Polish Literature

As an English major in both college and grad school, I’ve read a fair amount of literature.  But in my entire academic life I never encountered a Polish author on the syllabus other than Joseph Conrad, who, though Polish, wrote in English and can be found in English lit books as opposed to “World” lit.  I became interested in the subject partly because of my heritage, but also thanks to a penpal relationship with a young Polish college student.  The third thing that led me to learn more was when I began to learn about the life of a Polish man I greatly admire…you could say that Pope John Paul II led me to discover Polish literature!  In honor of Polish-American Heritage Month I thought I would briefly highlight some of the great authors that have shaped Poland’s cultural life, and in a separate post I will write more about John Paul’s early life, how Polish culture affected his views, and the time we met.

Please note that Poland’s history is long and full, and its literature is no exception.  In this post, I will merely highlight just a few of the many talented authors; this is by no means complete.  As such, I’m skipping over hundreds of years worth of works until arriving at the period known as “Polish Romanticism”.    Throughout 19th Century Europe, literature reflected the revolutionary ideals of the time. But while most of these writers wanted to break away from the past, Poland’s writers suggested returning to it, for they felt that something had been lost and needed to be reclaimed. For most of the writers, the “something” was the country’s Catholic values.  With the Romantics, history took on a spiritual purpose.

One of the most famous of the authors from this period of Polish literature is Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916).  He is perhaps best known for what is commonly called “The Trilogy” – a series of three histoical novels about events from the 17th Century Polish-Lituanian Commonwealth.  The three titles are With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe.  Each dealt with Polish history: the Cossack rebellion, the Swedish invasion, and wars with the Ottoman Empire.  The novels are sweeping in scope and quite lengthy, but Sienkiewicz was a gifted writer so the size of the novel is irrelevant. One of Sienkiewicz’s most popular novels is Quo Vadis, which was another historical novel.  This one, however, takes place in Rome during Nero’s reign and involves a star-crossed romance between a Christian woman and a pagan Roman patrician.  While the Trilogy is still on my “to be read” list, I had the pleasure of reading Quo Vadis, and it is truly a great story.  You may recogize the name from the 1951 Hollywood movie, which was based on the novel.  The quality of his work is evident by the honor he received in 1905 when he won the Nobel Prize for achievement in literature.  If you enjoy historical sagas, you will enjoy Sienkiewicz!

Another of Poland’s literary greats is Adam Mickiewicz (1789-1855).  Mickiewicz was primarily a poet, but he also wrote plays.  His most famous work is Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem that takes place during the period of the partitions.  The work is so famous in Poland that it is considered to be the national epic and it is required reading in schools.  Mickiewicz was the driving force of the Polish Romantic movement, and he believed in the redemptive quality of suffering and that Poland’s destiny would emerge from the country’s brokenness (as the country did not exist as a country after the partitions). He was a patriot more than a writer, and he left his writing career at its prime to devote the rest of his life to politics.  I found a good page that not only highlights his writing, but also his politics and his family history.

Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849) was another poet and playwright who deeply influenced Polish culture.  He was influenced himself by Byron and Shakespeare, and he shared the belief that Poland’s suffering would one day end.  I was fascinated to learn that in 1848 he wrote a beautiful poem about a future “Slavic Pope” who will be a “brother to all mankind” and lead all of humanity beyond suffering.  I’m not certain that this is an exact translation from the Polish, but the only English text I found of the poem is at this blog.  Rather prophetic…

One of my favorite authors that I encountered in college was Joseph Conrad (1857-1924).  I was surprised to learn that his real name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, he was born in Poland, and he learned English when he was an adult.  The novels I read were not translations from Polish, but written in English.  His prose is beautiful, and I can not fathom how talented a writer you have to be to write in a language that is not your “first”.  English was actually his third language, after Polish and French.  Yet his prose flows so fluidly, so poetically, that I can only wonder what he would have produced in his native tongue.  In The External Solitary by Gillon, Conrad is quoted as saying that Polish literature is in “too high esteem to introduce it to my poor writing.”  Among his many novels, the most famous are Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent.  One interesting aspect of his work is his focus on the themes of loyalty, fidelity, and self-sacrifice, which all relate to his Polish heritage and the fate of his homeland.  The theme of being set apart in exile or being solitary from the rest of the world also permeates his work, perhaps due to his own isolation as a Pole living away from his country.

I copied this quote into my notebook when I was in college, and although it is merely from a letter Conrad wrote to a friend, it offers a fine glimpse of his talent:

…old Father Time, always diligent in his business, has put his eraser over many men, things, and memories: yet I defy him to obliterate from my mind and heart the recollection of the kindness you and yours have shown to a stranger, on the strength of a distant national connection.  I fear I have not expressed adequately to your wife and yourself all my gratitude: I do not pretend to do so now, for in my case when the heart is full the words are scarce, and the more so the more intense the feeling I wish to express.

These are only four of the many famous Polish authors in the history of Polish literature.  Jumping ahead to modern times, perhaps you are familiar with the names of the Nobel-prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz or the science fiction writer Stanisław Lem.  One of my favorite Polish poets is none other than Karol Wojtyła, the nan more commonly known as Pope John Paul II.  He wrote poetry and dramatic works both before and after he became a priest and pope.   I will share one of his poems, one that is actually genealogy-related, in my next post.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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