(Walenty Wańkowicz’s Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz, 1827–1828)
The story of modern Polish literature is, to a large extent, a story of exile. In 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — once the largest nation in Europe — was partitioned for the third and final time by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. For the next 123 years, Poland would exist only in the hearts and minds of the Poles. Of course, it also continued to live on the page, in lines of verse, and no lines gave it as vibrant a life as those of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s romantic bard, who was born three years after the Third Partition and died in Constantinople in 1855.
The two poems below are drawn from different periods of his long exile. “The Pilgrim” is part of his romantic cycle of Crimean Sonnets, published in 1826. It is a young man’s poem, in which the speaker is wonderfully alive to the exotic landscape that surrounds him, even as he longs for another one. The elegant translation below, from 1938, belongs to Dorothea Prall Radin (1889-1948), a student and frequent collaborator of George Rapall Noyes. The second poem, which was written in 1839 or 1840 in Lausanne and never published in Mickiewicz’s lifetime, appears here in my translation. At that late date, having seen so many foreign landscapes, the poet is dead to his surroundings. It’s also worth noting that the landscape for which Mickiewicz longs in both poems is Lithuanian. He was born in Navahrudak, in what is now Belarus but was, at various times in the past, Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union. Mickiewicz’s native terrain is a palimpsest of shifting borders and vanished nations. You can learn a great deal more about all of this from Roman Koropeckyj’s superb biography, Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic.
A rich and lovely country wide unrolled,
A fair face by me, skies where white clouds sail:
Why does my heart forever still bewail
Far distant lands, more distant days of old?
Litwa! Your roaring forests sang more bold
Than Salhir maid, Baydary nightingale;
I’d rather walk your marshes than this vale
Of mulberries, and pineapples of gold.
Here are new pleasures, and I am so far!
Why must I always sigh distractedly
For her I loved when first my morning star
Arose? In that dear house I may not see,
Where yet the tokens of her lover are,
Does she still walk my ways and think of me?
Translated by Dorothea Prall Radin
While my corpse is here, sitting among you,
while it looks you in the eye, and even speaks,
my soul is far, so very far away —
it wanders and it weeps, oh, how it weeps.
I have a country, homeland of my thoughts,
where my heart has innumerable kin:
a land more fair than what I see before me,
a family more dear than anything.
There, amid work and worry and amusements,
I run away to rest beneath the pines,
to lie about in lush and fragrant grasses,
to chase the sparrows and the butterflies.
I see her there — in white, descending from the porch,
flying towards us from the meadows green,
bathing in grain as in the deepest waters,
shining from mountains like the light of dawn.
Translated by Boris Dralyuk