On Cyprian Norwid. Studies and Essays

Vol. 2. Aspects

by Edyta Chlebowska (Volume editor) Agata Brajerska-Mazur (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 728 Pages
Open Access


The book is the second volume of an extensive four-volume monograph devoted to the work of Cyprian Norwid (1821–1883), one of the most outstanding Polish authors. The impact of Norwid’s oeuvre does not fade, as he addresses fundamental and timeless issues, such as the moral and spiritual condition of man or his place in the world and history, and seeks to answer universal questions. The book contains an extensive selection of contributions by eminent researchers, which represent different approaches to the poet’s work. They cover various areas of research, including interpretation, thematology, genology, and editing.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Editor’s Notes
  • Norwid’s Irony
  • Foreword to the Facsimile of Vade-Mecum’s Autograph
  • On Norwid’s Epic Prose: Poet-Playwriter’s Workshop
  • Norwid in the Berlin Prison
  • Norwid’s Poetic Style from a Historical Perspective
  • “Architecture Of Word:” On Norwid’s Theory and Practice of the Word
  • Man – “An Image Of The Living God”
  • The Grandson Yet to Come: A Misunderstanding?
  • Vade-Mecum as an Editorial Problem
  • Norwid’s Letters and Epistolary Tradition
  • Cyprian Norwid as a Graphic Artist
  • Norwid over “the Stream of Human Blood”
  • The Language of Values in Vade-Mecum: Selected Aspects
  • Sentences and Events
  • In the Shadow of the Angel of Destruction: Norwid’s Vision of Europe
  • “This-World’s Prince”: Norwid’s Faces of Satan
  • Romantic Silvae Rerum: On Cyprian Norwid’s Notebooks and Albums
  • Norwid’s Silence
  • Chivalric Order, or “Penal Colony?” Norwid in the Saint Casimir House
  • Ten Commandments for the Translation of the Works of Cyprian Norwid (And What Came From Them; or, on the Translations of Danuta Borchardt)
  • Cyprian Norwid: On Definitions and Defining
  • The Aesthetic of Form in Norwid’s Dramas
  • Norwid and the Chinese
  • Norwid’s Thoughts on Russia
  • Norwid’s Watercolour Contrasts
  • A Concert of Forms: Metaphor with Regard to Polysemy and Simile in Norwid’s Poetry
  • Text Sources
  • List of Illustrations
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Titles

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Edyta Chlebowska

Editor’s Notes

The articles collected in this publication were written over a span of almost a century. Some of them were published prior to the publication of seven out of the 18 volumes critically edited by Sawicki, as well as the complete edition of the poet’s Pisma wszystkie edited by Gomulicki. Up until the 1970s, researchers were using many different editions. If this status quo were continued, we would be dealing with chaotic textual criticism. Given this situation, the decision was made, for the sake of the contemporary readers’ (especially foreign readers’) convenience, to allow for bibliographical anachronism, in compliance with the binding rules of scholarly critical editing adopted by Norwidology. Thus the quotations have been adjusted – wherever it was possible – and based on the critical edition of Dzieła wszystkie prepared by the team led by Stefan Sawicki: Cyprian Norwid, Dzieła wszystkie, Vol. III: Poematy 1, ed. Stefan Sawicki, Adam Cedro (Lublin: TN KUL, 2009); Vol. IV: Poematy 2, eds. Stefan Sawicki, Piotr Chlebowski (Lublin: TN KUL, 2011); Vol. V: Dramaty 1, ed. Julian Maślanka (Lublin: TN KUL, 2015); Vol. VI: Dramaty 2, ed. Julian Maślanka (Lublin: TN KUL, 2014); Vol. VII: Proza 1, ed. Rościsław Skręt (Lublin: TN KUL, 2007); Vol. X: Listy 1: 1839–1854, ed. Jadwiga Rudnicka (Lublin: TN KUL, 2008); Vol. XI: Listy 2: 1855–1861, ed. Jadwiga Rudnicka (Lublin: TN KUL, 2016) (hereinafter referred to as DW, a Roman numeral indicating the volume, and an Arabic one – the page). In other cases, Norwid’s texts have been cited according to: Cyprian Norwid, Pisma wszystkie, zebrał, tekst ustalił, wstępem i uwagami krytycznymi opatrzył J.W. Gomulicki [Pisma wszystkie, collected, compiled, introduced and critically annotated by J. W. Gomulicki], Vols. I–XI (Warszawa: PIW, 1971–1976) (hereinafter referred to as PWsz, a Roman numeral indicating the volume, an Arabic one the page). This decision, motivated by the present editorial status of Norwid’s literature, involves discrepancies in the graphic conventions used; particularly in the case of Norwidian emphases, which in PWsz were rendered in the form of so-called spaced out print while in DW – with the use of italics.

The bibliographic records and notes have been unified in order to produce a synthetic entirety with a coherent and logical message. Concerning Norwid’s texts cited in the articles, beside the original (Polish) version, the philological English translations have also been given, their boundaries clearly marked by ←9 | 10→square brackets. Sometimes the existing translations of Norwid’s poems into the English language were quoted. In such cases, the source of the translation has been indicated in a footnote. Additionally, the volume has been provided with indexes of the names and titles of Norwid’s texts. It was also considered appropriate to list the sources of the printed texts.

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Stefan Kołaczkowski

Norwid’s Irony

Abstract: Stefan Kołaczkowski believes irony to be one of the major “categories” of Norwid’s experiences. It explains the poet’s relationship with the epoch and the social genesis and role of his works, and also indicates the key role of moral judgement and intuitive cognition in his writings. The scholar sees irony mainly in works concerned with socio-historical issues and socio-personal ones, with the reservation that it is often difficult to discern the poet’s intentions, as, in Norwid’s art, irony sometimes takes the form of very advanced objectivism. Kołaczkowski assigns a dominant role in Norwid’s attitude to his ironic view on history, which directs the scholar’s focus towards seeking the poet’s relation to Thomas Carlyle, as well as other contemporary writers. He also indicates the dissimilarity of Norwid’s irony and romantic irony.

Kołaczkowski discusses the topic on the basis of several works: the narrative poems A Dorio ad Phrygium and Quidam, dramas Noc tysiączna druga [The Thousandth and Second Night], and Kleopatra i Cezar [Cleopatra and Caesar]. He also refers to a range of shorter poems, short stories, and fragments of letters to present the broad scale and various shades of Norwid’s irony. A recurrent motif in the discussion are the connections of irony and silence, strongly emphasised in the poet’s works and summarised in the quotation which ends the article: “Norwid did not only know how to keep ironically silent, but he also knew to unexpectedly draw out of the silence the things which you do not say.”

