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Adam Mickiewicz's First Lecture in College de France

1840-1844 [1]

Translated and annotated by Božena Shallcross

Translator’s Introduction (2008)

During the time he lived in Western Europe as an émigré poet, Adam Mickiewicz was twice invited to serve as professor of literature at institutions of higher learning. In 1839-40 at the University of Lausanne he lectured on Latin literature. In 1840 he accepted the Chair of Slavic Literatures at the prestigious Collège de France. Supported by the French government, this was the first Slavic Literatures professorship in Western Europe. Mickiewicz began teaching there on December 22, 1840 and delivered his last lecture on May 28, 1844. In his inaugural lecture he defined his teaching objectives and emphatically articulated several tangential themes including his concern about speaking in a foreign language and, on a different level, his desire for the unity of European nations.

Conceived as a historical survey of all Slavic cultures, Mickiewicz’s lectures collected and taxonomized a great deal of information about them. Although some of his data and notions turned out to be inaccurate, the lectures attracted the attention of a wide group of French scholars and artists from Jules Michelet to George Sand and Edgar Quinet, and, of course, émigré Poles. Mickiewicz’s teaching style was based on improvisation; often he did not even prepare lecture notes. His lectures were recorded by a number of dedicated listeners and are known today in this mediated form. As Mickiewicz put it in his introduction to the German edition of his Slavic Literature, he authored these lectures although he did not write them (Literatura słowiańska, 5). This improvisational technique went hand in hand with the poet’s increasingly pronounced prophetic tone and political intensity.[1] Alarmed by Mickiewicz’s ideological vision, the administration of the Collège de France eventually decided to remove him from the Chair.

Manfred Kridl’s Introduction (1929)

This edition is based on the third edition of Feliks Wrotnowski’s translation of Mickiewicz’s Lectures (Poznań, 1865), which is the best of all available translations so far. However, it should be mentioned than neither the French original of Adam Mickiewicz’s Lectures nor the Polish translations have been fully analyzed by philologists.

It should also be remembered that these Lectures were delivered almost a century ago. Since that time archeology, history, literary studies, and philology have moved forward. Some of Mickiewicz’s comments reflect the state of historical and literary knowledge in his age, and may seem out of date today. But the prevailing majority of Mickiewicz’s historical outlines; literary analyses; and descriptions of persons, epochs, and trends continue to remain valid and enlightening.  

Lecture 1 (Tuesday, December 22, 1840)



The signals of sympathy from the audience-composed in part by my compatriots, among whom I see many friends-are precious to me. I do not, however, harbor any illusions regarding their true meaning; they demonstrate to me that you, gentlemen, know how to encourage me and that you feel the difficulty of my situation. Indeed, it is a risky one. For even if you could forget the impression made on you by the lectures of the famous professors at this institution of learning; even if I were oblivious to the difficulties inherent in the subject about which I will speak before you, it would be impossible for me to rid myself of the sense of a certain disadvantage.

I am a foreigner. I must speak a language that has nothing to do with the language that usually serves as the tool for my thoughts; nothing in common with its origin, neither in form nor in flow. This pertains not only to the translation of my thoughts and emotions into a foreign tongue here before you; I will have to transform each thought, each emotion entirely and extemporaneously. This strenuous inner labor is indispensable in lecturing about literature. In such lectures one cannot go in the direction indicated by a known and accepted scholarly method; one cannot lean on formulas that allow the expression of one’s thought without concern for style, as is the case in exact sciences. After leaving the boundaries of grammar and philology, I will have to show you the literary monuments and works of art in such a way as to make you feel the ardor that created them. Would preparatory research, even if we had time for it, give us the power to unearth from a masterpiece this latent life-hidden in its bosom-that constitutes the mystery of art? No; to have this life spring up from the word created by an artist, a creative word has to be spoken, and such a word cannot be uttered if one does not posses all the mysteries of the language in which the work was written. Would a foreigner ever enact the masterful might of the alien word? Even if he were able to do so, he would face another and equally difficult task. He would have to recreate the external form, the inherent and often essential part of a work of art. Sometimes one incorrect word, ill-chosen or mispronounced, can destroy the work’s form.

