On Cyprian Norwid. Studies and Essays
Vol. 1: Syntheses
Table Of Contents
- Title Page
- Copyright Page
- About the editors
- About the book
- Citability of the eBook
- A Starry Diamond
- From the History of Norwidian Research
- Editor’s Notes
- From Notes and Documents on Cyprian Norwid
- Norwid’s Old Age
- Norwid the Poet
- Norwid the Painter
- Leading Motifs in Norwid’s Poetry
- Norwid’s Producing Hand
- Norwid among the Great-Grandchildren
- Norwid’s Theatre of the World
- Introduction to Cyprian Norwid’s “Pisma Wszystkie”
- The World of Norwid’s Thought
- Norwid’s Poem-Parables
- On Norwid’s Poetic Semantics
- The Problem of Questions in Norwid’s Work
- Discovering Norwid’s Poetry
- Norwid’s Obscure Allegories
- Norwid and Theological Tradition
- Norwid’s Concept of the “Whole”
- Publishing Guidelines for Cyprian Norwid’s Dzieła Wszystkie
- A Poet of the Senses
- Text Sources
- Index of Names
- Index of Titles of Literary Works and Artworks of Cyprian Norwid
Cyprian Norwid (1821–1883) was described by the following words in an obituary notice written by Józef Tokarzewicz in 1884:
There lived in Paris… a Polish writer little known in his own country, an artist known even less, a strange poet, a hieroglyph-stylist, whose every poem has to be read syllable by syllable ten times over… His ideas, despite his profound learning and detailed familiarity with the achievements of contemporary knowledge, move in a diametrically opposite direction to that of the modern philosophical current.
But he was not a dilettante, and certainly not a visionary, a mystic, or a lunatic… He knew how to uncover in every thing such a relation of it to other things that it would become so original as to appear almost unrecognizable…
He carried his soul around with him as if it were some kind of numismatic rarity, unknown to anyone, unwanted, useless. Of less than middle height, lean, though shapely, with intelligent eyes… he had in his manner the assurance and suavity of someone who had been in good society, and in his thoughts and words the roughness of ore burning with an inner fire. He resembled a stone salvaged from some marvellous edifice, which somewhere, sometime had burnt down completely.1
Tokarzewicz gives a very accurate characterisation of the poet: unknown, obscure, moving in an opposite direction to fashionable trends in art and philosophy. His description is also appropriate, because in the eyes of his contemporaries Norwid was indeed strange, obscure, ill-understood and rejected.
This exceptional Romantic poet, novelist, playwright, sculptor, painter, engraver and draftsman was born in 1821. Orphaned in his early childhood, he was raised by his grandmother Hilaria Zdziechowska, née Sobieska.2 Norwid spent his youth studying painting but in 1840 he made his poetic debut on the pages of Warsaw newspapers. As a result, he enjoyed a brief spell of fame and recognition. Unfortunately, it soon ended in rejection and bitterness because it became clear that his works had little to do with the poetry of the second generation of Polish Romantics and his views did not fit the programs of emigré ←11 | 12→political parties,3 nor did they have much in common with the manifestoes of Polish Positivism. They were too difficult, too precursory to be understood by the readers of that time. As one of the poet’s critics stated – he was an “underappreciated genius […] born one hundred years too soon.”4
Norwid died in poverty and oblivion in France, in Saint Casimir’s Poorhouse for impoverished Polish war veterans and orphans, which was run by nuns. He was first buried at Ivry, and then moved to a mass grave in the Polish cemetery at Montmorency.
