history Eastern_Europe  POLAND  


Poland's Greatest Poet

By Byung-woo Kim



According to the consensus of Polish opinion, Adam Mickiewicz is Poland's greatest poet and the one who is closest to the nation. He is regarded not only as a great artist but also as the nation's great teacher. The foreigner would find the conditions and circumstances surrounding the life and creative work of Adam Mickiewicz difficult to understand without a knowledge of the historical background of the period. Mickiewicz was born on December 24, 1798, three years after the final partition of Poland, on territory taken over by Russia in the neighborhood of Nowogrodek (his birth place). He stemmed from the moderately wealthy family, settled in this region for centuries. In the very beginning of its rule over that part of Poland, Russia left certain liberties to the Poles and allowed some of the old institutions to continue. Hence, during the youth of Mickiewicz, Polish courts, Polish local self-government, and Polish schools still existed. Mickiewicz received his early education in the secondary school at Nowogrodek. After completing this school, he entered the University of Wilno. The young Mickiewicz studied in the humanistic faculty, devoting the major part of his time to Polish literature, ancient languages, and history.

The interests of the young Mickiewicz, however, were not confined to study. He plunged into the activities of the student organization, the Philomats and the Philarets, which evolved from study club into a vast organization embracing various groups and various degrees of scientific and social endeavor. Their slogan was "Motherland, Study, and Virtue," bespeaking a patriotic, intellectual and moral up bringing (Great Men, Kridl, 191).


Unfortunately, the activity of this society lasted but a few years. The Russian government came upon its trail and regarding its program as too menacing to the Russian state, dissolved it, arresting its outstanding members and sending them into the interior of Russia. In the years 1822 and 1823 he published the first two slender volumes of his poetry. In 1824, he was arrested with other Philomats and, after a six months' imprisonment, was expelled to Russia. The sojourn in Russia brought Mickiewicz other moods and reflections, and inspired him to write a very different long poem, Konrad Wallenrod(1828), told in the form of a Byronic poetic novel. In the lines of the poem, he stressed the necessity of blending together poetry and politics, whereby poetry was compelled to represent the political problems of national life and national disasters.(Krzyzanowski, 92)


It was in Rome that he learned of the outbreak of the revolution in Warsaw in November of 1830. Anxious to take part in the uprising, Mickiewicz left Rome. However, he arrived too late, for the insurrection was already on the wane. After the failure of insurrection, Mickiewicz was compelled to share the fate of the many Polish emigrants, who in protest against the Russian policy of oppression, proceeded to France, to prepare there for a further struggle with the Czarist regime. He made a brief stop at Dresden, where one of his best works, the third part of The Ancestors, was written.(Great Men, Kridl,193) The attitude of Polish society toward official Russia was shaped in a large measure under the influence of his inspired, published under the title of Excerpt as a supplement to the third part of The Ancestors. He wrote and spoke much of Poland's role in Central Europe, of the "mission" which Poland was to fulfill, placed by the fate of history between the two mighty nations of Germans and Russians, and a great deal of what he said has remained in the national consciousness.(Great Men, Kridl, 204) The poet continued on his way to Paris, and his sojourn in France lasted almost to his death. In 1832 the poet published a short work in prose entitled The Books of The Polish Nation and of the Polish Pilgrims, in which he promulgated the principles of integral Christianity in international relations, spoke out in defense of peoples against tyranny and in rejection of social oppression.(An Anthology, Kridl, 161)


This work achieved a widespread renown in Europe. One of the beautiful moments in his life was the formation of a Polish army in 1848. At the first news of the outbreak of the revolution in Italy, Mickiewicz proceeded to Rome to organize a Polish armed force. From Rome to Milan, he delivered many speeches to the multitudes on the subject of liberty and the brotherhood of peoples. Wherever he went, he aroused admiration and lively interest. Soon after his arrival in Milan, a Polish legion was organized. Meanwhile, revolutionary events were occurring in France. Mickiewicz went to Paris to continue his work for the cause of the revolution and of Poland. In 1855 the Crimean was broke out. Mickiewicz went to Constantinople to organize a Polish legion with the Turkish army. Although the Polish military formation could not attain its aim of transporting the scene of battle to Poland, it demonstrated to the world the determination of the Poles to fight for the liberation of their homeland at every opportunity.

This was the last great deed in the life of Adam Mickiewicz . Stricken by cholera, he died on November 26,1855 as a soldier at his battle station. Thanks to Mickiewicz , Polish literature entered the orbit of world literature. He was devoid of a shadow of chauvinism or nationalism, always uniting the cause of Poland with that of Humanity fighting to a better morrow, and rejecting all manners of separatism and egoism in relations among nations. His influence in Poland has continued to this very day.


  1. Kridl, Manfred. "An Anthology of Polish Literature" Columbia University Press; New York, 1957.
  2. Kridl, Manfred. "Great Men And Women Of Poland" The Macmillan Company; New York, 1943.
  3. Krzyzanowski, Julian. "Polish Romantic Literature" George Allen & Unwin Ltd; London, 1930.




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