Romantic Memory

Studies from the Past and Present

by Krzysztof Trybuś (Author)
©2019 Monographs 194 Pages
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 15


The book depicts the phenomenon of cultural memory preserved in the Polish Romantic literature, predominantly in the works of Mickiewicz, Słowacki, and Norwid (and other European poets). The primary objective is to reconstruct the cultural pattern of continuity established in Poland during the period of catastrophe. The author describes the call for a critical historiography and presents a "Slavic counterpoint" in the history of modern Europe. The key questions of the book are: Will the Romantic lesson about the transformation of history into memory and turning the past into an object of faith turn out to be a lesson about the future? The book is inspired by the German trend of contemporary reflection – "the culture of remembrance" (Erinnerungskultur) founded on the works of the Assmanns.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Memory and romanticism. A project
  • 1. Why memory? On the research approach
  • The Romantic turn and shifts in the memory paradigm
  • History and Romantic memory
  • Sites of memory
  • Memory metaphors and imagination
  • Forms of memory
  • 2. Romantic biography as a form of memory
  • Who is speaking?
  • Historical life
  • Everything exists in memory
  • Part II. Poets and memory – a cross section
  • 1. Mickiewicz’s Slavic memory
  • Old age assisting memory
  • The ancient power of words
  • Adam Mickiewicz and Petar Nyegosh: a contribution to a Slavic parallel
  • Summary
  • 2. Słowacki’s memory of the beginning
  • The eye of memory
  • Young and ancient memory
  • Immense memory
  • Summary
  • 3. Norwid’s memory of Rome
  • The symbols of memory
  • The memento of creation
  • The memory of Rome
  • The memory of death
  • The memory of allegory
  • The memory of classicism
  • In an album of memory
  • Poem-memory
  • Rome as the entire world?
  • Penelope’s imagination
  • “Between the breath of Asia and the West” (about the poem “Memento”)
  • Summary
  • Epilogue: Romantic memory and contemporary memory
  • Ritual and memory in Forefathers’ Eve – from a contemporary perspective
  • In lieu of a conclusion: A farewell to memory?
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The present volume focuses on the topic of memory preserved in Polish Romantic Literature – cultural memory, memory that is strengthened and created by literature, and which, beside Romantic literature, is constantly present in our lives. We experience the pressure of the past in our everyday lives. It goes without saying, that the beginning of the 21st century, particularly in Poland is, in Pierre Nora’s words, an “age of commemoration,” which revises the meaning of the past in the present that “lives on borrowed time” comprised of a series of anniversaries, days of remembrance, and continual celebrations of the triumph of memory over history. It was my intention to present a Romantic project of transformation of history into memory, using the examples of works penned by Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849) and Cyprian Norwid (1821–1883), in order to improve our understanding of the epoch, in which poets searched for a model of cultural continuity during a historical catastrophe, after the fall of the November Uprising in the Polish Kingdom (1830). The book examines the permanence of the above-mentioned model founded on the principle of searching for traces of the past outside of the established cannon of collective memory (relevant now and then). As Mickiewicz would have said, the search for “links connecting our history with the history of European nations” included a call for a critical historiography formulating a “Slavic counterpoint” in the image of the history of modern Europe. Will the Romantic lesson about the transformation of history into memory and turning the past into an object of faith turn out to be a lesson not only about our past, but also about our future? These are the key issues addressed in the book.

The purport of the present volume was to provide documentation and to verify the thesis that the long reign of the Romanic tradition in Polish culture is strictly associated with the revival of the paradigm of common memory of the living and the dead, with Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve in the centre.

Romantic Memory discusses Mnemosyne’s victory over history, a mother of all muses, a bad mother who sentenced us to a persistent conflict of many memories devastating the public life, requiring constant negotiations. However, I also intended the book to present the good face of the Goddess of Memory because I am sure that without her we would have never experienced the gift of freedom.

1. Why memory? On the research approach

Why memory?1 Why introduce this strange category of memory – always balancing on the verge of present and past, dream and reality, existence and reflection – to the interpretation of the works of Adam Mickiewicz and other Romantic-era poets? At the very beginning of my investigation, I would answer: mainly, to open things up to the consequences of further questions. This question about the significance of memory in the works of the Romantic poets leads to other questions, in particular to questions about interrelations between memory and history, and between memory and tradition. And that in turn means that one can and should ask about issues in these works that are seemingly known, seemingly described and explained long ago.

