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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter V. National Heroism: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Adam Mickiewicz: “Prophecies”

Adam Mickiewicz
Traduction de Dorothea Prall Radin et Louise Varèse

Texte intégral

1Title: Litania pielgrzymska (Pilgrim’s litany), in Księgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa polskiego (Books of the Polish nation and pilgrimage); and Dziady, część trzecia (The Forefathers, part 3)

2Originally published: Księgi narodu polskiego in the form of a prayer-book was published in Paris, 1832; the French translation appeared in 1833. Dziady was written in Dresden in 1832 and published in Paris the same year in the 4th volume of Mickiewicz’s Poezje.

3Language: Polish

4Modern Polish editions: Księgi narodu i pielgrzymstwa polskiego, ed. Stanisław Pigoń (Cracow: Polska Akademia Umiejętności, 1926); Dziady: część 3 (Warszawa: PIW, 1995). English editions: Poems by Adam Mickiewicz, edited by George Rapall Noyes (New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, 1944), pp. 414–415 and 291–294; Adam Mickiewicz, The Great Improvisation, translated by Louise Varèse (New York: Voyages, 1956).

About the author

5See: Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz, pp. 211–212.


6In their works on ‘native’ themes, either political and philosophical treaties or literary works, Polish émigrés often referred to the world of politics, situating the Polish case within the framework of a universal struggle for free-dom. Thus, Polish romantic literature in many ways functioned as the metapolitical manifesto of a democratic ideology. The following works by Mickiewicz represent a literary reaction to the failure of the November Uprising (1830–1831) and the loss of autonomy of the Congress Kingdom. Księgi narodu i pielgrzymstwa polskiego opened a new phase in the evolution of Mickiewicz’s ideology. The text gained fame as the most notable expression of Polish romantic messianism: the idea of Poland as a ‘Christ of nations.’ Księgi… was intentionally phrased as a ‘national Gospel’ and also played the role of a ‘national catechism.’ In December 1832 it was published twice in France, and several months later it was also published in Galicia in an underground edition.

7Księgi... can also be read as Mickiewicz’s reaction to the political conflicts between the various groups of Polish émigrés. The poet supported neither the conservative faction of Hôtel Lambert, led by Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, nor the radical Polish Democratic Society, who were preparing a social revolution and appealing to the broader masses of townspeople and peasants (see Henryk Kamieński, Vital truths of the Polish nation). In contrast to their strictly political programs, he formulated a transcendental vision, underpinned by a democratic conviction of the brotherhood and future cooperation of European nations. To strengthen the biblical reference of his poetic proclamation, Mickiewicz turned to the language of the seventeenth-century vernacular Bible translation.

8Curiously, the harshest criticism of Mickiewicz’s Messianic poems came from two diametrically opposed perspectives: the radical democrats and the Pope. Both repudiated the combination of social radicalism with the Gospel. While the radicals were antagonized by the conservative and religious motifs, the conservatives rejected his instrumentalization of religious symbolism for a democratic agenda. However, Mickiewicz was not alone here: the Christian socialist doctrine of Felicité Lamennais (1782–1854) enjoyed great popularity among Polish émigrés.

9The idea of Poland as the ‘Christ of nations’ is the central motif of the text. However, it is noteworthy that Mickiewicz’s messianism was not restricted to ‘national martyrdom,’ as was the case with the doctrine put forward by Andrzej Towiański. This messianism was closely related to Joachim Lelewel’s philosophy of history. In Lelewel’s view, the Poles were per definitionem the representatives of democratic values, and were supposed to play a crucial role in contemporary conflicts between liberalism and conservatism, this latter being embodied in the Holy Alliance. Similarly, Poland in Mickiewicz’s poems was not only suffering as Christ, but its destiny was also to bring salvation to all the nations. The hope for the universal war for the freedom of oppressed peoples envisioned by Mickiewicz was very far from the millenarist doctrine of Towiański’s sect. Be this as it may, the popularity of Księgi… diminished after the 1863 uprising and with the emergence of new, positivistic ideas formulated by conservatives from Cracow and liberals from Warsaw, both of whom rejected any violent action against the partitioning powers (see: Józef Szujski, Some truths from our history, and Aleksander Świętochowski, Political directives).

