“No European nation of our day has such an epic as Pan Tadeusz" - On Adam Mickiewicz's Birthday in 1798

24 December 1798, 215 years ago, the Polish national poet and author of the national epic “Pan Tadeusz“ Adam Mickiewicz was born in Zavosse, 85 miles southwest of Minsk.

“No European nation of our day has such an epic as Pan Tadeusz. In it Don Quixote has been fused with the Iliad. The poet stood on the border line between a vanishing generation and our own. Before they died, he had seen them; but now they are no more. That is precisely the epic point of view. Mickiewicz has performed his task with a master's hand; he has made immortal a dead generation, which now will never pass away. (...) Pan Tadeusz is a true epic. No more can be said or need be said.“ (Zygmunt Krasiński)

Walenty Wańkowicz’s (1799–1842) portrait of Adam Mickiewicz á la Byron (1828)

When Lord Byron died in Missolonghi in 1824 during the Greek War of Independence, the news spread like wildfire through Europe and the Americas and the rock star poet’s alleged death for freedom caused a chain reaction of artists, poets, composers and painters, emulating him and, during the restoration phase after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, by far not only in his well-known aspects of the tortured individual’s soul, but in his role as freedom fighter. And while most nations sported at least one Romantic haunted and bored Byronic artist on their local Parnassus during these days, especially peoples struggling for their identity and autonomy under the thumb of their own reactionary governments or that of foreign major powers, usually Austria, Russia and Prussia, brought forth a national poet of freedom with a strong Byronic streak. Troubled Poland managed to breed even three of them, Zygmunt Krasiński, 
Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz.

The Three Polish Bards: Zygmunt Krasiński, Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz

The life of the “Three Bards” of Poland mirrors the nation’s continuous struggle for freedom and Mickiewicz’s is no exception. As a member of the szlachta, the gentry with their proud heritage of governing the country during the days of the “Golden Freedom”, Adam received an excellent education and spent most of his live in exile. He worked as a teacher in Russia, befriended Pushkin, was a member of St Petersburg’s literary circles, saw Italy, Switzerland and Germany and, at the age of 32, hurried back to Poland when he heard of the November Uprising against the Russian occupation, joined the great emigration wave to France when the uprising was quelled a year later. Mickiewicz became a teacher again in Paris and organised the Polish Legions in Italy during the March Revolutions of 1848 and finally died in Constantinople in 1855 from the cholera while recruiting Poles and Jews for the French army, the Legion Polski and the Hussars of Israel, to fight the Russians during the Crimean War. And, during all his teaching and organising and propagating Polish independence, Mickiewicz wrote epic and lyrical poetry and plays that rank among the best during a time rich with excellent authors.

Franciszek Kostrzewski (1826 - 1911): "The bear leapt up as, chased by the hounds, leaps a hare, / And it crashed headlong downward" - illustration of Pan Tadeusz”

Considered to be the last great European epic poem, Mickiewicz’ “Pan Tadeusz”, a somewhat lengthy story of a family feud under the auspices of the troublesome days after the Third Partition of Poland and the establishment of Napoleon’s Polish satellite state in the year of 1811 and became Poland’s national epic. “Konrad Wallenrod”, an inspiration for the November Uprising of 1830, an ambiguous tale of leading oppressors to their doom and forming the term of “Wallenrodyzm”, striking a treacherous, possibly suicidal blow against the enemy, and inspiring another Polish writer, Józef Korzeniowski, to his pen name Joseph Conrad, is another example of Mickiewicz’ influence on Polish identity. Even though he is hardly known anymore outside of Poland, Polish circles and Slavist scholars abroad, Adam Mickiewicz left a rich heritage that far surpasses the political history of Central Europe during the 19th century and set a literary milestone not only of high artistic standards but, as the Slavist Roman Koropeckyi put it, he is cherished among "people that dared resist the brutal might of reactionary empires“ and not only in Poland.

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