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Polish Romantic Literature

An Anthology

Reviewer: Andrzej Karcz

Polish Romantic Literature

An Anthology

By Michael J. Mikos. Bloomington: Slavica Publishers, 2002. viii+216 pages. Illustrations, bibliography. Hardcover. $26.95.

Michael Mikos's book is yet another volume of his impressive anthology of Polish literature in English translation. The previous volumes include Medieval Literature of Poland (New York: Garland, 1992), Polish Renaissance Literature (Columbus: Slavica, 1995), and Polish Baroque and Enlightenment Literature (Columbus: Slavica, 1996). Mikos, a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is the volume's editor and translator. He also authored the fourteen-page introduction and all the notes on the twelve writers represented in the book. With this new volume the entire anthology, now in four volumes, has been greatly enriched. It would be hard to imagine any selection of Polish literature without a representation of Polish Romantic authors, for along with the Renaissance Romanticism was the most original and most consequential epoch in the development of Polish culture.

The first half of the nineteenth century, i.e., the era of Polish Romanticism, was the time of the birth of a new sensitivity. As in other western European countries, in Poland Romanticism broke from the rigidity of classicism and rejected the rationality set by the age of reason in the previous century. These were replaced by an intense interest in spirituality and mysticism. But in Poland the new era was also marked by the complexity of the country's political situation. After losing its independence to Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795, Poland entered a period of national struggles, clandestine political activities, and armed uprisings. Every intellectual pursuit, especially imaginative literature, became subjugated to the national cause of the country's liberation. Polish literature began to be preoccupied as never before with the problems of history, politics, and society. This preoccupation and several other factors, such as the influence of local folklore and messianic ideas, determined the original character and uniqueness of Polish Romantic literature.

Mikos's present volume shows these qualities of Polish Romantic literature extensively, as much as a modest anthology of only 200 pages can be extensive. It contains more than one hundred poems and prose excerpts of the period's leading writers--Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, Zygmunt Krasinski, Cyprian Norwid, Antoni Malczewski, Henryk Rzewuski, and Aleksander Fredro among others. The selected poems, as well as prose and drama excerpts, are--generally speaking--most representative of each author. These are the basic and most essential works with which the reader and student of Polish Romantic literature should be acquainted.

A critic will of course ask questions. Why did the volume's editor and translator choose one particular work over another? In the case of longer works, it is understandable that, due to space limitations of the volume, he needed to select short excerpts of each text. Therefore we find only three books from Mickiewicz's epic poem Master Thaddeus and only one scene from one act of Slowacki's play Kordian. These selected excerpts can indeed represent the most essential texts from the two poets' chosen works. But the choices are less clear when it comes to shorter works, especially poems. Why did the editor include, for example, Mickiewicz's Crimean sonnet VIII and not V? Similarly, the critic will wonder why the editor decided to choose one author over another. The most conspicuous example is the omission of one of the most important poets of Polish Romanticism, Bohdan Zaleski. Fortunately his name is mentioned in the introduction, which also features an illustration portraying the poet, and yet there is no single poem by him included in this work.

However, the absence of Zaleski's poetry does not diminish the great value of Mikos's volume. It is a fine collection of authors and their texts. Deservingly, Mickiewicz occupies one fourth and Slowacki one fifth of the collection. The other conspicuous places belong to Krasinski (20 pages) and Norwid (20), who are followed by Fredro (15), Kraszewski (15), and Malczewski (10). Most of their works presented in the anthology have been translated into English for the first time. The same can be said about the majority of all the other works in the volume. The feat of Mikos cannot be praised enough. Obviously, not mere quantity of original translations should be considered in measuring an achievement like this but, above all, their quality.

After the first reading, it is already clear that Mikos's translations aim at conveying the original texts as faithfully as possible. In the case of poetry, this faithfulness concerns both semantic and formal layers of the poetic text. It is remarkable that in his translations Mikos succeeds in both bringing into the English language the meaning of the Polish original and in recreating in English the rhythmic and other sound qualities of the poetic text that are close to the original. He always aims at retaining rhythm and rhyme in his English translations, if rhythm and rhyme are used in the original text. At times he even matches the number of syllables in his English verse line with the number of syllables found in the verse line of a Polish poem. Both the sound and metric elements and, especially, semantics of all the translated poems make them easily recognizable for someone who knows the original poems in Polish. This quality is likely a reliable measure of good translation but, surely, when it comes to literary and poetic translation there is more than faithfulness in the conveyance of meaning and sound. After all, poetry displays such qualities as beauty, poetic mood, semantic tension, emotional sincerity, and heightened intensity of emotion. Critics will certainly want to point out that some of these qualities have at times been lost in Mikos's translations. They will take, for example, W. H. Auden's loose translation of Mickiewicz's poem "Romanticism" and say that it feels more "poetic" than Mikos's faithful version. Thus they will still prefer the lines "Silly girl, listen!"/ But she doesn't listen" (Auden) over "Just listen, maiden!/- She will not hear" (Mikos).

Whatever the possible critique, Mikos's anthology, the first collection of this scope of Polish Romantic poetry, prose, and drama in the English language, has merits that effortlessly outweigh any imperfections that critics would be eager to detect. The high literary value of the translations is unquestionable and the introduction, notes, comments, and the select bibliography are flawless.

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