Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's greatest bard, seems to be omnipresent – streets, schools, even brands of chocolate and vodka all over Poland are named after him, while busts and monuments of his finely coiffured head and furrowed brow adorn countless town squares and gardens. But much in the way that Shakespeare continues to be the subject of controversies, Mickiewicz also seems to attract endless speculation and controversy. Through new translations of well and not-so-well known verses, Marek Kazmierski explores the legacy of this remarkable writer.
Can ever truly know
From the very moment of his birth, Adam Mickiewicz begins to baffle. Was he born on Christmas Eve in 1798, or not until January the following year? And where exactly is his birthplace to be found? Did he come into the world a nobleman or a peasant? It seems that if real controversies around his origins did not already abound, we would have to invent them (human beings are a gossip loving species). All the way up to his mysterious death in Constantinople in 1855, Mickiewicz really was involved in all manner of fascinating activities and adventures – which, it could be argued, rival his works for dramatic effect.
Lithuania! My homeland! Thou art precious health,
something only those who have lost your wealth
can ever truly know. Today, your grace I see
and describe in full, for I long for thee.
The above lines, taken from the opening of Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray: a Nobleman's Tale from the Years of 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse, Mickiewicz's last major work and also perhaps his best known, arouse confusion from the very start. Why was Poland's greatest bard writing love letters to the neighbouring state of Lithuania? And if his homeland was as important to him as his poetry suggests, why did he spend most of his life far beyond its borders, dying in suspicious circumstances in Turkey, long before Poland regained its independence?
Modern readers are often unfamiliar with the long-standing partnership between Poland and Lithuania. Although today they are two separate countries, over the past 1000 years the borders defining which was which moved around a lot, even blurred – as in the proud history of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795) or the formation of the Soviet Bloc in the 20th century, when both Poland and Lithuania were tragically absorbed into the Soviet Empire. More experienced readers might baulk at the idea that his most recent history is already being forgotten, but it is enough to speak to young people in Poland today to realise they often have very little idea about the geo-political realities of Communism and how very different Poland looked when their parents were growing up.
Even in those times past, when it was firmly established on the map of Europe, history was often unkind to the Polish nation. Throughout his life, Mickiewicz was forced to move around, in search of work, safety and political influence. He campaigned for Polish independence, writing in Polish and travelling to places such as Russia, Germany, France, Italy and Turkey to organise resistance against Poland's enemies. After the outbreak of the November Insurrection in 1830, he tried repeatedly to return to his land of birth but was forced instead to settle in Paris and Italy, where he made many attempts to champion the cause of Polish liberation.
Sci-fi, poems for kids & absurdity beyond measure
All these facts are all-too-well-known to the millions of Poles forced to learn about his life in school or university, but how many of us remember that Mickiewicz was one of the first in Europe to write a science-fiction novel? His A History of the Future was unfortunately destroyed, by the author himself (before I could get my hands on it and translate the whole thing), but we know of its existence from numerous notes and letters found after his death.
Many other stories abound about him – that he was a very early fan of scuba diving (aqualung technology was just being developed at the time), or that he was a pioneer in the world of ‘start-ups’ – Mickiewicz was a well-known fan of photography, which at the time involved much cumbersome (and potentially explosive!) equipment. Legend has it that Mickiewicz was approached by the inventor of one of the world's first portable cameras, and was keen to finance the venture – however, considering how poor our Polish Bard was with personal finances, and as a result always short of money – the idea of pocket cameras would have to wait for another century or so before taking off.
Like so many other geniuses, Mickiewicz had his fundamental flaws, but he was not without a sense of humour. As well as his sci-fi novel, he wrote an epic comic poem about a lady baked potato which was never published in his life time, though much of its content – and its humour – survive until today. In this ‘wee epic’, a female potato being baked in an oven harangues the poet to tell the story of how the old Greek gods escape to America, following the appearance of Jesus and the founding of Christianity, where they do their best to try to stop Columbus' ships from crossing the Atlantic and discovering their hiding place:
SHETATO – A WEE POEM IN FOUR SONGS
While a poet praises vegetables with his lyre
Suddenly, a potato pipes up from the fire:
Orders now the lute to be set to song
So the poet rhymes as he goes along:
Thanks to God's great power, the old is now new,
From disordered worlds a construction grew;
How then, when grand millennia passed,
A certain Hebrew man made new faith for us.
