Be My Valentine: 10 Polish Quotes About Love
#language & literature
default, Gilgamesz & Enkidu, serigraph and collage by Marek Żuławski, ca. 1979, photo: University Museum in Toruń, center, gilgamesz8a-zulawski-marek.jpg
Love is often considered the greatest feeling on Earth – poets, writers and philosophers have grappled with it since the beginning of time. Getting together, breaking up, love towards all of mankind, true love: Culture.pl breaks down love in ten quotes by Polish writers.
Due to its importance in our lives, love has concerned poets, writers, philosophers and, more or less, everybody else, since as far as anyone can remember. Already The Epic Of Gilgamesh, dating back to ca. 2100 B.C. and considered the oldest piece of literature to have survived to our times, revolves around love – between two friends, the titular Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Józef Wittlin, the poet and writer who translated the Mesopotamian epic into Polish in 1922, added the following dedication to his translation:
There’s such heat, such swelter, in this strange song from afar,
That one reading it in the wintertime will do so on fire:
No wonder, for each letter is love, from each love transpires –
As if the stylus had cut it not in clay, but in the heart!
Translated by the editor
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In this the greatest trouble lies,
That both be willing at the same time.
‘Stefania’ by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, translated by the editor
This, the last verse of Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński’s humorous poem Stefania, is one of the most famous Polish quotes about love. It charmingly points to the simple fact that love cannot be imposed and may only be felt by a person that freely chooses to do so. The poem, about the unrequited love of a painter toward a married woman, the titular Stefania, was published as part of the fabled 1913 volume of poems and songs Słówka (A Word or Two). Many consider the volume a brilliant social satire of its time.
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He had never loved anyone, not due to lack of opportunity, but because he cowered.
Translated by the editor
The fact that love is voluntary means that it includes the possibility of rejection. Some find this possibility so horrifying, they choose to avoid it altogether – by avoiding love itself. Such an approach provides insulation from the emotional risk of offering your heart to somebody who might at some point decide to give it away (Last Christmas, anyone?).
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This quote, which hauntingly expresses the ‘fear of love’ comes from Maids of Wilko, a highly-acclaimed short story published in 1933 by writer and translator Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980). In it, the narrator Wiktor, nearing forty, travels to a countryside estate he used to visit when he was younger. Eventually, the recurring memories of the infatuations he had experienced there cause him to feel great regret. The story ends with him leaving: ‘all that he felt now was, after all, longing for love’.
For love knows no fear and is bold
Fragment of ‘Promethidion’ by Cyprian Kamil Norwid, translated by the editor
One of Poland’s most influential poets, Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821 - 1883), is the author of this quote. It comes from his 1851 Promethidion, a poetic treatise on art and truth inspired by the Bible and Plato’s Symposium. The citation, rooted in idealistic philosophy, displays the author’s conviction that true love requires courage.
Norwid is believed to have written Promethidion as a result of philosophical debates he had had with his friends while he was living in Rome in the 1840s. Interestingly, the Roman philosopher Seneka the Younger, who had lived in the Eternal City almost two millennia before, also argued there was a connection between bravery and love. His quote from the tragedy Troades pertains to what is often said to be the only unconditional love in the world – a mother’s love for her child:
A loving mother knows no fear
The War Between Love and Friendship
The flame of friendship is slow but lasting;
The flame of love is great, but brief.
‘The War Between Love and Friendship’ by Ludwik Kropiński, translated by the editor
Often when people discuss the question of ‘true love’, the question of friendship and passion arises. Many claim that if a couple shares a long-standing relationship, the kind typically perceived as authentic, it is usually based on a steady friendship. Then again when ‘the flame of love is great, but brief’ some are inclined to see such feelings as shallow or superficial.
The struggle to strike a balance between the two kinds of love is the topic of the light-hearted poem The War Between Love and Friendship published in 1844. Its author, Ludwik Kropiński (1767 - 1844), was not only a playwright and poet but also an army general, which is probably why he came up with the curious idea of weaving military references into his poem. In his poem, love ‘declares war on friendship’ and the competing feelings muster ‘brave ranks’ against one another. But do they have to do battle?
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She’s ugly and he’s ugly
But their love is so lovely
Fragment of ‘Ugly Ones’ by Jan Wołek, translated by the editor
This is a quote from a song by Polish jazz-pop singer and composer Grażyna Łobaczewska. Taken from her famous 1988 tune Brzydcy (Ugly Ones), with lyrics by poet and painter Jan Wołek, it talks of true love in the simplest of ways. This is how the lyricist remembers working on the song as reported by Cyfrowa Biblioteka Polskiej Piosenki, a website devoted to Polish songs:
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She came over with her new fiancé, a musician. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s plain to see that Grażyna is a fabulous singer (…) but I’m not sure if she’d make it to the top five of the Miss Polonia beauty pageant. Moreover, her fiancé – a great musician – wouldn’t rank in the top five of a beauty contest either. But when they entered, that was beautiful. Two people with, so to say, ‘unobvious’ looks, holding each other’s hands so tenderly, showing affection with so much warmth, it was such a bright scene.
