Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (December 24, 1798 – November 26, 1855) is considered by many to be Poland's greatest poet. Like renowned poets, Zygmunt Krasiński and Juliusz Słowacki, he belonged to the school of poetic Romanticism. As a Romantic, Mickiewicz was inspired by nature, and in nature he hoped to find an organic way to the truth, which for him meant a way of communicating a message with the freshness and immediacy of the natural world. Like other young Romantic poets, Mickiewicz was a large-hearted rebel. He devoted much of his poetic oeuvre to writing political poems that would generate huge amounts of controversy. He was a champion of the cause of Polish and Lithuanian independence at a time when the Russian Empire was ruled by the arch conservative Tsar Nicholas I. Like so many other Slavic writers, he was exiled to Western Europe for the remainder of his life for his political views.
Mickiewicz is an almost legendary figure in Polish literature, comparable only to Alexander Pushkin's place in Russia in the number of Polish writers who cite him as an inspiration and a fountainhead. In the English-speaking world, Mickiewicz can be most readily compared to Lord Byron—both were wild, youthful, exuberant poets of the Romantic school; both were well ahead of their times in their radical political views; and both, by a strange coincidence, would lose their lives fighting for another country's freedom.
Mickiewicz is a monumental figure in Eastern European literature. His influence cuts as wide a swath as any other major figure of the Romantic Movement. Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Germany, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England, Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France, or even Ralph Waldo Emerson in America, Mickiewicz is a father figure to an entire nation's literary history, and his importance to any survey of literary history is unquestionable.
Mickiewicz was born in the Zavosse manor of his uncle near Navahradak (Polish: Nowogródek, Lithuanian: Naugardukas, Belarusian: Наваградак, Russian: Новогрудок) of the Russian Empire, formerly in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and now part of Belarus. His father, Mikołaj Mickiewicz, belonged to the szlachta, the Polish-Lithuanian nobility. The poet was educated at the University of Wilno and became involved in a secret Polish-Lithuanian freedom organization there. After his studies he worked as a tutor in a regional school in Kowno from 1819-1823.
In 1823 Mickiewicz was arrested and put under investigation for his political activity. Subsequently he was banished to live in central Russia. He had already published two small volumes of miscellaneous poetry at Wilno, which had been favorably received by the Slavic public, and on his arrival at Saint 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 for improvisation. In 1825 he visited the Crimea, which inspired a collection of sonnets titled Sonety Krymskie (Crimean Sonnets) in which the elegance of the rhythm and the rich Oriental coloring is central. The most beautiful of these sonnets, "The Storm," provides a sense of Mickiewicz's wonderful imagery, his inventive, clattering rhymes, and his noble sense of humanity:
In 1828 his poem Konrad Wallenrod appeared; it was 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 that had characterized the long feud between 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 Niccolò Machiavelli:
The poem cemented Mickiewicz's fame—but also sealed his fate. After Konrad Wallenrod he would be almost interminably on the run from the controversy.
After an exile of five years in Russia, the poet obtained leave to travel. He had secretly made up his mind never to return to that country or native land as long as it remained under the government of Imperial Russia. Wending his way to Weimar, he made the acquaintance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who received him cordially. Pursuing his journey through Germany, he entered Italy, visited Milan, Venice, and Florence, finally taking up residence in Rome. There he wrote the third part of his poem Dziady (Forefathers Eve). The subject of which is the religious commemoration of ancestors practised among the Slavic peoples, and Pan Tadeusz, his longest poem, considered by many to be his masterpiece. The poem consists of a graphic picture of Lithuania on the eve of Napoleon's expedition to Russia in 1812. In this village idyll, as Anton Bruckner calls it, Mickiewicz gives us a picture of the homes of the Commonwealth magnates, with their somewhat boisterous but very genuine hospitality. The story takes place just as the knell of their nationalism, as Bruckner says, seems to be sounding—so that there is something melancholy and dirge-like in the poem in spite of the pretty love story which forms the main narrative.
