A Polish Snow Globe: On Adam Mickiewicz’s “Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania”

By Josh BillingsOctober 16, 2018

A Polish Snow Globe: On Adam Mickiewicz’s “Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania”

Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz

WHO IS Adam Mickiewicz? In 1833, the year before he published his epic poem Pan Tadeusz, the question would have sounded ridiculous, not just to Poles, but to most literate Europeans. For by 1833, Adam Mickiewicz had already become much more than a poet. He was a prophet and a rock star–level celebrity, whose every utterance was written down as if in preparation for his inevitable sainthood. He was a symbol, in other words, not just of poetry but of the swirling currents that, at the beginning of the 19th century, had begun to coalesce into the volcanic force of Romanticism. As much as any artist of the time (including Byron), Mickiewicz seemed to incarnate this force. By the time he died, his myth had grown so large that the man himself had vanished into it. Here, for example, is a passage from a letter, dated May 17, 1867, which Victor Hugo sent to Mickiewicz’s son 12 years after the poet’s death: “[T]o speak of Mickiewicz is to speak of beauty, justice and truth; of righteousness, of which he was the soldier, of duty, of which he was the hero, of freedom, of which he was the apostle and of liberation, of which he is the precursor.”

In true Romantic fashion, Hugo’s elegy is both sincere and almost comically invested in its own bluster. It mourns Mickiewicz in over-the-top terms, while also placing him squarely within a long tradition of prophetic failures. Its implication is that, in addition to being tragic, the poet’s death is something to celebrate, since it means that the arrival of the future he has predicted can be postponed, and the all-important longing for that future maintained. Mickiewicz the lover of freedom must die so that freedom can live — not now, but later, at an undisclosed time. Or, to put it more sympathetically, Mickiewicz the problematic implementer must die so that the idea he fought for does not have to be implemented, by him or anyone else, in a necessarily compromised form.

Mickiewicz would have no doubt recognized such maneuvering, and approved of it. He himself had gotten used to glorifying failure, not just in his own story, but in the one he was attempting to tell about the country he had longed for ever since being expelled from it as a young man. That country was Poland, which at the time of Pan Tadeusz’s writing was not an autonomous nation at all but part of three empires. By 1834, its hopes of independence had been disappointed by a series of saviors, including Napoleon, who had squeezed what political currency he could out of a promised Polish liberation before abandoning the problematically located region to its fate. This failure was the great disaster of Mickiewicz’s life, but it was also his opportunity. It allowed him to harness the grim political situation and turn it into a Romantic, Catholic, nationalist mythology that offered his readers some hope. It gave him the power to transform Poland, via his imagination, from a humiliated vassal state into a nation crucified by history — a nation, in the words of Mickiewicz’s biographer Roman Koropeckyj, whose destruction, “like the crucifixion of Christ […] guaranteed its eventual resurrection.”

The strange combination of hope with a loving embrace of failure is one of the things that has made Mickiewicz’s work difficult for non-Polish readers to understand. Of course, its poor reception also probably had something to do with translation. In an article on Pan Tadeusz written in 1956, the poet and translator Donald Davie marvelled at the “enthralling and beautiful” narrative of the 1917 prose translation by George Rapall Noyes, while at the same time lamenting the loss of the original’s overall tone. Davie quotes Professor Wiktor Weintraub’s description of this tone as “a mask, that of a naïve, old-fashioned prattler, who is emotionally and intellectually one with the world he describes.” He suggests that a compelling translation would “[carry]” this “prattling” quality “in the very minutiae of verse form,” returning the poem to its “manly and simple” style (the phrase is Czesław Miłosz’s), and providing modern English poets with an important example:

For English poets of today must be engaged, just as their Polish contemporaries are (if we may believe Czesław Miłosz), in fighting their way back, from surrealism and poésie pure and belated Victorianism, to a classical dryness and to the formula coined by T.S. Eliot and echoed by Miłosz, “the perfection of a common language.”

Noble as it may sound, Davie’s desire here is typical of the anglophone reception of Eastern and Central European works in the middle of the 20th century. It places Mickiewicz on a very handy moral-aesthetic pedestal, suggesting that the decadent poets of postwar Britain and United States would do well to follow the Pole’s example and begin writing poetry that aligns perfectly with Davie’s own engagé tastes. Its mistake lies not in its suggestion that a 19th-century Polish epic might serve as a model for contemporary poets, but rather that its understanding of that epic’s true nature is so simple, uncomplicated, and — in its own respectful way — condescending. Imagine if a postwar Polish poet had enjoined his compatriots to turn away from their dark existential musings and follow Robert Frost’s example of writing direct, “manly and simple” nature poetry. All irony, not to mention sophistication, is drained from the foreign poem.

With that in mind, it is difficult to say that Bill Johnston’s just-published translation of Pan Tadeusz arrives as an answer to Davie’s prayers. This is no criticism of Johnston; on the contrary, his eloquent, sophisticated version is, in all likelihood, the kind of Pan Tadeusz that Davie himself would have most liked to read. Yet it moves well beyond fulfilling Davie’s requests, demonstrating how partial even an informed reader’s understanding of Mickiewicz in English was in 1956. Its revolutionary revision starts by restoring the “tone” whose loss Davie lamented — but the tone it restores is a much more complicated and compelling one than the “mask” that Davie’s and even Miłosz’s descriptions lead us to expect. It isn’t a mask at all, really. It’s a fully fledged voice, a dynamic instrument capable of moving between psychological insight, lyric description, and an epic narrative so blatant that it reads, in places, like parody — as if Mickiewicz’s “naïve, old-fashioned prattler” were not just indulging but making fun of his and his readers’ urge to imagine rural 18th-century Poland as a kingdom of heroes.

