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Roman Koropeckyj. Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4471-5. Price: US$45

  • Thomas McLean

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  • Thomas McLean
    University of Otago

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For travel, romance, and outright strangeness, the life of Adam Mickiewicz rivals that of any poet of the nineteenth century. So it comes as something of a surprise that only a handful of English-language biographies of Poland’s national poet have ever been published. We owe a debt to Roman Koropeckyj, who has produced a biography that is both engaging and scholarly. In telling Mickiewicz’s remarkable story, Koropeckyj opens up new lines of research for scholars interested in Romanticisms from the United States to Russia, and many points in between.

Adam Mickiewicz was born in 1798, only a few years after the failed Kościuszko Insurrection and the final partition of Poland. A young man when Napoleon crossed and recrossed (some would say double crossed) Poland, he remained enamored with the French Emperor all his life. As a student at the University of Vilnius, he fell under the influence of Goethe and Byron, helped form a secret society, and caused enough concern to the local authorities that he was exiled to Russia in 1823. He never returned to his homeland. But his early publications, good looks, and remarkable improvisational skills made him a salon favorite from St Petersburg to Odessa. His 1826 Sonnets, inspired by his travels in the wild landscapes of the Crimea, gained him a devoted readership in Russia as well as in Poland. But Mickiewicz did not abandon his political convictions. Though the Russian censor missed it, plenty of Poles got the point of his 1828 historical poem Konrad Wallenrod, an obvious critique of foreign oppression. In 1829 he gained permission to travel in Europe (but not Poland). He made a favorable if slight impression on the 80-year-old Goethe in Weimar, traveled with Sir Walter Scott’s friend the Scottish artist William Allan, and became acquainted with James Fenimore Cooper in Rome.

In late 1830, the Poles again rose against foreign rule, rallying to passages from Mickiewicz’s poems, and calling for the poet’s return. Mickiewicz responded by procrastinating, traveling from Rome to Paris, then to Dresden, then to the Polish border, by which time the rebellion was all but defeated. Mickiewicz’s failure to return to Poland and support the rebellion seems to have haunted him for the rest of his life. It also spurred his imagination. In the following years he produced many of his most important works: the third part of Forefathers’ Eve, the mystical Books of the Polish Nation, and his wonderful long poem Pan Tadeusz, which has more in common with Scott’s historical novels than anything by Byron. In 1834, he married and settled in Paris. In 1839 he seemed to be settling even further when he took the position of Professor of Latin Literature at the University of Lausanne.

Mickiewicz’s life up to Lausanne is both fascinating and familiar in its mixture of romantic desire and human failure. Koropeckyj tells the story well, and forty pages of endnotes confirm the biographer’s scrupulous care. Still, given his non-Polish target audience, he occasionally assumes his reader knows more than he or she probably does. There is, for instance, only a brief description of the 1830-31 uprising. Koropeckyj rarely gives physical descriptions of individuals, and the scarcity of memorable details, combined with the challenge of Polish names, makes it difficult to keep straight the supporting cast. And, though Koropeckyj summarizes and quotes from Mickiewicz’s works, he does not discuss or analyze the poetry at any length. This last omission is clearly announced in the preface, and it is understandable—Koropeckyj has plenty to fill nearly 500 pages—but it feels like a missed opportunity. And Mickiewicz is, alas, still awaiting an outstanding English translator, so there are limited options for the interested reader.

Mickiewicz’s productive life in Russia, his many Russian friends and acquaintances (including Aleksandr Pushkin), helpfully complicate the usual Poland / Russia dichotomy. But Mickiewicz—himself Lithuanian—seems to have spent much of his life blurring boundaries and surprising expectations. If his Russian connections troubled radical Poles, his unpredictable behavior made it impossible for the moderate Poles around Count Adam Czartoryski—those who favored high-level diplomacy over overt aggression—to wholly embrace him. And no one was very pleased with his marriage to Celina Szymanowska, who came from a distinguished family of Jewish ancestry. Mickiewicz still has the ability to surprise contemporary readers who reach the midway point of this biography and learn that he wrote almost no poetry in the last two decades of his life. So what else is there to say? Quite a lot, it turns out.

We left Mickiewicz in Lausanne, where he seemed to be settling down, focusing more on family (he and Celina eventually had six children), and enjoying the attentions of an adoring Swiss public. Perhaps because they offer a calm in the romantic storm, these pages describing Mickiewicz’s lectures and life in Switzerland are among the biography’s most appealing. But Lausanne was apparently too sleepy for Mickiewicz, and his wife, who long battled mental health issues, wished to be closer to her family. So in 1840 Mickiewicz accepted the newly minted Chair of Slavic Language and Literature at the Collège de France in Paris.