I am familiar with all these difficulties; with each motion, with each movement of my thoughts I feel the weight of this chain, just as you hear its clamor. If I only listened to the prompting of my self-love; if I only cared for my artistic and personal prestige (it is humiliating to undertake public efforts if one does not have this strength, which comes with fluency and charm), I would assuredly renounce the dangerous honor of speaking to you from this place. However, very important considerations compelled me to accept this duty. I was called to speak on behalf of the literature of the peoples with which my nation, past and future, is closely connected: [to speak] at this moment, when words weigh a great deal, and in this city, which is the capital of the word. I could not refuse.

One of our epoch’s characteristics is a tendency of peoples to seek rapprochement and contact. It is well known that Paris is the center, the mainspring and tool of these relations, that through the mediation of Paris European peoples learn about each other and, occasionally, even about themselves. It is one of France’s glories that it possesses this ability to attract; it testifies to the advances France has made for the ability to attract is always a function of spiritual activity, its stock of light and internal warmth. France’s superiority as the oldest daughter of the Church and as the nurse of artistic inspirations, skills, art, and literature is so noble that other peoples cannot consider it humiliating, in this respect, to accept her sovereignty.

On the other hand, nowhere is the willingness to approach Europe and to create a closer relationship with the peoples of the West as alive and widespread as it is among the Slavic peoples. These peoples shared a border with the Frankish empire during two epochs, that of Charlemagne and that of Napoleon. A part of their territory was subjugated to your capitulars and a region is still subjugated to the Napoleonic codex. These peoples took from Europe religion, military organization, arts and crafts; through their material strength they, in turn, impacted the West, but today they are virtually unknown in the West. The European spirit keeps them, I might say, at a certain distance and excludes them from the Christian community. Do they indeed lack their own civilizational element? Have they contributed nothing to the intellectual richness and moral good of Christianity? Such questions seem offensive to them; eager to prove their right to belong to the Christian community, they try to speak for themselves, to write in your language, and to find in their own works a road toward your literature.

These attempts, often undertaken for personal reasons or from a factional point of view, have not succeeded. It was finally understood that in order to gain the attention of Western nations, shaken by so many problems and tormented by so many difficult concerns, it was not enough to show them several bright spots within the domain of Slavdom; it was necessary to unveil in full grandeur the entire Slavic world. It was necessary to bring the magnitude of its literatures closer to the West. The French government realized the wish of the Slavic peoples in setting up this Slavic chair; I could not but blame myself if I did not agree to participate in it. I also believe that certain past events in my life make me an appropriate person to undertake this task. My long residence in various Slavic countries, the kindness that I encountered there, and the remaining memories have inculcated in me, in a manner stronger than any theory, a sense of our kin’s unity. The origins of the Slavic discord and the potential foundations of Slavic reconciliation are of keen interest to me.

Thus the plan for my course presented itself. I presume that it will be easier for me than for any other Slavic person to protect myself from the influence of all passion, from all narrow particularity. Such one-sidedness would oppose the pursuit of the well-being of our [Polish] national affairs, and it would not be in keeping with the intention of the administration that endowed this chair.

As I have already mentioned, gentlemen, the most astonishing aspect of Slavic literatures is their geographical magnitude and the numerosity of works. From the most objective and-according to the usual perception-only truly objective point of view, from the point of view of population and space, the Slavic speech bears enormous importance: over seventy million people speak in its languages. It occupies one half of Europe and one-third of Asia. Drawing the line from the Venetian Bay to the delta of the Elbe, we find behind this line and along its entire length relics of the people pushed to the north by Germanic and Roman tribes. The posthumous existence of these settlements already belongs to history, but moving toward the Carpathian Mountains, that eternal stronghold of Slavdom, we see on both sides, on both edges of Europe, Slavic settlements engaged in fierce fighting. At the Adriatic Sea they defend their own existence against Islam; at the Baltic, first conquered by a foreign tribe, they are gaining the upper hand. In the center of this territory Slavdom manifests itself in its whole might. From there, along one of its sides Slavdom moves to America and on the other, through the Mongolian and Caucasian people it reaches China and Persia, gaining the territories it has lost in Europe.

