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Adam Mickiewicz

Poet, b. near Novogrodek, Lithuania, 1798; d. at Constantinople, 1855

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Mickiewicz, ADAM, b. near Novogrodek, Lithuania, 1798; d. at Constantinople, 1855. He studied at Novogrodek until 1815, when he entered Vilna University. Here he studied German and English romantic poetry with the greatest zeal. A thwarted passion for Marya Wereszczak roused rather than quenched his genius; and, soon after becoming a professor in Kovno (1819), he published his first poetical creations in two volumes (Vilna, 1822-3). These included: (a)”Dziady” (The Ancestors), which, besides its artistic lyricism, marks the first appearance of romanticism in Poland. His hero Gustav is rather of the morbid Werther type; (b) many ballads and romances, setting forth Lithuanian folk-lore with great power and skill; most, though not all, of these are visibly influenced by Goethe, Schiller, and Burger; (c) “Grazyna”, in form like the lyric epics of that period, but, unlike these, full of real epic simplicity, majesty, and objectivity. To the same period belongs his celebrated “Ode to Youth”, though it appeared somewhat later. The current of his genius was then changed by persecution. While at the university he belonged to a society of students, with which he afterwards continued to correspond; he was now most unjustly thrown into prison with the other members, since none of them had ever dreamed of insurrection. The keynote of his poems was no longer disappointed love, but suffering patriotism. Sentenced to exile in Russia, he left Lithuania forever (1824), and went first to Odessa and thence to the Crimea, where he wrote his “Sonnets” (Moscow, 1826). These are gloomy but extremely picturesque, and most effective by the infinite sadness which repeatedly appears in them with striking unexpectedness. Sent afterwards to Moscow, Mickiewicz wrote there his famous “Konrad Wallenrod”, published later in St. Petersburg (1828). This poem is unequal; its hero is too Byronesque, and it seems to preach revenge by treachery. But its wonderful patriotism, inspiration, and artistic finish raised it as a whole above anything he had yet written.

In 1829, after a stay at St. Petersburg, Mickiewicz obtained his great desire leave to go abroad. On his way to Rome he passed through Weimar, and visited Goethe, who, we are told, was greatly impressed by him. When in Italy he wrote very little, but returned to the fervent practice of the Catholic religion, which he had before neglected. In 1831 the Polish insurrection broke out; Mickiewicz attempted to return to Poland, but was stopped at the Prussian frontier. He then went to Dresden, where he wrote the third part of the “Dziady”. It deserves special notice as containing, besides the expression of that revolt against God which some Poles felt after the loss of their independence, a mistaken attempt to explain their country’s fate as that of a Christ-like victim slain for the sins of other nations; it offers also a key to Mickiewicz’s own spiritual life. In 1832 he went to Paris, and there wrote (in Biblical prose) his “Book of the Pilgrimage”, in which he treats the Polish refugees as apostles and sowers of the Word among the nations. Later, in 1834, he published his long poem “Pan Tadeusz”, a marvellously lively and faithful portrait of Lithuanian life in the first years of the nineteenth century. Plot, development, characters, episodes, every passage, and almost every line are excellent: it is a high-water mark in Polish poetry, one of the world’s masterpieces. After this achievement Mickiewicz gave up poetry: his sole aim was henceforth to work out Poland‘s regeneration by serving God. “An order of Poles”, he said, “was needed to bring the nation back to God.” From this idea, which he advocated widely, the Order of the Resurrection may be said to have sprung.

In 1835 he married, and was afterwards in constant pecuniary straits. For some time he gave lessons in Latin literature at the Academy of Lausanne (1838-9); he was then named professor in the College de France, and his French work, “A Course of Slav Literature”, is very good. But in the third year of his teaching he began to abandon literature for certain philosophical and religious ideas. Towianski had won him over to his wild theory of Messianism, already foreshadowed in several of Mickiewicz’s poems. He eagerly embraced the idea of a faith that should be to Christianity what the latter was to Judaism. Such a change, though readily accounted for, had melancholy results. Messianism was condemned; Mickiewicz became the apostle of a false doctrine, and lost his chair of literature. He subsequently submitted (1848), but still continued to dream of a great regeneration of peoples, brought about by revolution. When the Crimean War came, he hoped for an invasion of Poland, and even went to Constantinople to form a Polish legion, but died there of cholera. His body was taken to Paris, and thence (1890) to the cathedral of Krakow, where it now reposes. Mickiewicz has much in common with Schiller; he is also like Byron, but above him both in moral tone and in objectivity, in which he recalls Goethe. But he rose superior to all of them as a fervent believer in Christ. Since Mickiewicz, Poland can boast of having one of the world’s great literatures, while of all Polish poets he is the most talented, the most intensely patriotic, and the most potent factor in the national life of Poland.



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