10The same idea of Poland as a ‘Christ of nations’ is present in Mickiewicz’s most well-known play, Dziady (The Forefathers). It is set in Wilno (Lit. Vilnius), but the constant presence of divine and evil forces moves it to transcendental spheres. The hero Gustaw (who is re-born under the name Konrad) talks to God as a representative of his Nation, even though he is a prisoner in a Basilian monastery. The events outside the prison walls prove that his voice is heard, and that the omnipotent eyes are watching the sufferings of Polish youth under the tsarist regime. As the action is split into loosely connected events, debate concerning Dziady concentrated mostly on the meaning of particular passages. The meaning of ‘44’ (see p. 418) found no satisfactory explanation although many interpretative attempts were made (including through the cabbala and numerology; according to the most plausible explanation Mickiewicz believed that the numerical value of the letters in ‘Adam’ is 44 in Hebrew), but this did not prevent it being used as a national symbol. It is also unclear whom Mickiewicz believed to be the ‘Polish messiah.’ But in addition, Dziady includes a series of metaphors that were readily intelligible to the contemporary reader—alluding to events from the time of the Kościuszko insurrection (1794) to the November Uprising (1830– 1831)—but which have lost their obvious reference in the meantime. Some parts refer to events of strictly regional significance taking place in Wilno, Oszmiana and other places in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The first of the passages selected, ‘The Great Improvisation,’ exemplifies Mickiewicz’s way of uniting romantic motifs—the loneliness of the individual and the omnipotence of supernatural forces—with the national theme. It illustrates the contradictory feelings of Polish émigrés. On the one hand, they could look on themselves as the leaders of the European democratic movements and as representatives of an ancient democratic tradition (as Lelewel argued). Gustaw/Konrad is thus not only a romantic individual whose metaphysical power allows him to address God with the request: “Give me dominion over souls!” He is also a representative of the spiritual power of a suffering (but supposedly soon to be resurrected) Poland. On the other hand, the whole course of ‘Great Improvisation’ takes place in a prison, where Gustaw/Konrad’s words may resemble the mumblings of a madman. Accordingly, the reader could ask whether the whole fight against the dominating (and diabolic) tsar has any chance for success.

11The second extract from Dziady, the ‘Vision of Father Peter’, is a renarration of Poland’s historical fate in a biblical register. Here the vision of ‘the Christ of nations’ found its strongest expression. Mickiewicz confronted Europe with his bitter conclusion, similar to the one made some years later by Sándor Petőfi amid the turmoil of the Hungarian War of Independence: Europe silently observes our sufferings. It does not realize (or does not want to realize) that Poland suffers ‘for your freedom and ours,’ as the propagandistic tag of Kościuszko’s insurrection claimed. Among these instances of suffering Mickiewicz describes a paradigmatic experience of the nineteenth-century Polish national movement: Siberia, the place where the country loses its best people.

12Dziady has had wide-ranging influence in Polish literature and politics. It is treated as a ‘national drama’. Since the fin-de-siècle poet and author of the celebrated play Wesele, Stanisław Wyspiański (1869–1907), first staged Dziady in Cracow in 1901, almost every presentation of Dziady became an artistic or political event of great importance. For instance, the 1967 Warsaw production under the direction of Kazimierz Dejmek caused a political crisis: the Communist government deemed the play anti-Soviet, setting off a chain of events that culminated in the anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual campaign of 1968.