A hundred and thirty-five years after Norwid’s death nobody accuses him of “obscure speech,”5 “negligent form”6 or “tormenting, distorting sounds without thinking”7 or vows “not to toil over his words like over the Talmud.”8 The “future grandsons” consider the structural complexities of Norwid’s works and the depth of thought contained therein to be an advantage rather than a fault. “Future: the Eternal Editor” replaced the verdict that Norwid’s texts follow “a pattern of fluffy nothingness where the absurdity of thought matches the absurdity of language”9 with the conviction that Cyprian Norwid is a “creative figure equal to the trinity of the greatest romantic poets”10 and that “poring over the hieroglyphs of his art is rewarding work which generously pays off.”11
Norwid’s genius surpassed his epoch by over hundred years, so it is no wonder that his contemporaries did not understand him. He is better understood and appreciated by later generations, though they, too, maintain the opinion that ←12 | 13→Norwid is a difficult writer.12 Difficult, because he requires his readers’ cooperation in deciphering the multitude of meanings contained in single words, phrases and complete literary texts. Difficult, because in creating multi-level layers of meanings he resorts, inter alia, to wordplay, going back to the words’ sources, reinterpreting concepts, introducing tensions between them, seeking out polysemy, using the techniques of silence and understatement, creating new meanings, stratifying synonyms, applying paradox, semantic contrast, parable, allegory, symbol or concept.13 Difficult, because he dismantles the structural constraints governing specific literary forms and experiments with rhythm and rhyme. Difficult, because the construction of his verses (which are subordinated to meanings, but purposefully strange and liberated from the rules of traditional metrics14) always serves the thoughts they express. Difficult, because the utilitarianism of his poetry, its moral service to “incarnating goodness and illuminating truths” is manifested in all aspects of his writings – “the prosaicised meter of verse, the absence of conventional caesura, the monostich of autonomous meaning, even the series of full stops signifying understatement.”15 Difficult, ←13 | 14→because original – in language, style and thought, at least a century ahead of his time. Finally, difficult, because he has no counterpart in all of Romantic European literature.
Today Norwid is described as “a Christian sage,”16 “a poet of conscience”17 or “a poet of dialogue.”18 He is called a philosopher and a “poet-thinker,”19 an ironist,20 a romanticist,21 a moralist22 and an “ironic moralist.”23
In his works one can see not only “a reflection of architecture,” “a reflection of sculpture” and “the tenderness of light”24, but also his “producing hand.”25 Such categories as “picturesqueness”26 or “musicality”27 are used to describe some ←14 | 15→of the poet’s works, and Norwid himself is called a magician,28 for being able to combine several kinds of art in a single literary work: literature, graphics, painting, music, architecture and sculpture. His Polish and European identities are also topics of discussion.29
However, Norwid is first and foremost a poet of contradiction, in whose works two extremes meet and converge as far as his style of writing and attitude towards faith, tradition and culture are concerned. Norwid is able to be both orthodox in his views on Christian faith,30 and very bold and revolutionary when it comes to the truths commonly adopted by the Catholic Church of his time.31 In his way ←15 | 16→of writing – he is at the same time an innovative author, delighting readers with his open and modern style and an author implementing archaic, complicated or even abstruse syntax. From the numerous opinions on Norwid’s style, it is worth mentioning the two most extreme, expressed by Mieczysław Jastrun32 and Julian Przyboś, respectively. The former was impressed by the openness of Norwid’s style as early as in 1947, praising its commonness, discursivity, irony, paradoxicality and ambiguity. The latter defined it as unintelligible, opaque, stubborn, difficult and “picking constant fights with the colloquial, living, everyday word.”33
When it comes to literary tradition, it seems that Norwid’s creative work “was fuelled by the main currents of Western thought, but at the same time drew from native tradition as its main source; it was rooted in the past, but remained an everlasting inspiration for contemporary innovation.”34 Therefore, Norwid continues to be perceived as an old-fashioned poet, stuck not so much in Romanticism as in the even earlier epochs (especially with regard to his syntactical allusions to Old Polish35), as well as a progressive author – in the manner of writing and thought expression that exceeded his time by at least an epoch. The English language translators of his works are faced with a dilemma: which poetry style, which literary convention they should choose, to convey both the romantic roots and the pioneering spirit of the Polish poet:
How can a translator verify Norwid’s genius? Norwid is a 19th-century poet as well as a precursory author. How then can one introduce the work of a poet, who is simultaneously grounded in 19th-century traditions and who at the same time shatters them?… How to convey then to the English-language reader […] that the poet he is reading is not only expressing the consciousness of the second half of the 19th century, but also proclaiming the poetry of the 20th century?36←16 | 17→
Should it be the style of Gerard Manley Hopkins, oftentimes compared to Norwid by critics,37 or perhaps that of a contemporary English poet?
