How The English Romantics Went Crazy For Kościuszko: A Secret Polish History
#language & literature
It turns out famed Romantic poets like Byron, Keats and Coleridge were enamoured with a rather unexpected figure: Tadeusz Kościuszko, one of Poland’s most prominent freedom fighters. Seemingly forgotten now, Culture.pl examines the peculiar 18th- and 19th-century literary phenomenon that’s been described as none other than ‘the Kościuszko craze’.
The scarred Polish general
Toward the end of the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by its neighbours: Prussia, Austria and Russia. Even though certain political factions within the commonwealth approved of this, their consent wasn’t enough to prevent resistance on a mass scale. The biggest fight was put up by General Tadeusz Kościuszko who led an uprising in 1794.
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Despite some initial success, the highly skilled leader and veteran of the American Revolutionary War (fighting for the colonists) lost to the overwhelming powers of the partitioning armies. One of the last accords of the uprising was the Battle of Maciejowice on 10th October, when the Polish forces suffered defeat and the wounded general was taken prisoner by the Russians.
News of his exploits spread across the Channel, where the Polish war hero became a major inspiration to British poets of the time.
The span of Kościuszko’s influence (…) is particularly remarkable. In part I believe this long-lasting interest among artists and poets came from a national guilt or unease over the fate of Poland. British writers repeatedly questioned their nation’s inaction as Poland, one of Europe’s oldest nations, dismembered by the supposed allies of Britain, disappeared from the map; and no single figure embodied the tragedy of Poland more powerfully than did the scarred (…) Polish general.
Quote from the book The Other East and Nineteenth-Century British Literature by Thomas McLean
A Hireling's sword
One of the earliest British poems praising Kościuszko comes from that important herald of English Romanticism Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Moved by the news of the Battle of Maciejowice, he published his Koskiusko only two months later in December 1794. The hastiness of his reaction may have resulted in the misspelling of the hero’s name, along with the fact he portrayed Kościuszko dying on the battlefield (at the time, many assumed the general was dead when actually he was imprisoned):
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O what a loud and fearful shriek was there,
As though a thousand souls one death-groan pour'd!
Ah me! they view'd beneath a Hireling's sword
Their KOSKIUSKO fall! Through the swart air
In her 1975 paper Powstania Polskie w Poezji Angielskiej XIX Wieku (Polish Uprisings in 19th-Century British Poetry), Wanda Krajewska writes of the above-cited poem. Intriguingly, her view on why the British Romantics were fascinated with Kościuszko is quite different than Thomas McLean’s:
(…) The British Romantics were interested primarily in Kościuszko himself. Not in the fate of a nation, but in a hero’s individuality. Coleridge wrote his aforementioned sonnet as part of a series on ‘eminent characters’. (…) To him Kościuszko was a universal hero, a symbol of patriotism.
Freedom’s sacred cause
Henry Francis Cary was a British author and translator, best-remembered for his translation of The Divine Comedy. Somewhat less known is that he also contributed to the so-called Kościuszko craze by writing the Ode to General Kosciuszko in 1797:
Nor he who rears the temper’d laws,
Nor who has tamed the frequent foe,
Is noble, as the hand that draws
The sword in freedom’s sacred cause,
To Cary, Kościuszko is also primarily a heroic patriot. An analysis of the ode can be found in the 1847 book Memoir Of The Rev. Henry Francis Cary, M. A., Translator Of Dante:
However, it ought to be said that Cary’s ode does mention Poland’s long history which makes his work somewhat less focused on the individual than Coleridge’s.
Outcasts of Europe!
In 1797, the English translator and poet Amos Simon Cottle published his Icelandic Poetry or The Edda of Saemund, a translation of a mediaeval collection of Old Norse poems known as The Poetic Edda. What possible link may these Old Norse writings have to Tadeusz Kościuszko? The answer is: Robert Southey.