These Slavic nations enclose within themselves all manner of religious and political structures present in both ancient and modern history. We have there an ancient tribe of Montenegrins whose customs are similar to those of the Scottish highlanders; however, more fortunate than the latter, they managed to defend their independence against the Ottoman, Greek, German, and Frankish empires and, most likely, in antiquity, also from the Roman Empire. We have the city of Ragusa[3]-the Slavic Venice and a longtime competitor of Venice-which, by the way, also owes its origin to the Slavs. Further, ancient Illyria,[4] Bosnia, Herzegovina, the Czech kingdom, the Slavic part of the Hungarian kingdom-all these peoples constitute half of the Austrian empire. Finally, the Russian Empire and the entire former Polish Kingdom. If we add the duchy of Serbia, Bulgaria, and the Slavic component of Romania (in Wallachia[5] and Moldavia), we have an image of the territory or, rather, the continent of the Slavs.

The language of these numerous peoples is divided into many subgroups that, having developed independently of each other, preserve signs of unity. It is one speech, manifesting itself in all forms and at different levels of growth. In the old Slavonic it shows itself as a dead language, a religious language; as a language of state administration and state orders in Russia; as a language of literature and conversation in Poland; as a language of skills in the Czech lands; while in Illyria, Montenegro, and Bosnia it remains in the primordial state as the language of poetry and music. Thus a Russian scholar who deals with the workings of the law-that, through their weight and breadth seem to belong to the time of Emperor Justinian-can encounter a Ukrainian poet, whom one could take for a contemporary of the Greek lyricists because he possesses their inspiration, luminosity, and art and has succeeded in expressing the national past in a fiery way. Everyone can guess that I am talking about our poet Bohdan Zaleski.[6]

At the same time, Czech scholars are undertaking and accomplishing a work[7] that can be compared to those of the Alexandrian school, if it weren’t for the fact that they have a character of their own and are inspired by a patriotic ardor almost equal to the religious enthusiasm of the ancient commentators of the Holy Scripture. In this assembly we shall also put the Illyrian or Serbian poet, an old blind man singing rhapsodies accompanied by the guśla[8] that inspired such critics as Grimm[9] and Eckstein,[10] and whom Herder and Goethe gladly translated.[11]

We see various functions and diverse tasks fulfilled by different ancient and modern languages-Sanskrit, Arabic, Turkish, Persian-but here they are divided among dialects of one and the same language. This is an unusual and unique situation. From research of this mega-language one can extricate a new light, capable of illuminating very important questions of philology, philosophy, and history, the questions of the lineage of languages and peoples, the core and true meaning of dialects, the development of ideas inherent in speech.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful discovery if a student of biology found an organic entity that, traversing through all of the lower stages of life, preserved together within itself vegetable, animal and human forms of life, and each of them evolved to its fullness and wholeness? Therefore the lectures about Slavdom will not aim at acquainting you, gentlemen, with an unknown dialect, will not add a new chapter to a universal grammar, will not enrich the linguistic museum with a new sample. Their goal is to let you learn about this entire family of languages, a new genus and a new species.

Before approaching literature itself, let me point out some results of the skills one can gain from our research; these results are not indifferent to the history of nations, the history of science, nor to the moral and political issues. I have mentioned that Slavic nations have frequently influenced Europe. As the Czech poet Ján Kollár said: “All nations have already spoken their last word; now it is time for the Slavs to speak.”[12] I think that these peoples have already spoken many times, have spoken in their own manner, with the blows of lances and canon fire. It would be valuable to understand what they have been saying. These peoples are becoming a considerable force in political calculations; to defeat such a force in order to give it a direction, it would be reasonable to know its point of origin; to measure its previous course in order to estimate its intensity and divine its goal; at the very least, to do in the face of this new political force what astronomers never fail to do when they notice a new comet or meteorite. Numerous observations, the consideration of which would be highly useful, are written on the pages of history. It is known to you, gentlemen, that one cannot learn the history of a people without descending into the depths of its literature.