One should show Norwid’s originality; but how to demonstrate it without sounding ridiculous and eccentric? In brief, the answer is not to come off like some second-rate Hopkins, Browning or Clough, like an Emily Dickinson imitation, or like yet another mediocre Victorian-era artisan. What a challenge! Who can tackle it!38
The question asked by Norwid’s translator, Adam Czerniawski, was answered by Bogdan Czaykowski, who wrote:
[…] the translator who endeavours to adequately translate Norwid into the English language should make the effort not only to avoid turning Norwid into a second-rate version of the mentioned poets, but he also, in an ideal world, should exhibit the craftsmanship of these poets, and not only theirs, but also that of Ezra Pound in his poem Hugh Selvyn Mauberley, or of Auden, as well as Carlyle and Eliot. Obviously, this requirement is so ambitious it is hardly feasible. But the translator should at least have an erudite command of stanzas, rhythm and rhyme, even imperfect or assonant rhyme.39
Similarities between Norwid’s works and those of other English language poets – Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, William Morris or the Pre-Raphaelites40 ←17 | 18→have also been found. The Polish poet has also been compared to the French Symbolists. George Hyde has written of him:
For the English reader, he is like the French Symbolists, and shares Baudelaire’s fascination with paradox and the dialectic. […] His almost paranoid view of language as a dense system of “correspondences” from which we are necessarily excluded (but by which we are judged) again echoes Baudelaire and Mallarmé. […] He is simultaneously a political poet steeped in the history of a specific moment, and one of those powerful practitioners of the genre of “silence” (or a hermeticism bordering on silence) that the “new” Poland […] will have to reassess.41
However, it is Hopkins that Norwid has been most frequently and most extensively compared to – especially in the novel hallmarks of his writings, such as the way of depicting the world, the use of different semantic techniques and the originality of language.
Both authors were versatile, specially gifted with artistic abilities. Norwid sculpted, painted and drew.42 Hopkins was exceptionally skilled in pencil sketching.
They were both profoundly religious, and the Christian faith shaped their life and art. In Norwid’s creative work his thoughts (even those about man, society, politics or art) always referenced the Catholic faith and its principles. As an example, one can point to the idea of Polishness and Polish national art in “Fortepian Szopena” [“Chopin’s Grand Piano”]. As Władysław Stróżewski43 claims, when Norwid wrote about “Polska – przemienionych kołodziejów!,” [Poland – of wheelwrights transfigured into kings!] he meant not so much a transformed idyllic Poland of the old Piast dynasty as the source of national art, ←18 | 19→but the transfigured – that is, deified by Christian values – Poland since the dawn of its history:
A w tym, coś grał: taka była prostota
Jakby starożytna która Cnota,
W dom modrzewiowy wiejski
Wchodząc, rzekła do siebie:
“Odrodziłam się w Niebie
I stały mi się arfą – wrota,
Wstęgą – ścieżka…
Hostię – przez blade widzę zboże…
Emanuel już mieszka
I była w tym Polska, od zenitu
Wzięta, tęczą zachwytu – –
Polska – przemienionych kołodziejów!
Taż sama, zgoła,
(Poznał-ci-że bym ją – na krańcach bytu!…)
(PWsz II, 144–145)
In what you played, was the simplicity
Of Periclean perfection,
As if some Virtue of Antiquity
Entering a larch-wood country manor –
Said to herself:
“I was reborn in Heaven:
Its gates became – my harp,
Its path – my ribbon…
The Host – through the pale wheat I see…
And Emmanuel already dwells
On Mount Tabor!”
