Adam Mickiewicz: His Life and Work
Mickiewicz was born on 24 December 1798 in Nowogródek (or Zaosie). After school years in Nowogródek, he entered Wilno University, at first as a student of the Department of Literature and Art. With his companions Tomasz Zan and Józef Jeżowski, he founded a semi-secret discussion society in 1817 (the Philomaths). The society remained active after his departure for Kowno, although most of its activities ceased in about 1821, after all the members had left Wilno.
In Kowno between 1819 and 1823, Mickiewicz’s interests developed in other directions besides the idealist post-Napoleonic spirit present in Ode to Youth, which combines Classicism with some of the newer trends in European literature: particularly Schiller’s world of the spirit (c. 1820). In The Sailor (1820) the motifs of loneliness and the powers of nature presage many of the ideas dominant in his later poetry.Some of his verse reflects his unsuccessful love affair with Maryla Wereszczaka (the poem To M*** immortalizes his feelings during this period), who encouraged the young teacher to read Goethe’s Werther and Schiller’s Die Räuber.
The greatest achievements of his unhappy years in Kowno are two volumes of poetry, the first containing Ballads and Romances (1822), which are traditionally regarded as inaugurating Polish Romanticism, and the second, entitled simply Poetry. Volume II, two longer poetical works, Grażyna and Forefathers’ Eve parts II and IV (Ode to Youth was not included in these because of censorship). 1823 proved to be a crucial year for Polish literature, culture and politics. With the other Philomaths, Mickiewicz was arrested and questioned about the political and conspiratorial activities of the many secret societies in Lithuania. After a few months of imprisonment he was exiled away from Lithuania, and waited in St Petersburg for a posting as a teacher. Sent to Odessa in 1825, the political situation underwent a sudden change, after the failed Decembrist coup, and he receives no post. His stay in the Odessa salons is reflected in his Petrarchan Sonnets, and a journey he made with his friends to the Crimean peninsula is painted by the Crimean Sonnets, both cycles published together in 1826. Returning through Moscow, he makes friends with Pushkin, and is recognized in Russia and in Congress Poland as the leading and most controversial Polish writer of the time. In Moscow he writes Konrad Wallenrod (publ. 1828; second edition, 1829), admired by the Russians also. Finally the Tsarist authorities grant Mickiewicz permission to leave Russia and travel abroad (1829). He never returns to Russia or Lithuania. He never visits Warsaw or Cracow, in the Kingdom.
On leaving Russia, AM visits Goethe in Weimar, then Dresden, the Rhineland, Switzerland (then de rigueur for all Romantic poets), ending up in Italy. In Rome he is influenced by the neo-Catholic thinking of Félicité de Lamennais, and his revaluation of the spirit of Chrisitianity in the tradition of Chateaubriand. His guide to Rome (which lived up to his Classicist expectations) was the beautiful young Ewa Ankwicz, but her family disapproved of the liaison, and in 1830 he left Rome with her. He travelled south to Naples and once more to Switzerland. He was already back in Rome when news reached him that an Uprising had broken out in Poland, but he hesitated for several months before setting out for Warsaw. By that time the capital was surrounded and capitulated in September 1831, before Mickiewicz could reach it. From Poznaƒ he returned in despair to Dresden. The writings of this period are filled with a predictable religious and political despair and disillusionment: Reason and Faith, The Wise Men, Evevning Talk. On watching the Polish army pass through Saxony on its way into exile in France, he wrote:
“I place great hopes in our nation and n a course of events unforeseen by any diplomacy. …I should think … that we ought to give a religious and moral character to our aspirations and that we should base it on Catholicism.” (Letter to Lelewel, 1831)
The immediate result of his reflection, personal experiences at the hands of the Russian authorities, and the despair at the latest calamity is revealed in the inspired Forefathers’ Eve Part III, published in Paris in 1832. He moved with other emigrés to Paris, where he was feted as a Polish hero, though he feels uncomfortable in the bourgeois kingdom of Louis Philippe I (1830-48). He published his Books of the Polish Nation and Pilgrimage soon after Forefathers’ Eve Part III, a history of mankind “from the beginning of the world to the martyrdom of Poland”, in the biblical style:
“and the Polish nation was martyred and laid in the grave, and the kings cried out – we have killed and buried liberty !”