Keywords: Cyprian Norwid, Thomas Carlyle, poetry, irony, poethics, silence in poetry

The beginning of all Wisdom

is to look fixedly on Clothes

or even with armed eyesight

till they become transparent.

T. Carlyle


te muestras a mi pesar.

¿Es humildad o valor

esta obediencia?

El Principe Constante, Pedro Calderón de la Barca


Contrary to appearances in the cult of poetry, little has been so neglected lately by artists and writers as poeticalness and truth in poetry – at least in theoretical ←11 | 12→statements. This is less surprising with the critics. With their tendency for intellectualism, they identified artistry with poetry. They popularised the aesthetics of our writers and literary audience under the pretence of a cult of the form, and while they admired poeticising, they taught that poetry should be disregarded as an allegedly easy thing because one cannot learn it. Thus, they defended a thesis that very much needed a defence – that the poet’s personality was unimportant, that the question of how a poet lived was irrelevant. They forgot the minor detail that a person experiences poems not only in a poetic manner. On the contrary, poems are written as subtle tools for organising imagination and emotions to reflect the indefinable – poetry itself.

There was nothing new in that confusion of terms: “La confusion entre plaisir poetiąue et plaisir esthétiąue est traditionelle,” said J. Hytier;1 means and aims are often muddled. Recent events had brought about blatant misunderstandings: on the one hand, in the fervour of combatting realism and intellectualism, the existence of an intuitive cognition element in poetry was negated – contrary to facts, and contrary to the combaters’ own cult of poetry in which that element played the dominant role; and on the other hand, in the metaphysics concocted by critics in an attempt to please fashion, it was announced that the whole value of art was contained in artistry and was identical thereto. No one considered how the poetic element could exist despite this in an experience alone, in a landscape or a historical event, or even in the crude form of primitive poetry. Those judgements led to such a glaring contrast between theory and practice, such diametrically different positions of one-sided aestheticians that it had to result in a reaction in the form of differentiation. Hytier, quoted above, dedicated his work to the differentiation of the two terms, yet no one had performed that aesthetic allotment with as much clarity of distinctions as Władysław Tatarkiewicz in his 1933 lecture at the Academy of Learning. Many more interesting issues are contained in his text. This paper does not, however, provide enough space to discuss the complex matter of poetic nature or the distinction between the aesthetic and poetic and the intuitive cognition of truth in art.

The above is meant simply to explain what is meant by this discussion on Cyprian Norwid’s irony because the author is convinced that asking such questions would preclude many a quasi-philological work from existence. If it were merely an inventory of frequently reappearing features, it would not be worth writing. The concept for this study actually arose on its own and tempted ←12 | 13→the author to seek and find justification for it. Irony explains Norwid’s relationship with the epoch, the social origin and social role of his art, and one of his principal emotional approaches to life – the stoic one, and it also makes the reader aware of the vast, dominant role of moral judgement and intuitive cognition in Norwid’s writing.

Irony is one of the elements linking cognition and moral judgement of the world with Norwid’s emotional and poetic experience. Irony in itself, just like humour or tragedy, is not poetic, but an ironic attitude to the world may be the starting point for a special, irony-coloured poetic vision and experience of the world or for presenting truth learned instinctively.

Hytier claims poetic delight differs from illusion and hallucination because for it to occur, one needs to be aware of the difference between reality and the changeable world of our undulating imagination. It may be that humour, and in particular irony, expresses in art the most extreme case of difference, or even contrast, between reality and the world of our dreams and wishes. Irony would thus be a psychological paradox: a means of imposing – with artistic intonation – a judgement and, at the same time, a poetic vision of the world, which the poet judges and condemns; an intended shock that opens perspectives for the contemplation of a new, unknown, fascinating truth. It is there that the greatest triumph of poetry lies: to give a poetic quality to the object furthest from poetic desires. The contrast serves as a springboard, like a hard shore that gives momentum to the wave of poetic emotion. Truth is not shunned, poetic illusion is not nursed; rather, naked truth is boldly challenged as a tool of poetry and object of poetic contemplation. Or rather, it is not so much the truth as it is the reality, screened by the poet with his truth, uncovering its content and value. Wishes and yearnings bear dreams and poetry. And when can greater yearning arise than when reality is furthest from our ideals? The taut bowstring of Norwid’s yearning was that very distance – the greatest imaginable one – between him and the world. The irony of fate, of history, were great metaphysical and historical projections of the divergence he felt. Finally, a deep analysis of the essence of irony (the ambiguity of an ironist’s intentions) also explains Norwid’s categorical imperative: the reader’s collaboration.

Once, intellectuals and monists wrote of the idée-maîtresse of someone’s art. We could delve much deeper into art itself if one could find one of the fundamental forms in which the experiences of an author occur, something that, for its peculiar character, could be termed a category of experience for a given artist. The author of the present study is far from monist tendencies and a belief that irony is the most important or even the only “category” of Norwid’s experiences. Quite the contrary: irony plays a great role only in that part of ←13 | 14→Norwid’s writings, which through the scope of its topics belongs to socio-historical and socio-personal works, and which draws its artistic stimuli from the realm of thought and value. Yet the other world of Norwid’s poetry, the purely emotional or purely lyrical, which he himself indicated by saying that Lenartowicz took the path he had walked – is no less important.

The originality of Norwid’s spiritual organization also consisted in the fact that his talent was composed of two apparently separate, disproportionate elements. One was related to the stoic attitude – statue-like, intellectualist, and based on intuitive cognition. It was static to such an extent that the poet seemed unable to create action or the illusion of motion, and sometimes even went into almost glaring didactics and abstracts. The other – a world of purely lyrical experiences – had that same fluent rhythm, an original and indefinable brightness. Perhaps the other, musical element – both in the literal and metaphorical sense of “music” – is even more tempting for an analyst of artistry. Yet this paper concerns the former of the two spheres of Norwid’s writing. Whether irony truly constitutes one of the major forms determining the character of poetic experiences is for the reader to judge.

I. The Poet and the World

The sense of silence in Norwid’s work was often mentioned in lofty terms because Norwid assigned a great role to it. Yet no one asked what the art of speaking with silence consisted of, how much truth and how much eccentricity there was in that paradox.

It would be a good idea to start that discussion with a simple example – and such a silent answer was given by Norwid himself in a letter to B. Zaleski on May 10, 1851 (DW X, 371). In this letter, he described his reaction to another letter with readers’ complaints:

Odebrałem szerokie skargi od arcyliberalnej strony, ale dziwnie śmieszne: 1-o że arystokracją jest tak niezrozumiale pisać; że 2-o że cały Kościół uważa się za monopol prawdy; 3-o tymi słowami: “czego my nie rozumiemy, to dla nas jest szatanem.” Pojmujesz, że łatwo zrozumiałem, jaki to mówi duch – odciąłem kartkę i wypadło tak, że z jednej strony listu było: “kościelnicy mówią – my mamy prawdy monopol etc.,” a z drugiej: “czego ja nie rozumiem, to dla mnie szatanem i uwodzicielem jest” – dziwny wypadek! Owóż odciąwszy tak i czerwono razem podkreśliwszy, odesłałem, pisząc na wierzchu te słowa z Ewangelii: “Tyś powiedział.”

