OLD POLISH ON-LINE
E Y E
T H E
Michael J. Mikoś
The most efficient medium for disseminating Renaissance ideas was the printed word. In 1473, Kasper Straube from Bavaria set up the first workshop in Cracow and by 1477 published four texts, beginning with the almanac for 1474. Szwajpolt Fiol established between 1483 and 1486 a printing house, where after obtaining 230 Cyrillic molds, he published by 1491 the first four Cyrillic books in the world: two collections of Easter prayers and songs, a breviary, and a collection of hymns. Jan Haller, a prominent Cracow merchant who owned the first regular printing house, released between 1505 and 1525 about 250 texts, mostly liturgical. Other printers, among them Marek Szarffenberg, Florian Ungler and Hieronim Wietor, issued a variety of new titles including prayer books, Bibles, popular calendars, medical treatises, political and historical tracts, as well as textbooks, translations from the ancient authors, and works of Polish poets and prose writers. Łazarz Andrysowicz, who took over Wietor's printing house, published Frycz Modrzewski's treatise
De Republica emendanda
in 1551, his son Janusz Januszowski, was the publisher of nearly all books by Kochanowski and of Wujek's
, while Maciej Wierzbięta issued Rej's works and Górnicki's
. It is estimated that between 1561 and 1600, for example, seventeen printing houses in Poland published over 120 titles a year, that the average edition of a scholarly work in the sixteenth century was about 500 copies, and that the total number of printed books in that period was over two million volumes. Printers also contributed to the standardization of the language, as they regulated spelling rules and introduced diacritic marks to show phonemic differences.
The significance of the printed word grew with the advent of the Reformation. Half of the printing houses were in the hands of Protestants, as supporters of each creed realized the potential of this new form of communication in spreading their religious and social ideas. The Calvinist printers at Brześć and Wilno competed with the Arians at Pińczów and Raków, as well as with the Jesuit publishers in Poznań and Braniewo. What is more important, the Reformation movement, which spurred the growth of national culture, art, and learning, contributed to the increased popularity of the Polish language. Printed translations of the Bible proliferated following the 1561 publication of the first complete text in Polish by Jan Leopolita, while religious and social polemics were carried out more and more in the vernacular.
The gentry and the burghers, who played the leading role in the formation of the national culture, began to promote Polish as the language of state and literature. Numerous guilds of Cracow burghers recorded their statutes in Polish, and from the middle of the sixteenth century the courts and regional diets used the vernacular. The Church favored the Latin language, but in response to social demand most sermons were delivered in Polish. Even Frycz Modrzewski, who wrote exclusively in Latin, pointed out in his
Tractatus de sermone vernaculo
the advantages of propagating the Scriptures in the Polish language.
Polish Renaissance literature was essentially bilingual. Many writers, for example, Krzycki, Janiciusz, and Copernicus, wrote only in Latin. Some poets, most notably Kochanowski, Klonowic, and Szymonowic, used both Latin and Polish throughout their lives. But the majority of literary works of the period was written and published in the native language, for example, by Biernat, Rej, Górnicki, Kochanowski, Skarga, and Sęp Szarzyński, attracting many readers and popular acclaim. Their masterly use of various genres of poetry and prose led to the emergence of modern Polish literature and contributed to the consolidation of a national language.
Middle Polish, formed and developed mainly in the region of Little Poland with Cracow as its center, was influenced to a great degree by the dialect of Great Poland. Linguistic features characteristic of both dialects provided the foundation of an integrated idiom. The sound system underwent many changes of quality and quantity, affecting both vowels and consonants. The stress became fixed, falling on the penultimate syllable. The paradigms of certain declensions and conjugations became more uniform. The syntax underwent changes, allowing, for example, for a clear distinction between direct and indirect speech and greater regularity in the formation of compound sentences.
