OLD POLISH ON-LINE
E Y E
T H E
Mikołaj Hussowski (c. 1480–1533)
A POEM ON BISON
TO HER ROYAL HIGHNESS
AND OUR LADY BONA
BY GOD´S DIVINE GRACE
QUEEN OF POLAND,
GRAND DUCHESS OF LITHUANIA,
RULER OF RUTHENIA, PRUSSIA, ETC.
Your Royal Majesty, when I was in Rome, Pope Leo X was once talking about hunting in the North and about various specimens of animals. He turned to His Excellency Sir Erazm, Bishop of Plock, who served then as deputy of Your Majesty, and encouraged him warmly to bring to Rome and present there that giant bison that we call "zubr", its skin stuffed with hay. The bishop promised to do it and sent a written request to Mikolaj Radziwill, Voivode of Vilnius, for a skin of that animal, as big as possible. He then turned to me with a friendly order to write something about the nature of these animals and about hunting them, as he wished to make a presentation of this animal to the Pope, both in its physical form and in words. However, all these plans were thwarted by the sudden death of Leo X. And yet I decided to publish in the name of Your Majesty this little work, fruit of my labor, in proportion with my talent and the limited time at my disposal, and offer it to you in my humble homage, hoping that when Your Highness will go hunting, you will find an opportunity to read this little book about woods and wild forests. And I do not derive from this any personal profit, but only desire to open the doors for learned men to dedicate to you their writings so that you, Most Learned Queen, could adjudicate upon their abilities and in particular, Your Highness, consider them worthy of recommendation to your husband, who out of necessity devotes more time to waging wars than to reading books. Because I see, and it brings me great pain and surely is detrimental to the Republic, that the most eloquent men remain underestimated and neglected, and since they suffer poverty they cannot make progress towards the common good. And I also see a large number of those who surpass others by far in both wealth and talent. Yet realizing that knowledge and learning are not respected, they become more inclined to amassing wealth than to developing spiritually. And for this unfortunate reason their outstanding ranks are reduced. But if you, for the public good, will take it upon yourself to provide patronage for learning, men of genius will be awakened and thanks to their work, they will be a great support to the Royal Majesty, so that the Republic would remain in an auspicious situation in spite of such unfortunate times, for goals are achieved more often by spiritual values than by physical strength. The Greeks and Romans may serve as examples, for most often their military might went hand in hand with the development of literature. However, when the natural genius grew weak, then the military powers were debilitated, and when they were gone, then came the fall and servitude was imposed. Similarly with us: those who are in command during wars, if they combine knowledge of military art with knowledge of ancient traditions contained in books, and remove everything that stands in the way of public duties, as long as the fears against the Turk are justified, then they should be aware, knowing well the lesson of history, of what the Greeks and Romans were once able to achieve at the peak of their power against these parts of the world. Because there is no doubt that in these territories the Romans reached with their arms to Germania and the Greeks to the Danube, almost constantly extending their rule as far as these boundaries. And so the great Alexander, who intended to gain control over the entire world, deterred by the courage of local people, did not dare to cross the Danube, stopped at its banks, and led his army against the nonbelligerent people of Asia, as is well known. And although we lost old customs and rituals, our country´s eternal power and character will not degenerate when it will come to a clash of arms, if only we are not surprised while defenseless or on account of some fatal mishap or perversity and tardiness of some people, causing subversion. Indeed, I do not see how else you could help it, if not by showing your favor and generosity to liberal arts. It would bring utmost profit and distinction to the Republic and, most of all, attach the glory of your name to the merits of your family. For nothing could be more distinguished than your ancestors and your most famous family from the house of the kings of Aragonia, in the perfection of all kinds of virtues, whether in the spheres of peace or war or religion. However, in no measure would they fill the world with sonorous glory of their lives and accomplishments, and would not be so worthy of admiration, of such great recognition of the entire posterity, as well as in various vicissitudes of fate, if their extensive knowledge and also their generosity towards learned men, characteristic of this house, would not raise to such heights that they were glorified by the sonorous fanfares of the men of the greatest talents. I should fain leave it unsaid, especially here, where I am constrained by a necessary requirement of brevity. Farewell and persevere in the most glorious merits of your family.
TO THE DISTINGUISHED NOBLEMAN
Ludovicus Alfius Secretary
To Her Royal Highness
I commend this little book, Ludovicus,
And ask you to be first to learn its contents.
If you find nothing that could offend the ears
Of Her High Majesty, offer it to her as a gift.
It is not I, but your goodness that prompts you to do it.
As for me, I desire to be your debtor.
It was not long ago,
when in a big crowd
I saw a spectacle
that took place in Rome.
