OLD POLISH ON-LINE
E Y E
T H E
Michael Mikoś (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
INTRODUCTION TO JAN KOCHANOWSKI
INTRODUCTION TO JAN KOCHANOWSKI
In 1584, a book of
was published in the Officina Lazari in Cracow. Its author was Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), already recognized as the greatest Slavic poet of the Renaissance. The ailing author was sending to the publisher his major works written during a career spanning thirty years. Born into a noble family of moderate means in Sycyna, in 1544 he had entered the Cracow Academy, now Jagiellonian University, the second oldest university in Central Europe (established in 1364) and alma mater of Nicholas Copernicus. In 1551 he moved to Królewiec (Königsberg in Ducal Prussia), a flourishing seat of Reformation movements. The Królewiec court of Prince Albrecht and his Royal Academy also served as an intellectual and publishing center, distributing Polish documents and books. In 1552 Kochanowski went to Italy, where he spent (with several interruptions) his formative years, studying classical philology at the University of Padua under the Humanist professors of rhetoric Francesco Robortello and Bernadino Tomitano. He also travelled throughout Italy. After visiting France, where he met Pierre Ronsard, a great Renaissance poet and champion of vernacular literature, he returned to Poland in 1559.
The Poland that Kochanowski returned to was a powerful and prosperous country. At the end of the 16th century the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania was the largest state in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the environs of the Black Sea. Its population of 10 million included 40% Poles, as well as Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, Italians, Scotsmen, Dutch, Armenians, Karaites, and Tartars. This multinational, multiethnic, and multilingual country was the only country in Europe where the three major monotheistic faiths, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, were freely practiced. Poland was home to the practitioners of the Catholic, Orthodox, Uniate or Greek Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Unitarian, Mennonite, Quaker, and Islamic faiths. During the dynamic Reformation movement that swept across many countries of Europe, Poland became a sanctuary for people who were persecuted elsewhere. Martin Luther's 1517 declaration in Wittenberg quickly reached Prussia and Silesia. The Anabaptists, who were mostly from Holland, the Bohemian Brethren who had been expelled from Prague, the Calvinists, and other dissenting groups, found shelter and support among the burghers, gentry, and magnates in various regions of Poland. In spite of the intellectual fervor brought by the Reformation and the strong convictions of its adherents, the movement did not give rise to severe religious persecution. The royal court, the noblemen, and even the Church, liberal in their attitudes, did not feel threatened by the Protestant movement, since the new ideas did not appeal to the broad masses. Multireligious Poland was well prepared to accept and absorb new denominations and sects.
With no separation of state and church and with the rule
cuius regio eius religio
("whose realm, his religion") causing persecution and bloodshed in England, France, and Spain, Polish kings maintained a balanced attitude towards religious differences. When asked by his subjects which side they should take in the religious dispute, King Zygmunt II August told them: "I am the king of the people, not of their consciences"
and refused to judge in matters of faith.
At the Warsaw Confederation on the 28
of January 1573, the deputies signed the first act of religious toleration in Europe that would go beyond the religious divisiveness treaties, such as the Peace of Ausgburg and the Edict of Nantes. The assembled secular and ecclesiastical Counselors of the Crown stated that "we promise to one another, for ourselves and for our descendants, for all time, pledging our faith, honor, and conscience, we swear, that we who are divided by faith, will keep peace among ourselves, and not shed blood on account of differences in faith or church, not will we allow punishment by the confiscation of goods, deprivation of honor, imprisonment or exile, not will we in any fashion aid any sovereign or agency in such undertakings."
From that time on the state was prohibited from assisting the church in the pursuit of dissidents. Consequently, no religious issue was allowed to take precedence over a legal one.
The Warsaw Confederation only codified a legal norm for religious toleration that already prevailed in Poland. What is more important, the principles of religious toleration were incorporated into the Henrician Articles before the coronation of Henri Valois in 1573, ratified by the next king Stefan Batory in 1576, confirmed by the Coronation Seym in 1576, embodied in the Constitution of the Third of May, 1791, and reaffirmed in the subsequent Constitutions of 1921 and 1952. As a result of this "Magna Carta of religious freedom," the Poles tolerated various religions, refrained from persecution, and produced no martyrs. In the words of Janusz Tazbir, a historian, Poland was "a state without stakes."
