Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (pronounced: [miʦ'kʲeviʧ ]; in Belarusian, Адам Міцкевіч; in Lithuanian, Adomas Bernardas Mickevičius; December 24, 1798 – November 26, 1855) is generally regarded as the greatest Polish Romantic poet. He ranks as one of Poland's Three Bards alongside Zygmunt Krasiński and Juliusz Słowacki.
Adam Mickiewicz was born at his uncle's estate in Zaosie, near Nowogródek (in Belarusian, Навагрудак; in Lithuanian, Naugardukas; in Russian, Новогрудок) in the Russian Empire (formerly in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; now in Belarus). His father, Mikołaj Mickiewicz, belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian-Commonwealth szlachta (nobility), with the hereditary Medieval Polish knighthood's Poraj coat-of-arms.
Mickiewicz studied at Vilnius University, where he became a member of a secret Polish-Lithuanian organization, the Philomaths, that advocated independence from the Russian Empire. Following graduation, in 1819–23, he taught at a school in Kaunas.
In 1823 he was arrested, investigated for his political activities (membership in the Philomaths) and in 1824 banished to central Russia. He had already published two small volumes of miscellaneous poetry at Vilnius, which had been favorably received by the Slavic public, and on his arrival at Saint Petersburg found himself welcomed into the leading literary circles, where he became a great favorite both for his agreeable manners and his extraordinary talent of improvisation. In 1825 he visited the Crimea, which inspired a collection of sonnets (Sonety Krymskie—The Crimean Sonnets) with their admirably elegant rhythm and rich Oriental coloring. The most beautiful are "The Storm," "Bakhchisaray," and "The Grave of Countess Potocka". Crimea had earlier caught the eye of another famous contemporary poet, Alexander Pushkin, who had written about it in "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai" two years before Mickiewicz.
In 1828 appeared Mickiewicz's Konrad Wallenrod, a narrative poem describing the battles of the Teutonic Knights with the heathen Lithuanians. In it, 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, though obvious to many, escaped the Russian censors, and the poem was allowed to be published, complete with the telling motto, adapted from Machiavelli: "Dovete adunque sapere come sono duo generazioni da combattere — bisogna essere volpe e leone." ("Ye shall know that there are two ways of fighting — you must be a fox and a lion.") This striking long poem contains at least two revered subsections, including the Alpuhara Ballad.
In 1829, after a five-year exile in Russia, the poet obtained permission to travel abroad. He had secretly made up his mind never to return to Russia, or to his own native land so long as it remained under Russian imperial rule. 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 Pass, visited Milan, Venice and Florence, and finally established his residence in Rome.
There he wrote the third part of his poem Dziady (Forefathers' Eve; in Lithuanian, Vėlinės), which adverts to the ancestor commemoration that had been practiced by Slavic and Baltic peoples; and Pan Tadeusz, his longest poem, which is considered his masterpiece. The latter epos draws a picture of Lithuania on the eve of Napoleon's 1812 expedition to Russia. In this "village idyll," as Aleksander Brückner calls it, Mickiewicz gives a picture of the country seats of the Commonwealth's magnates, with their somewhat boisterous but very genuine hospitality. They are seen just as the knell of their nationalism, as Brückner says, seems to be sounding, and therefore there is something melancholy and dirge-like in the poem, in spite of the pretty love story that forms the main incident.
Mickiewicz turned to Lithuania, firmly stating it as his "Fatherland"—in so doing, he was actually referring to his native former Grand Duchy of Lithuania—with the loving eyes of an exile, and gives 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.
In 1832 Mickiewicz left Rome for Paris, where his life was for some time marked by poverty and unhappiness. On July 22, 1834, he married Celina Szymanowska (daughter of composer and concert pianist Maria Agata Szymanowska), who became mentally ill. Marital discord and Celina's mental illness would drive Mickiewicz to attempt suicide on December 17 or 18, 1838, by jumping out a window.
In 1840 Mickiewicz was appointed to the newly-founded chair of Slavic languages and literatures at the Collège de France. He was, however, destined to hold it for little more than three years, his last lecture being given on May 28, 1844. His mind had become increasingly possessed by religious mysticism.
He had fallen under the influence of the Polish Messianist philosopher Andrzej Towiański. His lectures became a medley of religion and politics, and thus brought him under censure by the French government. A selection of his lectures has been published in four volumes. They contain some sound criticism, but the philological part is defective — Mickiewicz was no scholar, and it is clear that he was well acquainted with only two of the Slavic literatures, Polish and Russian, and the latter only to 1830.
A sad picture of his declining years is given in the memoirs of the Russian writer Alexander Herzen. Comparatively early, the poet exhibited signs of premature old age; poverty, despair and domestic affliction had taken their toll. In the winter of 1848–49, the Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin, in the final months of his own life, visited his ailing compatriot and soothed the poet's nerves with his piano music. Over a dozen years earlier, Chopin had set some of Mickiewicz's poems to music.
In 1849 Mickiewicz founded a French newspaper, La Tribune des Peuples (The Peoples' Tribune), but it survived only 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 honor of Napoleon III.
In 1855 Mickiewicz's wife Celina died. On the outbreak of the Crimean War, he left his under-age children in Paris and went to Istanbul, Turkey, to organize Polish forces to be used in the war against Russia. With his friend Armand Levy, a Romanian Jew , he set about organizing a Jewish legion, the Hussars of Israel, comprising Russian and Palestinian Jews. During a visit to a military camp near Istanbul, Mickiewicz caught cholera and died.
His remains were transported to France and buried at Montmorency. In 1900 they were disinterred, moved to a politically still unreborn Poland, and entombed in the crypts of Kraków's Wawel Cathedral, which they share with many of Poland's kings and of some of her greatest sons.
