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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Harvey Genung (1864–1921)
 
WITH all the confidence that can ever attach to human judgment upon a living author, Sienkiewicz may be pronounced the greatest creative genius in the field of fiction at the end of the nineteenth century. In his own country a clique of Polish critics applied to him the policy of silence, but they had underestimated the force that they strove to check. With his splendid trilogy of historical novels, Sienkiewicz sat self-crowned upon the throne of Polish literature, left vacant by the death of Mickiewicz thirty years before. It was with translations of these novels that he made his first appearance before the English-speaking world; and at once was felt the presence of the supreme master through the veil of an alien tongue and the mists of a remote time and people. It has been said that the creation of a new character is as important as the birth of a new man. If it is the highest achievement of art to create a new human character and endow it with inexhaustible freshness and vitality, Sienkiewicz securely takes his rank among the greatest artists. One who has wandered through that wonder-world of Poland in the seventeenth century can never again be quite the same: he is one that has had a vision. The characters who ruled in that rugged time enter the mind through these inspired pages, and like the gods of Greece and the heroes of Homer, take up their abode in the realms of the fancy forever.  1
  Henryk Sienkiewicz was born at Wola Okrzejska in Lithuania, in 1846. The facts obtainable about his life are meager. He studied at Warsaw, and from the first gave himself wholly to letters. For a time he was editor of the Niwa. As a writer of fiction he first came before the public in 1872, with a humorous tale, ‘No Man is a Prophet in his Own Country.’ In 1876 he came to America; and in southern California, in the midst of that circle of which Madame Modjeska was the center and the inspiration, he met many of the characters and had many of the experiences that have received artistic immortality in his works. It was there that he found the prototype of the inimitable Zagloba. Under the pen-name of “Litwos,” he wrote letters of travel for the Gazeta Polska which attracted general attention. Several stories appeared under the same name, some of them dealing with characteristically American scenes. In 1880 he published his first large work, ‘Niewola Tartarska’ (Tartar Slavery). With this he served his apprenticeship in the historical novel. Four years later came the first of his great masterpieces, ‘Ogniem i Mieczem’ (With Fire and Sword), and he entered at once into his kingdom. In 1886 appeared ‘Potop’ (The Deluge), and in 1887 ‘Pan Wolodyjowski’ (Pan Michael). To the Poles themselves these books represent the finest achievement of prose fiction in the language; and they are unsurpassed by the best historical romances of the world’s literature. As if to show his boundless versatility, the author next published the profound psychological novel ‘Bez Dogmatu’ (Without Dogma). His two latest works are ‘Rodzina Polanieckich’ (Children of the Soil: 1894) and ‘Quo Vadis’ (1895), both of which have secured a popular success in English. For a time Sienkiewicz edited the Slowoc in Warsaw; but his genius is restless. He says himself that he is something of a gipsy; travel is a passion: but Kraców and Warsaw are the cities to which he returns. After his long sojourn in California he went to Africa; and his wanderings have led him over all of Europe and far into the Orient. But he is no idle rover: he plunged into the midst of men and events, and described with a realist’s precision what he observed with a poet’s discernment. Freedom and independence were everything to him.  2
  Of the short stories of Sienkiewicz, the best are those which deal with Polish scenes and people. The stories of American life, as ‘Lillian Morris’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ lack the intimate touch. The Polish tales are firmly drawn and faithful pictures, revealing the closest knowledge of the life described and of the modes of thought that condition it. They cover a varied field. Light-hearted humor and deep feeling distinguish the story of artist life entitled ‘The Third.’ It is told in the first person by a young painter, whose impulsive nature twice leads him into error in the choice of a sweetheart. In all his amusing entanglements a distinguished actress is his friend and adviser; they are of the same artistic temperament: at last the obvious dawns upon him that his true love is this “third.” In contrast to the gayety of this tale stands the sad ‘Na Marne,’ a story of student life in Kieff. The title may be paraphrased as ‘Frittered Away.’ It is a powerful picture of the struggles, temptations, and ambitions in the storm and stress of university life. In it the solution of the highest problems is attempted, and the author does not hesitate coldly to analyze the loftiest human emotions; but never cynically, for through it all breathes an atmosphere of poetry. The famous Bartek ‘Zwyciezca’ (The Victor) tells of a poor Polish peasant who was forced to fight under the Prussian eagle at Gravelotte and Sedan. After performing marvels of blind valor, he went home only to become the victim of the repressive injustice of the Prussian government. Strongest of all the stories, in the judgment of the Poles themselves, is ‘God’s Will,’ from the collection of ‘Szkice Weglem’ (Charcoal Sketches). It is a tale of village life in Poland, and the secrets of local administration are ruthlessly laid bare,—its corruption, stupidity, and helplessness. Of all these elements the village clerk avails himself to accomplish his designs upon a handsome, honest peasant woman, who has a husband and child. Through sufferings infinitely pitiable,—for in her simple-mindedness she does not