- Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic
Adam Mickiewicz is Poland's greatest poet, taught in schools as a matter of routine. He bears roughly the same relationship to Polish culture that Pushkin – whom he knew – bears to Russian culture. He was also a great admirer of Byron.
On the first page of this excellent new biography, Roman Koropeckyj relates how, in 1968, the Polish communist government, which had hitherto praised Mickiewicz as the country's first patriotic poet, banned a production of his drama Forefathers' Eve on the grounds that its anti-Russian sentiments made them nervous. Reading this, I wondered whether, had a group of English Chartists in 1848 proposed a production of Marino Faliero, the English government would have banned that. After all, Mickiewicz is, in cliché, 'the Polish Byron', the man who is supposed to have united creativity on the page with activity on the street. But the unreality of the proposition was at once clear: Faliero is no patriotic call to action, even though Byron thought Murray would be afraid of its politics, whereas Part III of Forefathers' Eve (the part which, I surmise, the communists banned) is one long depiction of the way Russia was attempting to wipe Poland and Polish culture from the face of the earth. Action is the only possibility left when you leave the theatre, and the communists were, from their own perspective, correct to ban it. In other words, Mickiewicz is not 'the Polish Byron', but neither is Byron 'the Polish Mickiewicz': the analogy is false. Byron was all in favour of revolutions abroad, but a revolution at home might cause a fall in the value of his holdings in government funds. He could have gone back home from exile any time he wanted. Mickiewicz had already been exiled from Poland once, before the failed Polish insurrection of 1831 – to the comforts, however, of St Petersburg, Odessa and Moscow. Had he tried to return to Poland post-1831, he would have been at the very least sent to Siberia. Yet, as Koropeckyj writes, 'Byron came to share the same space in Mickiewicz's pantheon as Napoleon'. In a letter from 1822 Mickiewicz announces:
I read only Byron, and cast aside books if written in a different spirit, since I don't like lies; if there's a description of happiness, family life, this rouses my indignation as much as the sight of married couples and children; this is my only aversion.
Such a claim puts an interesting, if sad, gloss on his interpretation both of 'lies' and of Byron's version of 'happiness' – this last has indeed very little to do with marriage or children. Byron was a bad husband and an indifferent father; Mickiewicz, as Koropeckyj shows, outgrew the adolescent distaste for breeding shown in the letter, married, and had six children, towards whom he was affectionate in the normal way. He became, indeed, 'the Byron of his country, but a moral and Christian Byron' – if that is not too glaring a contradiction in terms. When Mickiewicz translated The Giaour, it became accepted as a virtual Polish poem in its own right because he changed the Giaour's deathbed sneers at Christian consolation into a pious acceptance of the same.
Koropeckyj gives much space to Mickiewicz's time exiled in Russia, which was, paradoxically, 'more hospitable and invigorating […] than even Poland itself'. In Russia, liberals were more confidently vocal – at least at the time of Mickiewicz's sojourn. This section of the biography is extremely well-researched, and is especially good on Mickiewicz's relationship with Pushkin. Pushkin, along with most of his non-Polish-speaking friends, sensed Mickiewicz's greatness without being able to appreciate it on the page; the conservative Mickiewicz, who knew Russian and could thus read and appreciate Pushkin (though see below), was [End Page 176] offended by the coarseness of Pushkin's talk at table, or in his cups.
Not only were Mickiewicz's great Crimean Sonnets first published in Russia, but so was Konrad Wallenrod, his...