Adam Mickiewicz

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Adam Mickiewicz. Portrait by Walenty Wańkowicz, 1827-28.

Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (pronounced: [miʦ'kʲɛviʧ]; December 24 1798November 26 1855) was one of the best-known Polish poets and writers, considered the greatest 19th-Century Polish poet alongside Zygmunt Krasiński and Juliusz Słowacki (the three prophets - in Polish "wieszcz" which is what the three were, is best translated as "messianic-bard").

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[edit] Biography

Mickiewicz was born in the Zaosie manor of his uncle near Navahradak (Polish: Nowogródek, Belarusian: Наваградак, Lithuanian: Naugardukas, Russian: Новогрудок) of the Russian Empire (formerly in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, now in Belarus). His father, Mikołaj Mickiewicz, belonged to the szlachta (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth nobility, coat of arms Poraj). The poet was educated at the University of Vilnius; becoming involved in a secret Polish-Lithuanian freedom organization there. After his studies he worked as a tutor in a regional school in Kaunas in 1819-1823.

In 1823 he was arrested and put under investigation for his political activity (membership in Filomaci). Subsequently he was banished to live in central Russia. He had already published two small volumes of miscellaneous poetry at Vilnius, which had been favorably received by the Slavic public, and on his arrival at St. Petersburg he found himself admitted to the leading literary circles, where he was a great favorite both for his agreeable manners and his extraordinary talent of improvisation. In 1825 he visited the Crimea, which inspired a collection of sonnets (Sonety Krymskie — The Crimean Sonnets) with their admirably elegant rhythm and rich Oriental coloring. The most beautiful are "The Storm," "Bakhchisaray," and "The Grave of Countess Potocka"; the subjects that also caught the eye of another famous contemporary poet, Pushkin, who wrote about them in "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai" two years before Mickiewicz.

In 1828 appeared his Konrad Wallenrod, a narrative poem describing the battles of the Teutonic Knights with the heathen Lithuanians. Here, under a thin veil, Mickiewicz represented the sanguinary passages of arms and burning hatred which had characterized the long feuds of the Russians and Poles. The objects of the poem, though obvious to many, escaped the Russian censors, and the poem was allowed to be published, complete with the telling motto, adapted from Machiavelli: "Dovete adunque sapere come sono duo generazioni da combattere - bisogna essere volpe e leone" — "Ye shall know that there are two ways of fighting - you must be a fox and a lion." This is a striking poem, and contains two beautiful lyrics.

After a five years' exile in Russia the poet obtained leave to travel; he had secretly made up his mind never to return to that country, or to his native land so long as it remained under the government of Imperial Russia. Wending his way to Weimar, he there made the acquaintance of Goethe, who received him cordially, and, pursuing his journey through Germany, he entered Italy by the Splügen Pass, visited Milan, Venice and Florence, and finally took up his abode at Rome. There he wrote the third part of his poem, Dziady (Forefathers Eve, lit. Vėlinės), the subject of which is the religious commemoration of their ancestors practiced among Slavic and Baltic peoples, and Pan Tadeusz, his longest poem, considered as his masterpiece. A graphic picture is drawn of Lithuania on the eve of Napoleon's expedition to Russia in 1812. In this village idyll, as Aleksander Brückner calls it, Mickiewicz gives a picture of the homes of the Commonwealth magnates, with their somewhat boisterous but very genuine hospitality. They are seen just as the knell of their nationalism, as Brückner says, seemed to be sounding, and therefore there is something melancholy and dirge-like in the poem in spite of the pretty love story which forms the main incident.

Mickiewicz turned to Lithuania, firmly stating it as his "Fatherland" — in so doing, he was actually referring to his native former Grand Duchy of Lithuania — with the loving eyes of an exile, and gives some of the most delightful descriptions of "Lithuanian" skies and "Lithuanian" forests. He describes the weird sounds to be heard in the primeval woods in a country where the trees were sacred. The cloud-pictures are equally striking. There is nothing finer in Shelley or Wordsworth.

In 1832 Mickiewicz left Rome for Paris, where his life was for some time spent in poverty and unhappiness. He had married a Polish lady, Celina Szymanowska (her parents came from Jewish Frankist families), who became insane. In 1840 he was appointed to the newly founded chair of Slavic languages and literature in the College de France, a post which he was especially qualified to fill, as he was now the chief representative of Slavic literature[citation needed], Alexander Pushkin having died in 1837. He was, however, only destined to hold it for a little more than three years, his last lecture having been given on May 28 1844. His mind had become more and more disordered under the influence of religious mysticism.

