The Literature of Polish Romanticism in Its European Contexts

by Krzysztof Trybuś (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 234 Pages
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 22


The book contains essays on the heterogeneity of Polish Romantic literature and its links with Europe’s cultural heritage. The essays deal with, among other topics, the idea of beauty and truth, correspondences between the arts, the role of tradition and memory in the Romantic era, and the significance of mysticism and irony. The authors of the essays write about such seemingly distant issues as music and revolution in Chopin’s times, and travel to places as disparate as Siberia and Italy. Their thematically diverse reflections are linked by questions they pose about the romantic roots of today’s Europe. The works of Mickiewicz and other Romantic poets discussed in this book thus clearly do not concern merely the past, but also speak to the present day, describing the experiences of everyday life in its various dimensions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • Introduction
  • Music in Romantic Literature and Criticism – Approximations (Elżbieta Nowicka)
  • Shakespeare of the Polish Romantics (Alina Borkowska-Rychlewska)
  • Irony as a ‘Centrifugal Force of Disincarnations’ in Polish Romanticism1 (Wojciech Hamerski)
  • Memory Instead of History: Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Norwid1 (Krzysztof Trybuś)
  • The Views of Mickiewicz and Krasiński on Russia1 (Jerzy Fiećko)
  • Princess Trubecka in a Siberian Hell. A Dialogue Between Three European Poets. (With the Participation of Dante) (Zbigniew Przychodniak)
  • A Duet to Democracy. Cyprian Norwid – Alexis de Tocqueville (Elżbieta Lijewska)
  • Beauty and Truth in Cyprian Norwid’s Italian Novellas (Mirella Kryś)
  • Italian Renaissance Art in Teofil Lenartowicz’s Literary and Visual Creative Output: A Case Study (Arkadiusz Krawczyk)
  • India and the History of Slavdom in Mickiewicz’s Paris Lectures1 (Dagmara Nowakowska)
  • Miłosz’s Mickiewicz as a Mystical Poet (Lidia Banowska)
  • Index of names
  • Series index

List of Contributors

Lidia Banowska


Alina Borkowska-Rychlewska


Jerzy Fiećko


Wojciech Hamerski


Arkadiusz Krawczyk


Mirella Kryś


Elżbieta Lijewska


Dagmara Nowakowska


Elżbieta Nowicka


Zbigniew Przychodniak


Krzysztof Trybuś



The authors of the essays contained within this book focus their attention primarily on issues concerning Polish Romantic literature. The ‘European context’ signalled in the title is explained by the genesis of this literature, which was produced largely in exile and closely linked to the dominant trends and ideas of the Romantic era. Polish poets of that time helped create this epoch, inspired in their thinking about humanity and history by influences that transcended ethnocentric perspectives.

The present volume seeks to show the heterogeneity of Polish Romanticism, often unfairly narrowed in its reception abroad to the issue of nationality. Therefore, apart from analyses of works connected with the history of Poland and Russia in the nineteenth century, also addressed here are aesthetic problems concerning the ideas of truth and beauty, irony and mysticism, correspondences between the arts, and the role of tradition and the influence of past literature during the era of Romanticism. In addition to views on revolution and democracy, likewise of importance is the ‘spirit of the place’ (genius loci) in romantic poetry, places often very different from one another, such as Siberia and Italy.

These essays by Poznań-based researchers of Romanticism do not treat the significance of the historical contexts they reference as absolute, and the Romantic poetry they read is certainly not locked in the past. Texts travel in time: this assumption allows the authors of the essays published here to express the phenomenon of Romanticism as one of continued relevance. Europe can be seen here in its present shape, leading at times to the paradoxical situation that the romantic past has its roots – in the present day.

The authors of the texts included in this volume are researchers of literature from the Adam Mickiewicz University Institute of Polish Philology (Poznań, Poland)

Elżbieta Nowicka

Music in Romantic Literature and Criticism – Approximations

Abstract: The chapter addresses the dramatic works of Juliusz Słowacki as well as Polish literary criticism of the nineteenth century. Analysis of selected plays by the artist and examples of literary criticism show that music as a metalanguage, very much like its metaphor of a human body presented as a musical instrument, is a fundamental notion for understanding Polish Romanticism.

