziembiewicz, addressing the social issues of the time as well as raising questions of a moral and existential nature.
Nałowska’s quotation may bring to mind what some refer to as the ‘banality of death.’ Even though dying is a final experience, it happens all the time, and, from a biological standpoint (or as proposed by Nałkowska), it can be seen as a pretty ordinary thing.
All of us will die, and we should prepare for that. We should start societies to support the dying and found schools to teach it, so that at least at the final moment, we won’t make a mistake. We should practice that at PE lessons, how to die, how to gently slip into darkness and how to look prim in the coffin.
From ‘Final Stories’ by Olga Tokarczuk, trans. MK
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What we have here is obviously a humorous quote, one that engages in kind of a dialogue with the previous one. Whereas Nałkowska alerts us that death comes at a ‘random moment’ which can lead to our end looking somewhat ‘nonsensical’, the quote at hand offers a (comic) solution to this nuisance.
This citation comes from the 2004 novel Final Stories (originally: Ostatnie Historie) by Poland’s latest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Olga Tokarczuk, who was given the award for the year 2018. The book tells the stories of a grandmother and her daughter and granddaughter, each of whom is confronted by death and deals with it in her own way.
Tokarczuk’s quote says that society should take responsibility for preparing its members for death. Through education, we could achieve a point where death no longer catches you in flagranti (as Nałkowska puts it) but takes you away ‘gently’, leaving behind an elegant corpse…
A Letter to a Friend
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A European Bison in Białowieża Forest, photo: Adam Wajrak / AG
One would like to pass away
As if one were going to a soiree
For who is hurt by such a thing
When one is and feels nothing?
From ‘List do Przyjaciela’ (A Letter to a Friend) by Jakub Jasiński, trans. MK
Although this might seem like another light-hearted quote about death, the verse actually comes from a rather sad poem titled List do Przyjaciela (A Letter to a Friend), written in ca. 1787 by the military man and poet Jakub Jasiński (1761-1794).
Jasiński served in the Polish Army, eventually receiving the rank of lieutenant general for the bravery he exhibited in the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising – an armed insurgency against the second partition of Poland. Before the uprising, he worked as a private tutor and wrote a number of poems.
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List do Przyjaciela is said to have been written at a time when its author was experiencing suicidal tendencies caused by an unfulfilled love. So, when the narrator states that he’d like to ‘pass away’ as if he ‘were going to a soiree’, he’s not so much talking about the manner in which he would like to die, as his eagerness to ‘be and feel nothing’.
Fortunately, Jasiński didn’t end up taking his own life. Nevertheless, his death wasn’t going to be a peaceful one. He died fighting in the Kościuszko Uprising and is considered a war hero.
Life is tiresome
Life is tiresome, but will death bring relief? People aren’t eager to answer that question.
Stefan Kisielewski, trans. MK
Sometimes life can be so tiresome (or even agonizing, as the first quote on our list suggests) that you may wish for it to end, like Jakub Jasiński in his aforementioned poem. Yet, despite life’s downsides, most of us cling on to it with all the strength we have. Many view life as the single most important thing on Earth. It is on a rare occasion that someone really wants to stop living, even if they sporadically think that that could be a good idea.
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It’s observations like these that seem to be linked to the witty quote at hand. It was authored by the celebrated writer and journalist Stefan Kisielewski (1911-1991), whose works include the 1958 novel Miałem Tylko Jedno Życie (I Had Only One Life). Unfortunately, the exact origin of the citation is hard to establish.
jan andrzej morsztyn
Life can be hard, but before we find out whether death will bring any relief, let’s all get a little tired of living together, making the most of it while we’re at it.
Written by Marek Kępa, Oct 2019