know that her persecutor has no power to carry out his threats,—she is at last brought to yield that she may save her husband; and her husband kills her. The story moves to its catastrophe with the inevitableness of a force of nature. The tragedy is enlivened by many scenes of the sprightliest humor; always, however, directly bearing upon the relentless development of the plot. The diverting description of the village court in session is a triumph of realistic drawing. The political significance of the story aroused the opposition of the aristocratic and clerical party, whose policy of non-intervention in local affairs was therein so savagely attacked. But it soon became obvious that Sienkiewicz had something victorious in his nature; that he was a supreme artist, taking his materials where he found them and treating them as his genius chose. The author of ‘God’s Will’ was the author also of that tender bit of pathos ‘Yanko the Musician,’ the story of the poor boy who struggled to express his inner aspirations but “died with all his music in him.” Now over his grave the willows whisper. With the same tender touch was written ‘The Old Servant,’ which forms the introduction to ‘Hania,’ a story of love and renunciation. Everywhere there is a faithful reproduction of the hopes and sorrows and faults of the Polish people. For his thought the author always finds the right form, and for his feeling the right figure.  3
  Sienkiewicz had won the supreme place among the short-story writers of his native land. The historical trilogy gave him a like place among the novelists on a larger scale. Then, from those wonderful pictures of the vigorous and valiant men of action who represented the old Polish commonwealth, he turned to the delineation of a modern Pole in ‘Without Dogma.’ The book is the diary of the hero. It is the record of a silent conflict with his own soul, full of profound observations, subtle philosophy, lofty wisdom; but the protagonist is passive, “a genius without a portfolio.” He reveals every cranny of his mind’s dwelling-place: the lofty galleries whence he has a wide panorama of humanity and the world; the stately halls filled with the treasures of science and art; the dungeons also where the evil impulses fret and sins are bred. But over the whole mansion of his soul lies a heavy enervating atmosphere: the galleries afford a spectacle but stimulate no aspirations; the treasures of knowledge and beauty feed a selfish pleasure quickly cloyed; even the evil impulses rarely pass into action. This is the modern miasma which he calls “Slavic unproductivity.” It is the over-cultivation which is turning to decay, the refinement of self-analysis that lames the will. The hero is a Hamlet in the guise of a young Polish nobleman of the late nineteenth century. His only genuine emotion is his love for Aniela; but this he doubts and philosophizes into apathy. She marries another, loving him. Obstacles arouse him, and now he puts forth an effort to win her. Her simplicity and faithfulness, her dogma, saves him who is without dogma. The futility of his life is symbolized in the words—“Aniela died this morning.” The man cannot command our respect any more than Wilhelm Meister can, or Lermontov’s “Hero of our Own Time”; but the interest of the psychological analysis is irresistible. There is in it a hint of Bourget; but in the quality of his psychology Sienkiewicz surpasses Bourget, as he surpasses Zola and Flaubert in the quality of his realism. He has been called a psychic realist, and ‘Without Dogma’ is the greatest psychological romance that the subtle mind of Poland has produced. ‘Children of the Soil’ has in it certain echoes of the greater work: It is a modern story also, turning upon the marriage of a man to a woman whom he thinks he loves, and whom after much sin and sorrow he learns to love at last. ‘Quo Vadis,’ the latest work, is a tale of the times of Nero. Paganism and Christianity are contrasted. The sympathy of the artist is naturally drawn to the ancient pagan, who devoted his life to the worship of beauty, and faced death with a stoic’s calmness. The character of Petronius Arbiter is the masterpiece of the book. This conflict between two forms of civilization has long been a favorite theme with the Polish poets: the dawn of a new era while the lights of the old still blaze.  4
  With this array of works, Sienkiewicz would take honorable rank among the best writers of his generation; but his title to a place among the great creators rests upon none of these. That claim is based upon the famous historical trilogy, ‘With Fire and Sword,’ ‘The Deluge,’ and ‘Pan Michael.’ Poland was the bulwark of Christian civilization on the east. Against the Tartar hordes and Mongolian bands the gallant commonwealth maintained a stout resistance for centuries: but her warlike neighbors did not recognize her importance as the defender of the Christian marches; she was constantly exposed to encroachments on the west. In the moment of her greatest peril the Swedes attacked her from that quarter. These wonderful wars of the seventeenth century are the theme of the trilogy. In the descriptions of innumerable battles and sieges, Sienkiewicz displays an astounding fertility of invention and an infinite variety of treatment. These scenes stamp themselves indelibly upon the memory with all the savage beauty and the thrilling horror of war. Amid the bewildering rush and whirl of events, and in the breathless excitement of individual destinies, the one animating thought is national glory; and to this, life and love are freely sacrificed. But splendid as the martial pageant is, revealing in itself a master hand of incomparable skill, the historical element is after all only the background before which heroes of Homeric mold make proof of their manhood. It is in the creation of living human beings that Sienkiewicz exhibits his highest genius. Nothing could surpass in vital force, originality of