Solidarity’s Poet

Mariusz Ziomecki

In Polish ears, the surname Norwid, and the Christian names Cyprian, Kamil, Ksawery, Gerard, ring alien, aristocratic, proud. Associated with the artist’s profession, they suggest a darling of fortune. Meanwhile the photograph of Cyprian Norwid which appears in school textbooks, the only one there is, dating from 1856, presents a man dismal in expression, with shaggy black hair, gaunt and even hungry-looking, tightly wrapped in a coarse overcoat. It might be some Siberian exile, a Panslav mystic, a fanatic ready to hurl a bomb at the head of some ruler. Or a poor wretch spurned by the poets’ clique and hounded by the critics.

And yet, with the hundredth anniversary of his death, the work of Norwid has emerged for us from the shadows where it has often, though not always, been found in the past. Fragments of his thoughts, aphorisms, extracts from his poems, appear more frequently than before in newspaper articles or in sermons; evenings of patriotic poetry-reading, exceptionally numerous last autumn, did not dare to omit a significant item of Norwid from the programme. Poland’s most famous actors recite his words to the rapt attention of audiences in packed churches. The renaissance of this melancholy poet is seen above all in the underground press pursued by the political police. Some of these papers carry on the front page this piece from ‘Their Power’:

Mighty armies, valiant generals,
Policemen – secret, visible, bisexual –
And against whom do they mass together?
Against a few thoughts ... not even new ones!

Today, and indeed throughout the period since the ‘Polish August’ of 1980, the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz has somehow grown dimmer while the work of Juliusz Slowacki is not often heard (even though it is his verse rather than Norwid’s which has been known by heart to generations of Poles). Those writers who are popular in ‘normal times’ have fallen out of circulation: Tuwim, Staff, Galczynski, Slonimski. Today it is the voice of Czeslaw Milosz that is listened to in Poland and, above all, that of Norwid. By instinct, the community has found its way back to the side of this 19th-century poet – immortal, yet treated dismissively in his own lifetime and laid in his grave as ‘a wasted talent’, later to be rehabilitated and at the beginning of this century admitted with fanfares to the national pantheon: a poet considered obscure, incomprehensible, his quality to some extent taken on trust because experts had guaranteed it.

‘Whoever wishes to comprehend a poet must visit his country,’ said Goethe. But Norwid made the same point much more emphatically: ‘It is the most abominable of errors, even if we are uncomprehending (and practically a crime if we do understand), to read the compositions of an unhappy nation with those same eyes that peruse the compositions of triumphant poets.’ To avoid any such blunder, a brief account is necessary of the dismal circumstances in which Cyprian Norwid passed his youth. In Polish chronicles, those times are labelled ‘the Night of Paskievitch’ (from the name of the Russian viceroy, Field-Marshal Prince Ivan Paskievitch, who directed the repressions after the collapse of the so-called November Rising in Poland in 1831). Norwid was born in 1821 on the estate of Laskowo-Gluchy, his mother’s property. His parents were the descendants of aristocratic families in decline, who retained pretentions to mighty connections (such as King John Sobieski) even as they subsided into ruin. His father Jan Norwid died in a debtors’ prison, and his mother died when he was only four. The Polish youth of the period was devoted to plotting and to fantasies of vengeance. In secret conventicles, forbidden literature was read aloud. At the age of 12 Cyprian Norwid and his school were forced to witness the public flogging of schoolmates from the Provincial Lycée, punished for taking a splinter of the execution-post and a blood-drenched clod of earth from the place where Polish couriers from Paris had been shot. In the summer of 1839, Norwid watched the nightly procession through the Warsaw streets of the kibitki – horse-drawn vans transporting to Siberia members of the ‘Holy Cross’ conspiracy. Some of his friends were among them, including their leader, Gustaw Ehrenberg. As the romantic poet Zygmunt Krasinski wrote to Delfina Potocka, this generation was ‘in the most miserable of plights’: ‘those who are commencing their lives are far more unhappy than those who are completing them.’ Norwid called them an ‘orphan’ generation, youth ‘metamorphosed into despair’. Norwid himself was only once in real danger – when the police broke open the plot led by Karol Levittoux. But he was saved by a suicide. Levittoux set light to the wooden bunk in his cell with a candle, and then lay down upon it.

Norwid made his literary debut at the age of 19, and was an immediate success. But this success was achieved under the restraints of a censorship considered ‘stricter than the very Index in Rome’. He was the first Warsaw poet to devise an entire language of codes, allusions and significant omissions. One poem of his, for example, at first glance a rather tortuous description of a storm at sea, could be read as a summons to the struggle for national independence. He was to develop these cryptographic sleights into a personal aesthetic.

