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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Harvey Genung (1864–1921)
 
WITH the passing of Poland from the family of European States, the genius of her people received a fresh and passionate impulse. Her political dominion was gone, but she set to work in the world of spirit to create a new and undivided realm. She put her adversity to sweet uses, and won a brilliant place in the history of human culture. In the works of her poets the ancient glories of the annihilated commonwealth regained their lustre; and a host of splendid names bear witness, in this century of her political obliteration, to the fervid strength of the old national spirit. Love of country, pride in her great past, grief at her misfortunes, and inextinguishable hope—these are her poets’ themes and the inspiration of her noblest achievements.  1
  The golden age of Polish letters was ushered in by the Romanticists. In the presence of the world-stirring events of a great social revolution, the pseudo-classical themes lost their vitality. German culture wrought a widening of the intellectual horizon. Goethe, Schiller, Scott, and Byron became almost Polish poets. In the background loomed Ossian and Shakespeare and Dante. Hermits, knights, and spectres took the place of the ancient gods in the scenery of the new ballads. Mickiewicz began his literary career with a collection of such ballads, and was hailed at once as a leader of the Romantic movement; and this movement, although accompanied by much sound and fury, was yet the necessary prologue to the splendid outburst of Polish poetry in the second quarter of this century. It put an end to the domination of Paris, and set free the national genius. Genuine poets arose, possessing the essentials of high art,—a perfected technique, a deep and sympathetic insight into the most diverse human motives, and a strong individuality. Byron was the dominant literary influence. It is evident in Malczewski’s superb poem, ‘Maria,’ whose appearance in 1825 marked the beginning of the great age. Malczewski had known Byron in Venice, and had suggested to him the theme of ‘Mazeppa’; but Mickiewicz, Krasiński, Słowacki, all bear the marks of Byronic inspiration. The literature of this golden age in Poland was one of exiles and emigrants. Scarcely one of the great works of the time was written on Polish soil, and yet never was a literature more intensely national. The scenes are laid in Poland, the themes are drawn from Polish history, and everything is treated with a passionate patriotism. Even when, as in Krasiński’s ‘Irydion,’ the subject is taken from the history of a foreign people, its application to the situation of Poland is obvious. And it was Mickiewicz, wandering for thirty years far from his native land, who finally gave to the spirit of Poland its highest literary expression; he revived the pride of the Poles in the spiritual achievements of their race, and restored to them the consciousness of their national solidarity. He created the great national poem of Poland in ‘Pan Tadeusz’ (Pan Thaddeus of Warsaw), which ranks with the finest poetry of the world’s literature. It is the crystallized product of all the centuries of Polish culture; in it center the pride, the hopes, and the ambitions of the Polish people.  2
  Adam Mickiewicz was born at Zaosie, near Novogródek, on December 24th, 1798. His childhood was passed in the midst of the most stirring scenes, which left a deep impression upon him. During the Russian campaign, his father’s house was the headquarters of the King of Westphalia. All the hopes of Poland were then founded upon Napoleon; and for Napoleon, Mickiewicz cherished a lifelong enthusiastic reverence, which in his latter days assumed a mystical character. For Byron he felt a similar regard; but it was not Byron but Bürger who gave the impulse to the volume of ballads with which Mickiewicz made his first appearance in literature in 1822. The ballad of ‘Lenore’ had a wonderful fructifying power: it gave to Scott his earliest inspiration; it caught the youthful fancy of Victor Hugo; it awoke the genius of Mickiewicz. But the first distinctive work of the Polish poet was written in the spirit of ‘Werther,’ and was wrung from him by his grief over an unfortunate love affair. This was ‘Dziady’ (In Honor of our Ancestors), a broadly conceived but never finished poem, of which the first installment appeared in 1823. It is not the poet’s own sorrow alone that here finds expression, for under this we hear the despairing cry of an enslaved people.  3
  In 1824 Mickiewicz left his native land, never to return. He lived in an age of unions and associations, of unrest and suspicion. Literary societies easily became involved in political discussions, and acquired a reputation for revolutionary sentiments. Mickiewicz belonged to the Philareths; and on account of the part he took in a student demonstration, he was arrested and sent to St. Petersburg. Banished thence to Odessa, he obtained permission in the autumn of 1825 to visit the Crimea. In the following year this visit bore fruit in the splendid Oriental series of ‘Crimean Sonnets.’ Meanwhile Mickiewicz, whose personal relations with the Russian government had always remained cordial, was given a post in the office of the Governor-General at Moscow. He never had pretended to play the martyr; for with his genuine Polish patriotism he combined a coldly objective view of the political situation. When in 1828 he settled in St. Petersburg, he was received into the great world by the leading spirits of the time with an enthusiasm that bordered on glorification. He stood in close spiritual intercourse with Pushkin, the other great Slavic poet of the age, and his junior by just six months. The fame of Mickiewicz in Russia was based upon the translations of the ‘Crimean Sonnets’ and of ‘Konrad Wallenrod.’ This powerful epic, written in Moscow in 1827 and published in St. Petersburg in 1828, treats of the relations between Russia and Poland, and the burning questions of the day are presented with cold objectivity. The manner is Byronic. This poem at once took its place as a national epic, contributed incalculably to the strengthening of the national feeling, and furthermore it signalized the triumph of Romanticism.  4
