Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) was one of the greatest poets of Polish Romanticism, and possibly one of the greatest Polish writers of all time. Mickiewicz, together with two other Polish poets of his time, Juliusz Slowacki and Zygmunt Krasinski, played the role of a national bard and spiritual leader. His biography is exemplary of the fate of the first generation of Poles born under foreign occupation, the romantic idealists who after the Napoleonic wars undertook the toil of creating a new world ideal, new national identity and new forms of struggle for independence. His love lyrics, succinct and charged with emotion and meaning, raised the image of woman to ideal heights previously unknown in Polish poetry. With his exalted patriotism, mystical feeling, and passionate appreciation of the positive aspects of Polish life, he came to epitomize the Polish spirit for succeeding generations of his nation's writers.
Mickiewicz was born on Christmas Eve
of 1798 in Zaosie, in the old Lithuanian
territories. He was raised in the nearby Nowogródek
, where his father Mikołaj, an impoverished nobleman, worked as a court defense lawyer. Young Adam thus had no family wealth or titles to rely on in his future life, but only his own skills and hands.
In 1815 the young Mickiewicz completed a local Dominican Monk led school and went off to Vilnius to study philology and history. He supported himself from a scholarship, which he had to repay after completing his studies (1819). He then went to work in a regional school in Kowno where he stayed till 1823. Mickiewicz's personality was formed and molded during his studies, not in the least under the influence of professors such as:
Knowledge and virtue
In 1817 Mickiewicz and a few of his best friends, Tomasz Zan
, Jan Czeczot
, Józef Jeżowski
, Onufry Pietraszkiewicz
, Franciszek Malewsk
i, formed the secret Towarzystwo Filomatów (Philomaths'
Society) and subsequently the Towarzystwo Filaretów (Friends of Virtue
). These secret societies held a number of self-educating activities and their goals were to prepare the youth for a life in a nation without sovereignty
. In these societies Mickiewicz gained insight into leading a secret organization, writing ideological documents and using literature and social contacts in the struggle for independence. The atmosphere of the secret societies presented itself notably in "Pieśń Filaretów" (Philarets' Song 1820) and "Oda do Młodości" (Ode to Youth
Love and folklore
A second defining moment was his unlucky romance with Maria Wereszczak Countess Wawrzyńcowa Puttkamer
. Their romance was cut short when she was forced to marry the count Puttkamer. She reportedly never stopped loving Mickiewicz. The enamored Mary remained as the simple Maryla
personifying his romantic ideal of love
in Mickiewicz's later works. A third important experience was his contact with folklore
. As a child he learned the customs
, as a young man he furthered his knowledge. He perceived these manifestations of popular culture as exponents of national tradition and pride and a source of inspiration. The literary fruit of this inspiration were notably "Ballady i Romanse
" (Ballads and Romances
1822) and "Dziady
" (Forefathers' Eve
1823) and "Grażyna
The title of the play and theme of part I was taken from an ancient folk celebration in Belarus, held on All Saints' Day, which honours the memory of the dead and was common in Lithuania during Mickiewicz's youth. The second part dealt with the theme of earthly suffering and portrayed the ghosts of the ill-treated tenants, children who cannot reach heaven because they have not suffered on earth, and the virgin shepherdess who had experienced neither love nor grief. Part III depicted the martyrdom of Poland and presented a vision of the future country in which the sufferings are equated with the Passion of Christ. This vision concludes with a prophecy about a mysterious future saviour of Poland, bearing the name "44." Part IV was a monodrama. The protagonist is the spirit of a young suicide victim, consumed with a passion that leads to insanity and death.
Imprisonment and exile
In 1823 the Philomaths'
Society was detected and Mickiewicz was captured. He was imprisoned in a former monastery in Vilnius
. After his trial he was sentenced to exile deep inside Russia
proper. He then left Vilnius
for St. Petersburg
. While in Moscow he acquainted himself with a number of literary greats as well as numerous underground opposition members. Some of these were:
He frequented parties of the elite, both cultural and intellectual, where he gained fame as a great improviser. He was also able to observe up close how the despotic
machine of the tsar
functioned. All of this coupled with his exile furthered his alienation
and sense of patriotic mission
. The most famous works of this period are: "Sonnets
" 1826 and "Konrad Wallenrod
In 1829 he managed to leave Russia and embarked on a two-year journey around Europe. He traveled to Hamburg (where he attended lectures by Georg Hegel), Dresden, Prague, Karlove Vary (here he met Antoni Odynec his future travel mate). He then traveled to Weimar where he has visited Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His further journey took him to Switzerland, Venice, Florence and Rome. In 1830 while in Rome the news of the Polish Insurrection reached him.
