Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE POETIC genius of Poland put forth its fairest flower in the trefoil of Mickiewicz, Krasiński, and Słowacki. Strongly contrasted in individuality, the three were united by their love of country; in their lives as in their works the controlling motive is an ardent patriotism. All were exiles from the land they loved; and their works, which constitute the glory of Polish literature, were written on an alien soil. They all strove to keep alive the pride of their countrymen in Poland’s ancient greatness; but in Słowacki a certain temperamental pessimism, in sharp contrast to the national optimism of his brother poets, held his patriotic hopes restrained. An intense love of freedom, and a hatred of the régime of the Czar, glow in his impassioned verse. He was a patriot of the people. Krasiński, allied with the highest families, and Mickiewicz, the favorite of the great, were patriots of a more aristocratic mold. Upon them all fell the mighty shadow of Byron; and in none was the Byronic spirit more perfectly reincarnated than in Słowacki. He surpassed his master; and although he outgrew this influence, and drew loftier inspiration from Shakespeare and Calderón, he retained to the end the traces of “Satanic” pessimism. In a rough classification of the members of this brilliant triad, Mickiewicz, the master of the epic and lyric, may be called the poet of the present; Krasiński, the prophet and seer, the poet through whom the future spoke; while Słowacki, the dramatist, was the panegyrist of the past.  1
  Julius Słowacki was born at Krzemieniec on August 23d, 1809. His father was a professor of some note at the University of Vilna, where the lad received his education. His mother idolized and spoiled him, sowing the seeds of that supreme self-love which became in him a moral malady. From the first he had the conscious resolve to become a great poet. Upon leaving the university in 1828 he entered the uncongenial service of the State. Two years later he abandoned his post; and left Poland to be thenceforth a homeless wanderer. During the period of his official bondage in Warsaw he produced his early Byronic tales in verse: ‘Hugo,’ a romance of the Crusades, ‘Mnich’ (The Monk), ‘Jan Bielecki,’ ‘The Arab,’ etc. They are distinguished by boldness of fancy and great beauty of diction; but their gloomy pessimistic tone ran counter to the prevailing taste of that still hopeful time, and the day of their popularity was deferred until renewed misfortunes had chastened the public heart. Two dramas belong to the same period,—‘Mindowe’ and ‘Mary Stuart.’ The scene of the former is laid in the ancient days before Christianity had been established in Lithuania; the latter challenges comparison with Schiller’s play, and surpasses it in dramatic vigor. It is still a favorite in the repertoire of the Polish theatres.  2
  Słowacki delighted in powerful overmastering natures: it was the demonic in man that most appealed to him; and that element in his own nature during the turbulent days of 1830 and 1831 burst forth into revolutionary song. His fine ‘Ode to Freedom,’ the fervid ‘Hymn to the Mother of God,’ and the ringing martial spirit of his ‘Song of the Lithuanian Legion,’ stirred all hearts, and raised Słowacki at once to the front rank among the poetic exponents of the Polish national idea.  3
  When in 1832 Słowacki settled in Geneva, a new period in his literary career began: he emerged from the shadow of Byron, and his treatment of life became more robust and earnest. Unconsciously his Kordjan came to resemble Conrad in the third part of Mickiewicz’s ‘Dziady’ (In Honor of our Ancestors). The first two acts of this powerful drama are still somewhat in the Byronic manner, but the last three acts are among the finest in the whole range of Polish dramatic literature. The theme is patriotic: the hero plunges into a conspiracy at Warsaw to overthrow the Czar; but at the critical moment the man is found wanting, and because he puts forth no adequate effort he miserably fails. This dramatically impressive but morally impotent conclusion reveals the ineradicable pessimism of the poet’s mind. Kordjan is of that irresolute Slavic type which Sienkiewicz has so mercilessly analyzed in ‘Without Dogma.’ To this same period of Słowacki’s greatest productivity belong the two splendid tragedies ‘Mazepa’ and ‘Balladyna.’ In ‘Mazepa’ is all the fresh vigor of the wind-swept plains; it has a dramatic quality that reminds of Calderón, and maintains itself with unabated popularity upon the Polish stage. ‘Balladyna’ is the most original of all the poet’s creations. Shakespeare superseded Byron; but the master now inspired and no longer dominated. ‘Lilla Weneda,’ of later date, was the second part of an unfinished trilogy, of which ‘Balladyna’ was the first: the design of the whole was to recreate the mythical traditions of Poland. On this ancient background is portrayed the conflict of two peoples; and it is characteristic of the poet that he allows the nobler race to succumb to the ruder.  4
  It was during Słowacki’s Swiss sojourn also that he wrote one of the finest lyric gems of Polish poetry, ‘In Switzerland.’ In it he immortalized the Polish maiden who for too short a time ruled his wayward nature in a brief but beautiful dream of love. In Rome in 1836 he met Krasiński, to whose lofty inspiration his own soul responded. During a trip in the Orient he wrote his deeply pathetic poem ‘Ojciec Zadzumionych’ (The Father of the Plague-Stricken). Upon this doomed man, as upon Job, is heaped misfortune on misfortune until human capacity for suffering is exhausted, and the man becomes a stony monument of misery. There is an overwhelming directness of presentation in this poem that suggests the agony of the marble Laocoön. It surpasses Byron at his best.  5
  In 1837 Słowacki rejoined Krasiński in Florence, and under his influence wrote in Biblical style the allegory of ‘Anhelli.’ It is a song of sorrow for the sufferings of Poland and her exiled patriots; but it loses itself at last in the marsh of mystic Messianism into which the masterful but vulgar Towianski lured many of the nobler spirits of Poland, including Mickiewicz. Krasiński resisted, and the two friends were separated. Słowacki and his greater rival were stranded on the shoal of Towianism. The works which he had written in Switzerland he began to publish in Paris in 1838; but ‘Beniowski’ was the only work of art that he wrote after that time. This is a lyric-epic of self-criticism. His works thenceforth were water-logged with mysticism, and do not belong to the domain of art. In ‘Król Duch’ (King Mind) this madness reaches its height. Embittered and out of touch with the world, he died in Paris on April 3d, 1849.  6
  Słowacki surpassed all his contemporaries in the magnificent flights of his imagination, and in the glowing richness of his language and imagery. His dramas are among the chief ornaments of Polish literature; and his beautiful letters to his mother should be mentioned as perfect gems of epistolary style. His contempt for details of form and composition seems sometimes like a conscious defiance of the recognized requirements of art; but the splendid exuberance of his thought and fancy ranks him among the great poets of the nineteenth century. He was keenly alive to the faults and failings of his countrymen, as is shown in his ‘Incorrigibles’; but in the temple of Polish fame his place is secure at the left of Mickiewicz, at whose right stands Krasiński with the ‘Psalm of Sorrow’ in his hand.  7

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.