Southey, a major English Romantic poet, gave Cottle’s work an introduction in verse form, titled To A. S. Cottle from Robert Southey. It includes the following lines:
Speed thee La Fayette! To that happier shore
Where Priestly dwells, where Kosciusko rests
From holy warfare. Persecuted men!
Outcasts of Europe!, sufferers in the cause
Of Truth and Freedom!
According to Romantic Circles, a scholarly site devoted to Romantic-period literature and culture, the introduction draws a parallel between the Polish general and the mythical Odin. It’s based on the popular theory that ‘Odin was a historical chieftain’ in Asia who had to flee military aggression from ancient Rome and later ‘had been deified’:
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In a passage (…) from the poem, Southey names revolutionary heroes forced to flee their homelands due to political persecution: the French Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), the English Joseph Priestly (1733–1804) and the Polish-Lithuanian Andrzej Tadeusz Kościuszko (1748–1817), who are all celebrated as ‘Persecuted men! … sufferers in the cause/ Of Truth and Freedom!’
And Freedom shriek’d…
Whereas the aforementioned poems about Kościuszko didn’t determine their authors’ literary careers, there is an example of one that did. Here’s an excerpt:
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Sarmatia fell, unwept, without a crime;
Found not a generous friend, a pitying foe,
Strength in her arms, nor mercy in her woe!
Dropp’d from her nerveless grasp the shatter’d spear,
Clos’d her bright eye, and curb’d her high career;
Hope, for a season, bade the world farewell,
And Freedom shriek’d… as Kosciusko fell!
This was part of the 1799 didactic poem Pleasures Of Hope by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell. We can see its importance in Jane Porter’s Thaddeus of Warsaw as Evidence of Polish-British Relationships, which quotes Maciej Laskowski:
There was the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777 – 1844), author of the extensive work entitled The Pleasures of Hope (…), in which the piece The Downfall of Poland (…) is included. (…) The Downfall of Poland guaranteed Campbell fame, and the last two of the cited verses are said to have been known by nearly every Englishman and many Frenchmen.
The sacred tear
General Thaddeus Kosciuszko by Anthony Carson, photo: John Carder Brown Library at Brown University
But what about this Thaddeus of Warsaw, the popular novel by Scottish author Jane Porter? Penned in 1803, its main hero is Thaddeus Sobieski who Culture.pl’s Juliette Bretan describes in her essay The Polish Spirit in Britain: A Complex Involvement as ‘modelled on the nineteenth-century Polish hero Tadeusz Kościuszko’. The following sample comes, however, not from Jane but from her sister Anna Maria, also a novelist and poet:
O Freedom, Valour, Resignation! Here
Pay to your godlike son, the sacred tear;
Weave the proud laurel for his suffering brow.
And in a world's wide pity, steep the boygh.
After Kościuszko was exiled from Russia, he made his way to Britain before going to America. In London, the English painter Richard Cosway managed to make a painting of the general, whose presence very much stirred the curiosity of the local high society:
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The portrait shows Tadeusz Kościuszko laying on a sofa with his head bandaged. The English painter Richard Cosway painted the Polish hero in London in 1797, supposedly observing him through a keyhole. That’s because Kościuszko was very strict about not letting anybody paint him. (…) That image was later reproduced by Anthony Cardon [in 1798] as a copper engraving and Anna Maria Porter’s quatrain was added to it.
Quote from the National Museum in Warsaw’s website
There came a wanderer
After a convalescence in America, the general returned to Europe in 1798, settling down in Switzerland. By then, the first wave of the Kościuszko craze had passed, but interestingly another started around the year 1814. In his 2001 paper Transformed, Not Inly Altered: Kosciuszko and Poland in Post-Waterloo Britain, Thomas McLean points to the political situation of Europe on the eve of the Congress of Vienna as the event that prompted renewed interest:
Most critics have read the later Kosciuszko sonnets by Leigh Hunt and John Keats as either nostalgic mementos or as celebrations of a forgotten hero whose philosophy of life still had value in the particular historical moment. But there were other, more immediate reasons for Kosciuszko's resurrection. The subject of Poland had been revived recently in the British press, and Kosciuszko himself had reappeared, as a potential figure of political importance.