The enlightened nations have a certain duty toward posterity to pass on their achievements to the darker areas of the world. The Greeks and the Romans are our only sources of information about the peoples that used to be called barbarians. Specifically, Tacitus briefly dealt with the Germanic tribes, and his words became for us the precious source of information about these tribes. Tacitus’s brief comments produced an entire library of commentaries and dissertations in later times.[13] We, the Slavs, replaced the barbarians in contemporary historiography; we blame the Greeks and the Romans for saying so little about us in their works, and we do not want the situation to repeat itself in our time.

There is one more reason to study countries other than the Western European centers. Scholars conjecture that the planets closest to the sun will eventually merge with it. The Slavs have always leaned toward the West. It is from the presently Slavic lands that the hordes came that destroyed Rome, who refused to acquire knowledge about them while they had always been eager to learn what was going on in Rome.

[During the height of the Roman Empire, a famous writer, in his kindness, dedicated a few pages to a description of the barbaric countries and tribes. Despite Tacitus’s fame, his work on the Germans (Teutons) did not, apparently, enjoy great popularity. His contemporaries did not quote it; it was seldom copied, and only a few of these copies have survived. However, in our time Tacitus’s work is frequently commented upon because each of its sentences possesses almost the weight of an article of future law; very much like each tribe that Tacitus described, each contains within itself the nucleus of a future kingdom or empire.] [14]

Modern Slavic history is closely related to the history of Western European nations. Not long ago, a Slavic army, the Russian army, was seen on all the battlefields and in all the capitals of Europe. Wherever it went, this army was certain to meet another Slavic army, like a vengeful shadow. The Polish army stood up against the Russians in Italy; it pursued them from the River Niemen to Moscow; it disrupted the Russian crossing of the Berezin River; it even stood up against the Russians at the gates of Paris. Then, after the hero of our time [Napoleon] was defeated, when everything calmed down and the Russian army returned to its den, all of a sudden the Polish army appears and conducts a mortal fight, wakes up the world, shakes both brotherly and foreign peoples, inflames them with intense dislike and even more intense sympathy, and in the end it disappears, leaving behind a long echo of pain and glory. The Russian eagle meets the Polish one everywhere, the Russian hurrah is followed by the Polish battle cry. If we strain our ears, we shall hear the echoes of the same struggle in the past. Often the two adversaries did not wear their own colors and fought over matters seemingly unimportant to either of them; they could still recognize each other by the power of their mutual blows. The Russian poet Pyotr Vyazemsky[15] called this struggle the eternal Thebaid.[16]

What is the real objective of this struggle and who will win it? The future will tell. We cannot occupy ourselves with political matters here. However, the interest of the West should be raised not only by the military deeds of Slavs, their barbaric forays in the pagan days, their subsequent Christian service in defense of Europe and, lately, their strong impact on political affairs. The West treasures the illusion that it is the source of all the enlightenment among the Slavs; it is not so. While many Western seeds have sprouted in these northeastern lands, many a discovery was first made here even though the West considers them its own. Our own botanist, Adam Załžański,[17] observed the hermaphroditic nature of plants one hundred and fifty years before Linneus. In Linneus’s Methodus rei herbariae published in Prague in 1592, we find obvious proof that the Swedish botanist knew Załžański’s work, although Linneus does not mention its author. Another Slav, Erazm Ciołek, also known as Vitellion[18], was the first to employ mathematics to explain the phenomenon of optical illusion and in doing so he founded the science of optics. To conclude, I will mention the most famous Slavic scientist, the only one known in Europe: Mikołaj Kopernik (Copernicus).

In what manner did these people, whose nations were not highly educated, elevate themselves to such an intensity of mind? How did it happen that outcomes that are elsewhere usually the consequence of long labor, that lie at the end of lengthy investigations, here seem to be an unveiling (odgadnienie) and rise of the dawn of skills?

In these agricultural countries, perhaps, botany had to preoccupy the human mind and develop as a repository of information in common circulation. In the introduction to his work Vitellion claims that he thought of the first of his ideas during leisure time in the countryside, while watching the play of light on the river waves beside his house. The opinion of some French writers that Copernicus found some concepts for his astronomical system in the Bible is not entirely ungrounded. But a certain compatriot of ours, speaking about Copernicus, observed that he discovered a system of the physical world that, like the Polish nation, “foresaw the essential movement of the moral world.”[19] Copernicus destroyed old superstitions by pointing to the sun as the center of all the planets; the Polish nation pushed its homeland into the race around the center of a great whole. By the same inspiration, Copernicus was a philosopher and the Polish nation “the Copernicus of the moral world.”