[I received extensive complaints from the arch-liberal side, but strangely ridiculous: 1° – that it is aristocratic to write so incomprehensibly; that 2° – the whole Church believes to have the monopoly of truth; 3° – in the words: “what we do not ←14 | 15→understand, is [like] Satan to us.” You realise I understood easily what spirit was talking. I cut the page off, and it thus happened that on one side of the letter there was: “Church says: we have the monopoly for truth” etc., an on the other: “what I do not understand, is a Satan and seducer to me.” A curious occurrence! Having thus cut the page and underlined it in red, I sent it back, with those words from the Gospel written on top: “You have said thus.”]

What a telling and yet silent reply! Such repetition of others’ words with an intonation giving them a contrary sense is called irony. The mention of the Gospel adds one more element of Norwid’s artistry to the equation – parabolism. The events of a drama or story were never the full expression of his artistic intention: that was always hidden in the unsaid symbolic sense.

It would be easy to prove that silence or concealment, used as an artistic means, played many more different roles in Norwid’s writing. Irony and ironic parable open such broad perspectives on the works of the poet that learning even just a part of that “art of silence” makes for a quite broad topic. The issue of irony is also important because it introduces the reader to the world of Norwid’s values and criteria in the most important matters for any poet. Catholicism and Christian humility, as well as his completely personal, aristocratic stoicism, all characterised Norwid to the same extent. The “measure of greatness” in Norwid’s works is also his irony. He measured value not only with reverence and humility but also with proud ironic negation. “Nie bronię się więc, ale zaprzeczam ostatecznie” (PWsz VI, 598) [“Thus I do not defend myself, but I definitely deny” ], was one of his characteristic statements. Norwid’s work expresses a whole spectrum of emotions, from curses and sarcasm – from the anger he described in Fulminant, through all shades of irony, up to the sweet smile of a martyr who accepts everything with humility. And on the scale of irony itself, there is also the fluid, intangible line between superhuman, stoic pride and a martyr’s understanding. It is sometimes impossible to differentiate where irony contains that stoic “odejrzenie” [“look-back”], annihilating fatum, as mentioned in the same-titled poem, and where it contains emotion, as expressed in the “tragedy” titled Słodycz [Sweetness]. Hence the motto of this study, taken from Calderon’s drama. It may be a difficult task to define the poet’s intentions at times, for irony is sometimes a form of perfect objectivism in Norwid’s art: when measuring values, the poet was satisfied with a statement, keeping his emotions secret or discreet, sometimes unnoticeably betraying them. In a letter to Trębicka, Norwid denied the truth of the statement that one could rely only on oneself. The stoicism of Norwid, deepened through his Catholicism, often took God as the basis of its stability. Yet that happened only in religious ←15 | 16→states. It was not always felt, for the poet also knew the stoicism of a wise man who relied on himself. Norwid also offered the “nadobnie-bez-zjadliwa ironia” [“handsomely-non-scathing irony”], which (usually unfairly) he attributed to Słowacki in Czarne kwiaty [Black Flowers; DW VII, 50]. He also sometimes presented the crushing irony of absolute aristocratic contempt. The ironist’s objectivism had different senses. For example, describing Lenartowicz’s work with the metaphor “Dant na fujarce” [“Dante on a panpipe”] could be taken for crushing irony if Norwid had not put it in a letter to Lenartowicz with the added word “śliczny” [“pretty”] and in a generally kind and favourable context. The ironist demanded an “ideal listener,” or rather, assumed the existence of one. Or – as Norwid often did – he gave everyone as much truth in his irony as the reader or listener was able to accept and process. “Jest niemało do powiedzenia ludziom, ale czy znieść potrafią?… Będzie im można więcej mówić – lecz wtedy dopiero, skoro oni nauczą się wiedzieć: kiedy się godzi śmiać?… a kiedy płakać?” (DW VII, 190) [“There is much to say to people, but can they bear it…? You can tell them more – but only once they learn to know: when it is fitting to laugh?… and when to cry?”] (Stygmat [Stigma]). Thus, irony is always connected with silence and the “measure of greatness.” Not only because irony is a silent judgement, but also because the author matched it with the reader, giving them precisely as much as they could understand. Without the collaboration of the reader or listener, an ironist cannot fulfil their artistic intentions.

Norwid was not a mystic, or rather, he was one only inasmuch as mysticism fit within Catholicism, accepted that light related to darkness, and indicated untransparent matters. In a lofty jest, he combined heavenly revolutions – miracles, with earthly miracles – revolutions. Thus, it would be loyal and in the spirit of Norwid to eliminate from research statements to the effect that “Norwid was an epoch unto himself,” a “miracle,” etc. Windelband and Rickert were only partially right when defending themselves against the designs of natural scientific methods by stating that a historian was occupied with historical events in their individual existence. A historian who wishes to understand always looks for connections, but not necessarily causal ones or those of a direct, tangible nature. To know without connections is to understand nothing. Philological research on influences through detailed comparison is useful where, like in old-Polish literature, paraphrase, adaptation, or theft often occur. Here, we have to do the same with a great artist. Differences in dates are unimportant when the relationship to the spirit of an epoch counts, and the principal social and historic conditions remain the same over a longer period of time. The identity of character and similarity of particular features of the art of ←16 | 17→not just one, but several successive generations, sufficiently explain the historical background of Norwid’s activity.

Also, it should be remembered that “epochs” are academic constructs necessary for the awareness of common distinctive features, and despite changes and turning points, there is continuity. With this in mind, we would not exclusively state whether Norwid was a romantic or not, but only gather arguments for and against both sides and define them through negation, instead of giving a positive description of Norwid.2 Trends and epochs are felt when the structural relations of their particular features are understood. The existence of one or a few features or a lack thereof with some writer does not determine whether they belong to a certain trend. As in a description of a character, in the description of an epoch and trends, the most important thing is structure. The same elements in a different context may have a completely different meaning. If the structure of a trend does not match or explain a writer’s aspirations and beliefs sufficiently, there is nothing to achieve by stating their originality or by grasping at particular features common to various trends or people. One must then seek a different structure, in connection with a historic background beyond one generation, with factors more stable than particular movements and schools, or with conditions of more general meaning, such as particular movements and trends, insofar as the trends are individual reactions and transient changes related to symptoms.