His romantic journey has now ended. Another chapter in his biography closed he decided to return to his motherland and join the insurrection against the foreign oppressors
. He arrived in Paris whence from he was sent to Poland under an assumed name of Adam Muhl
by the Polish insurrection representatives in Paris. He arrived in Wielkopolska
(south-central Poland) in August of 1831. Observing the obvious signs of the insurrection's failure he resigned himself from his intentions of reaching Warsaw and joining in the fight. His readiness to fight and the related occurrences led him to write a number of insurrection themed epics: "Smierć Pułkownika" (Death of a Colonel
1831), "Reduta Ordona
" 1831. He remained in Wielkopolska until 1832. In that year a new phase in his life commenced i.e. that of a prolonged forced emigration.
Leaving for Dresden, Mickiewicz joined the fate of many of the insurrection fighters. He wrote the third part of the Forefathers' Eve in the solemn post-insurrection atmosphere in Dresden. He then moved on to Paris, where he would spend most of his future days. He actively participated in a number of Polish émigrés' organizations, preparing himself and the other members for a return to the country. He along with a lot of other people expected a pan-european revolution to erupt soon and expected not to stay abroad for very long. In 1832 he published one of his better known works "Ksiegi Narodu i Pielgrzymstwa Polskiego" (The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage). In it he laid out his idealistic vision of the role of Poland and the desired objectives of Polish emigrants in France. Simultaneously he wrote articles and he edited a political journal aimed at the emigrés. His appointment as editor was a rather short-lived one; from April to June 1833. He lived and published in Paris until 1834, when he married the daughter of the famous Polish pianist Maria Szymanowska, Celina, who bore him 6 children. Their difficult financial situation caused Mickiewicz to turn to some commercial writing.
Also in 1834 he wrote his magnum opus "Pan Tadeusz" ("Master Thaddeus". It is a poetic epic written on a grand scale. Its importance to the people of Poland is similar to national epics like the Edda or Kalevala from neighbouring countries or other similar works from other nations. It is set in early 19th century and depicts the life of local gentry through the eyes of two feuding families of noblemen. It greatly focuses on portraying virtues of chivalry and patriotic love. In 1839 the family moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he accepted the position of Latin Literature Professor at the local university.
He soon returned to Paris though to teach at the new faculty of Slavic Literature at the College de France. He not only taught literature and culture of the Slavic people but also incessantly propagated his anti-monarchist and anti-organised religion ideas. His controversial ideas as well as his involvement with the mysticism and political radicalism of one Andrzej Towiański led to the French authorities suspending him from office. For years to come he remained active in all manner of political and cultural organizations. He even set up the so-called Polish Legion in Rome. The Legion was supposed to fight in the future war of independence.
On a grand political scale Mickiewicz placed his hopes in Napoleon III and the (outcome of the) Crimean War. Therefore, after his wife's death he left the children behind in Paris and left for Constantinople to support the formation of the Ottoman Cossacks who were supposed to fight the Russian troops. A monarchist faction tried to take control of the Polish-Cossack troops, which was met with fierce opposition by Mickiewicz. This new political struggle has taken a further physical and emotional toll and he was taken down with cholera of which he died on November 26th 1855.
His remains were moved to Paris and deposited in the Polish cemetery Montmorency. In 1890 they were moved to Poland and deposited in Wawel Castle in Cracow.
His works remain to this day revered by Poles abroad and in the country as well as by literature enthusiasts worldwide.
- Ode to youth, 1820
- Ballads and Romances, 1822
- Forefathers' Eve, 1823-32
- Crimean Sonnets, 1826 -
- Odessa Sonnets, 1826
- Konrad Wallenrod, 1827
- The Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage, 1832
- Pan Tadeusz or the Last Foray in Lithuania, 1834
- Cours de la littèrature slave, 1845
- Les slaves, 1849
- Les confédérés de Bar, 1867 (written in 1836)
- Dziela, 1949-55 (16 vols.) (full works)
- A Treasury of Love Poems by Adam Mickiewicz, 1998 (ed. by Krystyna Olszer)
W. WEINTRAUB, The Poetry of A. Mickiewicz , 's Gravenhage, 1954