Poetry in Poland
In the late 18th century Poland underwent one of its history's most formative and fundamental periods. Known as the 'partitions of Poland' (Known in Polish as the rozbiory), this was a 'make or break' time for Polish sovereignty, that tested the cultural, religious and thus, national identity of the Polish people like no other. The partitions saw the gradual division of the Polish state by neighbouring powers, and the reduction of its political centres to nothing. What resulted was a wholly displaced national identity, without representation or geographical territory.
However, like so many great movements in literature, the golden age of polish poetry was borne out of this struggle. The three poets known today as the 'three bards' of Polish romantic writing, became representative of the Polish peoples' predicament, and their works ooze with the yearning for a return to European-wide recognition of a Polish sovereign state.
Today, the dominating bronze statue that looms over the pigeons of Kraków's Rynek Głόwny is a favourite meeting place for tourists, guide groups and pub crawls. However, the man it depicts should not be lost to any visitor to Poland; his importance as a de facto leader of the Polish national struggle during the period of partition cannot really be overstated.
This is Adam Mickiewicz, the most successful of all Polish poets, and accordingly the most revered. Most of his work was completed in exile, in countries in central and Western Europe, where sympathy for Poland's national struggle was easier to find.
His style is one that characterised and influenced the path of European romanticism - then the dominant literary movement on the continent. He popularised the use of medieval and folkloric themes, along with traditional romantic motifs, that he used to produce powerful 'state of the nation' literature.
Mickiewicz's magnum opus is the epic Pan Tadeusz. Today, it is studied in all Polish schools and quickly became a contemporary example of nationalistic literature for its lamentation of the loss of a Polish-Lithuanian homeland. It’s a theme echoed too in many of his minor works, like Konrad Wallenrod, which constructs a light metaphor for the lasting national rivalry of Russia and Poland through the image of the historical enmity of Lithuanian pagans and the Teutonic order.
The second of the 'three bards' participated first hand in the Polish resistance to Russian partitioning during the uprising of 1830, but lived much of his life and exile. Słowacki's work is varied and voluminous and he produced poems in a number of a styles, some anachronistic to the literary trends of the age. That said, he often adopted the typically romantic motifs of mysticism and the sublime.
Thoroughly nationalistic, Słowacki's productions were overtly patriotic; they reworked traditional Slavic myths into images of a contemporary and divided Poland that served - especially in the latter period of his life - to stir the national pride of Poland's youth to movement against the Russian yoke. His remains were moved to the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, where he now lays next to Mickiewicz in the 'tomb of the Polish bards'.
Krasiński is the most widely accepted choice for the third member of the Polish bards, however it's something often contested by literary critics, probably due to his more conservative tendencies and adoption of excessively religious, rather than nationalistic and romantic, themes. He was born in exile and died in exile, but did study alongside Mickiewicz in Poland.
One of his best known works, the Nie-boska Komedia , imagines a dystopic world, where the traditionalist noble-led societal system is torn apart by the invading forces of communism on the one side, and democracy on the other, and is an example of Krasiński's place as the least radical of the three bardic Polish poets. Unlike his contemporaries, who called for a new and reinvigorated Poland, risen from the ashes and shaped by the new-radicals of the youth, Krasiński apotheosised traditional Polish values into a messianic image of the past.
The so-called 'three bards' have the epithet because they were champions of Polish culture and national character in a period when it was most needed. They were by no means the only literary figures on the contemporary stage, but they do remain the most remembered in Poland today.