When reading Polish Romantic literature, be it drama, prose, or poetry, you may be bewildered at how unusual it seems, especially compared to its French, English, and American contemporaries. There may be similar themes and philosophy behind it, but something surely feels off, something is different from other romanticisms. Culture.pl is here to explain what makes Poland’s version of Romanticism unique.
The beginning of the Romantic period in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is thought to be 1822, the year when the first volume of Adam Mickiewicz’s poems was published. The period is often considered a pinnacle of Polish drama and poetry, with numerous authors creating outstanding works of art that echoed throughout the world. It is also a period when literature in Polish is extremely different to what is written in other countries – and with good reason.
At first glance, the Polish take on Romanticism doesn’t look different at all. The forms that were popular here were popular throughout all of Europe at the time. The themes of beauty and emotion were also taken up in many countries, and the imagery used was quite common for the period. So why does it still feel strangely distant from its counterparts?
Well, it feels that way because of the circumstances that these works were written under. England at the time was approaching the peak of its imperial power, and was already considered the most powerful empire in the world. The USA was still a young country, still ecstatic about its freshly-gained independence, with a bright future ahead of it.
A uniquely dire situation
The Polish situation was the polar opposite of the American one. Its society, once proud of its 800-year-and-counting traditions, had been decimated by three partitions and the disappearance of Poland from world maps.
For a brief moment their hopes were reignited when Napoleon created the Duchy of Warsaw, but it was a short-lived triumph which died with his defeat in 1815. The Kingdom of Poland, created after the Congress of Vienna, although at first a promising concept with a tsar who seemed quite accepting of Poles, once again failed to meet Polish expectations of a free country. The disappointment and disillusionment finally resulted in the November Uprising of 1830, which, after it was defeated, brought upon even bigger sanctions and doomed many writers, intellectuals and ordinary people to exile.
This all makes it apparent that the Romantics in Poland were writing in completely different circumstances, with completely different problems on their minds. Some of them, Adam Mickiewicz being a prime example, created their masterpieces far away from their homeland. They did not, however, do that out of boredom or exhaustion with a boring and stale society back home (yes, we’re looking at you, Lord Byron!). They did so because the partitioning powers had exiled them because of their involvement in national liberation movements.
The loss of independence, failure of the Enlightenment, defeat of national uprisings, and nostalgia for the glory days of the Commonwealth – these all shaped the unique tone of Polish Romanticism. While many European romantics called for national reforms, Polish authors had to go much further and call for the restoration of their entire country – be it literally, as a sovereign state, or spiritually, as an idea in the hearts of its people, but certainly as a phoenix that will, in time, rise from its ashes.
The theme of Polish martyrdom is probably the most prominent and original one in the Polish Romantic tradition. Most notably present in Krasiński’s The Un-Divine Comedy and Mickiewicz’s Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage and Forefathers’ Eve, these works paint a picture of Poland and its partitioned land as Christ and his martyrdom. This imagery is extremely widespread throughout Polish Romantic thought, as it serves two critically important purposes – it gives some meaning to what Poles were going through, and it implies that in the future Poland will, just as Christ, rise once again.
However, the downfall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth wasn’t only a source of messianic ideas and blind longing for a return to the past. Romanticism in Poland was also the struggle to maintain Polishness in a people without their country, in the era when Prussia and Russia had tried to wipe out Polish culture and its traditions. Many an author realised that what unifies Poles the most is their history, so they used it to their advantage. Thus, pieces such as Konrad Wallenrod, Sir Thaddeus, Balladyna and Beniowski use it to remind people of better times, as well as unify and solidify them in their struggle for independence. Sir Thaddeus is especially important, for it also tries to help people cope with the feudal past, leave it behind and move on to create a new model of society.
Because of all these factors, the Romantic period gave birth to a very unique outlook towards writers and literature among the Polish population, elevating them above mere mortals. Wieszcze Narodowi – National Bards, or National Sages – were the most important creators of their time. They wrote in exile, and from foreign lands they uplifted the nation’s spirit, as well as prophesied its future. Each of the three bards had his own role to play: Słowacki was the shadow of the past, eulogising the old times; Mickiewicz was the announcer of the present, raising countrymen from their knees and motivating them to join the everyday struggle; and Krasiński, finally, was the prophet of the future, foreseeing the new order that was to come.
So, as they say, you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. What appears to be just another case of mundane, familiar Romanticism, turns out to be a really one-of-a-kind experience when it comes to Poland.
Written by Adrian Sobolewski, Nov 2017