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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mickiewicz, Adam

MICKIEWICZ, ADAM (1798-1855), Polish poet, was born in 1798, near Nowogrodek, in the present Russian government of Minsk, where his father, who belonged to the schlachta or lesser nobility, had a small property. The poet was educated at the university of Vilna; but, becoming involved in some political troubles there, he was forced to terminate his studies abruptly, and was ordered to live for a time in Russia. He had already published two small volumes of miscellaneous poetry at Vilna, which had been favourably received by the Slavonic public, and on his arrival at St Petersburg he found himself admitted to the leading literary circles, where he was a great favourite both from his agreeable manners and his extraordinary talent of improvisation. In 1825 he visited the Crimea, which inspired a collection of sonnets in which we may admire both the elegance of the rhythm and the rich Oriental colouring. The most beautiful are The Storm, Bakchiserai, and Grave of the Countess Potocka.

In 1828 appeared his Konrad Wallenrod, a narrative poem describing the battles of knights of the Teutonic order with the heathen Lithuanians. Here, under a thin veil, Mickiewicz represented the sanguinary passages of arms and burning hatred which had characterized the long feuds of the Russians and Poles. The objects of the poem, although evident to many, escaped the Russian censors, and it was suffered to appear, although the very motto, taken from Machiavelli, was significant: “Dovete adunque sapere come sono duo generazioni da combattere . . . bisogna essere volpe e leone.” This is a striking poem and contains two beautiful lyrics. After a five years' exile in Russia the poet obtained leave to travel; he had secretly made up his mind never to return to that country or Poland so long as it remained under the government of the Muscovites. Wending his way to Weimar, he there made the acquaintance of Goethe, who received him cordially, and, pursuing his journey through Germany, he entered Italy by the Splügen, visited Milan, Venice, and Florence, and finally took up his abode at Rome. There he wrote the third part of his poem Dziady, the subject of which is the religious commemoration of their ancestors practised among Slavonic nations, and Pan Tadeusz, his longest poem, by many considered his masterpiece. A graphic picture is drawn of Lithuania on the eve of Napoleon's expedition to Russia in 1812. In this village idyll, as Brückner calls it, Mickiewicz gives us a picture of the homes of the Polish magnates, with their somewhat boisterous but very genuine hospitality. We see them before us, just as the knell of their nationalism, as Brückner says, seemed to be sounding, and therefore there is something melancholy and dirge-like in the poem in spite of the pretty love story which forms the main incident. Mickiewicz turned to Lithuania with the loving eyes of an exile, and gives us some of the most delightful descriptions of Lithuanian skies and Lithuanian forests. He describes the weird sounds to be heard in the primeval woods in a country where the trees were sacred. The cloud-pictures are equally striking. There is nothing finer in Shelley or Wordsworth.

In 1832 Mickiewicz left Rome for Paris, where his life was for some time spent in poverty and unhappiness. He had married a Polish lady, Selina Szymanowska, who became insane. In 1840 he was appointed to the newly founded chair of Slavonic languages and literature in the Collège de France, a post which he was especially qualified to fill, as he was now the chief representative of Slavonic literature, Pushkin having died in 1837. He was, however, only destined to hold it for a little more than three years, his last lecture having been given on the 28th of May 1844. His mind had become more and more disordered under the influence of religious mysticism. He had fallen under the influence of a strange fanatic named Towianski. His lectures became a medley of religion and politics, and thus brought him under the censure of the Government. A selection of them has been published in four volumes. They contain some good sound criticism, but the philological part is very defective, for Mickiewicz was no scholar, and he is obviously only well acquainted with two of the literatures, viz. Polish and Russian, the latter only till the year 1830. A very sad picture of his declining days is given in the memoirs of Herzen. At a comparatively early period the unfortunate poet exhibited all the signs of premature old age; poverty, despair and domestic affliction had wrought their work upon him. In 1849 he founded a French newspaper, La Tribune des peuples, but it only existed a year. The restoration of the French Empire seemed to kindle his hopes afresh; his last composition is said to have been a Latin ode in honour of Napoleon III. On the outbreak of the Crimean War he was sent to Constantinople to assist in raising a regiment of Poles to take service against the Russians. He died suddenly there in 1855, and his body was removed to France and buried at Montmorency. In 1900 his remains were disinterred and buried in the cathedral of Cracow, the Santa Croce of Poland, where rest, besides many of the kings, the greatest of her worthies.

Mickiewicz is held to have been the greatest Slavonic poet, with the exception of Pushkin. Unfortunately in other parts of Europe he is but little known; he writes in a very difficult language, and one which it is not the fashion to learn. There were both pathos and irony in the expression used by a Polish lady to a foreigner, “Nous avons notre Mickiewicz à nous.” He is one of the best products of the so-called romantic school. The Poles had long groaned under the yoke of the classicists, and the country was full of legends and picturesque stories which only awaited the coming poet to put them into shape. Hence the great popularity among his countrymen of his ballads, each of them being connected with some national tradition. Besides Konrad Wallenrod and Pan Tadeusz, attention may be called to the poem Grazyna, which describes the adventures of a Lithuanian chieftainess against the Teutonic knights. It is said by Ostrowski to have inspired the brave Emilia Plater, who was the heroine of the rebellion of 1830, and after having fought in the ranks of the insurgents, found a grave in the forests of Lithuania. A fine vigorous Oriental piece is Farys. Very good too are the odes to Youth and to the historian Lelewel; the former did much to stimulate the efforts of the Poles to shake off their Russian conquerors. It is enough to say of Mickiewicz that he has obtained the proud position of the representative poet of his country; her customs, her superstitions, her history, her struggles are reflected in his works. It is the great voice of Poland appealing to the nations in her agony.

His son, Ladislas Mickiewicz, wrote Vie d'Adam Mickiewicz (Posen, 1890-1895, 4 vols.), also Adam Mickiewicz, sa vie et son œuvre (Paris, 1888). Translations into English (1881-1885) of Konrad Wallenrod and Pan Tadeusz were made by Miss Biggs. See also Œuvres poétiques de Mickiewicz, trans. by Christien Ostrowski (Paris, 1845).

(W. R. M.)