He had fallen under the influence of a strange mystical philosopher Andrzej Towiański. His lectures became a medley of religion and politics, and thus brought him under the censure of the government. A selection of them has been published in four volumes. They contain some good sound criticism, but the philological part is defective, for Mickiewicz was no scholar, and it is clear that he is only well-acquainted with two of the literatures, Polish and Russian, and the latter only till the year 1830. A very sad picture of his declining days is given in the memoirs of Herzen. At a comparatively early period the unfortunate poet exhibited all the signs of premature old age; poverty, despair and domestic affliction had wrought their work upon him. In 1849 he founded a French newspaper, La Tribune des Peuples (Peoples' Trubune), but it only existed a year. The restoration of the French Empire seemed to kindle his hopes afresh; his last composition is said to have been a Latin ode in honour of Napoleon III. On the outbreak of the Crimean War (1855) he went to Turkey to organise Polish forces to be used in the war against Russia. With his friend, Armand Levy, a Romanian Jew [1], he set about organising a Jewish Legion, the Hussars of Israel, composed of Russian and Palestinian Jews. During a visit to a military camp near Constantinople he caught cholera and died suddenly in 1855. His body was removed to France and buried at Montmorency. In 1900 his remains were disinterred and buried in the cathedral of Kraków, where rest, besides many of the kings, the greatest of Poland's worthies.

[edit] Works

Mickiewicz is held to have been the greatest Slavic poet, with the exception of Alexander Pushkin. Mickiewicz is little known elsewhere in Europe, where it is no longer the fashion to learn the Polish language. There were both pathos and irony in the expression used by a Polish lady to a foreigner, "Nous avons notre Mickiewicz--nous." He is one of the best products of the Romantic school.

The political situation in Poland in the 19th century was often reflected in Polish literature which, since the days of Poland's partitions took a powerful upward swing and reached its zenith during the period between 1830 and 1850 in the unsurpassed patriotic writings of Mickiewicz, among others. The writings of Mickiewicz have had such a tremendous influence upon the Polish mind that they can not be underestimated.

Because of the greater simplicity of his style and the directness of presentation, Mickiewicz reached more Polish hearts than either Krasinski or Słowacki and came to be regarded as the greatest interpreter of the people's hopes and ideals. He is the Zeus of the Polish Olympus and the immortal incarnation of Polish national spirit. He wrote at a time when Romanticism prevailed in European literature. His works bear the impress of that literary epoch, but they deal with intense and palpable realities. His two monumental works, marking the zenith of his power, are: Dziady ("Ghosts") and Pan Tadeusz. The latter is universally recognized as "the only successful epic which the 19th century produced." George Brandes says that

"Mickiewicz alone approached those great names in poetry which stand in history as above all healthy, far healthier than Byron, healthier, even than Shakespeare, Homer and Goethe."

The poetic serenity of the description of Lithuanian life at the opening of the 19th century is the more remarkable when considered in the light of the poet's volcanic nature and his intense suffering over the tragic fate of his native land to which he could never return. His passionate nature finds its truest expression in Dziady, which undoubtedly constitutes the acme of poetic inspiration. It deals with the transformation of the soul from individual to a higher national conception. The hero, Gustavus, who has suffered great misfortune, wakes up one morning in his prison cell and finds himself an entirely changed man. His heart, given over to individual pain and individual love, dies. Gustavus, bewailing his lost personal happiness, lives no more, and Konrad, his divine ego, takes his place. All the creative powers of his nation are concentrated in him. Here Mickiewicz bares his own soul. He is filled with enough moral strength to challenge even God. He feels for millions and is pleading before God for their happiness and spiritual perfection. It is the Promethean idea, no doubt, but greatly deepened in conception and execution and applied to but one part of humanity, the Polish nation whose intensity of suffering was the greatest in all mankind.

In 1835 Mickiewicz came under the influence of Towianski, a mystic, and ceased to write. Toward the end of his days he freed himself again of this peculiar thrall which Towianski was able to exert over him, as over the two other poets, and became again a man of reality. As a young man, Mickiewicz took a leading part in the literary life of the university circles at Vilnius. When the societies were closed in 1823 by order of the Russian government he was arrested and exiled to Russia. While in the Crimea he wrote his exquisite sonnets. Subsequently he emigrated to France, where he spent most of his life, and died in Constantinople in 1855, while organizing a Polish (Jewish) legion against Russia during the Crimean war. His spirit was ever imbued with exalted patriotism and his genius was active in pointing toward a means of freeing the country from foreign oppression. He was a champion of action and it is characteristic of the greatness of his soul that he was ever above the petty strifes that were tearing apart the Polish emigrants, and which absorbed their thoughts and energies. At the time of the greatest intensity of that strife he wrote the celebrated Books of the Pilgrims a work of love, wisdom and good will written in exquisite style. They have been called "Mickiewicz's Homilies" and have exercised a soothing and elevating influence. Despite the fact that Mickiewicz's themes and heroes are connected with Polish life, his writings still touch upon most of the problems and motives of the world at large, thus assuring to his works everlasting value and universal interest. The same in an equal measure is true of the other two poets. They dealt with the most profound problems of existence, looking at them always through the prism of their ardent patriotism. Like Mickiewicz, the two other great Polish poets - Sŀowacki and Krasinski, were compelled to live outside their own country.