And in this was Poland – from its zenith
Through Ages’ all-perfection,
Captured in songs of rapture
- That Poland – of wheelwrights transfigured into kings!←19 | 20→
The very same – indeed
(Recognize it I would, at the limits of existence!…)]44
Unlike Hopkins, Norwid was neither priest nor monk, although after a Resurrectionist Priest retreat in April 1852 he did seek admission to their community.45 After a rather firm rejection46 he nevertheless continued to be a faithful believer. Like Hopkins, he was a poet of contradiction, torn between two opposite extremes in the perception of reality: he saw the harmony and beauty of Creation, noticing at the same time the disharmony, paradoxes and contradictions associated with human life. For both authors the person of Jesus Christ was “an omni-present link between the world of divine harmony and human suffering.”47
Both Norwid and Hopkins were innovative in the domain of wordplay, and poetic structure, language and imagery. They both broke the poetic conventions of their epoch, they both stood up against “wielkoludy” [giants] (Hopkins called them “giants of stardom”). In the first poem of the Vade-mecum cycle Norwid wrote: “Dlatego od was… – o! laury – nie wziąłem/Listka jednego, ni ząbeczka w liściu” (PWsz II, 15) [That is why from you…o! laurels, I took/No single leaf, nor its tiniest tooth],48 Hopkins admitted in one of his letters that “[t];he effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise.”49 Both of the poets felt the need to transform the apparatus of poetry; both of them pulled, twisted and stretched rhyme and meter and offered verse based upon tormented syntax and inelegant vocabulary. One of their affinities with each other is also the way they confronted or even affronted their readers with new shapes, rhythms and sounds. Both could say that their “poetry errs on the side of oddness.”50 The verse of both “is less to be read than heard […] it is oratorical.”51 Thus both authors, as precursors of modern poetry breaking 19th-century literary ←20 | 21→conventions, were rejected and criticized by publishers and readers. Therefore, their works were published very rarely.52
Norwid was even more frequently than Hopkins accused of “whimsicality,” “obscurity” or even “darkness” of speech. In 1849, Władysław Bentkowski described the Polish poet’s poems as having: “a mannerized obscurity of thoughts, images and expressions which […] by no means are in my taste.”53 In 1851, Lucjan Siemieński said the following about Promethidion: “The simplest things, the most common ones, are contorted into the whimsical scrawl of platitudes and words. […] another Champollion would need to be born to decipher these hieroglyphs, if it is even worth being born for something so small.”54 And in 1865, Marceli Motty asked regarding “Fortepian Szopena:” “what is the point of this persistent effort to create vague logogriphs and to twist all the limbs of sentences, this intentional violation of any rhythm and harmony, all grammatical constructs, proper forms and meanings of words, even the most elementary punctuation?”55
No wonder both these ill-understood poets spent most of their time abroad and died in foreign lands. Living away from his friends and family in England, Hopkins referred to his stint in Ireland as “being at a third remove.”56 Norwid suffered from poverty and oblivion in emigration. He died on the 23rd of May 1883 in Paris at Saint Casimir’s Poorhouse, where Polish veterans sought shelter.
Both poets only came to be appreciated posthumously. Norwid’s discoverer and eulogizer was Zenon Przesmycki (Miriam), who published a first edition of his novella “Ad leones!” in Chimera in 1901, along with an article poignantly titled: “The Fate of Geniuses.”
The discoverer of Hopkins’ poetry was Robert Bridges, who published his late friend’s poems in 1918. He began the volume:
the triumphal march of the poetry of Hopkins, who is today considered simultaneously one of the most profound religious poets, one of the greatest masters of language and ←21 | 22→innovators of poetic technique, and finally – a precursor […], who exerted a vital influence on the development of modern English-language poetry.57
For this reason, Hopkins’ works became the subject of lectures and discussions, and the author himself gained the readership and fame he had never dreamt of. Norwid, in turn, exerted a significant influence on the development of modern Polish poetry and has been one of the very few writers in the world whose language is described in specialist dictionaries and whose works and thoughts have been and continue to be studied by a succession of distinguished researchers,58 supported since the eighties of the 20th century by different research institutions such as: Ośrodek Badań nad Twórczością Cypriana Norwida (KUL) [Institute for the Study of Cyprian Norwid’s Literature (The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin)], Pracownia Słownika Języka Cypriana Norwida (UW) [Cyprian Norwid Language Dictionary Division (University of Warsaw)], Pracownia Kalendarza Życia i Twórczości Norwida (UAM) [Chronology of the Life and Work of Cyprian Norwid Division (Adam Mickiewicz University)].
