Tag Archives: Polish

LAND FAR FROM TRANQUILITY:

SPOTLIGHT ON POLISH ROMANTICISM

by ALEKSANDRA MAJAK

Seldom does a literary epoch, philosophical movement, or aesthetic proposition divide readers as much as Romanticism. And no matter what we do or study, when our preferences and affinities with Romanticism are at stake, they tend to be an either/or option. When we think about the end of the eighteenth century, we are likely to recall (in tranquillity or not) the well-known image of a wanderer above the sea of fog from Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting or one of J. M. W. Turner’s atmospheric landscape or marine paintings.

Image 1: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

We are quick to talk about it all in bullet points: ‘extreme individualism’, ‘introspection over objectivity’, ‘return of the irrational and fantastical’, ‘poetical genius and inspiration’, ‘escapism’, ‘renewal of oral and folklore tradition’. The list goes on. Nevertheless, characterising the whole literary epoch by extrapolating from several, albeit influential, artworks or reading salient poems does not give a full picture. Ranging from the emotional unrest of the early Sturm und Drang movement in Germany; through the huge impact French Revolution had on all European art, to the metaphysical conundrums of the Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin, Romanticism is far from monolithic.

In England, the words that are often invoked to describe romantic principles are these of William Wordsworth from Lyrical Ballads (1798). Poetry, for him, is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ that ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ [1]. Years later, in his seminal 1919 essay about the representation of feelings in modern verse, modernist poet T. S. Eliot would attack a long-dead Wordsworth by opposing an idealistic romanticism of tranquillity and modern unrest [2]. The Wordsworthian idea from The Prelude was indeed romantic. And here, we may use ‘romantic’ in its adjectival and colloquial sense that indicates — to follow OED — a certain quixotism, sentimentality, naivety, or idealism.

Image 2: Portret Adama Mickiewicza na Judahu skale by Walery Wańkowicz (1827-1828)

If Wordsworth saw the historical moment as ‘a glorious time’ full of the ‘events / Of that great change’, others had reasons to be less optimistic. The roots and ambitions of Romanticism differ from country to country. By this logic, only by exploring paths ‘less travelled by’ – to follow Robert Frost’s ironically mainstream line – can we widen our understanding of the period and maybe even challenge the myths surrounding ‘unified’ Romantic sensibility and so-called ‘organic form’?

The glory of honourable defeats

Romanticism might well be glorious in the grandiosity of its poetic aspirations but – in Polish literature – it was far from tranquil. After the subsequent partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) of Poland between neighbouring Russia, Austria, and Prussia the country was totally swindled and spend 123 years under occupation. So, formally, there was no country, and Poland was erased from the maps of Europe. The suggestively entitled painting Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland by acclaimed artist Jan Matejko depicts Partition Sejm in 1773 and Rejtan’s (the character on the right bottom corner) dramatic protest against it.

Image 3: Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland (1866) by Jan Matejko

When twenty-year-old Matejko finished Rejtan in 1866, the painting gave rise to heated debate. With the still-fresh memory of the failed January Uprising (1863) hanging heavily in the air, the young painter decided to criticise the elites and their responsibility for Poland’s tragic political situation. Cyprian Kamil Norwid — a late-romantic poet — would, for instance, criticise the painting, saying that ‘Rejtan is a demon with a moustache’. The daunting situation had a lasting impact on the culture and even the current national anthem, composed in 1797, opens with the line: ‘Poland has not yet perished / So long as we still live’. Given the genre, ‘not the most optimistic or conventional opening’  — as one of my undergraduate students aptly observed.

One of the many problems with Polish romanticism is its self-perceived seriousness, its idealised self-image, its lack of critical detachment. All of these continue to impact today’s perception of national symbols that are too often prone to political manipulations. The prominent critic and scholar Maria Janion thought about these issues diagnosing, after 1989, the end of  the Romantic paradigm. Still, if transformation brought Poland a free market, rapid economic development, and international mobility; ‘how would Poles define themselves when they had nothing to fight bravely against?’ [3]

Image 4: Melancholia by Jacek Malczewski,  Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu

Even if Polish writers shared and borrowed from all European traditions, the role ascribed to literature differed from its Western counterparts [4]. The poet was treated like a prophet, soothsayer or bard while poetry was read seriously and in the hope that it would have some causative power. It is common to refer to the well-known trio of Polish romantic poets – Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński – as wieszcze narodowi, meaning ‘The Three Bards’.

