InfoPoland (12994 bytes)

Adam Mickiewicz, Poet, Patriot and Prophet
by Regina Grol

Adam Mickiewicz, A 1821 portrait by Walenty Wańkowicz

To a Pole, the name Adam Mickiewicz is emblematic of Polishness and greatness. What Homer is to the Greeks, or Shakespeare to the British, Mickiewicz is to the Poles. He is a cultural icon, a name inextricably connected with Polish literature and history, and one mentioned with pride. Mickiewicz stands out in the consciousness of Poles both as a man of letters and a political leader.

Despite his unquestionable status and fame, however, much of Mickiewicz's biography is shrouded in mystery. Even the generally accepted date of his birth, December 24. 1798, is uncertain, since it hasn't been determined whether it refers to the Gregorian or the Julian calendar. Nor has it been established conclusively whether Mickiewicz was born in Nowogrodek or at Zaosie, a mile or so apart. Many biographical facts, particularly those pertaining to his relationships with women, were deliberately obscured to preserve a flawless public image of the poet. Likewise, his interest in mysticism and involvement in mystical cults tended to be minimized, especially during the years of Communist rule in Poland when the official line was to shun spirituality of any kind, not to expose the poet to ridicule.

Mickiewicz's son. Władysław, can be held partially responsible for this state of affairs, but he is not the only one. Having gained control of his father's papers after the poet's death, Władysław Mickiewicz destroyed various documents which might have potentially tarnished his father's public image. Likewise, many critics and scholars tended to overlook significant facts in the poet's biography, as well as significant themes and issues in his writing, to sustain the idealized view of Mickiewicz as a Polish national bard. This tendency to carefully "whitewash" Mickiewicz is hardly surprising. Born three years after the final partition of Poland, Mickiewicz became a spiritual leader of the Polish nation. An ardent patriot, he animated the Polish national spirit through his poetic, dramatic and political writings, providing hope and spiritual sustenance to Poles under the Russian, Prussian and Austrian rule, as well as to the many exiles, particularly the emigré circles in Paris, where he settled in 1832. Given the history of Poland and the long streak of political oppression and subjugation, the need for heroes and the idealization of Mickiewicz as a leader are perfectly understandable.

Yet already in the 1930s, there were critical voices against the bowdlerization of Mickiewicz's work (since some editions of his works eliminated the more racy passages) and objections were raised against the cover-up in renditions of his biography. The prominent critic, Tadeusz Boy-¬ieleński, for instance, in his work "Br±zownicy" objected to the distortions of facts and the "sins of omission" in critical writings on Mickiewicz. In recent years, a much more vast and thorough re-examination of Mickiewicz' life and oeuvre has occurred. This is partially due to the overall re-examination of Polish history and Polish literary tradition after the collapse of Communism and, generally. a much greater openness in discussions of various issues previously relegated to the sphere of national taboos. Thus, much has been written lately about the white spots in Mickiewicz's biography. particularly about his mystical leanings and the Jewish origin of his mother. The evidence of Mickiewicz's fascination with mysticism is overwhelming, and there is some basis for the allegation of his mother's Jewishness.

Family History

Mickiewicz's mother, Barbara Majewska. is reputed to have been a descendant of a Frankist family. The Frankists were members of a Jewish religious sect founded by J.L. Frank in 1755. Ostracized by both rabbinical and secular authorities, the Frankists found a patron in the bishop of the Lwów-Kamieniec region, bishop M. Dembowski, who offered them protection in exchange for conversion to Christianity. Thus, Jews from the Frankist sect massively converted to Christianity, yet many secretly continued to practice their religion. Records have been found indicating that among the converts was a Majewski family. As Mickiewicz himself used the phrase "z matki obcej" ([born] from a foreign mother) in title autobiographical section of his drama Dziady (The Forefathers Eve) the Jewish origin of his mother is quite plausible. Such critics as Janina Maurer of the University of Kansas and Samuel Scheps of France find further corroboration of this theory in the fact that Mickiewicz married a woman who was also from a Frankist family, that he represented Jewish characters in a very positive light ( e.g.. Jankiel, the patriotic Jew, in Mickiewicz's masterpiece Pan Tadeusz), and that toward the end of his life Mickiewicz was actively involved in raising funds for and organizing the Jewish legion. In his political writings, moreover, Mickiewicz repeatedly referred to the Bible (a rather rare tendency among Catholic writers) and compared Poland's martyrdom and the dispersion of Poles after the November 1830 uprising to the suffering of the Jews and the Jewish diaspora.

Activism, imprisonment, Banishment

While the Jewishness of Adam Mickiewicz's mother remains a somewhat controversial issue, since many would rather retain time image of Mickiewicz as a "pure" Pole, other facts in Mickiewicz's biography are not disputed and these bear brief reminding. He was the son of Mikołaj (Nicholas) Mickiewicz, a lawyer, who died when Adam was thirteen. In 1815 Mickiewicz enrolled at the University of Wilno on a government scholarship.