conception, and convincing realism of presentation, the character of Zagloba, bibulous but steadfast, cowardly but courageous, boasting but competent, lying but honest,—an incomparable character, to be laughed at, admired, and loved; or the plucky little hoyden and daredevil Basia, who marries Pan Michael out of hand. And these are but two of a dazzling galaxy of creations that hold the imagination enthralled. From the magic of Sienkiewicz there is no escape; firmly he grasps his wand, and once within the circle he describes, the charm can never be eluded. There is here all the tense excitement of intrigue and danger and hairbreadth escapes that fascinate in Dumas; there is the same joy in the courage and sagacity of heroes that stimulate in Dumas; but in Sienkiewicz there is also a deep psychological interest, the working out of an inner problem, the struggle of noble minds between selfishness and duty, which raise these novels out of the class of romantic tales of adventure into that higher region of poetry where we breathe the air that swept the plains of Troy. These books have an almost conscious Homeric touch; the very form of the similes is Homeric. But there is a flavor of Shakespeare also: if Michael is a modern Hector, Zagloba is a Polish Falstaff. In every case it is only of the greatest that we are reminded.  5
  Each of the three novels deals with a different campaign; each has its own central figure; each sets its own psychological task. The first deals with the uprising of the Zaporojians: the interest centers in the noble but perhaps too highly idealized Pan Yan; the struggle is between his duty to Poland and his love for Helena, whom the Cossacks have carried off. Obviously the author’s interest in his characters grows as he proceeds, and they become more vivid and convincing with each chapter. Zagloba, to be sure, is there with all his qualities from the beginning; but the little knight, Pan Michael, the incomparable swordsman, takes up more and more of the foreground, while in the second and third of the novels Pan Yan and his Helena become mere shadows. ‘The Deluge’ deals with the Swedish invasion and the dissensions among the Poles themselves; for to this noble and gifted race Goethe’s Xenion applies with sad force:—
  “Each, if you take him alone, is fairly shrewd and discerning;
    Let them in council meet, blockhead is the result.”
They triumphed in spite of their own traitors, by sheer native force and exuberance of strength. The hero of this second novel is Kmita, psychologically the most interesting of them all. In the wild days of his thoughtless youth he had committed crimes; he was easily won over to the service of the traitor Radziwill, for he was ill-informed and inexperienced. At last his better nature awakes and his eyes are opened: he finds himself disgraced and his career ruined; he resolves to begin life anew under an assumed name, and win his way to honor or find absolution in death. The book is largely a story of this struggle. The crown of the series is ‘Pan Michael.’ The subject is border warfare on the wind-swept steppes, and the Tartar invasion which ended disastrously for Poland in the fall of Kamenyets. Like a true artist, Sienkiewicz in the gloom of this sad catastrophe has made a reconcilement. At the funeral of Michael the commanding figure of Sobieski kneels beside the catafalque; and it was Sobieski who a few years later turned back the tide of Turkish invasion from the gates of Vienna. Pan Michael himself is of course the hero of this closing volume. The woman he loved has died; and the little knight, grown melancholy, has entered a monastery. Zagloba in a delicious scene lures him forth again. At once the impressionable warrior falls in love; but he is obliged to renounce his love, yielding to his friend Ketling. It is at this moment that the wholly delightful little Basia throws her arms around his neck, and with the utmost emphasis asserts her own willingness to marry him. “God has wrought a miracle,” says Pan Michael solemnly. Through the terrors of border warfare and the horrors of sieges this fearless devoted woman accompanies him; she is all his joy, the crown of his life. But Poland demands another sacrifice, and Michael brings it without hesitation. He goes to a self-determined death with only this message to his wife: “Remember, this life is nothing.” The author’s own wife died before the trilogy for which she had been his inspiration and encouragement was completed; and the sublime scenes of lovers’ parting and heroic self-sacrifice with which the series ends, are filled with a spirit of profound and chastened sorrow that is partly autobiographic. The lofty sublimity of this conclusion is wholly worthy of the noble thought that dominates it all: it is the apotheosis of Polish patriotism. In Sienkiewicz, as in all the great Polish poets of the nineteenth century, love of country, pride in its glorious past, and hope unquenched for the future, are the great inspiring forces. There is a solemn pathos in the words with which the author lays down his pen: “Here ends this series of books, written in the course of a number of years and with no little toil, for the strengthening of hearts.”
  6
  In 1899 appeared ‘The Knights of the Cross,’ a two-volume romance of Poland and Germany showing how the growth of Christianity was retarded by crimes committed in the name of the Church. ‘On the Field of Glory’ returned to the period of the great trilogy and was followed by ‘The Desert and Wilderness’ and ‘Whirlpools,’ but none of these was equal in interest and popular favor to the works analyzed above.  7
  Sienkiewicz was married three times; his third wife was the Countess Babaka. In 1905 the Nobel prize of $45,000 was awarded to him for distinguished work in idealistic literature. He died suddenly at the Grand Hotel du Lac at Vevey, Switzerland, on November 15th, 1916.  8
 
 
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