Literature fights against oppression

Still, the oddest idea developed by Polish romanticism was ‘Poland as a Christ of Nations’ that made Roman Catholic Christianity a distinctive part of its cultural heritage. The canonical literary works of the time drew a parallel between Poland’s suffering and the suffering of Christ. This messianism was therefore used by Poles in their fight for eventually re-gaining independence in 1918.

In his late and unfinished poetic drama Forefather’s Eve, Mickiewicz would fortify this tradition. His hero, Gustav, is a typically self-absorbed romantic lover. Here, however, Gustav transforms into Konrad, who is determined to fight against oppression. Notice how the symbolic death and rebirth of the hero is represented graphically, as if alluding to the ancient genre of epitaph so the text that is inscribed on a tombstone or plaque.

Image 5: An excerpt from Mickiewicz’s Forefather’s Eve

Ironically, the title of Mickiewicz’s drama, Dziady, which established the idea of ‘Poland as a Christ of Nations’ comes from nothing other than… a Slavic pagan ritual! The ritual of dziady was a feast of commemoration of the dead now celebrated mostly, if not only, in Belarus. It also made it into the game based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s saga, The Witcher 3 where one of the quests is to meet the master of the ceremony and help villagers in addressing incoming souls.

Well-educated, well-read, having lived abroad, and determined to address ‘Young Friends’ who are ‘Strong in unison, reasoned in rage’, the great rivals Mickiewicz and Słowacki began their work with youthful enthusiasm. They set their youthful energy and rebellion against the inertia of their elders. Sometimes, like in my favourite romantic poem My Testament by Słowacki, both patriotism and youthful determination intertwined. Think, for instance, about the following passage. Now, you may even recognise Slowacki’s allusion to the forefather’s eve ritual.

But you that knew me well, in your reports convey

That all my younger years were for my country spent:

While battle raged, at mast I stood, be as it may,

And with the ship I drowned when vanquished down she went.

Oh that my friends at night together gathered be,

And this sad heart of mine in leaves of aloe burn!

And give it then to her who’s given it to me.

Thus mothers are repaid: with ashes in the urn.

Oh that my friends around a goblet sit once more,

And drink unto my funeral and their poor lot.

Be I a ghost, I will appear and join them or —

If God may spare me pain and torture — I shall not.

But I beseech you — there is hope while there is breath.

 Do lead the nation with a wisdom’s torch held high,

And one by one, if needed be, go straight to death,

As God-hurled stones that densely over ramparts fly. [5]

The last stanza of the excerpt exemplifies how Slowacki urges his friends to sacrifice their lives in the fight for freedom. Moreover, years later, in 1943, Aleksander Kaminski would use Slowacki’s words for the title of his book Stones for the Rampart. Through the book we, yet again, see how authors echo the romantic vision of sacrifice as the story follows a group of young friends whose hopes, dreams, and joys of their early twenties are interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and the failure of the Warsaw Uprising. In his war movie Warsaw 1944 (available on Netflix) Polish director Jan Komasa borrows from romantic imagery, ideals, and myths. The English trailer gives a sense of this post-romantic symbolism. 

The urgency of longing

Sometimes poets would evoke political messages less directly, for instance, by adopting a nostalgic tone. One of the most well-known lines of Polish Romanticism comes from the epic poem Pan Tadeusz, written by Mickiewicz and published in Paris in 1834. The most recent English translation of the book – by the acclaimed translator and former Oxford student, Bill Johnson – is brilliant and gives the poem the freshness and dynamism that canonical works every so often lack if read within their own cultural circle. [6]

Image 6: Manuscript of Pan Tadeusz

The epic, like all epics, begins in a serious, high-style tone that does justice to the author’s yearning for the missed Fatherland:

Lithuania! My homeland! You are health alone.

Your worth can only ever be known by one

Who’s lost you. Today I see and tell anew

Your lovely beauty, as I long for you.

The epic has the subtitle ‘The Last Foray in Lithuania’. Across twelve books, all written in the unique metre of the Polish alexandrine, Mickiewicz tells the feel-good, nostalgic story of the eponymous Sir Tadeusz. He is a young man from an upper class of nobility who returns from his studies abroad to an idyllic Soplicowo. In a way, the character of young Tadeusz enables Mickiewicz, as an author, to express his personal longing.

[…] Meanwhile, transport my yearning soul

Back to those wooded hills, those meadows wide

And green, that line the pale blue Niemen’s side;

Those fields adorned with many-colored grain

Where golden wheat and silvery rye both shine,

Where clover with its maidenly red blush,

White duck wheat, and amber rapeseed all grow lush,

Ribboned round by a green field boundary where

A tranquil pear tree nestles here and there.

