A New Translation of Adam Mickiewicz's "Romanticism"

Angela Britlinger

Methinks, I see... Where?
-In my mind's eyes. (Shakespeare)

Listen, maiden!
- She is not listening -
It's broad daylight! In a town!
Near you thereีs no living soul.
What are you grasping at all around?
Whom are you calling, whom are you greeting?
- She does not listen. -

Now like a dead stone
She is oblivious,
Now she casts glances around,
Now her eyes spill over with tears;
As if holding something, as if keeping something;
She will burst into tears and laughter.

"Are you there in the night? it's you, Jasieniek!
Oh! after death he still loves!
This way, this way quietly,
Or else stepmother will hear!

"Let her hear, you are no more!
It's already after your funeral!
You've already died? Oh! I'm afraid!
Why am I afraid of my Jasieniek?
Oh, it is he! your face, your eyes!
Your white shirt!

"And you too are as white as linen,
Cold, how cold your hands!
Put them here, on my breast,
Hug me, press your lips to mine!

"Ah, how cold it must be in the grave!
You died! Yes, two years ago!
Take me, I will die near you,
I don't like the world.

"Miserable am I in this mob of evil people,
I cry, and they scoff;
I speak, nobody understands;
I see, they don't see!

"Come some time during the day... Or perhaps in a dream?
No, no... I must keep hold of you.
Where are you going, where, my Jasieniek!
It's still early, it's still early!

"My God! The cock is crowing,
The morning star is glittering in the window.
Where have you gone! ah! wait, Jasieniek!
I am so unhappy."

So the girl embraces her lover,
Runs after him, shouts, falls;
Seeing her fall, hearing the voice of her grief,
A crowd of people gathers.

"Say your prayers!" shout the simple folk,
"His soul must be here.
Jasio must be near his Karusia,
He loved her in life!"

I also hear this, I also believe this,
I cry and say my prayers.
"Listen, maiden!" shouts amid the uproar
An old man, and exclaims to the people:
"Trust my sight and my lenses,
I see nothing here.

"The ghosts are the creation of this tavern crowd,
Forged in the smithy of foolishness.
The girl is raving utter nonsense,
And the peasants blaspheme against reason."

"The girl feels," I modestly answer,
"And the crowd believes profoundly;
Feeling and faith speak more clearly to me
Than the lenses and eye of the sage.

"You know dead truths, unknown to the people.
You see the world in details, in each spark of the stars;
You don't know living truth, you'll never see a miracle!
Have a heart and look into your heart!"

"Romanticism" was written in 1821. The story is partially modelled on G. A. Burger's ballad, "Lenore," widely imitated by Romantic poets and discussed in Mme de Stael's De l'Allemagne. In the German poem, a bridegroom returns from war for his bride and carries her off on a horse to their "wedding bed," only to turn into a skeleton as the dawn comes. The focus in Mickiewicz's poem is on the solidarity of the girl, the rural community and the poet.The emphasis on the peasants as the bulwark of the Polish nation stems from the forced partition of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia; under foreign occupation, Poles sometimes came to equate the peasantry with Polishness.

Mickiewicz's quoting of Shakespeare in the epigraph is an ironic echo of philosopher Jan Sniadecki's opinion on the importance of Reason. A similar epigraph was used in Forefathers' Eve, Part II (1823): "There are many more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (Hamlet, I, v)

"Romanticism" takes up the favorite Romantic themes of madness, love beyond death and belief in folk wisdom. Absent are other themes of western Romanticism: withdrawal from reality and the malady of the soul. Karusia is not ostracized by the community despite her feeling of isolation; the townspeople support her vision over the protestations of the sage. The poet, too, is a part of the people, and he is able to argue their beliefs for them. The final line is the poet's advice to the rationalist, "Have a heart and look into your heart." Human feelings, folk wisdom, the imagination, including ghosts and goblins, are more valuable to Mickiewicz than the strict rules of the Age of Reason.

In some ways, the poem anticipates Mickiewicz's idea of poetry as prophesy. The poet's mission, he soon came to believe, was to serve his people and be their spiritual leader, to articulate their yearnings and emotions. It is people like Karusia and the townsfolk who make up the million in Konrad's famous line, "My name is million, for I love as millions: Their pain and suffering I feel" (Forefathers' Eve, Part III [1832]). The links between the parts of Forefathers' Eve extend back to include Karusia and "Romanticism;" in Part IV (1823), Gustaw tells the Priest how he laughed at a raving young woman and now himself is doomed to relive her fate. Karusia has been reborn across gender and class lines in the lovesick, raving Gustaw, who in Part III is reborn as the poet/prophet Konrad. Thus "Romanticism" not only serves as a manifesto of the Polish Romantic movement, but also has lasting significance for the rest of Mickiewicz's oeuvre.

Other translators of Mickiewicz's poem have used irregular rhyme schemes in imitation of the original; in my translation I have chosen to emphasize syntax and tone. I have maintained all the original punctuation and much of the syntax in order to show the heightened emotional level of the poem. In my opinion, such departures as W.K. Auden's calling the hero "Johnny" destroy the cultural distance which I feel is vital in a translated poem. Some problems in the text include the word "szkielko," literally "microscope;" the picture of an old man wandering about town carrying a microscope is too ludicrous in English, so at the cost of potential misreading I have rendered the world as "lenses."

The term "Romanticism" seems to owe its popularity to the work of A.W. Schlegel who wrote on the contrast of the new "romantic" spirit in literature with the old classical literature. In Poland, Mme de Stael's De l'Allemagne evoked the poet Kazimierz Brodzinski's response in Polish, Dissertation concerning Classicism and Romanticism with Appendix on The Spirit of Polish Poetry (1818). Jan Sniadecki, a confirmed "rationalist," found that Brodzinski's views of poetry "overestimated feeling and fantasy as the chief elements of the human soul." Mickiewicz's response to the question of Romanticism versus Classicism and Rationalism was his first published work, Ballady i romanse (1822). Its Preface is a manifesto of Romanticism akin to those of de Stael, Brodzinski, and in the English tradition, Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800).


Maria Janion, Goraczka romantyczna (Warsaw: PIW 1975) Exchanges: A Journal of Translation published in conjunction with the Translation Workshop at the University of Iowa.

I wish to thank Professor Halina Filipowicz for her advice on the translation and her generous help in developing my ideas on Mickiewicz and Polish Romanticism.

Angela Britlinger is now completing her doctoral dissertation in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among her many honors are the Thomas J. Watson Scholarship, the Helena Bielinska Memorial Award from the Polish Women's Cultural Club of Milwaukee, and the University of Wisconsin Graduate Fellowship. She was a National Merit Scholar and graduated cum laude from Rice University in 1987.

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