The history of Polish literature is just about one of the most fascinating out there. Here are some facts about it that will probably change the way you think about Eastern European literature, make you study the history of the region, or just have you reading more Polish books.
1. The first Polish sentence was rather feminist
The earliest known Polish sentence appears in 1270, in a book otherwise written in Latin. The words Day, ut ia pobrusa, a ti poziwai are spoken by a husband to his wife as she hand-grinds grain using a quern stone and can be translated roughly to mean:
Let me grind, and you take a rest!
Some might say it shows the grassroots of the Polish feminist movement go way back into the past. While surely not literature yet, this line starts a tradition of written Polish language – one which pre-dates the literary traditions of many of Poland's neighbours.
2. Polish literary language was conceived in the head of one man
While it is Mikołaj Rej who is considered the ‘Father of Polish Literature’, being the first author to write exclusively in the Polish language, it is Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584) who almost single-handedly elevated Polish literature to unprecedented heights. Under Kochanowski's pen, the Polish literary language found its at once mature and elegant variant, one which is perfectly comprehensible even to contemporary readers some 450 years later.
Written in 1580 after the death of his daughter Ursula, Kochanowski's Laments are considered to be among the greatest masterpieces of European Renaissance literature. Their foundational place in Polish literature is often compared to that of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in English, only that they were written some 30 years before the Englishman's works.
3.The best Latin poet since Horace was born in Mazovia
Latin was the language of literature and high culture in Poland well into the modern period. Poles were considered master orators and poets in the language of the Romans. Latin verse works by Kochanowski and Hussevius circulated in Europe, and Sarbiewski (pen name Sarbievius) was considered the best Latin poet since Horace, while some seem to have thought he even surpassed the great Roman.
Known as the ‘Sarmatian’ or ‘Christian’ Horace, Sarbiewski (1595-1640) was born in Sarbiewo in Mazovia. He went on to study in Rome and eventually became a professor of rhetoric and theology at the Academy of Vilnius. By the end of the 17th century, over 30 editions of his poetry had already been published in different countries across Europe. In 1622, in recognition of his unmatched poetic genius, Sarbiewski was awarded the Poeta Laureatus prize by the Pope.
4. Polish had a Macaronic variant
In the 17th and 18th century, both the Polish language and its literature went through a crisis which... almost killed them. During this time, Polish writers developed a highly peculiar form of language known as Macaronic.
‘Macaronising’ was a mixture of Polish and Latin, with Latin heavily influencing Polish sentence structure and word order. This macaronic language was spoken in political gatherings, court tribunals, but also in schools and the royal court – it made its way into the diaries and works of writers. This strange idiom was so pervasive that it is sometimes called the ‘third language of Poles’ (the second being Latin).
The tradition of macaronising proved a lively and productive literary practice well into the 19th and even 20th century when it was employed, for stylistic purposes, in works by Henryk Sienkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz.
5. Polish literature is not only Polish-language literature
For many centuries a melting pot of many cultures and ethnicities, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the place where literature written in many languages flourished, from Latin through Hebrew, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Tatar and Roma.
One of the last languages to develop and thrive in Poland was Esperanto, which also had its literature flourish in Poland. Another, perhaps the most important, was Yiddish, which developed in Polish territories from as early as the 16th century, with many of its most important writers originating from Poland, like I.L. Peretz and I.B. Singer.
To make things more complicated, perhaps the most famous book of this ‘non-Polish language literature’ was written in the early 19th century in French: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki.
6. Polish literature was written by writers coming from different backgrounds
Flip the perspective around, and you’ll see that over centuries Polish literature was written by writers coming from different nationalities and ethnic groups. Some of them, like I.L. Peretz, Yanka Kupala or Joseph Roth, wrote their early works in Polish before they went on to become classic authors of literature in other languages.
7. Modern Polish literature was born in present-day Belarus & Ukraine…
Belarusian folklore was the inspiration behind the early Romantic ballads of Adam Mickiewicz that initiated the whole Romantic movement in Poland. In the early writings of Mickiewicz, one can find many Belarutenisms – this is why many of his contemporaries found his language ‘barbaric’. Also, the early Polish digressive poem Maria by Antoni Malczewski was born out of his fascination with the landscape of Ukraine, and the history of the region inspired many a drama by Juliusz Słowacki.
The eastern ‘exotic’ provinces of the Commonwealth, traditionally referred to as Kresy, continued to be a source of inspiration for many generations of writers, like Sienkiewicz with his Trilogy. Further complicating this confusing literary geography is the phrase ‘Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health,’ from Adam Mickiewicz's epic poem Pan Tadeusz – it is learnt by heart by all Polish schoolchildren even today, and remains among the most famous passages from Polish literature.
8. Polish literature was written by political refugees
Much of the most iconic works that subsequently entered the Polish literary canon were actually written outside of Poland. The partitioning of the country (in the late 18th century) and the subsequent national uprisings (19th century) with their brutal repercussions engendered several massive waves of emigration (and deportation). That’s why such writers as Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki or Cyprian Kamil Norwid spent the majority of their lives living in exile and never returned to Poland. Other 19th-century emigrants from Poland became classics of literature in other languages... Look no further than Joseph Conrad.