Even if the scenery is indeed tranquil, the reader knows the backstory that makes such an idyllic description of nature into something more complex, and ambivalent, filled with juxtapositions that are not obvious at the first glance.

Image 7: Photo from Andrzej Wajda’s 1999 adaptation of Pan Tadeusz

Full of national traditions, subtleties, and idiosyncrasies, much of Polish romantic poetry, epic, and drama was written against the grain of failed uprisings, buried hopes, tragic defeats, and longing for a lost fatherland as expressed by émigré writers. The well-known historian of Eastern Europe, Norman Davies, observed that the Polish political microclimate allowed ‘myths to flourish’. And since myths are known to have broad applications and functions, it is now fascinating yet dramatic to observe how the romantic ideas strongly embedded within Polish culture have or have not been used.

[1] More about the leading ideas and forms of European Romanticism can be found in a comprehensive book by Nicholas Roe, Romanticism: An Oxford Guide. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] See https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69400/tradition-and-the-individual-talent

[3] See the article by Stanley Bill in  Being Poland : A New History of Polish Literature and Culture since 1918 ed. Czaplinski, P., Nizynska, J., Polakowska, A., & Trojanowska, T. (2019). Toronto, 2019.

[4] More about the political underpinnings of Polish Romanticism see: https://culture.pl/en/article/polands-unique-take-on-romanticism-why-is-it-so-different

[5] http://wolnelektury.pl/katalog/lektura/slowacki-my-testament

[6] See https://archipelagobooks.org/book/pan-tadeusz-last-foray-lithuania/

Literatures of Multilingual Europe: Polish

Oxford is one of the few British universities where Polish can be studied to degree level. For more information, see here. Application is open to beginners as well as existing speakers of Polish, including those with Polish A-levels. Polish language and literature are also available as optional subjects to students of Modern Languages other than Polish, notably Russian and Czech, as well as to undergraduates in Linguistics.

If Polish piques your curiosity, you might like to begin exploring literature written in Polish. This post originally appeared on the Taylor Institution Library’s blog, as part of a lecture series on ‘Literatures of Multilingual Europe.’ Here, Dr Kasia Szymańska gives us an insight into Polish literature in a piece written to accompany the webinar of her lecture. We are grateful to the Taylor Library and Joanne Ferrari for allowing us to reblog this post here.

You can view the webinar of Kasia’s lecture by clicking the image below or following this link.

The lecture series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, most of which took place in the course of Michaelmas (autumn term) 2018 came at a very significant time. As we were giving our talks at the Taylorian, we could hear the almost imperceptible sound of the Brexit time-bomb ticking towards its final countdown like the calm before the storm. How ironic to introduce ‘lesser-known’ European literatures such as Scandinavian, Irish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Modern Greek, and Yiddish to -our English-speaking audience at a time when we could not even take an interest in the more mainstream ones for granted? This thought kept nagging away at the back of my mind as we discussed the rather flimsy position of translated literature in the UK and the US during our introductory panel.

2018 was a particularly successful year for Polish literature and film in the UK. The Man Booker International Prize was awarded to Polish contemporary writer (and later the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature) Olga Tokarczuk and her American translator Jennifer Croft for Flights (Fitzcarraldo). This happened only the year after yet another Polish author, Wioletta Greg (based in the UK), made it onto the longlist alongside her translator Eliza Marciniak for Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books). In 2019, Tokarczuk was shortlisted again with her other translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo). Some might call it a literary hat-trick, others might see it as a positive trend for the British reception of Polish works. In other news relating to the visual arts in 2018, the UK-based and Oxford-educated Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, known for his previously Academy-awarded Ida (2014), created another black-and-white masterpiece entitled Cold War. The film earned him the Best Director prize in Cannes and three nominations for the Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film.

Wioletta Greg ; translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak. London : Portobello Books, 2017.

While this was clearly a reason to celebrate the significance of Polish artistic output in the UK, it still felt like a parallel universe somewhat disengaged from everyday problems. Polish is currently the second most widely spoken language in the UK after English and, on a wave of anti-EU sentiment, the Polish minority in the UK has been subject to a range of xenophobic assaults, including verbal and physical violence such as hostile graffiti, offensive messages and gang attacks. Of course, there have been strong moves to commemorate the presence and contribution of Poles in the UK way before 2004 (e.g. the Chopin statue in Manchester, the Joseph Conrad bike tour, Polish ENIGMA code breakers in Bletchley Park, the statue of war hero General Maczek, the statue of Wojtek the Bear, and the Great Polish map of Scotland, to mention a few).