When the bulls engaged in the fierce battle
Shaking off waves of bolts from their bodies,
Their wrath increased by those puncturing goads,
Swiftly turning on men in widespread slaughter,
When I marveled how much madness was aroused
By applause and wounds in the frenzied sway:
One of my friends recalled the woods of the north:
I began to tell in response to requests
About various wild beast hunts and the great strength
Of the bison - but my tongue caused me trouble,
For then I was charged to repeat promptly
My words in a song - and this is my chore.
In truth, we are reluctant to write about
The bison - He's a hated and terrible beast,
Which, although we are proud, if we kill him,
Inhabits the regions of the north pole
And caused me at times such great trepidation
That I ran away, mocked by the wicked crowd.
But why heed the crowd! It is much more frightful
To test one's weapons before the learned men;
For either I'll stagger under this burden
Or will only receive a polite applause.
Yet unwilling to ignore words of the man
To whom I owe so much,
I'll delay no more.
I won't say my imagination runs dry,
But I give you what barren ground can produce.
Coming recently to unknown Italy,
We began, as ordered, to compose this piece.
I plead, a visitor from the remote lands,
With legitimate reasons, that no one hope
That this narrative be more lofty in style
Than is required to understand it.
Do you know, reader, what quill serves me today?
I keep it in the quiver, right by my side.
I take paper from the quiver to write,
>From it fly my swishing bolts to kill forthwith.
You write, while I draw a bowstring with more skill,
We may be equal, though our skills are different.
Don't mock foreign lines of the unlearned man,
I carry, amazing thing, quite sharp arrows,
Filled with a poison of such unusual strength:
He who is hit by them falls from the slightest wound.
Accustomed to wade through the northern forests,
Now I also want to hide in the pine woods.
For good or bad - one can get lost in the woods -
Let the most horrid beast roar in my poem
And with a resounding echo convey
The distinctive tunes that formed our song.
This wildest beast is born in Lithuanian woods
And is well known for such enormous body,
That when he bends his defeated head, dying,
Three big men can place themselves between his horns.
But his gigantic neck may appear too small,
If you wished to compare it with other limbs.
The large beard sticks out, hangs from terrible mane,
The fiery eyes glare with horrible anger,
Monstrous hair of the mane falls on his shoulders,
Covering fully his knees, front, and whole chest.
But if I may combine great matters with small,
And also be allowed to use hunting words,
His figure seems to look like a goat with horns,
Although his limbs reveal he is a born bull.
His hue is darksome; from the yellow and black
It's blended, forming an intermediate shade.
I am surprised the ancients wrote otherwise,
But it is hard for me to know the reasons,
Nor do I understand why they show huge horns
Sticking from his nostrils, changing him outright,
And are glad to bestow great bulk to his lips:
My bison won't be at all like their bison.
I read a lot of ancient lore in the books
this tribe that writes down its speech
In Greek letters, adopted long ago,
As they mingled well with their native sounds.
There are many lands, and among various tribes
Different events took place since the dawn of time,
But no one ever saw such a beast; perhaps
He once lived before the flood in ice-cold zones.
talks distinctly about it and says
The bison and aurochs lived in the north woods.
knew no wilder beast than aurochs
Nourished then by the Polish land in its woods.
It is said no land existed in this world
That would keep such a beast in its backwoods.
His closest wild kin is the long-maned bison -
one should read, if one wants to learn more.
No doubt many will allege that I feign it,
That it is hard to find a beast with such head,
Say those who know hot climes, but not our cold woods.
But let them say as much as they ever wish,
As long as I'll be free to say what jointly
With other men I was able to see,
And how still then, giving up my leisure,
I passed away those times that can't be revoked.
How I long for them now, how I toil away,
Tossing out the net in many different ways!
1. Most likely in 1521, when Mikolaj Hussowski was in Rome in the retinue of Erazm Ciolek, Bishop of Plock.
Hussowski saw a bullfight. Bullfights were still taking place in Rome at that time.
A poetic expression, implying that the Italians located Polish and Lithuanian lands far away in the north.
Another reference to Erazm Ciolek, his patron.
Hussowski addresses his readers assuming the role of a simple man who arrived in Italy from an exotic land.
Hussowski assumes here a persona of a nomadic hunter who found himself in the civilized world. He is more skillful in shooting than in writing.
The poet, showing his erudition, quotes various opinions of the ancient authorities concerning the bison.
This reference to the Ruthenian language shows that the author is a learned man.
Pliny the Elder (23-79), author of Historia Naturalis (Book VIII, Ch. 15).
Most likely Julius Caesar in his Gallic War (Book VI, Ch. 28).
Pliny the Elder.