To propagate these views, AM founded the magazine The Polish Pilgrim, which ran for almost two years, and which encouraged the emigrés to have faith in their eventual return from the desert to the Holy Land. Political squabbling among emigrés, and the hopeless news from Poland made AM turn even more strongly from conventional involvement in politics, and seek the comfort and security of friends and memories of better times. The result of these reminiscences was extraordinary novel/epic poem Pan Tadeusz. Intended as a recreation of the “country of his childhood”, the period in which it was set immediately gave it an epic dimension (the years 1811-12). At first understood as foolish escapism, Pan Tadeusz gradually became the Bible of a community split into occupation and emigration. It evoked with its archaism, nostalgia and idyllic scenes, memories and hopes of independence and power.
Mickiewicz’s distaste for the emigrés and the French stimulated his interests in the introspective world investigated by Christian mystics such as Boehme, Silesius and Swedenborg, and he compiled and translated an anthology of their work, Sentences and Thoughts from the Works of Jacob Boehme, Angelus Silesius and St Martin (1836). After a difficult period of isolation, M was offered a position as lecturer in Classics at Lausanne in Switzerland, which he readily accepted. He was both happy and popular there, and some of his most crisp, calm poetry derives from this short but relaxing period (Over the Great, Pure Water, The Tears Flowed, To Think on Love). He resigned when the French government appointed him to the post of Professor of Slavonic Languages and Literatures at the College de France in Paris in 1839, a post he took up in early 1840.
His work at the College (1840-44) was supported by figures as diverse as Czartoryski and George Sand, and his position made him the most vocal, visible and influential of the Polish emigré community. Yet Mickiewicz was not the only “inspired” lecturer there, as his colleagues included the historian Jules Michelet, who expounded the theory of Promethean Man (i.e. Napoleon), and France as the chosen vehicle of a new era in Europe, and the philosopher/critic Edgar Quinet, who wrote a book Prometheus, cultivated the legend of Napoleon, and lectured on the Mediterranean literatures in much the same spirit as Mickiewicz. All three of them were dismissed in 1845 for the political content of their courses. In Mickiewicz’s case the reason for his dismissal was also partly embarrassment. Soon after he began his first lectures in 1840, M, met Andrzej Towiański, a self-styled religious prophet/priest, and in whom Mickiewicz saw the figure 44 prophesied by himself in Dziady, who had “magnetic power”. The “Mistrz”, as he was known, led a small group of believers (“bracia”) and voiced a new gospel of inspiration and illumination. It was based upon a mixture of Christian mysticism and ritual with irrational Romantic concepts of the existence of higher spirits (Napoleon was the first, Towiański the second) of whom there were to be seven. This system obviously appealed to AM’s apocalyptic/escathological sensibilities, and was quickly converted, though the Mistrz was expelled from France in 1842. The Circle of the Divine Cause Towiański had founded included Słowacki, Goszczyński, Januszkiewicz, Nabielak, and many others.
While Mickiewicz’s lectures of 1840-42 had concentrated on his brief (Les Slaves, Les Slaves et la Pologne), the subsequent lectures were pure propaganda for his convictions (La Pologne et la méssianisme, L’Eglise officiel et le méssianisme, L’Eglise et le Messie). The inherent logic of Towiański’s vision of Russia as the necessary tool in the punishment of Poland for her sins led to approval for Nicholas’ treatment of the insurgents, and an attempt to convert Nicholas to Towianism. This disillusioned many of his followers, and enraged the Polish exiles in Paris. Mickiewicz broke with Towiański in 1846, though still believed his tenets to be true, and led an apoliticized cell that recognized the Mistrz’s spiritual authority.
The cries of revolution that swept Europe in 1848 were greeted by the Poles with enthusiasm: the challenge to the Holy Alliance could only be of positive use to the depressed and oppressed nation. Mickiewicz set off for Rome and, in Italy, founded the Polish Legion with a view to eventually heading for Poland and liberating the homeland. This hopelessly small band of 250 men was defeated by the French army and disarmed. Meanwhile, events in France had taken a revolutionary turn with the overthrow of the Kingdom of Louis Philippe and the proclamation of a republic under Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, in 1848. With all the implications for Polish nationalist aspirations, M returned to edit La Tribune des Peuples, a socialist, internationalist magazine. As the President, Napoleon moved quickly to the right and gradually stifled the “Red” opposition, and under diplomatic pressure from Russia too, Mickiewicz was again dismissed from office.
AM eventually found employment in the Bibliotheque de l’Arsénal in 1852, where he stayed for three years, and came to a rapprochement with Czartoryski. In the light of the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853-56), caused by a dispute over the holy places in Jerusalem by Greek Orthodox and Catholic monks, and the attempt by Russia to demand a Russian protectorate over all Orthodox Christians (including those in Ottoman lands), Mickiewicz was sent in 1855 to Istanbul to help organize the Polish troops intending to fight next to the Ottoman, British and French troops in the Crimea. Soon after his arrival he died of cholera.