The Pilgrim’s Litany

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison.
God the Father, who didst lead thy people out of the Egyptian bond-age and didst restore them to the Holy Land,
Restore us to our Fatherland.
Son of God and Savior, who wast tortured and crucified, who rose from the dead and dost reign in glory,
Raise from the dead our Fatherland.
Mother of God, to whom our fathers gave the name Queen of Poland and Lithuania,
Save Poland and Lithuania.
Saint Stanisław, patron of Poland,
Pray for us.
Saint Kazimierz, patron of Lithuania,
Pray for us.
Saint Jozafat, patron of Ruthenia,
Pray for us.
All ye saints, patrons of our Commonwealth,
Pray for us.
From the slavery of Moscow, of Austria, and of Prussia,
Deliver us, O Lord.
By the martyrdom of the thirty thousand knights of Bar, who fell for Faith and Freedom,
Deliver us, O Lord.
By the martyrdom of the twenty thousand citizens of Praga, massacred for Faith and Freedom,
Deliver us, O Lord.
By the martyrdom of the young men of Lithuania, slain with rods, dead in mines and in exile,
Deliver us, O lord.
By the martyrdom of the citizens of Oszmiana, slaughtered in the churches of the Lord and in their houses,
Deliver us, O Lord.
By the martyrdom of the soldiers murdered in Fischau by the Prussians,
Deliver us, O Lord.
By the martyrdom of the soldiers killed with the knout in Kronstadt by the Muscovites,
Deliver us, O Lord.
By the blood of all the soldiers fallen in the war for Faith and Freedom,
Deliver us, O Lord.
By the wounds, tears, and sufferings of all the slaves, exiles, and pilgrims of Poland,
Deliver us, O Lord.
For a universal war for the Freedom of the Peoples,
We beseech thee, O Lord.
For the arms and the eagles of our nation,
We beseech thee, O Lord.
For a happy death on the field of battle,
We beseech thee, O Lord.
For the burial of our bones in our own land,
We beseech thee, O Lord.
For the independence, unity, and freedom of our Fatherland,
We beseech thee, O Lord.
In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

14Translated by Dorothea Prall Radin, in Poems by Adam Mickiewicz, edited by George Rapall Noyes (New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, 1944), pp. 414–415.

The Great Improvisation

(KONRAD, in prison, speaks after a long silence):
[...] You, poets, I trample you underfoot,
All of you, sages and prophets,
Whom the world has idolized!
Were you to return among your spiritual children,
Hear the praises and applause of centuries,
Feel yourselves worthy,
And know the daily magic of your fame –
Not all this glory and all these crowns,
Garnered from all the generations of all the years,
Would ever bring you
The plenitude of power and happiness
I feel in this solitary night,
As I sing alone within myself,
As I sing for myself alone.

Yes! I have the power to think and to feel
Never have I felt as I feel at this moment –
Today is my zenith, today is my crisis,
Today I shall know if I am the highest of all, or only a presumptuous man.

Today is the hour of destiny,
Today I shall strain every muscle of my spirit –
It is the hour of Samson,
When, a prisoner and blind, he pondered at the foot of the pillar.
I have thrown off my body,
Spirit, I put on wings!
Yes, I shall fly, fly out of the sphere of the planets and stars,
Till I come to the borderline that separates Nature and God.
I have them, I have them – those two wings!
They will suffice: I shall spread them from sunrise to sunset,
I shall rise on the rays of my feelings – I shall reach you!

I shall look into your innermost feelings.
To you, God, whom they say feel in heaven,
I have come, I have come: see what power is mine,
How high my wings rise!
But I am a man, and my body is there on the earth,
There I have loved, my heart has remained in my country.

But my love on the earth did not rest
On one human being alone,
Like a bug on a rose,
On one family, one century alone,
I love a whole Nation! And I have embraced
All its generations, past and to come;
I pressed it to my breast
Like a friend, a lover, a husband, a father;
I want to raise it up, make it happy,
I would make it the wonder of the world!
I lack the means and have come here to wrest them from you.
I come here armed with all the power of my reason,
That reason which wrested your lightning from heaven,
Explored the motions of the planets and opened the deeps of the sea –
More than all that – I have the power that comes not from man,
The power of the feelings that seethe like a volcano within me.
Only smoking in words now and then.

