• Українська
  • Русский
  • English
Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The poet’s “divine spark”

Unappreciated Slowacki and Ukraine
26 May, 2009 - 00:00

Sept. 4, 2009, is the 200th birth anniversary of Juliusz Slowacki, a Polish romantic poet, who had Ukrainian roots and wrote about Ukraine. He was very well aware of Ukraine’s problems and was, in a certain sense, even a precursor of Taras Shevchenko. Unfortunately, Slowacki is little known in this country, Only some of his works were translated and published in Ukrainian, while there are very few people here who can read in the Polish original.

The would-be poet was born in the small town of Kremenets, Volhynia. His father taught the Polish language at the Higher Volhynia Gymnasium (Kremenets Lyceum). Mother came from a petty-gentry Volhynian (i.e., Ukrainian) Greek Catholic family. Although Slowacki lived in Kremenets for a short time, he carried the impressions of the town all through his lifetime, and Kremenets motifs often run through the writer’s works. He wrote, in particular, that local carols and cr che pageants made an indelible impression on him in his childhood years and that he owed his “Shakespearean verve” to them. For example, we can read in the drama Salomea’s Silver Dream:

“I can remember a Christmas evening in the village,
With snow covering all the courtyard;
A carol was sung to my father;
Little shepherds, who fleeced sheep in the stables,
Suddenly saw the Divine Star
That was flashing with heavenly light …”

The poet highly esteemed Ukrainian folk literature, considering it a source of and a pattern for national poetry. He argued that Ukrainian ballads also expressed “the soul of Poles.” He made extensive use of Ukrainian folklore in his oeuvre.

In the twilight of his life, when he was in exile and unable to return home, Slowacki wrote a poem full of powerful nostalgia for his native Kremenets land:

“If ever in that my country,
Where my Ikwa flows in its valleys,
Where my mountains grow blue in the twilight
And the town rings above the chattering stream,
Where the tree-clad banks a-scent with lily-of-the-valley
Run up to cliffs, cottages, and orchards—
If you will be there, soul of my heart,
Though given back from the splendor to the body,
You will not forget this my longing,
That stands there like a golden archangel
And from time to time circles the town like an eagle,
Then once more rests on the cliffs and shines.
The lighter airs, that will restore you to health,
I have poured from my breast to my country.”

Incidentally, this poem seems to echo the views of the original philosopher Stefan Zenowicz who taught at the Kremenets Lyceum and with whose ideas the poet was intimately familiar. In general, Slowacki devised his own religious and philosophical concept according to which the human soul, a divine spark, undergoes never-ending changes until it merges with God. This concept is close, in a way, to Neo-Platonism which was popular among Ukrainian medieval and early-modern-time thinkers. In fact, Slowacki did not study too long at the Kremenets Lyceum. He was fully educated at the University of Wilno.

Yet, the Wilno motifs do not occur in the writer’s oeuvre as often as those of Kremenets do. In 1829 Slowacki arrived in Warsaw, where he worked at the Revenues and Treasury Commission. He also wrote a series of poetic works and dramas, including the poem Viper, where he depicted Ukrainian Cossacks in a romantic spirit. The poet was quite deliberately creating the Cossack myth which Gogol and Shevchenko developed later in a somewhat different vein. Here is just one excerpt from The Viper:

“Hey! The Black Sea is all over here,
And seagulls are flying in the mist;
Palms and castles in the Bosporus
Are like thick reeds in a lagoon.
Formidable masts and minarets
Are burning like dry grass on the side of a hill.
Fly on, seagulls! Play on, waves!
Hey, Cossack, you’ve been the lord of the waves
Since you were a youth!
Set sail right now
With our hetman,
Set sail!”

Can you draw here any parallels with Shevchenko’s Hamaliia? Of course, Shevchenko’s poem was written about ten years later. Tellingly, it is The Viper that opened the first two-volume collection of Slowacki’s works published in Paris in 1832. What made a lasting impression on Slowacki was the Polish November 1830 Uprising. He unhesitatingly joined the revolutionaries. His poems were a source of inspiration for them. The poem that begins with “Holy Virgin, a miracle has occurred!” became the rebels’ anthem. But the uprising ended in a defeat, and the poet found himself in exile. He mostly lived in Paris, the hub of Polish migr s at the time. It is here that he wrote and published his main poems and dramas.