An 1829 Adam Mickiewicz medal by David D'Angers

He received an excellent education in classical philology, Polish literature and history. His friendships with fellow students, some of them members of the secret youth organizations Filomats and Filarets, lasted him a lifetime. (He referred to them in Dziady Part III). In 1819 Mickiewicz taught high school in Kowno as a payback for his government scholarship. When the Tsarist authorities discovered the secret student organizations, senator N. N. Novosiltsov instigated a trial of the Wilno youth. This resulted in Mickiewicz being imprisoned for six months in a Wilno monastery and subsequently being banished to central Russia for 5 years. He spent those years traveling extensively (to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, and Crimea) and met some of the most distinguished Russian poets, including Pushkin. The poet also came in contact with members of the subversive Russian group, the Decembrists (Dekabrists).

When his banishment to Russia ended, Mickiewicz exposed himself to the West. He spent the summer of 1829 in Germany: attended Hegel's lectures in Berlin and met Goethe in Weimar. In the Fall of that year, he visited Rome, declaring it the most appealing of all the capitals he had visited. And it was in Rome that the news of the November 1830 uprising reached him. In April of 1831, in a rather roundabout way - via Geneva and Paris - Mickiewicz set out to the Wielkopolska region (then under Prussian rule), where he arrived in August 1831. He meant to cross the border into the Russian occupied part of Poland but did not succeed, and soon he joined the wave of emigrants going to France via Germany. In March of 1832 Mickiewicz left Wielkopolska, traveled to Dresden and then to Paris, where he ultimately settled. He never again set foot on Polish soil, and thus Nowogrodek and Wielkopolska became the only regions of Poland the poet ever knew. He never made it to Warsaw or Kraków or any other of the Polish cities.


Adam Mickiewicz, in a ca. 1842 daguerreotype

Mickiewicz's emigré existence was unexpectedly eventful. The Paris emigré circles were a cauldron of political activity. Mickiewicz published profusely in the emigré paper Pielgrzym Polski (The Polish Pilgrim) and was in the center of many controversies. In 1834 he married Celina Szymańska, daughter of Maria Szymańska, the famous pianist and composer whose salon he had visited in 1827 in St. Petersburg along with Pushkin and other literati. In the Fail of 1839 Mickiewicz taught classical Roman literature at the University of Lausanne and a year later he came back to Paris where for four years (1840-44) he taught Slavic literatures at the College de France, occupying a chair established by the French Government especially for him. His lectures on the history of Polish literature were very popular and well attended. He was probably the first promulgator of Polish culture and the culture of other Slavic nations in Western Europe. Most unfortunately, his university career was short lived. Several times the French authorities suspended Mickiewicz from lecturing because of the unruly atmosphere at his lectures, triggered by Mickiewicz's provocative political and anti-clerical statements as well as his dissemination of Andrzej Towiański's mystical doctrines. Finally, Mickiewicz lost his position at the College de France. He continued to be politically active, however, and in February of 1848, during the Spring of Nations, went to Rome for an audience with the Pope, whom he antagonized. In the final years of his life his political activity intensified. He traveled to Istanbul, along with Prince Czartoryski's son, to launch a Polish legion, and it was in Istanbul (Constantinople) that he died on November 26, 1855.

Poetic Masterpieces

Adam Mickiewicz, an 1850 portrait by Aleksander Kamiński

Until the publication of Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz's biography is one of a Romantic poet, a great artist. Later, it is a biography of a political activist, an ideologue and a champion of freedom, who is impressive even without one's knowledge or appreciation of his poetry. In fact, Mickiewicz's major artistic works were written during a mere three year period. Then his poetic output stopped and he shifted to journalistic and political writing. Yet from his first volume of poetry published in 1822, Mickiewicz showed his commitment to his native land and its traditions by turning to folk beliefs, folk imagination. This fascination is reflected in his play Dziady (The Forefathers Eve) parts II and IV, and in his poetic tale Grażyna. Even in his later work, Konrad Wallenrod, a novel in verse based on a historical episode in the annals of the Teutonic Knights, there is evidence of Mickiewicz's reliance on folk songs and folk legends. His profound sense of patriotism as well as his serious concern with Poland's path to the regaining of its independence are blatantly apparent.

It is generally agreed that Mickiewicz's three masterpieces are Dziady Part III, K¶ięgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa (The Books of the Polish Nation and Pilgrimage) - both published in 1832 - and Pan Tadeusz (1834). Part III of Dziady includes his famous prophetic "Great Improvisation" in which Gustaw, the central hero of the other parts of the play, who until then is primarily a lover, is transformed into Konrad, the patriot and the seer. The second major work, K¶ięgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa is a cycle of moral tales and parables written in a quasi biblical style and preaching the cause of national freedom. Mickiewicz advocated in these tales the application of Christian principles to the relations between nations as well as individuals. [The title of the English translation by J. K. Tautmyla is The Books of Our Pilgrimage.] Pan Tadeusz (1834), written in exile, is an epic in verse, recapturing the lost Poland, or more precisely, the idyllic image of the Lithuania of Mickiewicz's youth, down to the minutest details of landscapes, pastimes, foods, customs and human types populating his native land. These are the three peaks of Mickiewicz's artistically diverse oeuvre. Any child in Poland, however, also knows his Ballady i romanse (Ballads and Romances), his humorous poem Pani Twardowska, his poems about unrequited love addressed to M. W. (Maryla Wereszczakowa, who married another). Mickiewicz's lyrical poems written in Lausanne also resonate in the minds of many Poles, and so do other famous poems like Do matki Polki (To a Polish Mother) in which he sarcastically suggests to Polish mothers that they equip their children with chains, rather than toys, so the children get early preparation for political oppression.