From that perspective, the conclusion might be reached that Norwid was no more peculiar than, say, Baudelaire,3 that he was simply a much greater and more powerful human, and – at least after his death – his loneliness may be overcome by finding people like him in spirit and attitude. The greatness of a human does not consist in extraneous and exorbitant phenomenality, but in the extent of the basis of their actions and the broadness of their horizons. Although it is true that men are affected by things they are unaware of, the number of factors shaping them grows together with their broadening awareness. Both that and the fact that Norwid was a traditionalist must be taken into account if one wishes to understand the “genesis” of his work. Norwid cannot truly be understood without ancient and medieval moralists, without Catholicism, Dante, etc. He covered with his spirit the whole of contemporary culture, and his approach towards it was one of the main elements shaping his general attitude. This may be defined in the most ←17 | 18→general terms as a religious organization whose deepest beliefs and desires went contrary to the principles according to which modern civilization developed. Such an attitude of Norwid towards the whole culture was expressed not only in his historiosophical interests but also in his specific view on tragedy, understood as the irony of history in general.

Naturally, an entire psychological study could be devoted to an analysis of the writings of that great ironist, explaining his work through the poet’s personal experiences. Yet this discussion starts with a social basis, for an ironic view on history played a dominant role in Norwid’s works. It was not the rebellion of the romantic self against the world at large. With Norwid, it was something entirely different: a refusal to give his time the title of history. Norwid presented his clearly crystallised view on the world to the equally clearly and penetratingly understood entirety of nineteenth-century civilization.

To present that major, essential factor in Norwid’s ironic attitude to life fully, much space is dedicated here to a certain comparison, which is even more interesting because the writer compared with Norwid was considered more original. “We are at first put out. All is new here: ideas, style, tone, the shape of the phrases, and the very vocabulary”4 – thus H. Taine wrote of him. Ludwik Krzywicki called him the sphinx of the nineteenth century. Those quotations concern Thomas Carlyle. The social character of irony and demonic humour is particularly noticeable in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus because it is not a satire against one phenomenon or another, but an explosion of protests against the whole culture. The “philosophy of clothes” of that writer would today be termed culture criticism. The exceptional position of that book consists in the fact that it is one of the earliest and strongest warnings. The book is about what Norwid formulated in the postulate of “przepalenie globu sumieniem” [“burning the world through with conscience”]. Just before industrialism and capitalism came to full bloom, Carlyle’s spirit shuddered with dread, almost seeing a vision of the future victory of matter and technology over man. Norwid’s concept of enslavement, consisting of means becoming aims, is matched by Carlyle’s pamphlet on the victory of clothing over men. In his black humour, Carlyle announced: “clothes have made men of us; they are threatening to make clothes-screens of us.”5 The shout of an individual, one ←18 | 19→spirit against the world, would have vanished into the void, like an eruption of despair of a romantic soul. Unable to communicate, Carlyle reached instinctively for a different means: he presented the world as he saw it, in a monstrous, menacing caricature, and then undermined it. That inability of the writer to communicate with the world in everything led not only to a demonic caricature arising from suppressed pathos, not only to an unexpected combination of content which imposed a completely different viewpoint on issues, but also to the need to create an almost completely new language, with odd combinations, merging words into one, emphases, stresses, and graphic innovations. Hence Professor Teufelsdrockh from Sartor Resartus says of himself that “I was like no other” and believes that “in action, speculation, and social position, my fellows are perhaps not numerous.”6

And yet, another such loner like no other can be found: Cyprian Norwid. There is probably no other comparison that can throw as much light on the author of Tajemnica Lorda Singelworth [Lord Singelworth’s Secret] and “Rozebrana” [“Disrobed”] than the one with the “clothes-philosopher” and the book Sartor Resartus. The discussion here is not about influences or a mechanical comparison, although when reading Norwid, one may assume he had read that famous book, perhaps in London, on his return from America. The analogy reaches deeper and opens a broader horizon on the same social background. In both cases, a lone individual opposed an entire whole civilization; and it was not the romantic self-against-world protest. Brzozowski owes much to Carlyle7 as a critic of romantic idealism. Norwid’s philosophy of life can also be summarised in Carlyle’s words: “The man is … what he became,”8 which clearly opposed the beliefs of unrealistic “idealists,” who divided their lives into their ideals, wishes, and a course of life different from those.

Since the stances of Carlyle and Norwid in judgement on contemporary culture were very close, it is no wonder that they also showed similarity concerning the consequences of such a stance. What is more, not only were their views on truth, science, or tradition similar, but there were also further analogies in how they viewed silence, secrecy, and mysteriousness. Moreover, similar attitudes to the world sometimes resulted in striking similarities of style, ←19 | 20→broadly understood. As Carlyle unearths the hidden sense of social life in the demonic crosscuts of a humourist, e.g., linking the most diverse phenomena into one causal chain, striking at its truth, as he writes of five million quintals of rags being reshaped into great batteries of social power, i.e., journals, which become more powerful than great royal dynasties,9 Norwid immediately comes to mind.

Norwid is also brought to mind with the deep insight into the sense of culture by giving particularly detailed senses to minor and completely irrelevant and disproportionate facts, which is connected with a more or less apt etymology serving symbolic and historiosophical purposes. Both writers had a similar manner of opening historical perspectives with rhetorical questions (related to that parabolic view on details): “The first ground handful of Nitre, Sulphur and Charcoal drove monk Schwartz’s pestle through the ceiling: what will the last do?”10 asked Carlyle.

Carlyle’s artistry was heavy, German, and generally minor, if original. Norwid utterly outshone him with his talent. When stating the analogies, a principal difference needs to be indicated: humour. Carlyle was aggressive in his fight and generally didactic. Thus, irony played a minor role, smaller than sarcasm and humour. Carlyle was aptly called by Krzywicki11 “ostatni kaznodzieja średniowiecznego chłopstwa szkockiego” [“the last preacher of medieval Scottish peasants”]. The differences between the mind of the British writer and the refined artistic soul of Norwid, a Catholic, need not be listed. Yet it is against the background of those great differences that similarities are strikingly visible, indicating the same social basis for irony, sarcasm and linguistic oddities, considered with both writers to be fully individual features.

It is not through similarity, like in Sartor Resartus, but through theoretical sociological analysis on the origin of irony that much can be drawn from the book of another ironist and poet of silence, the great Danish moralist, Sóren Kierkegaard. In his treatise of 1841, On the Concept of Irony, he wrote of prophetic figures at the turn of epochs, who – unable to instil new concepts of the world in their environment – expressed their negation of the old world through irony. Such a role was also attributed to Socrates in his time.

