In his new biography of Adam Mickiewicz, American Professor Roman Koropeckyj traces the winding European paths of the writer: from a poet of European fame to an anonymous émigré in Paris, years in a dangerous religious sect and a death neither romantic nor mysterious in Istanbul.
Adam Mickiewicz's life was full of turns which took him through most of Europe. Considered the greatest Slavic poet of his time by his contemporaries, hailed as a prophet by his compatriots, Mickiewicz actually stopped writing poetry when he was only 36, right at the height of his power. He decided that instead of writing poetry, it was time to start living it. For the next 20 years, he was successively a revolutionary leader fighting for the freedom of nations, a Catholic heretic stuck in a dangerous sect, the editor-in-chief of an international newspaper, and a life-weary librarian in Paris. His poetic and revolutionary spirit prevailed once again in 1855 when he went to Constantinople to form a Polish legion to fight Russia during the Crimean War. His new biography, The Life of a Romantic by Roman Koropeckyj, sheds some new light on many contested facts in Mickiewicz's life and looks at the Polish poet from a clearly cosmopolitan perspective.
The Road to Mickiewicz
Roman Koropeckyj's Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic is the first English language biography of Mickiewicz for almost 100 years. For Mr. Koropeckyj, Professor of Slavic Languages & Literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, it is already his third book on the Polish national poet.
- I became interested in Polish literature while still in high school. Of all people, it was Gombrowicz that got me interested into Polish literature. My father bought me some books and so I started learning Polish reading Gombrowicz and Hłasko – says Mr Koropeckyj who grew up in the US but whose native tongue was Ukrainian.
Koropeckyj continued learning Polish in college and in 1974/75 he spent a year in Poland.
- When I applied for graduate school I knew I wanted to study Polish literature, particularly since everyone else was studying Russian literature. I was accepted in Harvard where I had the great fortune of having as my Polish guru professor Wiktor Weintraub, one of the great Mickiewicz scholars of the 20th century.
It was Wiktor Weintraub, Polish professor and expert on Mickiewicz's prophetism, at that time in his early 70s, who had the biggest influence on Koropeckyj's academic career. Koropeckyj devoted his dissertation to 19th century biographies of Mickiewicz, examining how they created a specific image of him as a national icon. Unfortunately, Professor Weintraub died before he finished this dissertation. - It took me very long to write my dissertation, Koropeckyj adds.
This turned out to be only the beginning of Koropeckyj's long-term interest in Mickiewicz. After receiving a post at UCLA he wrote a very different book on Mickiewicz called The Poetics of Revitalization: Adam Mickiewicz between Forefathers' Eve and Pan Tadeusz. But it wasn't until a few years later that the idea of writing a thorough Mickiewicz biography dawned on Koropeckyj, or to be precise, it dawned on one of his friends with whom he was having a drink.
- For a while I didn’t quite know what to do for a second book. Once I was drinking with my friends, we were talking about Mickiewicz. We don't do this very often, but this time we were. And one of them said, 'Oh why don't you write a biography of Mickiewicz'. And I said 'Oh, that's a great idea!'. I like to write, there hasn't been a biography of Mickiewicz in English for close to a hundred years. I figured that would be a nice project.
Koropeckyj spent the next ten years doing research, which involved travels across Europe, and writing his book, which eventually came out in the US in 2008, and from this year is also available in Polish, translated by Małgorzata Glasenapp and published by WAB.
In the preface to the Polish edition of his book Professor Koropeckyj emphasizes that despite a great number of good quality biographies of Mickiewicz existing in Polish, most of them were written ad usum domesticum, that is, they were written for a reader who is well-versed in his poetry. At the same time these books often lack the wider European context and have the tendency to turn Mickiewicz into myth. In doing so, their authors often skip some periods of his life – this is due either to ideological reasons or, as Mr Koropeckyj puts it, to scholars' rather 'unfortunate discretion'. Koropeckyj's book successfully avoids these drawbacks.
Mickiewicz in Russia
One such period in Mickiewicz's life that receives special coverage in this new biography is the poet's stay in Russia in 1824-1829, where he was exiled after the Russian police investigated several secret student organizations in Vilnius, one of them being the Philomats, with whom Mickiewicz was particularly active. In Polish textbooks these years spent in Russia are usually presented as a time of inconvenience and hardship in Mickiewicz's life – namely an exile. In contrast, Professor Koropeckyj shows how Mickiewicz's international career as an all-European poet actually started in Russia.