Slowacki died in exile on April 3, 1849, just a few months before he would have turned 40. He was buried in Paris. In 1927, when the Polish state had been restored, the poet’s ashes were reburied in Krakow’s Wawel, at the pantheon of Polish heroes. The Ukrainian theme was prominent in Slowacki’s oeuvre. The poet tried to look into the far-from-simple Ukrainian-Polish relations, in which he marched ahead of his time. If the Polish and Ukrainian peoples had heeded his voice, they might have avoided unnecessary misunderstandings.

Slowacki made it clear in his works that he had two fatherlands—Ukraine and Poland. Still, Slowacki considered Ukraine his original, primordial, homeland. We can read the following words of address to his primordial fatherland in Pan Beniowski, one of his largest poems, which often raises the question of Ukrainian–Polish relations:

“My old fatherland!
I am standing totally enchanted
By your deadly face.
You used to lure my youth
Into the ancient woeful path between the graveyards.”

For Slowacki, Ukraine is a coffin. This makes us draw a parallel with Shevchenko. Incidentally, the works of S?owacki, as well as those of Shevchenko, repeatedly feature kobza-playing prophets.

Slowacki gives the reader to understand that the blame for “the death of Ukraine” is largely on the Polish nobility, which is guided by its own egoistic interests and turns a blind eye to the needs of Ukrainian people. Misunderstandings between the two entities stir up bloody conflicts, which the poet dramatically reveals in the drama The Silver Dream of Salomea, set in the period of the Haidamaky movement. The scenes of barbarity on both sides are shocking indeed. The poet will take neither of the sides. He strives for peace, as does the Cossack prophet Vernyhora. There is a shimmer of hope at the end of the drama: the Cossack Sava, a symbol of Ukraine, is going to marry Princess Wi niowecka, who symbolizes Poland.

The poet aspired to merge Ukraine and Poland “into one power.” He says about this allegorically in the above-mentioned poem Pan Beniowski:

“Like a crane, I hold my heart of stone
In my hands, oh my country…
Oh, my whitest and most mournful one!
I can hear two songs: one inside you
And the other above you.
I wish I could merge them into one clear power…”

The poet is aware, however, that this is next to impossible.

In spite of all the woes and misunderstandings between the closely-related peoples, Slowacki believed in the resurrection of Ukraine. For him, Ukraine was not a geographical notion, as it was for Adam Mickiewicz and many other prominent Polish intellectuals. Slowacki thought this was a country that had a rich cultural face of its own and, hence, the right to independent existence.

The prophecy of a resurrected Ukraine rings out in the poem Waclaw. The hero is a moral freak, a Polish nobleman, who betrayed the rebels of Thaddeus Kosciusko. He lives in Ukraine; he even used to be breastfed by a Ukrainian woman. And now that Waclaw is being buried, she appears and pronounces the following words:

“You are going to the coffin with a bitter odor!
Go, corpse! I used to rock you in a cradle
And feed you with my milk,
But now I am glad to lay you down into the grave.
Go, black ghost, go, horrible traitor,
My child and my poisonous viper.
Go, let the worms eat you up—
At least your blood will wash away your black sin.
God will not tell you the news:
You, devil, will never know in hell
That Ukraine will rise from the dead!”

These words take on a deep meaning. Gone is Waclaw, the symbol of the worst features of the Polish nobility that lived on Ukrainian lands at the expense of the work of Ukrainian peasants. But some time Ukraine is bound to resurrect, even though in agony.

“In all probability, the Ukrainian patriotism of Slowacki can only be fairly compared with that of Shevchenko,” Dmytro Pavlychko notes. “It is not so much about similarity of images and metaphors regarding the resurrection of folk spirit as, above all, about both poets’ religious, unbreakable belief that a nation’s immortality stems from its sufferings and defiance.” Of the same opinion is Stefan Kozak, a well-known literature researcher, a fine expert in Ukrainian and Polish romanticism.

By all accounts, Slowacki ought to mean for Ukrainians no less than his contemporary Gogol who sought to and did find his place in Russian literature. Slowacki’s anniversary should be widely marked at the governmental level. But this is unlikely to occur, which is the problem of Ukrainians who cannot appreciate properly the things that are significant for them.

Petro Kraliuk holds a doctor’s degree in philosophy. A translation by Marcel Weyland is used in the article.