The truth was the main focus of the two poets. They both considered art a tool through which they could reach the truth, transmit it and teach it. Hopkins, convinced that the world reflects divine harmony, preached the beauty of Creation. It is for a good reason that he is considered “one of the most satisfying of the so called ‘nature-poets.’”59 The depth of his poems’ religiousness is derived not only from his praise of the greatness of God and the harmony of his world, but also from his descriptions of the tragedy of human existence.60 Norwid, however, took up a much broader range of topics. He wrote about the problems of his contemporary world: politics, history, tradition, labour, freedom, slavery and social problems (like the emancipation of women). Juliusz Wiktor Gomulicki called this trend in poetry “the poetry of man” or “the poetry of human matter.”61←22 | 23→
Both “Knights of Truth”62 required the appropriate tools to convey their views. They both reached for similar measures of expression, because the precise definition of things and phenomena was essential for them.
“The poet needs only the victory of the truth” – Norwid proclaimed in 1860, paraphrasing the words of the Gospel. […] The subject of his poetry […] was therefore the Truth, […] in all its shapes and situations: philosophical and religious, social and psychological, aesthetic and scientific. This […] specific attitude towards the truth […] was closely connected to Norwid’s concept of the “word” realizing itself in “deed” and he required from such a word the solemnity appropriate to its tasks.63
Hopkins wanted to illustrate his theory of “inscape” – to see and name in everything all that makes it exactly what it is. The language of his poems had to be characterized by aspirations of specificity and uniqueness of description.
For Norwid, as he wrote in “Ogólniki” [“Generalities”], it was also essential to “Odpowiednie dać rzeczy – słowo!” (PWsz II, 13) [name each matter by its rightful – word!].64 So, his language is:
rich and very original, both because of the vocabulary, abundant in archaisms and neologisms, in rare special terms and in words which at that time were perceived as vulgar and anti-poetic (“stool,” “carrion” etc.), and because of its original syntax.65
Beside the precision and originality of the language, the intricacy of poetic structures, syntax and graphic layout also appeared in Norwid’s works. The poet relied on obscurity, because in his opinion: “[p];rawda obejmuje życie, jest więc niejasna, bo obejmuje rzecz ciemną” (PWsz VI, 449–450) “[t]ruth embraces life and is therefore obscure, because it embraces a dark thing.”
In Hopkins’ poetry, the expression of the tragic, the reflection of paradoxes
and anxieties of human existence is everything that could be labelled by dissonance – dissonance which is not only phonic, but also grammatical, syntactic, semantic. […] The unique rhythm of his verses[…] the so-called Sprung Rhythm played a similar role.66
For Norwid the dissonance of an otherwise harmonious world was above all the imperfection of man. He expressed “incompleteness,” “lack” or “shortage,” for example, using silence or bizarre punctuation. Wanting to reveal the truth about “the world’s shattered wholeness,” he:←23 | 24→
carefully elaborated and consistently used his own individual system of signs and tricks, by means of which he signalled and adequately distributed dynamic tensions throughout the text. […] All those measures specifically brought out from Norwid’s text […] something very peculiar, which could be called his original “score,” and which brought the reader closer to the author’s intentions and made it possible for him to read the texts in a dynamic way, enabling penetration into the more profound layer of their content.67
Looking carefully at Hopkins’ and Norwid’s original “scores,” one may also spot differences in the way they expressed their ideas. Norwid surpassed Hopkins in the use of irony, understatement, silence and graphic solutions, while Hopkins was unparalleled (even by Norwid) in creating neologisms. The distinction between the two poets was also based on different emphases on the main topics of their works: Hopkins dealt with God, nature and man, while Norwid: with God, man and all that is human – history and man’s work. Besides, the Polish author expressed his thoughts not only through poetry and letters. He also wrote dramas, novellas, verse letters and longer narrative poems which sometimes took the form of philosophical treatises.