History repeated itself during and after WWII. With the installation of the communist regime, many writers once again found themselves in exile. This was the case with Gombrowicz, Bobkowski, Herling-Grudziński or, a bit later, Czesław Miłosz. And just when it all seemed set for good, Polish literature is once again being written outside the country. The free movement of people as well as the economic emigration which followed Poland’s accession to the EU has created conditions in which Polish literature is once again being written abroad: in England, Ireland, Iceland, Germany and the Isle of Man.
9. Polish literature was written using a secret code
Back in 19th-century Poland, the political situation in the partitioned country resulted in the development of a wholly new literary strategy. One of the most important literary devices to avoid censorship was the so-called Aesopian language. Throughout the 19th century, it became a way to encode information to avoid censorship, with an elaborate system of allusions, symbols, allegories, half-words and purposeful omissions. Invisible to outsiders, for the informed (namely Poles) and those able to read between the lines, it offered a whole array of additional meanings. Bolesław Prus’s 19th-century masterpiece The Doll, considered by many the best Polish novel of all time, is written in this language too.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this strategy returned after WWII when the Soviet-installed communist government imposed censorship. Polish writers once again resorted to Aesopian speech and located the plots of their books in historical costume, employing allusion and allegory. This is also true about Polish reportage: Kapuściński’s Emperor, his famous reportage from Ethiopia, was always read in Poland as a satire on the authoritative rule of the first secretary Edward Gierek.
10. Polish has a powerful tradition of feminist writing that still needs discovering
While Polish men fought in national uprisings, became engaged in secret plots and had to emigrate (or were deported as a result), Polish women were often left alone to face the grim everyday reality of an occupied country. With their men and sons gone, many had to take responsibility for their families. They also developed literature which embodied their unique stance.
Polish 19th-century women's writing brought us gems of feminist literature, like the works of Narcyza Żmichowska. In the early 20th century, the gender perspective was addressed in the writings and unique transgender biographical experience of Maria Komornicka (AKA Piotr Odmieniec Włast). The 20th-century novels of Zofia Nałkowska address women’s social experience in inter-war Poland, while Zuzanna Ginczanka pioneered a breakthrough radical feminist perspective in poetry before she perished in the Holocaust. Another woman writer, Anna Świrszczyńska, can be seen as a forgotten feminist classic of the second half of the 20th century, her sensual poetry still awaiting its due place in the literary pantheon.
11. Polish literature was redefined by World War II & the Holocaust
Polish literature was one of the first to probe the possibility of representing the reality of World War II and the Holocaust. Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions (1946) and Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen remain among the first and most terrifying testimonies of the Holocaust.
The atrocities of World War II were further represented in the writings of Tadeusz Różewicz, Miron Białoszewski (A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising) and Leopold Buczkowski (Black Torrent), while Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was one of the first writers to write a personal account of life in a Soviet Gulag (A World Apart).
The terrible legacy of World War II, totalitarian regimes and the Holocaust all remain a constant presence in the work of contemporary writers like Hanna Krall or Henryk Grynberg.
12. The Polish school of reportage is a brand name of its own
Despite being shut tightly behind the Iron Curtain for close to 50 years after WWII, Polish writers were still able to engage in a complicated relationship with the outside world. Writers like Ryszard Kapuściński or Hanna Krall established what is known as the Polish school of reportage, a tradition of literary non-fiction writing, continued today by such writer-reporters as Mariusz Szczygieł and Witold Szabłowski.
13. Polish literature is NOT about Poland
That Polish literature is concerned primarily with Poland, is one of the most popular accusations levelled at Polish literature. While there’s surely some truth to this (a possible explanation would go back to the Partitions era, see point 9), there are writers who surely defy this stereotype.
Take Bruno Schulz, the writer who just before WWII depicted the small-town world of the Jewish shtetl in a manner reminiscent of magical realism. Or consider Stanisław Lem the sci-fi master and a prophet of a future in which we live. Or think of Stefan Grabiński... Described as a Polish E.A. Poe meets H.P. Lovecraft, Grabiński is an early 20th-century author of horror stories that sought the uncanny in the manifestations of technology, like trains and electricity.
Last but not least, think of the Polish fantasy literature which spawned Geralt of Rivia, namely The Witcher from the pen of Andrzej Sapkowski. Thanks to its successful video game adaptation, he is arguably the best known Polish literary character. Also not much to do with Poland, strigoi excluded.
14. Poland is a literary super-power...
Since 1901 when the Nobel Prize was established, the Polish language has scooped up 4 Nobel Prizes, with prizes for Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905), Władysław St. Reymont (1924), Czesław Miłosz (1980), Wisława Szymborska (1996) and Olga Tokarczuk (2018). As of late 2019, Poland ranks 8th in the overall listing of Nobel Prize winners by country – just behind France, USA, UK, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain, but ahead of Ireland, Norway and Japan.
This means Poland can be considered a real super-power in world literature. The only question is: who’s out there next?
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 12 March 2018; updated Oct 2019