Professor Julian Krzyzanowski's book, Polish Romantic Literature, first appeared in English in 1939. That its second edition came out in the United States in 1968 testifies not only to the book's enduring value, but also to the lack of novel presentations of Polish Romanticism in the English language. Czeslaw Milosz's History of Polish Literature and a few other studies, plus a few translations (mainly of Adam Mickiewicz's works) do not adequately present the subject, let alone offer a new interpretation of it. In view of the scarcity of studies in Polish Romantic literature, a brief discussion of the stereotypes connected with the Romantic epoch in Poland is in order.
The most popular stereotype sees Polish Romantic literature as extremely affected, exalted and detached from any terrestrial reality; a literature 'written with a peacock-quill dipped in the sky,' to quote the Polish Anthology edited by T. M. Filip and M.A. Michel (London 1944). The section headings in this bilingual anthology include 'Muse azure' (Muza blekitna), 'With the ears and thoughts of an angel' (Sluchem aniola i mysla aniola), and 'Rainbow of rapture' (Tecza zachwytu). Another stereotype has been advanced by a group of scholars associated with the Warsaw school of sociology, primarily by Andrzej Walicki.1 Here we can find a general description of the political, social and religious ideas of Polish Romanticism, as well as a critical evaluation of these ideas. Professor Piotr Wandycz's The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795-1918 and Norman Davies' God's Playground: A History of Poland provide, each in its own way, a more balanced picture of the Romantic era, without however engaging in a detailed discussion of its literature.
The epoch of Romanticism is crucial to the development of Polish literature, yet recent evaluations of Polish Romanticism have been based on premises drawn from the methodologies of nonliterary studies, primarily those of history and sociology. Polish Romantic literature is seen through methodologies unrelated not only to literature but to the development of the nation's culture. Polish literature has often played a synthesizing role in regard to Polish culture, and Polish Romantic literature has to be seen as such a synthesizer, before it is seen as an instance of the general European trend called Romanticism or nationalism (I am referring here to Andrzej Walicki's works). The assessment of Polish Romanticism with the help of methodologies that are both non-literary and grounded in philosophical premises hostile to Romanticism cannot deal adequately with the subject at hand.
The Enlightenment-inspired view of Sarmatism adopted by the educated circles of Polish society erroneously reduces Sarmatism to uncouth provincialism. In fact, the characteristics of this cultural formation are directly opposed to the ideology of the Enlightenment. Sarmatism is also similar to American Agrarianism.
In my view, we need to start with the acknowledgement of a fundamental split in the history of Poland, the split between the four centuries of the nation's existence in the form of a large state known for part of that period as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the subsequent two centuries of modern Polish history, when the Respublica fell and was partitioned by its neighbors. In this context, life and experience of the Romantic generation of the first half of the nineteenth century is situated in the very center of Polish historical identity, as well as in the era of transition between ancient and modern Poland. The era of Romanticism in Poland was transitory yet central, as it was directly connected with 'Old Polish' (staropolska) history, mentality and social culture, while at the same time being directly related to the outlook and sensibility of modern Poles.
The abiding relevance of Romanticism for Polish literature of the twentieth century has occasionally been posited in postwar Polish literary criticism. But the connection between Romanticism and the culture of the past, when Poland was still unburdened by the complexes of the partitions, has only been casually examined. We would like to look at Polish Romanticism not only as the beginning of the modern period in Polish literature but also, and primarily, as a recapitulation of the literature and culture of the Republic of Both Nations (Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów). We would like to question the generally accepted view that the 'Romantic spirit' was a force pulling Poland away from the legacy of the Old Polish nobility and gentry, which was the leading social and cultural class of the Respublica. Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz (1834), often called 'a mirror of the past,' will thus be seen seen not as an exception within the Romantic current, but rather as a central representation of the Romantic spirit in Poland.
Mickiewicz's contemporary, Henryk Rzewuski, wrote in 1840 that 'Every abundant and suddenly emerged literature is like a cypress decorating a grave of the nation, or at least the grave of the political order within which the nation's existence was unfolding until that time.' Can we perceive the literature of Polish Romanticism as a cypress that began to grow on the political grave of the old Respublica and its 'golden freedom,' democracy for the gentry and Sarmatism? There are good reasons to consider such an approach.