The position was a coup for the Polish exile community, who hoped that the poet would keep alive the “Polish question” among the Paris intelligentsia. Yet at the moment when Mickiewicz’s life might well have slipped into a quiet if productive orderliness, and Mickiewicz become a poster-boy for the aristocratic Czartoryski faction in Paris, it takes a bizarre turn with the arrival on Mickiewicz’s doorstep of Andrzej Towianski. Mystic, charlatan, or both, Towianski convinced Mickiewicz that together they could proclaim to the world Poland’s messianic responsibilities. And Mickiewicz’s lectures on Slavic literature gradually transformed into strange sermons that linked Jesus, Napoleon, and Towianski, and called for a spiritual awakening that stretched from France to Russia. Outside of class, Mickiewicz even tried to convert Czar Nicholas I to Towianski’s teachings.

The long chapter on Mickiewicz’s involvement and obsession with the teachings of Towianski gives a remarkable view of the personal ruptures and public embarrassments this attachment caused for Mickiewicz and his family. One comes away with the awful feeling that, despite all the fasts, confessions, proclamations, meditations, and dream visions, Mickiewicz wasted—and based on this biography, there is no other word for it—most of his forties following the Towianists. But there are a few more turns to Mickiewicz’s strange and fascinating life. Escaping Towianski but still obsessed with the messianic implications of his message, Mickiewicz spent his last years finding other ways to combat oppression: first, in 1848, by organizing a ragtag foreign legion to fight for Italy against the Austrians; then, in 1849, founding a short-lived newspaper in Paris, La Tribune des Peuples; and in his final months, traveling to Turkey and attempting to organize a Jewish legion, a dream halted by the poet’s death from cholera in November 1855. All seem quixotic and rather pathetic in Koropeckyj’s telling, and yet there is also something wonderful in imagining the 50-year-old exile, let down so often by Europe and by himself, still attempting to change the world. What British Romantic poet at 50 would have taken such risks?

Koropeckyj gives his readers a good sense of Mickiewicz’s place in the cosmopolitan communities of Paris: Chopin, Sand, Michelet, and Turgenev, among many others, make appearances. He calls attention to Mickiewicz’s significant relations with contemporary American writers. I’ve already mentioned Cooper; Koropeckyj also describes how Mickiewicz fell under the spell of Emerson, and how Margaret Fuller fell under the spell of Mickiewicz. Koropeckyj has less to say about Mickiewicz’s relation to British writers, except Byron. Mickiewicz read Byron obsessively and translated a number of his poems, including The Giaour, and the hero of Konrad Wallenrod is often described as Byronic. Koropeckyj quotes Charles Sainte-Beuve’s description of Mickiewicz as “the Byron of his country, but a moral and Christian Byron” (247). Among other British or Irish writers, Thomas Moore is mentioned occasionally, and Mickiewicz himself noted the influence of Scott on Pan Tadeusz (214).

But whom else did he read or know? I can’t help but imagine that he would have read Thomas Campbell, whose Pleasures of Hope contains an oft-quoted description of the Kościuszko Insurrection, and who in 1804 almost took a professorial chair at the University of Vilnius. Would he have read Jane Porter’s 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw, perhaps in its French translation? Passages of Pan Tadeusz made me wonder whether Porter was as much an influence on the work as Scott. Mickiewicz’s own work was first noticed in Britain in 1830, thanks to favorable articles in The Foreign Quarterly Review and New Monthly Magazine, and at least two English translations of Konrad Wallenrod appeared in 1841. Perhaps this biography will encourage further research on Mickiewicz’s knowledge of British literature and his own early reception in Britain and Ireland.

Beyond Mickiewicz, this biography made me want to know more about his poetic rival Juliusz Slowacki and about Slowacki’s debt to both Mickiewicz and Byron. The biography also helpfully complicates our idea of Europe in the early nineteenth century. At a time when scholars of Romanticism are looking beyond London and Paris as centers of cultural importance, this study encourages the reader to think about Vilnius, Warsaw, St Petersburg, Dresden, and Prague as significant nineteenth-century cultural locales. It is especially interesting to think of St Petersburg in the 1820s—with Gogol, Pushkin, and Mickiewicz in residence, and Britons like Claire Clairmont and Robert Ker Porter passing through—as a center of Romanticism.

Like Byron, Adam Mickiewicz connected his homeland with a constellation of other countries and cultures. He deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world, and Koropeckyj’s fine biography is an excellent place to begin the acquaintance.