THE POLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE.
Rey, Bielski, Copernicus, Czartoryski, Niemcewicz, Mickiewicz, and others.
The Polish language is the only existing representative of that variety of idioms originally spoken by the Slavic tribes, which, under the name of Lekhes, in the sixth or seventh century, settled on the banks of the Vistula and Varta. Although very little is known of the progress of the language into its present state, it is sufficiently obvious that it has developed from the conflict of its natural elements with the Latin and German idioms. Of the other Slavic dialects, the Bohemian is the only one which has exerted any influence upon this tongue. The Polish language is refined and artificial in its grammatical structure, rich in its words and phrases, and, like the Bohemian, capable of faithfully imitating the refinements of the classical languages. It has a great variety and nicety of shades in the pronunciation of the vowels, and such combinations of consonants as can only be conquered by a Slavic tongue.
The literary history of Poland begins, like that of Bohemia, at the epoch of the introduction of Christianity. In the year 965, Miecislav, Duke of Poland, married the Bohemian princess Dombrovka, who consented to the marriage on the condition of the duke becoming a convert to Christianity; and from that time the Polish princes, and the greater part of the nation, adopted the new faith. The clergy in those early ages in Poland, as well as elsewhere, were the depositaries of mental light; and the Benedictine monks who, with others, had been invited to the converted country, founded convents, to which they early attached schools. Their example was followed, at a later period, by other orders, and for several centuries the natives were excluded from all clerical dignities and privileges, and the education of the country was directed by foreign monks. They burned the few writings which they found in the vernacular tongue, and excited unnatural prejudices against it. From the ninth to the sixteenth century Polish literature was almost entirely confined to the translation of a part of the Bible and a few chronicles written in Latin. Among these must be noticed the chronicle of Martin Gallus (d. 1132), an emigrant Frenchman, who is considered as the oldest historian of Poland.
Casimir (1333-1370) was one of the few princes who acquired the name of the Great, not by conquests, but by the substantial benefits of laws, courts of justice, and means of education, which he procured for his subjects. In his reign was formed the first code of laws, known by the name of “Statute of Wislica,” a part of which is written in the Polish language; and he laid the foundation of the university of Cracow (1347), which, however, was only organized half a century later. Hedevig, the granddaughter of Casimir, married Jagello of Lithuania, and under their descendants, who reigned nearly two centuries, Poland rose to the summit of power and glory. With Sigismund I. (1505-1542), and Sigismund Augustus (1542-1613), a new period of Polish literature begins. The university of Cracow had been organized in 1400, on the model of that of Prague, and this opened a door for the doctrines, first of the Bohemian, then of the German reformers. The wild flame of superstition which kindled the fagots for the disciples of the new doctrines in Poland was extinguished by Sigismund I. and Sigismund II., in whom the Reformation found a decided support. Under their administration Poland was the seat of a toleration then unequaled in the world; the Polish language became more used in literary productions, and was fixed as the medium through which laws and decrees were promulgated.
Rey of Naglowic (1515-1569), who lived at the courts of the Sigismunds, is called the father of Polish poetry. Most of his productions are of a religious nature, and bear the stamp of a truly poetical talent. John Kochanowski (1530-1584) published a translation of the Psalms, which is still considered as a classical work. His other poems, in which Pindar, Anacreon, and Horace were alternately his models, are distinguished for their conciseness and terseness of style. Rybinski (fl. 1581) and Simon Szymonowicz (d. 1629), the former as a lyric poet, the latter as a writer of idyls, maintain a high rank.
The Poles possess all the necessary qualities for oratory, and the sixteenth century was eminent for forensic and pulpit eloquence. History was cultivated with much zeal, but mostly in the Latin language. Martin Bielski (1500-1576) was the author of the “Chronicle of Poland,” the first historical work in Polish. Scientific works were mostly written in Latin, the cultivation of which, in Poland, has ever kept pace with the study of the vernacular tongue. Indeed, the most eminent writers and orators of the sixteenth century, who made use of the Polish language, managed the Latin with equal skill and dexterity, and in common conversation both Latin and Polish were used.
Among the scientific writers of Latin is the astronomer Copernicus (1473- 1543). He early went to Italy, and was appointed professor of mathematics at Rome. He at length returned to Poland, and devoted himself to the study of astronomy. Having spent twenty years in observations and calculations, he brought his scheme to perfection, and established the theory of the universe which is now everywhere received.