Kochanowski's education in Greek and Latin mythologies and literatures, as well as the nascent Italian and French literatures, was welcome in Poland. It secured him several positions at the courts of influential magnates and bishops between 1560 and 1575. His administrative career culminated in an appointment as secretary and courtier to King Zygmunt in 1563, when he joined the Renaissance elite at the Wawel court in Cracow. As a royal secretary, he participated in major political and intellectual debates, in King Zygmunt's military manoeuvers in 1567, and, after Zygmunt's death, in the election of the new king. Strongly influenced by the literary milieu of the Polish capital, he wrote several Latin panegyrics in 1575 to celebrate the election of Stefan Batory. Later, to commemorate the King's victories, he composed a triumphal ode. His Latin elegies and epigrams appeared in the volumes
Elegiarum libri IV. Eiusdem Foricoenia sive Epigrammatum libellus
. But inspired by the advances of vernacular languages in Italy and France, as well as in Poland, he gradually resorted to the Polish idiom for his literary works. Aware of his talent and mission in formulating new forms of expression in native lyrical poetry, he declared his faith in the immortality of his work in
, his literary manifesto inspired by Horace's ode
. In another poem, entitled
(1565), Kochanowski addressed public matters of the highest national importance, calling for a moral renewal of society that would result in harmony as well as in an enlightened unity. In
Satyr, or The Wild Man
(1564), he criticized the egotism of the nobility, shallow and fierce religious polemics, the dysfunctional Seym, and poor education.
And yet Kochanowski, a poet par excellence, had not found satisfaction in royal service. In 1575 he settled on his hereditary country estate in Czarnolas (Black Forest), married Dorota Podlodowska, and devoted himself to poetry. The goals of enriching Polish literature with new genres inspired him to undertake several artistic challenges. A play in the classical mold, the
Dismissal of the Greek Envoys
(1578), was the first modern Polish drama, bringing to the stage pointed allusions to the political situation in the country. His poetic adaptation of
(1579) gave to Polish literature an elevated language and diction, capable of expressing deep religious emotions.
Kochanowski also excelled in lyrical poetry. Throughout his life he wrote light poems called
, in which he described his thoughts, impressions, and activities. In his
(1585), more profound and meditative, he borrowed some formal devices and general ideas from Horace to proclaim his moral philosophy and gave artistic expression to feelings inspired by love, the beauty of nature, and patriotic exultation. This most happy and productive period of Kochanowski's life at Czarnolas was interrupted in 1579 by the death of his daughter Urszula and soon after of her sister Hanna. An artistic account of his moral crisis and the painful struggle to overcome it was immortalized in the
(1580), nineteen moving poems which described a great human drama. Five years later, at the age of fifty-four, Kochanowski died suddenly in Lublin and was buried in Zwoleń.
Zygmunt Kubiak, translator of Kochanowski's Latin epigrams into the Polish language, wrote that "if we compare the whole poetic work of Kochanowski to a large and noisy city, the
knock about in the alleys, the
resound in court chambers to the accompaniment of a viol, and the hymns of the
rise above the roofs, then the
make up a road of tombs that run outside the city walls, as peaceful as the road of tombs outside Pompeii."
This book presents for the first time in English a large selection of the
and all the
from the two books published in 1586. The Polish word 'fraszka' (trifle) comes from the Italian 'frasca' and some of its meanings denote a minor linguistic piece, a matter of small importance or a frail branch floating in the wind. In Kochanowski's writing, the trifle turned out to be a light poem, an epigram, but also a serious description of people, activities or matters, at times referring to lofty philosophical issues, at other times to trivial topics. His trifles derived also from the rich tradition of the
, a collection of mostly epigrams, featuring the lyrical poems of Anacreon, as well as from translations and paraphrases of the Roman poets, mainly Martial's
and Catullus's lyric poems. Whatever their form, sublime and profound or frivolous and ribald, the trifles endure confident and natural in every word, befitting their provenience from the pen of a nobleman representing a powerful and cultivated Renaissance society.
Nothing escaped Kochanowski's keen eye. He found fault with another poet, wondered why a woman who claimed to be sinless would so often appear at confession, and noticed that some people were using lead combs to blacken their gray hair. He was disappointed that his host had served him a frugal meat dish. He mocked a man for "gobbling up all the pills from the pharmacy" to increase his sexual potency, but also complained about an "unresponsive Kate" and made fun of a court braggart who fell into a puddle.