Kazimierz Pulaski is a typical 'real life' follower of the Sarmatian model, his voyage to America and his participation in the Bar Confederacy being the two high points of his career.
The year 1863, or the beginning of the January Rising, is considered the end of Romanticism in Poland. That year also constitutes the limit of our enquiry, although literary descendants of Romantic Sarmatism continue to appear in Polish literature up to the present day in many different forms.
The 1820s and 1830s were a peculiar time in Poland, owing to the fact that in that period, the last generation of Poles who once lived under the rule of the last Polish king, Stanisaw August Poniatowski, was passing away. Those whose old age coincided with that period were called 'the generation of the last ones,' meaning the last representatives of Old Poland. This phrase was one of those immortalized in Pan Tadeusz. The generational change that followed meant that the living memory of eye-witnesses was being replaced by written records and interpretations of historians. The conditions were propitious for the creation of national imagery and this is precisely what happened. As living memory became history and conditions changed rapidly, what was remembered was subjected to a Romantic reworking, to emerge as a poetic rendition of authentic Polish history and national self-consciousness.
The centerpiece of Sarmatism is the political ideology of Polish gentry, with its strong republican preferences and opposition to absolutism of either Western or Muscovite type, love of liberty and chivalry, excessive disregard for trade and craft, and simplicity and austerity of morals.
Polish Romantics belonged to the first generation born after the partitions of Old Poland, and naturally their interest in the national past was strong. Unlike their direct predecessors, the 'classicists' and 'progressivists' of the Congress Kingdom, the Romantics examined with sympathetic attention the so-called Sarmatian traditions of the Respublica. Not only Pan Tadeusz, but also the works of Juliusz Slowacki and Zygmunt Krasinski reflected serious interest in the problems of Old Polish gentry, their customs, beliefs and records. These poets saw in the culture of the gentry the main historical manifestation of Polish cultural identity. The lesser Romantics: Henryk Rzewuski, Wincenty Pol, Ignacy Chodzko, Konstanty Gaszynski, Zygmunt Kaczkowski and others, shared this passion for Old Poland, as shown in their novels, short stories, dramas and novellas, as well as in their programmatic statements. All these works form a distinct literary current between 1831 and 1863. I propose to call this current 'Romantic Sarmatism.'
The importance of this phenomenon can hardly be overstated. The Romantics gave a modern literary expression to Old Polish history, and this in turn was reworked by Henryk Sienkiewicz in the Trilogy and imposed on the imagination of Polish readers in the twentieth century. Thus to interpret Polish Romanticism correctly requires an acknowledgement of its fascination with, and spiritual affinity to, the past. For the Romantic generation, this Sarmatian past was familiar, understandable, simple and, at the same time, unreachable, remote and exotic.
The terms 'Sarmatism' and 'Sarmatian' are commonly used in modern Polish literary history and in the history of Polish culture. Historian Janusz Maciejewski pointed out that 'Sarmatism is a peculiar type of a cultural formation which existed in the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the late sixteenth century until the mid-eighteenth century.' A centerpiece of Sarmatism is the political ideology of Polish nobility of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with its strong republican preferences and opposition to absolutism of either Western or Muscovite type. Sarmatism involves a love of liberty and chivalry (in that, it harks back to the Middle Ages), a cult of antiquity, and simplicity and austerity of morals. It presupposes a political equality inside the privileged class, i.e., the nobility. A Polish
Mickiewicz and his Romantic followers rediscovered in the Sarmatian cultural formation the very core of Polish identity. . . . Polish Romantic plays and novels were not copies of Western patterns but a response to a downgrading of Sarmatism by King Poniatowski's eager reformers.
proverb says, 'A nobleman in his cottage is equal to the lord of the realm.' Sarmatism tends to breed disregard for trade and craft, and it is an ideology of agrarian society (as such, it shows similarities to American Agrarianism of the 1930s). It favors quiet life in country manors during peacetime, while presuming personal courage and sacrifice in times of war.