The interval between 1622 and 1760 marks a period of a general decadence in Polish literature. The perversion of taste which, at the beginning of that age, reigned in Italy, and thence spread over Europe, reached Poland; and for nearly a hundred and fifty years the country, under the influence of the Jesuits, was the victim of a stifling intolerance, and of a general mental paralysis. But in the reign of Stanislaus Augustus (1762-1795), Poland began to revive, and the national literature received a new impulse. Though the French language and manners prevailed, and the bombastic school of Marini was only supplanted by that of the cold and formal poets of France, the cultivation of the Polish language was not neglected; a periodical work, to which the ablest men of the country contributed, was published, public instruction was made one of the great concerns of the government, and the power of the Jesuits was destroyed.
The dissolution of the kingdom which soon followed, its partition and amalgamation with foreign nations, kindled anew the patriotic spirit of the Poles, who devoted themselves with more zeal than ever to the cultivation of their native language, the sole tie which still binds them together. The following are the principal representatives of this period: Stephen Konarski (1700-1773), a writer on politics and education, who devoted himself entirely to the literary and mental reform of his country; Zaluski (1724-1786), known more especially as the founder of a large library, which, at the dismemberment of Poland, was transferred to St. Petersburg; and, above all, Adam Czartoryski (1731-1823), and the two brothers Potocki, distinguished as statesmen, orators, writers, and patrons of literature and art. At the head of the historical writers of the eighteenth century stands Naruszewicz (1753-1796), whose history of Poland is considered as a standard work. In respect to erudition, philosophical conception, and purity of style, it is a masterpiece of Polish literature. Krasicki (1739-1802), the most distinguished poet under Stanislaus Augustus, was called the Polish Voltaire. His poems and prose writings are replete with wit and spirit, though bearing evident marks of French influence, which was felt in almost all the poetical productions of that age.
Niemcewicz (1787-1846) is regarded as one of the greatest poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Having fought by the side of Kosciusko, and shared his fate as a prisoner, he accompanied him to America, where he became the friend and associate of Washington, whose life he afterwards described. His other works consist of historical songs, dramas, and a history of the reign of Sigismund.
There is no branch of literature in which the Poles have manifested greater want of original power than in the drama, where the influence of the French school is decided, and, indeed, exclusive. Novels and tales, founded on domestic life, are not abundant in Polish literature; philosophy has had few votaries, and the other sciences, with the exception of the mathematical and physical branches, have been, till recently, neglected.
The failure of the revolution of 1830 forms a melancholy epoch in Polish history, and especially in Polish literature. The universities of Warsaw and Wilna were broken up, and their rich libraries removed to St. Petersburg. Even the lower schools were mostly deprived of their funds, and changed to Russian government schools. The press was placed under the strictest control, the language and the national peculiarities of the country were everywhere persecuted, the Russian tongue and customs substituted, and the poets and learned men either silenced or banished. Yet since that time the national history has become more than ever a chosen study with the people; and as the results of these researches, since 1830, cannot be written in Poland, Paris has become the principal seat of Polish learning. One of the first works of importance published there was the “History of the Polish Insurrection,” by Mochnachi (1804- 1835), known before as the author of a work on the Polish literature of the nineteenth century, and as the able editor of several periodicals. Lelewel, one of the leaders of the revolution, wrote a work on the civil rights of the Polish peasantry, which has exercised a more decided influence in Poland than that of any modern author. Miekiewicz (1798- 1843), a leader of the same revolution, is the most distinguished of the modern poets of Poland. His magnificent poem of “The Feast of the Dead” is a powerful expression of genius. His “Sonnets on the Crimea” are among his happiest productions, and his “Sir Thaddeus” is a graphic description of the civil and domestic life of Lithuania. Mickiewicz is the founder of the modern romantic school in Poland, to which belong the most popular productions of Polish literature. Zalesski, Grabowski, and others of this school have chosen the Ukraine as the favorite theatre of their poems, and give us pictures of that country, alternately sweet, wild, and romantic.
Of all the Slavic nations, the Poles have most neglected their popular poetry, a fact which may be easily explained in a nation among whom whatever refers to mere boors and serfs has always been regarded with the utmost contempt. Their beautiful national dances, however, the graceful Polonaise, the bold Masur, the ingenious Cracovienne, are equally the property of the nobility and peasantry, and were formerly always accompanied by singing instead of instrumental music. These songs were extemporized, and were probably never committed to writing.
The centre of literary activity in Poland is Warsaw, which, in spite of the severe restrictions on the press, has always maintained its preeminence.