Regarded as the "queen of lyrical poetry" and Poland's Sappho, she wrote more than a dozen plays, earning a scandalous reputation for presenting issues including incest and extramarital relations in her stage works.
Regarded as the "queen of lyrical poetry", she wrote more than a dozen plays, earning a scandalous reputation for presenting issues including incest and extramarital relations in her stage works.
Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, photo: National Digital Archive
Pawlikowska was one of the talented Polish female poets of the interwar period. Her position as a great creator of erotic feminine poetry is secure, though some critics argue that her works are trivial and sentimental. Her style is unique, involving discretion, subtlety and tastefulness.
Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska was born on the 24th of November 1891 in Kraków into a family with artistic traditions. Wojciech Kossak, the renowned painter of military and battle scenes, was her father. Her grandfather Juliusz was also a professional painter known for his historical works. Both her father and mother (Maria née Kisielnicka) came from the nobility, and the family owned a villa in Kraków. Their residence was a meeting point for great Polish artists and intellectuals, and the young Pawlikowska grew up with company that included Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Nobel laureate in literature in 1905, Wincenty Lutosławski and the pianist-statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski. She didn’t attend school, receiving a home education and becoming fluent in French, English and German. She participated in lectures at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts as a non-enrolled student. Her older brother Jerzy continued the family tradition as a painter, while her younger sister Magdalena had a passion for literature, writing satirical works under the pen name Samozwaniec.
Pawlikowska married Władysław Bzowski, an officer in the Austrian army, in 1915. The marriage didn’t last long and was annulled. Pawlikowska was a painter as well as a poet at that phase, unclear about the field in which she would devote herself. Her second marriage, to Jan Pawlikowski in 1919, influenced her decision to write professionally. The couple moved to his house in Zakopane, south of Kraków in the Tatra Mountain foothills. They shared a passion for literature, as Jan wrote prose. She published her first volume of verse in 1922, entitled Blue Almonds. Poems inspired by landscapes and nature included Sunset, On a Blue, Warm Meadow and Colours; others employed oneiric visions, such as Dream and Erroneous Dream. Her artistic successes weren’t accompanied by a stable personal situation. Jan moved to Vienna and became involved with a ballet dancer. The marriage was annulled in 1929.
Pawlikowska befriended members of the influential Skamander poetry group: Julian Tuwim, Jan Lechoń and Kazimierz Wierzyński. She was acquainted with the important Polish writers Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. She wrote a drama with Witkiewicz entitled The End of the World, but the manuscript was lost. Pawlikowska's first published play was Archibald the Chauffer, in 1924, a comedy about a couple who marry not for love but for economic reasons and need to find substitutes for the wedding night. Critics noted the play's intelligence, irony and skillful reference to classic comedies of Molière and Marivaux. Pawlikowska published her second poetry volume in 1924, entitled Pink Magic and illustrated with her drawings. By the end of the interwar period, she had published 15 plays and 13 poetry collections, traveling to Italy, Greece, Turkey and north Africa, and using those journeys as inspiration in her work.
Pawlikowska married for the third time in 1931, to the air-force officer Stefan Jasnorzewski. She published the poetry volume six years later that is often considered her classic work. Crystallizations is filled with referrences to Sappho and the erotic sphere. The book's first series, Roses for Sappho, is six short poems devoted to the ancient poet from Lesbos, expressing Pawlikowska’s admiration and conveying a philosophical stance emphasizing the meaning of love. Pawlikowska isn’t only naïve in her glorification of affection, and another series, Erotics, is about bittersweet romantic affairs and complicated feelings that accompany them. The controversial play A Woman of Wonder, written in 1937, addresses more topical issues, set in a fictitious nation under a totalitarian regime that obliges its subjects to procreate. A childless couple tries to endure this oppressive state and their love is put to the test. Generally understood as a critique of Nazi Germany, A Woman of Wonder premiered in Kraków, with the German embassy issuing a formal protest.
Pawlikowska and her husband traveled to England shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, settling in Blackpool. After the controversy around A Woman of Wonder, they couldn’t remain in Poland under German occupation. The poet was diagnosed with cancer, and her illness was severe, attacking her spine. After two operations, she died in a Manchester hospital in 1945 and was buried in a nearby cemetery.
Pawlikowska’s memoir from 1939 to 1945, War Was Begot by Satan, has recently been published. She describes the journey to England via Romania and France, and portrays her marriage with Stefan Jasnowzewski, whom she loved dearly. There are harsh remarks about some Polish émigrés in England, some of whom Pawlikowska calls cowards or careerists. She gives an account of her deteriorating medical condition and its effects on her, not sparing readers the painful details and retaining her dignity to the very end. The memoirs, with her down-to-earth portrait of reality, show an unexpected side of Pawlikowska, who some have considered ethereal and insignificant.
Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska will be best remembered as an emotional, sensual poet. The great poet Julian Tuwim described Lilka, as Pawlikowska was tenderly called by her friends, in one of his works: "An old-fashioned young lady from Cracow, searches for blooming words at night in the meadow".
Author: Marek Kępa, 15.11.2012