The above explains why Sarmatism has been treated by the 'enlightened' intellectuals as a relic of the Dark Ages, a pattern of life and behavior that should be uprooted from modern society. The dedication with which so many ideologies and individuals, both Polish and foreign, tried to uproot Sarmatism also has to do with Counter-Reformation piety which Sarmatian Poland cultivated, and not only among the noble class. Sarmatism was often associated with devotional attitudes and the belief in miracles (which the Age of Enlightenment naturally abhorred). All these characteristics have been quoted by Maciejewski as typical of the Polish nobility 'in the era of gentry republicanism, or in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.'
Members of the gentry class in the Polish Kingdom and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania began to call themselves 'Sarmates,' or 'Sarmatians,' during the Renaissance. The new fashion of returning to ancient Roman terminology played a role here. The fifteenth-century Polish historian Jan Dugosz was the first to introduce the term, and it was quickly picked up by other historians and chroniclers such as Marcin Bielski, Marcin Kromer and Maciej Miechowita. Other Europeans picked it up from Miechowita's Tractatus de Duabus Sarmatiis (Kraków 1517), a work which in western Europe was considered to be a substantial source of information about the territories and peoples of the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica. The term goes back to Herodotus who wrote about 'Sarmatians' as descendants of Scythians and Amazones. After many permutations, this produced the legend that Poles were the descendants of the ancient Sarmates, a warlike tribe originating in Asia who later resettled in northeastern Europe. Historical research confirms the existence of Sarmatians, but their characteristics were not quite the same as those of the Sarmatian legends.
It goes without saying that this cultural formation was directly opposed to the ideology of the Enlightenment. When in the second half of the eighteenth century the word 'Sarmatism' made its reappearance, its meaning was decidedly negative. 'Sarmatism' functioned as a synonym of a backward and unenlightened mind, and as a contemptuous label for the King's political opponents: the provincial and traditionalist petty gentry. Such meanings were ascribed to it first in journalism and then in literary works. The Enlightenment writers treated the political and cultural implications of Sarmatism as a convenient target for criticism and mockery. The Monitor, a militantly reformist periodical sponsored by King Stanisaw August Poniatowski, used the term in a derogatory fashion, and so did Franciszek Zablocki in his comedies. Zablocki's play Sarmatism (Sarmatyzm, 1785) presents this entire cultural formation as obsolete and barbarian. It is worth noting that this play still passes for valid criticism, in spite of the fact that it was an adaptation of a little known French comedy Les Nobles de province (1678) by Noël le Breton de Hauteroche, and as such it was hardly a realistic presentation of Sarmatian mores. Samuel Bogumi Linde's Dictionary of the Polish Language (Warsaw 1807-1814) likewise defines Sarmatism as 'a lack of good manners, rudeness' (nieokrzesanie, grubiastwo).
The Romantics confronted these extremely negative connotations of Sarmatism in the late 1820s. They had to cope with the interpretations that arose in the age of rationalism and skepticism. Romanticism was of course in rebellion against the spirit of the Enlightenment, and in matters of historical judgment concerning the Old Polish heritage, the Romantics extended to Sarmatism their vigorous struggle against skepticism and satirical attitudes of the illuminati. They were deeply interested in 'Sarmatian' issues, as we understand them today.2 Hence our postulate of 'Romantic Sarmatism,' although Polish Romantics did not use this term.
A rehabilitation of the Old Polish gentry traditions began in earnest during and after the November Rising (1830-31). The warlike atmosphere of those years was a natural background for the revival of gentry traditions, of manliness and fidelity in particular. Wincenty Pol's The Songs of Janusz (Piesni Janusza), published in Paris in 1833 (as a soldier in the Uprising, Pol was forced to emigrate) is the first prominent example of Romantic Sarmatism in poetry. The book contains poems and songs dealing with the Bar Confederacy (1768-1772) in which Sarmatian political ideology and Catholic social values were paramount. In the early 1830s, Henryk Rzewuski wrote a cycle of short stories published in Paris in 1839 under the title Memoirs of Mr. Seweryn Soplica (Pamiatki Imc pana Seweryna Soplicy). They became very popular among the Polish educated classes. The genre of gaweda szlachecka (a nobleman's tale) which Rzewuski created, is closely associated with reverence for the Sarmatian spirit. Gaweda szlachecka is a short story, written in an Old Polish conversational language. It features a very personal, kind-hearted and jovial narrator who speaks in such a way that the reader feels the narrator's personal involvement in the events described, even if such was not in fact the case. In other words, the narrator speaks of personal and political events in the same tone of voice, showing a high degree of interest in both. In some ways, Rzewuski's gawedas resemble Nikolai Gogol's skaz, but the narrator's mannerisms are those of a nobleman, rather than those of a peasant.