However, it is very difficult to bring the two divergent worlds together, when there is so little academic interest in Polish literature and culture. Whilst the study of the history, economy, and politics of the country is also crucial, elevating and re-evaluating the status of Poland’s vibrant literary and cultural activity across the centuries might be a more promising way of changing the way it is perceived ‘under Western eyes’. This was partly the intention of the introductory talk which I gave for the series. In addition to serving as a taster of a lesser-known literature and highlighting the Bodleian and Taylorian’s collection, the talk was meant to condense the long rich history of a literature which represents Britain’s ‘invisible minority’. This literature perhaps remains overshadowed by the stereotyped view of a community which is thought of as just another Eastern European country supplying the UK with skilled manual labour.

2018 was also symbolic for another reason: it marked the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after more than a century of being partitioned between three empires (those of Prussia, Austria, and Russia). These partitions took place at the end of the eighteenth century, after hundreds of years of a prosperous Kingdom of Poland and later a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and exerted a stranglehold over Polish life and culture throughout most of the nineteenth century up until 1918. It is towards the end of this tumultuous period interspersed with failed uprisings and frustration that anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski and writer Joseph Conrad (or more accurately: Józef Konrad Korzeniowski) arrived in London at the heart of the British Empire. It is also half way through this period, in 1850, that the Bodleian Library purchased a large collection of early Polish books known as Libri polonici (see Stone 2005), which would become one of the major collections of the kind in the West. This repository includes less than two thousand items such as printings of sixteenth-century literature, a unique copy of the first Polish newspaper dating back to 1557 and material related to Polish Arianism in the age of Reformation.

Libri polonici (Polonica from the Bodleian’s pre-1920 catalogue), entry on different printings of the work by Mikołaj Rej (1505-69), one of the founders of the Polish literary language.

Fifteen years later, in 1865, the Earl of Ilchester, a friend of the Polish prince and statesman Adam Czartoryski, endowed the University of Oxford with a substantial sum to encourage ‘the study of the Polish and other Slavonic languages, Literature, and History’. He made it explicit in his will that priority should be given to Polish over any other Slavonic language. However, most likely following the advice of an amateur philologist, Lord Strangford, Convocation breached the agreement. Instead, the University funded the study of Russian, the language of one of Poland’s imperial occupiers at that time (see: Stone 2005). Taking this backstory into account, there are few places where the celebration of Poland’s regained independence from imperial forces could have been felt more powerfully so many years later than here in  Oxford.

When preparing for the talk and asking our Library Subject Specialist Nick Hearn for books to be displayed, I came to realize that the collections of both the Bodleian and the Taylorian were far more diverse and rich in Polish sources than I could ever have foreseen. As part of Libri polonici, the Weston Library holds quite a number of early seventeenth-century printings of the work of Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski (1530–84), including his cantos, epigrams (fraszki), threnodies (treny), and elegies, both  in Polish or Latin. In my talk, I introduced his cycle of threnodies or lamentations entitled Treny from 1580, movingly rendered into English by Seamus Heaney and Stanisław Barańczak, among others. In particular, I briefly discussed Kochanowski’s ‘Lament 7’:

‘Tren 7’ by Jan Kochanowski, Kraków 1639, Weston Library (Libri polonici).

The holdings of the Taylor Institution library were in particular a great surprise to me. As part of the series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, we hosted Professor Bill Johnston from Indiana University. Bill returned to Oxford after decades (he read Modern Languages at University College in the early 1980s) to read from his newly released Guggenheim-funded translation of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Originally published in Paris in 1834, Pan Tadeusz [Master Thaddeus] comprises twelve books in verse and is sometimes considered the last great epic poem in European literature as well as the Polish national epic. How excited we were to see that the Taylorian was actually in possession of the first edition!

Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, Paris 1834, Taylorian collections.

With their worn-out edges and dog-eared pages, library holdings like this one contain whole different universes and bygone worlds, which have sadly sunk into oblivion and remain unexplored. They could almost stand for the “empty frames” in the hall of mirrors from this passage in Bill’s translation of Pan Tadeusz (p. 52):

These memories had clearly left him pained,

He wished them gone. Upstairs they came at last

To a great room that had been in the past

A hall of mirrors; now all you could see

Were empty frames and windows. A gallery

Overlooked the gate. Gerwazy hid his eyes

In his cupped hands, head bowed in thought. His gaze,

When he looked up, showed grief and hopelessness.

