CHAPTER XXI. POLISH LITERATURE
At an Early Date Western Influence sufficiently Potent. Sixteenth Century Brilliant; Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries highly Cultured; Nineteenth Century Notably Original.
WESTERN INFLUENCE—Widely different from Russian literature, much more Western, based more on Greek and Latin culture, Polish literature holds high rank in the histories of European literature. Christians from the tenth century, the Poles knew from this epoch religious songs written by monks, in the vulgar tongue. To this is due the possession of the Bogarodzica, a religious and bellicose song dedicated to the Virgin mother of God, which is even now comprehensible, so little has the Polish language changed. All through the Middle Ages, literary historians can only find chronicles written sometimes in Latin, sometimes in the native language. Under the influence of the universities, and also of the parliamentary rule, the language acquired alike more consistency and more authority in the fifteenth century, whilst the sixteenth was the golden literary epoch of the Poles. There were poets, and even great poets, as well as orators and historians. Such was Kochanowski, very much a Western, who lived some time in Italy, also seven years in France, and was a friend of Ronsard. His writings were epical, lyrical, tragical, satirical, and especially elegiacal. He is a classic in Poland. Grochowski left a volume of diversified poems, hymns on various texts of Thomas a Kempis, The Nights of Thorn, etc. Martin Bielski, who was an historian too, but in Latin, left two political satires on the condition of Poland, and his son Joachim wrote a history of his native land in Polish.
SEVENTEENTH AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURIES.—Though somewhat less brilliant than the preceding, the period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is not unfavourable to Poland. Then may be enumerated the satirical Opalinski, the lyrical Kochanowski, the dramatist Bogulawski, manager of the theatre at Warsaw, who not only translated plays from the French, English, and Spanish, but himself wrote several comedies, of which The Lover, Author, and Servant has remained the most celebrated. Rzewuski was a dramatic author with such national plays as Wladislas at Varna and Zolkewishi, and comedies as The Vexations and The Capricious, and he also was historian, orator, literary critic, and theorist.
Potocki was a literary and theoretical critic and founder of a sort of Polish academy (society for the perfection of the tongue and of style). Prince Czartoryski showed himself an excellent moralist in his Letters to Doswiadryski. Niemcewicz extended his great literary talent into a mass of diversified efforts. He wrote odes held in esteem, tragedies, comedies, fables, and tales, historical novels, and he translated the poems of Pope and the Athalie of Racine.
LITERARY RENAISSANCE.—Losing her national independence, Poland experienced a veritable literary renaissance, which offered but slender compensation. She applied herself to explore her origins, to regain the ancient spirit, and to live nationally in her literature. Hence her great works of patriotic erudition. Czacki with his Laws of Poland and of Lithuania, Kollontay with his Essay on the Heredity of the Throne of Poland, and his Letters of an Anonymous to Stanislas Malachowski, etc., Bentkowski with his History of Polish Literature and his Introduction to General Literature, etc. Thence came the revival of imaginative literature, Felinski, on the one hand translator of Crebillon, Delille and Alfieri on the other, he was the personally distinguished author of the drama Barbe Radzivill; Bernatowicz, author of highly remarkable historical novels, among which Poiata gives a picture of the triumph of Christianity in Lithuania in the fourteenth century; Karpinski, dramatist, author of Judith, a tragedy; Alcestis, an opera;Cens, a comedy, etc.; Mickiewicz, scholar, poet, and novelist, who, exiled from his own land, was professor of literature at Lausanne, then in Paris, at the College of France, extremely popular in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, the friend of Goethe, Lamennais, Cousin, Michelet, and of all the French youth. He was the author of fine poems, of a great historical novel, Conrade Vattenrod, of The People and the Polish Pilgrims, of a Lesson on the Slav States.
MODERN EPOCH.—At the time of writing, Poland continues to be a literary nation well worthy of attention. She presents an example to the races which incur the risk of perishing as nations because of their political incapacity; by preserving their tongue and by sanctifying it with a worthy literature they guard their country and, like the Greeks and Italians, hope to reconquer it some day through the sudden turns of fortune shown in history.