A rehabilitation of the Old Polish gentry traditions began in earnest during and after the November Rising (1830-31).
As a narrative form, gaweda is characterized by stylized simplicity and assumed intellectual primitivism. For the generation brought up in the sophisticated culture of late neoclassicism, this simplicity was not a mark of inferiority but a sign of authenticity and sincerity.
A discussion of Romantic Sarmatism as a separate current within the Polish Romantic literature has to be selective, as the body of literature containing 'Sarmatian' characteristics is enormous. I have chosen to concentrate on the influence of Poland's Sarmatian past on the political ideas of Polish Romantics, rather than on close reading of specific poems, novels and gawedas.
The Romantic period in Poland was a time of military risings and memories associated with them, and this helped in the rehabilitation of Sarmatism, with its cult of courage and military prowess. The results were twofold. First, there developed a current called Polish messianism; and second, it was followed by a renewed interest in conservative ideas. Polish Romantic messianism was represented by the Great Emigration (Wielka Emigracja), first by Adam Mickiewicz and later, in the 1840s, by Zygmunt Krasinski and Juliusz Slowacki. When the risings failed, there developed a post-revolutionary conservatism whose notion of nobility, fidelity and loyalty were grounded in the Sarmatian past.
There have been Romantic poets who felt a fascination for Sarmatian topics without being either messianists or conservatives, e.g., Seweryn Goszczynski, or Antoni Malczewski's epic poem Maria (1826) which deals with a 'Sarmatian' topic without evidencing a connection between that topic and sociopolitical problems of the day. These however are exceptions from the rule. By and large, Polish Romanticism is indebted to Polish history in ways not observable in other European countries, where the contrast between past glory and present misery was not that pronounced, or did not exist at all.
Polish Romantic messianism found its earliest expression in Mickiewicz's Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage (Ksiegi narodu i pielgrzymstwa polskiego, 1832), a work of poetic prose containing a powerful interpretation of universal history and Poland's role in it. Ksi´gi was written after the defeat of the 1830 rising, when Polish exiles passing through Germany to France were welcomed by the common people as heroes in the struggle for freedom for all nations. Mickiewicz ascribed to Poles, and especially to Polish exiles, a willingness to fight 'for your freedom and ours,' and he asked why Poles were 'chosen' to play the role of soldiers of freedom in nineteenth-century Europe. In striking Biblical prose, he gave the following answer: before the partitions, Poland was the most democratic and libertarian country in Europe, and this tradition of liberty predisposed Poles to struggle not only for their own freedom but also for that of others.
Some historians of Polish culture believe that from the 'spoken epic' of the gaweda, a truly original form of Polish literature could develop. . . . hundreds of novels and gawedas demonstrate the fecundity of the Sarmatian concept.
Mickiewicz substantiated his claim by invoking Old Polish political concepts: personal liberty and equality of the Polish nobility, enshrined in the laws of the Respublica. In a way that is open to criticism, he identified Old Polish nobility with the Polish nation, even though the nobility constituted at most 10-12 percent of the population. In his defense, it should be said that such identification has been common in other national historiographies, from Germany to France to England to Spain. Furthermore, Mickiewicz pointed out that the Old Polish concepts of political liberty implied acceptance of an open society, or a society in which all social classes might partake of the liberties first limited to the nobility. He also implied that the personal union with Lithuania concluded in 1386 and cemented in 1569 enshrined Polish political institutions in the lands east of ethnic Poland.
