Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz

December 4, 2020

     Today marks a real achievement for me, and one that’s taken years to make myself accomplish: I’ve finally read the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. This may not sound a big deal to many of you, but imagine if an educated Englishman (like myself!) confessed that it was only at age 65 he had first read any Shakespeare…

I still have my dad’s small, leatherbound copy, in Polish of course, so I couldn’t read it, given to him on our first visit there half a century ago. I recently came across a reference to the translation pictured above, which was highly praised, and bought it. After I’d begun reading it, I found an old, second-hand copy of a much poorer translation on an out-of-the-way bookshelf; I’d obviously been feeling guilty over 30 years ago when I’d bought it!

I had been dreading (mildly) reading the poem, regarding it as a duty more than anything. Not that I don’t like poetry, obviously, but lengthy poems can be a slog. (Still only a third of the way through Dante, begun over ten years ago). And poetry from the Romantic era I’ve always had a problem with. But this was a delight… not what I’d anticipated at all. Partly, this feeling is a tribute to the hard work and sensitivity of the translator Bill Johnston, who is totally in sympathy with the work and the country, and thought carefully about metre, rhythm and the differences between the languages. So the translation feels contemporary, the verse is carefully but not obsessively rhymed, and Johnston has used the iambic pentameter throughout, except in the epilogue, which works well in English and is not tiring to read. I was more than a little surprised when, quite early on, I found myself reminded, both in terms of the rhythm and subject-matter, of Wordsworth’s Prelude.

The poem was written in exile in 1830; it’s in twelve books, and is set some twenty years earlier, at the time of the beginning of Napoleon’s invasion of tsarist Russia, which brought hopes of freedom and independence to Poland, which had been erased from the map in 1795. It’s set in the remote forests of the borderlands between Poland and Lithuania, which had formed a single Commonwealth for several centuries, and is the region of my Polish ancestors. The focus is largely on the gentry and its traditions, the setting is rural, and the plot focuses on rivalries and disagreements over land and property, a mysterious killing some twenty years previously, and various marriage plots.

What works most effectively is the marvellous creation of place and atmosphere of a lost past, one that is sliding into history as the story unfolds. I understood rather more about the nature of the old Polish nobility and its relation to other social groups, place and country, and am clearer about how our family comes to be in the book of the nobility despite being impoverished peasants…

The story works its way through various local rivalries up to a serious skirmish between Poles and Lithuanians united against local Russian troops, in which the former carry the day (obviously); the battle descriptions are marvellously done and you really feel in the middle of things. Then comes the reckoning, the revelations, the weddings and the feasting. And none of it is too deadly serious, if you see what I mean. There is a real sense of the Polish nation united, a happiness or contentedness with the old – and vanishing – ways beneath the surface, a gentle nostalgia…

Now that I finally have a handle on the entire story, I shall go back to it soon and read more closely and deeply, and enjoy more fully.

One Response to “Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz”


  1. […] award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish […]

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: