1. Metaphysical Currents in the Lyric Poetry of Adam Mickiewicz
‘Metaphysical poetry’ is a problematic term: it is broad and the phenomenon it denotes has blurred borderlines. In the eyes of some of the leading figures within classicist aesthetics, this description seemed pejorative, suggesting poems that were too detached from the rules of rationalised discourse, and often invoked contradictory ideas. T.S. Eliot pointed this out in his essay The Metaphysical Poets, commenting on the volume Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler, edited by Herbert Grierson.1 Eliot didn’t suggest his own definition of the term; but he defended the value and originality of the seventeenth-century English ‘metaphysical poets’ and their intellectual diversity, emphasising in particular the work of John Donne, George Herbert, Edward (Lord) Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan and Henry King (to name the most prominent).
The intellectual polyphony of those poets didn’t escape the notice of a poet and Harvard professor, Stanisław Barańczak, whose introduction to his own Polish anthology of seventeenth-century English metaphysical poetry highlighted some elements common to the poetical praxis of those authors.2 Barańczak followed the convention of pointing out two “lines” uniting seventeenth-century metaphysical lyric poetry: the “strong lines” of style and – in particular – “the line of wit” (wherein he saw not only “grace and reasoning”, but, most importantly, a fundamental spiritual category allowing for expression of “grand existential drama”). From the perspective of seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry, what is especially interesting is not only the art of concetto (or ‘conceit’) and paradox, which enables expression of the “greatness and misery of the human being”, but also complications and problems which recur in the experience of seventeenth-century poets, such as: the co-existence of the religious and the secular; the aspect of “absence” or the “anxiety of insatiety” in the life of Man and his relationship with Nature and God (mutual interpenetration of the vertical and the horizontal orders); the search for the ‘hidden God’; and the experience of tragic and spiritual restlessness. All these phenomena will also be found in Adam Mickiewicz’s poems. In attempting to describe the abovementioned restlessness, it is worthwhile to bear in mind the notion of ‘inner experience’ developed by Georges Bataille: “By inner experience I understand that which one usually calls mystical experience: the states of ecstasy, of rapture, at least of meditated emotion. But I am thinking less of confessional experience, to which one has had to adhere up to now, than of an experience laid bare, free of ties, even of an origin, of any confession whatever.”3 Another helpful concept is ineffability, the most significant aspect of mystical experience, in William James’s view: “The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.”4.
The term ‘metaphysical poetry’ is difficult to define – unsurprisingly, given how the fundamental concept in this phrase, ‘metaphysics’, is itself far from simple. As a term and a concept, ‘metaphysics’ is traditionally thought to derive from Aristotle, and his work which is commonly known as the Metaphysics, even though neither its title, nor the term itself, turns out to have been invented by the founder of the Lycaeum. Andronicus of Rhodes (1st century BC), the editor of Aristotle’s writings, gave the title Ta Meta Ta Physika to a collection of the philosopher’s essays. The Greek title can mean “what comes after the physical books” (now known as The Physics). The works which ‘come after the physical ones’ concern the highest part of philosophy which Aristotle described as “first philosophy”, “first science”, “theology” or “wisdom”, and whose objects include: being as such, the first principles of reality, and that which is immutable (in contrast to the natural world, whose main feature is mutability).
A traditional interpretation claims that the name ‘metaphysics’, which was given to the noblest part of philosophy, should be understood as denoting that which transcends physics and the sensible world. This understanding was accepted in the Latin West during the Middle Ages. Many scholars claim it was merely a result of widespread ignorance of the history of how Aristotle’s writings were edited and published. According to this interpretation, Andronicus was merely trying to give some name to those books which are supposed to follow Aristotle’s Physics, when placed on a library shelf. It seems, however, that little evidence can be produced to support this popular theory: Andronicus, as well as later authors who used the term ‘metaphysics’, realised the semantic ambiguity of the Greek prefix meta. The object of Aristotelian wisdom is indeed what comes after the physical, but in the sense of transcending it.5
We can assume that Mickiewicz was familiar with Aristotle’s philosophy, including his Metaphysics. He received a solid education in ancient thought at Vilnius University6 between 1815 and 1819, where he studied under Gottfried Ernst Groddeck (1762–1825).7 He frequently referred to Aristotelian political theory and aesthetics, as well as to ‘Aristotelianism’ in general, in the political pieces he wrote as an émigré in the early 1830s, and later in his lectures on Latin literature delivered at the Academy of Lausanne (1839–1840) as well as in his courses on Slavic literature at the Collège de France in Paris (1840–1844).8
In his Paris courses, Mickiewicz contrasted Aristotle with Plato, claiming that the two main currents of philosophy that are perpetually at war with each other derive from each of these two ancient thinkers. This was congruent with the general view that emerged in the nineteenth century, in opposition to the earlier opinio communis, according to which the philosophical doctrines of Plato and Aristotle are complementary, and harmonise with one another, because Platonism primarily studies the eternal, spiritual realm, while Aristotelianism deals with the temporal, sensible world. Such a view is exemplified in the famous depiction of Plato and Aristotle at the centre of Raphael’s School of Athens (1509–1511), where the older philosopher points his index finger upwards, while the younger one’s hand directs attention downwards. Mickiewicz on the other hand, claimed Plato as the main representative of an inspired and intuitive philosophy, whilst asserting Aristotle to be a father of “scholasticism”, that is, an abstract, dry and cerebral philosophy. Curiously enough, Mickiewicz counted G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831), whom he disliked, among the ‘scholastics’ and disciples of Aristotle.
Mickiewicz’s early classical education, and his subsequent incredible erudition (which led to his appointments, first to the chair of Latin literature at Lausanne, then to the chair of Slavic literature in Paris), allow us to assume that he was more than familiar with the Western metaphysical tradition, from the ancient thought of Plato and Aristotle through the Platonic Church Fathers to the mature scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages. As was noted above, he must have first encountered ancient philosophy as a student in Vilnius, but, as Tadeusz Sinko notes, the only surviving fragment of Mickiewicz’s M.A. dissertation De criticae usu atque praestantia (devoted to the then-developing discipline of systematic textual criticism of Latin and Greek manuscripts) focusses on Origen of Alexandria (AD 185–253), St Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 329–390 AD), St Basil the Great (329–379), and St Jerome of Stridon (342/347–420).9 Knowledge of the first three of those four Fathers must have given Mickiewicz insight into the tradition of Christian Platonism, since St Gregory of Nazianzus (revered later as ‘the Theologian’) and his friend St Basil of Caesarea, along with his younger brother St Gregory of Nyssa, are usually referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers. Their was a great synthesis of Pagan philosophy (Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic) with Biblical revelation; they laid the foundations for mediaeval metaphysics and mysticism, not only in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but in the Western, Latin Church as well.10
In the 1830s Mickiewicz returned with great enthusiasm to these sources of Western metaphysics: in a letter to Bohdan and Józef Zaleski from 1838 he mentions his plans to translate the Confessions by St Augustine and the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite as well as “one of the Church Fathers”.11 The writings of Augustine, that synthesise Christian revelation with the Platonism of Plotinus (204–270 AD) and Porphyry (234–305 AD), exerted an overwhelming influence on mediaeval metaphysics up to St Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century Summa Theologiae. The Corpus Dionysiacum, on the other hand, is a collection of treatises which enjoyed an immense authority both in the East and in the West, because, until the end of the fifteenth century, they were attributed to St Dionysius the Areopagite, purportedly a Greek philosopher who was converted by St Paul during his famous Areopagus speech (Acts 17:16–34). Humanists including Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457) and Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/69–1536) demonstrated beyond doubt that the author of the Dionysian corpus couldn’t have been a contemporary of St Paul, because the work is cited nowhere before the sixth century. More recent studies have shown that the treatises attributed to St Dionysius are essentially a creative transformation of a metaphysical system of Proclus, the head of the Platonic Academy in Athens until the year 485 AD.
It was unanimously believed that the works in question were written by this disciple of St Paul’s; thus they enjoyed a decisive impact on mediaeval metaphysics and mysticism. These texts’ influence shaped Christian philosophy, first in the Byzantine Empire, then in the Latin West, when they were translated into Latin in 858 by an Irish monk John Scotus Eriugena (800–877) – especially since it was (wrongly) assumed that St Dionysius the Areopagite later became the first bishop of Paris and the patron of the famous Abbey of Saint-Denis. The authority of Augustine and that of the Pseudo-Areopagite converge, along with Aristotle, Plotinus,12 Proclus, and their Arabic commentators, in the thirteenth-century grand metaphysical system of Aquinas.
Mickiewicz’s desire to translate St Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius demonstrate his profound interest in the Western metaphysical and mystical tradition. In a 1839 letter to a Polish philosopher, Bronisław Trentowski (1808–1869), Mickiewicz accuses him of neglecting not only his favourite theosophists, Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) and Franz von Baader (1765–1841),13 but also the works of the Church Fathers and St Thomas Aquinas.14 Andrzej Lam points out Mickiewicz’s fascination with Christian mysticism, as testified by his letter to Jan Skrzynecki (1787–1860), where he says that he read Joseph Görres (1776–1848) and “many similar works”.15 Görres’ Die Christliche Mystik is a monumental four-volume work featuring extensive material on the Christian mystics as well as a discussion of key mystical terms such as visions or ecstasies.16 In light of all this, we can safely assume that Mickiewicz was familiar with the most important representatives of mediaeval and early modern mysticism. Yet the most prominent influences on him were such mystics and theosophists as Jakob Böhme and Angelus Silesius (1624–1677)17 as well as their later followers and popularizers, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743–1803)18 and Franz von Baader.
The term ‘metaphysics’ was rarely used by Mickiewicz. The Lexicon of Adam Mickiewicz’s Language notes only a couple of instances, where he uses the terms ‘metaphysics’ and ‘metaphysician’.19 He used words such as ‘mysticism’, ‘mystic’ and ‘mystical’ (which he treated as partly synonymous with ‘metaphysics’-related vocabulary) far more frequently, emphasising them, for instance, in his most important drama, Forefathers’ Eve, Part III.20 The understanding of ‘metaphysics’ that became standard in classical philosophy grew increasingly widespread in European culture from the late Middle Ages. Today, lexicons and encyclopedias define this term usually as a philosophical science (or perhaps, more precisely, a discipline) concerning the causes and essence of being or what is mysterious, unknown to the senses, and, therefore, beyond everyday experience and the cognitive capacities of human reason. It may be claimed that Mickiewicz’s own understanding of metaphysics (and mysticism) was, for all intents and purposes, identical to this.
1.1 Early Poems: the Vilnius-Kaunas Period
Romantic metaphysical and religious tropes recur frequently in the work of Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish poet born on the 24th of December 1798, right after the definitive fall of his fatherland (the third Partition of Poland took place in 1795). They can be found at every stage of his creative life. In the first phase, usually called the Vilnius-Kaunas period, which encompasses his studies at the Vilnius University (1815–1819) and his work in Kaunas as a teacher (1819–1823), his poetic practice seemed strongly classicist, not only in terms of rhetoric and style, but also his preferred literary forms, not least in ‘high’ genres as the hymn, the ode and the narrative poem.21 Yet these Romantic tropes can be seen particularly in the occasional poems he addressed to his friends from the Philomath circle.22 Czesław Zgorzelski, by far the most prominent expert on Mickiewicz’s lyrical poetry, has acutely observed that at this time he began to transform and overturn his classicist tendencies, introducing a more lyrical, personal perspective, thus emphasising a Romantic subjectivity of the authorial voice.23
When he was writing The Ode to Youth (December 1820), Mickiewicz gave this classicising form a Romantic colour through its emotional tone, and the dynamism of its unbalanced poetic form (every stanza featured a different verse layout and metre, and the length of the verses extended from 3 to 13 metrical feet). Rhetorically too the ode was ‘Romanticising’: it was composed in the form of an ethical address in the voice of a candidate aspiring toward leadership of a community. As the ruling idea the poet considered freedom and youth (that is, all people who are young in spirit) to be capable of radically transforming the world. The Ode to Youth can be considered the first fully Romantic poem in Polish literature, not only in terms of form, but also in its political ideas focused on liberty.
Mickiewicz planned to include this ode in his first poetic volume alongside his ballad The Romantic, an equally programmatic expression of his worldview. Tsarist censorship, however, prevented the publication of The Ode to Youth on political grounds. Mickiewicz’s first poetic volume, Ballads and Romances, published in 1822, consists of a cycle of Romantic ballads. This groundbreaking book inaugurated Romanticism in Poland, and also helped shape the Romantic metaphysical imagination. In our anthology we include two, very different poems from the 1822 volume: The Romantic, and the Hymn on the Feast of the Annunciation.
The Romantic stands out among the other Ballads and Romances, because the fantastic, folk-like style essential to the other poems has been replaced here by a metaphysical and eschatological perspective. Other structural features of this genre, which was hitherto unprecedented in Polish literature, were maintained by Mickiewicz. Ireneusz Opacki, a noted expert in the aesthetics of the ballad, emphasises Mickiewicz’s generic syncretism in this ballad, with its skillful blending of epic and dramatic elements alongside an element of lyrical sensitivity.24 Dramatic verse was a particular influence on The Romantic, since all that is of the utmost importance (that is, ideas and impressions) was voiced by the protagonists in direct speech. In this way the poem acquired a polyphonic character and lost the attributes of a didactic manifesto, while the marketplace in a provincial town became the first agora in Polish culture, where an ancient Greek agon, dispute between the Enlightenment and the Romantic sensibilities takes place.
Apart from the polemicising characters in the poem, we encounter the Old Man, who represents the Enlightenment worldview,25 and the young Poet, who promotes a Romantic sensibility, and has the final lines, which end both the argument and the whole event. A special role is given to Karusia, a common girl with a name uncommon for contemporary Polish folk characters (‘Karusia’ being a diminutive for ‘Karolina’). Her status in the world depicted in the narrative remains ambiguous: it is never clear whether she is insane, or a ‘seer’ who can communicate with the dead (or, perhaps, both). The history of a personal tragedy emerges from the suffering girl’s fragmentary monologue. We see an orphan, oppressed by her stepmother, who lost a man she loved (he is tenderly addressed with the diminutive “Jasieńku!”), but who also acquired, in her own view, the special gift of being able to cross the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead (“I see – they cannot see you!”). She is convinced that she can maintain intimacy with her lost lover as she lives from one visionary encounter to another, maintaining her fidelity in the face of death’s destructive power. The cost of this choice is a weakened connection to the world, and a feeling of loneliness among the living.
The speech she delivers to the ghost of her beloved (who is neither introduced as a being in his own right nor seen publicly) is received with empathy by the crowd gathered at midday in the town’s marketplace. They are confident that this is not an hallucination:
It is precisely this reaction of the crowd that provokes a rant by the Old Man, who is a rational empiricist and a social educator, and tries to educate the crowd by laying out his point of view, and indeed the foundations of the Enlightenment worldview: scientism (“my eye and my lens”), rationalism, and empiricism (“There’s nothing here I can see!”). The learned sage treats belief in ghosts as an anti-intellectual barbarism; he seems to understand the girl as raving mad, and scrupulously maintains his distance from her suffering. This is meant to associate Enlightenment learning with a lack of empathy towards human suffering.
The closing lines of the ballad, spoken by the young Poet in response to the Old Man’s speech, sets the boundaries for this epistemological dispute concerning how appropriate ‘Enlightened’ instruments of knowledge are in this situation. The young Poet shares the crowd’s compassion for the girl, and their faith in the possibility of crossing between the temporal and the preternatural realms. He doesn’t deny the usefulness of reason and sense-experience when it comes to knowing the world, but he makes a powerful point that “feeling and faith” (that is, intuition, inner sensitivity, spirituality and the Shakespearean “mind’s eyes”, as mentioned in the poem’s epigraph), play a more important role where suffering and the mystery of being (“the living truths”) are concerned, particularly when the nature of the connection between the visible and the invisible worlds is involved. The closing metaphor of ‘the heart’ is crucial here. Of course this has always been a preeminent symbol, both in folklore and high culture, of the source of love, passion, and powerful feelings. It also enjoys this prominence on a religious-metaphysical plane, since the heart takes on multiple mystical meanings in the Bible, as a symbol of the divine and supernatural realms.26
Karusia, an unenlightened girl from the world of the common people, opens up in the Polish Romanticism a whole gallery of figures who strive at cultivating the bond between the living and the dead and who abide in the circle of memory, the memory of those who passed away. Those figures are convinced that they enjoy a privilege of crossing the boundary between “here” and “there”, this world and the other world. From this point of view, it is a secondary matter as to whether Karusia is clairvoyant or insane. As Zofia Stefanowska pointed out in her exquisite discussion of this ballad, for the Romantics
insanity is an ambiguous, borderline state. Is it merely a disease or such a disease that can empower the spiritual faculties of man, or a state of communing with the supernatural world and thus wrongly qualified as pathological by the wise? (…) It was a girl in small town marketplace that revealed for the first time to a Polish Romantic this great temptation of knowing the mystery inaccessible to the senses and reason. The girl who saw and the crowd who believed that she saw. And even if the object of the popular faith, those superstitions and old wives’ tales, remained for the poet something external and alien, the very attitude of faith was the value which connected him to the common people and enabled him to fulfil the function of the interpreter, translating the resources of folk fantasy into the system of universal concepts.27
The theme of the bond between the living and the dead became the main axis of the so-called Vilnius-Kaunas Forefathers’ Eve (consisting of Part II and IV of the play), the most important section of Mickiewicz’s second poetic volume, published in 1823. This play begins the history of Romantic drama in Polish culture. Some scholars claim, not without good reason, that the ballad cycle was to become a kind of an introduction to the early parts of Forefathers’ Eve, because what in The Romantic was a mere conjecture or a question of belief (i.e. the supernatural contact between a living human being and the ghosts of the dead) here becomes a fully-developed basis of the world depicted in the play.28 In Forefathers’ Eve, Part II Mickiewicz focuses on the religiously unorthodox folk ritual of ‘dziady’ (the ‘forefathers’) which consists of intercessory prayers for the deceased recited in cemeteries on All Souls’ Eve.
Mickiewicz transforms this ritual into a supernatural spectacle, during which the souls in Purgatory appear to a crowd gathered in a cemetery chapel, telling their life stories, which are all marked by some form of moral evil or existential deficiency. They submit themselves to the commands of Guślarz, a mystagogue and a leader of the mystery ritual. In Part IV of the play, Gustaw appears. Gustaw is the first fully-formed Romantic character in Polish literature; yet his ontological status is difficult to judge. He is alive, but heading towards death by suicide: this young man suffers from a lost love. Here love is perhaps understood in Werther-like terms, as the only element that grants a full meaning to existence. It is possible, however, that Gustaw is already the wraith of a man who has killed himself, a returning ghost. In this section, the situation of The Romantic is repeated in the form of a great confrontation between, on the one hand, the Romantic world of ‘forefathers’, and a belief in the mysterious bond between this world and the other world (as represented by Gustaw), and on the other hand, the rationalist figure of the Priest, who is attached to orthodoxy, but empathises with the suffering youth, who is his former pupil. This time, however, the rebellious Romantic openly denies everyday experience and destroys the redoubt of ‘common sense’ (as represented by the Priest), thus symbolically closing the dispute from the end of The Romantic.
The second poem from Mickiewicz’s first volume that appears in our anthology has a very different character indeed. The Hymn on the Feast of the Annunciation fits uneasily into a classicist view of the conventions of the form which is explicitly mentioned in its title. This ‘hymn’ is composed in an irregular verse form which emphasises the emotional stance of the lyrical subject, by which it resembles Mickiewicz’s Ode to Youth, composed at a similar time. Stefania Skwarczyńska has demonstrated that only the first six lines of the poem conform to the established conventions of the ‘hymn’ form.29 She also accepted an assumption that the hymn is being sung by a crowd gathered at church, which later, struck by the temerity of its request for the Blessed Virgin to appear here and now, humbles itself by prostrating (as the distanced narrator of the poem informs us, lines 7–9).
Skwarczyńska divides further parts of the poem into two additional sections: the speech of the prophet (lines 10–23) and a mystical vision of the narrator who experiences a religious transformation and, by virtue of that, becomes a figure distinct, yet also included in the event space of the poem (lines 24–40). By suggesting this tripartite division into various dimensions of action, Skwarczyńska reached a conclusion that the poem, in its structural character, becomes a syncretic hybrid “within the boundaries of a dramatic-epic-lyrical genre”, while “its generic structure consists of a so-called dramatic scene, mingled in its certain aspects with a ballad and, at another moment, linked to a hymn.”30 We may object to this nuanced interpretation by pointing out that one could just as easily claim that, from line ten onwards, a single figure dominates: the prophet who, first, proclaims the power of his words (which he desires to offer as a means of praising the glory of God and Mary), and, then, who experiences a mystical vision associated with the Annunciation. We are inclined here to accept the latter line of interpretation.
The Hymn on the Feast of the Annunciation has traditionally been considered a religious poem; this makes it stand out among Mickiewicz’s early lyric verse. However, it is atypical among Marian devotions in verse.31 In Polish literary tradition, Marian devotions focus on praise and idealisation of the Mother of God. By contrast, in Mickiewicz’s poem, the main theme, as indicated in the title, is the Annunciation itself, namely, the communication to a young Jewish girl, by the archangel Gabriel, that she has been chosen by Jahweh (‘Jehovah’ in Mickiewicz) to be the mother of the Son of God. In other words, the poem seems to be a kind of apocryphal interpretation of the events described in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke (1:26–38).32 We say ‘apparently’, since a dominant figure here is the protagonist, referred to by the poet as “a prophet”, who speaks among a circle of the crowd who are possessed by religious fear. His exclamation could potentially extend to include the rest of the poem, which, in strictly generic terms, comes after the genuinely hymnic section (which amounts to thirty lines in total).
It is precisely because of this prophetic speech, as Stefania Skwarczyńska observed in another paper, that the poem turns into a spectacular “declaration of poetic self-knowledge and creative powers”:33 this is the second key theme of the hymn, besides the Annunciation indicated in its title. Not only is the prophet concerned with attempts to receive a revelation of Godhead within the church, whilst pleading to strengthen his own prophetic voice; also he emphasises, not without a touch of pride, his own alleged powers and significance (“Though only the godlike can the godlike praise”). Those powers and this significance are manifest not merely in his capacity to arouse spiritual enthusiasm (presumably, among the gathered people): the prophet attributes to himself a voice so powerful (similar to the voice of the Cherubs who will proclaim the end of history, and raise the dead from their ashes), that the glory proclaimed by this voice (the glory of both Jehovah and Mary?) will spread throughout the whole infinite universe and last for ever. In Mickiewicz’s work this fragment initiates an incredibly important current, namely, his reflections on the subject of genius, and the power and pride of an artist, whose climax is going to be Konrad’s virtuoso monologue in the so-called Great Improvisation of Forefathers’ Eve, Part III (1832), where Konrad will present himself as equal to God in his creative powers.
In the Hymn, a mystical vision acts as a response to the prophet’s ambiguous self-presentation. At first it reveals the moment just before the Annunciation itself – that is, the delight of Jehovah in the Virgin’s perfect beauty (which obviously symbolises her spiritual and moral impeccability). Later, in the last, exquisitely dynamic and condensed stanza (with its five- and four-feet long lines), the climax of the Annunciation scene – the conception of the Son of God – is rendered by a sui generis mystical paradox (“Virgin – Mother,/God – flesh!”). This section of the poem is the first attempt in Polish Romantic literature to express a mystical experience. The narrative of the first chapter of Luke has been replaced by two images: the beauty of Mary, and the reaction of Jehovah to this beauty. The substitution of a white dove representing the Holy Spirit (by whose power Mary becomes with child), for the archangel Gabriel in this scene, returns our attention to the Gospel of Matthew (1:18–25), where the role of the angel was also omitted, thus emphasising the significance of the Holy Spirit in bringing Jesus to the human world.
Who is describing the mystical vision in the poem? If we agree with the interpretation proposed by Skwarczyńska, namely, that it is the voice of the narrator who became a dramatis persona, we must accept that the figure of the prophet has been diminished by this move, or even reduced to a kind of a “false prophet”. The latter reading seems to be supported by the fact that, in the conclusion of The Romantic as well, the narrator becomes embodied as a protagonist of the poem, and spells out the last, most portentous lines in the whole work, thus devaluing his Enlightenment-worshipping predecessor. On the other hand, if we accept that it is the prophet who experienced the vision, it will mean that the supernatural powers within the depicted world of the Hymn grant access to such an illumination, and a glimpse of truth, even to those for whom the sin of pride is not entirely alien. This would be a sui generis preview of the forgiveness granted by Providence to the rebellious Konrad in Mickiewicz’s most famous play, Forefathers’ Eve, Part III.
Another aspect which has hitherto been neglected in the critical literature on Mickiewicz is the potential connection of the Hymn to the Book of Revelation, especially in the way the first appearance of the “the Maid coming to Zion” with her radiant face (“It is Mary’s face:/ The morning star”). This image resembles the “Woman clothed with the sun” from the vision of John (Rev 12:1),34 identified exegetically with Mary since the sixth century.35 In the further part of chapter twelve, the Woman struggles with evil represented by the figure of Dragon (or Snake) who wants to devour the child that she is to bear. This Woman who is “with child” can be associated with the scene of Annunciation, so crucial to Mickiewicz’s Hymn. Perhaps, this dramatic vision of the heroic, pregnant Woman led Mickiewicz to transform the gospel account of Annunciation into a something much more dynamic?
In our anthology we have declined to include any of the poems written by Mickiewicz during his exile in Russia (1824–1829), in part because they lack any significant metaphysical elements. Certain scholars point to the presence of religious imagination and motifs in various poems of this period, including The Crimean Sonnets, the most famous lyric cycle of Mickiewicz’s period in exile.36 This cycle revolutionised the sonnet form in its depiction of a Romantic wayfarer and exile who penetrates the mysteries of Nature and Oriental spirituality, while missing his “homely fatherland”. Mickiewicz became popular at the time thanks also to his Odessa Sonnets, which introduced a number of original innovations to Polish erotic poetry. Both cycles were published together in Moscow in 1826 as a single volume and initiated a sort of a ‘sonnetomania’ in the Polish literature of the time. This phase of Mickiewicz’s life was marked by intimate friendships with the young members of the literary and intellectual elite in Russia, including the Decembrists, who tried (and failed) to overthrow the autocratic, Tsarist regime in December 1825.
This Russian period affected Mickiewicz’s later metaphysical works in at least two ways. His poetic craftsmanship matured as his poetry developed in multiple genres, including his innovative elegiac works no less than his Romanticised sonnets. Those works hover somewhere between dramatic, epic, and lyric forms, according to principles of generic fusion. Mickiewicz’s poems of this time begin to relax their high rhetorical tone, moving towards “direct, natural speech, developed freely, without any restraints from artificial, preordained rigors,”37 which are evident mostly in the elegiac current of his work.
The second important impulse to deepen the metaphysical themes in his later poetry came from Mickiewicz’s study of the thought and religious imagination of Christian neo-Gnostics or theosophists such as Jakob Böhme, Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), and Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin.38 Among them, only Saint-Martin was a Roman Catholic;39 the fact soon led Mickiewicz to try to work out his own version of an unorthodox, Christian, religious syncretism. These mystics were popular among the young Russian elite, though at this time a particularly significant role in shaping Mickiewicz’s mystical and religious interests was played by his friend and (perhaps) spiritual mentor Józef Oleszkiewicz (1777–1830), a Polish painter and mystical philosopher who had long been resident in Petersburg, when Mickiewicz arrived. Unfortunately, all of his writings are lost, so there is no way to determine the degree of kinship between these men’s mystical and visionary attitudes.40 Mickiewicz was fascinated with the works of these religious thinkers, as well as Franz von Baader and Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), and continued to cultivate these interests after leaving Russia in 1829, as his works will demonstrate.41
1.2 Metaphysical Perspective in the Rome-Dresden Poems
The beginning of Mickiewicz’s stay in the West, usually referred to as his Rome-Dresden period (1830–1832), plays a significant part in the development of his metaphysical poetry. In our anthology we have included several poems from this phase. Generally speaking, we may distinguish two currents within the Rome-Dresden period: a patriotic and a metaphysical one. The expansion of the patriotic strand of Mickiewicz’s work was a consequence of contemporary political events, not least the November Uprising (1830–1831).42 The most celebrated poem of this kind is Ordon’s Redoubt (Reduta Ordona), a historiosophic-prophetic, short narrative poem (rhapsody). Ordon’s Redoubt closes on a catastrophic note: it narrates an obscure episode from the siege of Warsaw in 1831, raising it to the level of a universal metaphor, in which the fight between the Poles and the Muscovites becomes a significant element in the perpetual war between the forces of light and darkness. This metaphor, as well as the whole theme of the struggle between Good and Evil, found frequent expression in Mickiewicz’s metaphysical poems at the same time. Other recurring preoccupations include: the relationship between the human being and Providence; a confrontation between pride and humility in the human soul; and the opposition of reason and faith in the realm of epistemology. Both the metaphysical-religious current (which is also prophetic) and the one oriented towards the philosophy of history and political freedom, political freedom-oriented one were synthesised by Mickiewicz in a masterly way in Forefathers’ Eve, Part III, which he wrote in Dresden in the spring of 1832, and which crowns this phase of his work.
Mickiewicz’s stay in Rome in 1830 and 1831 clearly contributed to the development of the metaphysical current in his poetry. This period featured renewed spiritual searching, further religious readings and close relationships with people who focused on their religious and spiritual inner lives. Prominent among such new acquaintances were two young girls, Marcelina Łempicka and Countess Henrietta Ewa Ankwicz. Mickiewicz himself emphasised the role in the growth of his religious self-knowledge played by Fr Stanisław Chołoniewski (1791–1846) who persuaded him to reread The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis,43 and familiarise himself with the thought of a Catholic priest, Félicité de Lamennais (1782–1854), editor of the journal L’Avenir, whose religious and social views were soon to be criticised by Pope Gregory XVI himself.44 Mickiewicz became a friend of Lamennais in later years and influenced his Paroles d’un croyant, a famous work published in 1834.45
No-one has hitherto suggested that Mickiewicz planned to bring the religious poems of this period into some sort of cyclical structure. Despite their existing thematic connections and associations, we ought to treat them as essentially autonomous, even autotelic entities. We should begin our discussion of those poems from To M.Ł. on the Day of Taking Holy Communion, which was written in the first months of 1830. The protagonist and addressee (it was written in her album),46 was a girl of twenty-one; everyone she knew assumed she was going to choose to become a nun. For Mickiewicz she became a living example of spiritual religion – a person who is searching a direct bond with God through prayer. The narrator and co-protagonist of the poem, who undoubtedly expresses the voice of the author, delineates his attitude towards a life of total religious faith in a rather inconspicuous way. On the one hand, the narrator has been called a ‘bystander’ (by Czesław Zgorzelski); on the other hand, it is often assumed that the middle part of the poem, which describes the vigil of an angel over a saintly-seeming sleeping girl, has a sort of an autonomous character. It is a sublime depiction of the “angelic idyll”,47 which is realised autonomously and is metaphysically real.
In our opinion, the poem consists entirely and solely of the impressions of the lyrical subject, who becomes the primary character of the poem by virtue of this. To M.Ł. on the Day of Taking Holy Communion describes his impressions of how the supernatural world must respond to this girl’s attitude of humility and religious faith that fulfils itself in the act of communio. In the poem, little is said about the girl; yet we are told everything we need to know. We know her sex, but not her age or appearance. For a moment we converse with her eyes that “are blazing with the Godhead”. We know little, in the sense that we can only conjecture that little or nothing exists for her beyond her spiritual life of religious contemplation, or at least little or nothing holds a comparable significance in her eyes. She belongs completely to the Godhead, thus rendering her fleshly life a mere addition to her spirituality.48 Because of this she is not to be subjected to an analytical description, or the inquisitive observation of a ‘bystander’. Yet for the ‘bystander’, this range of experiences, though comprehensible, and even admirable, is not accessible.
This is how we should, perhaps, read the enigmatically paradoxical: “How terrifying are your humble looks!” This is not fear of a palpable threat, so much as a sort of incredulity that such an immense humility and devotion can be genuinely even possible. The narrator concludes that the reward for such a total devotion to the divine must be a thoughtful vigil of an Angel, the messenger of God, who watches over the sleep (that is, the whole of the existence of) one who is “so holy and so modest”, by radiating heavenly brightness. The speaking subject believes that this must be so: such is the response of Heaven to her complete devotion, and her free, willing bondage. Her bond with God exists, as far as the speaking subject is concerned, as is confirmed by another paradox: the Angel is a ‘nurse’ – a caregiver, a symbolic parent of the faithful one; but also, the girl is the angel’s ‘nurse’, because with her faith and inner disposition she renders the angelic being fulfilled, and makes him flourish. Such an image of a happy Angel (as opposed to a worried or angry one) is the predominant feature of communication with Heaven and Earth in this poem. Despite all this, a metaphorical discourse of the speaking subject might also be understood to mean that Marcelina, thanks to the Angel’s care has become a nurse for her own soul, and faith, both of which she is supposed to cultivate and cherish. In fact, these two perspectives can harmonise with one another.
In the figure of the Messenger, only his eyes stand out, when they cast “the ray of the immortal grace”. Reducing the angelic figure to this one element prevents the reader from determining which of the numerous biblical depictions of angels might be the antecedent for this artistic creation. In this narrative, eyes become the most powerful symbol: one pair of eyes radiates humility, the other one radiates grace, thus forging a link between a human attitude of humility and the divine reward of grace. One involves the other. This is, perhaps, the way in which the speaking protagonist envisages the mystery of the bond between the human being who approaches the threshold of holiness through his humility, and God, who repays this radical faithfulness with an immortal, that is, eternal, grace. The ‘bystander’ includes himself in the number of “the callous sinners” who enjoy ephemeral pleasures. He is not falsely modest here, not practicing any minauderie.
Who is he then? He is a believer, but of ‘little faith’, who is hungry (or perhaps would like to be hungry) for a great faith, equal to that experienced by the female protagonist. Would he, though? The final two lines – ostentatious, gnomic, radically declarative – throw the reader off balance with their easy rhetoric and barely-concealed ambiguity. The ‘bystander’ doesn’t speak of any need to give himself over to God in obedience, or any decision fully to ‘imitate Christ’ (a reference to Christ appears in the very first verse of the poem!). The speaking subject shares only his desire to experience spiritual states akin to those of the girl, just once, to ‘dream’ like her for one night only, that is, to become the subject of supernatural communication and the object of the care of a Messenger. We speak here of an ‘easy’ rhetoric, because the ‘bystander’ wants to declare (of course) that even a single day of humble holiness is worth more than the “pleasures of all days” devoid of spiritual submission to God. He wants to exalt the faithful girl and pay homage to her, just as he wants to diminish and accuse himself as a sinner living in the day rather than the night. But he says nothing about imitating the girl; perhaps because her radical humility makes an unholy man ‘fearful’?
We find no such ambiguity in the poem Ahriman and Ormusd, written in the same year (1830). Here the main subject is a confrontation between two divinities representing Good and Light on one side, and Evil and Darkness on the other. The outcome of this peculiar battle is unambiguous. Scholars agree that Mickiewicz could have read a French translation of the Avesta scriptures: at least he alluded, in very general terms, to the foundational religious myth of Zoroastrianism.49 Kleiner believed that
both the concept of the poem and its vocabulary, so charged with meaning as well as powerful concreteness, independent from any excessive imposition of earthly shapes on infernal powers, is so deeply Mickiewiczian that we have to include this strange, but also simple and almost natural picture of cosmic struggle among one of the most prominent poems of the poet.50
At the centre of this picture there is Ahriman, “the evil one”, who climbs upwards in order to replace his enemy; but the very sight of a luminous Ormusd, and the insight into the phenomenon of the “bliss which never ends” that radiates from him, causes the final fall of Ahriman into the core of the “the deepest core of the abyss”, at “the black germ of the thickest dark”. A strange battle it is, in which only the evil one is active (he climbs and falls), while the good one triumphs by a mere fact of his existence, without any need for force.
We can see here a striking contrast to Iranian mythology, where the two brothers, Ahriman and Ormusd, wage endless wars against each other. Over the course of those wars the good God creates the world, while the evil one tries to spoil and destroy it. In Manichaeism, a form of Iranian Gnosticism, the forces of Light and Darkness are similarly engaged in mutual conflict. This begins when the King of Darkness (identified with the Zoroastrian Ahriman) assaults the realm of Light, which is ruled by the Father of Greatness. In response to this attack, the Father sends an army led by the First Man and his five sons against the forces of Darkness. The Father’s sons end up being devoured by the five sons of Ahriman, while the First Man falls into sleep. In this way the particles of Light become imprisoned by Darkness, and the creation of the material universe (the Second Creation) is seen as an intervention aimed at releasing the particles so that they might return to the Father. The creation of Adam and Eve occurs only during the Third Creation, by the power of demonic beings born of Lust.
Did Mickiewicz borrow the image of “climbing” Ahriman, which has little to do with his Iranian or Manichean prototype, from another text, literary or religious? The question is difficult to determine without better knowledge of the poet’s sources and intentions. Ahriman, for obvious reasons, brings to mind the biblical Satan, Lucifer. Christian images of the fall of the first angel derive from a scriptural depiction of the fall of one of the Assyrian or Babylonian kings (Sargon II, Sennacherib or Nebuchadnezzar) in the Book of Isaiah:
The Greek phosphoros and Latin lucifer, which appear in the prophetic text, refer to the Morning Star (that is, Venus, the brightest of planets), and were subsequently taken to signify proper names of the fallen angel. In the biblical passage, which presumably was well-known to Mickiewicz, the protagonist attempts to ascend to heaven in order to become equal to God and like Him, for which he is being punished by being thrown down on earth (verse 12) or to Sheol (verse 15).
The poet may have expected his version of the fall of the evil spirit to be compared to famous literary portraits of Satan, not least those encountered in Dante’s Comedy (which Mickiewicz admired so much he translated fragments of it) and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Whilst he did not directly reproduce the image of the fall from either poem, we may assume the possibility of an allusive dialogue with these masterpieces. If we compare his work with Dante’s, we will notice that Mickiewicz set his ‘prince of darkness’ in motion, allowing him to climb up towards the boundaries of “the purest light”; whereas in the Florentine poet’s depiction, the fallen Lucifer has been transformed from a beautiful angel into a specimen of unsurpassed ugliness, stuck frozen forever in the lowest ring of Hell. We might find closer analogies in the final scene of the Comedy, where a vision of the ineffable God is associated with luminosity and all-embracing love, while the protagonist in the Empyrean experiences the highest spiritual ecstasy, akin to the “bliss which never ends” in Mickiewicz’s poem that is the object of Ahriman’s lust. The Polish poet endowed Ormusd with similar attributes to those which Dante ascribes to God, while “the bright germ of the purest light” may be treated as an equivalent of the highest sphere of Heaven in Dante’s narrative.
A close analogy can be found in Milton’s great epic, mentioned above, where (in Book IV) Satan, motivated (like Ahriman) by envy, travels from the abyss of Hell to the earthly paradise, after the first humans have been created; in accordance with the biblical myth, he enjoys some successes: he brings evil to Eden, followed immediately by Sin and Death. At the beginning of Book IV of Paradise Lost, Lucifer contemplates the sun, and expresses his hatred of its light, as well as a similar hatred and envy towards the Garden where Adam and Eve dwell. These feelings stem from the fact that Satan himself used to live ‘on high’ and was only thrown down as a punishment for his audacious rebellion. This is why Georges Minois called Paradise Lost a “great allegorical epic in which earth and heaven are definitely joined to each other”.51
Mickiewicz declined to grant his own Ahriman such a power, refusing to allow him to sow in Ormusd’s domain any seeds of evil. Quite on the contrary, he threw him (a second time?), irrevocably down to the very bottom of the abyss. One of St Augustine’s main criticisms against Manichaeism (in which he believed for many years) was that it suggested that God can be attacked by Darkness, dragged into some sort of fight with it and even damaged in some way, by imprisoning some of his particles in matter.52 By contrast, the true God, according to the Bishop of Hippo, can never be touched by evil, so Mickiewicz’s vision seems to come much closer to Christian than to Manichean theology.
Other possible sources of inspiration for Mickiewicz’s Ahriman might be found in the writings of the neo-Gnostics, not least Böhme and Swedenborg,53 by whom the poet was so fascinated; yet we find nothing like it in there. Both mystics were inspired by the Second Letter to the Corinthians (12:1–6), where God is said to dwell in the Third Heaven (Mickiewicz used this image also in his Forefathers’ Eve, Part III);54 in their visions, Satan was never able to reach those regions. Swedenborg, in his main work De coelo et eius mirabilibus et de inferno ex auditis et visis, questioned the biblical myth of the fall of Lucifer and his angels, claiming that Hell is in fact populated only by fallen human souls, which were transformed after death in diabolical entities.55 Böhme respected the Luciferian myth and assumed as obvious that the forces of Darkness are in a constant war with God, claiming (like Swedenborg later) that the Most High fully controls the activity of Hell.56
Mickiewicz’s story of the fall of Ahriman, where Ormusd uses no particular power, reflects this point of view in some way. Böhme attributed to Satan such features as pride, greed, envy, and anger: we can find a certain analogy to that in our poem, but only in very general terms. Ahriman is motivated by anger, cunning, and envy: “An angry lion and a poisonous snake.” This expression also indicates a Judeo-Christianisation of Ahriman by Mickiewicz. The Tempter appears in the Book of Genesis in the form of a snake in Paradise; in the Book of Revelation, which closes Christian Scripture, he is the Dragon thrown down from Heaven who stands “before the Woman which was ready to be delivered”, clothed with the sun (Rev 12:3–4). The phrase “lion and snake” (or “dragon”: in Latin leo et draco, which appears notably in Augustine’s Confessions IX.13.36) is derived in the Christian tradition from Psalm 91, where we read: “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.” (Ps. 91:13). Also in the First Letter of Peter we have an image of a lion: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 P 5:8). This is echoed by Dante in his image of the lion “enraged with hunger” from the first canto of the Comedy, where it stands for pride or vainglory and violence.57
Mickiewicz’s essay on Böhme, dictated twenty years later (1853),58 demonstrates his deep familiarity with the system of the Philosophus Teutonicus; here he devotes considerable attention to the figure of a rebellious angel (whom he refers to as both Lucifer and Satan). However, he says nothing about the attempt of this archangel, who preferred to retain his “dark centre” and refused to ascend to the gentle light of God, to try to invade the Lord’s domain for the second time.59 We may assume, then, that Ahriman, the god of darkness, trying to break into the realm of light, was his original creation and not an imitation of some other author.
We have devoted so much space to this poem, because in Ahriman and Ormusd Mickiewicz introduces his most spectacular spatial perspective, in delineating the confrontation between the highest Light and the lowest Darkness. This perspective is exclusively otherworldly and cosmic; from the temporal point of view, as is characteristic of religious myths, it seems to predate the origin of Man. Other metaphysical poems from this period are not quite so spectacular in their vision; even if they occasionally introduce such a cosmic dimension, the foreground features an individual (or collective) relationship of Man to God and Christ. Those poems are usually considered to be the highest achievements of Polish religious poetry, even though their orthodoxy, which is beyond the scope of this discussion, seems at least debatable.
In 1830 Mickiewicz also wrote the poem The Grand Master. Scholars point to “the tone of solemn gravity”, its monumental and transparent metaphors, as well as the clear architectural design of the poem and its equally measured layout of the crucial ideas throughout all four sestets. Three invoke images of Deus Artifex, God-the-Artist, the creator of the cosmic and earthly order, and of Christ who expresses eternal truths; the fourth and final one features admonitions addressed to a human artist who is misunderstood by his neighbours. The motifs encoded in the poem seems to be, at the first glance, easily recognizable. The theme of God-the-Artist was inaugurated in Polish literature by the eminent poet Jan Kochanowski (1530–1584) whose hymn What Do You Want from Us, Lord? is considered the most important expression of Renaissance religious humanism in Polish culture. In his thanksgiving ode, Kochanowski used the motif of God-the-Artist, the “invisible Creator of the visible beauty of the world” (as Jerzy Ziomek put it)60 to construct an optimistic vision of the harmony between God, the universe, and Man.
The motif is derived from Plato’s Timaeus, the only Platonic dialogue which continued to be read in Catholic Europe throughout the Middle Ages (in an incomplete late-antique Latin translation by Calcidius). We find there a cosmogonic myth in which the “Father of all things” makes this world in the image of the eternal archetype, called the Living Being (an organism consisting of the Ideas). The Platonic God is referred to as a demiourgos which in Greek means a maker, craftsman or artisan. He works with existing, chaotic material, rendering it beautiful and good through “shapes and numbers”.61 In this way the sensible world comes to resemble the Living Being and God Himself. This Platonic motif of Deus Artifex, fundamental to Dante’s Comedy,62 acquires even more significance in Renaissance Platonism and later, during the Romantic period.
Mickiewicz repeated the popular motif, but changed his optimistic meaning. It is precisely this aspect, which might be termed “humanistic pessimism”, that has been ill-appreciated in existing interpretations of the poem. But the poet speaks at the conclusion of every single stanza about the catastrophe of not understanding God and Christ by humanity, about a disruption between the world and its Creator, Earth and Heaven. Man, says Mickiewicz, has failed to understand God’s song, or His speech, which is equated with the structure of the universe, in the joint harmony of spirits and elements (the first stanza), and in the monumental beauty of the sky, water, and mountain (the second stanza).63 The section devoted to the Creator-Artist is concluded with the radical point: “The world for ages could not comprehend/ A single thought of those wonderful works.” It could not comprehend even one of His thoughts: does this mean His main thought, or none of His thoughts? The image of catastrophe is completed by the disruption between another Master (of eloquence), Christ, who reveals the essence of God’s plan “in voice, in deed, in miracle”, and the “people” who treated the assumption of humanity by God as the reason to despise Him (the third stanza). The chain of thought binding those three stanzas consist of the following pessimistic associations: the world/humanity fails; from the origin of its existence humanity is immature, because it cannot see the essence of its Creator’s plan; and God in Christ experiences suffering of rejection by the people He first made and then, saved. Why has Man not understood his Father and Lord? This is not fully explained (the alleged clarity and unambiguity of the poem, as praised by scholars, requires reassessment). The poet indeed speaks clearly, but without finishing his thoughts.64
The last stanza, which contains an admonition, does nothing to eliminate the pessimistic character of the poem; it can hardly by seen as pivotal, let alone as introducing hope into the picture. The poet shows the “worldly artist”, who is disappointed by his contemporaries’ lack of understanding, how deficient his art really is in comparison to the works of God-the-Artist. At the same time, he recommends that this artist imitate God in His suffering, which did not make Him turn His back on His people. The inspiration for such a moralizing stance may be sought in what Mickiewicz was reading at the time, namely, De imitatione Christi by Thomas à Kempis, a book which he pressed on his loved ones for years to come. Mickiewicz was drawn to this ascetic handbook by something later emphasised by a Polish poet (and translator of De imitatione) Anna Kamieńska: “it is not a theory nor a speculation, nor an ideological construct. It is knowledge, but of a different kind: spiritual knowledge, which shines on man independently of his intellectual knowledge.”65
The Wise Men, which was written in Dresden (1832), expresses a pessimistic judgment of the faith of learned men similar to that of The Grand Master. The poem was written during an incredible explosion of poetic inspiration while Mickiewicz was staying in the capital of Saxony. It features a dramatized description of the Parousia of God-Christ in the here and now, in an unspecified town. This Second Coming is discrete, not triumphant, unlike what is prophesized in the Gospel of Luke (17:22–35). Against St Paul’s expectations (1 Cor 15:20–28) and the conclusion of the Book of Revelation (Rev 20–22 and the Epilogue), it brings about neither the ultimate destruction of evil nor the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation. The poet describes a coming which is not the last, but turns out to be a sort of a private coming of Christ, not mentioned anywhere in the Bible – a visitation whose purpose is to examine the quality of faith in the world. And here comes the key difference. The common people, just as during the first coming of Christ, are drawn to him, but the wise men decide to get rid of the unwelcome guest who disturbs their peace. They want to murder him clandestinely, without the crowd’s knowledge.
Mickiewicz alludes to the Passion sections of the Gospels and creates a micro-parable, formally between a narrative poem and a drama,66 where action, dialogue and the final judgments of the omniscient narrator cohere into a story. Zgorzelski, in his profound analysis of this poem,67 lucidly describes its dramatic structure, invoking classical Greek tragedy and, we might add, re-actualization of the Biblical story of seizing, interrogating and crucifying of Jesus. In the first sestet, we have the beginning of the plot: the wise men’s sleep is interrupted by the news of Christ’s appearance, followed by their decision to kill the Guest. In the second stanza we have their preparations to capture Christ and their search for him. In the third stanza we have the actual capture, and in the following one “the criminal act and catastrophe as well as the concluding stage of the plot”68 and its (illusory) conclusion: the second passion and deposition. In the last and only four-line stanza in the poem, we have an epilogue, where the narrator, like a chorus in ancient tragedy, formulates the primary moral message. Zgorzelski was precise in his analysis of the structure of the poem, and in his exposition of the allegories and metaphors used by Mickiewicz, yet he omitted a question which we deem to be the most significant of all: who are the wise men? Who is hiding behind this image? With whom is Mickiewicz reckoning here? The poet left some traces which allow us to form hypotheses.
It is quite certain that the wise men are philosophers (as well as authors of literature), but do not denote all philosophers (or writers). Generally speaking, these represent writers and thinkers who try to rationalise the supernatural (“on their books they sharpened Reason’s blade”), who attempt to understand God with their conceptual intellect and describe his nature systematically, thus stripping him of all mystery (“they tore off mysterious clothes of God”). They are those whom Friedrich Jacobi (1743–1819), in his famous 1799 letter to Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), called ‘nihilists’.69 Mickiewicz in the early 1830s was probably already familiar with the dispute between Jacobi and Fichte as well as the later conflict between Jacobi and F. Schelling (1775–1854). He will analyse those disputes during his third course of Paris lectures (9th May 1843), explicitly favouring Jacobi, who condemned those speculative philosophers (from Kant through Fichte to Schelling) who tried to depict a “God of knowledge”, thus limiting the role of faith and mystery.
Mickiewicz didn’t approve of the God of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century metaphysicians, and presumably saw them among the “wise men” persecuting God-Christ. But he is specifically criticising Hegel, whose lectures he heard in Berlin in 1829; thereafter he contended with Hegel’s Polish (and German and Russian) followers, even though we are uncertain how well he knew the actual writings of Hegel himself when accusing him of leaving his audience “in doubt whether he [i.e. Hegel] believed in the personality of God, the immortality of the soul and whether he believed in the existence of the invisible world”.70 By the time he voiced this accusation (1843), Mickiewicz considered Hegel, because of the works of his disciples, such as David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, to be complicit in the rise of philosophical atheism. In the early 1830s he must have had a similar view of Hegel, so we should assume that the Berlin professor, along with the flock of his admirers, was included among the “wise men” who went to capture Christ (“They called for their disciples – blind as they –/ To hunt for God”).
Another clue that allows us to speculate on the membership of the persecuting elite can be found in Mickiewicz’s allusions to the Gospel accounts of the interrogation of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (Mt 26:57–68, Mk 14:53–65, Lk 22:66–71), where Jesus is asked by the high priests and scholars whether he is the Messiah, and he responds in the affirmative. The Sanhedrin functioned in Jesus’ time (and, according to Jewish tradition, from the time of Moses) as the highest religious and judiciary institution of the Jewish world (in some periods it also played a political role).71 Christ in Mickiewicz’s parable comes to the Christian, not Jewish world, where the Great Council (Sanhedrin) consists of the ecclesiastic hierarchy and theologians of different Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church, who (as the poet says clearly) try to imprison the mystery of the Godhead inside dogmatic systems, and thus close the roads of a living faith by condemning independent prophets. Mickiewicz was aware not only of the anathemas cast in various periods on Catholic theologians independent of the Church’s magisterium, but also of the persecutions of Protestant theologians, including Böhme.
The poem is written in the time when Pope Gregory XVI officially condemned the November Uprising and the Poles rebelling against the Tsarist regime. At this time, Mickiewicz wasn’t yet openly criticising the Catholic Church, but ten years later, during the third and fourth courses of his lectures at the Collège de France, he declared war against “the official church” and called the ecclesiastic hierarchy of this time the “travelling salesmen of Catholicism”. He also accused the hierarchy of intellectual crisis and betrayal of the traditional martyrdom of Christ himself and his martyrs. In this poem we may already find a premonition of Mickiewicz’s personal search for his own way to God, based on the inner struggle, where the idea of mercy was key.72
The narrator’s final point is about the mercy of God and Christ: he is moved by the fact that the Saviour still loves his persecutors (“But God still loves them and he prays for them!”), those criminals, wise men who “drank the chalice of their pride/During God’s funeral” and decided to bury him in the darkness of ignorance and forgetfulness. To no avail, as the last line testifies, manifesting the faith of the poet himself: “God lives. He’s dead only within the wise.” Mickiewicz mixes what seem to be fire and water by associating speculative, atheistic philosophers (the pride of intellect) with dogmatic theologians (the pride of infallibility) alongside the hierarchs preserving dead rituals (the pride of office and power). For all of these men, the living God-Man, “revealing himself” to the people and “preaching eternity to them”, would be a liability. Mickiewicz here anticipated the parable told by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s last novel about Great Inquisitor who tells Christ he is going to burn him at the stake with the help of the faithful crowd73 as well as the cry of Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman that God has been killed by us.74
It was most likely in Dresden as well that Mickiewicz wrote another poem confronting the pride of reason with the humility of faith. Reason and Faith earns little praise from scholars, who wince at its supposed dry intellectualism, and the vagueness of certain metaphors. Kleiner concluded his analysis of this poem with a sarcastic remark: “A poetic treatise about the weakness of reason and the splendor of faith turned out to have been overly reasoned.”75 Zgorzelski added to it: “Mickiewicz’s discourse is full of contradictions and contrasts, methodically weaving metaphors together into allegorical pictures (not always internally coherent) focused on the paradoxes of pride and humility, God and Man. His discourse is directed against reason, and it is rather cerebral. ”76 However, Jacek Łukasiewicz addresses this critique by reminding of an important context: “In his Reason and Faith, Mickiewicz retreats to his classicist beginnings, intending to objectivise his experiences, explaining them to himself and to others in a familiar and acceptable style.”77 The classicising form of a poetic treatise which he decided to use in order to formulate his Romantic thought concerning superiority of faith over reason, indeed, distinguishes this poem from others of the same period.
Mickiewicz includes what are perhaps the poem’s most intriguing paradoxes and enigmas in the first stanzas, within an intertextual play with the scriptural story of Noah. The narrator of the poem begins his discourse by revealing how he came to faith; a decisive stage on his path involved taming his conviction of the power of his own intellect and humbling it before faith, properly understood, that is, reliance on the Lord of creation (“When I have bowed proud reason and my head/ Before the Lord like clouds before the sun”).78 He was generously rewarded for his choice, being forgiven by God and reestablishing a relationship with Him, as expressed by the allegory of a rainbow, which represents in Genesis the sign of a renewed covenant between the Creator and man after the disaster of the flood (Gen 9:12–17). He was also lifted up by the Lord to the rank of a prophet who will ease the anxiety of his people in the face of another (political) flood of history. But even in this attitude there is danger, since humility can become a source of pride, and the boundary between the two can too easily be crossed. One must be vigilant (“Oh, Lord! Humility has made me proud” – is the most enigmatic and paradoxical line in the whole of the poem)79.
He ends with a peaceful conscience and the certitude of truth, since: “To reason they appeared large and confused,/ But to the eyes of faith, they’re small, and clear.” From the point of view of his renewed faith, the prophet condemns the idea of determinism (where we can see, for instance, a critical allusion to deism and the Hegelian conception of the historical process, in which everything that happens is rational and necessary). He also rejects the philosophy of randomness (where some recognise a polemic against Epicureanism). In the second part of the discourse, the speaking subject engages in dialogue with “human reason”; the limited possibilities of which are depicted through an allegory of the ocean, a mighty element, but still incapable of dominating over land and the sky, forced to function within the boundaries set by the Creator of “heaven and earth”. However, the point to which this discourse is heading is puzzling: the poet disparages neither reason nor its creative potency; nor does he reject it in the least. Rather, he demands of it something more, namely, that reason reconciles itself with a mightier power, the “ray of faith”, because only in this way may it help us to penetrate the mysteries of being, both of this world and the other world (“O, without Faith you would be wholly blind!”).
A question arises, then, whether Mickiewicz might perhaps have been seeking a way to synthesise faith and rationalism or, to go a bit further, rationalism and Romanticism. Surely he could have been trying to find a way to Romanticise the Enlightenment legacy like earlier some figures within English Romanticism (for instance, the Lake Poets, especially William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge), who shied away from rejecting Enlightenment philosophy outright.80 This would be a means of explaining the mystery of the ‘intellectualisation’ of poetic discourse in this poem, which so puzzled its readers. But here we will only suggest this hypothesis.
Another poem of this period, Evening Conversation, has, on the other hand, been lavished with praise by scholars, who emphasise the simplicity and naturalness of its language, its intimate tone of religious confession, and the lucidity of its composition that Wacław Borowy thought “incredible”. He wrote:
The division of the poem into three parts underlines the distinctions between various themes (God – neighbour – the self). All the parts are stanzaic, but the number of stanzas becomes, pari passu, less in every part of the poem. The stanzas devoted to God are longer, as if the intent was not only to distinguish them from the rest, but also to show the hierarchical importance of each section.81
We must insert an objection here. In every part, the confessing self remains in the foreground; in none of the parts the figure of God is absent; thus a more appropriate division would be: the self vis-à-vis God, the neighbour and God-the-Judge vis-à-vis the self and the self vis-à-vis the listening God.
Three themes, as it seems, which the speaking subject deems to be the most important. First, mercy, the unfathomable abyss of God’s love for man; then, human sinfulness, a drama of ‘bad conscience’. Most of the poet’s invention, of sublime mystical paradoxes and scriptural allusion to the Passion, is dedicated to the subject which fascinated and worried Mickiewicz for years: the problem of the partial power that Man has over God by his capability of inflicting suffering on Him, and the resulting problem of human responsibility for God’s condition. A theologically complex identification of the Old Testament God with Christ can be seen in many poems, including this one. This whole phenomenon was most effectively expressed by Mickiewicz in the stanza which spectacularly employs analogies to the Passion on Golgotha, invoking a parable-like universality:
The image of a God-friend, as delineated in this poem, contradicts the view given voice by the most important of Mickiewicz’s Romantic heroes, Konrad, in Forefathers’ Eve, Part III. There, in a gesture of protestation against the indifference and silence of God in the face of all the evils of history that seem to prevail over Good, Konrad denies God the attribute of mercy towards the suffering, and accuses Him of failure to respect human freedom of the will. Finally, at the conclusion of his tirade, he almost calls God “a Tsar”, that is, an absolute, totalitarian autocrat, which, in effect, would amount to calling God Satan – the main propagator of evil in the universe.
Yet Konrad’s diagnosis was mistaken, as Mickiewicz demonstrates structurally through the world depicted in his play, where God is ultimately the patron of the freedom of nations, and remains in complete control of the plans that Satan has for the world. Nonetheless, the Improvisation of Konrad is considered in Polish culture to be a stellar instance of metaphysical rebellion, and an attempt to define theodicy in a wholly novel manner. In the Evening Conversation, God is incomprehensible, and His omnipresence is supported by absolute compassion for Man, because His mercy knows no boundaries, even in the face of His human creatures, and the evil they commit. One further element, so important to the Romantics who always searched for ideal communication: God has unlimited insight into the depths of the human soul, and is never mistaken in reading human thoughts and feelings. For this reason, He is a perfect and irreplaceable partner in conversation.82
None of this means that the pessimism so pervasive in Mickiewicz’s other works of this period has entirely evaporated from the poem. The picture of Man, and the speaking subject himself, are contrasted against the Lord. The neighbour, even the good one, is incapable of healing the “sickly thoughts” and “cancerous doubts” in someone who is suffering (and perhaps even experiencing a crisis of faith) while the “evil one” simply runs away without paying any attention.83 Further on, the speaking self, the protagonist who is hungry for the intimacy with God, neglects to hide his spiritual deficiencies, which are numerous: experiences of ‘bad conscience’, and vulnerability to demonic temptations, which are vague, but undoubtedly fundamental, since they arouse in the subject this “dreadful voice, worse than painful moans:/ Infernal torture!” This is, perhaps, a voice of metaphysical rebellion, resonating with the “infernal choirs” (if there is such a thing), possibly even resounding forever within the halls of Hell. The protagonist is that of a morality play, because he is psychologically torn apart, internally conflicted, yet heading towards spiritual rebirth. The tears that appear in the last line symbolise, as it seems, the purification process.
While Mickiewicz was working on his Forefathers’ Eve, Part III, he also wrote a beautiful sonnet To Solitude, thematically akin to the poems analysed above, but also further enriched by a more existential perspective. A key role in the narrative is played by the aquatic element, which is friendly and dangerous at the same time – just like solitude, which it metaphorically represents. Solitude is a desirable state, refreshing like a cool bath on a hot day; but in the long term it can become dangerous, like sinking into some cold abyss that renders us unable to breathe. Jakob Böhme compares the seventh of the spirits of God (that is, eternal, creative qualities of the Divine Nature) to a crystalline sea, luminous and transparent, in which angels, supple and quick by virtue of their participation in God’s nature, unceasingly move up and down.84 The poet, however, is no angel. The narrative of the sonnet has a gyrational rhythm. The subject of the poem escapes the turmoil and whirlwind of daily life (from “the heat of daily life”) towards silence and solitude, where he first finds (again?) his freedom of thought and imagination. Łukasiewicz, not unreasonably, assumed that the speaking subject is an artisan of the word, a poet who, let us add to that, can work on his own, personal “Song of songs” only in solitude (“I dive and I leap up to the thoughts above my thoughts”; the phrase “w myślach nad myślami” could be also understood as “the thoughts of thoughts”, which invokes associations with the “Song of songs”).
But in this existential parable, solitude has another, more bitter side to it. It leads, sooner or later, to numbness, it brings the poet sleep, but not a prophetic one; instead, it brings the sleep which is a brother of death – a spiritual death, we may think. In many of his works, an especially in the Dresden part of the Forefathers’ Eve (which was written at the same time as To Solitude), Mickiewicz understands sleeping and dreaming in a biblical way: that is, as a state in which a supernatural communication between Man and God (or Satan) may take place. In his poetic practice there is sometimes an opposite meaning as well, as in his epic masterpiece Pan Tadeusz (1834), where Mickiewicz will speak of “sleep, the brother of death”, invoking the Greek mythological figures of the twin brothers Hypnos and Thanatos.85 It is such a sleep, submerging and submitting to non-existence, that he also expounds in To Solitude. The only help seems to be an escape back to “the heat of daily life” and then again into the element of solitude. That is the gyrational rhythm of this sonnet. May we therefore understand the speaking subject as an eternal fugitive, and the poem itself as a sign of despair?86
The subject himself describes his condition as that of an ‘exile’, and feels like one both in his life shared with others and in solitude. The word ‘wygnaniec’ (‘exile’) in the Polish of this period was charged with moral and political meaning, at once suggesting a political refugee or émigré (as the best-case scenario), and a convict sent maliciously into the interior of the Russian Empire – a prisoner, an enslaved worker thrown into a world both alien and hostile. The poet, of course, was fully aware of the semantic range of the term ‘exile’, because he himself propagated such meanings in many of his works. But here, in this sonnet, he allows it yet another shade of meaning, a more existential and universal one, suggesting a state of separation, a sense of incompleteness and lack of being, an impossibility of fulfilment. Is it despair? Rather, a manly acceptance of fate. Those scholars who see here a premonition of the later Lausanne lyrics are quite right. But there is no facile consolation in this poem.
Perhaps, the strangest of the poems written in the Dresden-Rome period is the one beginning with “I dreamt of winter …”, even though we know only its later version, which was transcribed by the poet in 1840. This poem, a pearl of Romantic oneiric imagination, has received countless readings, not surprisingly, also by those inclined to psychoanalytic interpretation.87 The note by Mickiewicz suggests that this is a poetic transcription of an actual dream he had, made immediately after waking up, without any interruption or revision. Was it really how the poem was written, we can’t be sure, because we don’t possess the original manuscript. Rafał Marceli Blüth, referring to Freudian psychoanalysis, tries to demonstrate that in this poem “the main thought is an examination of conscience in terms of both national and personal sins”88. The national ones appear in the first (“winter”) part of the poem, where we have a scene of a “charity auction” of sorts, which was supposedly intended to hide the poet’s anguish over his failure to join the November Uprising.
On this reading, the second section (the “Roman/summer” part) seemingly invokes memories of transgressions committed in Mickiewicz’s earlier life. Kleiner saw the poem in a similar way (“it is a peculiar dream of a patriot-Christian and a lover, a dream about Poland and the salvation of Europe, a dream about love irretrievably lost, a dream about pangs of conscience, both general and personal, and a dream of atonement.”89). Jean-Charles Gille-Maisani, reading the poem in the light of the analytic psychology of Carl Gustav Jung,90 devotes attention principally to the second part, reaching a conclusion that the visionary, heavenly Ewa “has almost all the attributes of Anima”, that is, she constitutes a missing element in the personality of the dreaming Adam (Animus) that is indispensable for harmonious completion of his self.91 Many scholars and poets, admiring the highest literary skill displayed in this poem, have refrained from any kind of analysis, assuming that its elusive mystery escapes any rational interpretation. Yet the metaphysical-religious dimension of this poem merits discussion.
In the first, ‘winter’ part of the dream, Mickiewicz depicts a mysterious procession of the people to the “bank of Jordan”, that is, on the Feast of Jordan (or Epiphany, which in Polish tradition is called the Feast of Three Kings). Here the commentators see a certain “completion of the Epiphany in the orthodox liturgy”92, not without good reason, since the poet had plenty of opportunity to familiarise himself with the rituals of Eastern Orthodox Christianity from childhood onwards; also, his stay in Russia was engraved deep in his memory). The procession has funereal and otherworldly features: for example, those on the left side of the procession wear funeral clothes, and hold burning candles turned upside-down; their faces look “as hard as stone”, thus imitating death masks. It makes the reader wonder whether they are living or dead. There are numerous scriptural connotations with the motif of almsgiving, notably in this ambiguous auction that takes place between the unknown woman who covers her face behind a veil and the protagonist of the oneiric vision (who undoubtedly signifies the author himself: autobiographical elements in the text are of the utmost importance). Indeed, lines 1–29 form a sequence of images and events, that can hardly be interpreted decisively.
The second part of the poem or, indeed the second dream, takes place simultaneously in Rome (the “Palatine hill” with its scent of roses) and outside the city (the mountains and the Alban Lake are to the south of the city). This is much clearer, in every sense of the term, both in terms of its biographical meaning, and of the presence of light in the oneiric images. Mickiewicz invokes here the figure of Henrietta Ewa Ankwicz (whom he met in Rome) and their unconsummated love affair.93 The sacred, ethereal figure of Ewa, at once unreal and devoid of any erotic aspect, is transmuted into a swallow, which powerfully evokes the mystical-metaphysical element. Leszek Zwierzyński includes the figure of Ewa among Mickiewicz’s “transcendent ladies”, because the heroine reminds us of the pictures of saints and may even be associated with the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, as somehow fused with an image of the Transfiguration of Christ (“while she hovered there/ Among them, barely standing on the ground./ Her face was fair like the transfigured Christ”). This reading seems to be supported by the mystical, ecstatic quality of the lyrical subject’s experience of the beauty of Ewa, that is quite probably meant to remind the reader of the figure of Beatrice from the Comedy.94
Despite all of this, the double conclusion of the narrative (both in the dream and after waking up) focusses on the religious phenomenon of the examination of conscience, a severe judgment passed on the poet’s past, without any facile absolution (“For I remembered suddenly my sins,/ Moments of folly and of vanity,/ I felt my heart as torn and of her love/ Unworthy–and of joy and paradise.”). In fact, we find no such facile self-absolution in any work of Mickiewicz’s of that period, including the Dresden Forefathers’ Eve. The play weaves together all these metaphysical tropes and themes, and adds others. There is no place here for a more detailed analysis of this masterpiece, which has been exhaustively studied by scholars; yet some of the play’s themes are worth mentioning here. The metaphysical rebellion of Konrad manifests the themes of: theodicy; prophetism; questions of the origins of God and Man (inspired by Böhme); the dilemma between pride and humility; the image of divine power as absolute (and even totalitarian); the human lust to dominate souls; the idea of suicide as a protest in the face of God’s silence; and the fall of Man, and his subsequent vulnerability to the temptations of the Evil One. Because in the Forefathers’ Eve there are true prophets such as Fr Piotr, and true “female angels”, like Ewa, there is a counterweight to the proud attitude of Konrad. In the supernatural sphere of the depicted world, Mickiewicz introduces the images of the structure and hierarchy of Heaven (including the Third Heaven) and Hell, inspired by the Bible, but perhaps even more by the neo-Gnostic visions of Böhme and Swedenborg that influence the poet’s depictions of the angelic and demonic legions. History and politics are represented in this play as an element of the eternal war between Good and Evil; the universal roles of God (as the patron of Freedom and the protector of the oppressed) and Satan (as the active instigator of evil in history) are clearly delineated from this point of view. This view is further associated with the messianic and sacrificial role of Poland as the most important representative of freedom in human history, as well as the satanic role of the Russian Empire, with particular respect to the Tsarist regime, which Mickiewicz saw as the main instrument of Hell’s intervention in global politics (where the Tsar seemed to him the earthly Satan).
1.3 Parisian Poems and Metaphysics
The metaphysical dimension is also prominent in several poems written by Mickiewicz during his first stay in Paris (1832–1838).95 Here we enter the realm of poems which remained unpublished during Mickiewicz’s life: the versions we have were never finally approved by him, and remain somewhat in the shadow of the other works he wrote and published in these Parisian years, of which the most important is Pan Tadeusz (1834), which in Polish culture enjoys the status of a national epic. It describes the life and customs of Polish nobility in the regions of what was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before the Partitions. International politics remains part of the background (the story takes place in 1811–1812; the poem’s two books include an episode from Napoleon’s Russian campaign) and for a long time Pan Tadeusz was considered to be an excellent example of blending the aesthetics of realism with Romantic imagination. Yet in recent decades critics have emphasised the metaphysical dimension of this narrative poem, in the wake of the suggestions made by Czesław Miłosz.96
Metaphysical poems of this period explore the biblical tradition whilst often entering into dialogue with theosophical thought more obviously than in earlier works. In 1836 Mickiewicz published a collection of epigrams and aphorisms, entitled Sentences and Remarks from the Works of Jakob Böhme, Angelus Silesius, and Saint-Martin.97 It features paraphrases of various statements with particular regard to the relationship between Man and God, as well as human actions and attitudes which leads him either to salvation or its opposite. Dozens of themes and motifs recur in this cycle.98 As far as metaphysical poems are concerned, apart from the abovementioned collection of often-unfinished fragments, we should pay particular attention to the “three fragments” which were jotted down on one sheet of paper. They begin with the words: [Defend Me from Myself …], [You Ask Me Why the Lord Gave Me a Bit of Fame …] and [Gobs Who Yell in the People’s Name …] We add to these two other poems, which were written on a separate sheet and bear the titles: Vision and Profligate’s Regrets.
The “three fragments” differ significantly in their form and thematic range. Scholars have been most keenly interested in the first of these. It begins with a liberal paraphrase of the words of Saint-Martin, which Mickiewicz translated into Polish, and with which he entered into dialogue.99 Scholars have compiled a longer list of philosophical allusions which they claim to have noticed in this fragment. Kleiner wrote: “The ideas of Saint-Martin, Böhme and the Kabbalah are mixed with the speculations of Schelling and Hegel that were known to Mickiewicz both from his Petersburg conversations and from the reports given to him by Garczyński”.100 It seems, however, that Irena Jokiel is right, when she points out that [Defend me from myself …] betrays especially deep bonds with Böhme’s thought,101 although we should add that Mickiewicz transforms the German mystic’s assertions into unanswered questions. The poem is a monologue, addressed to God, that resembles the Improvisation of Konrad from the Forefathers’ Eve, Part III, in its form and emotional tenor. The question remains as to whether the poem wasn’t a fragment of this very play – whether it was later excised by the poet or (as is more likely) survives part of some additional scenes from an unfinished play.102
The point of departure is a request to Providence in which the poet asks it to defend him from himself. It expressed, most probably, a thought akin to the one cited earlier from Saint-Martin, that the greatest peril to Man is Man himself, including his pride and the lust for absolute knowledge (as in the case of Konrad). A while later the speaking subject gives proof that his fear was justified, and introduces a mystical dissonance, demanding that God reveal the truth about His essence. Because (again, like Konrad) the poet hears only silence, he tries to investigate the truth by himself, developing in the process his vision of Man and human nature in an entirely different manner of talking to God from that which we see in the Evening Conversation. ‘You’ and ‘me’ are the most important pronouns in this tirade; the ‘me’ suggests that the speaking subject views himself as Everyman, a representative of the whole mankind.
The speculations of the speaking subject concerning God’s nature undoubtedly display strong similarities to the vision of Böhme, though they also indirectly invoke the Book of Genesis (particularly the creation of Man “in the image and likeness of God”: Gen 1:26–27) and the Gospel accounts of Incarnation. He forcefully wants to take these mysteries away from God, pressuring Him, like Konrad, first by shouting, then with provocative questions loaded with implicit assertions (“by the hands/ I hold you and I cry: ‘Reveal yourself!’”). The speaking subject wants to know whether divine power is absolute or limited (like that of Man). He also asks about the origin of the Creator, suggesting by it that He does not know His own origins (“Your own beginning is unknown to you”). He asks about the rules of the divine ‘play’ of seeking self-knowledge (“You play self-searching from eternity”), about the end of His existence (“When will you end?”), and about the unity of the Three Persons. He speaks of the presence of God in heaven and in the sea in almost pantheistic (or rather panentheistic) terms and speaks about His war with “the devil in heaven, and on earth”.
Mickiewicz concludes with the most important question, first, about the meaning of the Incarnation of the Son of God and then, even about the inherent humanity of God (the last two lines run: “You took the form of Man. Just for a while?/ Or did you have it since all time began?”). As we can see, most of the hypotheses formulated in the poem can be linked to the ideas of Böhme. It seems that his theosophy provides the main framework for the Everyman posing questions. Böhme’s God also doesn’t know His origin103 and is, at least in the late thought of the Philosophus Teutonicus, born out of the Ungrund, an indefinite primordial abyss which is one of the key notions in his system. God, as conceived by Böhme, is subject to a process of evolution, losing His primeval element of wrath and developing infinite love (in which way He comes to know Himself). Creating the world and revealing Himself in Nature, God feels a great joy (which seems to be the aspect of ‘play’, underlined by Mickiewicz). Those analogies confirm the hypothesis of the influence of Böhme on this poem, although the poet could also introduce elements found in other theosophists (particularly Swedenborg, Saint-Martin and von Baader). The vision of God in his monologue is tightly bound to the image of Man as a being akin to God. Is Man to some degree equal to the Creator? The subject emphasises the immortality of the soul, which makes it closer to the divine. He speaks about the lack of self-knowledge in Man, when it comes to his origin and end,104 but he also emphasises the unstoppable human urge to fathom the mysteries of the universe.
Mickiewicz draws a parallel between the struggle of God with Satan and our fight with the Enemy (both in ourselves and in the world). This view implicitly contains the possibility of spiritual perfection and the deification of Man. Does it mean becoming equal to God? The idea that in the mystical union the human soul is deified and by grace becomes equal to God can be found in the Christian mystical tradition, for instance, in St John of the Cross.105 However, Mickiewicz’s imagination may also be inspired here by Gnostic thought, where Man has no need to become divine by grace, being already divine by nature (as in the myth of Anthropos, the God-Man, suggesting, as Kurt Rudolph points out, “the close relation or kinship of nature between the highest God and the inner core of man”106). Does the request, expressed in the incipit of the poem, mean that the speaker wants to protect himself from his attempt to find answers by his own effort to the questions that bother him? The answers that may lead him, in the wake of the Gnostics, to consider himself equal or maybe even superior to God?
We will not encounter such problems of interpretation in the second poem from the same sheet of paper, with the incipit: [You Ask Me Why the Lord Gave Me a Bit of Fame …] It features a poetic meditation on the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3–12) and especially verse 5 of chapter 5, when Jesus blesses the meek. The poem in question, containing a speech of the poet given “a little fame”, is structured as an answer to an implicit question about the sources of this worldly success. The poet downplays his own fame, emphasising its flimsiness and inevitable transience, calling it a reward for his thought and desires, not for his deeds. (“For what I thought and wanted, not for what I’ve done”). The essence of this poem involves praise of a discrete action, of pious deeds flowing from pure intentions that are hidden from public view, and bring fruit after some time (this alludes to further sections of the Sermon on the Mount: Mt 6:1–2). Merciful action is praised and considered more noble than literature and the fame which comes with it. Mickiewicz weaves into his discourse, as the main message, a paraphrase of the verse: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the world” (Mt 5:5). We can guess that it is not about “possession” in the sense of dominating other people, but of some hidden and unmeasurable possession, which contributes gradually to the moral quality of the world.
This sort of message is usually seen by scholars also in the third fragment, with the incipit [Gobs Who Yell in the People’s Name …]. Kleiner and Zgorzelski see in those six lines a development and modernization of the same verse from the Beatitudes. Kleiner speaks even about a “worship of common Man”, while Zgorzelski points to a puzzling set of adjectives in the last line (“the meek, the dim and the small”), claiming that they mean, essentially, “unenlightened, uneducated people, common folk, modest in its ambitions”.107 In truth, the matter seems more complicated than has been suggested by these scholars. We are dealing here with a provocative, pessimistic transformation of the Third Beatitude. A political perspective, oriented by the philosophy of history, dominates this poem.
In first line we glimpse what seems to be Mickiewicz’s dislike of popular tribunes, and parliamentary orators’ demagogy. But in the following lines we read about some unspecified shock, and a great historical effort (a revolution? The November Uprising?), whose leaders will have their hands cut off by the people in the name of whom and for whose sake they acted in the first place. They were admired (“their favourite names”) by the same people who will cut out their hands and forget them shortly afterwards. This is rather an anti-Gospel perspective, to say the least, since in the Beatitudes Christ speaks of acting, suffering, and being persecuted for the sake of justice; (and of course He encourages us not to cut off any hands, but to love our enemies). Christ praises the meek, who do good and will “inherit the earth”, but it does not follow that they are also “small” and “dim”. In the language of Mickiewicz’s time, those words bore no unequivocally positive meaning. The poet’s knowledge of history was exceptional; he knew countless examples of beheadings, not only from Polish history, but also from recent events in France, as when the leaders of the Revolution who had been all but worshipped were later killed (Danton and Robespierre being the most obvious example). In this context the last line seems less a message of Gospel hope than a warning to those who are sensitive to the evils present in the political and historical realm.
On a separate sheet of paper Mickiewicz wrote down two more poems, which are usually dated to the mid-1830s, and were not published during his life, but remain very important for his poetic metaphysics: Vision and Profligate’s Regrets. The first poem describes the soul’s mystical (perhaps posthumous?) journey beyond the body into another space or universe. In Polish literature this is unprecedented. The poet Julian Przyboś considers it to be “poetry conveying joy and freedom not found in any other poem by the poet [i.e. Mickiewicz]”.108 Marian Maciejewski sees in this poem “a mystical, programmatic Romanticism”109, while Zdzisław Kępiński judges it to be “the fullest and purest poetic manifestation of Böhmianism in the whole of European literature”,110 while Adam Sikora finds here mysticism wherein “all historical definiteness is omitted”.111 Marta Piwińska writes about a vision in which “the world becomes so lucid and intelligible that it seems almost physically transparent”.112 We might cite many more such comments.113
Perhaps, the best way to describe the essence of this poem is Georges Bataille’s abovementioned concept of “the inner experience”, which enables us not to determine whether this poem amounts to a description of an actual experience that the poet had, or merely an attempt to work out a mystical style in poetry (and they are not mutually exclusive). The most important poetic device in creating the depicted world of the poem becomes a mystical paradox which serves to express the inexpressible. Jan Tomkowski, like many other authors, points out the significance of paradoxes in mystical language, quoting Simone Weil who called a logical contradiction “the lever of transcendence”, and Carl Gustav Jung, who believed paradoxes were one of the greatest treasures of mankind; Tomkowski observes that “a mystical paradox testifies to the helplessness of reason, and has its origins in the feeling of wonder.”114 We might add that for Plato and Aristotle, and, subsequently, for all the metaphysical tradition of the West, wonder is the beginning of true philosophy.115
In his Vision, Mickiewicz tries to grasp the phenomenon of the inner, mystical experience and, at the same time, overcome the problem of ineffability (later strongly emphasised by William James). Mickiewicz’s mystical journey has three stages; its rhythm is orderly. First, the naked “soul’s seed” leaves the body and the world (lines 1–10),116 then, in the second and central part (lines 11–46) we have a description of the other world’s structure and the phenomenon of God’s omnipresence and the existence of the soul in the metaphysical, otherworldly space. At this stage, a key mystical symbol appears: a circle. Here a fundamental paradox emerges: pancosmic experience of simultaneous existence of the soul at the very centre of reality, and at its circumference, where it moves around the whole space of the universe “along the Ray/ Of God’s own Wisdom”.117
The soul encompasses the whole in a single moment, and enjoys insight into all the mysteries, which were opaque to it during its life. This section of the poem is especially charged with mystical paradoxes (usually quite subtle, as in the case of describing the mystical perception: “I was both an eye / And light in this strange vision”). At the first stage of the poem, the soul returns to the human world, although it is not yet within the confines of its body (hence the conjecture that it may well be a description of death – that is, the irrevocable parting with the flesh). The soul returns, having acquired the ability to see through good and evil (which each have their seeds in every person) but retains no ability to influence the decisions of the living. The poet maintained perhaps the most important element of his metaphysical anthropology: the free will of Man, who is fully responsible for all the good and evil that he does. That is why, in the last scene, the “black demons and white angels” accompany Man in his choices (“they must obey”).118
The vision of God’s nature described in the poem inspired scholars to seek analogies, especially with the thought of Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) and Jakob Böhme, though we must also keep Swedenborg in mind. We may assume that the vision experienced by the poem’s protagonist corresponds to the highest form of insight in the Swedenborgian hierarchy, where a mystic communes with the other world in the state of fully awakened consciousness.119 The primary attribute of God here is this all-embracing, absolute love for His human creations, who are illuminated by a soothing luminosity, giving supernatural knowledge. God exists as a luminous, omnipresent being, which is how He was traditionally seen in Western metaphysics; indeed, Meister Eckhart saw him as a formless, superessential being,120 while Böhme emphasised God’s spiritual nature. It is, then, safe to say that Mickiewicz’s syncretic image of the Creator and the other world is an original synthesis of various metaphysical and mystical currents with which he was acquainted.
The Profligate’s Regrets, written down on the same sheet, has a less sophisticated structure. We might risk a hypothesis that the poem fails to rise to the intellectual standards of its author. The climax of the poem gives it a form of metaphysical-religious confession, but earlier an existential dimension dominates, in which the poet summarises his relationships with other people at different stages of his life. This is the summary of a mature man who is undoubtedly entering the phase of the “shadow line”, to use Joseph Conrad’s famous expression. The speaking subject declares: “Old age is coming soon”. His summary is both bitter and pessimistic, since the protagonist, formerly ‘profligate’ with cordial feelings and friendly deeds, concludes that he never experienced any reciprocity. Even worse, he suggests that he never experienced full openness or deep communication with his neighbours, and not through his own fault (“My heart? It never talked from heart to heart”).
His answer to this sense of lack in human relationships is to turn away from them entirely and choose God as his ultimate and only refuge, since He is the one who repays “on time/with interest”. The speaking subject refers to the biblical parable of talents (here: “treasures” which were not given back to others), but decides to go against its moral message. He wants neither to multiply his riches nor share them; on the contrary, he plans to bury them in the ground. At least two elements may puzzle the reader here. First, the lack of self-criticism, and the self-justification of the speaking subject who is one-sidedly critical of other people with whom he had patiently shared his life. Secondly, this justification for his choice of Providence as his only partner for the future seems like an escape, given his dislike for other people. In this peculiarly “mercantile” attitude to God (“interest” is mentioned, while usury is condemned in the Bible!) there is a problematic ambiguity. Perhaps this poem should be read, against the existing interpretations, as a deliberate attempt to embarrass the speaking subject of the poem?
In any case, we have to agree with those scholars who argue that this poem is a precursor to the Lausanne lyrics and at many levels.
1.4 The Lausanne Lyrics and Later Fragments
During his stay in Lausanne, where he was lecturing on Latin literature between June 1839 and October 1840, Mickiewicz composed six poems. He never published any of them nor did he give them a shape which we could assume to be final.121 Those poems were gradually published after his death; in the nineteenth century they were considered to be a phenomenon of little importance in the poet’s body of work. However, their reception changed significantly over the course of the twentieth century, when scholars as well as poets of various sort deemed these to be among the outstanding achievements of Polish poetry of all time.122 The Lausanne lyrics are still considered iconic in Polish culture: it would be hard to enumerate all the poetic references, allusions, and hidden citations in the twentieth-century Polish poetry and its most prominent luminaries (in chronological order): Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Julian Tuwim, Julian Przyboś, Aleksander Wat, Czesław Miłosz, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, Wisława Szymborska, Ryszard Krynicki, Adam Zagajewski.
Can we speak of a poetic cycle when it comes to the Lausanne lyrics? There is no evidence that the author himself saw them in this way. We are not sure about their chronology or the specific context of their origin. They are, undoubtedly, linked by the place and time in which they were written, and by something much more important – a profound shift in Mickiewicz’s poetic diction, strikingly different from what we see in his earlier works. The difference was articulated with precision by Zgorzelski:
What remains from the earlier period’s tendencies is both the effort to close a poem with a clear conclusion, and his care for simplicity of expression and a direct naturalness of diction. However, features hitherto absent begin to emerge at the same time, sometimes even characteristics that are utterly different from those which constantly occurred in Mickiewicz’s previous work. These are strongly marked by a change in the poet’s attitude towards the word. Earlier the artist’s attention was focused primarily on the sentence as a whole, while the word usually had a clear, concrete and unequivocal character. What now begins to grow is the weight of each single word, which will perform a more autonomous, even dominant role in the linguistic structure of a poem, whilst simultaneously acquiring deep allegorical meanings. The word itself loses, as it were, its power to invoke concrete representations, but acquires a new ideational and emotional expressiveness. The allegorisation of style follows, as distinct from the allegorical tendencies of the earlier period, in that it suggests no clear, unambiguous interpretation. In the previous phase we dealt with allegorisation which would lend itself to be read clearly and without hesitation, while here everything is veiled by a fog of polyvalent suggestions. The author here speaks more often between the lines than straightforwardly or explicitly. More often he bases his speech on a specifically lyric technique of omissions and hints.123
Marian Stala, while accepting this interpretation of Zgorzelski, aptly pointed out that this change in style, paradoxically, runs into two opposite directions at the same time. First, towards a classicist discipline, with its rigorous form, and, second, towards an anticipation of modern literary Symbolism, with its reliance on semantic polyvalence.124 By virtue of this, the constructive position blends with a destructive one. In the existing literature there are two main modes of reading the Lausanne lyrics: either by a biographical context (through the lens of a sui generis reckoning of Mickiewicz with his past life, a turn towards the future and towards spiritual transformation), or by a more universalising, existential-philosophical dimension (the futility of pursuit and desire; transience; metaphysical homelessness and loneliness; but also knowledge leading to spiritual purification). In our interpretation the second path will be taken, with the addition of elements from the metaphysical-religious dimension.
It undoubtedly dominates in the poem Spin Love …, which enters into dialogue with the Christian doctrine of love (gr. agape, lat. caritas, but also gr. eros).125 It is based on the message that God Himself is love (1 Jn 4:7–12), the author and giver of love and that out of love He created all beings. That is why man should love not only God, but also his neighbours, including his enemies, which may lead to the integration of mankind into a single community. Mickiewicz seems to prepare here his gloss to the Pauline Hymn of Love (1 Cor 13:1–13) and its conclusion that love is greater than faith and hope.
Marian Maciejewski, in his excellent commentary on this poem,126 argues that it is built according to the principle of parallelism, and a sort of open-ended hyperbole. The dominant mode is a “mystical didactic”, showing the way in which man, through the unfolding (“spinning”) of love in himself, may enter the eternal dimension, since the poem, in its conclusion, opens up a perspective of becoming equal not only to the power of angels, but even of the Creator Himself. Jacek Brzozowski also sees this work as a symbolic “image of the human path to ultimate, divine spiritualization”, running from the first, primordial, insect-like stage (line 1) towards God (the last line). Brzozowski claimed that the poet must have been aware that divinity is unreachable and that the threshold of divinisation cannot be crossed.127 Indeed, in modern times the very idea of divinisation (gr. theosis, lat. deificatio) has been seen as suspicious in the Christian West, whilst remaining a standard doctrine in Eastern Orthodox spirituality. The ancient Church Fathers whose writings Mickiewicz knew had no problem speaking about Man becoming God, unless it were claimed that He is divine, not by grace, but by nature.128
The insect in question is a silkworm; scholars have focussed on the potential role of this symbol, which eludes simple interpretation. It may become clearer if we read what Mickiewicz said in his Collège de France lectures a few years later, when he pointed out that the image of a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly is the most appropriate image of the mystical transformation of the human soul, from its animalistic stage to full liberation and spiritual perfection.129 The image of the spring, on the other hand, which occurs twice in the poem, undoubtedly connotes inexhaustibility, immutability and “ongoing birth” (Maciejewski). Golden brass, which has been forged out of golden seeds, seems to represent indestructibility and perpetuity; wind in the Christian tradition symbolises an epiphany of the Holy Spirit, but also a symbol of the truth; seed and corn, which often appear in Christ’s parables, signify, in ancient pagan traditions, the process of rebirth. Of course the mother-nurse is one of the most enduring images of a nurturing love, constant and imperishable. Certain scholars suggested that this poem also oscillates between pride and humility, but it seems that Mickiewicz above all, also through a sophisticated chain of symbolic similes, wanted to affirm the voice of St Paul: “the greatest of these [i.e. virtues] is charity” (1 Cor 13:13).
In the poem [Above the Water Great and Clear …], the philosophical-existential dimension seems to predominate. Maciejewski wrote about Mickiewicz’s use of the structure of a philosophical discourse, whilst also claiming that a Romantic descriptive technique is transformed into “mystical lyric poetry”. The key poetic devices are parallelism and repetition (“water”, the most important metaphor, is mentioned eight times); they give the poem its consistency. Another important feature is the change of the speaking voice’s grammatical subject: in lines 1–14, based on lyric description, the narrative is in the third person, while in the last eight lines the personal narrative dominates (‘I’), transforming the description into a philosophical-existential confession. Verb tense ends up being another significant device at the verbal level: what the author considers to be a transient phenomenon, fleeting in the face of eternity, is discussed in the past tense, while the present tense is used to denote what is eternal and immutable.
Mickiewicz introduces another radical correction into the fundamental elements of European Romanticism (and his own previous Romanticism from a couple of years earlier), by diminishing the significance of those symbols which were considered the most powerful and expressive. Take his approach to mountains, which the Romantics conventionally associated with sublimity, as the setting of spiritual flights of Byron’s Manfred, Goethe’s Faust, Juliusz Słowacki’s Kordian, and the protagonist of Mickiewicz’s own Crimean Sonnets. Or his use of “dark clouds”, lightnings and storms – stock symbols of rebellion, revolution and any such radical action. Mickiewicz attributes a transient, secondary significance to these symbols (which together represent the power of Nature), in contrast to water, which is not a turbulent, menacing element in the poem, but remains calm, “clear” and “transparent”, eternally existing.130 Romanticism has been replaced here by … what exactly?
Jan Prokop has ingeniously argued that the superiority of water “is not the superiority associated with pride, but with patient endurance. (…) It is acceptance, without dramatic struggle, of the whole passing world, an acceptance which turns, at the same time, into the overcoming of this world. It is an attitude of an observer rather than an active participant.”131 He also emphasises that the protagonist of the poem introduces into this apparent passivity an element of motion, of eternal journey:
This entry into the unperturbable current of timeless abiding doesn’t mean motionlessness. Just as the image of water, in opposition to the passing clouds and thunders, underlined immutability (“Abides in peace, so great and clear”), there is now another aspect which is being revealed. With regard to the lyrical subject, the verb “to flow” is repeated three times, and signifies infinite motion, pilgrimage which is, at the same time, ascent. It is a true motion, contrary to the apparent motion of the passing things of this world.132
While we accept this argument, we want also to try to answer a question we posed earlier. It seems that Mickiewicz is using here the motif of soul as a mirror, taken from the tradition of Christian Platonism. For the founder of Neoplatonism, Plotinus, the soul is like a mirror between the two worlds, the sensible and the spiritual one, which has the inherent capacity to turn either to the material things, or to God.133 Later authors, such as St Gregory of Nyssa in the East and St Augustine in the West developed this Plotinian thought with regard to the Pauline Hymn of Love, in which, just before love is declared to be greater than faith and hope, St Paul says: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor 13:12).134 The Church Fathers understood this Pauline mirror through which we see God now as the human soul. It meant to them that in this life, even though it is impossible to see God face to face, it is quite possible to contemplate His reflection in the mirror of our own soul, because it is the image of God (Genesis 1:26). However, in order to be able to see God in ourselves, we first have to purify the mirror of our soul from passions and sensible phantasms through moral asceticism and the exercise of meditation.
St Gregory refers to Plotinus’ image of the mirror of the soul, asserting that it is able to turn ‘downwards’ to the material world and then it falls and sins, reflecting in itself the sensible objects, or to turn ‘upwards’ and convert to God, reflecting His light and becoming like Him.135 Gregory suggests that the beauty of the purified soul reflects the true Beauty, which is God, like a mirror. In his treatise On Virginity he writes: “We see this even here, in the case of a mirror, or a sheet of water, or any smooth surface that can reflect the light; when they receive the sunbeam they beam themselves; but they would not do this if any stain marred their pure and shining surface.”136 Like the other Church Fathers, St Gregory here integrates the Stoic ideal of freedom from passions (gr. apatheia), with the Platonic ideal of the purification of the soul – with cleansing the inner mirror and the eye of the soul through ascetic practices and meditation.137 This purification from passions makes the peaceful surface of the soul to become light which reflects the divine Light.
This Platonic “mirror metaphysics” became extremely popular in the Middle Ages. Not only was the soul a mirror, but also the whole of Nature and every creature. Mediaeval learned books were usually called “mirrors” (specula) and, as Ritamary Bradly points out, this became so widespread a metaphor from the twelfth century onward that scholars for a long time were not even interested in its provenance.138 The metaphor of mirror and mirroring is also ever-present in Dante’s Comedy, which was well known by Mickiewicz. If there is nothing particularly surprising in the fact that Mickiewicz compares Nature and his own soul to a mirroring surface, it is interesting that he is transforming this motif in an original way. As we already pointed out, at the climactic moment of the poem, the subject himself becomes water: “I see this water everywhere,/ I mirror all things faithfully”. But the subject doesn’t reflect God in himself (as in the Church Fathers’ writings), but His creation. The soul, purified and freed from passions, mirrors the world without any of the distortions caused by selfish desires and emotions; it thus participates in some way in the Godhead (if we can thus read the peaceful water, which, indeed, as scholars have noticed, possesses the divine attributes of immutability and eternity). The subject first sees this water everywhere (like the omnipresent light of God in the Vision); then, suddenly, he becomes one with it in a mystical experience (a transition from “I see this water” to “I mirror all things faithfully”).139
Another Lausanne poem, [My Corpse is Sitting Here …], is equally moving, but it boasts a different message. The poem unfolds, as Jacek Brzozowski writes, “according to the rule of increasing what is general and ideal. At the beginning, we are confronted with a shocking, concrete image, while the conclusion is ethereally beautiful, but impalpable and phenomenal.”140 The subject depicts himself at the beginning as a ‘living corpse’, which means not that he grants himself a status of a wraith or a returning ghost, but that he uses this metaphor, significant in the context of Romantic culture, in order to suggest that in the present moment real life doesn’t exist for him, that he is merely an actor, playing his part as a member of a community (a family? a social meeting? a group of friends?). The space of ‘here’ does not harmonise with the realm of the soul; the present moment recedes under the pressure of memory and dreams about the world of the past. The true life exists only in the “fatherland of thought”, which is interpreted by Marian Maciejewski as a psychic space, eternal and demanding moral reckoning. We can have doubts about the second part of Maciejewski’s point, since in this poem the eschatological dimension doesn’t seem to occupy the primary place. It is also hard to agree that the most important meaning of the ‘she’ from the last stanza, from all possibilities, must be ‘the soul’. We should, however, follow those commentators who refer to Mickiewicz’s biography and suggest that it must be a memory of the most important, first love of the poet (that is, Maryla, née Wereszczak, Puttkamer, a girl from the Tuhanowicze estate which the poet had always remembered with gratitude), even though we generally avoid here reading the Lausanne lyrics through the lens of Mickiewicz’s personal history.
The two themes, interwoven with one another, seem to be of key importance in the poem: dream and memory are, of course, pillars of Romantic culture in general. A mature man, immersed in his everyday life (he mentions his work, cares, and entertainment), escapes in spirit into another space, abandoned and remote. By virtue of this, he partly realises a Romantic paradigm of ‘the dreamer’ who “is where he isn’t and he isn’t where he is” (according to a beautiful phrase by Maria Janion).141 This dream, however, results not from the free play of imagination; rather it stems directly from memory, from the past, from the poet’s youth, and even (perhaps) from now-idealised (but still important) memories of persons and places that are inaccessible to the dreamer in reality, but remain poignantly vivid in the imagination. This discreetly reminds the reader about the fact that the poet is an exile.
These memories fail to annihilate the dreamer; on the contrary, they have a saving power, by reminding him of his roots and the sources of his identity, thanks to which he can protect himself from despair and, paradoxically, is able to persist through “worries or toil,/ Or even fun” – that is, here and now, in the company of other people. Maybe the dawn shining down at him from the mountains (shining also, it seems, over his actual, real life?) is also a metaphor of a beautiful and salutary existential memory?142 Thanks to this, the protagonist is more a living person than a dead one, and even looks the others in the eye, talking to them, and interacting with them, even though his soul is “lamenting”.
The most famous poem of Mickiewicz’s, the five-line [I Shed Pure Springs of Tears …], vividly corresponds to the poem analysed above. It is usually (and not without a reason) interpreted through a biographical lens. We are encouraged to do so by the poet’s use of pronouns (‘I’, ‘my’) which direct our gaze to the fate of the speaking subject and by the fact that old age is omitted from the stages of life enumerated here (we know that Mickiewicz was not yet close to experiencing that stage, when he was writing the poem). The now forty-year-old poet, staying in Switzerland, examines his life, idealising his childhood (not for the first time, since a similar move can be found at the beginning and end of his grand epic poem, Pan Tadeusz) and describing his youth in ambivalent terms. His youth is ‘aloof’, because it was marked with great dreams, dramatic love affairs, conspiracies, imprisonment and exile, and seems ‘foolish’, because it gave birth to his self-concept as a genius, supported by others, while he was somewhat feckless in his personal life.
Lastly, he is critical of his coming of age or maturity: a lost fatherland, difficult marriage, children whom he could barely support financially. We may compare all of this to what he enjoyed at the time: fame, as the greatest Polish poet; the role of a national prophet; the status of an internationally-celebrated intellectual and a professorship at the Academy of Lausanne. Mickiewicz’s personal and professional successes make one suspect that something might be wrong with the autobiographical character of this poem, if construed too narrowly. Perhaps, the author’s suffering is after all an act, which fits ill with his public status, since Mickiewicz usually refrained from minauderie.
This makes a strictly autobiographical reading of the poem difficult (even if none of it wholly subverts such a reading). Rather, it leads into more universal regions, towards an interpretation in which the poem is seen as a micro-parable about the human fate, including Mickiewicz’s own. From this perspective, the symbol of childhood is happiness and carelessness, while youth is represented by rebelliousness, sacrifice, and irrational behaviour. But why is the dominant feature of his coming of age failure? The poem does not suggest that failures are the only experience of this stage of life; rather, it emphasises how they are an inevitable part of it, regardless of successes or glory. This point is quite clear, and we understand it, because this is indeed a stage of life when we lose our loved ones, often irrevocably (and Mickiewicz lost many of them). We realise that every coin has two sides, and one can often be bitter. We come to see that we often mean well, but still do wrong, and that what we gain beyond all doubt is the awareness of our limits, of the coming of old age, behind which the last boundary of human existence awaits us.
‘Tears’ which open and close the poem were interpreted in various ways and it couldn’t be otherwise, given their symbolic polyvalence. Jacek Brzozowski is inclined to see pessimism here, and considers the protagonist “merely a wreck, not a sailor, a wreck lost in the empty and sad ocean of his own tears.”143 Stefan Sawicki, on the other hand, emphasises the aspect of recalling what was lost, longing for the past, and argues that the tears are not a moment of weakness, but a “sign of the painful realization of the truth about himself” and also a sign of “the purification which is always the beginning of a change”.144 This optimistic interpretation may be closer to the truth, even though we think that it is worth considering also the way of thinking which we found in another lyric, [Above the Water Great and Clear …], namely, the acceptance of the passing reality. From this point of view, tears would be a sign of regret concerning what had passed away and, at the same time, the peaceful acceptance of the tragic transiency of life.
The two last Lausanne lyrics are no less intriguing, because they are unfinished and elude any unequivocal reading. [Already as a Child in Our House …] may be interpreted in opposition to the idealised vision of “angelic, bucolic” childhood of the previously discussed poem. What is in the foreground here is an image of a “bad child”. At the same time, it is a negative paraphrase of a nursery Polish prayer, “Angel of God, My Guardian”.145 Negative in the sense that, according to the speaking subject, he could never do for his family what he asked of his guardian angel in the popular nursery prayer, when he was a child. Especially, the Polish phrase which could be translated “always be my help” is transformed here into (literally): “I couldn’t (ever) help (…) anyone”. And it was not so, because he had malicious intentions (“I didn’t want to bother anyone”) or some emotional defects (“Although I loved them all”), but because of some indefinable fatalism. According to an interesting interpretation of Jacek Brzozowski, there is a certain Pascal-like tragic quality in this confession, because the poet reaches out to his “roots of disinheritance and loneliness” and he shows that
from his childhood, that is, from the beginning and by nature, whether we want it or not, without our fault or even without our part, even against our intentions and efforts in the opposite direction, we are strangers among our own [that is, our neighbours], we are trespassers in our own home [=in human family], and we are dispensable and useless.146
From such a perspective, Brzozowski also interprets another interrupted fragment, as a coherent Romantic fragment, put together of a few words, whose symbolic meaning is ambiguous:
To fly away with the soul to a little leaf, like a butterfly, to look
for a little house and a little nest there –
Why fly away? And why to a leaf, which is such a brittle foundation for any house, even a little one? Why those childlike diminutives in the Polish original, which bear such tremendous symbolic meaning (“domku”: “a little house”, “gniazdeczka”: “a little nest”)? Why this fairy-tale, sentimental tone? To escape and look for – but where from and where to? Zgorzelski finds in this fragment a complaint of loneliness and homelessness. Brzozowski, in a long and sophisticated discourse suggests that the fragment conceals an intellectual summa of the Lausanne lyrics, which tell a story of disinheritance, the fall of all things, of whatever “was a synonym of permanence and meaning”. But it is also a story of the need to find a new place for a new beginning (hence the choice of a butterfly as a metaphor of a brittle, fleeting entity, but also pointing to the “primordial stage of life”, its new beginning, and hence the childlike diminutives, alluding to the first stage of human life).
On the other hand – writes Brzozowski – here we have, although in its traditional (‘sentimental’) form, the beginning of metaphysical valorization of the peripheral and little, which (…) is one of the most fundamental reactions of poets to the crisis of the world and the crisis of consciousness. We have to observe here that both the butterfly, and the house, are almost completely transient and only transiency, as we remember, is eternal and permanent, what means, among other things, that only this is true.147
However, we can recall also the thought expressed by Mickiewicz in his Paris lecture and referred to earlier, namely, that the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly is the best of the ancient metaphors describing the transformation of the human soul from its primordial state to absolute perfection, which is impossible to reach without “liberation from the flesh”, from the dominance of what is material and earthly. In light of this idea, we can treat the poetic fragment in question as a dream about the beginning of a new spiritual journey, leading towards the full perfection of the soul. We don’t know what the second half of this sentence would sound like, let alone in the next sentences. The Lausanne lyrics are a micro-collection of a casually jotted down poems, more or less unfinished, intellectually ambiguous, but always intriguing and moving, and undoubtedly betraying a project of a poetic aesthetics different from that which we find in Polish Romanticism, including Mickiewicz himself. The last fragment is the least finished.
The last of the poems in this anthology were written after Mickiewicz moved back from Lausanne to Paris (the autumn of 1840), in the first half of the 1840s and they are closely linked to a new phase of his life. This new phase is marked not only by his lectures in the Collège de France, but also in his engagement with developing a religious movement, which was started by Andrzej Towiański (1799–1878), who came from Lithuania to France and in whom Mickiewicz saw “the Master”, a prophet of the new era. During the first half of the 1840s, Towiański’s followers in Paris included eminent poets such as Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849) and Seweryn Goszczyński (1801–1876).148 The majority of Polish emigrants in Paris considered them a cult on the margins of the Catholic Church, and organised campaigns against them – especially against Mickiewicz. He gave up poetry almost completely at this time. After his death only a couple of fragments were found in his personal papers. Some of them were closer to Sentences and Remarks, while some to the Lausanne lyrics.
One of the preserved sheets of paper contained two fragments which Mickiewicz transcribed from an original manuscript and he was unable to decipher them in their entirety. Those are [Tree] and [To Listen to the Sound of Water Cold and Still …] Łukasiewicz had perhaps the deepest insight into those two fragments: he argues, quite rightly, that they should be read together, despite their differences, in the context of the Towiański circle’s religious project. Łukasiewicz observes that the motif of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, which was popular in this circle, and allegedly corresponds to constant changes in Nature, is present in both of those fragments.149
Indeed, this is one way to read a hidden meaning in the description of a (presumably) old tree moved by the wind that is depicted in one of the fragments, in a lyric-symbolic fashion. Someone who endorses transmigration can ask himself what form that tree will take after its transformation, because the ‘bug’, present in the first line, is seen in certain cultures as a symbol of regeneration and recovery. Perhaps, from the point of view of the narrator, the tree will become a bug, to transform into something new and better in the chain of being. Jacek Soplica, one of the protagonists of Pan Tadeusz, was a nobleman who converted from an anarchist and a killer into a friar who anonymously and with great devotion served his fatherland; the name he took was “Robak” (“Bug” or “Worm”). What the tree is to become we do not know, just as we are not sure whether this is the best path to take in interpreting this fragment. Perhaps, we can see in this poetic particle merely a chain of associations, provoked by the sight of a tree moving in the wind with the whole rich profusion of its leaves, which reminds the witness variously of a baby in a crib, a caterpillar in motion, and a snake. That is true that all those associations have something to do with the symbol of beginning or transformation.
In the second fragment, the narrator is no longer a passive witness, but an active explorer of the cosmic order of Nature, whose task is to understand the mystery hidden in the monotonous, seemingly constant sound of water, and wind, but he wants to come close to the essence of those archetypal elements, in the most direct way possible (“To give myself to wind” – “To dive in the womb of a river”). Hearing and sight, the ability to look and to listen perform the important role in this experience (“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”: Mk 4:9). The reflections of Łukasiewicz conclude the reading of those strangely mysterious fragments:
The poem Tree concerns a reincarnation of someone else, seen from without by the eye of the soul, that is, by vision that is different, deeper than the physical sight. The subject remains outside and can only suspect, feel, sympathise. To Listen to the Sound of Water Cold and Still … on the other hand, speaks, as it seems, about the inner work of self-transformation. “To listen”, “to learn”, “to give myself to wind”, “counting every sound”, all those infinitives can be understood (just like those in Above the Water Great and Clear …) as postulates, a chain of commandments, referring to the future, not far from the present. We should, to use an image preferred by Towiański’s followers, “climb the ladder” with our senses in order to enter the depth of our soul and the depth of water, where we encounter the eye of a fish. It is the eye of another, but also our own eye, a transcendental eye, reduced in the phenomenological sense of reduction. Our own inside and the inside of water are bound by a link stronger than a metaphor. They are true unity.150
The couplet [Just Like a Tree …] is similar to the Sentences and Remarks in its gnomic character and its picturesque intellectual synthesis, which is based on a simile:
When does the whole (past?) life concentrate in the breast, or in the heart? This seems to be a moment of powerful inner recollection, as experienced by someone who searches for spiritual fullness and examines his whole past existence (his “whole life”) while standing on the threshold of regeneration, rebirth, great transformation. This transformation, like a tree that is going to bear fruit, will also bear fruit in terms of new life, and the fullness of knowledge, which is the seed from which a new tree will grow and a new fruit. The theme of a great inner transformation, leading to the fullness of spiritual knowledge, strongly connects the Lausanne lyrics to the later fragments.151
The two last works of our anthology were written in the autumn of 1842 and their first audience were the Towiański circle in Paris, whose leader became Mickiewicz himself, after Towiański was exiled from France. Both pieces have a prose form, but have been traditionally placed among Mickiewicz’s lyrics, being rooted in the biblical tradition by their linguistic form and their grave, scriptural style. In both of these the poet used a daring device (from a doctrinal point of view at least) in granting them the form of a monologue by the most important figures of Christianity: Christ and his Mother. What is more, the second piece, The Words of the Virgin, is considered one of Mickiewicz’s finest renderings of a mystical vision. The Words of Christ, on the other hand, seems somewhat less appreciated by scholars, who see in it a kind of a speech addressed to “a collective Man, mankind”, where straightforward admonitions predominate and have little to do with the visionary genre. What is significant, however, is the attempt to imitate the Gospel parables stylistically. The image of Christ which emerges from the piece is doctrinally coherent and more or less in accord with Christian orthodoxy. Its main feature is the fatherly love of Christ towards mankind (His ‘people-child’). We are reminded of His blood sacrifice and His suffering for the salvation of the world.
A ‘Towianistic’ element here is the language of warfare, and even a certain militarization of style. Christ is a “comrade in arms”, “the old warrior”, and he leads his army to war with evil, desiring to arm his faithful spiritually in order to enable them to reveal the truths of the Gospel to the world anew. According to the poet Julian Przyboś,
The Words of Christ are not far, both in terms of their content and their style, from the parables of The Books of the Nation and Pilgrimage; thus they add little to Mickiewicz’s work. The Words of the Virgin, however, is an extraordinary prose poem, a vision revealing one of the most powerful expressions of feeling and will in Mickiewicz’s poetry. It is about the same impulse which make the Improvisation rise on high.152
The Words of the Virgin open with a reminder of the Jewish origin of Mary, her love for Israel and her participation in the pain of her whole nation (“I lived with Israel, and in Israel with my entire being, with my bridegroom and in my bridegroom”). Without her love for Israel, there would be no Annunciation, or the birth of her Son and her love for the whole world (“And I have told the whole world my entire love with the single Word of the Lord which became flesh. Since then I have lived in my Son and by my Son”). This line of thought has too often been overlooked by scholars, and deserves closer attention. There is no charge of betrayal on the part of Israel against her Son and God; therefore, the Chosen People lose nothing of their chosen status in the eyes of the Virgin (and we know that the charge of betraying Jesus remained popular among anti-Judaists). Mickiewicz, both in his Paris lectures of that time, and in his Towianistic debates, claimed that the chosen status of Israel remains intact, and that the Israelites are still the People of the Book; he emphasised the necessity of the covenant between the national spirits of Israel, Poland, and France. This covenant was to be a key element in restoring moral order to the world, and the political domain.153 The Words of the Virgin cohere with this way of thinking. The essence of the poem has been described (not without a certain pathos) by Zgorzelski:
Those concise, laconic sentences astound us with their absolutely extraordinary wealth of imagery, on the global scale, when it comes to inspired visions. The rhythmical gravity of those solemn lines, as if in a mystical enthusiasm flying up to the heavens, speaks about a reality extended between Heaven and the Earth, in the spheres of Eternity beyond all space. The verses speak with images of sublime metaphors and symbols about the mystery of Incarnation. They introduce the symbol of flames, sparks, summer nights, lightning, darkness dazzled with rays of light, the splendor of the morning star. (…) Let us notice the restraint of diction, maintained in the tone of calm report, avoiding any pathetic raising of the voice.154
Let us add to that that there are also warfare metaphors here, so characteristic to Towianism, because evil in this narrative is fought with determination and full resolve, albeit by means of a loving assent to the good (“But lightnings began to cut through my breast like through a hot day, and my heart became full of power, full of thunders; my brilliance scourges malicious darkness; carried by love I stamp on evil and I crush it at the bottom of Hell”).
The metaphysical current in Mickiewicz’s poetry was inaugurated by the Hymn on the Feast of Annunciation (December 1820). Twenty years later, the poet who barely practised his Catholic faith, in one of his last (if not the last) visions recorded on paper, invoked once more the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the mystery of the Incarnation (in a double way, because with his voice he willfully incarnated the speech of the Mother of Christ in his words). Thus he comes full, mystical circle in terms of his own poetic work.
Metaphysical themes permeate the whole of Mickiewicz’s work, and also play an important role at every stage of the development of his lyric poetry. The beginning of this development is marked by an attempt to investigate elusive eschatological questions about the relationships between the living and the dead, as well as the phenomenon of Annunciation. Both of those keep recurring in Mickiewicz’s later poems. With the passage of time, the range of themes expands. Throughout the emigration period the cosmic struggle between Good and Evil moves to the foreground along, with an oscillation between pride and humility, faith and reason, and the incapacity (or reluctance) to comprehend the divine plan of creation and the meaning of mercy, with respect to God’s love for Man, and the sacrifice of the Cross. The power of God’s love is present at all stages of Mickiewicz’s creative work. There is also the attempt to fathom the phenomenon of an absolute devotion and self-giving to God, to the point of immersing oneself in the mystical, contemplative life, which both fascinates the poet and makes him tremble with fear. Also, an issue long puzzling to Mickiewicz, namely, the partial power of Man over his God and the responsibility for the suffering inflicted on Him, even though it mingles with more rebellious tones, as with the desire to wrest from God the mystery of His being.
Man, the protagonist of those poems, is often torn between soul and body, good and the lack thereof, loneliness (or the incompleteness of human relations) and the memory of the past, which brings some kind of consolation. He demands from himself recurring examinations of conscience, which always result in harsh and painful judgments as opposed to self-serving ones, aimed at facile justifications. He is aware of his pride and lack of humility, but, at the same time, he tries to overcome those vices in himself. Imperfect, he increasingly strives for spiritual perfection. He attains it only once, in an extraordinary journey of the soul to the other world and to God where, in symbiosis with Him, he becomes a radiant ray and, at the same time, the all-seeing pupil of an eye. The price for this journey seems to be leaving the flesh behind and moving beyond the temporal realm.
In this last period of his work, the Lausanne phase, Mickiewicz depicts his protagonist as someone who increasingly feels the need to find spiritual order, detachment from the turmoil of the world, an inner rebirth, a great transformation, and the acceptance of the transient nature of life. Those aspects still remain vivid, as it seems, in the preserved fragments from the Towianist period (after 1841), even though we can hear a new tone in them, a call for active, metaphorically war-like fight with the forces of evil. In those poems, Mickiewicz uses grand images of time and space, from otherworldly and cosmic vistas, placed in everlasting time, to the present moment, the here and now, and a tiny leaf to which he wants to escape with his soul. With typical mastery he employs, especially in visionary poems, the mystical paradox, through which he tries to express the inexpressible, as the mystics of different denominations and religions have been trying to do for centuries. We ought to remember that in the last phase of his creative life the poet changed his methods of depiction, moving the centre of gravity away from an elaborate, visually rich, associative sentence towards a more economical language, and towards the use of single, key, symbolically ambiguous words, which lend the possibility of reaching some existential-metaphysical message only through laborious interpretation.
This is a poetry steeped in cultural and religious dialogue: the poet looks for inspiration in the Bible (of course), but also in highly diverse realms of thought, from Plato and Aristotle, through St Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Dante and the mystical and theosophic tradition of Christianity, not to mention contemporary philosophy, which he judges very harshly (positioning himself as the opponent of Hegel and his speculative metaphysics). In his mature period, Mickiewicz converses increasingly with Christian mystics, especially, with Böhme, but also Angelus Silesius, Swedenborg, Saint-Martin, and Baader, allowing hints of his critical attitude towards theological dogmatism and the contemporary ecclesiastic guardians of doctrinal purity.
This counts as further proof that Mickiewicz was looking for spiritual knowledge (or gnosis) in various religious sources, among diverse denominations and philosophical schools, and that he was favourably inclined towards the idea of a sui generis religious syncretism within the Christian tradition, whilst remaining open to various sources of faith. The protagonists of his poems, just like the author himself, look above all things for a personal, intimate, living relationship with God, beyond doctrinal rigors. In the mature period of his development, Mickiewicz, like the protagonists of his lyric verses, searches tirelessly, thus betraying a spiritual restlessness and metaphysical hunger, along with the need to either satisfy it or, at least, soothe it.
2. Translating Mickiewicz: Inspiration, Poetry, Philosophy
2.1 What is Poetry?
In reflecting on translation, two fundamental questions emerge. First, what are we translating: what is the nature of the text? Second, for whom is the translation intended, and what therefore is its purpose? Let us begin with some thoughts on the enormous issue of what Mickiewicz’s poetry is in general, as well as what his metaphysical poetry might be in particular. Let us begin from how he and his contemporaries understood these questions.
Alexander Pushkin, the greatest Russian poet of the nineteenth century, met Mickiewicz during his stay in Russia (1824–1829). Three years before the end of his short life, he composed a poem about Mickiewicz and their friendship, where he says:155
A key notion here is, of course, that of inspiration. It is an old idea, as old as poetry itself perhaps (or the recorded poetry of Western civilisation at least). The Iliad, composed in the eighth century BC, but testifying to a preexisting tradition of oral epic poetry that is hidden in the dark for us (or in silence, rather), begins with a prayer to a goddess (“Goddess, sing of the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus …”). In this first line of Western poetry, the goddess (gr. thea) is not named; in the second, later epic poem, the Odyssey, it is called upon as a “Muse” (gr. mousa), also in the first line.
Hesiod (c. 750–650 BC) was the first poet in the Western literature who openly claimed that his poetry begins with a visitation with the Muses in a long, beautiful introduction to his Theogony:
From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. (…) And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me – the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis: “Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.” So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.156
Poetry is inspired, and it is clearly inspired “from above”, since the Muses represent the sources of human creativity, which are beyond ordinary faculties and capacities. The earliest poets of our tradition acknowledge that their songs come from something higher and more powerful than their own self.
Pushkin, talking about Mickiewicz, refrains from naming this source, even though he curiously refers to it twice in the quoted two lines synonymously as: “svyshe” and “s vysoka”. The Russian genius was certain that Mickiewicz’s poetry came from some higher realm, that it wasn’t just the creation of Mickiewicz’s ordinary self. The third key element that appears in those two lines is that Pushkin seems to suggest that Mickiewicz was capable of writing poetry which was “from above” somehow (only?) because he looked on life “from on high”, from that place, whence his poetry also came to him. He was capable of some kind of vision, and that is why he could create.
Mickiewicz reciprocates what Pushkin said about him in his own lectures at the Collège de France, six years after his friend died. In the interim, history had separated them: Pushkin wrote three poems glorifying Russian imperialism and the defeat of Poland in the November Uprising;157 Mickiewicz responded to these in the Passages to Forefathers’ Eve, Part III, by suggesting (without naming any names) that Pushkin had sold his soul to the Tsar in the pursuit of his worldly career. But two years after that, Pushkin wrote the poem quoted above, He lived among us …, and in the meantime continued his dialogue with his (former?) friend by working on one of his greatest masterpieces, the Bronze Horseman, which was published only after his death.158 After Pushkin was shot by d’Anthès and died of his wounds in 1837, Mickiewicz wrote an obituary for Le Globe, entitled Pushkin and the Literary Movement in Russia, and signed it: “A Friend of Pushkin”.159 In the obituary, Mickiewicz rises above the national hostilities and Pushkin’s support of the oppressive, imperialistic regime, and returns the favour, to a certain extent, by saying about his friend: “what was good in him came from the depths of his heart”.
Are the depths of the heart the same realm as “the above” which Pushkin writes about three years earlier? Not entirely, perhaps. Six years later, Mickiewicz will return to the question of Pushkin, inspiration, and the nature of poetry in the third course of his lectures in Paris on Slavic literatures. He will grant Pushkin inspiration and vision from above, but only in a limited way. In a highly instructive interpretation of Pushkin’s poem Prophet (Prorok, 1826), Mickiewicz claims:
only there he rises to the same heights as the anonymous poet whose introduction we have just cited.160 Pushkin took all the expressions used in this beautiful poem from Sacred Scripture. He believes that in order to sing properly (and it is universally accepted that the work of a poet should be described as singing), in order to be a poet, one has to experience inner transformation. He declares – in the words of Hebrew poets – that an angel ripped his heart from his breast, that he cleansed his mouth by laying upon it a burning coal, and that only then he had the power to read in the clouds and to hear the steps of a creature living at the bottom of the sea. It is a beginning of a new era in Pushkin’s life. However, he didn’t have the strength to realise that premonition. He lacked courage to adjust all his inner life and literary work to those sublime ideas. Thus, this poem wanders among his other works as something entirely distinct, something, indeed, higher whose fates are unknown. He composed it after the conspiracy of 1825 was discovered.161 The extraordinary spiritual state in which he composed the poem lasted only for a couple of days, and from this moment his moral fall begins. He will, undoubtedly, remain an unequalled artist, but will never again create anything equal to this poem. He even seems to have moved backwards after this.162
Here we have a fundamental distinction, to which we will return later, between great, excellent, unequalled poetry (or art in general) on the one hand, and a truly inspired poetry which Mickiewicz calls (shockingly in fact, when we think about it) “singing properly” or simply “being a poet”. It almost seems as if there were for him two kinds of poetry, co-existing with each other, bearing the same name, but being essentially different in nature. According to Mickiewicz, true poetry, if we may refer to it thus, or true singing, has to stem from a particular inner experience, from some extraordinary state of consciousness or spiritual disposition. It seems to be what Pushkin meant by saying that Mickiewicz was not only inspired “from above” as a poet, but also looking at life “from on high”. For Mickiewicz, there is no first without the latter; he pronounces this astonishing, almost arrogant judgment on his dear friend – one of the geniuses of poetry – concluding that Pushkin had this experience only once, and that only one of his poems was born of it. The rest is just brilliant, outstanding, unequalled poetry.
In the same lecture, Mickiewicz clearly indicates the ancient sources of his understanding of poetry. He says that we should follow Plato whose philosophy was based on revelation and inspiration, and links this to Plato’s doctrine of the eternal Forms, or Ideas (or “innate ideas” as Mickiewicz calls them, following the fashion of his time).163 He refers to Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, saying that when the soul sees sensible beauty, it awakens to the vision of eternal beauty by remembering what it saw before entering the body.164 In his short early dialogue Ion, Plato claimed that poets don’t create poetry, but rather are possessed by a deity, and what they say in this state of consciousness doesn’t come from them, but from the deity. As a result, in their ordinary state of mind, they don’t really know what they are talking about and we should treat them as experts neither on their own poetry, nor on any other subject, for that matter. In Phaedrus, Plato is less ironic in a famous passage where Socrates claims that madness (gr. mania) is the best gift that we receive from the gods, and that is better than reason.165 He then discusses four kinds of divine madness: the prophetic madness of Apollo; the religious, purificatory madness of Dionysus; the poetic madness of the Muses; and the love madness of Eros.
The context here suggests, quite unambiguously, that Plato believed true poetry to flow from a special state of consciousness, which is akin to typical religious phenomena of his culture such as the prophetic trances of the Pythia (Apollo’s priestess at the Delphi Oracle) or the spiritual frenzy of the Maenads during Dionysian mysteries. Further, the poetic state is in fact a possession in the sense of the Greek enthousiasmos (literally: “having a god inside”), where a divine being takes complete control over human faculties and expresses himself through a living human. Mickiewicz claims in his lectures not only that poetry (or art in general) can come from those two completely different sources (divine or purely human, that is), but also that philosophy too may originate from experience of the divine, or else from the exercise of merely human faculties of reason and imagination. He makes a distinction between the original, revealed, inspired philosophy which comes from Pythagoras and Plato166 on the one hand, and scholastic philosophy, which comes from Aristotle, and finds its most recent and significant expression in Hegel.167 Placing himself in the intellectual current which was opposed to the speculative character of German Idealism, whose greatest proponent was Jacobi, Mickiewicz scorns those philosophers “who suppose that it is enough to reason and debate in order to find the truth; philosophy done in such a way is merely, we repeat, an imitation or rather a falsification of revelation.”168
He also refers to a contemporary Polish thinker, Count August Cieszkowski, who had a mystical experience whilst on board a boat in Venice, in which he intuitively saw his entire philosophical system; Mickiewicz observes that it would prove beneficial for Cieszkowski’s philosophical output if he could manage to remain in that spiritual state.169 Then his philosophy would have clearly remained ‘inspired’. Mickiewicz’s appreciation of Schelling over Hegel seems to be closely connected to the first’s emphasis on die intellektuelle Anschaung (“intellectual intuition”), which the Polish poet identifies with a sort of contemplative vision or mystical intuition. And rightly so, when it comes to the later phases of Schelling’s ever-evolving thought, since he himself says in his Erlangen lectures about die intellektuelle Anschaung: “More appropriately, we could use the term ecstasy for this relation.”170 Already in his famous 1809 preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, which destroyed the close friendship between Hegel and Schelling, the former had mocked the latter, alongside all those who, instead of using reason and its concepts, advocated some kind of “intuition” or “feeling” as the way to the truth of reality.171 But when Schelling speaks of intuition as ecstasy, he is already much more of a Christian theosophist than a classical German idealist, thanks to the influence of Franz von Baader, who introduced him to Meister Eckhart and Jacob Böhme. Schelling certainly seemed to Mickiewicz to be a Christian, unlike Hegel who, according to the Polish poet, only pretended to be one.172
For Mickiewicz, this intuition or vision is not only about having a brief flash of inspiration, which he calls “a gift, which is nothing but revelation”,173 but about learning to live in that state all the time. If the experience of inspiration is a kind of intuitive, direct vision which is the only way to create true poetry, true art and true philosophy – and, as Mickiewicz increasingly believed from the 1830s, the only way to live a true, meaningful and creative life, even if one is not an artist in the typical sense – we should ask what it is a vision of: what is being envisioned? What is experienced in that state, without which we may only aspire to become an unequalled artist, like Pushkin or (perhaps) an unequalled academic philosopher like Hegel – unequalled, but still lacking something which, in Mickiewicz’s eyes, was the only thing worth living for?
When he comments on Pushkin’s poem Chern’,174 which begins with a characteristic Latin expression procul este, profani! (“away, profaners!”), Mickiewicz claims, not that it reached the heights of Prophecy, but that it was nearly there, because it ascends towards becoming a prayer. That is an interesting comment in itself, since Mickiewicz implicitly suggests that true poetry is prayer. Or not so implicitly, since he quotes two of his compatriots: one, his late friend, the philosopher-poet Stefan Garczyński, claimed that “our soul is a prayer”; the other, Zygmunt Krasiński concluded that “prayer is the realisation of divine inspiration”.175 Mickiewicz is, of course, speaking about prayer in a somewhat mystical sense, that is, not about “prayers” as external, verbal utterances, but as a spiritual state which (at least ideally) should be the source of those utterances or rituals. His understanding follows a classical definition by St John of Damascus: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God”.176
Mickiewicz is speaking here from the tradition of Christian Platonism and, more specifically, St Augustine, according to whom the knowledge of the truth and of the moral good can be achieved only by the contemplation of God, because it is in God’s light that the eternal Ideas may be seen. Mickiewicz gives an etymology of the Latin intuitio, by saying that it comes from intus itio, “going within”: “The more deeply a man enters in his own essence, the more truths he can take from there, because he approaches that centre by means of which we experience God.”177 This is a variant of Augustine’s famous “Don’t go outside of yourself, return to yourself: the truth dwells in the interior man”.178 In another lecture Mickiewicz asserts that in order to achieve the level of the certain knowledge of the truth and the moral law it is necessary to experience a lifting up of our spirit to God.179
But Mickiewicz is also much more specific with respect to how this experience of God’s light – the light in which we contemplate the eternal Platonic Ideas – is the source of true poetry or art, and not of, for example, philosophy or practical life. The first aspect of that poetic experience, if we may call it so, is that of Nature. Commenting on Derzhavin’s Ode to God, Mickiewicz says:
He is not a national poet here at all, since the Slavic people have a much more direct feeling of God. For this people the whole world is alive: these people make trees, rocks, and elements speak, attributing to them some kind of immortal soul; and they believe that they are united to the Godhead, unceasingly, always moved by the hand of God.180
Mickiewicz here provides a rather interesting interpretation of what was considered a Pagan worldview in the early nineteenth century. This view was profoundly influenced by a famous poem of Friedrich Schiller, The Gods of Greece (Die Götter Griechenlands), whose twelfth stanza181 reads:
Later, Novalis (F. von Hardenberg, 1772–1801) will also nostalgically describe that primeval state of human consciousness: “Ocean’s dusky, green abyss was the lap of a goddess. In the crystal grottos revelled a wanton folk. Rivers, trees, flowers, and beasts had human wits. Sweeter tasted the wine, poured out by Youth impersonated; a god was in the grape-clusters; a loving, motherly goddess upgrew in the full golden sheaves.” The advent of modernity and the Enlightenment killed the life of the world and imprisoned it: “The gods vanished with their retinue. Nature stood alone and lifeless. Dry Number and rigid Measure bound her with iron chains. As into dust and air the priceless blossoms of life fell away in words obscure. Gone was wonder-working Faith, and its all-transforming, all-uniting angel-comrade, the Imagination.”183
Mickiewicz also speaks about an experience of the whole world as alive and “full of gods”, to use the phrase first attributed to the sixth-century BC Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus,184 but unlike Schiller he does not mourn its irretrievable loss. Rather, he emphasises that this is how the world still looks like to the one who is inspired. However, unlike Schiller or Hölderlin, Mickiewicz is not really inclined towards a Pagan, polytheistic understanding of this experience, in which trees or rocks are, in some sense, gods or divine powers. He develops a metaphysical interpretation, according to which they are perceived as being alive and possessing a soul, because they are united with God and moved by Him. God is present in the world, and the Pagan mistake was precisely to interpret His presence as the presence of many gods rather than the One. The experience, however, is virtually the same.
For Mickiewicz God is present in the things of this world and moves them through the mediation of various spirits, which is a traditional Christian Platonic view,185 which he also found in his contemporary readings of Baader or Maistre, where the order of the visible world is merely an image of the deeper, invisible order of the kingdom of spirits.186 Maistre points out that “I have read millions of witticisms about the ignorance of the ancients who saw spirits everywhere: it seems to me that we are much more foolish in never seeing them anywhere.”187 He finds a remedy not in the return to Paganism, as with some of the early German Romantics, but in a Platonic interpretation of a saying from the Letter to Hebrews, which in the Vulgate reads: “we understand through faith that the world was prepared by the Word of God in such a way that the visible things might be made from the invisible ones” (Heb 11:3).188
In quite a similar vein, Gustaw says in Forefathers’ Eve, Part IV, protesting against the Priest’s rational, “enlightened” attempt to ban the ancient ritual of Forefathers’ Eve:
Unlike Baader, who avoids references to ancient and mediaeval sources, emphasising instead the modern theosophy of Böhme and Saint-Martin, Maistre is at pains to place his Platonism within a long metaphysical tradition. That is why he suggests that it is the angels who move the material world, and not dead, mechanical laws; in a footnote, he quotes St Thomas Aquinas: “Every moving thing [comes] from an unmoving principle”.190 In fact, this traditional belief that inside and behind all the things of this world there are not Pagan gods, but God’s angels, was summarised by Aquinas in a much more explicit way in his Summa Theologiae, where he says: “in this way, all corporeal things are governed [by God] through the angels; this position is held not only by the saintly Doctors, but also by all philosophers who have claimed that incorporeal substances exist.”191 This thought is depicted in detail in Dante’s Comedy, where the choirs of angels are assigned to move the heavenly spheres and, by virtue of that, govern the movement of all the universe, including the earth which is influenced by the stars.
For Mickiewicz, poetry is an expression of this experience of the kingdom of spirits through which God is present in Nature; moreover, it can lead readers to the very same experience:
A man who feels inspired, when he sees great marvels of Nature, when he sings a hymn to the sun, to the moon, to the trees, is pouring his own feelings into his audience or readers. His audience or readers, however, instead of going and admiring this sun, or looking at this moon and those trees which inspired the poet, rest content with rereading and admiring his work, or even adding commentaries to it.192
Poetry for the poet is thus not only an expression of his experience, but also a finger pointing at the spiritual world and God. For his readers it may become a path to the same experience, only if they will look where the finger is pointing, instead of contemplating the finger.
There is also another aspect of this experience for Mickiewicz. He says: “An inspired artist creates a divine form; he embodies a feeling that makes him alive. In turn, this form inspires his people”. The temptation arises when he masters his art and is able to create new forms, which are divorced from this metaphysical experience. “He doesn’t wait anymore for new inspiration, but creates gods and goddesses with his spirit cooled down.”193 The result is that his poems are in fact lifeless toys. Mickiewicz identifies this “divine form”, which is born out of true inspiration, to the beauty which is created when the Idea of Beauty is seen and remembered (according to Plato). In another lecture he calls it “an organic and unexplained life” of a poetic work and “this mysterious element, called, in academic language, the wonderful, which increases with the scope of the work. In small poems it shows itself as a breath from a higher realm, a vague memory or premonition of the supernatural world, while in an epic poem or drama it takes the visible form of a divine being.”194 Schelling, in his Erlangen lectures, identifies this sense of wonder with philosophical ‘ecstasy’, quoting Plato where he said that wonder is the beginning of philosophy.195
Whether poetry “embodies” a peculiar spiritual way of God’s presence in natural beings, or an eternal Idea and an invisible spirit in itself (as manifest to the poet in his inner vision), the result, for Mickiewicz, is that true art doesn’t imitate physical, sensible reality. This was also the basis of Schelling’s philosophy of art.196 It is not, as Socrates says in Plato’s Republic, a copy of a copy, twice removed from the true world of Ideas,197 but rather, as Plotinus claims, something parallel to Nature, in the sense that art imitates the invisible, eternal archetype, which is also imitated by natural phenomena, which are shadows of the invisible essences.198
Where, therefore, shall we find this archetype, this ideal of a masterpiece? This ideal exists only in the realm of spirits. Some ancient philosophers, like Pythagoras and Plato, knew that. All great artists have always felt that. Theorists of this day and age begin to have some clue about it. Art should embody the ideal in a visible form: it should make us feel and see the spirit of a person that is depicted, by liberating it from the earthly shell which enveils it, and restoring to it the shape that expresses its inner essence, the shape which he could and should have on the earth. In order to depict a spirit in its natural shape however, one has to see it first. Yes indeed, one needs to see it first! Art is, in a sense, the act of summoning ghosts. It is a mysterious and sacred activity.199
So strongly for Mickiewicz is poetry connected to the spiritual and divine dimension of reality, which he usually calls the supernatural, so metaphysical it is in its nature, that in his lectures at the Collège he tends towards the claim that the highest poetry created by humanity is the religious poetry born of prophetic inspiration, and, in particular, the sacred scriptures of various traditions. He says: “the greatest and the only true literary works are: Homer’s poems, The Song of the Nibelungs, Quran, and even the verses of the Gospels.”200 Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788) was even more radical in his claim of the religious nature of poetry, mockingly challenging his contemporaries to “try to read the Iliad after filtering out, with your abstractions, the two vowels
That is also why he praises Pushkin’s Prophet for the fact that the Russian bard used phrases taken from the Old Testament (“the Hebrew poets”) to speak about his experience of inspiration. The praise of the Psalms as the highest form of poetry, inspired by God and displaying astounding human poetic skill as well, can be found also in other critics of Enlightenment, such as Hamann or Joseph de Maistre.202 In fact, already Milton made that claim.203 Hamann laments the spirit of his age, unable “to renew the mission of the spirit which inspired God’s holy men (
Mickiewicz’s attitude towards sacred scriptures and religious poetry in general as a form of art is important to consider, not only because he imitated the Biblical style in his Books of the Polish Nation and in the last prose poems included in this anthology: he also alludes to the Bible through his metaphysical poems and his Forefathers’ Eve. In his last period of poetic evolution, Mickiewicz seems to treat religious sacred scriptures as a sort of Platonic ideal of poetry, or a standard measure of a literary work which is born of the experience of God and speaks about God and the way He manifests in creation.
Mickiewicz, however, was by no means primarily a religious poet. The present anthology results from this fact, in that it collects those of his lyrics which more or less explicitly speak about the world of the spirits and God. His cycle Ballad and Romances contains folk stories about ghosts; and Forefathers’ Eve is a spiritual, perhaps, even a religious play. But many of Mickiewicz’s poems seem to have nothing to do with God, angels, demons, spirits or anything religious or metaphysical. We already know this not to mean, according to his own views, that they are not born of true inspiration, which is always an experience of God in some sense. Yet if there is a metaphysical dimension in those poems, it is implicit, hidden, and mysterious, as may be the case with his Pan Tadeusz.209
2.2 What is Translation?
Now let us take a look at Mickiewicz as a translator of poetry.210 Already as a young man he engaged in translation and paraphrase. As a student of Classics he translated Horace, Ovid, and Pindar, and he frequently discusses those translations in his letters to some of his friends. Later, he works on the translations of Dante and Petrarch and, among his contemporaries, Schiller, Goethe, Byron, and Pushkin. Still later, when he becomes more interested in religious authors, he thinks of translating prose works: St Augustine’s Confessions, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and some other Church Fathers (none of which he ever managed to accomplish).
In the first phase of his evolution as a translator, Mickiewicz follows the classicist tradition. As Dokurno points out:
The imitation of great masters is a necessary school from which a poet has to graduate in his pursuit of artistic perfection. And Mickiewicz did so, since he began his poetic career with paraphrases and translations. The attitude of this poet-beginner to the matter accords with the contemporary view of classicists for whom paraphrases were on a par with original poetry. The most popular English classicist, Alexander Pope, became famous by virtue of his translations of Homer.211
However, Dokurno claims that Mickiewicz’s early period, during which translations dominated his oeuvre, over Mickiewicz’s own work, and in which he stuck to a single pattern in his translations, was over by 1818. As he became an original poet himself, he translated less, but in a more experimental manner, whilst continuing to choose the greatest poets as the basis for this kind of work.212 In translating Schiller (Der Handschuh, Licht und Wärme, Amalia) and Byron (Euthanasia, Dream, Darkness, the first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Giaour) Mickiewicz engaged in poetic paraphrases, strongly coloured by his own views and poetic ideas. Scholars differ in their assessment of the value of those poetic translations or paraphrases,213 but what seems to be universally agreed on is that for Mickiewicz his work as a translator served the purpose of developing and polishing his own poetic craftsmanship, and this was to serve his own poetic purposes.214
As a young poet he wrote in a letter to his friend, Józef Jeżowski: “This morning, when I was lying in my bed, I was translating a little poem by Schiller, which I attach to the letter. (…) Do write to me, whether you understood a beautiful thought of the author in this translation. If so, I would win a lot, because translating Schiller is extremely difficult.”215 It suggests that Mickiewicz was aware of the difficulties of translating poetry, but also that the most important thing for him was to enable the reader of his translation to understand “a beautiful thought of the author”. He was by no means an advocate of literal translation:216 in an earlier letter to Jan Czeczot he criticised any attempts to make a translation as close to the original as possible, and paraphrased what Jacques Delille wrote in the introduction to his translation of Vergil’s Georgics: “A translator borrows beauties; he should return them in the same amount, but in a different currency”.217 Whether this is a beautiful thought behind the poem, or other forms of beauty displayed in it (beautiful metaphors, style or a captivating story), Mickiewicz thinks that the essential thing is to create an equally beautiful translation. But, as is often pointed out, this is possible only for a poet of equal or almost equal talent to the author of the original work.
When it comes to various strategies of translation, it seems that already in his early phase, Mickiewicz may have relied on French prose translations of Byron by Pichot (as Pushkin did all his life), before he became sufficiently acquainted with the English language to read these works in the original.218 When he was in Weimar in the summer 1829 with his friend Antoni Edward Odyniec, a French sculptor and medalist, Pierre-Jean David d’Angers wanted to make a medallion and a bust of Mickiewicz. David asked Mickiewicz to recite some of his poems in a French translation. The Polish poet chose his poem Farys, in which he depicted a Polish nobleman, Wacław Rzewuski, who travelled throughout the Middle East and was granted the title of emir by the Arabs. According to Odyniec, Mickiewicz “translated in a strangely smooth and fluent way, even with a kind of rhythm”.219
Here we also have a case of prose translation and an improvised one. It is hardly possible that Mickiewicz who never felt entirely comfortable with French, even after years of lecturing in Lausanne and at the Collège de France, was able or willing to render every detail of his exquisite poetic language and imagery in an improvised French translation of the sort that might have been witnessed here. It seems that, again, he was trying to convey to the French artist some of the beauty of his poem. Mickiewicz also saw and accepted the translations of his own poetry into the Western European languages in the 1830s. Some of those translations were in prose, some in verse.
In the 1830s Mickiewicz’s interests became much more metaphysical and mystical. This is clearly reflected in his attitude to translation. He worked on his Sentences and Remarks, a poetic cycle consisting of spiritual epigrams which, as the title declares, were based on quotations from spiritual authors he was reading at the time: Böhme, Saint-Martin, Angelus Silesius (some of them also bear a note “from Baader”). As Andrzej Lam has demonstrated, several of those epigrams are in fact poetic translations of Angelus Silesius’ couplets, featured in a monumental six-volume cycle The Cherubinic Wanderer.220 It is almost impossible to identify other epigrams that might have been inspired by the material collected within the enormous volumes of Böhme, Saint-Martin or von Baader, even if we ignore that Saint-Martin translated Böhme, or that Baader wrote commentaries on both: a given thought or sentiment could often be easily attributed to any one of these three.
Also, what Mickiewicz was trying to do here was not to give what we would call a faithful literary translation, but rather to express thoughts he experienced as spiritually nourishing in a poetic form that he found in Angelus Silesius. Böhme, Saint-Martin, and Baader were not poets, but theosophists or philosophers, so Mickiewicz “translated” the “beautiful thoughts” of their prose into metrically rigorous, rhymed poetry. When the poetry in which Mickiewicz became interested was more metaphysical and religious, it seems that the spiritual or philosophical content became more important, in addition to the beauty of the literary form.
Is it the same with his translations of religious, devotional poetry? In the 1830s Mickiewicz translated the Latin hymn, Veni Creator (ascribed to the ninth-century poet Rabanus Maurus) for a devotional booklet. The translation is strikingly “unpoetic”, without metre or rhyme. It looks like an exercise in Latin translation rather than poetry. In fact, Mickiewicz suggested that his friend Stefan Witwicki (who commissioned the translation) work further on it; Witwicki published it as a prose translation, without any division into stanzas. The only moment this strategy of literal translation (which Mickiewicz so strongly condemns in his 1819 letter to Czeczot) really breaks down is the last stanza, containing the ‘doxology’, where Mickiewicz adds two lines which are not in the Latin original at all and have little to do with the mediaeval intellectual and spiritual world of this hymn.221 Why Mickiewicz decided to produce such a radically philological translation of the Latin hymn rather than demonstrating his usual effortless brilliance in producing a more congenial rhymed poem? Or simply a prose translation?
It seems that we can find hints in his lectures given at Lausanne and then in Paris. Mickiewicz speaks about his understanding of Veni Creator, five years after he translated it, in the lecture he delivered at the Lausanne Academy. In talking about Prudentius, a Latin poet living in the fourth century, he begins by saying: “Goethe admired above all the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. He composed a small commentary to this text. He used to say that an artist should begin his day by meditating on one of the verses of that song; he used to call it ‘the Lord’s Prayer’ of art.”222 Here Mickiewicz finds in Goethe the same attitude that he expresses in such detail in his Paris lectures. True poetry is prayer. It shouldn’t be read, but meditated on, internalised, experienced. What about: translated?
Mickiewicz continues: “But those hymns [including Te Deum laudamus, which he mentions earlier] are too august for anyone to dare to subject them to a scalpel of purely literary criticism. Let us move to another school, where we will feel more free. We will find ourselves among poets, philosophers, and orators.” So there are poems which are “too august” to be the subject of university lectures or literary criticism. And Mickiewicz, identifies two mediaeval hymns as such poems, just as he will later say that the only great poetry is Homer, along with the Song of the Nibelungs, the Quran, and the Gospels. If he considers Veni Creator to be a poem so charged with the divine presence that he would desecrate it by dissecting it with “the scalpel of purely literary criticism”, perhaps the translation of such an extraordinary poem requires extraordinary means as well?
Over the course of the lecture, Mickiewicz is satisfied to leave Te Deum and Veni Creator and “move to another school”, that is, “poets, philosophers, and orators.” He does something that he will do a few times at the Collège de France as well: he draws distinctions between kinds of poetry (and other spiritual activities), according to their relationship to the experience of inspiration. For example: Hegel and Schelling are two competing philosophers, but the first is a fake philosopher, while the second is, to some extent, inspired. Pushkin’s Prophet is true poetry, because for a couple of days its author saw the eternal Truth; but his The Poet and the Crowd only aspires to the condition of a prayer; while his Onegin is, apparently, unequalled, but may be, in some radical, fundamental sense, the uninspired poetry of a morally fallen genius. Here Mickiewicz descends from the heights of Veni Creator to Prudentius, whom he then praises in very high terms indeed: “In order to create Christian art there had to be a poet who would combine the holy inspiration of a confessor with a philologist’s learning. This fame belongs to Prudentius Clemens, a poet of the fourth century AD.”223 Prudentius, in Mickiewicz’s view, is both skilled and inspired, because he is a Christian poet and his Carmina are religious poetry in the deepest sense of the word.
A year later, during the first course of his lectures at the Collège, Mickiewicz spoke about Polish folk devotional songs in terms similar to the way he discussed Latin hymns such as Te Deum or Veni Creator. In referring to those religious songs, used by the Polish people during various liturgical periods and feasts (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter) he says: “I regret that I can give you nothing of those poems in translation, because they cannot be translated by their very nature.” And he continues:
The feelings which are expressed in them, maternal feelings, or the feelings of a zealous devotion of the Blessed Virgin to the Divine Child, are so tender and holy that a prose translation would render them vulgar. It is hard to find in any other kind of poetry expressions so pure, so sweet and delicate. Although, to be honest, those simple poets sometimes allowed themselves to use common expressions, to the effect that people, incapable of appreciating them, occasionally mocked those songs.224
Here Mickiewicz is convinced that in some cases prose translations are forbidden, because they don’t fit the peculiar quality of the “feeling” that is expressed in a poem; but again, he is focused on the essence of the poem rather than its external, verbal form. He seems to follow the old Stoic idea of the “inner word” (gr. logos endiathetos) and the “expressed word” (gr. logos prophorikos), eagerly adopted by Plotinus and the Church Fathers for their purposes.
However, the form chosen by the Polish folk poets seems to Mickiewicz perfect and difficult to reproduce in another language. He wonders whether anything in world literature can be compared to the sublimity of those devotional songs and gives examples of some unidentified “Italian songs”, of Novalis’ poems (referring to his Geistliche Lieder or Spiritual songs, published posthumously in 1802) and of some of Victor Hugo’s poems, like the one in which a sleeping child talks to an angel.225 This is a poem beginning with Dans l’alcôve sombre; this poem is characterised by very short verses and a simple, song-like rhythm. Mickiewicz adds an important remark that this poem is “better composed, in every way more highly accomplished from an artistic point of view” (inspired poetry and poetry artistically perfect may coincide, but they are not always identical). This is also why he gives an example of Novalis’ Spiritual Songs and not his profoundly mystical and metaphysical Hymns to the Night, in either a verse or a prose version; Spiritual Songs are fashioned to resemble simple devotional poetry and appear to lack the philosophical depth of the Hymns.
