Naturally Cultural: Flora In Polish Poetry
#language & literature
default, Historisch, Botanik, 1914, photo: Sammlung Rauch/Getty Images, botanic_forum.jpg
Renaissance praises of blooming lindens, 20th-century laments to a birch, and naughty goings on in a raspberry thicket – Culture.pl brings you a spectrum of the finest examples of how flora has been portrayed in Polish poetry. It seems the natural world has a lot to tell us about the human condition.
On The Linden Tree
A linden tree in the Bieszczady mountains, photo: Marek Kosinski/Forum
My guest, seat yourself beneath my leaves and take a rest!
The sun will not reach you here, I promise,
Even if it is high, and straight rays
Make the short shadows run back under the trees.
Here cool breezes always blow from the fields,
Here nightingales and starlings comfortably complain.
From my fragrant flowers hard-working bees
Draw honey which ennobles the tables of lords.
If a tree could talk in rhyme, it’d be just splendid if it talked like this. The moment captured in the poem must be a summer one due to the title, Na Lipę (On The Linden Tree) – in Poland, lindens bloom at the turn of July, and that’s when bees are ‘drawing honey’ from their ‘fragrant flowers’.
Apart from its literary values (such as whimsically making a tree the narrator), its universality has given this 16th-century epigram the status of an undisputed classic. The words are still as characteristic of the Polish summertime as the day they were penned by that Renaissance pioneer of the Polish literary language Jan Kochanowski. The translated quote was taken from the 1983 edition of The History Of Polish Literature, a book by the Nobel Prize in Literature winner, and an eminent poet himself, Czesław Miłosz.
Monstrous deed! A lady bright
Slays her own, her wedded knight;
Buries him beside a brook
In a grove where none will look.
Lilies on his grave she plants;
As she sows them thus she chants:
‘Lily flowers, grow as high
As my husband deep doth lie;
As my husband deep doth lie,
Do ye, lilies, grow so high!’
In this excerpt from the 1822 ballad The Lilies by Adam Mickiewicz, one of Poland’s most important Romantic poets, flora plays a rather different role. Kochanowski’s linden may be seen as an affirmation of life, whereas the lilies from Mickiewicz’s ballad are closely linked to death. As morbid as they are, they nevertheless don’t really serve the dark purpose for which ‘a lady bright’ sows them: instead of concealing her murder of her husband, they eventually lead to it being revealed. Toward the end of the lengthy ballad, a wreath made from the lilies ‘planted on his grave’, summons the victim’s ghost who comes for payback…
Adam Mickiewicz based his ballad, a very famous one, on Poland’s traditional Mediaeval song titled Pani Zabiła Pana (The Lady Killed The Knight). The citation is part of a translation by Dorothea Prall Radin, a noted American translator and writer.
Alone on a rock she grows
Almost the last of her kin…
And she cares not that below
The rock by the waves’ been trimmed
With mourn full of dignity
Over the crag she stoops
And she sees that down deeply
Grows so many a spruce
Translated by the editor
Here we have the second and third stanza of the 1880 poem Limba (Stone Pine) by Adam Asnyk, a valued poet of the Realist era. Titled after a mountainous kind of pine tree, it is one of the many works he devoted to the Tatra Mountains.
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The mountains and the sea are the only universal cures for man’s every problem, there breathing the fresh, aromatic air, feasting on the sight of nature fresh and lofty, one may forget about their troubles and pain…
Excerpt from a letter Adam Asnyk wrote to his father in 1874
Conversely, in Stone Pine, the tree is far from care-free. It’s quite conscious that its loneliness is bothersome, causing ‘mourn full of dignity’. Nevertheless it seems reluctant to do anything about it: ‘she cares not that below’… Although picturesque and troubled, the pine evokes little sympathy.
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The Wild Rose Bush In A Dark Spruce Forest
A wild rose bush in Warsaw, photo: Arkadiusz Ziółek/East News
In the secluded bends, in a quiet shelter
Between the ridges in the sun it swelters
Surrounded by rustle, the wild rose bush…
As if in a dream, it clings to the slopes
And nearby the stone pine rots,
A pine fallen by the storm-wind’s gush.
Translated by the editor
Krzak Dzikiej Róży W Ciemnych Smreczynach (The Wild Rose Bush In A Dark Spruce Forest) is part of the volume of poetry The Wild Rose Bush, published by Jan Kasprowicz in 1898. In this volume, the renowned poet expresses, like Adam Asnyk before him, an appreciation for the Tatra Mountains’ nature. The Wild Rose Bush In A Dark Spruce Forest consists of four numbered sonnets, and the quotation repeats the final stanzas of the second one, enough to present the poems most characteristic elements.