Mickiewicz's rendition of the ideals of Polish nobility included seeing that nobility as a community faithful to the principles of Christian faith. Mickiewicz discovered this Christian spirit in social life of the old Respublica, and in the policies of its kings. The wars against the Muslim Turks and the famous defense of Vienna by Jan III Sobieski in 1683 were presented in the Books as an application of Christian principles to politics. From the point of view of some western pragmatists, however, King Sobieski's gallantry in rescuing his fellow Catholics in Vienna was unjustified, because Polish political interests would have been better served if Sobieski remained neutral, or if he chose still another political variant for his country. But such was the old Respublica. While Mickiewicz can be charged with confusing the ideals of Old Poland with the actual behavior of individual noblemen, his historiographical approach touches upon something fundamental to the Polish view of the world.
At the same time, it has to be emphasized that such an interpretation of Polish history was grounded in experiences of the Romantic generation, as well as in the general intellectual and artistic climate of the time. It was the combination of these three factors that shaped Mickiewicz's thinking.
Mickiewicz and his Romantic followers rediscovered in the Sarmatian cultural formation the very core of Polish identity. They also found in it a fountainhead of those political attitudes which Poles displayed in the nineteenth-century, when many European peoples and nations fought against absolutism. According to the author of the Books of the Polish Nation, human and national rights were respected and protected in Sarmatian Poland in ways that found no parallel in premodern Europe. Mickiewicz discovered in Sarmatism a unique mix of conservatism and liberalism, respect for the past and defiance against the mighty monarchies of Europe. This peculiar mix has characterized Polish culture ever since.
We shall concentrate here on one aspect of the messianic theories of Polish Romantics: their rehabilitation, in prose and poetry, of the Sarmatian and 'republican' ideology and culture. That this
Out of the Polish Romantic novels and gawedas a whole Sarmatian universe emerges, so wide and broad as the territories of the multinational and multi-religious old Respublica.
rehabilitation was decisive and radical can be seen from Zygmunt Krasinski's visional poem Przedswit (Before dawn, 1843). The author begins by presenting his own skepticism and disbelief in the values of the Sarmatian past, but then offers a messianic reevaluation of that past. He has a vision of Hetman Stefan Czarniecki, a seventeenth-century Polish military leader whose victory over the Swedes brought the Polish-Swedish war to a close. Krasinski, a poet born into political slavery after the partitions of Poland, asks him a question: why did Old Polish nobility, being so powerful and happy, make so many mistakes and allow the political disaster and disappearance of the Respublica? Czarniecki answers that these 'mistakes' or, as Krasinski put it, 'sins of the fathers,' were actually a kind of felix culpa (St. Augustine's famous interpretation of the original sin), because thanks to them Poland did not follow other European nations on their way to absolutism, atheism, and materialism. Here we have the makings of Polish messianism, so mistakenly associated by some scholars with the self-aggrandizing theories of later thinkers.
Adam Mickiewicz's Lectures on Slavonic Literatures, given at Collège de France in 1840-1844, contain another messianic vision of Old Polish 'gentry democracy.' Mickiewicz appraised enthusiastically such elements of Sarmatian ideology as free elections of kings (instead of hereditary succession), 'golden freedom' for the gentry, and liberum veto, or the principle of unanimous vote in the Sejm. In turn, Mickiewicz's evaluations inspired Juliusz Slowacki, a somewhat younger poet who in his late drama Samuel Zborowski (1845) and in such political writings as Letters to Prince Adam Czartoryski (1846) argued powerfully for the ideas of 'Sarmatism.'
Related to Romantic Sarmatism is the issue of conservatism, an ideological current in European thought which came into existence after the French Revolution. Conservative ideas were obviously related to the Sarmatian ones. Henryk Rzewuski (1791-1866), a conservative thinker and an outstanding writer who invented the genre of gaweda szlachecka, exemplifies this connection best. Memoirs of Mr. Seweryn Soplica is a masterpiece of the gaw´da genre and a suggestive expression of conservative beliefs. The narrator, Seweryn Soplica, belongs to the last generation of eighteenth-century Sarmatian petty gentry. He recollects experiences of his young age including participation in the Bar Confederacy and Poland's fate under King Poniatowski. His almost untranslatable language is vivid, colorful and humorous. Soplica expresses the conviction that the old social and political order of gentry democracy was superior to what came afterwards. Due to censorship introduced by Poland's occupiers (a striking novelty after the freedom of the Respublica), Rzewuski's narrative had to be published abroad. Memoirs of Mr. Seweryn Soplica was received by the Polish public with enthusiasm.