Dusting off some of Bodleian and Taylorian’s impressive holdings and revisiting their stories seemed like giving them a new lease of life. To speak about them to the Oxford public was an act of filling these empty frames again with some colours and reflected images. Perhaps, some other generation of readers, students, and scholars will also come to look into all these mirrors, and hopefully, they will find and recognise themselves in their reflections, too.

Dr Kasia Szymańska

Former Junior Research Fellow in ML, Oxford; Thomas Brown Assistant Professor, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin.


Polish literature bibliography

Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855 : selected poems, editor: Clark Mills (et al.) New York: Noonday Press, 1956

Foer, Jonathan  Tree of codes London: Visual editions, 2010

Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Kraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 2010

Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke  Translated by E. Mosbacher, London, 1965

Greg, Wioletta  Swallowing mercury  Translated by Eliza Marciniak  London: Portobello books, 2017

Kochanowski, Jan  Laments Translated by Seamus Heaney and  Stanisław Barańczak,

Kochanowski, Jan Treny Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, 1986

Krasicki, Ignacy  Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki Warszawa: Książka, 1947

Krasicki, Ignacy The adventures of Mr Nicholas Wisdom Translated by Thomas Hoisington Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992

Krasicki, Ignacy Monachomachia ; Antymonachomachia Warszawa : Książka i Wiedza, 1988

Krasicki, Ignacy Myszeidos pieśni X Wrocław : Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1986

Lem, Stanislaw  Solaris  Warsaw: Agora, 2008

Mickiewicz, Adam  Ballady i romanse Lipsk, 1852

Mickiewicz, Adam  Forefather’s Eve Translated by Count Potocki of Montalk  London: Polish cultural foundation, 1968

Mickiewicz, Adam  Dziady  Wrocław, 1864

Mickiewicz, Adam  Pan Tadeusz, or, The last foray in Lithuania: a story of the gentry from 1811 and 1812: comprising twelve books in verse Translated by Bill Johnston  New York: First Archipelago Books edition, 2018

Mickiewicz, Adam  Pan Tadeusz, czyli, Ostatni zajazd na Litwie : historja szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812, we dwunastu ksiegach, wierszem Paris, 1834

Miłosz, Czesław The History of Polish Literature  Berkeley : University of California Press, 1983

Peterkiewicz, Jerzy, Five centuries of Polish poetry, 1450-1950; an anthology London: Secker & Warburg, 1960

Prus, Boleslaw  The doll Translated by David Welsh  New York: New York Review, 2011

Prus, Boleslaw  Lalka: powieść w trzech tomach  Warsaw: PIW, 1972

Schulz, Bruno  The street of crocodiles  London: Pan books, 1980

Schulz, Bruno  Sklepy cynamonowe ; Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą    Translated by Celina WieniewskaKraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 1994

Tokarczuk, Olga  Flights  Translated by Jennifer Croft  London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018

More open days – come and try us out

A couple of weeks ago, we posted about our upcoming German open day, a chance for you to learn about the German course at Oxford. This week, we continue the theme by bringing you news of our open days in Spanish and Portuguese (Thursday 28 February at The Queen’s College), and Russian and other Slavonic Languages (Saturday 2 March at Wadham College).

As with the German open day, these events are a fantastic opportunity for you to explore what an Oxford degree in those languages looks like. They offer a mixture of academic tasters so you can get a feel for the content of the degree, information about applying to Oxford, and interactions with tutors and current students, who will be happy to answer any questions you have about languages at Oxford.

Highlights of the Spanish and Portuguese open day include: an introduction to Portuguese in 15 minutes, an introduction to other peninsular languages (Catalan and Galician – for more on Galician, see our post here); a spotlight on Portuguese-speaking Africa; and a Spanish Translation workshop.

Highlights of the open day in Russian and other Slavonic Languages include: a mini lecture on ‘Home from home: Russian writers in interwar Paris’; a mini lecture on ‘Russian Grammar in Time and Space’; and a parallel discussion for parents and teachers.

The open days are open to anyone in Year 12 who is interested in studying those languages at Oxford, including if you are interested in picking up the language from scratch (with the exception of Spanish, which we do not offer from scratch). Sessions will be suitable for learners who have no prior knowledge of the language, as well as those hoping to apply post-A Level. There are a limited number of places for accompanying parents and teachers. The events are free of charge but a place must be booked through the faculty’s website.

The full programmes are below, or available to view at https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/schools/meet-us