While the auld Greek gods, suffering sorry fates,
Made worlds out of chaos, fleeing in great haste,
That Columbus frightened them with his brave attack
As he sailed the seas, then came roaring back,
And the Lord our God with his saints judged worth
Of Columbus' trail … so on and so forth
I suspect the idea of Poland's mighty poet writing such fluffy lines (pardon the potato pun) will come as a surprise to many readers used to his epic poems, riddled with themes of nationhood, romance and heroism. They might be even more surprised, however, to find that their Bard not only translated poems from other languages but did so for children – including these fine lines by the Frenchman Jean de La Fontaine, about how wise animals can be:
THE FOX AND THE GOAT
A fox entered a garden, aiming to catch geese,
but a barrel was buried in it, serving as a well,
and into it he fell –
no chance of leaping out!
Though the well was as dry as you very well please,
its walls were very high,
our fox truly trapped,
oh the silly chap!
He looked up and saw only sky –
it's tough being that fox now, no doubt!
With no way out and no escape
what was there to do but gape up and wait?
A stupid beast would give up on the spot,
but our wily fox he cares not a jot –
knowing a bad attitude makes bad problems worse.
So instead of despairing and suffering dread
he looks up above, sees a shadow of course –
that of a goat with its big, empty head
staring right down into the well.
So our fox crouches, pretending to drink.
Moaning and groaning, all in good cheer,
talking out loud so the goat can hear:
‘Oh this water is the finest on earth, I think;
As cold as ice, and it tastes so swell.
I want to have a swim,
but to jump right in
Would be a crime!
For this water is mine!’
The goat, who was thirsty, smiles a silly grin:
‘You down below, you ginger beast, get out of my well
And go to hell!’
Then down he fell.
The fox leapt on his back, from his back to his horns,
from the horns out the well and then he was gone!
Yes, this is my English translation of Mickiewicz's Polish translation of the original French, but would you believe this sort of thing goes on all the time in the world of literary works? People take things already converted from one language into another and keep the process going – as long as it works as a work of art (in this case, a poem for young listeners), is that such a travesty? I have been very faithful to the original, keeping to Mickiewicz's rhyming structure, even when it doesn't read quite as smoothly as I would like. But then again, I do know that he rewrote some of La Fontaine's lines when converting from French to Polish.
A true romantic & pop-culture icon
Knowing what we know about Mickiewicz and his wild life, it is a wonder more Poles do not see him as a kind of romantic icon. Sure, there is the odd tank top (showing Poland's great bard as Wolverine, a character from Marvel comic books), or Team Mickiewicz merchandise which has the great Adam apparently slaying vampires, but when one thinks of his travels, his loves and attempts to start rebellions, I am reminded of Che Guevara and how his visage has now been printed upon a million t-shirts, posters and other teenage paraphernalia – could Mickiewicz's bold stare not be used to a similar effect?
Still, many forget that his poetry remains remarkably relevant, even today – Marek Grechuta (1945-2006) recorded a touching version of Uncertainty, a paean to mixed feelings anyone who has ever felt themselves falling in love will relate to. The song continues to receive much air play in Poland, even today:
When I don't see you, I don't sigh nor cry,
I don’t lose my senses as you walk on by,
But if I don't see you, if you don't return,
Something in me's lacking, some desire burns,
And suffering strange longings, I wonder thereof:
Is it only friendship, or else is it love?
Whenever you vanish, I can’t ever seem
to recall your face, like a faded dream.
However, unwittingly, it seems I do find
That it is forever imprinted on my mind.
And so once again I wonder thereof:
Is it merely friendship, or else maybe love?
I've suffered oft-times, yet didn’t think at all
to trouble your home, come baring my soul;
Wandering without aim, never minding where,
Without any purpose I come to your stairs,
And entering your home I wonder thereof:
What was it led me here – friendship or else love?
For your very health, I'd give half my life,
To give you true peace, down to hell I'd fly;
Though my heart is not the possessive kind,
it would serve as home for your heart and mind.
And so, pray tell me, what am I sick of:
Is it only friendship, or was it always love?
Note for travellers: if you ever find yourself visiting the Silesian city of Wroclaw in Southern Poland, pay a visit to the Pan Tadeusz Museum on the Old Town Square, right in the heart of the city. Being a very modern kind of museum, it features interactive displays, fascinating films and of course lots of cool exhibits which will tell you even more about Adam Mickiewicz, the author of the epic poem the museum is named after. As well as ancient histories, the museum shows how its writers battled to free occupied Poland during World War II and Soviet communism. I visited Wroclaw while researching this essay and can't recommend the museum's design and helpful staff enough!
Find out more: https://muzeumpanatadeusza.ossolineum.pl/en/
Written by Marek Kazmierski, Sep 2017