Rzewuski's opinions as a defender of Sarmatism and of Old Polish political order have also been expressed in a political treatise, "Some Remarks About Ancient Poland" ("Uwagi o dawnej Polsce"), which was published only in scattered fragments because of censorship. In later works, Rzewuski's defense of the 'republican' Sarmatian ideology was overshadowed by his approval of absolute monarchy. Perhaps he praised absolutism in hindsight, aware of the profits which Germans, Russians, and others reaped from that form of government. He did not disown his 'republicanism,' however, and his theories became rife with contradictions. But he and other conservative novelists representing the current of Romantic Sarmatism carried on the critique of the Enlightenment. They also criticized moral and political conduct of the reformers during King Poniatowski's reign, as these reformers tried to transform Poland into a country consistent with the French revolutionary patterns and ideas. Conservative Romantics such as Rzewuski, Micha Grabowski (1804-1863), Ignacy Chodêko (1794-1861), and Zygmunt Kaczkowski (1825-1896) criticized representatives of the Polish Enlightenment for their lack of understanding of Polish traditions and for silly imitation of French fashions.
This criticism manifested itself in the treatment of literary traditions inherited from the Enlightenment period. The Romantics took to task the so-called 'Bohomolec scheme,' consciously parodying the pattern of composition used in the didactic literature of Polish reformers, and diverting thereby its original ideological significance. Rev. Franciszek Bohomolec was the most prolific playwright of the Enlightenment period, and his comedies show a conflict between an old-fashioned Polish nobleman (Sarmata) and a young and foreign-educated 'progressive.' Among other things, the two usually compete for the hand of a beautiful girl. In Bohomolec's plays, the political victory of the 'progressive' over the old-fashioned Sarmatian is usually accentuated by his victory in love. The novels and gawedas of the first half of the nineteenth century reversed this situation, and made girls fall in love with the handsome and brave Sarmates. This change of literary schemes has been obscured by Polish and foreign literary critics, and their unwillingness to see in Polish literature the originality that was not merely a repetition of Romantic preferences for the rustic countryside. Polish Romantic plays and novels were not copies of western patterns but a response to the downgrading of Sarmatism by King Poniatowski's eager reformers. While in early Romanticism the Byronic influences were prominent, they were soon replaced by interest in Polish realities which was quite remote from the Byronic scheme of traveling from a secure homeland to a remote and exotic foreign country. Instead, Polish Romantics experienced travel from an insecure, occupied and rustic homeland to the relative safety of big western European cities where they lived in exile for a considerable period of time. In turn, the experience of cities like Paris, and the experience of exile, made them sympathetic to the idea of finding consolation in the 'promised lands' of the exotic Orient, of the Polish past, and of nature. After the 1830-31 rising the Byronic influences faded away, and the influence of the Sarmatian past and of the ancient Respublica prevailed. Was this a form of Romantic escapism? To some extent, yes. But in Polish conditions, it was something more. Instead of the imagined version of the Middle Ages which Romantic poets promoted all over Europe, Polish poets sought inspiration in the Bar Confederacy and in numerous other expressions of Polish protest against the rule of raw force in Europe. This tradition of Polish republicanism is worthy of better recognition among the historians of Europe (Norman Davies being an exception) than it has so far received.
The dedication with which so many ideologies and individuals, both Polish and foreign, have tried to uproot Sarmatism has to do with the Counter-Reformation piety which Sarmatian Poland cultivated, and not only among the noble class.
