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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Zygmunt Krasiński (1812–1859)

KRASIŃSKI was one of the three great poets of Poland through whom the spirit of the submerged commonwealth found its fullest expression. The golden age of Poland’s literature was coincident with the period of her deepest political humiliation, and every Polish poet was a Polish patriot. It was a literature of emigrants and exiles who found their poetic inspiration, and the mainspring of all endeavor, in the love of country and the hope of seeing her restored to her ancient greatness. In the trio of poets who represent this age Mickiewicz stands first, and by his side the Dioscuri Słowacki and Krasiński. Krasiński’s position was a peculiar and difficult one. He was the heir of an old aristocratic family; his mother was a princess of the house of Radziwill, and he was brought up in the midst of feudal traditions. In his breast burned the purest patriotic fire, and merely to possess his works exposed a man to Siberia or death; and yet he was the only one of all the patriot poets that taught the philosophy of non-resistance and self-abnegation. With serene confidence he left the future in the hands of eternal justice, and insisted that the moral regeneration of Poland must precede her political re-establishment. In all his works this note of lofty morality is struck, and Christianity is put forward as the only reconciling power between conflicting forces.

Zygmunt Krasiński was born at Paris on February 19th, 1812. His father, Count Wincenty Krasiński, was an adjutant of Napoleon’s: when the hopes of Poland were shattered by the abdication of the Emperor, Krasiński, acting under orders from the Czar, returned with his family to Warsaw. Their home was the center to which flocked all the eminent men in literary and political life. In this circle young Krasiński grew up, and the most loving care was bestowed upon his education. At the age of fourteen he wrote two novels in the style of his favorite author, Walter Scott; but his literary ambition was not encouraged, and he was destined for the law.

It was about this time that the crisis came which affected his whole career. The leaders who in 1825 conspired against the Russian government were brought to trial in Warsaw; and from all quarters of Europe the Polish members of the high tribunal hastened to the capital to give their votes for their compatriots. Count Krasiński was the only Pole that cast a vote in the Russian interest. The relations between father and son remained cordial, and the poet lived to see his father’s appointment to the governorship of Poland received with approbation by his countrymen; but from the ignominy of his father’s act he never recovered. His only reference to it is in the touching appeal to Poland with which his weird vision entitled ‘Temptation’ ends. Krasiński’s works were all published anonymously or under assumed names; and it was years before the admiring people learned the true name of the inspired teacher whom they revered as “the anonymous poet of Poland.”

Krasiński’s frail state of health made long residence in the rigorous climate of his native land impossible, even had the political conditions been less unhappy. At Geneva in 1830 he met Mickiewicz, who exerted a powerful influence upon his genius, and turned his mind to poetry. In 1833 appeared his first poetic tale, ‘Agay Han’; and in the same year in Rome he wrote one of his greatest works, ‘Nieboska Komedya’ (The Undivine Comedy). It is a symbolic poem in the dramatic form, and deals with the loftiest themes of social and spiritual life: the deviation from the path of plain duty in pursuit of a phantom ideal; the conflict between the old world of aristocracy and the new world of democracy, the futility of the triumph of one over the other; the ultimate salvation wrought by Christianity, through which reconciliation comes. The old aristocracy with its spiritual ideals is represented by Count Henry; the aims and inspirations of the materialized democracy are embodied in the character of Pancras. The monologue in which for a moment Pancras doubts the genuineness of his mission has been pronounced by Mickiewicz one of the great soliloquies of the world’s literature. In this poem Krasiński’s philosophy is brought before us in concrete forms, with sublime imagery and an insight into the future almost apocalyptic. It is said that after the disasters of 1846 Krasiński exclaimed, “Ah! why was I not a false prophet?”

The work which is regarded as the poet’s highest achievement is the half-epic, half-dramatic poem, ‘Iridion.’ It was written likewise in Rome and published in 1836. In glowing colors are contrasted the degeneracy of Rome under the Cæsars and the enthusiastic patriotism of the Greeks who are plotting to avenge subjugated Hellas. In conception and execution is displayed the same exalted originality that distinguished ‘The Undivine Comedy.’ The solution also is the same: Rome is pagan and the Greeks disregard Christianity, through which alone their salvation can be wrought. Poland is always before the poet’s eye, and the application to her case is obvious. Krasiński was no lover of art for art’s sake; poetry must have a living purpose, and in this spirit the Invocation to the Muse was written which opens ‘The Undivine Comedy’: “Thou ruinest wholly those who consecrate themselves, with all they are, to thee alone, who solely live the voices of thy glory.”

Krasiński also wrote several prose works of a symbolic character, but the prose is dithyrambic and impassioned. ‘Pokusa’ (Temptation) has already been mentioned: a strange vision of grief and hope with passages of thrilling power. ‘Noc Letnia’ (Summer Night) appeared in the same year, 1841. In 1843 Krasiński returned to verse; and in a series of beautiful canzone entitled ‘Przedswit’ (The Dawn) he sang the praises of the moral elements of the Polish past, and again proclaimed the necessity of reviving them. In the three famous ‘Psalms of the Future’ (1845 and 1848) Krasiński glorified the heroism of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. It was this that called forth the violent opposition of Słowacki and of the more ardent but less astute patriots. Słowacki denounced the ‘Psalms’ as “lyric cowardice,” but Krasiński’s teachings sank deep into the heart of his distressed countrymen. The strange scene which took place at Warsaw in 1861 was typical of his influence. Infuriated by the sight of an unfurled Polish banner, the Russian troops fired upon the populace; and the Polish women and children and unarmed men bared their breasts to the bullets in a frenzy of patriotic self-sacrifice. It has been said of Krasiński that “he modified the character of an entire people.”

He died in Paris on February 23d, 1859; and with him was extinguished the last star in the triad of great Polish poets.