With the loving eyes of an exile, Mickiewicz turned to Lithuania, firmly declaring it as his Fatherland, while using the Polish term "Litwa". In a sense his native Navahradak area was a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, most of which at the end of the eighteenth century consisted of modern Belarus). He gives us 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.
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, who eventually became insane and required institutionalization. In 1840 he was appointed to the newly founded chair of Slavic languages and literature at the College de France, a post which he was especially qualified to fill as he was now the chief representative of Slavic literature following the death of Alexander Pushkin in 1837. He was, however, only destined to hold this chair for a little more than three years. During this time Mickiewicz had been on a slow, emotional descent—he had been associating with practitioners of mysiticism and the occult—so that after 1844 he no longer felt fit to give lectures or participate in serious academic work.
Mickiewicz had fallen under the influence of a strange mystical philosopher Andrzej Towiański, who would also have influence over several other major figures of nineteenth century Polish literature. Under Towiański's influence, Mickiewicz's lectures became a medley of religion and politics, and thus brought him under the censure of the radical French government. A selection of these lectures has been published in four volumes. They contain some sound criticism, but Mickiewicz was only vaguely acquainted with any Slavic languages outside of his native Polish.
At a comparatively early period, the Mickiewicz exhibited all the signs of premature old age. Poverty, despair and domestic affliction all took their toll on him. In 1849 he founded a French newspaper, La Tribune des Peuples (Peoples' Tribune), but it only lasted for 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 honor of Napoleon III. On the outbreak of the Crimean War he went to Constantinople to assist in raising a regiment of Poles to take service against the Russians. He died suddenly of cholera there in 1855, and his body was removed to France and buried at Montmorency. In 1900 his remains were disinterred and buried in the cathedral of Kraków, where they now rest beside those of many of Poland's kings and dignitaries.
Mickiewicz is generally considered as the greatest Slavic poet after Alexander Pushkin. Outside Slavic countries, Mickiewicz is less known.
Mickiewicz often addresses the political situation in nineteenth-century Poland in his poems. His writings are markedly patriotic, more so than his fellow Romantics Krasinski or Słowacki. Romanticism reached its zenith in Poland during the period between 1830 and 1850 with the writings of these three great poets, but because of the greater simplicity of his style and the directness of presentation, Mickiewicz reached more Polish hearts than either of his contemporaries and came to be regarded as the greatest interpreter of the people's hopes and ideals and the most staunchly nationalistic of the major Polish poets of Romanticism.
Mickiewicz 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. The lofty praise of scholar and critic George Brandes asserts that:
It is enough to say of Mickiewicz that he has achieved the proud position of the representative poet of his country.
The poetic serenity of Mickiewicz's description of Polish-Lithuanian life at the opening of the nineteenth 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.
Mickiewicz's spirit was imbued with exalted patriotism and his genius was active in pointing toward a means of freeing his beloved country from foreign oppression. He was a champion of action and it is characteristic of the greatness of his soul that he stayed above the petty strife that was 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 for his works everlasting value and universal interest.
Besides Konrad Wallenrod and Pan Tadeusz, the poem Grażyna is noteworthy, describing the exploits of a Lithuanian chieftainess against the Teutonic Knights. Christien Ostrowski claimed that it inspired Emilia Plater, a military heroine of the uprising of November 1830, who found her grave in the forests of Lithuania.
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 regarded by Lithuanians to be of Lithuanian origin, who render his name in Lithuanian as Adomas Mickevičius. Similarly, many Belarusians claim his descent from a Polonized Belarusian family and call him Ада́м Міцке́віч.
The controversy largely stems from the fact that in the nineteenth century, the concept of nationality had not yet been fully developed and the term "Lithuania," as used by Mickiewicz himself, had a much broader geographic extent than it does now. Mickiewicz was raised 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, "O Lithuania, my country, thou art like good health," yet he was referring to the territory of present-day Belarus. It is generally accepted that in Mickiewicz's time the term "Lithuania" still carried a strong association with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and that Mickiewicz used it in a geographical rather than a national or cultural sense. The resultant confusion is illustrated by a waggish report about a Russian encyclopedia that describes Mickiewicz as a Belarusian poet who wrote about Lithuania in Polish.
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