Poet's Corner
26 October 1997

Turn to our new series of Poetry Corner every week and impress your Polish hosts over dinner with your knowledge of someone other than Wisława Szymborska, Polish winner of last year's Nobel Prize for Literature. Our selection starts a little earlier, 400 years earlier to be precise. So don't miss your chance to quote the best of Polish verse with the help of poetry translator Barry Keane*.

Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584)

Jan Kochanowski, the greatest poet of the Polish Renaissance, is on every school syllabus and is perhaps the most widely quoted Polish poet. He was born into a family of Polish gentry; his father died when he was still a child, and he and his five brothers were raised by their mother. In 1544, Kochanowski entered the Catholic University of Cracow.

Piotr Myszkowski, bishop of Cracow and chancellor to King Zygmunt August, secured the post of secretary and courtier to the king for Kochanowski, who spent the following years performing missions for Zygmunt at home and abroad. He thrived in Zygmunt's court, and it was during this period of his life that he began to write lyrical poetry in the Polish vernacular.

Following the death of Zygmunt August in 1572, Kochanowski retired from public activity. He settled down happily to a rural existence on his country estate, Czarnolas (Blackwood). Kochanowski married a noblewoman, Dorota Padladowska, in 1565, who was to bear him seven children: six girls and one boy. Kochanowski's idyllic existence on Czarnolas was thrown into turmoil, however, when his second eldest daughter, Ursula, died toward the close of 1579, at the age of 30 months. In the wake of her death, Kochanowski wrote his greatest work, The Threnodies, a poetic cycle expressing his grief at the loss of his beloved child. One of The Threnodies is this week's choice.

To compound the poet's grief, Ursula was joined soon after by her younger sister Hannah. Kochanowski did not long outlive his daughters. He died suddenly on Aug. 22, 1584, in Lublin.

Threnody V

As when an olive sapling under an orchard tall takes flight,

In the tracks of maternal love from the soil to an elder's height.

As yet, with neither leaf nor budding twig, Just a sprouting slender sprig.

Then as the fruit grower weeds the nettle and thorn,

His haste causes the little sapling's shoot to be shorn.

In no time it fades, drained of its natural sap,

Collapsing dead at her sweet mother's lap.

To this fate befell Ursula, so dear,

Burgeoning before her parents' eyes, providing warm cheer.

Short time of the earth, Death's cruel enveloping bane,

Before her pensive parent tree, caused her life to wane.

Oh, evil Persephone! How could you consent

For so many tears to be so spent?

* Barry Keane is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. He is writing his doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Jan Kochanowski at Warsaw University and has already translated two of the poet's major works: The Threnodies and The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys. He is also translating selected poems by Cyprian Norwid. Recently he translated for Wierszalin Theater Piotr Tomaszuk's Doctor Felix, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it won a coveted Fringe First award.

Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584)
18 January 1998

Besides having written great works such as Laments (Treny) and Songs (Pieśni) (discussed in the Oct. 26, 1997 Voice) Jan Kochanowski is also credited with having penned Poland's first tragedy in the Polish vernacular, The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys (Odprawa posłów greckich). This tragedy is based on an episode mentioned in Homer's Iliad where the Greek heroes Menelaus and Ulysses go as messengers to Troy in order to demand Helen's return from her kidnapper, the Trojan prince, Paris. At stake is a war between two great nations.

The Dismissal, in the centuries following its publication, was elevated to the position of Poland's national drama. As the play anticipates the fall of the Trojan state, it carries within it the fate of Poland. No Pole could sit through The Dismissal without lamenting his country's last four centuries of hardship. The play is constructed along the lines of the plays of the Greek tragedians and of Seneca. The drama consists of a prologue, five acts and an epilogue. It is a short play (only 600 lines) which is approximately half the length of a normal tragedy.

When Kochanowski wrote the play is unknown. However, it was presented to the newly elected King Stefan Batory, on the occasion of the wedding of Jan Zamoyski (the king's chancellor) and Krystyna Radziwiłłówna at Jazdów near Warsaw in 1578.

The chorus is made of Trojan maidens and addresses itself to the conscience of the Trojan citizenry. However, it is a thinly veiled attack against the Polish nobility. The 16th century saw Poland enter its Golden Age in terms of culture and economic prosperity. But the requisitioning of land by the nobility and the creation of a serf population laid shaky foundations for the country's future. The newly acquired country manor lifestyle, characterized by endless festivity, could be the reason for Kochanowski's references to a corrupt nobility. Kochanowski, along with his contemporary fellow humanist and friend, Jan Zamoyski, and like Nicholas Copernicus before him, had a strong sense of civic duty and universal order. In this chorus the voice of the poet warns the gentry against assuming too much greatness and forgetting the needs of the nation as a whole.

Second Chorus from The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys

You, who gather from all quarters of the Commonwealth,
you hold justice in your hands.
I say to you, who were entrusted
to shepherd and hold sway over God's flock,
The truth is before your very eyes.
You occupy God's place on earth,
having not your own affairs but the concerns
of all people under your care.

And so you were given suzerainty over
the lesser kind, but you yourselves have
a lord above you. An account will be due
and the guilty shan't escape without retribution.

The Lord will not be subject to bribery
by a peasant in a coat of rough homespun or
by a self-regarding count in rich luxurious robes.
For the least offense committed, a chain of fettered iron will be his reward.
My sins are small ones, my crimes are trivial,
But the sins of our leaders lay waste our once prosperous country.

Introduction and translation by Barry Keane

Reproduced with
permission from
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