  Mickiewicz never definitely renounced Romanticism as Goethe did. The classic and the romantic existed in him side by side. He freed himself, however, from the shackles of a one-sided tendency, and began to seek the sources of his poetry in reality and truth. And for Mickiewicz truth came more and more to assume a religious coloring. Even where the influence of ‘Faust’ and ‘Cain’ and ‘Manfred’ is most apparent, the heroes of Mickiewicz are at strife only with the sins and evils of humanity; they are never in revolt against the Divine power. But the work in which Mickiewicz first definitely abandoned purely romantic methods was ‘Grazyna.’ It appeared at about the same time that the publication of ‘Konrad Wallenrod’ marked the culmination of the Romantic movement. Both poems treat of the Lithuanian struggles against the encroachments of the Teutonic Knights; but ‘Grazyna’ is full of epic reserve, classic simplicity, and majestic repose. It reveals Mickiewicz as an epic poet of the grand style. By these two works he rose at once above the strife of schools and tendencies into the regions of universal poetry, and became the national poet of his people.  5
  In the adulation with which Mickiewicz was surrounded in St. Petersburg there lurked a certain danger: it threatened to drag his genius down into the epicurean dolce far niente of the gay capital; but the deep earnestness of his character saved him. In 1829 he obtained permission to leave Russia. As when, five years before, he had left Poland forever, so when he crossed the Russian border he crossed it never to return; he never again set foot on Slavic soil. The five years in Russia had given to his genius its universality and cosmopolitan range. And the travels which now began brought him a rich harvest of experience and friends. In Weimar he met Goethe; in Switzerland his two greatest Polish contemporaries, Krasiński and Słowacki; and in the cosmopolitan society of Rome he formed a close friendship with James Fenimore Cooper. In 1830 the revolution which Mickiewicz had foreseen broke out in Warsaw, with the singing of the closing stanzas of his own ‘Ode to Youth.’ The poet hastened to join his countrymen: but he was met at Posen with the news of Polish defeat. He turned back, saddened and aimless. Sorrow of a keenly personal sort followed close upon the grief of the patriot. In Italy he fell in love with the daughter of a Polish magnate. His love was reciprocated; but encountering the father’s haughty opposition, Mickiewicz suddenly departed. The literary result of this sorrow was ‘Pan Tadeusz,’ written, as Goethe wrote, for self-liberation. It was begun in Paris in 1832 and published in 1834. It is the most perfect work of the poet, the culminating point of Polish poetry,—and indeed, the pearl of all Slavic literature.  6
  The scene of ‘Pan Tadeusz’ is laid in Lithuania in 1812, when Poland’s hopes were high, and Napoleon’s star still in the ascendant. It is the story of the last raid in Lithuania; and the lawlessness of private war is here portrayed in vivid pictures. These civil feuds were a late survival of the many disruptive evils upon which the commonwealth was finally wrecked. The poem abounds in rich poetic scenes of Lithuanian life, the sublime sweep of the landscapes, the solemn gloom and loneliness of vast primeval forests. There is in it all a tone of majesty which reveals a great poet in his loftiest mood.  7
  ‘Pan Tadeusz’ was Mickiewicz’s last important work. To be mentioned, however, are ‘The Books of the Polish People and of the Polish Pilgrimage,’ and the ‘Lectures on Slavic Literature.’ In the former the poet treats in Biblical style of the function of Poland in history, and of her mission in the future. The Slavic lectures were those delivered at the Collège de France, where in 1840 Cousin had founded a chair of Slavic literature. Mickiewicz was the first incumbent, and his lectures were received with unbounded enthusiasm. All literary Paris flocked to hear the famous poet tell of the spiritual conquests of his countrymen. The lectures are distinguished by felicity of phrase and fineness of fancy; less by careful scholarship.  8
  The last decade of the poet’s life was clouded by sorrow, illness, and financial embarrassment. In 1834 he had married the daughter of the celebrated pianiste Szymanowska. It was not a marriage of love, but seems not to have been unhappy. Mickiewicz’s nature was deeply religious; in Italy he had been in close communion with such men as Montalembert and Lamennais; in Paris he became fascinated by the mystic Messianism of the uncultured fanatic Towianski, and with all the poetic fervor of his being he plunged into the depths of mysticism. He was removed from his professorship on this account in 1844. The genius of the poet was darkened; only the patriot remained. In 1848 he tried to raise in Italy a Polish legion against Austria. In 1849 he edited the Tribune des Peuples, but at the end of three months the paper was suppressed. When Napoleon III. seized the imperial throne in 1852, Mickiewicz was made librarian of the Arsenal Library. During the war in the Orient, he was sent as a special emissary of the French government to raise Polish legions in Turkey. The camp life which his duties rendered necessary ruined a constitution already undermined; and at Constantinople, on November 26th, 1855, he died. His body was brought to Montmorency, but in 1890 was removed to the royal vaults at Kraców.  9
  Mickiewicz, with his wide knowledge of literatures and languages, and with his cosmopolitan experience, nevertheless succeeded by sheer force of genius, infused with ardent patriotism, in so blending all the foreign elements of his own culture with the characteristics of his race and country as to create a distinctively Polish literature, and deserve the name of supreme national poet. His poetry exercises in Poland that cohesive force which Greece found in Homer and Italy derived from Dante. He is the rallying-point for the poets and patriots of Poland, and the consolation of a proud and oppressed race.  10
 
 
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