Mickiewicz claims about the Polish devotional songs what he has said about Veni Creator in his last Lausanne lecture, namely: “There are hymns among those songs, which could be considered as the finest in our national poetry, but they are completely ignored by theorists. Their genre, by virtue of its sublimity, escapes all literary criticism.” Again, this is something which not only translation, but also scholarly analysis can only spoil and drag down from Heaven to the earth. However, it does nothing to stop Mickiewicz from commenting on a given poem (unlike in the case of Te Deum and Veni Creator, where he simply chose to remain silent). And he has something to say, curiously, on their literary form: “In those stanzas, the poet obeys no metre; he abandons rhyme as something too closely linked to epigrams and too trivial. He composes his verses according to internal rhythm, a rhythm of sublime music and rhymes turn into assonances. Undoubtedly, it is very hard to grasp the rules of such poetry.”226
At this point he quotes a song in which Christ and his Mother talk to each other, pointing out that even Dante himself wouldn’t dare to write something like that. Mickiewicz says that he wishes he could read this poem in Polish. As it happens, he speaks about a further part of a long Easter devotional song Wesoły nam dzień dziś nastał, which probably originated in the late sixteenth or the early seventeenth century. This song is still in use today in Poland, being traditionally sung during a procession after the “resurrection mass” (“rezurekcja”), which is the early morning Easter liturgy. He earlier said that to translate the poem into prose would render it vulgar, but now he suddenly decides to do it, because “if someone tried to translate those verses into a modern poem, with rhymes, he would destroy all of its elevated and sublime character.” The need to convey the meaning, the “beautiful thought” or the sublime feelings expressed in the poem is greater even than a possibility of cheapening the poem and desecrating it.
When we read the poem in Polish, what immediately strikes us is the simplicity, naivety, and naturalness of it. It is not “poetic” at all. Factual statements: “Christ the Lord has risen”, “showed himself to those who loved him”, “he comforted his Mother, having saluted her” and suchlike alternate with indeed tender, delicate expressions of the mutual love by Christ and Mary. Mickiewicz’s brief commentary on the poem ends with another strange remark: “I summarised [raconter in the French edition]227 for you only a couple of verses, which could perhaps be translated well into Latin, but which a modern language could only disfigure.” Here we return, symbolically, to Veni Creator. Mickiewicz suddenly decides that modernity is the problem – the evolution of language into something unable to express what could be expressed in a Slavic language of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and which could be expressed in Latin – presumably because this is a sacred language of the Church.228
In light of all this it seems that Mickiewicz decided to translate Veni Creator without any metre or rhyme into Polish, because it could somehow trivialise or cheapen the hymn. But all this remains a matter of conjecture, whether his peculiar rendering of this poem is a means of “summarising it” (“raconter”, as with his prose translation of a few stanzas of Wesoły nam dzień dziś nastał at the Collège de France a couple of years later) or of trying to convey at least some of the sublime thoughts and feelings of that poem.
Even though Mickiewicz always recognised the translation of poetry of any kind to be difficult, and despite the fact that towards the end of his career he seemed increasingly preoccupied by the idea of inspiration and its metaphysical and religious meaning, he did not in fact seem to believe that translations, even bad ones, could prevent readers from experiencing the essential beauty or wisdom of poetry which they could not read in the original. As Donald Davie observes in his essay on translating Pan Tadeusz, the common experience of humanity is reading translations.229 A great many people read Homer, Dante or Goethe without an ounce of ancient Greek, mediaeval Tuscan dialect or eighteenth-century German. Davie even moves towards claiming that prose translations of poetry might in some cases be better than verse translations. However, the main point seems to be that great poetry shines through its translations.
A similar case might be made about metaphysical or mystical writings (especially, since for Mickiewicz true poetry is a mystical poetry). Henri Bergson wrote:
It is not by chance, then, it is by reason of its very essence that true mysticism is exceptional. But when it does call, there is in the innermost being of most men the whisper of an echo. Mysticism reveals, or rather would reveal to us, if we actually willed it, a marvellous prospect: we do not, and in most cases we could not, will it; we should collapse under the strain.230
He meant that, while we are reading a description of mystical experience, it is quite likely that something of it will be conveyed to us regardless of language, since the majority of mystics that Bergson talks about in his work didn’t speak or write in French. He quotes William James who “used to say he had never experienced mystic states; but he added that if he heard them spoken of by a man who had experienced them ‘something within him echoed the call’.”231
In his lectures at the Collège, as we have seen, Mickiewicz is convinced that true poetry is akin to inspired philosophy and to religion. And we can assume that he was forming this conviction on the basis of his spiritual and poetic experiences in the 1830s. In this view, Mickiewicz may come surprisingly close to Aristotle (whom he associated with the fake philosophy of “scholasticism”), who said in his Poetics:
The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse – indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history, whether written in metre or not. The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.232
Of course, the difference is that for Mickiewicz poetry is a much higher activity than it was for Aristotle. As for Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, poetry is for Mickiewicz an experience of the spiritual and the divine, such that both poetry and philosophy, if they are inspired, express the same Truth, but in different ways. Otherwise, they become a mere exercise of human faculties, of linguistic skill (in the case of poetry) or the capacity for conceptual discourse (in the case of philosophy). And Mickiewicz had much better things to say about uninspired poetry than uninspired philosophy (if we compare the cases of Pushkin and Hegel). What he says in his Paris lectures about contemporary Polish poetry seemingly applies as well to his own work (perhaps he is in fact primarily discussing his own poetry, even though he never says a word about his own work at the Collège de France):
That is why, just like ancient Latin and Greek poetry, Polish poetry, whose history moves in a direction contrary to that of the poetry of other modern nations, contains in its works, as we have already noticed, the seeds of higher philosophy. That is why it gives its hand to philosophy, so that they may walk together, hand in hand. Thus in order to understand this poetry, we will often have to discuss philosophical issues.233
He does not go as far as the famous claim of Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829): “Romantic poetry is a progressive, universal poetry. Its aim isn’t merely to reunite all the separate species of poetry and put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric.”234 Together with his friend Novalis, Schlegel postulated blending poetry with all disciplines and sciences. But what Mickiewicz certainly has in common with those figures of the German Frühromantik, is his belief of the deep kinship between poetry, philosophy, and religion. Schlegel, again, put it concisely, saying: “The poetizing philosopher, the philosophizing poet, is a prophet.”235 And also: “Poetry and philosophy are, depending on one’s point of view, different spheres, different forms, or simply the component parts of religion. For only try really to combine the two and you will find yourself with nothing but religion.”236
It would be counterproductive to try to draw any clear conclusions from all Mickiewicz’s confrontations with the problems of translating inspired poetry, which is intertwined with philosophy and religion. At times he suggests that precise wording is not the most important element, that the thought or feeling behind the poem is crucial. At other times, he pays special attention to minute details not only of linguistic expression, but of the musical aspect of poetry, saying that if those cannot be translated, it might be best not to translate at all. But he does translate, after all. Sometimes, he says that prose makes poetry sound vulgar, but, at the same time, practises prose translation himself. He claims that we should avoid even distant associations with epigrams, when dealing with sublime religious poetry, despite having published himself a book of spiritual epigrams, based on the mystics he believed were the most inspired in modern times.
All of this should be considered against the background of his deep conviction and experience that poetry is really not about words at all – or images, or sounds, for that matter; instead, poetry is first about having a direct, intuitive, contemplative experience of supernatural reality; second, expressing this experience through the means of poetry (being aware that other means are available as well, including philosophy, political action or simply “living a day well”);237 and third, about helping others (readers) to use this inspired expression to attain the same spiritual experience. An unfortunate but likely conclusion is that strategies of translation (including the choice of genre, form, metre, rhyme, style, words and other literary devices) are secondary with regard to the primary objective of reaching inspiration and revelation. Mickiewicz would also agree with Hamann who said: “To speak is to translate – from an angelic language into a human language, that is, to translate thoughts into words, – things into names – images into signs, which can be poetic or curiological, historic or symbolic or hieroglyphic – and philosophical or characteristic.”238
2.3 The Approach to Translation in this Anthology
Luckily, however, Mickiewicz seems not to have followed his own ideals entirely, since, as we could see, he believed that it is better to translate the untranslatable than not to translate it at all, and it is better to say something about a beautiful and sublime poem than to remain completely silent. Mickiewicz’s views on the nature of poetry and translation should be seen, it seems, as guiding principles, as an (almost always?) asymptotic ideal, which translators should bear in mind, while trying their best. He welcomed translations of his own poems into Russian, French, and German. He accepted the tension between the heavenly ideal and the earthly, “fallen” practice.
In our approach to Mickiewicz’s metaphysical poems, we have decided to focus on their metaphysical, mystical and religious content as their primary feature. In some poems in this collection other aspects become equally important, or even more so (as in the Lausanne lyrics); all the same, the main framework for this translation is the idea of philosophical poetry or poetry, which walks hand in hand with philosophy: both need to be inspired from above, if they are to enjoy any relationship with the Truth. As Aleksander Chodźko wrote in the preface to the Paris edition of Mickiewicz’s collected works: “The highest poetry is the highest truth: both flow from the same source, from inspiration”.239 This is why we decided to use metre, but not rhyme, in order to render the metaphysical and religious content of those poems (the “beautiful thoughts”) as close to the original as possible.
Another problem involves how the metaphysical content of those poems might be expressed. The Christian Platonic tradition, within which we may count Mickiewicz as a thinker, follows Plato in believing that there are two ways of expressing the Truth which can be grasped in contemplation: logos (conceptual discourse) and muthos (a pictorial story). Scholars are still debating whether Plato recounted his exquisite myths (for example, the story of the cave at the beginning of the seventh book of the Republic; the image of the chariot of the soul in the Phaedrus, and its cosmic journey; or the travels into the other world in the Gorgias, Phaedo or Republic) in order to reach out to those who are incapable of rational thought, or else because he believed that those myths express certain things better than concepts and logical arguments. Perhaps he thought of them as equal strategies of expression.240 Plotinus seems to have been inclined to a belief that images convey the spiritual truth better than conceptual discourse.241 As Johann Georg Hamann observed: “Poetry is the mother-tongue of the human race, as the garden is older than the ploughed field; painting, than writing; song, than declamation; parables, than logical deduction; barter, than commerce. (…) All the wealth of human knowledge and happiness consists in images.”242
There are different types of metaphysicians: some are more poetic and imaginary; others are more conceptual and discursive. We would seek in vain for poetry in the magnificent system of Proclus, but a Christian adaptation of this system may be seen in one of the most original and innovative forms of philosophical writing, the exquisitely beautiful, spiritually entrancing work of the Pseudo-Areopagite. St Thomas Aquinas’ conceptual and logical clarity in his Summa Theologiae is overwhelming, but he was also a very good poet, as his eucharistic hymns show. St Augustine’s Confessions are an experiment in philosophical writing which is one of a kind – as inspired and as innovative as the Pseudo-Areopagite’s writings in adapting Plotinus to the needs of a Christian philosopher. The question continues to haunt Western metaphysics and its professional commentators: what is more accurate, a definition or a metaphor? Some Plotinian scholars lamented the popularity of the metaphor of “emanation” or “flowing” of created reality out of the Good, because it can be philosophically misleading.243 Indeed, it can, but even Aquinas could not restrain himself from asserting that creatures have flown from God; not to mention Böhme or Mickiewicz who were clearly as enamoured with this traditional image as the Pseudo-Areopagite. If we apply the distinction into logos and muthos, defined as concept and image, to Mickiewicz’s metaphysical poetry, it may be helpful to a certain degree, because, being both a Classicist and a Romantic, he sometimes prefers to use philosophical terms or even arguments, while at other times he gives his readers complex, intricate metaphors or similes.
This is, perhaps, what it means that philosophy and poetry walk hand in hand in Mickiewicz’s metaphysical poems. We have cautiously tried to translate words or terms which have philosophical significance in the Western tradition, being aware that Mickiewicz may have chosen these terms to express his meaning and to allude to the enormous literature that he was familiar with. In the commentaries, we try to explain some of the choices or point out the difficulties in translating those philosophical terms or expressions. On the other hand, we also try to reproduce what might be called philosophical metaphors or similes, with the intention of conveying their metaphysical meaning rather than other aspects. Here as well we try to comment on how those often-complex images might be understood, and what those interpretations imply for the understanding of Mickiewicz’s thought.
Since Mickiewicz himself says that philosophical poetry requires some kind of philosophical explanation or contextualization, we have tried to provide this in the commentaries, primarily to elucidate the use of certain expressions or images and to explain our decisions. It seems that we may apply to Mickiewicz’s poetry what he said about Prudentius:
However, a Christian poet doesn’t satisfy himself with sketching an image, describing a morning or evening, but he strives to penetrate deeper into Nature. He strives to grasp a moral sense of every natural phenomenon. According to his system, the material world is merely a reflection of the moral world, which, in turn, is a reflection of the supernatural world.244
This brief remark demonstrates that Mickiewicz knew the traditional doctrine of the three levels of meaning found in the Scripture (literal, moral, and allegorical) that was developed by Origen and standardised in the Middle Ages. Mickiewicz knows that according to this traditional viewpoint, not only the Book of Scripture, but the Book of Nature is to be read in such a way. It seems that his own poetry was also written in the same fashion, woven out of layers of meaning – at least sometimes.
The commentaries provide a more detailed context than this Introductory Study, hinting at the layers of meaning and showing further possibilities of interpretation. We refrain from suggesting that Mickiewicz read or even heard of every author that is referred to in the commentaries; instead we want to show that he was generally familiar with the great tradition of the Western metaphysics and mysticism, and that he was, in many ways, a product of it, even if he emphatically rejected Enlightenment scientism, materialism, empiricism or speculative rationalism, believing that we need to reconnect with the spiritual sources of the West, often by means of those few who (like Böhme, Angelus Silesius, Saint-Martin, Maistre, Jacobi or von Baader) remained, according to Mickiewicz, faithful to that tradition and to the divine inspiration which it assumes.
When it comes to the question of language and style, it has been pointed out, mostly by the Polish authors, how impossible to imitate or translate Mickiewicz’s diction is. Jan Lechoń, a twentieth-century Polish poet, wrote about the power of his poetry which
converted aesthetic experience and poetic rapture into a vital event equal to the intoxication of love. No one equaled Mickiewicz in that genius for simplicity which conceals evangelical depths and the experiences of humanity’s aeons beneath ordinary words accessible to every child. (…) No one expressed himself with such intellectual power, which exerted, as it were, a magnetic force upon those who read or heard his poetry.245
Czesław Miłosz repeated what T.S. Eliot said about the author of the Comedy (“the language of Dante is the perfection of a common language”)246 and added: “The style of Mickiewicz is manly and simple. He knew how to use conventional phrasing and, without straying beyond its limits, how to transform it into something completely new. (…) Through a slight retouching of words, a genuine poet is able to invest a commonplace sentence with charm.”247 Zakrzewski, in the introduction to his translation of the Crimean Sonnets, drew attention to three important elements of Mickiewicz’s style. First, its simplicity or, as he puts it, ‘purity’:
The hallmark of Mickiewicz’s poetic art is the stark purity of his language. It is in many ways the culmination of the Neo-Classical ideal of “simplicité avec l’art” – the art of producing profound poetic statement under the guise of simplicity and ease. It is, what’s more, a simplicity that has from the very beginning been susceptible to much misunderstanding – a misunderstanding that prompted even Mickiewicz’s great contemporary, Juliusz Słowacki, to temper his high praise of Pan Tadeusz with comments about its “swinishness” (wieprzowatość).248
Another feature of Mickiewicz’s style is its ‘density’ (the term, ‘jędrność’, borrowed from a Polish 19th century novelist, Bolesław Prus):
one encounters in Mickiewicz entire passages where individual words, the discrete vehicles of metaphorical expression, rarely draw attention to themselves. To catch the magic of his words one must look to the whole, indivisible statement. It is here where his seamless garment is seen to be even more tightly woven than Pushkin’s, where individual words, by virtue of their sheer felicity, often sparkle with stunning effect.249
Finally, as Zakrzewski points out,
Mickiewicz’s simplicity is great simplicity because it blurs the conventional distinctions between the “form” and “content”, the “idea” and “style” of a poem. It constitutes an ideal dynamic fusion, a mutual straining of elements in which the form becomes the content and the content becomes the form. Along with his sublime metaphorical flights and unerring sense of the innate strength of the word, Mickiewicz achieves effects that close the gap between poetry and prose in an incomparable generic synthesis.250
This “ideal dynamic fusion” or “synthesis” of content and form, of prose and poetry, is certainly the greatest challenge for a translator and we cannot claim to have succeeded in our work. Rather, we have tried to follow the internal logic of Mickiewicz’s metaphors and images, arguments and conceptual choices; but whether this “ideal dynamic fusion” and “synthesis” has been achieved anywhere in our versions of his poems is obviously left to the reader to judge. We hope that those who just want to enjoy those poems will find them beautiful and moving, not because the translation is beautiful, but because the original is so; we hope that this light may shine through the English version, with all its limitations. We have avoided archaisms as far as possible and used contemporary English, even though, of course, Mickiewicz’s language sounds to contemporary Poles more or less archaic, despite being itself surprisingly contemporary when compared to the expression of other poets of his time.
Our attempt to allow priority to the intellectual and spiritual content of those poems over their stylistic and linguistic dimension is also due to the fact that we have in mind a reader, who wants to familiarise himself with the intellectual stature of Mickiewicz as a European Romantic. Those with at least some Polish will use the translation to understand the original: in most cases they will be able to follow the thought and syntax of the Polish poem alongside its English version. We hope that scholars who are unable to read Polish, but are interested in studying the metaphysics and mysticism of Mickiewicz’s poems, will find themselves enabled to study his thought on the basis of these translations, and compare it to that of his other great contemporaries who were also interested in metaphysics and mysticism, including Coleridge, Novalis and Hölderlin.
2.4 Mickiewicz in Translation: a Brief History
The works of this Polish poet were translated even in his lifetime. Most of them appeared in France,251 where Konrad Wallenrod was published in 1830; in the same year, a collection of poems also including this narrative poem (Konrad Wallenrod, récit historique tiré des annales de Lithuanie et de Prusse. Le faris. Sonnets de Crimée, 1830) was printed. French readers could also read Le Livre des Pèlerins polonais (1833), his dramatic masterpiece Forefathers’ Eve (Dziady, ou La fête des morts, poème traduit du polonais, 1834) as well as a prose translation of Pan Tadeusz (1834). Also, a complete edition of his poetry was available (Oeuvres poétiques complètes d’A. Mickiewicz, 1841, with further editions in 1845, 1848, 1859). When he came to Paris in 1832, Mickiewicz was able to make the acquaintance of many of the important figures of the French literary world. His Books of the Polish Nation, translated by Charles de Montalembert, had a great impact on French Catholic intellectuals, such as Montalembert and Lamennais. Its enormous (if brief) success was associated with the compassion of the French public for the suffering of the Poles in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the November Uprising in 1831.
Mickiewicz met Victor Hugo, who expressed his love for the Books of the Polish Nation and for Poland, but was not particularly interested in Mickiewicz himself; the poet was taken aback by Hugo’s vanity and the circle of his worshippers. He knew Honoré de Balzac, but during one evening Mickiewicz said, when the novelist was present at the dinner table, that there would be nothing to regret if two-thirds of modern literature were burned. He found a much more congenial spirit in Alfred de Vigny, whom he asked to read a drama Mickiewicz wrote in French (Les Confédérés de Bar), on the Polish insurrection preceding the First Partition in 1772, in order to help bring the text to the stage. Later, during his professorship at the Collège, Mickiewicz became close friends with the historians Edgar Quinet and Jules Michelet, who also taught there, and were also dismissed from their chairs after Mickiewicz was fired in 1844 (in 1846 and 1848, respectively).
Mickiewicz’s greatest admirer among the French literary élite was George Sand, whom he met in 1836, shortly before the beginning of her relationship with Chopin. She was fascinated by his Forefathers’ Eve; in her criticism she compared it to Goethe’s Faust and Byron’s Manfred. Sand was drawn to the metaphysical and religious dimension of those plays, of which she believed Forefathers’ Eve to be the most exemplary, and to the quality she called “the fantastic”. In a piece she wrote about it and which appeared only in 1839, when Mickiewicz was lecturing in Lausanne, she said about his masterpiece: “Those paintings are such as Byron, Goethe, and Dante could not have drawn.”252 In her Journal intime she wrote: “Mickiewicz is the only great ecstatic I know … he is touched by that grand intellectual disease that makes him akin to the famous ascetics, to Socrates, to Jesus, to St John, Dante, and Jeanne d’Arc.”253
In Germany,254 Mickiewicz’s poems were translated as early as 1824 (with Gedichte and Herr Thaddaeus appearing in 1836 and his Paris lectures in 1843–1845). When he visited Weimar in the summer of 1829 with his friend, Antoni Edward Odyniec, they were both invited to join the celebration of the eightieth birthday of Goethe on the 28th of August. Mickiewicz was warmly received, even though Goethe had not read any of his poems. Goethe arranged Mickiewicz’s portrait by his friend, Johann Schmeller, and a medallion and bust by David d’Angers, who became the poet’s friend as a result of their meeting in Weimar. The meeting with Goethe certainly helped Mickiewicz’s career in Germany. During his brief stay in Germany, he managed to visit August Wilhelm Schlegel in Bonn, where Schlegel was a professor, at this period of his life immersed in Oriental studies. On his way back, Mickiewicz encountered David d’Angers, who told him that Goethe said to him of Mickiewicz: “One can see that he is a man of genius.”255 In the nineteenth century Germany Mickiewicz’s name regularly appeared in collections of “world literature” (Bildersall der Weltliterature, Allgemeine Geschichte der Weltliteratur etc.).
In Russia,256 his poetry was known from the very beginning of his career, if we count a fragment of his ballad The Lilies (Lilije) that was translated by his friend, a Decembrist and a poet, Kondraty Ryleev.257 He was widely read by the Russian poets both in his time and after his death, and he influenced Russian poetry in ways he never influenced Western European literature.
In Italy, the underground translation of his Books of the Polish Nation, rendered from the French edition, fascinated the great social and political activist Giuseppe Mazzini, who even produced a prose translation of Mickiewicz’s poem To a Polish Mother (Do matki Polki) for his own mother.258 Mazzini found Mickiewicz’ metaphysical and religious patriotism congenial; when he arrived in London in 1837, having being earlier arrested in Switzerland and in France, he wrote a piece on Mickiewicz for The Polish Magazine (no. 2, 1838). The article is entitled Literature and Education and was published anonymously, but beyond doubt its author was Mazzini. He writes that “Mickiewicz is more than a poet: he is a prophet, like the great poets of Israel” and adds that “Mickiewicz had become the Christian poet and the Polish one, of his time.”259 The issue of The Polish Magazine contained also some English translations of Mickiewicz: a prose translation of Konrad’s Improvisation from Forefathers’ Eve, Part III, a free-verse translation of Farys, and one of the Crimean sonnets (The Grave of the Countess Potocka). Although Mazzini criticised Mickiewicz for being too Catholic (Mazzini himself was strongly anticlerical, but deeply religious, on account of which he was later considered a “reactionary” by Karl Marx), he always believed that Mickiewicz was the greatest European poet, even if he appreciated his poetry itself less than his messianistic worldview and thought.
Mazzini’s praise for Mickiewicz helped him little in Great Britain. His Books of the Polish Nation appeared in 1833 and were immediately criticised by a literary magazine Athenaeum as “a mere parody on Scripture, and not likely to suit the taste of a British public”.260 At the same time, Henry Reeve, an English journalist, who was a friend of Zygmunt Krasiński, published a piece on Mickiewicz in December Metropolitan in 1831. Two of Mickiewicz’s poems were translated by George Borrow and published in 1835 (The Renegade and The Three Sons of Budrys). Konrad Wallenrod was published in a prose version and in a verse rendering in the same year 1841.
In America some translations were made in the second half of the nineteenth century, but, as Francis Whitfield writes, “the translators and critics who strove to acquaint the American public with Mickiewicz’s poetry were too much on the peripheries of literary life and, it must be admitted, their work was in general too unskilled to impress the poet’s name on their countrymen.”261 In Paris in February 1847 Mickiewicz met Margaret Fuller, an American feminist writer who was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and helped him publish his journal, The Dial. Earlier, she had sent Mickiewicz a volume of Emerson’s poetry in a packet with a letter asking him to come and see her. They became close friends. Fuller tried to interest Emerson in Mickiewicz, but to no avail. On the other hand, Mickiewicz found in Emerson a kindred spirit, calling him an “American Socrates” in his Paris lectures, and translated some of his essays into Polish. In any case, a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York on 19th July 1850 permanently ended that friendship, as well as any further possibility that Fuller might help promote Mickiewicz’s works in America: Fuller’s body was never found; nor was that of her husband; their child’s body later washed ashore.
Mickiewicz was never appreciated in Britain or America as he was in Russia or France, or even Germany. As Rose writes:
The odds were, indeed, against any major enthusiasm for a Polish poet among British intellectuals, and for at least three reasons: (i) the concern of the public with its own grim problems during the generation following Waterloo (and Peterloo!), and its inherent skepticism in regard to the utopian socialism prevailing on the Continent; (ii) the lingering antagonism toward France and her allies; (iii) the fact that Mickiewicz came from the Slav world, about which people knew nothing and cared little, and that by confession he was a Roman Catholic.262
Mickiewicz clearly could leave a profound impression in person; and his poetry and prose could have an even greater impact on readers who were interested in metaphysical, religious or existential themes, be it personal or national. Even though he was considered a man of genius by Goethe, even though Mazzini proclaimed him to be the greatest European poet and a true Christian prophet of his time, even though Pushkin believed that he was “inspired from above” and George Sand claimed that he was to be ranked with Goethe, Byron, and Dante, Mickiewicz is still far less appreciated outside of Poland than he deserves. In the second half of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century there were increasing attempts to translate Mickiewicz’s poems into English, but this did not change the situation very much, according to Charles Zakrzewski: “Adam Mickiewicz, the Byron, Goethe and Pushkin of Poland, remains an anomalously obscure figure to the English-speaking world. To this day his nimbus outside of the Slavic world rarely transcends the confines of the academic lecture hall and the serious poet’s private study.”263
Even though Mickiewicz has so far failed to become as popular as (say) Pushkin in the English-speaking world, some of his works are available in English, sometimes in more than one version, and both in verse and in prose. Many of the poems included in this anthology were earlier translated and published in journals or collections: we indicate all previous translations that we were able to find in the commentaries. But some of those poems are published for the first time in English. In any case, the nature of this anthology is to present the reader with a coherent selection of Mickiewicz’s metaphysical lyric poems, since, as we argue, they form an intellectual and spiritual whole. Such an anthology has hitherto never been published in Polish, or any other language.
T.S. Eliot, The Metaphysical Poets, in: Selected Essays, London 1932.
See S. Barańczak, Wstęp, in: Antologia angielskiej poezji metafizycznej XVII stulecia, wybór, przekład i wstęp S. Barańczak, Kraków 2009 (3rd edition), pp. 5–29. Barańczak in his discussion refers, among others, to T.S. Eliot, Helen Gardner (especially her Introduction to The Metaphysical poets, London 1961), F.R. Leavis (Revolution: Tradition and Development in English Poetry, London 1936), and Ch. M. Coffin (John Donne and the New Philosophy, London 1958).
G. Bataille, Inner Experience, tr. L.A. Boldt, New York 1988, p. 3.
W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, London – New York 2002, p. 295.
See H. Reiner, “Die Entstehung und ursprüngliche Bedeutung des Namens Metaphysik,” Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 8, 2 (1954), pp. 210–237; A.-H. Chroust, “The Origin of ‘Metaphysics’”, The Review of Metaphysics 14, 4 (1961), pp. 601–616; T. Ando, Metaphysics: a Critical Survey of Its Meaning, The Hague 1963, pp. 3–6. The first author who uses Ta Meta Ta Physika as a title of Aristotle’s work is Nicolaus of Damascus (1st century BC), while the great Peripatetic commentators such as Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century AD) and Themistios (4th century AD) explicitly wrote that metaphysics as a discipline refers to what comes after physics, not in an editorial or bibliographical sense, but because it is through the sensible world that a human being can reach eternal and immutable reality, which comes ‘later’ in the order of human knowledge. On the other hand, they pointed out that in the objective, ontological order, the ‘metaphysical’ world is primary, while the physical world is logically posterior, because it derives from and depends on it.
We use contemporary Lithuanian names for the two main cities of Mickiewicz’s youth: Wilno (Vilnius) and Kowno (Kaunas).
On Classics in Vilnius and Groddeck, see the recent work of Maciej Junkiert (Nowi Grecy. Historyzm polskich romantyków wobec narodzin “Altertumswissenschaft”, Poznań 2017, pp. 99–157).
See T. Sinko, Mickiewicz i antyk, Wrocław 1957, pp. 267–269, 381–383, 500–502.
Sinko, Mickiewicz i antyk, p. 87–90.
In his lectures delivered in 1840–1844 at the Collège de France, Mickiewicz mentions, in various contexts, Origen and Clement of Alexandria (Course I, Lecture XL, in: A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła. Wydanie Rocznicowe, t. VIII: Literatura słowiańska. Kurs pierwszy, Warszawa 1997, p. 570; Course II, Lecture XX, in: A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła. Wydanie Rocznicowe, t. IX: Literatura słowiańska. Kurs drugi, Warszawa 1997, p. 260).
See the letter to Bohdan and Józef Zaleski, ca. 14th May 1838 (A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła. Wydanie Rocznicowe, t. XV: Listy. Część druga 1830–1841, oprac. Maria Dernałowicz, Elżbieta Jaworska, Marta Zielińska, Warszawa 2003, p. 397).
Plotinus wasn’t known in the mediaeval Arabic philosophy nor in the Latin West by his own name, but the paraphrase of his Enneads was influential under the title Theology of Aristotle.
