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Polish Literature

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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The unhappy Kingdom of Poland came to an end in 1795, when the territories left after two previous divisions went to Austria and Russia. Yet not till after this national extinction did its literary glory arise. Regret for what was irretrievably lost, and vain hope for its restoration, unsealed the mouths of its poets. The first was Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), a native of Lithuania. Being involved in political trouble at the University of Wilna, he was ordered to St. Petersburg, where he was well received in literary circles. His poem "Konrad Wallenrod" (1828) described the battles of the Teutonic Knights with the heathen Lithuanians in the Fifteenth Century, but it is easy to see that it was aimed at the wars of the Poles and the Russians. When Mickiewicz obtained permission to travel, he went to Germany, Italy, and finally France. His "Pan Tadeusz" (1832) gives a picture of Lithuania on the eve of Napoleon's invasion in 1812. He ceased writing at the age of thirty-six and afterward his native mysticism grew into a deplorable imbecility. A statue to his memory was unveiled at Warsaw on December 24, 1898, the centenary of his birth.

The second great poet of Poland was Julius Slowacki (1809-1849), who was also a mystic and an imitator of Byron. His mysticism was shown in "Anhelli," which expressed allegorically the sufferings of his native land. His Byronism appeared in "Lambro," a picture of a Greek corsair, and "Beniowski," an adventurer like Don Juan. Sigismund Krasinski (1812-1849), though born in Paris, was a thorough Pole and mystic. As his father had adhered to the Russian Government, the son concealed his name, and was called "The Unknown Poet." In his "Undivine Comedy" the woes of Poland were again bewailed allegorically. His writings seem like a dirge over her extinction.

The most prolific of all Polish authors was Josef Ignacy Kraszewsky (1812-1887), who wrote over 250 works, including epics, novels, romances, histories, and political treatises. A series of his novels was devoted to depicting Polish history from the earliest times. Of his other stories, "The Hut Beyond the Village (1855) and "Jermota the Potter" (1857) were the most popular. The last resembles George Eliot's "Silas Mariner."

But far beyond any other Polish writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz has extended the literary fame of his native land. This has been partly due to the help of the eminent linguist, Jeremiah Curtin, who translated his works into English, yet still more must be granted to the creative genius of the novelist himself. It enabled him to overcome the opposition of critics in Poland and to win the approbation of all serious judges elsewhere. Sienkiewicz was born at Vola in Lithuania in 1846. He was educated at Warsaw and became a journalist. In 1876 he came to America with a colony led by Madame Modjeska to settle in Southern California. A year's experience here furnished material for newspaper correspondence and sketches. In 1884 his novels of Polish history in the Seventeenth Century began to appear. They comprise "With Fire and Sword," "The Deluge," and "Pan Michael," and describe respectively the Cossack, Swedish and Turkish invasions. Each has its own hero and its own special interest, the last being the best. In all of them appears a unique character, Zagloba, somewhat boastful and ridiculous, and yet full of sense and spirit. They are generally regarded as the best historical novels of the last half of the Century. The profound psychological novel of the present day, "Without Dogma" (1890), could not secure the same general attention. But "Quo Vadis" appeared in 1895, and quickly made the author's name familiar throughout the world. It is a story of the persecution of the Christians by Nero, and is founded on a close study of Roman literature of that period. The art of the novelist has reproduced the brilliance of imperial Rome, the waning power of Paganism, and the hopeful courage of the early Christians. The title, meaning "Whither Goest Thou?" is taken from the legend which records that when St. Peter in dismay was leaving Rome, he met his Lord bearing his cross, and asked that question, to which the reply was, "I go to Rome to be crucified." This legend is incorporated in the work. One of the prominent characters is Petronius, who was Nero's master of pleasure, and has left a humorous Latin description of a feast, which is also interwoven in the modern author's work. Sienkiewicz has also displayed his abilities in fine short stories. Those relating to America are not equal to those in which Polish village life is exhibited. The best is "God's Will," a tragical story, relieved at times with humorous scenes.

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