Professor Michael Mikos' anthology, the third volume of his survey of Polish literature in English, is an important contribution to the future of Polish literature in the United States and other English-speaking countries.
This collection of Polish texts from the Baroque and Enlightenment periods includes over two hundred poetic and prose items, many of which have been rendered into English for the first time. Mikos opens the third volume of his survey with extensive bibliographies of other English language anthologies and translations, Polish anthologies and 'general surveys and critical studies' in Polish and English (21-37). These bibliographies are handy for the student and teacher of Polish literature and can prove useful for the general reader as well. Mikos begins each of the two sections in this volume by providing readers with a historical, cultural and literary context for the literature to follow. In addition, each individual author included receives a short biographical statement. Though Mikos' editorial comments to the texts are brief, they can be illuminating; e.g., the author explains that Piotr Kochanowski's translation of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata almost immediately created a standard form for Polish epic poetry. Further examples of original epic poetry in the volume bear this out.
Making an unusual decision, Mikos presents the authors chronologically by the years of their birth rather than by type, genre or school of literary work; thus prose and poetry, psalms and 'trifles' (a genre described here as Polish epigrams) all appear intermingled with the biographical and historical data and the notes. Mikos has avoided making the kinds of choices editors of such anthologies usually make about how to organize and emphasize their literary materials. In this sense, Mikos has allowed the authors to stand on their own, juxtaposed one against the other. This offers an interesting perspective on the periods, although it sometimes makes for difficult reading (the typeface, uniform throughout the entire volume, makes it difficult as well to distinguish between translated text, notes and headings, although the use of italics for the titles of works mitigates the problem somewhat).
Readers of this anthology will surely enjoy the thirty-four illustrations which decorate the volume. These images include paintings, portraits, etchings and title pages, as well as photographs of churches, castles and other significant buildings. Though Mikos makes no interpretive use of these imagesthey serve a purely illustrative purposenonetheless, they are a welcome addition to the book.
But if translated literary texts are the heart of this anthology, then Mikos is well aware of an inherent difficulty in translating Polish into English, the near impossibility of reproducing the 'feel' of Polish rhymes. Because of different stress patterns (Polish on the penultimate syllable, English often on the last syllable), because of an English-language poetic tradition which has not relied on rhyme, and because the modern ear is accustomed to free unrhymed verse, English readers may find the translations of Polish rhymed verse awkward-sounding and, in the translator's own words, 'acoustically 'heavy.' Mikos wants 'to reproduce the character and spirit of the original works in the most natural language' possible, but he is also mindful that the inherent beauty of Polish does not travel well. (For a detailed explanation of Mikos' translation method, see volume two of the anthology, Polish Renaissance Literature, Columbus, Ohio: Slavica 1995).
The appearance of this third volume solicits a question about its readership. What are the advantages of an English-only book over bilingual collections? Mikos seems to have trimmed his sails somewhat since the second volume, the goal of which was to reach 'foreign' (i.e. not Polish American) 'critics and readers' who cannot fully appreciate European Renaissance literature without knowledge of the major texts of the Polish Renaissance (PRL, 12). In the Foreword to the new book, he identifies his audience as 'primarily college students and general readers.' In either cases he is surely right; it is simply a fact that the vast majority of American college students will only have access to this material in English. But it is also the case that for graduate students and other scholars Mikos' volumes provide an opportunity to reconsider what we mean when we talk about the European Renaissance, Baroque and Enlightenment periods. And these volumes demonstrate inarguably that Polish literature needs to be considered more centrally in our understanding of the European literary tradition. Readers already familiar with the Baroque poetry of Englishman Andrew Marvell, for example, will be delighted to discover his Polish counterpart, Jan Andrzej Morsztyn, who along with fellow Poles demonstrates here that the Baroque transcends national boundaries.
The volume which begs comparison with Mikos' project, of course, is Bogdana Carpenter's Monumenta Polonica (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications 1989), a bilingual anthology of the first four centuries of Polish poetry through the end of the Enlightenment, i.e., coinciding with Mikos' three volumes. Carpenter's work can be appreciated by those scholars and students who want to compare the Polish originals and their translations, while Mikos has sacrificed this kind of depth for a greater literary breadth. He includes many more authors and works than Carpenter and offers a fuller spectrum of genres. Among new works we might note Szymon Starowolski's interesting prose excerpt from his Sarmatian Warriors and his lament of the 'distressed Mother, the Polish Crown.' In the Enlightenment period, Mikos even includes two women poets, Elbieta Drubacka and Konstancja Benisawska.
Polish Baroque and Enlightenment Literature: An Anthology is a worthy successor to Mikos' previous volumes. The selections range over those previously known to the English reader to new and valuable translations, including works from many authors, genres and schools. While some of the translations read awkwardly, Mikos' effort to maintain the rhythm and rhyme of the Polish original was largely successful. Indeed, some of the poems scan quite beautifully. Mikos' scholarly apparatus, particularly the primary and secondary bibliographies, the notes to individual works and the introductory explanations, will doubtless prove useful. Students, teachers and scholars of Polish literature can hope that the next volumes are also on the way.
Angela Brintlinger is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Ohio State University.