Polish Renaissance Literature: An Anthology

By Michael J. Mikos. Columbus, Ohio. Slavica Publishers. 1995. 275 pages. Illustrations.

Reviewed by Boleslaw Klimaszewski

Professor Mikos' editorial and translating work goes against the grain of the generally held view that in the English-speaking world, Polish literature acquires comprehensibility in Romanticism and beyond. As one looks at the already existing (and usually slim) anthologies of Polish literature in English, one finds confirmation of this prejudice over and over again. Most of these anthologies treat the Polish Middle Ages the way a stepmother treats stepchildren in fairy tales. The Renaissance and Baroque are also poorly represented. For instance, in Bogdana Carpenter's Monumenta Polonica [1989], these epochs are represented by poetic texts only, with all the prose texts omitted and seldom mentioned.

Among the reasons for this state of affairs, one could mention the difficulties with the syntax and semantics of Old Polish, liberal borrowings of Old Polish from many languages and so on. One can also lament over the poetically awkward translations from Latin to Polish in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, or complain about the provinciality of the themes of Old Polish literature. The fact remains that for those few English speakers who are conversant with Polish literature, this literature is represented almost exclusively by Romantic emotionalism of nineteenth-century poets, rather than by earlier works (arguably, Jan Kochanowski is an exception). If for that reason only, Professor Mikos' Medieval Literature of Poland [1992] and Polish Renaissance Literature merit attention and gratitude in polonistyka circles.

Polish Renaissance Literature concentrates on the late 15th and the entire 16th century. It presents a variety of genres, from epigrams and fables to songs, sermons, chronicles and dramatic works. The total of 122 texts includes 16 which originally were written in Latin, indicating a characteristic bilingualism of Old Polish writers. 63 texts have been translated into English for the first time, others were given a new translation. The fact that all texts have been translated by the same person bestows on the volume a uniform style. Mikos chose to translate Latin texts from their Polish translations which themselves tend to have had illustrious translators such as Leopold Staff, Wladyslaw Syrokomla or Zygmunt Kubiak. Throughout the text, there are indications that the translator consulted the scholarly editions of the texts he selected for the anthology, as well as was familiar with earlier translations and commentaries.

The Introduction discusses historical, cultural and literary background of writers and works. Here a Polish reviewer will find much to contest. The 21 pages devoted to Poland's Golden Age, its political and economic history, and its literature and art contain many omissions. For instance, nothing has been said of Polish-Ukrainian relations which were painful enough to generate two Cossack uprisings in the years 1591-6 led by Kosiński and Nalewajko. Virtually nothing is said about the rich theatrical life in Poland at that time in schools, universities, and noble and royal courts. The so-called rybalt genre popular in cities and among the lower classes, likewise is absent from view even though its satirical and humorous bent was distinctly different from 'official' literature. Last but not least, a map showing the extent of the influence of the Jagellonian empire would have been helpful. Arguably, these omissions have to do with the functions of this volume as envisaged by its author. Otherwise, the Introduction is succint and to the point, and it offers the reader basic facts among which to situate the works in question. Those interested in a more extensive study are offered a bibliography subdivided into "English Anthologies and Translations," "Polish Anthologies" and "General Surveys and Critical Studies."

Twenty-two Renaissance authors are represented. The criteria used in determining the sequence in which these authors appear remain unclear. I could perceive neither an alphabetical nor chronological order, nor could I find a generic or thematic sequence. Each text is accompanied by a short biographical note (the date of death however is consistently missing) and an equally concise outline of other works by the author in question. These comments also reflect the relative status of the text in Polish literary history, as well as outlining the Polish sources in which these texts had appeared.

No significant author has been omitted. As to the lesser ones, some doubts remain. Perhaps Maciej from Miechow, author of the first history of Poland, should have been included, or Jan Dantyszek, a poet who wrote only in Latin. Perhaps Walery Rozdzienski's rhymed treatise on the value and beauty of physical labor should have also been included. As to what should have been excluded &emdash; well, my personal preference would be the anonymous author of "Owlglass, facetious and amusing" whose roots go back to the plebeian literature of Germany rather than of Poland. Instead, I would have included The Beggars' Tragedy [1551] which initiated plebeian-style drama in Poland. As to how many works, or excerpts, the various authors deserved &emdash; this again is a matter of taste. In Kochanowski's case however the balance has been unnecessarily disturbed. Kochanowski was a great poet, but he did not deserve 90 pages of an anthology where the remaining 21 authors received only 129 pages. This objection is particularly strong on account of his relatively prominent presence in English translations. E.g., his Threnoids, a collection of mourning poems written after the death of the poet's daughter, has just appeared in English in Professor Mikos' translation. Some other authors among those whom Mikos translated for the first time, thus lost the chance of presenting themselves credibly to the reader.

One can only hope that Professor Mikos has the next anthology in the works: one dealing with the Polish Baroque. But even at this point, Mikos' work as translator and popularizer of Polish literature in the American milieu deserves high acclaim.

Boleslaw Klimaszewski is a professor of Polish literature at the Jagellonian University in Krakow.


Return to January 1996 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
sarmatia@rice.edu
Last updated 12/20/96