Representatives of Romantic Sarmatism such as Chodzko or Kaczkowski saw the Sarmatian period as an epoch responding to, and ruled by, imagination, feeling and virtue, while their own life in the nineteenth century was subjugated to reason and rationalism devoid of virtue. They called the first the epoch of 'fantasy' and the second, the epoch of 'ideas.' It was their way of showing the distrust of the Enlightenment. In a sense, their protest was more 'realistic' and profound than that of the western European Romantics, grounded as it was in a genuine political reality, rather than in the highly stylized and 'invented' image of the Middle Ages. For Henryk Rzewuski, virtually everything in Poland's Sarmatian past was authentic, poetic and meaningful: from the key events of Polish history to social and political customs of the gentry, from the free election of kings to the Diet and the Dietines, from country fairs to old ways of traveling. Everyday life in the Old Noble (staroszlacheckie) communities, their strong religious beliefs accompanied by an array of old pagan customs and prejudices, the ties to nature which life in the countryside fostered, all seemed to be 'replete with poetry' and, at the same time, profoundly realistic. Granted, this aesthetic and 'down to earth' approach to Old Poland was in line with the general Romantic predilection for the beauty of times past. But, I emphasize, it would be a mistake to attribute this neo-Sarmatian wave merely to the aping of European models. Something more fundamental was at stake. The Romantics were the first to note that Polish identity is inescapably connected with the Sarmatism of pre-partition Poland.
Furthermore, Polish conservative Romantics believed that 'real poetry' should not be sought in the highbrow and 'official' literature of Old Poland, but in unofficial oral traditions and in marginal literary genres. Rzewuski's genius gave these intimations the form of gaweda. His gaweda narrator, an old and old-fashioned Sarmatian storyteller (gawedziarz szlachecki), was a synthetic portrayal of numerous real storytellers performing spontaneously in the homesteads and manors of the Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian countryside well into the nineteenth century. Rzewuski and others remembered them from their childhood. By means of these storytellers, they were introduced to Sarmatian customs and aura first hand. All that was needed was the finding of a literary expression for that reality. Rzewuski was the first to find it, and he was followed by others.
Another stimulus toward the development of the 'homespun' genre of the gaw´da was the publishing activity initiated by Count Edward Raczyski in Pozna in the 1830s. A series of documents and memoirs from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which he published provided the Romantic literati with a generous number of anecdotes and authentic details of the past. Novelists could now check their renditions of Old Sarmatia against authentic private memoirs. E.g., the Memoirs of Jan Chryzostom Pasek were discovered and published in 1836. It was in this atmosphere of rediscovery of Old Polish middlebrow literature that the influence of Walter Scott waned and the style and composition of Romantic novels in Poland began to reflect more accurately the realities of seventeenth-century Polish life.
We need to start by acknowledging a cultural split in the history of Poland between four centuries of the successful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and two centuries of modern Polish history marked by political disasters.
Two Romantic critics, Stefan Witwicki and Stanisaw Ropelewski, emphasized the importance of Sarmatism for the future of Polish literature. They believed that from this kind of 'spoken epic,' a truly original form of Polish literature would develop. Whether Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy and Witold Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantic exhausted these possibilities remains an open question. In contrast, such contemporary historians as Janusz Maciejewski try to minimize these potentialities by using the term 'gentry folklore' in dealing with Sarmatian influence. This is in keeping with the Enlightenment-inspired view of Sarmatism adopted by the educated circles of Polish society, the view which reduces Sarmatism to a kind of provincialism that plays a secondary role in the development of national culture.