Norwid’s most important epic poems include Promethidion, Quidam and Rzecz o wolności słowa [On the Freedom of Speech]. In 1865–66 he created his most beautiful cycle of poems. Titled Vade-mecum, the collection contains a number of masterpieces, including “Bema pamięci żałobny-rapsod” [“A Funeral Rhapsody in Memory of General Bem”] and “Fortepian Chopina” [“Chopin’s Grand Piano”]. Norwid was also a master of the 19th-century novella. His outstanding novellas include Czarne Kwiaty [Black Flowers], Białe Kwiaty [White Flowers], “Ad leones!”, Bransoletka [Bracelet], Cywilizacja [Civilization] and Stygmat [Stigma]. He also authored numerous plays. The best known among them include Za kulisami [Backstage], Zwolon, Kleopatra i Cezar [Cleopatra and Caesar] and Pierścień Wielkiej-Damy [The Noble Lady’s Ring].
Both posthumously discovered and appreciated poets have gained their well-deserved tribute and fame from posterity. More than a hundred years after their death, they both have been symbolically buried in places of national cult status. On the 15th of December 1975 Hopkins was honoured with a commemorative plaque in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey; and on the 24th of December 2001 an urn containing soil from the mass grave at the Montmorency cemetery where Norwid was once buried was placed in the Great Polish Poets’ Crypt at the Wawel castle, near the reliquaries of Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki.←24 | 25→
Comparing the life and works of Norwid to the biography and writings of Hopkins and other precursors of modern literature, although it serves mainly the purpose of helping English language readers understand the personality and works of the Polish poet, also shows the extent to which he is in line with European literary tradition. One can clearly see that Kazimierz Wyka was correct in writing that “none of the great emigré poets were as deeply rooted in the surrounding European intellectual and artistic tradition as Norwid.”68
At the same time Norwid is all too Polish, and in his Polishness very foreign and thus challenging to understand for representatives of other cultures. He is hard for them to understand also on account of his uniqueness and singularity.
In fact, apart from similarities to the mentioned writers, Norwid is so unique and so idiosyncratic that he should remain himself in translations: obscure, eccentric, a bit of a visionary but at the same time very down to earth, on one hand deeply rooted in tradition but on the other establishing new trends in poetry. The challenge is enormous.69
Bogdan Czaykowski put the matter this way:
Norwid’s poetry, whatever the analogies with other poets, is sui generis. And so was Norwid himself, a wholly idiosyncratic person, who cultivated idiosyncrasy not because he wanted to, but because it was thrust upon him by his marginalization and highly individual perspective. And it was precisely this perspective, questioning and reverent at the same time, that lay at the bottom of his ironic mode, in fact, of his poetics.70
No wonder that Stanisław Grochowiak worried
whether Europe will give back what is duly owned to him? One should have no illusions. Permeated with passion for Universalism, Norwid wrote in a language so intensely Polish that it was indeed strange in its etymological quest. Yet it is not only a difficulty of translation. Decades have passed, and it will take several more before we ourselves will be able to understand the greatness of his genius. And maybe then – thanks to our efforts, always insufficient in this measure – Norwid’s name and thought will become, at least to a certain degree, the property of European culture.71
The editors of the following volumes of Norwidianum do believe that the English translations of these extensive and thorough works of research on Norwid will ←25 | 26→significantly contribute to making his name and thought the property of not only European, but world culture. And maybe then, next to Hopkins’ “immortal diamond” Norwid’s own “gwiaździsty dyjament” [starry diamond] of well-deserved international fame will sparkle in that same sky, and an affirmative answer will be given to the question asked by the poet himself in his poem “W pamiętniku” [“In an Album”]:
Co raz to z ciebie, jako z drzazgi smolnéj,
Wokoło lecą szmaty zapalone;
Gorejąc, nie wiesz, czy? stawasz się wolny,
Czy to, co twoje, ma być zatracone?
Czy popiół tylko zostanie i zamęt,
Co idzie w przepaść z burzą? – czy zostanie
Na dnie popiołu gwiaździsty dyjament,
Wiekuistego zwycięstwa zaranie!…
(DW VI, 17)
[As from a torch dipped in pitch, now and again
Flaming rags fly from you in all directions:
As you burn, you do not know: Will you be freed?
Or will all that is yours be destroyed?
Will only the ashes remain and the confusion,
Which the storm blows into the abyss? – Or will there remain
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2019 (August)
- Norwidian Research Poetry Paintings «Dzieła Wszystkie» Romanticism Polish Literature
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019., 590 pp., 25 fig. col., 3 fig. b/w