Patriotic Fervor

Adam Mickiewicz, in a portrait by Vladislav Ciesielski

Mickiewicz's silence as a poet after the publication of Pan Tadeusz was the result of a moral decision. He viewed the writing of poetry as too trivial in light of Poland's political situation. He felt a moral compulsion to become a prophet committed to political activity. (Yet he did write the Lausanne lyrics [1893-40] and two plays in French [1836], parts of which have been preserved and subsequently published in 1866.)

Adam Mickiewicz's patriotism is evident in his celebration of the Polish language, in his loving rendition of folk lore, in his detailed poetic descriptions of Polish customs, landscapes and people.

As Jan Lechon put it so aptly, "Polish was the instrument of his magic; he was the Bach of its sacred music, the master of polyphonic melodies of ideal simplicity and wisdom. Unfortunately, the beauty of his playing remains unheard in the non-Slavic world." [see Lechon's essay in Adam Mickiewicz 1798-1855: Selected Poems, Clark Mills, ed.,1956J.

The thrust of most Mickiewicz's writings was the deliberate search for ways to restore national independence, whether in above board or in surreptitious ways (the latter is the central message of Konrad Wallenrod as well as his other works) and criticism, both implicit and explicit, of Poland's oppressors. In his lectures and journalistic writings as well he inspired Poles to hope and political activity, serving as a role model by his dedication to the cause of Poland's independence and his commitment to the formation of the Polish legions.

The Prophet

Mickiewicz's patriotism and nationalism were inextricably linked with his mysticism and spirituality. This is particularly evident in his adoption of the doctrine of Messianism. Under the influence of the mystic, Andrzej Towiański, he developed a concept of Israel as a fellow sufferer of Poland and of Poland as a Christ of nations. Mickiewicz believed that in the middle of the 19th century the Kingdom of God will prevail and the chosen nations of the epoch will be the Poles, the French and the Jews. Above all, he believed in an independent Poland.

Adam Mickiewicz, drawing by Eugene Delacroix

It should be noted that it was fashionable to write prophetic poetry around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Mickiewicz was not the only poet to do so. In the aftermath of the French Revolution and other upheavals in Europe, other men of letters (e.g., Schiller in his Ode to Goethe) resorted to prophetic writings. And so did Mickiewicz. The passionate prophetic tenor of his verses, his play Dziady, as well as his lectures and political writings is quite striking.

In this context, one may mention briefly Mickiewicz's American connection. During her stay in Paris, Mickiewicz befriended Margaret Fuller, the early American feminist and follower of Emerson. (There were even allegations that they had an affair.) The prophetic vision of future Poland he conjured before her eyes fascinated Fuller, As Mieczysław Jastrun put it in his biography of Mickiewicz [Mickiewicz, Warsaw, 1949, p.282], the poet presented the American woman with a vision of a "country where there will be no injustice and terror, where the sun will never set." And Jastrun continues, "This is what Moses must have looked like when the Lord had shown him the Promised Land. It seemed that the cane the poet took into his hand [...] -- the shabby cane of a pilgrim blossomed like a vine. "

Although not entirely accurate in his prophecies, Mickiewicz cannot be seen as a false prophet. Many of his predictions are fulfilled today. Not only is Poland an independent nation with a flourishing national culture, but Mickiewicz's vision of a culturally and ethnically diverse society has also materialized and taken hold on the Polish national consciousness, People from the so called "kresy" (borderlands), or the Eastern territories of the former Polish Republic -- Lithuania, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, as well as Jews and other minorities, are more and more readily recognized as legitimate historical contributors and participants in Polish culture.

Mickiewicz was not only a prophet and an ardent and committed Polish patriot who became the voice and the inspiration of the Polish people. He was also one of the leaders in the struggle for the rights of oppressed nations and anticipated in his mystical visions the idea of a free and united Europe. Mickiewicz's cosmopolitan views and universalist leanings are still remembered as a disturbing force in Russia and France. But Poles remember him primarily for the combination of hope, vision and prophetic intensity he consistently provided in his passionate writings rendered in beautiful Polish.

Text originally published in the May, 1996, Bulletin of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo

The information in this database may include copyrighted material, and is to be used for educational and research purposes only.


Info-Poland a clearinghouse of information about Poland, Polish Universities, Polish Studies, etc.
© 2000 Polish Academic Information Center, University at Buffalo. All rights reserved.
Info-Poland   |    art and culture   |    history   |    universities   |    studies   |    scholars   |    classroom   |    book chapters   |    sitemaps   |    users' comments