My investigation of the role and significance of memory in literature takes into account the entire recent trend of interest in memory, widely represented by literary researchers, philosophers, culture experts and historians. Political and journalistic manifestations of contemporary “returns of memory” remain at the margins of this trend, although they enhance the process that Pierre Nora has termed the entrance to the “age of commemoration.”2

We may distinguish a study by Marek Zaleski on forms of memory from an extensive canon of texts applying perspectives from literary studies to the issue of memory.3 Zaleski refers to research conducted by Edward Casey, an American researcher of the phenomenon of memory,4 while consequently positioning the past (the time being remembered) presented in literature within the scope of poetics of narrative forms. The above approach to memory, as with approaches subjecting memory to thematological research, contributes to the reintroduction of the phenomenon of memory to literary studies – reintroduction because ←15 | 16→memoria used to be part of rhetorics.5 Attempts to revive memory studies in the context of literary research should include new sources of inspiration, presently considered significant, such as philosophical studies or purely cultural studies, along with an association with historical reflection. It can suffice to mention Paul Ricoeur’s fundamental work Memory, History, Forgetting with its vast impact on contemporary literary researchers of the passing of time.6 Certainly also of notable significance are the findings of historians, from Jacques Le Goff’s classic investigation of memory7 to Frank Ankersmit’s discussion of his theory8 and studies by the Polish researchers Krzysztof Pomian9 and Marcin Kula.10 In literary studies, whether memory becomes a domain of the field of literary anthropology – fashionable in our day – depends to a great extent on defining tasks associated primarily with literary research, in which issues of memory cross paths with problem of the subject’s identity.

From my point of view, the most important trend as a source of inspiration for research on the role and meaning of memory in Romantic literature is the trend referring to classic concepts of Maurice Halbwachs11 termed “culture of remembrance” (Erinnerungskultur)12 within the circle of German reflection founded on ←16 | 17→Aleida and Jan Assmann’s works.13 In particular, the conviction about the social framework of the memory phenomenon and the distinction between communicative and cultural memory related to exile culture in the Polish community, which began to crystallize after 1830, allows us to see in Adam Mickiewicz’s accomplishments the birth of a community of remembrance – that symbolic world of meanings in which “cultural memory transforms factual history into remembered history, thus turning it into myth.”14

Mickiewicz’s messianic concept of nation (formulated during his émigré years, particularly in France), founded on the recreation of a mythical memory of a chosen society’s exit from the house of (Egyptian) slavery, constructed a collective identity based on “social obligation” expressed in “the imperative to keep and remember.”15 According to Jan Assmann, “the principle of memory follows on from that of being chosen.16 The connective structure of a given society has “a binding effect that works on two levels – social and temporal,” deciding not only about a “common area of experience, expectation, and action”17 but also about the way the message addressed to the community is formulated.

Issues of forgetting and oblivion are essential in the literature of Polish Romanticism. They are closely associated with contemporary reflection on the role and significance of memory, as it defines for example the “Slavic beginning” present in key works written by Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Cyprian Norwid. Aleida and Jan Assmann award a social framework to the examination of the past, the issues of forgetting and remembering. In particular, Aleida Assmann refers to Harald Weinrich’s studies18 focused on language and metaphors of oblivion in the history of philosophy and literature, and allows for a new interpretation of Polish Romantic works and of contemporary works ←17 | 18→referring to the Romantic tradition by way of defining the national, cultural (and political) identity of Poles.