Keywords: Romanticism, music, dramaturgy, literary criticism, metaphor

The role of music – its forms, themes and ideas – was so important and nuanced for Romantic poetry and criticism that it can only be discussed in terms of approximations that highlight specific aspects of this complex issue. Romantic poets believed that reality was structured in a way similar to music and thus formulated their poetical theories along musical principles. While the word ‘poetry’ was often used to refer to art in general, this did not stop Romantic critics from discussing the superiority of music in comparison to all other arts. I distinguish between ‘poetry’ and ‘criticism’ for the sake of my argument here, but it should be noted that in Romanticism poetry itself often fulfilled metapoetic and critical functions, and critical essays were often structured like a literary text.

Before I discuss the aforementioned approximations, I shall briefly address the relations between music and Romantic poetry. To begin with, Romantic lyrical poetry, like other forms of poetry, may be phonically and structurally perceived as ‘singing’ – as verbal equivalents of musical sounds. Secondly, long poetical works sometimes contained sections entitled ‘song’ or ‘lyric’, highlighting their distinct performative character and unique semantics. Examples include ‘Alpuhara’ in Adam Mickiewicz’s Konrad Wallenrod and ‘A Song of Masks’ (‘Pieśń Masek’) in Antoni Malczewski’s Maria. Music, usually a well-known song or fragment, was also used to signal an alternative reality or a turn of events, revealing the hidden intentions of different characters and endowing their actions with a new meaning. Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the third part of Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve (Dziady) is a good example of such an approach. The structural model of a Romantic musical piece (e.g. the fantasia) corresponded well to fragmentary ←11 | 12→poetical forms, allowing poets to explore semantics and complex, sometimes even esoteric, symbolism (as in the late works of Słowacki that were published posthumously). Similarly, dramatic works, not only fragmentarily but also globally, could refer to the cantata or opera (there are many examples, including the fourth part of Forefathers’ Eve, Lilla Weneda, The Un-Divine Comedy [Nie-Boska Komedia] and Krakus). Opera, both monumental and lyrical at the same time, and concerned with both the political and the personal (for example, arias express intimate human emotions), was an excellent model for presenting the fate of both the individual and the collective. Indeed, Romantic poets did not simply like to watch or listen to opera – opera and the classic ideal of pure music, popular in early Romanticism, proved to be an inspiration for the Romantic aesthetics of poetry, which recontextualized such concepts as mimesis, beauty, nature, and feeling. At the beginning, the concept of pure music played a more important role in this process, because it was anti-mimetic and thus focused more on the inner human experience and its expression.1 In conclusion of this brief summary of the relations between music and literature, I want to especially emphasize the metaphorical role of sound, the musical phrase, instrument, musical performance and the musician – it proved to be a potent theme in Romantic literature.

Indeed, one could write a history and typology of musical instruments not from a technical but from an anthropological perspective, emphasizing the affinity between man and instrument. Indeed, man would be particularly close to, for example, a violin, which is held at the height of the heart, or a flute, which is connected with the human body through breath. Such images of an instrument that is one with the human being until death does them apart, as in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Councillor Krespel, are inherently eclectic, since they bring together ancient myths, folk stories, and technical knowledge possessed by luthiers or other craftsmen. The semantics of musical instruments was shaped not only by cultural factors,2 but also by such seemingly unrelated phenomena as the development of technology, changes in the law, and evolving political concepts. The works of Old and Modern Polish literature demonstrate that political concepts and notions may be symbolically represented by means of a musical metaphor – the state may be metaphorically represented as an orchestra and people may be ←12 | 13→portrayed as instruments. The vision of people as instruments that play together in discord could also be read as a negative image of the music of the spheres, which symbolically represented the harmony of the universe.3 Respectively, the image of instruments which speak was used in the 1860s by Cyprian Norwid in his dramatic diptych Tyrtej – Behind the Scenes (Tyrtej – Za kulisami). It represented social fatigue, exhaustion, and the dissolution of relationships. Naturally, Polish poetry also employed the ancient topos of the poet as a musician with a lyre, a lute, a flute, or a harp. In order to represent the trauma of the partitions, the image of a man who is one with his instrument was very often disrupted, for example, by presenting images of shattered or abandoned lutes. While Romantic poetry built on this musical tradition in literature, it also significantly developed it, adding new favorite instruments and new symbolic roles they could play. Naturally, the expansion of this musical universe took place in a uniquely Romantic context. The works of Juliusz Słowacki, on which I shall focus in my essay, provide us with many excellent examples of musical references. However, other authors also engaged with music in their works. Indeed, Cyprian Norwid in Chopin’s Grand Piano (Fortepian Chopina) employed the topos of the human body as an instrument. Norwid in a subtle manner drew on one of the versions of the myth of Orpheus – the dismembered body of Orpheus corresponded to the image of the broken grand piano presented in the poem. Indeed, it should be emphasized that in Romanticism the myth of Orpheus was closely linked to the beginnings of poetry.4 This myth also alluded to a powerful, though unexplored, metaphor of the human body as an instrument. I shall discuss it in more detail, referring to two dramas by Słowacki.