Give me dominion over souls! I despise this dead structure
Called the world, so endlessly praised by the rabble,
And whether I can destroy it by my words
I have yet to discover.
But I feel if I screwed up my will
And let it suddenly burst,
I could put out a thousand stars, light up a thousand more –
For I am immortal! In the sphere of creation
There are other immortals – but none I have met are superior.
You are supreme in high heaven, and I, who have sought you up here,
Am supreme in the valley of earth among men of feeling.
Never yet have I met you. I sense that you are;
Let me meet you, make me feel your transcendence! –

I come seeking power; give me power, or show me the way! –
I’ve been told there were prophets who ruled over souls;
I believe it. What they have done I also can do.
I would have power equal to yours,
As you govern souls, so would I govern them.
(Long silence).
(With irony):
You are silent! You are silent! No matter. I know you;
I know what you are, I know how you exercise your power. –
Whoever named you Love was a liar;
You are Wisdom, no more.
Men penetrate your ways through the mind, not the heart;
Through the mind, not the heart, they will master your weapons –
Only he who has delved into books,
Into metals, numbers and corpses,
Only he can succeed
In securing some part of your power.
He will understand poisons, gunpowder and steam,
He will understand smoke and lightning and thunder,
He will find all the tricks of the law
Against the wise and the ignorant.
You have delivered the world over to the mind
And left the heart in penance forever,
You have given me the shortest life,
You have given me the strongest feelings. –

Now my soul is incarnate in my country,
My body has swallowed her soul,
And I and my country are one.
Million is my name, for I love
And I suffer for millions.
I look at my unfortunate fatherland
As a son at his father on the wrack,
And I feel all the pain of my people
Like a mother the child in her womb.
I suffer, I rage – while You, happy and wise,
You still govern,
Still judge,
And never are wrong, so they say!

Speak now, if it’s true what I learned in the cradle,
What with filial faith I believed,
That you love; if true that you cherished the world you created,
And feel for your creatures a fatherly love,
If a feeling heart too was enclosed in the ark
With the animals you saved from the Deluge,
Or if that heart is not merely a monster,
Born by chance and dead before its time,
If the millions of wretches who cry “Help!”
Only attract your attention as equations to solve,
If love is of some use in the universe,
Or only an error on your part –

Demon Voices
Eagle into hydra!
I’ll tear out its eyes.
To battle!
Smoke! Fire!
Roaring and thunder!

Angel Voices
Out of the bright sun,
Lost comet!
Where will your flight end?
Without end,
Without end..

You are silent! Yet I’ve laid bare the depths of my heart,
I implore you: give me power; only a part,
A part of that power that pride has won on the earth.
With that particle only, what happiness I could create!
You are silent! – You refuse it to the heart, then give it to the reason.
You can see I am first among men, among angels,
That I know you better that your archangels know you;
I deserve that you cede me the half of your power –
Am I right... You are silent...But I do not lie.
You are silent. You trust in the strength of your arm!
Don’t you know that the heart can burn what the mind cannot break?
Look into this furnace, my heart:
I compress it, make it burn the more fiercely,
I force it into the iron band of my will,
Like a ball in the deadly cannon.

Demon Voices
Fire! Fire!

Angel Voices

Speak! For I shall fire on this Nature of yours;
And if I cannot reduce it to rubble,
At least I shall shake the foundations of your dominion;
For I shall send forth a voice to the confines of creation,
A voice that will echo from generation to generation,
I shall shout that you are not the father of the world but...

Voice of the Devil:
The Tsar!

15Translated by Louise Varèse in Adam Mickiewicz, The Great Improvisation (New York: Voyages, 1956).

The Forefathers. Vision of Father Peter

Father Peter (prays, lying in the form of a cross)
Lord, what am I before thy countenance?
Dust and naught.
But when I have confessed my nothingness to thee,
I, dust, may yet hold converse with my Lord.
(He beholds a vision)
A tyrant hath arisen, Herod! – Lord, the youth of Poland
Is all delivered into Herod’s hands.
What do I see? Long snowy ways, with many crossroads,
White roads that stretch through wastes too distant to descry!
All running to the north, that far, far country,
As rivers flow;
On, on they stream, and one leads straight to iron portals,
That other, like a stream that vanishes beneath the ground,
Drops into unseen caverns, lost to view;
And this one finds its outlet in the sea.
Over the roads they fly, a mass of wagons

Like clouds driven onward by the winds.
All to the north they go. O Lord,
They are our children, and is such their fate,
Exile, great Lord?
Dost thou destroy them all, so young, so young?
And wilt thou wipe our race out utterly?
But see – a child escapes, grows up – he is our savior,
The restorer of our land!
Born of a foreign mother, in his veins
The blood of ancient warriors – and his name
Shall be forty and four.