In order to win, the ironist must become a victim like a tragic protagonist. Analogy in attitude towards an epoch already foreign to them explains Norwid’s ←20 | 21→particular fondness of Socrates, who appeared very often in his writing. Norwid saw in him not so much irony as tragic stoicism. Socrates “kielich dopełnił i na statuę żywą obowiązku zamienił statut pisany” (PWsz VI, 414) [“drank the cup and changed the written statute to the living statue of duty”]. Norwid’s statement from his lecture on Słowacki: “Współczesność albowiem jest dwojaka” [“contemporaneity is always twofold”] clearly expressed that sense of identity. Faith in providence made Norwid accept reality as the expression of God’s will, or at least as an act of God. Yet, on the other hand, that reality denied his Christian moral values, and he could not accept it. That contradiction continuously resulted in stating a lack of adequacy. He overcame the dilemma with thought, explaining that time is not eternity because of the fact that it is time; i.e., reality cannot contain absolute values within itself. He distinguished between apparent and true reality. He used emotion to oppose the circumstances; irony and silence played the role of that opposition in his writings. Feeling unable to present the world in the name of which he negated its surrounding reality, Norwid stated: “Jestem znamię!… / Sam głosu nie mam – Panie” (PWsz I, 136) [“I am a stigma!… / I do not have a voice myself – Lord”]. Characteristically, Norwid wished to change Sophocles’ metaphysical “unfortunately” into a historical “too-late.”12 He spoke very openly of the misunderstanding of individuals who were ahead of the epoch:

jakże albowiem, posuwając społeczeństwo w przyszłość i język uczuć przyszłych mu przynosząc, porozumiewać się jasno z obecnością …. Nie jestże to tak, jak gdyby kto zdawkową monetą płacił wtedy, kiedy ta jeszcze od stempla oderwać się nie może, albo gdy jest gorąca i do czerwoności rozpalona! (PWsz VI, 458)

[how then, moving the society into the future and bringing it the language of future emotion, [can you] communicate clearly with the present …. Is it not as if someone paid a small coin when the coin still cannot come off the stamp, or is yet red-hot!]

It is noteworthy that Kierkegaard started his considerations of irony by opposing the “romantic irony,” completely foreign to the new post-romantic generation. Contrary to the term, it actually had little to do with actual irony and was certainly in no way connected with Norwid’s irony. Even where Norwid ←21 | 22→intentionally travestied romantic irony, as he did in Szczesna, he was more of a satirist than an ironist. The romantic irony was born of the individualist anarchism of the romantics, of the fight against one’s own sentimentalism, of magical idealism – and finally of an internal split. Anyone “kto by Diogenesa poczytywał jedynie za improwizatora dorywczego i za bezkierunkowy jaki humor” (PWsz VI, 224) [“who would take Diogenes only for an occasional improviser and for some un-oriented h umo u r” ] would be very much in error, wrote Norwid in Milczenie [Silence]. That deprecated un-oriented irony, resulting from whim and often from imaginary superiority over the world, agitated despair, boredom, apathy, or scepticism, cannot be found anywhere in Norwid’s works. Norwid did not negate reality as such; neither did he deprecate the common. This differentiated his irony from the irony of romantics, the “disappointed souls” of romantic epigones and the later sceptics of the end of the century. It may be that in his youth, the irony of Norwid and of all the circle of “Warsaw bohemia” was of a typically romantic character and that the ironic stand of “bohemians” had some impact on Norwid’s later attitude towards the milieu.13 Yet the non-disappointed later romantics, like Musset, Heine, or Berwiński, can help explain the character of Norwid’s irony and its relation to the epoch.

Contrary to the above, Norwid’s irony had one very strongly oriented tendency. It expressed a strongly built and closed individuality, opposing the world in a stoic manner in the name of clearly defined values and concepts. That the uncommon abundance of irony with writers more or less contemporary to Norwid is explained with the disappointment of romantic souls is another matter. The road from romanticism to realism led through irony. The irony of Flaubert’s disappointed soul, and, in particular, his immortal Homais from Madame Bovary, may serve as a signpost for the evolution leading to naturalism. Irony was the only weapon left to those who could do nothing against the world. When the bourgeoisie took over culture, the edge of irony turned against them. The more the “last Mohicans” of romanticism stabbed about with vicious, aristocratic, desperate, and refined irony, the more overpowered and lonely they felt. An example of that can be Contes cruels by Villiers de l’Isle Adam, resembling Norwid’s derision in Ad leones. Hopes lost after the “Spring of Nations” increased the bitterness. While some were dolefully melancholising in seclusion, like Amiel, others were “liberated” from the world with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy, and still others found solace ←22 | 23→in propagating aristocratic stoicism. The latter can be found in the classicism and aestheticism of the Parnassians, their poêsie objective et impassible. The greater the rift between historical reality and the elites who understood its false or ostensible nature, the greater was the isolation of the elites. The inability to communicate resulted in the instinctive suppression of emotions; romantic pathos was opposed with the pathos of restraint, silence, loftiness, and statue-like demeanour. Such was the learned and aristocratic, static and composed poetry of the Parnassians and of Norwid.

It may seem strange to compare Norwid with Baudelaire because there is a great difference in the artistry of those writers. Baudelaire was conservative and classical in his artistry, while nothing of the kind may be said of Norwid. Baudelaire had more artistic culture as well, but that is not the point here. They are similar if seen from a sociological point of view. What they had in common was the trait of final tragic eccentricity in seclusion and stoic pride both in persistence and in contrariness. Fortunately for Baudelaire’s artistry, his loneliness in the surrounding middle-class atmosphere, his hatred, contempt, and estrangement from the world were expressed in perversion, defiance, and a fancy to surround himself with mystery up to ironic mystification in life, not in art. But those are only different expressions of the same attitude towards the world. Despite all those features of decadence, Baudelaire was not decadent. He was a man with a good backbone, with great, uncommon strength of will. In that strength of will, in that stoicism, the two men had much in common, and likewise with their source – Catholicism. Similar situations resulted in similar features: strength of sarcasm, irony, contempt, and desire for stoicism in art and also in their inner self, which had to survive everything. Neither were intuitive artists – with both of them, art was the result of work, premeditation, and uncommon condensation of the word. “Nie bronię się, lecz ostatecznie zaprzeczam” [“I do not defend myself, but I definitely deny”], one might here repeat after Norwid and Baudelaire. The latter only opposed ugliness with beauty – for he was an aesthete. And therein lies the difference. Baudelaire never looked beyond Paris and art in his thought – he was simply a brilliant writer and poet. He choked and suffocated with Paris and bourgeoisie and lived on dreams and art. Norwid suffered not from a city – he suffered from the whole epoch, he fought practically the entire understanding of the culture of his day, and that vast philosophical and historical horizon of his put him far above Baudelaire. The scope of his thoughts and emotions was incomparably broader and, as a result of the nature of the issues he saw, deeper. Their social role was similar in attitude but not in scope. Leaning on the rock of Catholicism, they maintained was an absolute, unbending negation of the life surrounding them, its weapons ←23 | 24→being sarcasm, mocking irony, contempt. They opposed that life with monumentality – of beauty with Baudelaire, and of inner truth with Norwid.