When at the age of 21 Norwid decided to travel beyond the frontiers of the Tsar’s empire, ‘with the purpose of completing his studies in the art of sculpture’, he was already a celebrity. The editors of the review, the Warsaw Library, gave a banquet in his honour, and fellow poets composed vers d’occasion. Czajkowski ended his own fiery tribute with the words: ‘Eagle Norwid!’ In later years, this banquet became the object of hearty ridicule. For Norwid had ‘failed to come up to expectations’. He had become ‘dotty’.

The dottiness arose from Norwid’s decision to rethink – radically and systematically – the situation of Poland and the Poles. He moved lucidly to the conclusion that the intellectual framework within which the Poles thought of themselves until then had failed the test of practicality. In a society which was deprived of statehood and of its own institutions, it had fallen to poets to play the role of politicians; it was they who had formulated demands and programmes. His grand quarrel with the idée reçue of Poland was thus, in particular, a quarrel with the romantic poets. Norwid rejected their exaltation of the national question into an absolute, their insistence on the priority of the collective – the nation – over the rights of the individual. The duty of the individual, according to the romantics, was to sacrifice his life to the national cause, and that was the measure of his worth. Norwid, however, held that it was a violation of natural rights to relate the meaning of human life to armed struggle and to nothing else. He mocked the ‘forlorn hope’ gestures, the over-dramatised martyrology. In all this he saw an anti-intellectualism, a contempt for thought. To the funereal mises-en-scène of the first Romantic generation (he was himself eventually allocated to the second), corpse-laden and eerie, he opposed a respect for humdrum daily life. In writing about the moribund feudal system in the Polish hinterland, and the level of consciousness among its inhabitants, he was bitterly critical of a cultural pattern in which high art was attended by an appallingly low average level of culture.

To the ‘nation’ – for the romantics, the supreme good – Norwid opposed ‘society’. To the lost fatherland he opposed the community as it still existed. Here was the point where the work of reform and of the recapture of independence must begin. For many of his contemporaries, this programme was shocking: he was disinclined to mince words and wrote, for instance, that the average Pole was no doubt a splendid patriot itching for the fray, but that ‘the human being in a Pole is a dwarf.’

The poet, he felt, should have the function of a sort of public servant: he jeered mercilessly at conceptions of the writer as prophet or messiah. It was not a function which he himself was to find easy to perform. When poverty forced him to emigrate to America in 1852, he received commissions for illustrating and interior decoration. But the work got him down and he felt deprived of his old audience. He returned to Paris, and to destitution.

The central figure of Cyprian Norwid’s programme was the representative of the species acting within the Christian community of the faithful. Norwid was a typical ‘providentialist’ Christian, sure that all that takes place on earth conforms to the plan and stage-directions of God. He accordingly believed, like Czeslaw Milosz in our own time, that the secret texture of history is good, even though at times it must seem to us otherwise. All that happens is in the last analysis good and meaningful: he deduced from this a faith in action, both collective action and that of the individual, and a faith in the organic (an evolutionary, natural rhythm of development in contrast to violent or revolutionary change). He discouraged extremisms of every variety, doing battle at once with the notion that the Poles were the nation elected to expiate the sins of Europe by their suffering and the concept elaborated by Hegel that their fate was predetermined by the laws of history. He was the author of some of the most beautiful patriotic lyrics in Polish, and yet he could at the same time write of a universal fatherland:

No nation redeemed me, nor created me;
I remember eternity before this age;
The Key of David opened my lips,
Rome named me a man.

He warned the Poles against chauvinism, seized as they were by an otherwise understandable hatred of the partitioning powers. ‘I stand opposed to any system of blood and race ... Europe is not a race but a principle – for were it but a race, then it would be Asia!!!’ He foresaw that the masses, set free by the wave of revolution, would one day plunge into a collision of nationalisms and into European carnage. It was thus natural that he reacted to the 1848 ‘Springtime of Nations’ with suspicion and reserve (he watched these episodes in Rome, and in April, when the populace threatened Pius IX, he rushed through the night to the Quirinal in order to defend him).

He was a conservative, but of the ‘organic’ strain. He declared that the freedom inscribed on his flag did not signify licence. Freedom required the acceptance of necessary ‘bridles’, of which the most important was duty – the foundation of the social ethic itself. He portrayed the sense of duty as a loftier value than the dedication of a life ‘to the Fatherland’. After the Second World War, Polish schools popularised ad nauseam Norwid’s remark that ‘the Fatherland is a mighty collective obligation,’ loading it with the interpretation that today every true Polish patriot should work productively for the cause of the People’s Poland. But Norwid, one may suppose, never conceived of restraints and obligations without corresponding liberties.

Norwid laid great emphasis on the relationship of beauty to utility.

