Understanding Beauty: 10 Quotes by Polish Writers, Poets & Philosophers
#language & literature
For ages, people have been trying to define, understand or somehow capture one of the most elusive and subjective things on Earth – beauty. Here we take a look at how ten different Polish writers, poets and philosophers from various eras approached this tricky subject…
Tylko Wierszem by Anna Pogonowska
Beauty is a promise, a vision of happiness. It is not yet happiness; it has an element of sadness that comes from it being just an endowment.
The poet and essayist Anna Pogonowska was, according to the writer Jerzy Narbutt, ‘a real Simone Weil of Polish poetry – possibly the only Polish example of poetry so deeply, irrevocably linked to philosophy in a woman’s writing’.
The quote comes from her 1984 volume of essays entitled, conversely, as it's written in prose, Only in Rhyme (Tylko Wierszem).
Piękno Czasu by Cyprian Kamil Norwid
No more shine the frail lilies and roses
Their silk petals taken by the wind;
Today no one seeks Beauty… no rhymer-
No woman – conjurer – no amateur,
Today you seek what’s alluring
And that – which surprises!
A deeper understanding of beauty was one of the things that preoccupied one of Poland’s most important poets, Cyprian Kamil Norwid. In his 1880 Piękno Czasu (The Beauty of Time), beauty appears as something eternal, divine, a platonic idea not susceptible to the erosion of time. The poet than contrasts this vision of beauty with superficial appearances, asking toward the end of the poem whether these are what one really needs.
Nie-Boska Komedia by Zygmunt Krasiński
A stream of beauty flows through you, but you yourself are not beauty.
The drama The Undivine Comedy (Nie-boska Komedia), published in 1835 by the eminent poet and dramatist Zygmunt Krasiński, tells the fictitious story of a revolution of the masses against the ruling aristocracy. The reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy points to the hellish nature of the portrayed conflict, where both sides seem to be, more or less, equally misguided.
Apart from addressing issues of historiosophical nature, this classic of Polish literature also debunks the Romantic concepts of such things as love or happiness. This quote seems to be a critique of the Romantic myth of the poet.
Dworzanin Polski by Łukasz Górnicki
Whatever is good and useful also contains beauty.
This interesting take on the subject of beauty, pointing to its moral and pragmatic aspects rather than to the aesthetic ones it’s commonly associated with, comes from the 1566 book Dworzanin Polski (A Polish Courtier). Written by Łukasz Górnicki, a writer and librarian to the Polish king Zygmunt II August, the book is a Polish adaptation of the 16th century Italian The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione.
Miłość by Ignacy Karpowicz
– I like to sit at night and let the thoughts run through my head. Freely. That’s when the gates of Beauty open – she said frightened that she might’ve revealed too much about herself.
After the oldest book in this selection, it’s time to jump right to the most recent one. The novel Miłość (Love) by Ignacy Karpowicz, who Bartosz Staszczyszyn of Culture.pl dubbed ‘one of the best writers of the young generation’, was published last year. It’s divided into three sections titled Beauty, Truth and Good.
The first one describes the personal life of the acclaimed Polish writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, author of the timeless short story Maids of Wilko. The quote, in which beauty is described as an intellectual sensation rather than a sensory one, is delivered by Anna, Karpowicz’s literary portrayal of Iwaszkiewicz’s wife, who had also been a writer. The two other sections are, respectively, about a dystopian future Poland and a torn friendship.
Na Kuchennych Schodach by Witold Gombrowicz
One who loves only beauty and purity loves but half a being.
This quote by one of Poland’s best-known writers, Witold Gombrowicz, is from the quirky short story Na Kuchennych Schodach (On the Kitchen Stairs), in which a refined gentleman finds himself fascinated with the not-so-refined help. First published in 1937 in the literary monthly Skamander, the writer later included it in his 1957 volume of short stories Bakakaj whose title echoes the name of a street (Bacacay) in Buenos Aires where he once lived.
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Myśli Nieuczesane by Stanisław Jerzy Lec
‘I hear the world is beautiful’ – said the blind man. ‘So they say’ – replied the seeing one.
Stanisław Jerzy Lec’s witty collection of aphorisms Unkempt Thoughts, published in 1957, has brought thought-provoking joy to a great many readers and is likely one of the most quoted Polish books.
Róża by Stefan Żeromski
This I like, this I don’t – Goya or Beardsley have the right to say. That's pretty, and that's ugly. That's all there is. There is no absolute beauty. There's only the artist's will, their right. The aesthetes may talk as much as they please because what they like, or don’t, about an artist’s work is something completely different than the reality of creation.
These are the words of Krystyna, a controversial painter in Stefan Żeromski’s 1909 piece called The Rose (Róża). It was something he himself called a ‘non-scenic drama’. Indeed, this play is said to be impossible to stage due to the numerous locations in which the plot takes place as well as because of the peculiar way it was written. The stage directions ‘seem to actually be fragments of expressionistic prose’, as the theatre expert Michał Zdunik puts it.
Estetyka I Antyestetyka by Maria Gołaszewska
Roman Opałka working on a painting from the series Opałka 1965/1-∞, photo courtesy of the artist
Artistic efforts to create beauty prove futile as they lead only to creating appearances of things, things that are secondary (…) maybe something new is being made, but it's completely useless, illegible. (…) How does one measure, grasp aesthetically, for example, a sequence of numbers written (painted?) on canvas by an artist-painter?
Among aesthetes, there are those who strive to make a science out of perceiving beauty with one’s senses, like the philosopher Maria Gołaszewska. In her 1984 book Aesthetic And Anti-aesthetic (Estetyka I Antyestetyka), she recalls the immensely rich cultural tradition of dealing with the subject of beauty in writing, which includes works by Plato, Alexander Baumgarten and Susanne Langer.
The quote, taken from Aesthetic And Anti-aesthetic, is part of an explanation of a phenomenon the author describes as ‘the death of art’ in the second half of the 20th century.
Czucie Niewinne by Leopold Staff
It’s most beautiful when
You don’t feel beautiful at all
And when you simply exist
Like everything else in the world
contemporary polish philosophers
cyprian kamil norwid
The poem, Innocent Feeling (Czucie Niewinne) is part of the 1908 volume of poetry Blooming Branch (Gałąź Kwitnąca) where the noted poet Leopold Staff presents an affirmation of life. In Innocent Feeling, the conclusion seems to be that beauty lies in… not making too much of beauty.
Author: Marek Kępa, Mar 2018