Through his erudition and archaeological interests, Norwid was kin to the Parnassians, but he had more in common with Baudelaire as concerned inner kinship, mainly the tragedy arising from the social situation, which is of greater interest here, when the social background of Norwid’s work is discussed. Hence, more time was devoted to that comparison.

The traditions of that monumental pessimistic stoicism, the tendencies for the pathos of restraint, silence, loftiness, and statue-like demeanour could already be found with typical romantics. From the darkness, inspired by old-Scandinavian poetry, there emerged the statue of the unfaltering Iridion. Classical attitudes, combined with the dark, self-focused, stoic poetry by Alfred de Vigny, was manifested by Chasseriau’s Venus,14 which is an ideal, if unintended, illustration of that poetry. The increasing intellectualism and scepticism favoured a scientific and historical treatment of religion (Renan). Aestheticism, a symptom of detachment from life, used archaeological, historical, and mythological research as material for aristocratic, learned, and intellectualist poetry, delighting in egotism. Thus, was the art of Leconte de Lisle, who was contemptuous of the masses, and thus was the art of other Parnassians. The interests of writers detached from life turned to the far future in seeking kindred souls, in striving for a moral anchor and an explanation of the matters of culture. For Louis Menard, a Parnassian poet, moralist and philosopher of culture, absence from life also had an adverse effect on drama, giving it a static nature foreign to its essence. In that respect, Norwid’s dramas resembled the dramas by Leconte de Lisle and Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The ten-act drama by Ibsen on Julian the Apostate, devoid of poetry and a historical sense, is typical of the mid-nineteenth century in its reflectiveness and topic (revision of culture), and through its pursuit of an Apollo-Christ synthesis.

Kiedy to, co miewałeś blisko osobistym, połamie ci nagle przed oczyma fatalny wicher i kiedy on co osobowego nadweręży lub z kurzawą popiołu precz odmiecie, pozostawają ci poglądy i poczucia ogólne, ludzkościowe, historyczne… Lecz pozostawają może jako upajający męt na dnie kielicha… lecz otwierają się one może przed twymi oczyma jak “Egipska umarłych księga” (DW VII, 193)

[When that which you had close and personal, is suddenly broken by violent wind before your eyes and when it damages something personal, or wipes it away with a storm of ash, you are left with views and sensations which are general to all people ←24 | 25→and history… But maybe they stay as intoxicating dregs on the bottom of the glass… but maybe they open before your eyes like the “Egyptian book of the Dead”]

Do those words of Norwid not explain not only their author but also the interests of the learned poetry of the time?

Norwid’s cult of Socrates, already mentioned here, may serve as a guide into that interest in the past belonging to Norwid and kindred-spirit poets, which is of particular interest due to its connection with irony. The latter finds its closest ally in sarcasm, as will be seen below. The wisdom of ancient stoics often fed old-Polish writers as well and was popular in the time of the motto of perseverance (Orzeszkowa, Świętochowski). It is understandable why Norwid also sought comfort in it and why stoicism was a very common motif with the poets of his time.15 The advice given by Norwid to the nation in Niewola [Enslavement] to make use of suffering applied to the whole society in the same way as the thought was applied by Seneca to an individual. In the foreword to Niewola, Norwid wrote:

Nie mogę tu albowiem zapomnieć wzoru Sokratesa, który obrażenie od kajdan wytłoczone na nodze uważał za treść i za przykład popierający rzecz o bólu i stosunku bólu do żywota, panując wyraźnie tym sposobem nad fatalnością położenia, owszem, rosnąc w wolności nie do pokonania pewnej siebie. (DW IV, 42)

[For I cannot forget here the model of Socrates, who considered the injury chains had impressed on his leg to be the content and an example to support the lesson on pain and its relation to life, prevailing distinctly in that manner over the fatality of his situation, and even growing in freedom of invincible confidence.]

Stoicism, restraint, static quality, the cult of silence, and irony remained interconnected, and every now and again, one of those elements appeared with the Parnassians or other writers of the epoch. Symptomatic in that respect was, e.g., the subtle, lofty comedy by Théodore de Banville, titled Socrate et sa femme. With stoic irony, Socrates admired Xanthippe in the drama because, with her conduct, she reminded him of earthly matters and thus helped his spirit maintain a perfect balance between the world of ideas and earth. In Mademoiselle de Maupin, Théophile Gautier praised the unsaid inner content of the work as being the most perfect. A Catholic thinker, Ernest Hello, saw God’s irony in Napoleon’s life, and, speaking of the whole nineteenth century, he said: “Qu’estce donc le dixneuvième siècle? Une certaine ironie semble avoir obtenu la présidence de ses destinées.”

←25 | 26→

Norwid’s stoicism was being faithful to the truth – being objective. The irony lay thus in the fact that he opposed by stating objectively. For him, parabolization and allegoricalness resulted not just from a deep attitude towards the world but also had their roots in intellectualism. The parabolic treatment of reality and the resulting linking of realistic elements in art with deep symbolic or allegorical interpretation were not something unique to Norwid, as many claim. To take one example, Théodore de Banville’s poem Le Saut du Tremplin shows that the analogous phenomena of parabolic and allegorical interpretation of apparently non-poetic things could be found with other poets of Norwid’s generation. The discoveries of realism did penetrate non-realist poetry; the triviality of naturalists could also be found with Baudelaire. That issue is important insofar as those features of realism harmonised with the postulates of allegorising reality and objectivism of the ironists and sometimes even formed an inevitable element of that style. In that respect, Norwid was not particularly unique. Irony and parabolism, classical restraint and faithfulness down to the details bore deeper, parabolic meanings or could add value to the point – all these were manifestations of Norwid’s objectivism. Norwid also tried to find a theoretical, or rather historical, justification for such an attitude and the resulting artistic style in Rzecz o wolności słowa:

Od Epoki Chrześcijańskiej: Słowo stawa się siłą… I jeżeli tamta dochodziła do arcydzieł potężnie plastycznych, tedy ta, właśnie że przeciwnie – dojść ma do pozornej bez-silności – do bez-personalizmu – do bez-stronności… do arcydzieła Prawdy! (DW IV, 214)

[Since Christian epoch: the Word becomes strength… and if the other one led to mightily visual masterpieces, this one, quite contrary – should lead to apparent power-lessnessto non-personalismto non-sidedness… to the masterpiece of Truth!]