Besides Konrad Wallenrod and Pan Tadeusz, noteworthy is the poem Grażyna, describing the exploits of a Lithuanian chieftainess against the Teutonic Knights. It was said by Christien Ostrowski to have inspired Emilia Plater, a military heroine of the November 1830 Uprising who found her grave in the forests of Lithuania. A fine vigorous Oriental piece is Farys. Very good too are the odes to Youth and to the historian Joachim Lelewel; the former did much to stimulate the efforts of the Poles to shake off their Russian conquerors. It is enough to say of Mickiewicz that he has obtained the proud position of the representative poet of his country; her customs, her superstitions, her history, her struggles are reflected in his works. It is the great voice of Poland appealing to the nations in her agony.

His son, Władysław Mickiewicz, wrote Vie d'Adam Mickiewicz (Poznań, 1890-1895, 4 vols.), also Adam Mickiewicz, sa vie et son œuvre (Paris, 1888) Translations into English (1881-1885) of Konrad Wallenrod and Pan Tadeusz were made by Miss Biggs. See also Œuvres poétiques de Michiewicz, trans. by Christien Ostrowski (Paris, 1845).

[edit] Nationality

Adam Mickiewicz is generally known as a Polish poet, and all his major works are written in Polish. Although his nationality is generally not disputed among serious scholars, it is otherwise an object of endless popular controversy.

He is often regarded by Lithuanians to be of Lithuanian origin, his name being rendered into Lithuanian as Adomas Mickevičius. Similarly, many Belarusians claim his descent from a Polonized Belarusian family and call him Ада́м Міцке́віч. Also, some sources say that Mickiewicz's mother was a descendent of a converted Frankist Jewish family; however, other sources suggest the claim is "improbable" albeit possible.<ref>"Mickiewicz's mother, descended from a converted Frankist family": Encyclopaedia Judaica, art. Mickiewicz, Adam. "Mickiewicz's Frankist origins were well-known to the Warsaw Jewish community as early as 1838 (according to evidence in the AZDJ of that year, p. 362). The parents of the poet's wife also came from Frankist families." Encyclopaedia Judaica, art. Frank, Jacob, and the Frankists.

"Her (Barbara Mickiewicz) maiden name was Majewska. In old Lithuania, every baptised Jew became ennobled, and there were Majewskis of Jewish origin. That must have been the reason for the rumours, repeated by some of the poet's contemporaries, that Mickiewicz's mother was a Jewess by origin. However, genealogical research makes such an assumption rather improbable."(Wiktor Weintraub, "The Poetry of Adam Mickiewicz") </ref>

The controversy largely stems from the fact that in the 19th century the concept of nationality had not yet been fully developed and that the term "Lithuania," as used by Mickiewicz himself, had a much broader geographic extent than it does now. Mickiewicz had been brought up in the culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a multicultural state that had encompassed most of what today are the separate countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. His most famous poem, Pan Tadeusz, begins with the invocation "Oh Lithuania, my fatherland, thou art like good health". It is generally accepted that in Mickiewicz's time the term "Lithuania" still carried a strong association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and that Mickiewicz used it in a political rather than an ethnic sense. However, he was able to make a clear distinction of the ethnic Lithuanian nation<ref>http://anthology.lms.lt/texts/9a/tekstas/1.html, a preface of "Conrad Wallenrod", translated into Lithuanian. Mickiewicz described the formation of the Lithuanian State by the Lithuanian nation in an ethnic sense, as consisting of Lithuanian, Old Prussian and Lettish tribes. He regrets that the Lithuanian nationality 'has lost its true color' due to Slavic cultural influence.</ref> and himself could understand and write some Lithuanian<ref>http://anthology.lms.lt/texts/11/main_l.html - Lithuanian Classical Literature Anthology Website. An original handwritten note by Mickiewicz, containing the lyrics of a Lithuanian folk song</ref>. The resultant confusion that is sometimes engendered today is illustrated by a waggish report about a Russian encyclopedia that describes Mickiewicz as a Belarusian poet who wrote about Lithuania in Polish.

[edit] See also

[edit] Related reading:

[edit] Gallery of monuments to Adam Mickiewicz

[edit] External links

[edit] References

<references />
Image:Flag of Poland.svg The Three Bards Image:Flag of Poland.svg
Image:Adam Mickiewicz.jpg Image:Juliusz Slowacki.jpg Image:Zygmunt Krasinski.jpg
Mickiewicz Słowacki Krasiński
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Adam Mickiewicz

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