All these circumstances deserve the attention of foreigners and may awaken in them a curiosity about the eastern peoples that have not been known well, especially that these peoples are slowly developing a conviction that their role in the future of Europe will be substantial. I have shown you some vignettes, I asked a few questions that have to remain unanswered for the time being. I have to use the shortest and most direct route: the road of literature.

Literature is a place to which all Slavic nations bring their intellectual and moral achievements without resentment and without trying to outshine one another. May this peaceful encounter on the beautiful literary stage become a symbol of their getting together in another sphere as well.


1. The present translation is based on Adam Mickiewicz, Dzieła, vol. 8 (Literatura słowiańska. Kurs pierwszy, półrocze 1), translated from German by Leon Płoszewski (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1955), 13-23; and Dzieła, vols.11-12, edited by Manfred Kridl (Literatura słowiańska. Rok pierwszy, 1840-1841), translated from French by Feliks Wrotnowski (Warsaw: Biblioteka Arcydzł Literatury, 1929), 9-17. Professor Shalcross originally translated from thłoszewski text; corrections based on the Wrotnowski text were later introduced.

2. Wiktor Weintraub’s Literature as Prophecy: Scholarship and Martinist Poetics in Mickiewicz’s Parisian Lectures (Mouton: Gravenhage, 1959).

3. The poet refers here to the Croatian Dubrovnik, which used to be called Ragusa.

4. Illyria, an ancient name of the region in the Balkans along the Adriatic coast, inhabited by the Illyrians, an Indo-European people. Some scholars believe that the Albanian language is a descendant of Illyrian.

5. Wallachia is located north of the Danube and south of the Carpathians.

6. Józef Bohdan Zaleski (1802-1886), a Polish Romantic poet and a friend of Mickiewicz, known for his folklore-inspired dumas. Zaleski is a major representative of the so-called “Ukranian school” in Polish Romanticism.

7. Mickiewicz’s complement is addressed to the Czech founding fathers of Slavic philology such as Josef Dobrovsky (1753-1829), a Bohemian philologist and historian.

8. Guśla, a bowed string instrument of the Balkans.

9. The brothers Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm collected and published folk songs and folktales; their most famous collection is Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812-1822).

10. Probably H. Eckstein, a bookseller from Magdeburg.

11. Between 1814-1834 several collections of Serbian folk poetry, folktales, and proverbs compiled by Vuk Karadziã appeared in German translations, causing a long-lived fascination with Serbian folklore among the leading German poets and intellectuals including the Grimm brothers, Goethe, and Herder.

12. In fact, Ján Kollár (1793-1852) was a Slovak poet, a proponent of Pan-Slavism, and a professor at the University of Vienna.

13. Publius Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 59-ca.117), a senator and historian of the Roman Empire, De origine et situ Germanorum (Germania, 98).

14. This paragraph is missing in the Wrotnowski translation from French. It is taken from the German text that was probably translated from another set of notes. See Note 1.

15. Prince Pyotr Andreyevich Vyazemsky (1792-1878), Russian critic, poet, translator, archivist, and a friend of Mickiewicz.

16. Thebais or Thebaid, which derives from The Thebaid, an epic Latin poem by Publius Papinius Statius (ca. 45-96 AD), is used here as a symbol of fraternal strife.

17. Adam Załužański de Zalu žan was a sixteenth-century Czech physician and botanist. Mickiewicz used the Polish spelling of his name.

18. Erazm Ciołek (ca.1230-1280 or 1314), known as Vitello, was a Polish monk, physicist, and mathematician who created the foundations for the psychology of visual perception in his Perspectivorum libri decem. This treatise on optics was an influential work, known by Leonardo da Vinci and Copernicus.

19. Kazimierz Brodziński (1791-1835), Polish poet and essayist. Mickiewicz quotes Brodzński’s essay “Mowa o narodowości Polaków” [1831].


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