The artistry of irony, aiming at objectivity, has a certain dualism in itself: it requires subtle intellectual precision in differentiating terms but also a subtle understanding of the slightest shades and understatements. Both assets are conditions for grasping the intentions deliberately hidden in irony. Irony is, in fact, the language of aristocrats, unintelligible for simpletons, who – to quote Norwid – take “tak za tak – nie za nie – / Bez światło-cienia” (PWsz I, 224) [“yes for ayes – no for a no – / Without shades”].

That contradiction of precision and ambiguity of understatement, as an artistic style, must be learned from example – especially as it characterised the whole of the writing of that artist and thinker. That dualism of tendencies is best shown in a poetic description of a sculpture by Norwid, which combines succinct compactness and distinctness of the shape with shades and elusiveness ←26 | 27→of expression, opening up the possibility of a subjective view. Norwid spoke beautifully of that in a sonnet to Marcel Gujski:

Męża jeżeli posąg wywiodłeś z kamienia,

Tak, jak on jest, niech wiekom późniejszym zostanie,

Lecz kobieta – zarazem kobietą-spojrzenia,

Sobą i ową, jak ty poglądałeś na nię.

Nieustannym zjawiskiem! Ona i nie ona

(PWsz II, 205)

[If you led a man’s statue out of stone,

Such as he is, may he stay that to later ages,

But a woman, is a woman made of looking,

Herself and such as you saw her.

A constant phenomenon! Tis her and tis not her]

The mutual permeation of the empire, classicist style, and neo-Baroque tendencies, or the coexistence of such trends in the early nineteenth century in France formed the background with which Norwid’s dualism was in harmony.16 Besides the constant classical tendencies appearing in France in each epoch, Correggio’s influences can also be seen. Next to Ingres’ art, there was the demonic Baroque (Daumier). The somewhat earlier painter Prud’hon – freeing himself from the classicism of David – the creator of the famous The Abduction of Psyche by Zephyrus in the Louvre, in whose painting the chiaroscuro played a significant role, is an important example here. These distant analogies are given here simply to indicate the compatibility of the artistry of irony with the whole spirit of Norwid’s works and the artistry of the epoch. With Leonardo, the elusiveness of Mona Lisa’s smile lies in the precision of the representation – and such is the case of irony’s artistry with Norwid. A statement contains precision of terms and matter-of-factness, and the elusiveness is only in the continuation, which was how Norwid saw silence or understatement. It is in the merely suggested but never articulated lyricism of an ironically stated fact. That kind of intellectualism and classicist precision in intention provided a striking contrast between Norwid’s artistry as an ironist from romantic irony with its whimsical Ariostic smile, profuse lyricism, and subjectivism.

←27 | 28→


On considering the socio-historic background of Norwid’s irony, his own views on the topic of irony can be discussed, as well as its connection with the psychology of his experiences. Contrary to what might be expected from a poet of definitions, Norwid gave very little in that respect as a theoretician. The poem “Ironia” [“Irony”] speaks only of the inherent irony in life and work. Psychologically, that truth corresponds to reconciled humour or realism in art, but not to irony. In one of his letters to Trębicka, Norwid quoted his conversation with Lenartowicz, giving as an example of unintended irony the fact that a man “najpobożniej niosący trumnę” [“most piously carrying a coffin”] knocked someone’s hat off. But he was mistaken as well since he took humour for irony. Irony is biased in its nature, and even events of the “irony of life” are ironic only insofar as they create the impression of something intentional; coincidence and irony exclude each other. Hence, in a case that creates the impression of irony, people speak of the irony of life, i.e., life’s course is not a coincidence. These words of Norwid are not a definition, either, but a defence against incomprehension:

Ci błądzą, co mają Ironię

Za zło ludzkiego-serca – ta lewica-marzeń

Niekoniecznie stąd idzie… Jest Ironia-zdarzeń

I jest Ironia-czasów

(DW IV, 252–253)

[Those are mistaken who take Irony

For the evil of human heart – that left hand of dreams

Not necessarily comes thence… there is Irony of events

And Irony of times.]

Since Norwid’s theories explain little, the next step is to turn to consider the factors which evoked that attitude in him and favoured the development of artistic skill in irony.17

What swordplay in the sophist school was for Socrates, the salon was for the worldly Norwid. Irony was an invaluable asset in social situations in that it allowed him to oppose without making the fight open, without pedantry and seriousness. Rather, he isolated himself aristocratically in the form of a game, ←28 | 29→which made him original and pleasant – un homme spirituel. It gave him a hidden sense of superiority and elevated him over the company, even as he associated with them. Irony requires subtlety both from the one who uses it and the one who listens; it both hides and uncovers an intention – it is grasped in an instant. It is a guardian of closed and shy souls and yet can serve as coquetry, or a discreet disclosure of one’s superiority. Hence the social irony of Norwid was sometimes similar to a slight brush, barely noticeable, and sometimes sharp but still clothed in the appearance of a compliment, as when Norwid stated, for example, that women were like angels, for they have never known work. Such playful superiority of Norwid as a man of the world can be found, e.g., in a letter in which he recounted a conversation with young Delaroche. When Norwid was amazed at his fluent Polish, the Frenchman explained he had learned the language so that he might understand another Christian literature. Surprised at that, Norwid could at first find no words. “‘Jak to?… czy pan zdania tego nie podziela?’ ” [“What is it?… do you not share this opinion?”], asked Delaroche, and Norwid replied, “z przewrotnością patrycjalną, do jakiej wielokrotnie nakłania obywateli obowiązek: ‘Owszem, szlachetny panie!… owszem… oczekiwałem tylko, ażeby słowa te zaszczytne usłyszeć po polsku iz ust cudzoziemca’ ” (PWsz VI, 259) [“with patrician contrariness, to which duty often induces a citizen: ‘Yes, sir, I do!… the only thing I have waited for was to hear such noble words in Polish and from a foreigner’ ”]. Later, in the years of poverty, bitterness, and oversensitivity, refined words and irony were a sharp weapon to him, which he used to gain proud social independence.

I żaden nigdy szambelan nie baczył

Na ceremoniał, jak ja, gdym zro-zpaczył!

(Assunta, DW III, 334)

[And no chamberlain has never minded

the etiquette as I did in de-spair!]

It is significant that in one of his stories, Norwid mentioned the words of Marie Antoinette, who, on stepping on the foot of the executioner as she ascended the scaffold, apologised in those words: “Excusez, Monsieur, je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.” Norwid’s courtliness and observance of etiquette contained as much humility as that ironic magnanimity of the one harmed; as much refined loyalty as spite.