Juliusz Słowacki begins his drama Horsztyński (written circa 1835, published posthumously in 1866 with the title given by the publisher) thus: ‘The world’s songs begin with discord – and they end with a violent rupture of the strings, a shattered harp […]’.5 These words have been interpreted as both a signal of the ←13 | 14→demusicalization of the world and as an ironic act of beginning with a ‘figure of closure’.6 Indeed, in Horsztyński, in keeping the unique role the harp played in Romantic aesthetics, the instrument may be construed as dramatis personae. In Romanticism, the harp was seen as a powerful symbol of poetical production and creation in general. The symbolic role of the harp was further complicated in Romanticism by the Eolian harp, an instrument which creates music while the wind blows across its strings. The harp and the Eolian harp were sometimes confused, partially through poets’ own fault and the manner in which they portrayed both instruments.7 The broken harp, which evocatively foretells the destruction of the world, constitutes a recurrent theme in Horsztyński. It symbolizes a broken man – a man who is tragically torn between the personal and the national, the private and the historical. Let us consider in this context a scene in which Salome speaks with Szczęsny. In a telling manner, Salome compares Szczęsny to a harp: ‘Today you are like my poor harp. A musician from Vilnius did not come and did not tune it […] I wanted to play a happy song for my husband, but the wild sounds coming out of the broken harp made me stop […] ’(VI, 300).

Out of tune, the instrument plays ‘its’ own music and the musician is unable to control it. Similarly, Szczęsny always speaks his mind – the ‘musician’ is not able to control him. Indeed, we may ask ‘who is the musician?’ Is it Szczęsny himself? This would imply his autonomy and turn him into a performer who deliberately, just like Paganini, plays out of tune. Or perhaps ‘the musician’ is someone else who cannot control the broken instrument/Szczęsny and despite his efforts is not able to play harmonious music? If the latter is true, we must ask whether ‘the musician’ should be construed as a custom, civic duty, filial duty, or perhaps human decency – ‘the musician’ attempts to ‘play’ but ultimately fails. Also, we must ask whether there exists a tuner for such a harp and whether his arrival, like the arrival of a musician from Vilnius for whom Salome waits, could restore the instrument’s ability to produce beautiful music?

A Stranger, whom Szczęsny meets at the end of Act One (after his talk with Salome), arrives from Vilnius in order to convince the young man to ‘fight for ←14 | 15→our cause’, i.e. to take part in an uprising against the Russians. Szczęsny is reluctant. He is out of tune; he acts and thinks in discord: ‘[…] there are times when I think that I am too grand to die on a pavement among fighting simpletons – and end life destined for greatness with an obscure death […] and then there are times when it seems to me that I am so small – so small […] that there is nothing to load a cannon with […]’ (VI, 309). Szczęsny is torn between extremes and continues to create ‘wild sounds’. For example, when he talks to Salome he wants to be both ‘a comedic […] and a tragic actor […].’ Let us further examine the character and origin of the ‘wild sounds’ of Salome’s harp in reference to Szczęsny’s musings. The context of the scene suggests that the sounds were created against the harpist’s will – she originally wished to play a harmonious and ‘happy song’. From the perspective of social and historical realities, which the drama faithfully reproduces,8 it seems unlikely that a provincial young lady had a thorough knowledge of music and that she knew that a certain type of consonance, called the tritone (also called diabolus in musica), had for many centuries been forbidden, or at least avoided, in church music. The ‘wild sounds’ of the out-of-tune instrument must have frightened Salome as unexpected and strange. Respectively, the reference to the devil (diabolus in musica) may be read as Słowacki’s hidden message for the audience. Indeed, while Słowacki was not a professional musician, he was well acquainted with music performed in concert halls and ‘salons’. The harp that is out of tune, a symbol of disharmony and discord that opposes the concepts of beauty and ethics, unintentionally (against Salome’s will) gives us an insight into the demonic. Evil is revealed and activated. Is Szczęsny, the ‘broken harp’, also affected by it? Nineteenth-century literary critics pointed to numerous affinities between Szczęsny and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and this issue has been examined in Polish criticism in much detail. For example, Jarosław Maciejewski notices that the similarities between Szczęsny and Hamlet ‘are striking and too frequent, too crucial, especially when it comes to Słowacki’s selection of scenes from Hamlet, scenes that are well-known and iconic, to assume that Słowacki structured his work as a result of subconscious reminiscences or influences.’9 Various travesties, references, or imitations of the Danish prince found in Polish Romanticism usually emphasize his loneliness ←15 | 16→and brilliant intellect, but also inertia, apathy, and passivity. Szczęsny’s demonic character, suggested by the metaphor of the harp that is out of tune, allows us to speculate on the subject of Hamlet’s evil nature. A similar perspective on Hamlet may be found in the writings of Maurycy Mochnacki, an eminent literary, theater, and music critic of the 1820s. For Mochnacki, the prince of Denmark was neither a dreamer nor an oversensitive intellectual, but rather a man who was hiding his vengeful and ruthless personality. Indeed, as Mochnacki points out, Hamlet was planning to kill the king in such a way as to ensure his eternal punishment in hell under ‘the power of an evil spirit.’ ‘What perverse logic’, the critic observes, concluding that for this reason ‘Hamlet will always remain an inscrutable dramatic hieroglyph.’10