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Here’s an excerpt from the 1815 sonnet To Kosciusko by the first of the two important Romantic poets mentioned in the quote:
There came a wanderer, borne from land to land
Upon a couch, pale, many-wounded, mild,
His brow with patient pain dulcetly sour.
Men stoop'd with awful sweetness on his hand,
And kiss'd it;
It ought to be mentioned that despite being approached to do so, Kościuszko never legitimised the map-changing decisions made at the Congress with his approval.
A full harvest
Keats, the other of the two creators mentioned in Thomas McLean’s quote, published his piece devoted to Kościuszko in 1817 (also titled To Kosciusko). In it, you find the following lines:
Good Kosciusko, thy great name alone
Is a full harvest whence to reap high feeling:
It comes upon us like the glorious pealing
Of the wide spheres-an everlasting tone.
Leigh and Keats were friends and it’s highly probable the first one’s interest in the Polish general’s story inspired his colleague to write the cited poem. As if to back this theory, the already quoted Wanda Krajewska notices that both of the two authors’ same-titled pieces basically omit Kościuszko’s leadership of the uprising, instead concentrating on him as a symbol, a symbol of such things as timelessness, perfection and even seclusion. She goes on to conclude that the Pole’s role as a freedom fighter was only highlighted in British verse yet again when Lord Byron decided to write of him:
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The mythologized and secluded figure of Kościuszko became a revolutionary once more in the poetry of Byron (…)
The avenging angel
Lord Byron really requires no introduction, but nevertheless it’s worth pointing out that he’s often cited as one of the main creators of European Romanticism. In Canto V of his 1823 poem The Age Of Bronze, you find this passage reminding of Kościuszko’s insurgent deeds:
Poland! O’er which the avenging angel past,
But left thee as he found thee, still a waste,
Forgetting all thy still enduring claim,
Thy lotted people and extinguish’d name,
Thy sigh for freedom, thy long-flowing tear,
That sound that crashes in the tyrant's ear;
The lengthy The Age Of Bronze has been described as a satirical-polemic piece pertinent to the political issues of the time. In his 1993 paper Echoes Of The Polish Revolution In Late Eighteenth And Early Nineteenth Century English Literature: Part Two, Piotr J. Drozdowski writes that the quoted section is a ‘very sincere declaration of emotional and moral advocacy and support for Poland's [independence] cause’. According to him the ‘avenging angel’ is Napoleon, whose promises of bringing Poland back its freedom proved futile, leaving it ‘still a waste’. Also, Krajewska writes in the context of Canto V that Kościuszko is ‘glorified as a warrior active in a particular political situation, urging to keep on fighting against the Tsars’.
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If one adds that, according to Piotr J. Drozdowski:
Byron was of course the champion of freedom and revolutionary movements in and beyond Europe: ‘It was the resurgent people in so many lands who stirred him: the Poles, the Italians, the Spanish, the Americans, the Greeks.’
It becomes clear why the British Romantic held the Polish general in such high regard.
If by now you’ve also caught the craze for Kościuszko in British verse and would like to find materials for further reading, perhaps this excerpt from Kościuszko Among The English Romantics, a 1985 article by Francis E. Zapatka, will provide some interesting leads:
Little known now, but well known in their time were Anna Maria Porter (1780-1832) and her sister, Jane (1766-1850), Henry Francis Cary (1772-1844), Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), and Helen Maria Williams (1762-1827), who also contributed to what can be fairly described as the Kościuszko craze.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Henry Francis Cary
Anna Maria Porter
James Henry Leigh Hunt
Author: Marek Kępa, Aug 2018, with special thanks to Juliette Bretan for research