- The first book that Mickiewicz published in Russia were The Odessa Sonnets and the Crimean Sonnets. If you know that book, you see that these are very cosmopolitan works. The fact that they were published in Russia, not in Poland, the fact that they were immediately translated into Russsian and French, were of great importance,- explains Professor Koropeckyj.
But the crucial factor in catapulting Mickiewicz into European fame was the support of a certain number of Russian aristocrats, arbiters of culture or, as Professor Koropeckyj puts it, the Kulturtraegers:
- These people who knew Mickiewicz, like Pyotr Vyazemsky or the princess Bolkonskaya, as well as a few others, realized that Mickiewicz had a talent that is, as they described it, an all-Slavic talent, that he is not simply a Polish poet, that his poetry can speak to a much larger Slavic audience, in other words to an Imperial audience.
It was thanks to this group of Russian literati, most of them very cosmopolitan aristocrats, that Mickiewicz's fame began to be spread.
- And as cosmopolitan aristocrats they travelled a lot to Italy, France, so when Mickiewicz himself travelled later across Western Europe, people already knew who he was, they knew that he was recognized as this new Byron of the North. Even Goethe had heard of him.
Professor Koropeckyj also points to the fact that at around the same time as the publication of the Sonnets Mickiewicz was also writing Konrad Wallenrod, "a very political and personal poem, and one that is already showing Mickiewicz's realization that there's something more in his work, that he can be more than just a great poet".
Koropeckyj is insistent in emphasizing that the Russian period in Mickiewicz's life was extremely important in building his fame as a poet outside of Poland.
- Mickiewicz was not simply a Polish poet anymore, he was now a Slavic poet. The Uprising unfortunately changed all of that - says the professor.
But how was it possible that a poet writing Polish verse in Tsarist Russia – and his command of French or Russian throughout his stay was far from perfect – ends up being widely hailed as one of the greatest poets of his time? Professor Koropeckyj offers an answer here:
- Mickiewicz's fame in Russia was very much associated with powers of improvisation. Improvisation was a very popular performance art in the 18th and 19th century in Italy and France. What was different about Mickiewicz was that he turned those displays of poetic facility into something that had depth and meaning. People felt that he was truly inspired, that it wasn't just a show. Pushkin at one time said that God speaks through Mickiewicz. That power of improvisation also gave Mickiewicz a sense that there's something greater in him.
Mickiewicz's improvisations, which were mostly in French (but there was also quite a few in Russian and naturally in Polish as well, says Professor Koropeckyj) were to play a crucial role later in Mickiewicz's life, interestingly, precisely at the time when he ceased to be a poet.
The Uprising as a personal tragedy
Mickiewicz left Russia in 1829 and set out on a typical Romantic Grand Tour, seeing France, Italy, and Germany on the way. In all those places his fame preceded him. Goethe and many other giants of the time had heard about him. The turning point in Mickiewicz's life and career came in 1830, when the Polish November Uprising began. Mickiewicz never joined the Uprising, yet it became one of the key events and psychic complexes of his life. Written shortly after the failure of the Uprising, the arch-drama The Forefather's Eve, Part 3 became perhaps the most influential piece in the history of Polish literature. This book became one of the key exponents of the so-called Polish Messianism, the idea that Poland had a vital role to play in the future history of Europe and the ensuing liberation of nations.
- I personally think this is the very tragedy of Mickiewicz's life as a poet. Because he didn't participate in the Uprising the rest of his life was an attempt to compensate for that failure. Hence his poetry, what was still left of it, was fully focused on the cause, expounds Koropeckyj.
Roman Koropeckyj agrees that Mickiewicz's works written after the Uprising are not so universal any more, although he makes an exception for Pan Tadeusz, which he calls "an absolutely brilliant piece" ("If it be properly translated, which Bill Johnston is doing now, I think it can be a work of literature that can have transnational resonance”). Pan Tadeusz, the epic poem written in 1932-1934 in Paris and filled with nostalgia about the lost homeland in Lithuania, was actually the last great poetic piece of Mickiewicz. After that he virtually stopped writing poetry. He was only 36 years old.
