Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's greatest poet since Jan Kochanowski (1530-84) and Mikolaj Sep Szarzynski (1550-81), was born near Nowogrodek in present-day Minsk province in 1798, and educated at Vilna university, from which he was exiled to Russia for political activism. He joined writer's circles in St. Petersburg and wrote a series of exquisite sonnets based on a visit to the Crimea in 1825. His verse tales Grazyna (1823) and Konrad Wallenrod (1828) introduce the Romantic themes of sacrifice, tragic loneliness of the hero and illicit love. The greater Pan Tadeusz (1834), set in Lithuania on the eve of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, is a Homeric celebration of Poland's identity.

Mickiewicz left Russia in 1831, toured Europe (meeting Goethe and others) and settled in Paris. He became the leading representative of Slavonic literature after Pushkin's death, but his many interests politics, philology, mysticism did not bring happiness or prosperity. His wife became insane, Poland remained partitioned, and Mickiewicz himself died of cholera in Istanbul in 1855, his remains being re-interred in Cracow Cathedral in 1890.

Until the final partition of the country in 1795, Polish literature went through the usual European phases: the generally devotional poetry of the middle ages, the splendours of the late renaissance, the richness of baroque and then the clarity and enlightenment of classicism. But with partition, and more particularly the abortive insurrections against czarist Russia in 1830 and 1863, romantic literature became the rallying point of nationalism and the shaper of a Polish mentality. Mickiewicz, Slowacki (1809-49), Krasinski (1812-59) and Novid (1821-83) are very different writers, but all incorporated a strong political message. The mood darkened after 1863, and again during the 1918-39 period of Polish independence, when the approaching catastrophe became all too evident. The horrors of WWII were followed by communist censorship, and many of Poland's greatest writers again worked in exile: Milosz, Wierzynski and Wat. Nonetheless, a great variety of excellent poetry has been produced in Poland during the post-Stalinist period, much of it modernist, experimental and introverted, but sometimes returning to older and sunnier traditions.

TThe literature of Poland is as varied as that of any other country, and a brief survey can only touch on a few outstanding achievements. Jan Kochanowski replaced medieval forms with a strict syllabic system, bequeathing verse and stanza patterns that served until the 20th century. Mikolaj Sep Szarzynski's tortured religious poetry is the equal of that of Donne or George Herbert, as Mickiewicz's is of the English Romantic's. Brilliantly witty poetry was written by Jan Andrzej Morsztyn (1621-93), Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801) and Stanislaw Trembecki (1739-1812). Juliusz Slowacki's (1809-49) enormous and varied output is matched by astonishing virtuosity, and Cyprian Kamil Norwid's (1821-83) ushered in modernism with irony and semantic density. Boleslaw Lesmian (1878-1937) was a belated Symbolist, and the leading exponent of the Young Poland movement. Czeslaw Milosz (1911- ) was well known in the States, and of course the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) has its usual excellent overview, and includes a brief bibliography, mostly Polish material. Try, however, M. Giergielewicz's Introduction to Polish Versification (1970), C. Milosz's The History of Polish Literature (1983) and B. Carpenter's The Poetic Avant-garde in Poland 1918-39 (1983), M. J. Mikos's Polish Renaissance Literature, Mikos et al's Polish Baroque and Enlightenment Literature, and M.M. Coleman's The Polish Land.


Suggestion: The History of Polish Literature Czeslaw Milosz. University of California Press. 1984. $24.95.

A fine literary history by one of Poland's outstanding poets. Still the standard work.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.