←29 |

There is also another factor that ought to be mentioned here, as it forms the psychological basis for the work of all humourists and ironists – ambivalence. It is defined by psychologists as a twofold (positive and negative) reaction to the same phenomenon; love and hate, pleasure and vexation, attraction and aversion to the same thing. A typical example of ambivalence can be found in Baudelaire’s memoirs. “Tout enfant j’ai senti dans mon coeur deux sentiments contradictoires: l’horreur de la vie et l’extase de la vie.” The wise and yet simple definition of a humourist by Bolesław Prus – as a person who looks at the same thing from at least two sides – splendidly explains the relationship between ambivalence and a humorous view on reality. With nervous people, ambivalence is connected with the tendency to jump from one mood to another quickly. Contradictory judgements on people, so common with Norwid, for example, in his opinions on Mickiewicz – sometimes full of admiration, at other times overly caustic and mocking – were a striking proof of the quality, vastly enhanced by the frayed nerves. The description of Norwid given by Lenartowicz – sometimes good as an angel, sometimes immensely haughty – confirms that feature. It is enough to mention the description of Lenartowicz’s poem (“Dant na fujarce” [“Dante on a panpipe”]), given above, which contains such contradictory opinions that it can be understood both negatively and positively, to realise how great a role ambivalence had in shaping Norwid’s writing.

It is clear now what the social ground of Norwid’s irony was. That inability to communicate with contemporary culture was accompanied by incomprehension in his own community. Norwid’s confession from a letter to Konstancja Górska: “jestem tak wieloracznie nieszczęsny i utrapiony, że mogę tylko milczeć albo żartować – mógłbym jeszcze ipić , ale to szkodzi i następstwa posiada niedobre” (PWsz IX, 305) [“I am in such manifold misery and distress that I can only be silent, or make jokes – I could also drink , but that is harmful and has bad consequences”] has the significance of a psychological document. To indicate the connection of that sense of loneliness with the character of Norwid’s writings, one more psychological term ought to be specified here. According to Bleuler, ambitendency is the principle stating that each tendency to action is accompanied by a reverse reflex: restraint. In the conditions in which Norwid lived, all the masculine power he had turned inwards. Sometimes this suppressed instinct exploded in a curse, sarcasm, or anger, but only for a moment. Power not expressed in expansion transformed into the power of restraint. Objectivism, monumentality, and static character bear the traits of restrained power, thus oriented. Distance from reality allows one to see life as a parable. This often bordered on a habit of seeing it everywhere, like in the very characteristic fragment from the poem “Nerwy” (PWsz ←30 | 31→II, 135) [“Nerves”], where a minor occurrence on the stairs evoked a tragic and ironic concept.

chwyciłem się belki spróchniałéj…

(A gwóźdź w niej tkwił,

jak w ramionach krzyża!…).

(PWsz II, 135)

[I grabbed a rotten beam…

(A nail was there, as on the arms

Of the cross ! …)]18

It is rare, on the other hand – the poem “Ruszaj z Bogiem” [“Godspeed”] is likely the only example – that Norwid linked irony with an image of some vengeful tendency of God. Irony played an immense role not only in Norwid’s lyrical works but was also the point of all his short stories, without exception. The plot served only as a foundation for that ironic sense, and irony recurred within the story numerous times. Cywilizacja [Civilization] is an ironic allegory of modern civilization that turns at places into a grim memento, like in the image of the board of people of trust who start a session at the moment when ice blocks crush the ship’s wheel. Tajemnica Lorda Singelworth [Lord Singelworth’s Secret] is a humorous and ironic allegory of the author’s own attitude to the surrounding world. Ad leones is an ironic presentation of the role of art in a capitalist society. The author’s irony is so transparent in those works that it needs no comment. Quite the opposite: he could be accused of excessive mockery and over-saturation with irony. The poem “Czemu” [“Why”] is an ironic point of that tragicomic story of human souls passing each other, never to meet due to stigmas. The longest poem, Quidam, smuggles in the thought of the irony of history – and so it continues. The irony “że nie z dziejów te dzieje z ich monarchą treflowym” [“that the history with their monarch of clubs is not from history”] is also contained in the drama Zwolon, spiced up at times with a caustic remark like this one (DW V, 73):

A później człowiek bardzo się zadziwi,

Że taki wielki Pan, i tak szczęśliwi

Poddani kiedyś byli – ci nieżywi!

←31 | 32→

[And later, one shall be amazed

That such a great lord he was, and so happy

The subjects once were – the dead ones!]

“Ktokolwiek pisze rzeczy, jak one się dzieją – ten łatwo stawa się cynikiem” (DW IV, 152) [“Whoever writes things as they happen – he easily turns a cynic”], said Norwid. Hence his indignation with “Ludzkość, [co] bez Boskości, sama siebie zdradza” (DW IV, 218) [“humanity who, lacking divinity, betray themselves”], which often exploded with demonic derision. At such times, stoicism left Norwid, and he rose in his irony and sarcasm to an exceptional power of expression. Using trivial details from everyday life, shown with intentional contrast to the perspective of history, he fascinated the imagination with unexpected artistic means and made a dramatic impression. Thus, he characterised contemporary time in the poem “Zapał” [“Fervour”] (PWsz II, 90):

Po legendowych wiekach – przyszły historyczne,

Ogień-boski za-przestał być Dziejów skazówką.

(Natomiast – tanie mamyzapałki-chemiczne,

Które gdy zręcznie ujmiesz – obrócisz w dół główką

I o obuwie potrzesz?… płomyk wraz wybucha,

A Turki palą fajkę z długiego cybucha!…)

[History followed legendary ages

And holy-fire ceased to guide the sages.

(We – by contrast – have a cheap phosphor match:

Grip it properly – depress its tip

And rub against your toe – a flame will leap.

And Turk takes the coiled hookah to his lip!…)]19

Norwid’s originality and power in that demonic irony (as shown here) cannot be compared with the expression of another artist because, with him, social emotions were always accompanied by such a broad horizon of history, which gave his irony a vast resonance. That category of irony includes poems like “Słowianin” [“The Slav”], “Rozebrana” [“Disrobed”], “Święty-pokój” [“Blessed-Peace”], etc.

Contempt for the surrounding historical reality, inertia, and stagnancy, a ridiculous parody of history, evoked in him a yearning for that primary history of people which, unaware of itself, was an epos:

←32 | 33→

Wolę wsiąść na koń z jakim drabem, który,

Prócz ze swoimi, nierad bywa z nikiém,

Historii nie zna, ni architektury,

Milczy jak pomnik, będąc sam pomnikiem!

(DW VI, 18)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (April)
Polish Literature Romanticism 19th century poetry Christian tradition Poetic semantics Polish Art
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 728 pp., 44 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Edyta Chlebowska (Volume editor) Agata Brajerska-Mazur (Volume editor)

Dr hab. Agata Brajerska-Mazur researches the translations and works of Norwid. She works at the Maria Curie University of Lublin, teaching translation. Dr Edyta Chlebowska studies Norwid’s literature at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. She has authored articles and books about his artistic creativity.


Title: On Cyprian Norwid. Studies and Essays
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