Beauty exists to enchant man into work;
Work, that man may rise from the dead.

It is not difficult to understand why Norwid did not win an especially warm welcome from his readers. Polish political movements all took offence and classified him as an enemy; the literati accused the author of ‘Four Pages of Common Song’, ‘Slavery’, ‘Psalm of Psalms’, ‘Zwolon’ and ‘Promethidion’ of being an incomprehensible, charmless scribbler and bore. The well-known contemporary critic Julian Klaczko wrote about ‘Promethidions, Zwolons and other Nonsensicons’. Norwid tried to defend himself by suggesting that this was no epoch for ‘pretty’ verse: ‘I have robed verse in the most miserable rags and forgotten about art.’

Norwid insisted, ‘I never drew anything whatever from any Polish poet, living or dead,’ and set himself up as ‘the destroyer of contemporary Polish norms of lyricism’. The Polish taste of the time, shaped by the Romantic giants and their poetical epigones, prized melodiousness and the picturesque: Polish verse, in Norwid’s opinion, suffered from a phoney idyllicism and served a sensibility frozen by convention: ‘What Poles call a lyric always turns out to be a mazurka and the stamping of block-headed serfs on the threshing-floor.’ He attacked Mickiewicz’s masterpiece Pan Tadeusz as ‘cabbage patriotism’. His striking irritability and hypersensitivity arose in part from the fact that he was working overshadowed by the ‘great ones’ of his day (even he termed them ‘giants’), and he felt himself ‘a redundant actor’. Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Krasinski dominated the émigré audience, and Norwid was not even considered their serious competitor.

He sought – as did Wordsworth, at this time – an unadorned, homely style, aiming to avoid stylisation ‘through respect for the thing described’: such was the origin of ‘Black Flowers’, an account of meetings with Chopin, Witwicki, Slowacki and Mickiewicz, which is held now to be one of the masterpieces of Polish prose. He never polished his poems, which were frequently unrhymed, and to which he brought his own hugely original system of punctuation. As he put his creations down on paper, he simultaneously ‘scored’ them, using dashes and dots, bizarre notations, spacing out certain letters, joining or dividing them by semi-colons in unexpected places. These ‘uncouth’ poems were infinitely shocking to their first readers. He demanded ‘credit’, confidence: the reader had to adapt to the poems. His works were both simple and cryptic. Indeed they are a phenomenon rare in Polish literature – that of compression to the point of cipher. Often, and more than ever in the course of time, he resorted to irony and to complex codes of irony. He introduced parables to the lyric – a device generally used in his day only by fairy-tale writers and considered second-rate. The majority of his works carry a key – sometimes to several interpenetrating parables. He adored cross-connections, braiding into them a multitude of significances and creating complex systems of loosely related meanings. He also adored ambiguity, allusion, the half-expressed. He believed that silence (‘the swelling of voices in the bud’) was a part of speech which had been overlooked by grammarians.

In the short run, his influence on Polish poetry was slight. He published little, and only with the greatest difficulty got individual poems into the émigré or domestic Polish press. His first volume of verse – published at Leipzig in early 1863 – remained almost entirely in the stockrooms: a fresh Polish rising, the ‘January Insurrection’, had just broken out. The second volume, done to the order of the same publishing house, F.A. Brockhaus, consisted of 100 items of verse composed into an elaborately-designed whole under the title Vade Mecum. It never emerged from the printers – the Austro-Prussian War had started. Critics were irritated by this ‘dislocated intelligence’ (‘it may be that a second Champollion will be born for these mental hieroglyphics, if it is worth being born for such a petty thing’), and the fame of his youth turned out to be all that would be granted to him in his own lifetime. As time passed, even his few friends drew away from him. In the end, tormented by tuberculosis and deafness, he allowed himself to be taken into the St Casimir hostel, a shelter for penniless exiles at Ivry, near Paris. There he died on 22 May 1883. The nuns burned some of his manuscripts. His death brought a series of obituaries in the émigré press, offering polite lamentations over the ‘deformation’ of his talent. Silence then fell, and lasted many years. The task of restoring Norwid’s works to Poland was principally discharged by two men, Wiktor Gomulicki and Zenon Przesmycki (‘Miriam’), who collected, annotated and published the poet’s scattered creations. The turning-point in the recovery of the Norwid legacy would seem to have been 1905, when a special number of the periodical Chimera was devoted exclusively to him, initiating the period during which Polish recognition of Norwid was to extend steadily until he was accepted as one of the ‘great ones’. The poet’s own prophecy was accomplished: ‘the Future will not avoid me.’ Norwid has been a presence in Polish culture since his discovery or recovery. His shade grows vast, however, in exceptional and tragic times like the Nazi occupation, or like the present. It is in him that many Poles find today the words which best describe their situation.