- Once Mickiewicz stopped writing he already had a reputation of being an extremely charismatic and intelligent person, and of having a capacity to foresee political events. In fact, he was a very astute political observer. And his presence drew many people to him. Again, Mickiewicz could have utilized that to much greater benefit but he was stuck in that Polish émigré community which ate up tons of his time. And he was there voluntarily – he had a Russian passport – but he chose to stay in that emigrate bog for a number of years, and that too held him back, it narrowed his vision.
The Return of the Improviser
The fact that Mickiewicz wasn't writing poetry doesn't mean that he wasn't making poetry. In 1839 Mickiewicz started lecturing in Lausanne and a year later he took the position of Professor of Slavic Literature at College de France in Paris.
Just as Mickiewicz's reputation in Russia was made on the back of his improvisational abilities, we have to remember that Mickiewicz's four years at College de France was one big improvisation, says Koropeckyj.
- Yes, he did have to study a lot, there was material he had to cover, but the way he dealt with it was like writing poetry. A lot of this was fantastic: his etymologies, the concept of the Russian idea and Polish idea fighting over the Slavic peoples. It's not history, it's more imagination. And the fact that he was improvising all the whole time, that is poetry, a form of poetry. His creative energies went in that direction.
Towiański as Psychotherapist
It is also during this time that Mickiewicz came under the influence of Andrzej Towiański, a mystic and a charlatan, as well as a skilled manipulator, who established a kind of religious, patriotic sect and made Mickiewicz one its key elements.
- One of the things that Towiański promised Mickiewicz was not simply that there would be a Poland – although this was important too. Towiański offered him a new field of activity, a way to express that boundless energy that Mickiewicz had, but in a new way. He had already become a deeply spiritual man and now to translate that spirituality into a vision of, essentially, saving Europe, of changing Europe spiritually, this is the great positive part of Mickiewicz's contact with Towiański.
Koropeckyj claims that Towiański freed the energy in Mickiewicz, who at that point was basically depressed and unable to do anything. Suddenly a new field of operation opened - a new form of expressing all of his spiritual and intellectual energies.
Mickiewicz's spiritual dependence on the Master whom he met in 1840 lasted for many years until the two men fell out in 1846. In his book, Koropeckyj describes many dramatic episodes in Mickiewicz's complicated relationship with Towiański. One of these crucial episodes which turned out to be a turning point for their relationship took place in 1846, when Mickiewicz was travelling to visit Towiański for the last time.
- Mickiewicz and his friend Januszkiewicz are traveling to meet Towiański in Switzerland. This is when Towiański is going to say: 'You're out!', and they're going to have their big falling-out, Towiański's wife is going to say: 'I had a dream about your mother, You're damned for the rest of your life!' During this this journey Mickiewicz apparently started talking about his entire life, he is giving a kind of autobiography and for the first time he is able to look back at his life without neurotic affect. He was actually speaking as a healthy man which to me means that Towiański did essentially the work of a psychotherapist for Mickiewicz. He cured Mickiewicz of all his psychic knots that had been tying him up for so many years. The fact that he was able to speak calmly and objectively about his past life without injecting various neurotic structures.
Birth and Death: Two Mysteries
However, Towiański did remain an important presence in Mickiewicz's life until his death in 1855 when Mickiewicz travelled to Constantinople to form the Polish legions which would fight Russia in the Crimean War. In Burgas, where the soldiers were stationed, Mickiewicz came up with his last poetic idea of forming a Jewish legion. This goes back to the much disputed question of Mickiewicz's Jewish origins (his mother may have come from a Frankist family, that is Jewish converts to Chrisianity in 18th century Lithuania). But Koropeckyj is sceptical about the possibility of finding an answer, as there is no tangible evidence pointing to Mickiewicz's mother's Jewish background. This tells more about what Mickiewicz himself thought about his origins, claims the author of the book.
For more about the Jewish trope in the work and life of Mickiewicz see Mickiewicz Unraveled
Koropeckyj is also skeptical about the other great mystery of Mickiewicz's legend, namely his death. The hypothesis that Mickiewicz was poisoned in Constantinople was discussed by Polish scholars as late as the 1930's.
- I believe Mickiewicz died because of some bacteria in the water, maybe cholera, just like so many others European coming to Constantinople from the West before and after Mickiewicz. There's nothing mysterious about his death – concludes Koropeckyj.
This unromantic ending aside, Koropeckyj's work makes a gripping read for a remarkably wide audience, and provides a fascinating introduction for readers still unacquainted with Mickiewicz.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, May, 2014