The early literature of Poland was written in Latin: its chief figures included the historians Martin Gallus (12th cent.) and Jan Dlugosz (1415-80), the astronomer Copernicus, and the poet Klemens Janitius (1516-43). The first book printed in Poland was issued in Wrocław in 1475.
Under the impact of humanism, religious reform, and the increasing sophistication of the gentry, the 16th cent. became the golden age of Polish literature. Mikolaj Rej (1505-69) is considered the father of Polish literature; other writers of this period are the great poet Jan Kochanowski; the humanitarian Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503-72); Piotr Skarga (1536-1612), a spokesman for the Counter Reformation; the historian Martin Bielski; and the political writer Stanislaus Orzechowski (1513-66).
After the mid-18th cent. there was a revival of classicism and a new flowering of the arts influenced by the Enlightenment. Modern Polish journalism was born, and light drama flourished under the playwrights Wojciech Bogusławski (1757-1829) and Franciszek Zablocki (1754-1821). Ignacy Krasicki wrote satire and fables. A disciple of Voltaire, Julian Niemcewicz, bridged the classical and romantic periods in Polish literature.
The romantic era, with its revolutionary and reform movements, was one of extraordinary productivity. Themes of nationalism and freedom predominated, developed by the patriotic poets Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński. Romantic novelists of note were Jozef Korzeniowski (1797-1863) and Henryk Rzewuski (1791-1866), and the major dramatist was Alexander Fredro (1793-1876). In the 19th cent. much Polish literature was written by émigrés in Paris and other European centers; these included the poet Cyprjan Norwid (1821-83).
Positivism, stimulated by the revolutionary fiasco of 1863, marked an effort to gain national strength through literary attacks on ignorance and reaction. A notable representative of this school was Bolesław Prus. The colorful historical novels of the Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz gained international popularity at this time. The last decade of the 19th cent. saw the appearance of the neoromantic school of Young Poland, influenced by French poetry and by Nietzsche. The poet and dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański, the novelists and dramatists Stefan Żeromski and Stanisław Przybyszewski, and the novelist Władisław Stanisław Reymont were the outstanding writers of this period.
The regaining of Polish independence in 1919 after generations of partition inspired new literary activity. The Skamander group of urban poets, including Julian Tuwim and Kazimierz Wierzyński, called for an end to nationalist preoccupation and for experimental freedom; other significant figures included the novelists Marja Dąbrowska and Zofia Nalkowska (1885-1954) and the dramatists Karol Hubert Rostworoski (1877-1938) and Jerzy Szaniawski. The period's greatest writing, which gained recognition only after World War II, was the prose and drama of Stanisław Witkiewisz, Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz. Notable postwar writers who focused on the anguish of the period include Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament, Leon Kruczkowski, and the great expatriate Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981.
The advent of the Communist regime was accompanied by themes of socialist realism. Communist writers include the poet Constantine Galcyzynski (1906-53) and the novelists Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski and Kazimierz Brandys. In 1956 writers joined in the popular uprising against the Moscow-dominated regime, and subsequently there was some relaxation of literary strictures. The thaw (culminating in the rise of the "Solidarity" movement, the state of emergency, and the collapse of Communism) resulted in renewed contact with the West and a surge of literary experimentation. Many novelists continued to explore themes related to the war experience and its aftermath; others wrote works of psychological and political realism, reflecting current European trends.
Among the foremost postwar novelists are Wilhelm Mach, Leopold Buczkowski, Roman Bratny, Bohdan Czeszko, Julian Stryjkowski, Stanisław Dygat, Stanisław Lem, and Sławomir Mrożek, also well known for his plays and short stories. Postwar poetry in Poland deals principally with philosophical concerns. The chief poets of the era include Stanisław Jerzy Lec, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Wisława Szymborska (awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996). The works of Miron Białoszewsky, Jerzy Harasymowicz, and Stanisław Grochowiak are in a more lyrical vein. Notable among the writers who began as members of the Polish New Wave movement of the late 1960s is the expatriate poet and novelist Adam Zagajewski. Principal essayists and critics include Tadeusz Breza, Artur Sandauer, Jan Kott, and Jan Błoński.
See histories by M. Kridl (tr. 1967), J. Krzyzanowski (1978), and C. Miłosz (2d ed. 1983); M. M. Coleman, The Polish Land (1974); A. Gillon and L. Krzyzanowski, ed., Introduction to Modern Polish Literature (1982).
The first recorded sentence in the Polish language reads: "Day ut ia pobrusa, a ti poziwai" ("Let me grind, and you take a rest") and was a paraphrase of the Latin "Sine, ut ego etiam molam." The circumstances in which this phrase was written reflected the cultural conditions in early Poland. The sentence appears in the Latin chronicle Liber fundationis, the history of the Cistercian monastery in Henryków, Silesia, written between 1269 and 1273 by a German abbot, known simply as Piotr (Peter), and referred to an event almost a hundred years earlier, supposedly uttered by a Bohemian settler, Bogwal ("Bogwalus Boemus"), a subject of Bolesław the Tall, when he felt compassion for his wife, who "very often stood grinding by the quern-stone.
Notable works of literature from the medieval period include:
Most early Polish vernacular texts were influenced heavily by Latin sacred literature. These include Bogurodzica ("Mother of God"), a short hymn praising the Virgin Mary, which served as a national anthem, and Rozmowa mistrza Polikarpa ze śmiercią ("Master Polikarp's Conversation with Death").
In the early 1470s the first printing houses in Poland (see Spread of the printing press) were set up by Kasper Straube in Kraków. In 1475 Kasper Elyan of Glogau (Głogów) set up a printing shop in Breslau (Wrocław), Silesia. Twenty years later, the first Cyrillic printing house was founded at Kraków by Schweipolt Fiol for Eastern Orthodox Church hierarchs.
One of the last Polish writers to use Latin as his principal vehicle of expression was Klemens Janicki (Ianicius), who became one of the most notable Latin poets of his time and was laureled by the Pope. Other writers such as Mikołaj Rej and Jan Kochanowski laid the foundations for a Polish literary language and modern Polish grammar.
Notable Polish writers and poets active in the 16th century, and some of their works, included:
Writers in chronological order of birth:
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