The sheer range of this voice places Johnston’s Pan Tadeusz light-years away from the exemplar that Davie imagined. It allows it to become what it originally was, a long 19th-century European poem, with the same complex combination of comedy and seriousness as Byron’s Don Juan and Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. In Mickiewicz’s case, that combination is most consistently reflected in the poem’s rhyme scheme (preserved, miraculously, by Johnston), which gives it a casually overworked feeling, as if the very virtuosity that such composition demands were being subtly mocked. The rhymes are not as chiming as those in, say, The Rape of the Lock, but they do lend the poem story an atmosphere of humor and ease, as if being treated with a seriousness that it did not, at the end of the day, deserve. Thus, thanks to Johnston’s translation, we can finally read Pan Tadeusz as an exquisite, if very typical 19th-century European joke, in which the promises of Napoleonic Romanticism are fattened, flattered, and then made to walk squarely into the brick wall of their own ridiculousness.

They are also helped back up again, for if Mickiewicz’s poem is frequently satiric it is also more than a satire. In an early scene, for example, a young count, whose foppishness makes him an excellent foil for the bland, Castorpian Tadeusz, stumbles upon one of the archetypes of Romantic iconography: the virgin beauty. While riding home, his eye is caught by “something white,” causing him to wander into a garden, where he watches the young Zosia, a country girl whose noble birth has been hidden from her and whose eventual marriage to Tadeusz will conclude the poem, tending to chickens and children. Surrounded by the herbaceous border of Mickiewicz’s description (almost nothing feels so ecstatically still in Mickiewicz’s verse as the kitchen gardens of the Polish gentry), Zosia looks to the Frenchified count like a vision; but as soon as the two talk, the vision fades. Afterward, the count meditates on this change:

Alas, his expectations were too great!
As he’d been crawling toward the shepherdess
His head had been on fire, his heart no less.
He’d seen in her such sweet obscurities,
Cloaked her in wonders, read such mysteries!
He’d found reality quite different. True,
She was slim, and pretty — but so awkward too!
Round face and ruddy cheeks — such things express
Only a needless, vulgar happiness!
They show that the mind still sleeps, the heart’s unused.
Her speech — rustic and common! “Disabused!”
He cried. “Mistaken! Wonders never cease!
My enigmatic nymph watches the geese!”

Coming as it does after several hundred increasingly excited lines, the count’s nonchalant about-face — “Wonders never cease!” — is jarring and hilarious. It’s like seeing a monocled German aesthete turn away from the archaic torso of Apollo to ask, “Who’s up for cheese fries?” At the same time, the description of the count’s disenchantment is so subtly observed by Mickiewicz that we cannot help but feel it, and feel for him. Sealed in hauteur and clichéd notions of beauty, the poor count is oblivious to the true beauties right under his nose. Zosia’s estimation of the befuddled bigfoot who has just wandered into her garden is, by contrast, picturesque, accurate, and refreshingly game: “He was indeed handsome — of imposing height / with […] long flowing fair hair / in which the leaves and grass blades — gathered there / as he’d approached, trying to stay unseen — / looked like a disheveled wreath of green.”

The comedy of this scene is typical of Johnston’s Pan Tadeusz, which at the end of the day is comic not just in spirit, but in genre too. It resolves everything, tying up its loose ends with an expediency that makes the long battle and post-battle scenes read partly like a lost Scandinavian saga, and partly like an extended Keystone Kops reel. In this way, it feels fundamentally different from the equally funny epic that Mickiewicz’s friend Alexander Pushkin had published in its entirety only a year earlier. While certain situations and characters in Pan Tadeusz do strongly recall Eugene Onegin (the count, for example, has clearly run into Onegin’s friend Lensky at a Petersburg salon), the vectors of the two works feel different. While Onegin’s intricate, elliptical narrative spirals out into the perpetually unfinished future of Russian literature, Mickiewicz’s folds inward, encasing its rich vision of the Polish past under a protective dome. Perhaps that’s why reading Johnston’s meticulous, brilliant version feels less like tapping into a progressive source, as Davie predicted, than like stumbling across a lost city, forgotten for ages and now brought back to life, in all its glittering, self-sufficient glory.

This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it isn’t, for despite being a deeply nostalgic poem, Pan Tadeusz is also deeply critical of the idealized world it describes — indeed, of idealization in general. In this way, it is that rarest of things, a revolutionarily conservative poem, by which I mean a work whose effort to preserve the things that are most precious in a civilization ends up passing judgment not only on the present but also on the past, which it reveals to have been as petty and ridiculous as it was noble, intelligent, and humane. It’s honest, in other words, not just about hope but about about failure as well, both of which qualities it sees as being handmaidens of the human condition, then and now.


Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine.

LARB Contributor

Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine. He edits the Rustica Journal, a literary and arts magazine dedicated to the new pastoral.


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