O Lord, wilt thou not deign to speed his coming,
My people to console?
Nay, they must suffer to the end – I see a rabble:
Tyrants and murderers run and catch at him –
I see my nation bound, all Europe drags him on
And mocks at him:
“To the judgment hall!” – The multitude leads in the guiltless man.
Mouths, without hearts or hands, are judges here,
And all shout, “Gaul! – Let Gaul be judge!”
Gaul found no fault in him – and washed his hands;
And yet the kings shout, “judge him! Punish him!
His blood shall be on us and on our children;
Crucify Mary’s son and lose Barabbas!
He scorneth Cæsar’s crown: crucify him,
Or we will say, thou art not Cæsar’s friend.”
And Gaul delivered him unto the people –
They led him forth – and then this innocent head
Grew bloodstained from the mocking crown of thorns;
They raised him up in sight of all the world –
The people thronged to see – and Gaul cried out,
“Behold the free and independent nation!”

I see the cross. – O Lord, how long, how long
Must he still bear it? Lord, be merciful!
Strengthen thy servant lest he fall and die!
The cross has arms that shadow all of Europe,
Made of three withered peoples, like dead trees.

  • 1 Austria (in Old-Polish Rakusy).
  • 2 Prussia (Borussia).

Now is my nation on the martyr’s throne.
He speaks and says, “I thirst,” and Rakus
1 gives him
To drink of vinegar, and Borus,
2 gall,
While Mother Freedom stands below and weeps.
And now a soldier hired in Muscovy
Comes forward with his pike and pierces him
And from my guiltless nation blood has gushed.
What hast thou done, most stupid myrmidon,
Most heartless! Yet he only shall repent –
And God will pardon him his sins at last.

O my beloved! He droops his dying head
And now in a loud voice he calls, “My God,
My God, and why hast thou forsaken me?”
And he is dead.
(Choirs of angels are heard in the distance, singing the Easter hymn. Atthe end come the words, “Alleluia, alleluia.”)
My beloved hath risen,
And ascended into heaven.
His garment white as snow
Floats down below,
And wide unfurled
Wraps in its spreading raiment all the world
He hath gone up on high
Yet is not vanished from our sight.
And from his triple eye
Shines as from triple suns a radiant light,
And he displays his pierced hands to all.

Who is this man? He is the viceroy upon earth.
I knew him as a child. – But ah, since then
How have his soul and body blossomed forth!
An angel boy is leading him – the man of dread
Is blind – he hath a threefold countenance
And threefold brow. – And like a baldachin outspread,
The book of mysteries above his head

Veils him from nearer glance.
Three cities are his footstool – when he calls,
Three ends of earth must tremble. – Now there falls
A voice from heaven like thunder’ mutterings,
“Lo, this is Freedom’s viceroy visible
On earth to all!”
On glory he will build the Church’s vast expanse
He is exalted over men and kings.
Upon three crowns he stands, himself uncrowned:
His life – the toil of toils; his appellation –
Of nations, the one nation –
Of warrior blood, a foreign mother bore
The man; his name, that shall resound
For ages unto ages, shall be forty-four!
Glory! glory! glory!
(He falls asleep)

16Dziady, Scene V (The vision of Father Peter), translated by Dorothea Prall Radin, in Poems by Adam Mickiewicz, edited by George Rapall Noyes (New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, 1944), pp. 291–294.


1 Austria (in Old-Polish Rakusy).

2 Prussia (Borussia).

© Central European University Press, 2007

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