Franz von Baader was an influential Catholic philosopher who was inspired by the tradition of German mysticism, as well as the theosophy of Jakob Böhme and Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin. It is largely thanks to him that the academic world became interested in the writings of Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) and so-called Rhineland mysticism, in which the mystical unity of the depth of the human soul and God is emphasised. Baader was a friend of many eminent philosophers of his time, including F.H. Jacobi and F. Schelling. His most important work is a collection of aphorisms, Fermenta cognitionis, which was in all likelihood known to Mickiewicz, and a four-volume Spekulative Dogmatik (1827–1836). He was fascinated by the St. Petersburg Dialogues of the Savoyard diplomat and writer, Joseph de Maistre. Baader tried to enter Russia in 1822, convinced that the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church could prove an antidote to Western materialism and atheism, against which both the Catholic and the Protestant churches seemed to be helpless. After arriving at Riga he was disappointingly not allowed to travel further into Russia, so returned to Munich where, after a university was established (1826), he became a professor of philosophy and theology.
Mickiewicz, in a letter to Trentowski of the 9th of September 1839, commenting on his work Grundlage der universellen Philosophie (Karlsruhe 1837), writes: “My dear Colleague, you skipped over everything from ancient Greece to Kant and you claim that Schelling follows Socrates. According to you, the whole of the Middle Ages, which so moved the world, has no philosophy worthy of attention, or even worthy of comparing with the theories of Socrates and Schelling! (…) Even though you mention Jakob Böhme with approval, he is there in your book like a stone in a kidney, not as a proper part of the organism. This is also the reason that you disposed of Baader with a brief note and threw him among the rabble of the Schellingians and Hegelians. It seems to me that Baader deserves the attention even of his adversaries and cannot be pushed off the battleground easily. I won’t say a word about St Thomas, not to mention the Church Fathers! Here I definitely have to stop, because otherwise I will surely begin to enthuse and ramble …” (A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła. Wydanie Rocznicowe, t. XV, p. 488).
A. Lam, Anioł Ślązak Mickiewicza, Kraków 2015, p. 12, note 4. Cf. Mickiewicz’s letter to Jan Skrzynecki from the 7th of April 1842 (Dzieła. Wydanie Rocznicowe, t. XVI, p. 68–69).
Joseph Görres sympathized in his youth with revolutionary ideas, but later converted to Catholicism and became a professor of the University of Munich (where Franz von Baader was also involved). Apart from political writings, he was the author of a Catholic apologetic Die Christliche Mystik, published in four volumes in 1836–1842 and republished in 1870s.
His proper name was Johannes Scheffler; he was a Protestant born in Silesia, who studied medicine and law in Strasburg, Leiden, and Padova. He met Abraham von Franckenberg, the disciple of Jakob Böhme, and was inspired by the doctrine of the cobbler from Görlitz. In 1653 he converted to Catholicism and became a priest in 1661.
Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin was a Catholic French mystic and theosophist who tried to propagate Böhme’s ideas, and also translated his work into French. Saint-Martin became popular in Russia in the early 19th century; Mickiewicz became familiar with his work during his Russian exile, and continued reading it after settling in Paris.
See Słownik języka Adama Mickiewicza, eds. K. Górski, S. Hrabec, Wrocław 1965, t. IV, p. 241. Mickiewicz occasionally used this term also ironically, to refer to the philosophy of Hegel and his followers, of which he disapproved. In June of 1829 he wrote from Berlin to his close friend Franciszek Malewski, still in exile in Petersburg: “Philosophy has gone to many heads here, I’m afraid that I’m so bored with the Hegelians that I could being to support Śniadecki. I attend Hegel’s lectures. It took him two classes to distinguish between Vernunft and Verstand. I can see I truly belong to an earlier generation and as a stationnaire [old-fashioned] I simply can’t reach any understanding with those metaphysicians” (Mickiewicz, Dzieła. Wydanie Rocznicowe, t. 14: Listy. Część pierwsza 1815–1829, ed. M. Dernałowicz, E. Jaworska, M. Zielińska, Warszawa 1998, pp. 601–2).
See Słownik języka Adama Mickiewicza, t. IV, p. 373.
See W. Borowy, Mickiewicz w szkole klasycystycznej, in: idem, O poezji Mickiewicza, Lublin 1958, t. I, pp. 39–51. The first poem Mickiewicz published, Zima miejska (“Winter in the City,” in “Tygodnik Wileński”, 1818) borrows from the style of epic narrative, whilst transforming its classicist form into something more ironic, seeming to praise the carefree life of ‘golden youth’ who spend winters entertaining themselves in big cities while, in fact, he distanced himself from this lifestyle and fashioned his poem into a kind of clandestine satire.
During his studies, and also after graduation, Mickiewicz helped create and develop the students’ movements of the Philomaths (‘lovers of science’) and the Philareths (‘lovers of virtue’), which were secret societies associated with Vilnius University, and active between 1817 and 1823. These societies blended the Enlightenment worship of science and education with a Romantic belief in youth as a significant force for good in the process of transforming a world then subject to tyranny into a freer one. This movement evolved into a conspiracy to regain Polish independence. In these circles poetry was a universal practice, as was literary criticism. For their Philomathic activism, Mickiewicz and his friends, including Tomasz Zan, Jan Czeczot, Onufry Pietraszkiewicz and Franciszek Malewski, were arrested by the Russian authorities in 1823. After a year-long investigation, twenty of them, including Mickiewicz, were exiled into the interior of Russia.
See Cz. Zgorzelski, O sztuce poetyckiej Mickiewicza. Próby zbliżeń i uogólnień, Warszawa 1976, pp. 25–32, 48–229.
See I. Opacki, Odwrócona elegia. O przenikaniu się postaci gatunkowych w poezji, Katowice 1999, pp. 191–312 (chapter “Ballada literacka – opis gatunku”); idem, “W środku niebokręga”. Poezja romantycznych przełomów, pp. 15–34 (chapter ‘“W środku niebokręga”. O “Balladach i romansach” Mickiewicza’).
The figure of the Old Man is universally considered to be an allusive portrayal of Jan Śniadecki, a professor of Vilnius University (and its former rector) as well as a vocal critic of Romantic culture (see more on this in the commentary to the poem).
See the commentary on the poem.
Z. Stefanowska, O “Romantyczności”, in: idem, Próba zdrowego rozumu. Studia o Mickiewiczu, Warszawa 2001 [2nd ed.], pp. 36–37.
See J. Maciejewski, Trzy szkice romantyczne. O “Dziadach”, “Balladynie”, Epilogu “Pana Tadeusza”, Poznań 1967, pp. 7–151.
“Those six first lines of the poem indeed form, in their generic structure, a hymn of a religious (ritual) sort. (…) What is found at the beginning of Mickiewicz’s poem is, indeed, we reiterate, a hymn: all its structural features indicate this; the lyrical subject is a collective one; there is an appropriate emotional and ideational content; all of its linguistic-stylistic features, including the imperative invocation of the Mother of God, have a rich tradition in Christian hymnody.” (S. Skwarczyńska, “Rozważania genologiczne nad dwoma utworami Mickiewicza (“Hymn na dzień Zwiastowania N. P. Maryi” i “Słowa Panny”),” in: Mickiewicz. Sympozjum w Katolickim Uniwersytecie Lubelskim, ed. Andrzej Podgórski, Lublin 1979, p. 140).
Ibidem, p. 148.
The history of poetic Marian devotions in Polish literature, Romantic and otherwise, has been documented in Matka Boska w poezji polskiej, ed. M. Jasińska et al., Lublin 1959.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel tells Joseph about Mary in a dream – “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” – and tells him what to do next. The moment of Annunciation itself is not narrated (see Mt 1:18–25). In the other Gospels, Joseph’s dream is omitted.
S. Skwarczyńska, “‘Hymn na dzień Zwiastowania N. P. Maryi’ (Próba nowego odczytania utworu),” in: eadem, Mickiewiczowskie “powinowactwa z wyboru”, Warszawa 1957, p. 201.
All biblical quotations are given according to the King James Version.
It has been usually assumed by biblical scholars that chapter twelve of the Book of Revelation depicts a fight of Satan with the Church throughout history. According to some interpretations, the Woman bears some features of the Mother of the Messiah, but she is also a collective symbol of Israel and Zion (following Isaiah). The tradition of interpreting the Woman as Mary can be dated back to Oecumenius’ commentary in the sixth century (see Oecumenius, Commentary on the Apocalypse, tr. J. Suggit, Washington, DC, 2006).
See D. Seweryn, O wyobraźni lirycznej Adama Mickiewicza, Warszawa 1996, pp. 20–63. In part I, entitled “O wyobraźni religijnej Mickiewicza”, the author pointed to the existence, in different sonnets, of either motifs or images of a religious-metaphysical character (for example, those associated with ruins and graves) with the topoi of vanitas or death.
Zgorzelski, O sztuce poetyckiej Mickiewicza, p. 35.
Czesław Miłosz writes: “‘Jakob Boehme was a divine prophet and seer of today’s Christianity no less than Isaiah was for the Hebrew. Swedenborg was another, though’ – says Mickiewicz – ‘he was not as strictly and as thoroughly initiated into the world of the spirit. A man of occasionally profound but more often ordinary visions.’ That is, Mickiewicz revered as prophets two highly unorthodox Lutherans. Not to mention one Catholic of dubious orthodoxy: ‘Saint-Martin understood Boehme well; he lived among skeptics – Voltaire, Rousseau – in what was a hard time for believers, and he is the third prophet.’ A prophet foresees the future. Were Christian prophets born only to foretell the end of Christianity, indeed, of all religion? Not so. They bear witness to the decline, the decadence, the breakdown, and herald the beginning of a new era. Common to all three of Mickiewicz’s is a perception of the crisis of the age provoked by the alternative elected by science.” (Cz. Miłosz, The Land of Ulro, tr. L. Iribarne, New York 1984, pp. 108–9).
On Mickiewicz’s interest in the thought of Böhme and Swedenborg see, among others, R.M. Blüth, ‘“Chrześcijański Prometeusz”. Wpływ Böhmego na koncepcję III części “Dziadów”,’ in: idem, Pisma literackie, ed. P. Nowaczyński, Kraków 1987, pp. 133–187; Miłosz, The Land of Ulro, pp. 97–135; W. Weintraub, Poeta i prorok. Rzecz o profetyzmie Mickiewicza, Warszawa 1998 [2nd ed.]; Z. Kępiński, Mickiewicz hermetyczny, Warszawa 2019 [2nd ed.]; Bogusław Dopart, Poemat profetyczny. O “Dziadach” drezdeńskich Adama Mickiewicza, Kraków 2002; Jerzy Fiećko, Przypisy do “Dziadów”, Poznań 2020.
Contemporary testimonies confirm the influence of this artist on the spiritual evolution of Mickiewicz, including his interest in the mysticism of Böhme and Swedenborg, copies of whose writings were available in Oleszkiewicz’ private library and were used by Mickiewicz (among them were the most famous work of Swedenborg’s: De Coelo et eius mirabilibus et de inferno ex auditis et visis; the most recent English translation is: E. Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, tr. G.F. Dole, West Chester, PA, 2020).
Mickiewicz left Russia, with the approval of the regime, in 1829. Officially, it was to recover his health. He never returned again either to Russia or his native land (the region that was a part of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania within Poland-Lithuania). Thereafter he travelled across Europe, visiting Goethe in Weimar, seeing Switzerland and Italy, and staying for some time in Rome (1830–1831). During his sojourn in the Eternal City, the poet had important religious experiences which were reflected in his lyrics of that time.
The November Uprising was started on the 29th of November 1830 by Polish officers staying in Warsaw, which was occupied by the Russians. At the beginning of December of the same year, the Russian Tsar was dethroned by the parliament (“Sejm”) of the Kingdom of Poland, an abbreviated state which covered roughly 1/6 of Poland-Lithuania before the Partitions, and boasted its own constitution and army. The so-called ‘Congress Kingdom’ was created by the agreement of European powers in the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and joined to the Russian Empire by the fact that the Tsar was, at the same time, a king of Poland. A National Government was created, and a Polish-Russian war soon began; it was to last for a couple of months. Mickiewicz heard about the Uprising when he was in Rome in December 1830. Initially, he planned to get to his fatherland by the sea. When this proved impossible, he headed towards Warsaw, but reached Greater Poland (which was under Prussian rule at the time) only in August of 1831, when the Uprising was already at its end (Warsaw was taken by Russian troops in September 1831). The Prussian-Russian border was heavily guarded. Soon a great wave of emigrants began to flow through Greater Poland to the West of Europe, consisting mainly of former Polish soldiers. Mickiewicz left Greater Poland and arrived in Dresden in March 1832. He stayed there for three months; the fruit of this was an incredible collection of poetic works, including the Forefathers’ Eve, Part III, which was published in the same year in Paris. Mickiewicz settled down in Paris, where he stayed, with some interruptions, for the remainder of his life.
The Imitation of Christ (De imitatione Christi), attributed to Thomas à Kempis, was written in Latin at the beginning of the fifteenth century. This compendium of late mediaeval spirituality remains one of the most popular spiritual texts both in the Catholic and Protestant tradition. It originated in a movement called devotio moderna, which opposed both the dry scholastic theological speculation and the metaphysical mysticism of the fourteenth century (with its sometimes problematic descriptions of the experience of oneness between the depth of the soul and God). Devotio moderna promoted instead an ascetical-moral ideal of everyday, ordinary spirituality, focused on meditation on, and imitation of, the life and figure of Jesus. The Imitation of Christ proclaims humility as the foundation of spiritual life, and the most important virtue, from which all other major virtues derive, including obedience, self-renunciation, the knowledge of one’s sinfulness, and the acceptance of suffering. The work of Thomas à Kempis emphasises the importance of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and personal reading of the Scripture (see B. McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism 1350–1550, vol. 5 of The Presence of God: a History of Western Christian Mysticism, New York 2012, pp. 96–124). In the poems Mickiewicz wrote in the early 1830s, we may discern the influence of The Imitation of Christ, not least in the poet’s distrust of philosophical speculation, and his glorification of humility, the simplicity of the heart and an awareness of one’s own sinfulness.
Hugues-Félicité-Robert de Lamennais, a clergyman and philosopher with left-wing views (sometimes described as “Christian socialism”) who fell into disfavour with the ecclesiastic hierarchy thanks to his criticism of Rome’s silence in the face of social inequality and the oppression of lower classes. He also supported Polish aspirations to independence, and refused to accept the Papal anathema cast on the November Uprising by Pope Gregory XVI. The pope condemned Lamennais’ views explicitly in the encyclical Singulari nos (1834). A few years later Lamennais broke his external ties with the Catholic Church.
Lamennais wrote this under the influence of the French translation of Mickiewicz’s Books of the Polish Nation and Pilgrimage (Księgi narodu i pielgrzymstwa polskiego, 1832). The French priest, like Mickiewicz in his Books, promoted the ideas of “Christian socialism” and democratic republicanism in a biblical, prophetic style.
“The album – Polish ‘sztambuch’ or ‘imionnik’, Russian ‘al’bom’ – is an important yet little-studied artifact of early nineteenth-century Polish and Russian culture, the concept of which was imported from Western Europe along with other cultural and literary fashions of the time. Albums were ornate ‘scrapbooks’ in which poets and other famous figures of the day, and/or the album owner’s family and friends (these two groups could overlap, as in the albums of aristocrats), would write short pieces in verse or prose that were usually addressed or dedicated to the album’s owner.” (J. Beinek, “Cultural Texts: Polish and Russian Albums in the Age of Romanticism”, Anthropology of History Yearbook 1–2, 1 (2011), pp. 173–192).
J. Kleiner, Mickiewicz, t. II: Dzieje Konrada, Lublin 1948, part I, p. 211.
More on this in the commentary to the poem.
See the commentary on this poem. Kleiner, having studied the German edition of the Zend Avesta, indicated the passages which could have inspired Mickiewicz. However, those passages only speak about the fall of Ahriman, but not about his ascent from the abyss to the realm of light: “In one of the passages from the Zend Avesta, containing prayers and incantations, Zoroaster addresses the god of light and law, Ahura Mazda, asking him about the powerful words that he used, when he was creating the shining regions of light and the dwelling places of the sun. Further on, after the incantations against diseases, fevers, liars, witches, and words capable of killing evil spirits (Daevas), it is said that the greatest liar of all Daevas, Angra Mainyu, the bringer of destruction, has fallen headlong from the heavens. At the end: ‘the bringer of destruction, Angra Mainyu, said: Woe is me, woe!’.” (Kleiner, Dzieje Konrada, p. 213).
G. Minois, Histoire des Enfers, Paris 1991.
“The Manichees postulate a race of darkness in opposition to you. What could that have done to you, if you had refused to fight against it? If they were to reply that you would have suffered injury, that would make you open to violation and destruction. But if nothing could harm you, that removes any ground for combat, and indeed for combat under such conditions that some portion of you, one of your members, or an offspring of your very substance, is mingled with hostile powers and with natures not created by you, and is corrupted by them and so changed for the worse that it is altered from beatitude to misery and heeds help to deliver and purify it.” (Confessions VII.2.3; English translation by H. Chadwick: St Augustine, Confessions, Oxford 2011).
Aleksander Chodźko, Mickiewicz’s friend, wrote down his saying that “from all the more modern mystics Böhme is the greatest, it is the soul burning with pure fire (…) the second after Böhme is Swedenborg”, while Saint-Martin “understood Böhme well; he is the third prophet” (Adama Mickiewicza wspomnienia i myśli, ed. S. Pigoń, Warszawa 1958, pp. 214–5).
See K. Fedorowicz, “Ksiądz Piotr w trzecim niebie. W stronę (neo)gnozy w “Dziadach” drezdeńskich Mickiewicza,” Ruch Literacki 3 (2015), 247–258.
See E. Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell. On the thought of Swedenborg see: E. Benz, Emanuel Swedenborg. Naturforscher und Seher, München 1948.
See A. Koyré, La philosophie de Jacob Böhme. Étude sur les origines de la métaphysique allemande, Paris 1929; G. Wehr, Jakob Böhme, Reinbok bei Hamburg 1998.
As Giuseppe Ledda writes, the lion in Dante seems to be associated either with the sinful and demonic wrath and violence (as it is already in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy IV.3), or with pride (superbia) and vainglory (ambitio saeculi), one of the three principal sins of 1 John 2:16 (the others being the lust of the flesh, symbolised in Dante by the leopard, and the lust of the eyes, represented by the she-wolf). See G. Ledda, “An Ethical and Political Bestiary in the First Canto of Dante’s Comedy”, in: Ethics, Politics and Justice in Dante, ed. G. Gaimari, C. Keen, London – Chicago 2019, pp. 46–62.
See A. Mickiewicz, Jacob Böhme, in: Dzieła, t. XIII: Pisma towianistyczne. Przemówienia. Szkice filozoficzne, ed. Z. Trojanowicz, Warszawa 2001, pp. 465–85.
Mickiewicz summarised the fallen archangel’s condition (according to Böhme) thus: “God as Light didn’t suffer in the least [i.e. by the refusal of the rebellious angel to ascend to the divine light]; the spirit who didn’t want to ascend, and desired stubbornly to dominate light through fire and heat – that is, to dominate love through force – this backward spirit returned to the abyss of this darkness, these seeds of creation, where he remains active, without violating the luminous nature of God; (…) the backward spirit of Satan, falling again into his primordial state by his own choosing, suffers, seeing himself in a position from which he could have and should have got out of.” (Dzieła, t. XIII. p. 470).
J. Ziomek, Literatura Odrodzenia, Warszawa 1987, p. 149.
Gr. eidesi te kai arithmois: Plato, Timaeus 53b. It was easily associated by Christian philosophers with the idea that God created everything by measure, number, and weight (mensura, numerus, pondus: Wis 11:20).
“The transition is so immense that it both heightens Vergil, the only poet who is an autore and whose book is a volume, and shrinks him by comparison with that other autore, Who is God, and that other volume, which is God’s book (volume is used variously in the last canticle, but always with relation to texts ‘written by’ God, for instance the book of the future, the book of justice, the universe gathered into one volume). Moreover, when God is termed an author, He is not ’l mio autore (Inf. 1.85), but the verace autore (Par. 26.40). (T. Barolini, Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the Comedy, Princeton, NJ, 1984, p. 268).
Already St. Augustine compared the universe to speech or story (sermo) of God, expressing by the multitude of words the single eternal Word (Confessions IV.10.15; Epistula 137.7). A Greek Platonist Sallustios (4th century AD) says in his work On the Gods that the world is a myth in which what is visible hides the invisible meaning which we have to decipher (De deis 3). In the Middle Ages it was universally held that God reveals himself through two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation. Both of them should be read symbolically or allegorically, if one is to find their meaning and, ultimately, their Author. Also Alan of Lille expresses it in his popular poem: Omnis mundi creatura/quasi liber et pictura/nobis est in speculum (“On earth dwelling every creature,/Like a poem or a picture,/Mirrors forth our mortal sphere”: tr. J. Hayes, in: Corolla Hymnorum Sacrorum, Boston 1887).
We could also read this poem as a polemic against the Enlightenment, nineteenth-century scientism, and materialism, which would resonate well with Mickiewicz’s critiques of those phenomena that are present even in his early work (for example, The Romantic, included in this anthology, and the Forefathers’ Eve, Part IV) as well as later, in the 1830s (Forefathers’ Eve, Part III). Yet it seems that the universalist perspective dominates this poem.
A. Kamieńska, “Przekładając Naśladowanie,” in: Tomasz à Kempis, O naśladowaniu Chrystusa, tr. A. Kamieńska, Warszawa 1984, p. 249.
Ignacy Chrzanowski called this poem “a symbolic poem, with its plot taking place in space” (Na szczytach polskiej liryki religijnej, in: idem, Literatura a naród. Odczyty, przemówienia, szkice literackie, Lwów 1936, p. 162).
Zgorzelski, O sztuce poetyckiej Mickiewicza, pp. 282–295.
Ibidem, p. 285.
Jacobi to Fichte, in: F.H. Jacobi, Main Philosophical Writings and the Novel Allwill, tr. G. di Giovanni, Montreal 1995, p. 519.
Course III, Lecture XVII, in: A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, p. 227.
See Neues Lexikon des Judentums, ed. Julius H. Schoeps, Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh 2000, s.v. “Sanhedrin”.
Mickiewicz, just as Baader, believed that both Catholicism and Protestantism are in deep crisis and are unable to respond to the challenges of the Enlightenment. He shared this view with Novalis who wrote: “Shouldn’t Protestantism be ended and cede it’s place to a new, more permanent church … Christianity must once again become a living and effective force”. As Thomas Pfau notes, this idea of returning to original, authentic, and vivid Christianity was quite common among the Romantics (he quotes a famous saying by Coleridge: “Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a living presence”). See T. Pfau, “Religion,” in: The Oxford Handbook of European Romanticism, ed. P. Hamilton, Oxford 2015, pp. 730–751, on p. 749.
“‘What I say to Thee will come to pass, and our dominion will be built up. I repeat, tomorrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if any one has ever deserved our fire, it is Thou. Tomorrow I shall burn Thee. Dixi.’” (F. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. C. Garnett, New York 1900, p. 309).
“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? – Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.” (F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, tr. W. Kaufmann, New York 1974, III, §125, p. 181).
Kleiner, Dzieje Konrada, p. 467.
Cz. Zgorzelski, Wstęp, in: A. Mickiewicz, Wybór poezyj, Ossolineum, Wrocław 1986 [3rd ed.], p. LVIII.
J. Łukasiewicz, Wiersze Adama Mickiewicza, Wrocław 2003, p. 136.
In the literature it is often assumed that Mickiewicz, in the first stanzas, allusively criticises the metaphysical rebellion of Konrad against God, in the second and third scenes of the Dresden part of the Forefathers’ Eve.
Mickiewicz could have been inspired here by St Augustine who, in his Confessions, discusses the false humility which boasts of itself: “This is a temptation to me even when I reject it [i.e. pride], because of the very fact that I am rejecting it. Often the contempt of vainglory becomes a source of even more vainglory. For it is not being scorned when the contempt is something one is proud of.” (X.38.63, p. 217).
We are not suggesting any direct inspiration. Byron and his literary circle were much closer to Mickiewicz. There is no evidence suggesting that Mickiewicz read the Lake Poets, but he would have disapproved of their evolution from early revolutionary sympathies to political and religious conservatism, as seen in Wordsworth’s late poetry, such as The Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), which manifest his allegiance to Anglicanism, and scant tolerance towards other denominations, or his Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty and Order (1830), which embrace profoundly conservative political and social views, and make clear the poet’s hostility to any revolutionary or even reformist movements. Wordsworth was also notorious for his criticism of Napoleon. Mickiewicz’s political views were very different at the time: in his own metaphysical-religious works there are few elements similar to those in Wordsworth’s poetry (excluding, perhaps, his poems describing the presence of the divine in Nature).
Borowy, Mickiewicz w szkole klasycystycznej, p. 15.
St Augustine writes: “Indeed, Lord, to your eyes, the abyss of human consciousness is naked (Heb 4:13). What could be hidden within me, even if I were unwilling to confess it to you? I would be hiding you from myself, not myself from you.” (Confessions X.2.2, p. 122).
There is a similar thought in the Confessions as well: “Why then should I be concerned for human readers to hear my confessions? It is not they who are going to ‘heal my sickness’ (Ps. 103:3).” (X.3.3, p. 179).
“Now their foot does stay upon the seventh spirit of God, which is solid like a cloud, and clear and bright as a crystalline sea, wherein they walk upward and downward, which way soever they please. For their agility or nimbleness is as swift as the divine power itself, yet one angel is more swift than another, and that according to the quality of each.” (Aurora, the Day-Spring 12.113, tr. J. Sparrow, Nashville, AR, 2013; a reprint of the 1656 English translation).
The last line of Book Eight of Pan Tadeusz.
St Teresa of Ávila describes in a somewhat similar way a restlessness of the soul, transformed from a caterpillar into a butterfly, which cannot live fully in God, but is dissatisfied with her earthly life: “No wonder this pretty butterfly, estranged from earthly things, seeks repose elsewhere. Where can the poor little creature go? It cannot return to whence it came, for as I told you, that is not in the soul’s power, do what it will, but depends upon God’s pleasure. Alas, what fresh trials begin to afflict the mind! Who would expect this after such a sublime grace? In fact in one way or another we must carry the cross all our lives.” (Interior Castle, Fifth Mansion, II.8; English translation: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Washington 1976, p. 134).
See, among others, important studies in an multi-author monograph Mickiewicz. Sen i widzenie, ed. Z. Majchrowski, W. Owczarski, Gdańsk 2000 (especially: Z. Majchrowski, “Miałem sen w Dreźnie”, pp. 19–27; W. Owczarski, “Pisać snem. O wyobraźni Adama Mickiewicza”, pp. 35–48; L. Zwierzyński, “Fenomenologia snu: wyobrażenia oniryczne w poezji Mickiewicza,” pp. 49–78).
R. Blüth, “Psychogeneza “Snu w Dreźnie””, in: idem, Pisma literackie, p. 34.
Kleiner, Dzieje Konrada, p. 260.
See J. Ch. Gille-Maisani, Adam Mickiewicz człowiek. Studium psychologiczne, tr. A. Kuryś, K. Rytel, Warszawa 1987, pp. 186–197.
Gille-Maisani writes: “The Anima encourages Adam to reflect on his past life and to realise his mistakes. She plays a part of a guide in the individuation process” (ibidem, p. 196).
Zgorzelski, Wstęp, p. LXXVIII.
More on this is in the commentary to the poem. The figure of Ewa Ankwicz was introduced, in allusion, by Mickiewicz also to his two most important works: Forefathers’ Eve, Part III (she is the protagonist of scene IV) and Pan Tadeusz (Ewa, the beloved of Jacek Soplica, has her features and he invokes her in his pre-death general confession, when he exists in the depicted world as a monk named “Robak”, i.e. “Bug” or “Worm”). See the analyses of those three appearances of Ewa in J. Fiećko, “Przemiany Ewy w opowieści Adama,” in: Podróżować, mieszkać, odejść … Pamięci Ewy Guderian-Czaplińskiej, ed. B. Kocewicz, K. Krzak-Weiss, K. Kurek, A. Mądry, Poznań 2021, pp. 43–64).
According to this line of interpretation, the first part of the dream represents Hell and Purgatory, where Vergil is Dante’s guide, while the second part of the dream, with Ewa as the central figure, corresponds to the highest regions of Purgatory’s mountain, where Beatrice appears to the poet (Purgatorio 30), and leads him across the boundary between the earth and the heavenly spheres. See the commentary of the poem.
Mickiewicz settled in Paris as a political emigrant in June 1832 and lived there, apart from his sojourn in Lausanne (1839–1840), until the end of his life, though he died in Constantinople in 1855, in the middle of a political mission in the Ottoman Empire during the Crimean War. In Paris he published his most important literary works, and married Celina Szymanowska, daughter of the eminent pianist Maria Agata Szymanowska, who came from a family of Polish Frankists with whom Mickiewicz became acquainted during his exile in Russia (where he also met young Celina). They had six children. The poet was publicly active, and edited journals, but tried to play a role of a non-partisan authority, and stood aloof from the various Polish political factions in Paris. In 1840–1844 he was appointed the first professor of the newly created Chair of Slavic Literatures in Collège de France.
Such reading was suggested by Miłosz in his Land of Ulro (p. 122). An important example of this kind of interpretation is a monograph by Jan Tomkowski: “Pan Tadeusz” – poemat metafizyczny, Wrocław 2018.
Zdania i uwagi z dzieł Jakuba Bema, Anioła Ślązaka (Angelus Silesius) i Sę-Martena. The collection features over 160 epigrams and testifies to Mickiewicz’s spiritual search of the time. It seems that Mickiewicz read Scheffler’s Cherubinischer Wandersmann in the 1830s and was inspired by its form in writing his Zdania i uwagi.
A solid analysis of this poet cycle can be found in a monograph by Małgorzata Burta: Reszta prawd. “Zdania i uwagi” Adama Mickiewicza, Warszawa 2005.