Unlike tales of the past in western Europe, the Romantic 'Sarmatian' works did not serve as a means to escape everyday reality, but rather as a confirmation that Polish identity had an old and honorable lineage.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the limits between literature and historiography were not clearly established. Both novelists and historians used available documents and records, while trying to render 'the spirit of the past' in an intuitive fashion. In Poland, this mingling of fiction and fact was particularly pronounced, owing not only to the Sarmatian habits of mind (characterized by such spontaneous mingling) but also to the fact that after the 1830-31 rising, Poles were almost completely deprived of their own national system of schools and universities, and had to substitute literature for historical education. In Rzewuski's, Chodzko's and Kaczkowski's novels and gawedas, in Wincenty Pol's long poems and in Juliusz Slowacki's poetic dramas and tales, the readers of the 1840s and 1850s found suggestive descriptions of the ways of life of their ancestors. These intimations of Old Poland culminated in Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz. Unlike tales of the past in western Europe, however, they did not serve as a means to escape everyday reality, but rather as a confirmation that the identity of individual Poles had an old and noble lineage. The details of the Sarmatian way of dressing: the kontusz (a man's or woman's short coat influenced by oriental fashions), a broad woven belt and long yellow or red knee-boots became identified with the Polish national costume. This elegant costume was referred to endlessly in literature and painting. Poles identified with it and replicated it in countless amateur performances in schools, clubs, and theatrical shows throughout the country, especially under the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939) and even in Soviet-occupied Poland (1945-1990). This attire was enhanced by such weapons as sabers and swords. The archetypal presentation of this costumery can be found in Pan Tadeusz.
Other aspects of gentry life were likewise cultivated in art and in daily life. The motif of seventeenth-century battles and wars became associated with the "typical" Sarmatian literary characters, such as Wincenty Pol's Mohort. In this context, Kazimierz Puaski is a typical 'real life' follower of the Sarmatian model, his voyage to America and his participation in the Bar Confederacy being the two high points of his career. Pulaski was perhaps the most successful commander of this tragic Confederacy. As a character embodying the chivalric and Sarmatian virtues, Pulaski appears frequently in the works of Rzewuski, Kaczkowski and Konstanty Gaszynski.
In peacetime, the Sarmatian literary hero was a homo ludens or a homo politicus. The descriptions of feasts and hunting parties abound in Sarmatian literature, creating one more category of Sarmatian motifs. The political plots and intrigues during the local Dietines are a subcategory of plots dealing with the famed democracy of the gentry. Again, Pan Tadeusz contains all these motifs in abundance. But in addition to Mickiewicz's work, hundreds of novels and gawedas testify to the fecundity of the Sarmatian concept as they rehearse the traditions and legends from various parts of the Respublica. Ignacy Chodzko specializes in Lithuanian local traditions and in descriptions of Lithuanian forests and lakes. Ukrainian motifs are prominent in the works of Michal Czajkowski and Michal Grabowski. The mountains of Malopolska are the background of Zygmunt Kaczkowski's novels. Out of these novels and gawedas a whole Sarmatian universe emerges, so wide and broad as the territories of the multinational and multi-religious old Respublica. The Sarmatian culture of the nobility functioned as a way to unite all these territories. Everywhere in the Respublica, in Wielkopolska and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in Wolhynia and in Podolia, the manorhouses portrayed in this literature recreated the same order of values and symbols. For the 1830-1863 generation, this order was the only stable entity in an unstable and immoral world. While Sarmatian Poland faded away from historical reality, its ability to inspire the imagination of writers and its lasting value as a bond that binds Poles of all classes together has survived destruction and suppression. Like the world of medieval Scotland or the vision of the Old South in America, it has survived - only more so. The picture of Soplicowo in Pan Tadeusz has become a part of the Polish imagination.
Andrzej Wasko is an Associate Professor of Polish Literature at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, and a Kosciuszko Teaching Fellow in Polish at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His book, Romantyczny Sarmatyzm: Tradycja szlachecka w literaturze polskiej lat 1831-1863 (from which this essay derives) received the Jagiellonian University Prize for the best book on Polish literature in 1995.
1 Andrzej Walicki, Romantic Nationalism: the Case of Poland (Stanford University Press 1980).
2 Janusz Maciejewski, "Sarmatyzm jako formacja kulturowa," Teksty, No. 4 (1974); Tadeusz Ulewicz, Sarmacja. Studium z problematyki slowianskiej XV i XVI wieku (Kraków 1950) and Zagadnienia sarmatyzmu w kulturze i literaturze polskiej (Zeszyty Naukowe UJ, 1963); Janusz Tazbir, Kultura szlachecka w Polsce. Rozkwit, upadek, relikty (Warsaw 1963); Tadeusz Mankowski, Genealogia sarmatyzmu(Warsaw 1946); Stanisaw Grzybowski, Sarmatyzm (Warsaw 1996).