The lyricist eventually came up with a text that plays with the notion of ugliness, for example, by placing the pair in a ‘lousy bar’ at a ‘small station’. This is later contrasted with the ‘purest tone’ of their feelings. When the singer and her fiancé were shown the lyrics they ‘immediately understood and accepted the message. All those feelings are there in the recording’.
The beginning of love
Is the time to pretend
That everything human
Is alien to us
Fragment of ‘In Love’ by Kasia Nosowska, translated by the editor
What we have here is a paraphrase of the famous quote ‘I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me’ which appears in the 163 B.C. play Heauton Timorumenos by Roman author Terence. The paraphrase is part of Polish rock band Hey’s 1997 song Zakochani (In Love) with lyrics by the group’s singer-songwriter Kasia Nosowska. The song is a sarcastic take on the poses certain people adopt when they fall in love, wanting to present an idealised version of themselves. The singer mocks how new beaus pretend they’re ‘strangers to envy’ or show off their wit in such a way, that they’re ‘almost ridiculous.’ Ah, young love!
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To a Woman
‘I love you’ – means: o, free spirit!
I wish not to bind your fair wings
Fragment of ‘To a Woman’ by Maria Konopnicka, translated by the editor
This is a quote from the poem To a Woman by eminent poet and novelist Maria Konopnicka (1842 - 1910). Published in her 1888 volume Poezye Serya Pierwsza (Poems: The First Series), the piece deals almost exclusively with the distinction between authentic and superficial love.
The cited verse describes the kind of love the author considers the truest. Konopnicka seems to be saying that if you really care for someone you try not to limit their freedom and simply let them be who they are. In the poem, she also addresses issues like responsibility or sadness, saying that true love doesn’t shy away from them.
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‘I love you’ – means: with you I’ll share
The bitter bread of toil, tears and pain
Fragment of ‘To a Woman’ by Maria Konopnicka, translated by the editor
I haven’t seen you for a month already.
And nothing. Perhaps I’m more pale than before,
A little silent, a little more sleepy,
But you see, even without air I live on!
‘Love’ by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, translated by the editor
Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891 - 1945) is among the most important Polish poets of the interwar period. Her short, and possibly most well-known, poem Miłość (Love), was published in 1926 as part of the book of poetry Pocałunki (Kisses). Nature and transience were the underlying themes of the collection. It is considered one of Pawlikowska’s finest.
A clear example of break-up poetry, Love appears to be saying that the end of a relationship doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Although it might seem like life without your beloved – ‘without air’ – is impossible, that actually isn’t the case. The narrator ‘lives on’. Sometimes, not binding the ‘fair wings’ of a ‘free spirit’ means letting them go…
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Sketched with a Quill
As a pair and alone, is when we feel the depth of all things most profoundly. Love and friendship… One only needs to understand, always try to understand. Love? – Like anything else, it also requires work – ordinary, everyday work.
Fragment of ‘Sketches with a Quill’ by Andrzej Bobkowski, translated by the editor
This quote comes from the 1957 book Szkice Piórkiem (Sketches with a Quill) by Andrzej Bobkowski (1913-1961). A valued specimen of Polish diary literature, in Sketches with a Quill Bobkowski writes about his life during World War II. When war broke out, he got stuck in Chatillon, France, where he worked at an arms factory.
Throughout the book the author includes his thoughts on a number of issues like nationalism, – which he criticizes as ‘dim-witted’ and ‘blind’ – freedom and love. The latter he links to friendship and says it requires making a continues effort to understand the other person.
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Love redeems and cleanses the ugly and dark sides of this world, love saves peoples, ennobles individuals, creates heroes, elevates hicks, makes women happy. But (…) to be capable of love, you have to be capable of thought
Fragment of ‘A Few Words About Women’ by Eliza Orzeszkowa, translated by the editor
Last but not least, a quote by Polish novelist and leading writer of the Positivism movement Eliza Orzeszkowa. It’s from one of her socially engaged journalistic pieces, namely the 1870 Kilka Słów o Kobietach (A Few Words About Women) which deals with the question of women’s emancipation.
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cyprian kamil norwid
Seneka the Younger
The quote describes what some people call ‘universal love’ or love toward all mankind and love’s power to change the world in a positive way. However, like so many others, Orzeszkowa also differentiates between authentic and superficial love. The latter she calls ‘unconscious, instinctive, naïve and irrational’. Her quote makes it clear that true love requires ‘thought’ or insight.
Author: Marek Kępa, Feb 2019