Here is the fragment that Mickiewicz translated from Saint-Martin and which he discusses in his poem: “The prayer of a Spaniard: ‘My God, defend me from myself’, concerns a sentiment which proves to be salutary, if we are able to feel it in ourselves, that is, if we feel that we are the only enemy on this earth that we should fear; then, God fears only what is not Himself. To the prayer quoted above we could add the following: ‘My God, deign to assist me in preventing me from murdering you” (A. Mickiewicz, “[Przekład myśli Saint-Martina],” in: idem, Dzieła, t. XIII, p. 341). The quotation comes from Saint-Martin’s Oeuvres posthumes I, p. 80 (see a collection of aphorisms in A. E. Waite, The Life of Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, the Unknown Philosopher and the Substance of His Transcendental Doctrine, London 1901, p. 375).
Stefan Garczyński (1805–1833) was Mickiewicz’s friend and also a poet, who used to attend Hegel’s lectures and was familiar with his views. Quotation comes from: J. Kleiner, Studia inedita, ed. J. Starnawski, Lublin 1964, p. 293.
See I. Jokiel, “Na obraz i podobieństwo (“Broń mnie przed sobą samym”),” in: eadem, Lornety i kapota. Studia o Mickiewiczu, Opole 2006, pp. 209–226.
In 1832 Mickiewicz published the first act of Forefathers’ Eve, Part III, to which he later added a poem called Ustęp (“Passages” in Charles Kraszewski’s translation: see A. Mickiewicz, Forefathers’ Eve, tr. C.S. Kraszewski, London 2016), describing the exile to Russia and a pessimistic vision of the Russian Empire. He worked on further parts of the play in next years, but never finished it. The fragments that he showed to his friends were never published and he, probably, destroyed them before leaving for Turkey in 1855.
Cf. what Böhme writes about the lack of self-knowledge in God: “God himself knoweth not what he is: For he knoweth no beginning of himself, also he knoweth not anything that is like himself as also he knoweth no end of himself.” (Aurora 23.17).
The idea that the essence of the human soul is unknowable, because it is made in the image of God whose essence is infinitely unknowable can be found already in St Gregory of Nyssa (On the Making of Man XI.1–4; English translation by H.A. Wilson in: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 5, Buffalo 1893).
See, for instance, his Living Flame of Love III.6 (English translation in: The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, tr. K. Kavanagh, O. Rodriguez, London 1964). The idea of raising the soul to a level equal to its Creator’s can be found all over St John’s mystical writings.
K. Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, New York 1987, p. 92. He adds: “Behind this idea of the divine ‘Man’, who dwells both above and in the world, there is an entirely new conception of anthropology. This becomes clear above all in the higher estimate of man in comparison with the Demiurge: it is not only that the (first) man, i.e. the unknown God, exists before him – the earthly man also, who is his product, is superior to him by reason of his supramundane divine relationship and substance.” (p. 93). Cf. also H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Boston 1963.
Zgorzelski, Wstęp, p. XCIV.
J. Przyboś, Czytając Mickiewicza, Warszawa 1998 [4th ed.], p. 239.
M. Maciejewski, Poetyka – gatunek – obraz. W kręgu poezji romantycznej, Wrocław 1977, p. 105.
Kępiński, Mickiewicz hermetyczny, p. 127.
A. Sikora, Posłannicy słowa. Hoene-Wroński, Towiański, Mickiewicz, Warszawa 1967, p. 257.
M. Piwińska, Juliusz Słowacki od duchów, Warszawa 1992, p. 22.
This is one of the most often commented poems of Mickiewicz. There were important studies of it, which appeared in multi-author monographs: Wiersze Adama Mickiewicza. Analizy, komentarze, interpretacje, ed. J. Brzozowski, Łódź 1998 (esp. J. Duk, “Widzenie”; I. Jokiel, “O funkcji symbolicznej wizji przestrzennych w “Widzeniu””, pp. 175–184); Mickiewicz. Sen i widzenie (esp. a paper by Mirosława Bukowska-Schielmann: ““Widzenie” – alchemia człowieka,” pp. 97–112); Mickiewicz mistyczny, ed. A. Fabianowski, E. Hoffmann-Piotrowska, Warszawa 2005 (esp. M. Cieśla-Korytowska, “Co mnie dziwi w “Widzeniu” Mickiewicza,” pp. 208–216; J. Fiećko, ““Druga przestrzeń” według Mickiewicza. Kilka uwag o “Widzeniu””, pp. 217–228 – here I reiterate some of the findings presented in this paper).
J. Tomkowski, Dom chińskiego mędrca. Eseje o samotności, Warszawa 2000, pp. 33–34.
Plato considered wonder was to be the beginning of philosophy: “For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris was the child of Thaumas made a good genealogy.” (Theaetetus 155d; English translation by H.N. Fowler in: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 12, Cambridge, MA – London 1921). Iris, the goddess of rainbow, symbolises the connection between Heaven and Earth, while her father, Thaumas, means simply “Wonder” in Greek. At the beginning of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says: “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, I, 982b; English translation by H. Tredennick, in: Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Cambridge, MA – London 1933).
Böhme writes about this spiritual seed on multiple occasions, for instance: “And in this manner it is with the angels, they also are all composed, framed or figured out of the divine seed, but every one has its own body to itself.” (Aurora 4, 73). I. Jokiel links the seed of the soul with the “spark” in Meister Eckhart (that is, to what is “uncreated and uncreatable” in the soul) as well as to the spatial centre of the circle or the sphere (I. Jokiel, “O funkcji symbolicznej wizji przestrzennych …”, pp. 176 and 183).
An image of the Holy Trinity as an infinite sphere at whose centre there is the sun, symbolising the Son of God, while the world flowing out of Him like rays of light represents the activity of the Holy Spirit, covers the most of chapter three of Böhme’s Aurora.
Mickiewicz may have been here inspired by St Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote that after the fall of Man, God gave everyone a good angel who encourages him to do good, and a malicious demon who tempts him (Vita Moysi II.45–47; English translation by S. House, A.J. Malherbe, E. Ferguson, in: St Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, San Francisco 2006, p. 43). Gregory says that this doctrine comes “from the tradition of our fathers”. See the commentary on the poem for the full quotation.
Swedenborg distinguished five hierarchically ordered types of mystical visions, the highest of which concerned a supernatural contact in the state of unimpeded consciousness. The image of the other world in Mickiewicz’s poem recalls the visions of Heaven in Swedenborg, although the poet was obviously unable to contain the entire system of three Heavens that he knew from the Swedish mystic’s writings. Nonetheless, we can assume that the Swedenborgian vision of the Third Heaven inspired Mickiewicz’s image of the centre, and the source from which divine light flows and all the spirits spring.
“the naked, formless essence of divine unity, which is superessential being” (Meister Eckhart, Sermon 96 , in Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, tr. M. O’Connell Walshe, New York 2009, p. 462).
In the so-called Lausanne canon we include the poems which seem to be at least tentatively finished ([Spin Love …], [Above the Water Great and Clear …], [My Corpse Is Sitting Here …], [I Shed Pure Springs of Tears …]) as well as those that were barely started ([To Escape with the Soul …]) and probably unfinished ([Already as a Child in Our House …]).
The most important twentieth-century interpretations of the Lausanne lyrics are collected in: Strona Lemanu. Liryki lozańskie Adama Mickiewicza. Antologia, ed. Marian Stala, Kraków 1998.
Zgorzelski, O sztuce poetyckiej Mickiewicza, p. 43.
See M. Stala, “Kłopoty z lozańskimi wierszami Mickiewicza. Wstęp,” in: Strona Lemanu, pp. 5–23.
See the commentary on the poem.
Zob. M. Maciejewski, “Mickiewiczowskie “czucia wieczności”,” in: Strona Lemanu, pp. 203–256.
J. Brzozowski, “Fragment lozański. Próba komentarza do wierszy ostatnich Mickiewicza,” in: Strona Lemanu, p. 336.
A motif of human ascending to the angelic level (the ideal of isangelos, “equal to angels”) and then being divinised is omnipresent in ancient and mediaeval Christian monastic and mystical literature, especially in the Greek Fathers. For more on this see the commentary to the poem.
In the thirtieth lecture of the second course of his Parisian lectures (delivered on the 17th June 1842), Mickiewicz expounds this analogy at greater length: “If we, for instance, look at caterpillars, those caterpillars to which all the philosophers and poets of antiquity have always compared human souls, some of them still look for leaves in order to enclose themselves, others already sleep in its cocoon and seem immobile and dead, while others already manifest the vibration of their wings and are almost butterflies, still others fly towards the sky. The case is similar with human souls. Some of them continue to exist in an animal state, because they haven’t worked hard enough on their liberation, and haven’t acquired the essential skill of freeing themselves from the body, ripping off the insect-like cover in order to let the butterfly out. There are other souls which are so free that they pass among us with their words and deeds like meteoroids, like true butterflies. The ancients expressed this truth in images, placing on Psyche’s (that is, the soul’s) brow, a butterfly as a symbol of her freedom” (A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. IX, p. 394). It is hard to tell whether Mickiewicz was familiar with St Teresa of Ávila’s famous simile in which mystical transformation of the soul is compared to the transformation of a silkworm, but Marian Maciejewski is certain that this is the case: “it seems almost impossible that Mickiewicz didn’t deliberately refer to this mystical tradition” (“Mickiewiczowski ‘domek mego ducha’”, in: Mickiewicz mistyczny, p. 235). A more cautious assumption would be that the poet might have come across this motif in Joseph Görres’ mystical anthology. See the commentary on the poem.
The context and place, in which this poem was written (Lausanne) makes us see in this “water” the Alpine lake Léman or Lake Geneva, while the “rocks” must be the Alps, the sacred mountains of European Romantics, including Mickiewicz.
J. Prokop, “Adam Mickiewicz. “Nad wodą wielką i czystą”,” in: Strona Lemanu, pp. 180–181.
Ibidem, p. 181.
Enneads I.4.10, IV.3.30.
In fact, mirrors in antiquity, with which St Paul was familiar, were not made of glass, but of polished metal, and they produced rather distorted reflections. On the history of the mirror metaphor see e.g. M. Pendergrast, Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection, New York 2003; S. Bartsch, The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self- Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire, Chicago 2006; S.R.L. Clark, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, Chicago 2016, pp. 83–90.
St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man XII.10.
St Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 11 (English translation by W. Moore, H.A. Wilson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series II, vol. 5).
In Evagrius of Pontus (4th century AD) we find a thought, later reiterated in the ascetic literature of the Middle Ages, that the goal of ascetic purification is apatheia or freedom from passions, and it is apatheia that gives birth to love (agape) and the vision of God (Praktikos 81; English translation: The Praktikos. Chapters on Prayer, tr. J.E. Bamberger, Massachussets 1970). The Western monastic tradition accepted John Cassian’s (5th century) proposition to translate the Greek term apatheia as the Biblical puritas cordis (“the purity of the heart”, cf. Mt 5:8).
R. Bradley, “Backgrounds of the Title Speculum in Mediaeval Literature”, Speculum 29, 1 (1954) 100–115. We note that the article was published in a journal whose title is the Latin word for ‘mirror’, and happens to be one of the most prestigious English-language journals of Mediaeval Studies.
The image of the soul as flowing water can be found in classical mystical literature as early as in St. Augustine (Confessions IV.8.13) and St Gregory of Nyssa (On Virginity 7).
Brzozowski, “Fragment lozański”, p. 335.
See M. Janion, Marzący: jest tam, gdzie go nie ma, a nie ma go tu, gdzie jest, in: Style zachowań romantycznych. Propozycje i dyskusje, ed. M. Janion, M. Zielińska, Warszawa 1986, pp. 303–337. The notion of ‘the dreamer’ is a paraphrase of an expression from a letter of Zygmunt Krasiński to Delfina Potocka.
The theme of memory within Polish Romanticism is elucidated by Krzysztof Trybuś in his Pamięć romantyzmu. Studia nie tylko z przeszłości, Poznań 2011. He refers mostly to: A. Assmann, Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, München 1999 and J. Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 2005. A classic work about the phenomenon of memory and time in the European culture is P. Ricoeur, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, Paris 2000.
Brzozowski, “Fragment lozański,” p. 338.
S. Sawicki, “‘Wiersz-płacz’?,” in: Strona Lemanu, p. 386.
“Aniele Boży, stróżu mój”: “The angel of God, my guardian,/ Stand always by me./ Morning, evening, day, and night/Be always my help./ Protect my soul and my flesh,/ And lead me to the eternal life./ Amen.”
Brzozowski, “Fragment lozański,” p. 334. Parentheses are in the original text.
Ibidem, p. 340.
There are numerous studies on Towiański, Towianism and the metaphysical-religious views of this group, as well as on Mickiewicz’s involvement in it. See Sikora, Posłannicy słowa; idem, Towiański i rozterki romantyzmu, Warszawa 1984; Konrad Górski, Mickiewicz – Towiański, Warszawa 1986; Alina Witkowska, Towiańczycy, Warszawa 1989; Dorota Siwicka, Ton i bicz. Mickiewicz wśród towiańczyków, Wrocław 1990; Ewa Hoffmann-Piotrowska, Mickiewicz – towiańczyk. Studium myśli, Warszawa 2004.
“This is a piece on a moment just before reincarnation, before embodiment. (…) The whole tree is to be transformed into a bug. There is a potentiality of that in the contemplated tree. And it is seen by the trained bodily-spiritual eye of the poet.” (Łukasiewicz, Wiersze Adama Mickiewicza, pp. 163–4).
Ibidem, p. 166. With similar sophistication the scholar explains the meaning of the metaphor of the wind: “Mickiewicz has been a lover and admirer of flying for a long time. He postulates, commands, asserts: ‘To give myself to wind, which flies through unknown paths’, which means accidental winds, whose force and direction can neither be predicted nor controlled. However, it’s not enough to be ‘carried’, it is, as it were, only a precondition. This also requires concentration, and deep listening. Without such attentive listening one would not be able to ‘count every sound’, and thanks to that, to know the truth about them, and the truth expressed by them. To learn that it is not accident that rules them, that they are not a part of some chaos, but, on the contrary, that their motion is regular, like a gyre. Submitting to those winds, we submit only seemingly to accident, but in fact we are in the service of the highest cosmic order. We need to feel into the ‘thought’ of the wind and learn its grammar in order to serve consciously and beneficially.” (ibidem, p. 167).
It is worth noticing that the motif of the tree developing out of the divine seed was one of the favourite of Böhme (e.g. Aurora 3, 111; 4, 30–33; 7, 16).
Przyboś, Czytając Mickiewicza, p. 242.
The question of Jews in the thought and work of Mickiewicz, also in his Parisian lectures, has been studied exhaustively. One may particularly recommend Maria Janion, Bohater, spisek, śmierć. Wykłady żydowskie, Warszawa 2009 and Andrzej Fabianowski, Mickiewicz i świat żydowski. Studium z aneksami, Warszawa 2018.
Zgorzelski, Wstęp, p. CXVII.
A poem with the incipit On mezhdu nami zhil … (1834). “On vdokhnoven byl svyshe /I s vysoka vziral na zhizn’“. English translation by Wacław Lednicki (Preface to Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature, ed. W. Lednicki, Berkeley – Los Angeles 1956, p. vii).
Hesiod, Theogonia 1–34. English translation by H.G. Evelyn-White in: Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, Cambridge, MA – London 1914.
Those three poems were called by Wacław Lednicki Pushkin’s “anti-Polish trilogy” (W. Lednicki, Aleksander Puszkin. Studia, Kraków 1926, p. 36).
See the exquisite study by Lednicki contained in A. Puszkin, Jeździec miedziany. Opowieść petersburska, tr. J. Tuwim, Warszawa 1931.
The original title was Pouchkine et le mouvement litteraire en Russie. The article appeared on 25 May 1837, in the first issue of Le Globe, Revue des arts, des sciences et des lettres. For the English translation see: Megan Dixon, “A Translation of a Primary Text on Alexander Pushkin by Adam Mickiewicz”, Pushkin Review 4 (2001) 133–42.
Mickiewicz speaks here about Zygmunt Krasiński and his play Undivine Comedy, published anonymously in 1835.
Mickiewicz means here the Decembrists’ revolt.
Course III, Lecture III (Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, Warszawa 1998, pp. 30–31).
See e.g. J. de Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues. Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence, tr. R.A. Lebrun, Montreal – London 1993, pp. 59, 233; Jacobi, David Hume on Faith, in: Main Philosophical Writings, pp. 317–18.
Ibidem, p. 26.
See Phaedrus 244a–245c.
Course IV, Lecture II and VI; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. XI, p. 22 and 64.
Course, IV, Lecture XXII; ibidem, p. 280. The kinship between the philosophy of the Pythagoreans and that of Plato had been already emphasised by Aristotle in his Metaphysics. In Mickiewicz’s day, when Neoplatonism was still largely seen in a disparaging light (the very term, invented in the eighteenth century, was pejorative), Pythagoras and Plato were still seen as the greatest of the religious or mystical ancient philosophers. S. Coleridge often juxtaposes them in his philosophical lectures, for instance: “Plato, with Pythagoras before him, had conceived that the phenomenon or outward appearance, all that we call things or matter, is but as it were a language by which the invisible (that which is not the object of our sense) communicates its existence to our finite beings.” (S.T. Coleridge, The Philosophical Lectures, ed. K. Coburn, London 1949, p. 187).
Course III, Lecture II; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, p. 19.
Course III, Lecture XXII; ibidem, p. 280.
F. Schelling, Initia philosophiae universe. Erlangen Vorslesungen 1820–1821. English translation: On the Nature of Philosophy as Science, tr. M. Weigelt, in: German Idealist Philosophy, ed. R. Bubner, London 1997, pp. 209–243. Quotation on p. 228.
G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A.V. Miller, Oxford 1977, p. 4. See the commentary on The Romantic.
Course III, Lecture XVII; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, p. 227.
Course III, Lecture II; ibidem, p. 21.
The Mob or the Crowd, first published in 1828. Later (1836) published with a changed title: The Poet and the crowd (Poet i tolpa).
Course III, Lecture III; ibidem, p. 33.
St John of Damascus, De fide orthodoxa III.24. English translation by E.W. Watson and L. Pullan: An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, in: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 9.
Course III, Lecture XXII; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, p. 279.
Augustine, De vera religione 39.72.
Course III, Lecture XXII; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, p. 291.
Course II, Lecture XII, Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. IX, p. 166.
This is the twelfth stanza in the shorter 1788 version. In the unabridged version of the poem it is the nineteenth one.
See The Poems of Schiller, tr. E.A. Bowring, London 1874.
Novalis, Hymns to the Night V, tr. G. MacDonald, published in: G. MacDonald, Rampolli, London 1897. On the importance of Die Götter Griechenlands for Novalis see Pfau, “Religion,” p. 749. As Pfau puts it, the Enlightenment for Novalis is an interregnum between the Pagan gods and the return of Christ.
St Gregory of Nazianzus describes this mediating function and the presence of spirits in the world beautifully: “So strongly do they bear the shape and imprint of God’s beauty, that they become in their turn lights, able to give light to others by transmitting the stream that flows from the primal light of God. As ministers of the divine will, powerful with inborn and acquired strength, they range over the universe.” (Second Theological Oration [Oratio 28] 31; English translation by F. Williams, L. Wickham in: St Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, New York 2002). And St Augustine: “For it is blasphemy to believe or to say (even before it can be understood) that any other than God is creator of any nature, be it never so small and mortal. And as for the angels, whom those Platonists prefer to call gods, although they do, so far as they are permitted and commissioned, aid in the production of the things around us, yet not on that account are we to call them creators, any more than we call gardeners the creators of fruits and trees.” (On the City of God XII.24; English translation by Marcus Dods, in: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. 2.)
F. von Baader, Fermenta cognitionis I.34, Berlin 1822–1825, pp. 69–79; J. de Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, p. 135, n. v, pp. 147 and 296.
Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, p. 133.
In the Vulgate: fide intellegimus aptata esse saecula verbo Dei ut ex invisibilibus visibilia fierent. Maistre turns this into a great, ancient maxim: “This world is a system of invisible things visibly manifested” (ibidem, p. 296).
Here we are not following Kraszewski’s translation, which omits metaphysically significant details of this passage for the sake of metre and rhyme. See Mickiewicz, Forefathers’ Eve).
Summa Contra Gentiles I, 44, no. 2 and 47, no. 6. Maistre identifies this teaching with that of Nicolas Malebranche whom he considers as “the Christian Plato” (see Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, p. 296, note 16).
ita omnia corporalia reguntur per Angelos et hoc non solum a sanctis doctoribus ponitur, sed etiam ab omnibus philosophis qui incorporeas substantias posuerunt (Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 110, a. 1, co.).
Course III, Lecture XII; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, p. 152.
Course III, Lecture XVI, Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, pp. 193–4.
F. Schelling, On the Nature of Philosophy as Science, p. 228. See Plato, Theaetetus 155d and Aristotle, Metaphysics I, 982b.
Schelling was delivering his lectures on the philosophy of art in the first years of the 19th century, but they were published only in his collected works in 1859. “§23 Art, however, is the representation of the archetypes, hence God himself is the immediate cause and the final possibility of all art; he himself is the source of all beauty.” And “§24 The true construction of art is a presentation of its forms as forms of things as those things are in themselves, or as they are within the absolute, for according to §21 the universe is formed within God as eternal beauty and as an absolute work of art. Similarly, all things as they are in themselves or within God are just as absolutely beautiful as they are absolutely true. Accordingly, the forms of art, since they are the forms of beautiful things, are also forms of things as they are within God or in themselves.” (F.W.J. Schelling, The Philosophy of Art, ed. D.W. Stott, Minneapolis 1989, p. 32). “§38 The creations of art must have the same reality as, indeed an even higher reality than, those of nature.” (ibidem, p. 45). The same view can be found in Baader: “wie denn auch das Thus des Genie’s ist, sein Gebilde von den Banden und der Finsterniss einer niedrigern, entstellten Natur zu befreien, und zu erlösen, und durch selbes hiermit als einem geöffneten Auge eine höhere Welt freundlich oder furchtbar durchblicken zu lassen …” (Fermenta cognitionis II.15, p. 36).
Plato, Republic X, 596a–599b.
Plotinus, Enneads V.8.1.
Course IV, Lecture VI; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. XI, p. 64.
Course IV, Lecture XI; ibidem, p. 141. The “even” preceding the Gospels is not disparaging, since Mickiewicz believed that religions form a hierarchy, from Paganism, through the religions of India and Judaism to Christianity which is the highest and fullest revelation. Probably, he refers to the fact that, unlike the other works, the Gospels are not written in any poetic genre and, at the first glance, seem to be much less poetic than other sacred scriptures.
A mutilated, “Christ-less” first hexameter of Homer that Hamann produces is:
Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, pp. 226–33.
“But those frequent songs throughout the law and prophets beyond all these, not in their divine argument alone, but in the very critical art of composition may be easily made appear over all the kinds of lyric poesy, to be incomparable. These abilities, wheresoever they be found, are the inspired gift of God rarely bestow’d, but yet to some (though most abuse) in every nation” (Reason of Church Government, preface to Book II, in: J. Milton, The Portable Milton, ed. D. Bush, New York 1977, p. 126). Cf. also C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, London – New York – Toronto 1942, p. 4.
Eukairos akairos: “In season, out of season” (2 Tim 4:2).
Hamann, Aesthetica in nuce, p. 86.
Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, p. 227. The italics are Maistre’s.
Ibidem, p. 233.
Hamann, Aesthetica in nuce, p. 95.
See note 94.
See S. Windakiewicz, “Mickiewicz i Byron”, Pamiętnik Literacki 31 (1934), pp. 127–132; Z. Szmydtowa, Mickiewicz jako tłumacz z literatur zachodnio-europejskich, Warszawa 1955; H. Zbierski, “Mickiewiczowskie przekłady drobnych utworów Byrona i Moore’a,” Przegląd Zachodni 12, 1 (1956), pp. 71–141; Z. Dokurno, “O Mickiewiczowskich przekładach z Byrona,” Pamiętnik Literacki 47 (1956), pp. 317–348; K.A. Zakrzewski, “Ciemność (Mickiewiczowski przekład ‘Darkness’ Byrona),” Rocznik Towarzystwa Literackiego imienia Adama Mickiewicza 11 (1976), pp. 125–138; M. Bąk, “Warsztat Mickiewicza tłumacza,” in: Od oświecenia ku romantyzmowi i dalej …: autorzy, dzieła, czytelnicy, ed. M. Piechota, J. Ryba, Katowice 2004, pp. 72–88.
Dokurno, “O Mickiewiczowskich przekładach z Byrona”, p. 318.
Ibidem, p. 320.
Windakiewicz believes Mickiewicz’s translations of Byron’s Darkness and Euthanasia to be rather weak (Windakiewicz, “Mickiewicz i Byron”, p. 128). In a similar way, although less radically, Zbierski (“Mickiewiczowskie przekłady drobnych utworów Byrona i Moore’a,” p. 112).
Ibidem, p. 113; Bąk, “Warsztat Mickiewicza tłumacza”, p. 88.
A letter to Józef Jeżowski from June 1820, in: Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. XIV, pp. 129–130.
Dokurno, “O Mickiewiczowskich przekładach z Byrona,” p. 328; Zakrzewski, “Ciemność (Mickiewiczowski przekład ‘Darkness’ Byrona),” p. 127.
A letter to Jan Czeczot from October 1819, in: Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. XIV, pp. 57.
Zakrzewski, “Ciemność (Mickiewiczowski przekład ‘Darkness’ Byrona),” pp. 125–6.
Quoted after: J. M. Rymkiewicz, “Temat Mickiewicza,” in: Adam Mickiewicz, Wiersze i powieści poetyckie, ed. idem, Warszawa 2004, pp. 401–402.
Lam, Anioł Ślązak Mickiewicza.
For a more detailed discussion of this translation see the commentary.
A. Mickiewicz, Dzieła. Wydanie rocznicowe, t. VII: Pisma historyczne. Wykłady lozańskie, Warszawa 1999, p. 243.
Ibidem, p. 244.
Course I, Lecture XXX; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. VIII, pp. 424–5.
Les Slaves. Cours professé au Collège de France, Paris 1849, t. 2, p. 78. He refers to the twentieth poem in the collection Les Feuilles d’automne, published in 1831.
Course I, Lecture XXX; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. VIII, p. 425.
Mickiewicz, Les Slaves, t. II, p. 80.
While discussing the Psalms, Maistre is speaking of the three languages consecrated on the Calvary (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin), of which the last one received a special status of the language of the Church (Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, p. 226).
D. Davie, “Pan Tadeusz in English verse,” in: Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature, pp. 318–29, on p. 319.
H. Bergson, The two sources of morality and religion, tr. R.A. Audra, C. Brereton, Westport, CO, 1975, p. 202–3.
Aristotle, Poetics 1451a-b, English translation by W.H. Fyfe in: Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Cambridge, MA – London 1932.
Course III, Lecture I; Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. X, pp. 10–11.
Athenaeum fragments 116, in: F. Schlegel, Philosophical fragments, tr. P. Firchow, Minneapolis – London 1991, p. 31.
Athenaeum fragments 249, ibidem, p. 52.
Ideas 46, ibidem, p. 98.
As indicated by one of the epigrams in Mickiewicz’s Sentences and Remarks.
Hamann, Aesthetica in nuce, p. 66.
“Introduction”, in: Pisma Adama Mickiewicza, t. I–IV, Paris 1844, p. vi.
Luc Brisson claims that for Plato muthos is opposed to logos, since it is aimed at the irrational part of the soul (L. Brisson, Plato: The Myth Maker, tr. G. Naddaf, Chicago 1998, pp. 7–11, 116–21). On the other hand, Kathryn Morgan claimed that some elements of Plato’s myths express “metalogical”, mystical intuitions and can be considered to be higher than logos, while, in general, both ways of writing are dynamically intertwined and impossible to separate (K.A. Morgan, Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato, Cambridge 2000, pp. 1–5, 185–7).
Plotinus, Enneads V.8.6.
Hamann, Aesthetica in nuce, p. 63.
E.g. L.P. Gerson, “Plotinus’s Metaphysics: Emanation or Creation?,” The Review of Metaphysics 46, 3 (1993), pp. 559–574.
Mickiewicz, Dzieła, t. VII, p. 247.
J. Lechoń, “Mickiewicz in Polish Poetry”, in: Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature, pp. 1–12, on p. 6.
T.S. Eliot, Dante, in: The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot. The Critical Edition: Literature, Politics, Belief, eds. F. Dickey, J. Formichelli, Baltimore 2015, pp. 700–745, on p. 713.
C. Miłosz, “Mickiewicz and Modern Poetry”, in: Adam Mickiewicz, Poet of Poland, ed. M. Kridl, New York 1951, quoted after Davie, “Pan Tadeusz in English verse,” p. 322.
C. Adam, “The ‘Crimean Sonnets’ of Adam Mickiewicz – A New Translation,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 40, 3–4 (1998), pp. 401–432, on p. 405.
Ibidem, p. 410.
Ibidem, p. 411.
An excellent study of Mickiewicz’s relationship with France can be found in J. Bourilly, “Mickiewicz and France,” in: Adam Mickiewicz and World Literature, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1956, pp. 243–79.
Quoted in: ibidem, p. 258.
Quoted in R. Koropeckyj, Adam Mickiewicz. The Life of a Romantic, Ithaca – London 2008, p. 274.
See H. Schroeder, “Mickiewicz in Germany,” in: Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature, pp. 159–193.
Ibidem, p. 170.
See W. Lednicki, “Mickiewicz’s Stay in Russia and His Friendship with Pushkin”, pp. 13–104 and G. Struve, “Mickiewicz in Russian Translations”, pp. 105–152; both in Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature.
Struve, “Mickiewicz in Russian Translations”, pp. 105–106.
G. Maver, “Mickiewicz and Italy”, in: Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature, pp. 197–220, on 205.
See W.R. Rose, “Mickiewicz and Britain”, in: Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature, pp. 295–318, quotations on pp. 298 and 299.
Ibidem, p. 302.
F.J. Whitfield, “Mickiewicz and American Literature”, in: Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature, pp. 339–352, on p. 349.
Rose, “Mickiewicz and Britain”, p. 295.
Zakrzewski, “The ‘Crimean Sonnets’”, p. 401.