The political situation in Poland in the 19th century was often reflected in Polish literature which, since the days of Poland's partitions took a powerful upward swing and reached its zenith during the period between 1830 and 1850 in the unsurpassed patriotic writings of Mickiewicz, among others. The writings of Mickiewicz have had such a tremendous influence upon the Polish mind that they can not be underestimated.
Because of the greater simplicity of his style and the directness of presentation, Mickiewicz reached more Polish hearts than either Krasiński or Słowacki and came to be regarded as the greatest interpreter of the people's hopes and ideals. He is the Zeus of the Polish Olympus and the immortal incarnation of Polish national spirit. He wrote at a time when Romanticism prevailed in European literature. His works bear the impress of that literary epoch, but they deal with intense and palpable realities. His two monumental works, marking the zenith of his power, are Dziady (Forefathers' Eve) and Pan Tadeusz. The latter is universally recognized as "the only successful epic which the 19th century produced." George Brandes says:
"Mickiewicz alone approached those great names in poetry which stand in history as above all healthy, far healthier than Byron, healthier, even than Shakespeare, Homer and Goethe."
The poetic serenity of the description of Lithuanian life at the opening of the 19th century is the more remarkable when considered in the light of the poet's volcanic nature and his intense suffering over the tragic fate of his native land to which he could never return. His passionate nature finds its truest expression in Dziady, which undoubtedly constitutes the acme of poetic inspiration. It deals with the transformation of the soul from individual to a higher national conception. The hero, Gustavus, who has suffered great misfortune, wakes up one morning in his prison cell and finds himself an entirely changed man. His heart, given over to individual pain and individual love, dies. Gustavus, bewailing his lost personal happiness, lives no more, and Konrad, his divine ego, takes his place. All the creative powers of his nation are concentrated in him. Here Mickiewicz bares his own soul. He is filled with enough moral strength to challenge even God. He feels for millions and is pleading before God for their happiness and spiritual perfection. It is the Promethean idea, no doubt, but greatly deepened in conception and execution and applied to but one part of humanity, the Polish nation whose intensity of suffering was the greatest in all mankind.
In 1835 Mickiewicz came under the influence of Towianski, a mystic, and ceased to write. Toward the end of his days he freed himself again of this peculiar thrall which Towiański was able to exert over him, as over the two other poets, and became again a man of reality. As a young man, Mickiewicz took a leading part in the literary life of the university circles at Vilnius. When the societies were closed in 1823 by order of the Russian government he was arrested and exiled to Russia. While in the Crimea he wrote his exquisite sonnets. Subsequently he emigrated to France, where he spent most of his life, and died in Constantinople in 1855, while organizing a Polish (Jewish) legion against Russia during the Crimean war. His spirit was ever imbued with exalted patriotism and his genius was active in pointing toward a means of freeing the country from foreign oppression. He was a champion of action and it is characteristic of the greatness of his soul that he was ever above the petty strifes that were tearing apart the Polish emigrants, and which absorbed their thoughts and energies. At the time of the greatest intensity of that strife he wrote the celebrated Books of the Pilgrims a work of love, wisdom and good will written in exquisite style. They have been called "Mickiewicz's Homilies" and have exercised a soothing and elevating influence. Despite the fact that Mickiewicz's themes and heroes are connected with Polish life, his writings still touch upon most of the problems and motives of the world at large, thus assuring to his works everlasting value and universal interest. The same in an equal measure is true of the other two poets. They dealt with the most profound problems of existence, looking at them always through the prism of their ardent patriotism. Like Mickiewicz, the two other great Polish poets - Słowacki and Krasiński, were compelled to live outside their own country.
Beside Konrad Wallenrod and Pan Tadeusz, noteworthy is the long poem Grażyna, describing the exploits of a Lithuanian chieftainess against the Teutonic Knights. It was said by Christien Ostrowski to have inspired Emilia Plater, a military heroine of the November 1830 Uprising who found her 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 Joachim 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, Władysław Mickiewicz, wrote Vie d'Adam Mickiewicz (Poznań, 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 Michiewicz, trans. by Christien Ostrowski (Paris, 1845).
The most recent translation of "Pan Tadeusz" into English, in the rhyme and rhythm of the original, is by Marcel Weyland of Sydney, Australia (ISBN 1567002196 US, and 1873106777 UK).
He is regarded by some Lithuanians to have been of Lithuanian origin, his name being rendered into Lithuanian as Adomas Mickevičius. Similarly, many Belarusians claim his descent from a Polonized Belarusian family and call him Ада́м Міцке́віч. According to Belarusian historian Rybczonek, Mickiewicz's mother had Tatar roots. Some sources claim that Mickiewicz's mother was descended from a converted Frankist Jewish family. Other sources view the latter claim as "improbable.
The controversy largely stems from the fact that in the 19th century the modern concept of nationality based on ethnicity had not yet been fully developed and the term "Lithuania," as used by Mickiewicz himself, had a much broader geographic extent than it does now, and did refer to the historical Lithuania proper. Mickiewicz had been brought up in the culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a multicultural state that had encompassed most of what today are the separate countries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine. His most famous poem, Pan Tadeusz, begins with the invocation "Oh Lithuania, my fatherland, thou art like good health". It is generally accepted that in Mickiewicz's time the term "Lithuania" still carried a strong association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and that Mickiewicz used it in a political rather than an ethnic sense. However, he was able to make a clear distinction of the ethnic Lithuanian nation and himself could understand and write some Lithuanian. Translation by Simonas Daukantas of his poem Žywila into Lithuanian was first translation of his poems ever. It is regarded that his works had major influence for Lithuanian national renaissance.