However, the true domain of the harp and harp players, quite literally, is not Horsztyński but Lilla Weneda (1840). The drama describes a deadly conflict between two nations or indeed two civilizations, the Lechites and the Wends. The Lechites invade the Wends and both tribes fight for survival and domination. Słowacki presents a violent conflict from the perspective of Romantic historiosophy and historical theories, according to which new civilizations and nations were created as a result of invasions. A harp which belongs to the king of the Wends acts as a powerful political symbol in the drama – it is a sign of the king’s power; its disappearance is synonymous with defeat.11 However, the instrument plays an even more important role in the entire structure of the text, producing various micro-plots. Differ as they may, all such micro-stories are structured around the central motif of unity between man and harp – the instrument and the human body. Similarly to Horsztyński, Lilla Weneda also begins with an image of a harp, or indeed harps, that is out of tune. However, unlike in Horsztyński, in which the harp was used to draw a conceptual comparison, in Lilla Weneda the harp is part of the represented world and its sounds foretell a disaster. Meanings proliferate on two levels: on the level of the plot itself, for example, when Gwinona, the queen of the Lechites, steals Derwid’s harp, which consequently destroys the morale of the Wends (other examples include scenes ←16 | 17→in which respectively Salmon dies under falling harps and Lilla charms snakes with her harp music), and on the level of the symbolic and the transgressive, when the harp is transformed into Derwid’s daughter. Although the latter process should perhaps be referred to as alternating interference, because the instrument and the girl fuse, merge, and create new configurations. The first signal of such an interference, however, concerns Derwid. Imprisoned and humiliated by Gwinona, Derwid predicts his own death, refusing to turn his body into an obedient instrument:

And so you think that

When you put your claws on my heart,

I shall surrender to the fingers pulling at my veins

And turn my screams into a song? (VII, 310)

The naturalistic image of the mutilated body and exposed viscera transforms into an image of an instrument – brutal fingers/claws are pulling at strings/veins. Death has the power to transform the body into an instrument, but the suffering body opposes such a transformation and even after death Derwid refuses to ‘perform’ a song that his tormentor wishes to hear. Derwid, in a sense, does not allow the semantics of the harp to disintegrate; he makes sure its materiality and redeeming power remain intact. Not only does he refuse to change into an instrument, but his presence means that no one, not even Gwinona’s son, nota bene named Arfon, shall play his instrument. It turns out that the harp not only controls the actions and thoughts of the enemies of the Wends, but it also awakens mimetic desires in the Lechites, which constitutes an insightful commentary on the similarities and differences between the hostile tribes. For example, Gwinona announces her death thus:

When I am gone, you shall have my hair

Turned into strings for your golden harp

And when I am dead this old man

Shall play for you – or else a wind shall blow

From Iceland, my homeland, and kiss


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
Adam Mickiewicz Zygmunt Krasiński Cyprian Norwid Memory William Shakespeare Forefathers’ Eve
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 234 pp.

Biographical notes

Krzysztof Trybuś (Volume editor)

Krzysztof Trybuś is Full Professor in the Institute of Polish Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. His research interests focus on the literature of Polish Romanticism, mainly the works of Norwid and Mickiewicz, as well as issues related to literary tradition and cultural memory.


Title: The Literature of Polish Romanticism in Its European Contexts
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236 pages