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Like in Asnyk’s poem an important part is played by a stone pine, but in this case it isn’t linked to aloofness but to decay and the fear of death. The rose bush on the other hand is a delicate being, a ‘synthesis of pure emotions’ that’s ‘imprisoned in an alien world’, as the literature theorist Iwona Mikołajczyk explains in her 2013 article Dialektyka Obrazowania Modernistycznego (‘The Dialectics of Modernist Depiction’) in the quarterly Pamiętnik Literacki. The ‘slopes’ and ‘secluded bends’ make this strange world a place somewhat reminiscent of a prison or ‘existential trap’. Mikołajczyk goes on to conclude that Kasprowicz ‘gives the rose bush the emotionality of a person lost in a hostile world and overwhelmed by the consciousness of the nearing end’.
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In The Raspberry Thicket
In the raspberry thicket, from the gaze of the curious
Concealed from head to toe, for a mighty long time
We picked the raspberries which that night arrived.
Your fingers were blindly blooded with their juice.
A mean bumblebee roared, as if to scare the flowers
A sick leaf was warming its rusty bumps in the sun,
The necklaces of ragged spiderwebs did glisten
And on its back a hairy beetle was going backwards.
Translated by the editor
The one-of-a-kind and deeply Slavonic idiom of Bolesław Leśmian is the reason why he’s seldom translated into English. Some even go as far as to call the poet ‘untranslatable’. Fortunately, the above cited opening stanzas of the 1920 W Malinowym Chruśniaku (In The Raspberry Thicket) are free from Leśmian’s most problematic – from a translator’s standpoint – devices, such as the prolific use of neologisms.
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Here’s what Rochelle Heller Stone says about this poem in her 1976 book Bolesław Leśmian: The Poet and His Poetry, published by the University of California Press:
The theme of love is recurrent in Leśmian’s poetry. His erotics are among the finest ever written. The cycle W Malinowym Chruśniaku (‘In The Raspberry Thicket’) reveals a tender, sensual intimate feeling, often expressed through insinuation. As Mieczysław Jastrun [Polish poet and writer – ed.] has observed, these poems are unique in Polish literature. With the exception of Mickiewicz no one has expressed love so powerfully and yet so simply. The intimacy is expressed by means of allusion, clarity, brevity and conciseness. This cycle represents the optimistic and happy period in the poet’s life.
Oh, what is more beautiful than tall trees,
Forged in the sunset’s bronze by evening rays
On waters spilling peacock-coloured gleam,
Deepened by a reflecting dome of leaves.
The water’s scent, green in shade, gold in sun
In the dreamy stillness barely sways, stirs
When in August’s heat meadow grasshoppers run
Cutting the silence with hundreds of silver scissors
Translated by the editor
Like Kochanowski’s On The Linden Tree, here is another example of verse praising a Polish summer that could be any year. The citation repeats the first two stanzas of the poem Wysokie Drzewa (Tall Trees) by the exceptional poet and playwright Leopold Staff, published in his 1932 volume of poetry of the same name. Throughout the volume, the poet focuses on the value of everyday life and nature, juxtaposing the latter with the ‘artificialness’ of urban civilisation.
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To those acquainted with Bob Dylan’s music, Tall Trees may bring to mind the singer-songwriter’s 1975 song You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go where you find the following verses:
Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever and never realize the time
How do I make this sadness stop,
I sleep, but I wake up,
Something unleashes inside,
To remind, remind,
My daughter who’s dead,
The song’s wicked thread
Like a grave wants to bind me
And – poisonous – reside in me,
Translation by the editor
These touching opening stanzas are from Birch by the valued poet Władysław Broniewski, after his daughter Joanna’s untimely death from gas poisoning. After Joanna passed away, Broniewski devoted a whole series of poems to her.
In 1954 Broniewski lost his beloved daughter, the film director Joanna. He expressed his mourning through a series of poems whose emotional strength is comparable to that of Kochanowski’s ‘Laments’.
Quote from Janusz R. Kowalczyk’s Culture.pl article about Władysław Broniewski
The Renaissance author wrote Laments after his daughter Ursula was taken by illness at the mere age of two. The often-repeated comparison is the reason why some assume that Joanna also died as a child. But in fact she was 24 years old and left behind a daughter of her own, Ewa.
Anna Worowska’s article about birch trees at the website of the University of Białystok gives a possible explanation as to why Broniewski chose this kind of tree as the listener of his monologue:
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The silver birch called the ‘weeping birch’ is strongly rooted in Polish beliefs, rituals and customs. (…) Birches were planted to line roads leading to manors and cemeteries. They were planted in parks, gardens, near houses, shrines and roadside crosses.
It seems the way all these poets have personified and imbued flora with feelings and folly, is a natural continuation of how humans have been interacting with the world around them for millennia. We can never escape ourselves, not even in the middle of the wild woods.
Author: Marek Kępa, May 2018