Catholic in his outlook, Kochanowski scorned the heretics, but soon after mocked the papal nuncio and a libertine preacher. He talked with his companions and patrons, praising or criticizing them, wrote loving portraits of beautiful ladies, some in an elaborate sonnet form, or poked fun at less amicable women. He wrote many an epitaph eulogizing departed friends and commented on important events, e.g., the opening of the Warsaw bridge. He frequently mused over his own writing, especially his trifles, and wrote several times to his readers. He immortalized his house in Czarnolas and its Arcadian surroundings.
bring to life a gallery of characters, including their author. They contain his camouflaged diary, incorporating autobiographical details, but mostly they provide an account of his encounters with other people. They come to life with anecdotes, funny incidents, short dialogues, and statements that reveal wisdom or folly, wit or stupidity, virtue or vice. At times they are serious, at other times humorous, still at other times charming or wicked. Even though Kochanowski looked at his protagonists with the friendly and bemused eye of a philosopher, he did not shy away from ridicule or scorn directed against their vices, such as pride, gluttony or drunkenness.
provide a picture of the life and customs of "Merry Poland" during the reign of King Zygmunt II August. They are devoid of the imperial theme characteristic of Shakespeare's plays, which reflected political strife, treason, and sedition in Elizabethan England. Those issues would preoccupy future generations in Poland. But Kochanowski was too astute an observer of the political scene not to see cracks in the national edifice. He wrote about them in his Songs, published posthumously by the same publisher in Cracow.
Modelled on Horace's
, Kochanowski's Songs aspired to more elevated poetic spheres. Deeply concerned about Poland's well-being, Kochanowski evoked the heroic deeds of Polish kings, summoned his countrymen to serve the Commonwealth and donate generously to the state treasury, and called on them to fight the threatening Muscovites, Turks, and Tartars. He urged the powerful noblemen "sitting in the Lord's seat on this earth" to fulfill their obligation of ruling in justice. Assuming the role of a moralist, he extolled virtue as his compass and a clear conscience as the root of happiness. He advocated the golden mean in human affairs and warned against capricious Fortune, ready to mock and tease us.
But the majority of Kochanowski's poems celebrated the glory of love, nature, and friendship. They portrayed the beauty of the Beloved, bemoaned her absence, declared the lover's faithfulness, and complained of the cruel power of a "golden arrow" that had struck his heart. The same heart "swells when we look at this season" of spring, at the birds that are "again fitting out their nests," and is soothed by the sweet music of the lute and a jug of wine in the joyous company of friends and household members.
The final chords of the
resounded in a cycle entitled
Saint John's Eve Song
. Twelve country maidens, celebrating the religious feast of St. John, which was derived from an ancient pagan custom, played around a bonfire during the midsummer night, praising the eternal rhythm of country life, folk traditions, their chores, and merriments, especially singing and dancing. Before long the singers turned to the delights and sorrows of love, all the time extolling the pastoral scenery of their "peaceful village, joyful village," and the beauty of nature. The final poem in this collection, published in 1562, is a thanksgiving prayer, entitled Song. It expressed some of the most characteristic ideas of Renaissance philosophy: serene optimism and fascination with God's creation, the beauty and harmony of the world, and man's secure place in it.
God's Playground. A History of Poland
, vol. I. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p. 145.
Polish Democratic Thought from the Renaissance to the Great Emigration: Essays and Documents
, ed. by M.B. Biskupski and James S. Pula. New York: East European Monographs, 1990, p. 132.
A State Without Stakes. Polish Religious Toleration in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
. New York: The Kościuszko Foundation, 1972.
, in: Michael J. Mikoś.
Jan Kochanowski, Laments
, Warszawa: Constans, 1995, p. 7.
I would like to thank Jim Shey, Susan Gibson Mikoś, and two reviewers for reading my translations and making many valuable suggestions.
The text of these translations is based on Jan Kochanowski.
. Ed. by Janusz Pelc. Wydanie II. Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1991, and Jan Kochanowski.
Dzieła wszystkie. Pieśni
. Tom IV. Ed. by Maria R. Mayenowa and Krystyna Wilczewska, et al. Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1991.
My authority in matters of the 16
century language was
Słownik polszczyzny Jana Kochanowskiego
. 5 vols. Ed. by Marian Kucała. Kraków: Instytut Języka Polskiego Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 1994, and
Słownik polszczyzny XVI wieku
. Ed. by Stanisław Bąk, et al. Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1966-.