Irrespective of my methodological preferences, the investigation into the role and importance of memory in the literature of Polish Romanticism must also take into account the current state of research on this subject. I have in mind a number of comments articulated apropos of research on generic forms of Romantic literature,19 or in connection to the description of the transformation of older themes and motifs, such as “the beginning”20 and “memento,”21 which acquired new meanings in the Romantic era. In some cases the above-mentioned observations played only a marginal role in the studies; nonetheless, the issue of memory was present in the earlier research as a fundamental for organizing qualifications in studies devoted to analysing the works of poets.22 The context of memory has been brought up many times in discussions of the key phenomena of the Romantic-era aesthetics, such as the discovery of the significance of poetic imagination23 and the fascination with oral literature.24

←18 | 19→

The entire array of the above-mentioned contexts of the manifestation of memory in Romantic literature, previously indicated in the state of research, will be significant in this book, though the social function of collective memory recognized, strengthened and preserved in works written by Polish Romantics will take a privileged position. My analysis of associations between memory and literature will attempt to comply in following the distinction respected by memory researchers:

It is difficult to distinguish between the types of memory just listed that are associated with literature, particularly in a study evolving with the interpretation; however, it should be borne in mind that it is one thing to understand memory as an attribute of literature (literature has a memory, which is to say it can be found, according to a number of memory researchers, in the phenomenon of intertextuality),26 and quite another to understand memory as a literary motif or subject (memory may be presented in a work of literature as a specific type of fictional memory).27 Additionally, the fact must be taken into consideration that works of literature, canonical texts in particular, for example Homer’s Odyssey and Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, are simultaneously memory carriers and subjects of cultural memory.28

The fact that my research project focuses on the subject of memory in the Romantic era requires the adopting of a historical perspective in the investigation of transformations of the phenomenon of memory in its connection to literature, particularly during the transition from the Enlightenment to the Romantic period. For that reason, the most significant modules in exploring the problem ←19 | 20→of the phenomenon of memory in relation to Polish Romantic literature are, in this order: memory and the Romantic turn, memory and history (of a nation that lost its independence), memory and the Romantic imagination, memory of a genre (in particular, great forms that strengthen and preserve collective memory, for example longer poetic forms and Romantic drama), memory of a metaphor, and memory of places. I decided not to include Romantic biography to the above list of forms of memory, and to analyse it separately. This aspect of Romantic memory in particular manifests itself in my investigation of the works of the great Polish Romanic poets, and in the influence on the literary tradition.

The Romantic turn and shifts in the memory paradigm

Romanticism reinstated memory to its proper position as one of the reasoning faculties, which it held before the modern era. Romanticism gave priority to the tradition of the cognitive reflection of Plato and St. Augustine, thus annulling the heritage of the Cartesian philosophy of reason that purported to annihilate memory.29 The return of Mnemosyne in the era of Wordsworth and Mickiewicz brought about a dawn of enlightened reason, which was in “a general war against memory.”30 Memory was reinstated as a cognitive ability and an ontological category. The contemporary philosopher Jan Hudzik puts it this way: according to the author of the Confessions,

the collecting mechanisms re-gathering from dispersion, from nothingness, characteristic for memory, are necessary to revive the past, or to bring it back to presence. (…) The process of collecting and gathering the chaotic material consisting in experiences and sensations is the essence of thinking. To think, or to remember, is to shape this material, and in turn, to shape life. De facto it means acting in the image of God-Creator of the world. To avoid heresy, the Father of the Church associates the godly element of a human being – the intellect – with God himself and conditions it on His direct intervention. Plato, Saint Augustine’s pagan mentor was not aware of this intervention. As a result, God is the source of any true cognition. Our participation in truth, in seeing things as they truly are, depends on his will and the grace of illumination. A soul, which desires to discover the truth about oneself, or, to put it differently, to understand “who ←20 | 21→am I,” has to make its way through a network of sensual images and penetrate the dark depths of memory, to finally find God in oneself.31

The godly attribute of memory will, interestingly, complicate the issue of identity of the modern subject, and becomes an important problem for Romantic anthropology. According to researchers, an 18th-century trend that transforms the philosophical doctrines of the Enlightenment attributes an anthropological dimension to memory. The views of Giambattista Vico constitute a notable part of this process. Memory, according to Vico, the author of New Science, as analysed and discussed by Aleida Assmann, is:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (August)
Adam Mickiewicz Juliusz Słowacki Cyprian Norwid Forefathers’ Eve Petar Nyegosh Memento
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019., 194 pp.

Biographical notes

Krzysztof Trybuś (Author)

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


Title: Romantic Memory
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198 pages