Lexical resources of Middle Polish more than tripled, reaching about 50,000 words. Borrowings from Latin, Czech, German, French, and Italian provided many new words for various semantic fields and for abstract concepts, allowing the language to function at many stylistic levels. Thus, the Middle Polish borrowed from Latin, e.g.,
; from German, e.g.,
, "hospital"; and
, "print"; and from Italian, e.g.,
, "tulip"; and
Numerous dictionaries, some of them multilingual, for example, Joannes Murmelius's
(1526), some bilingual, for example, Jan Mączyński's
(1564), listing about 21,000 Polish words, recorded the Middle Polish lexical stock. The first practical orthography of the Polish language was prepared by Stanisław Murzynowski in 1551. Other authors, including Piotr Statorius-Stojeński in 1568 and Jan Januszowski in 1594, published grammar books. Linguistic polemics, concerning chiefly the importance of Polish and its relation to Latin, stimulated additional interest in the vernacular and in literature.
The dominant role of the nobility in political and cultural life was also reflected in literature. A great number of the most prominent writers belonged to the gentry, for example, Rej, Kochanowski, and Sęp Szarzyński. But the noblemen were not the only members of the literary elite, as it included many burghers, to mention only Biernat of Lublin, Klonowic, and Szymonowic, clergymen, among them Krzycki, Orzechowski, and Skarga, and even some men of humble origin, e.g., Janiciusz, Hussowski, and Jan of Kijany.
The literature they produced was just as varied. At the court, poets like Krzycki, Dantyszek, and Gąsiorek (also known as Kleryka) wrote occasional pieces to honor their patrons or to celebrate their weddings and victories. Religious literature was represented by theological treatises, by learned commentaries, and by collections of Protestant and Catholic hymns. The Catholic version of the Bible by Leopolita was followed by the Calvinist rendition (Brześć Bible of 1563), the Arian text (Nieświerz Bible of 1572) and the most popular, authorized translation by the Jesuit Jakub Wujek (1599). Political writings, dealing with matters of State organization and the public weal, were disseminated in leaflets, pamphlets, and books, some of them authored by eminent writers, such as Orzechowski, Frycz Modrzewski, and Skarga. Burgher literature, including popular plebeian romances, satirical dialogues, and anonymous facetious stories, described with realism the lives and activities of craftsmen, journeymen, clerics, vagabonds, and even criminals.
The general tone, however, was set by the noblemen who propagated their own ideals of material and spiritual life. They lived upon their estates and occupied themselves with agricultural labors. The countryside and rural activities, measured by a peaceful flow of seasons, became their favorite artistic subject. Rej extolled the life and occupations of the ideal country squire, while Kochanowski celebrated in songs the beauty of the landscape and joys of rural life. Familiar with nature and inspired by its luxuriant manifestations, the poets painted original pictures of the world, presenting it with simplicity and sincere fascination.
They were able to do it by using a variety of new literary forms. Lyrical poetry was enriched by the Horatian ode, by the pastoral, and by the Italian sonnet. Other genres included elegy, romance, and satire. Among dramatic types, religious comedy and Jesuit school performances were staged next to popular morality plays.
The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys
by Kochanowski was the first Polish humanist drama. The new poetic devices, combined with originality and depth of thought, brought Renaissance literature to a high level of artistic expression.
Andrzej Krzycki, Mikołaj Hussowski, and Klemens Janiciusz belonged to the cosmopolitan fraternity of humanist poets who, like their predecessor
Filippo Buonaccorsi (Kallimach)
, the celebrated poet from Tuscany, propagated the ideals of Renaissance culture in Poland.
chronicled major events at the royal court in his witty epigrams, e.g.,
Four-line Poem on Queen Barbara
The Picture of Life at Court
, and delighted his readers with ingenious love conceits, e.g.,
On a Girl Lidia
Poem on Bison
, modelled on Roman didactic poems, was known outside Poland for its original and vivid description of the majestic animal.
, considered the most accomplished lyric poet before Kochanowski, was the author of polished epigrams, e.g.,
Andrzej Krzycki, a Pole
, dedicated to his protector, and of moving elegies, e.g.,
About Myself to Posterity
Many authors writing in the vernacular gained instant popularity. Some translated chivalrous romances and fantastic stories, others entertained broad masses of readers with amusing anecdotes and fables. One of the best known writers was
Biernat of Lublin
, whose moralistic poems, e.g.,
He Who Holds the Sword Has the Peace
He Who Is Diligent Won't Go Wrong
, were based on versified renditions of Greek fables ascribed to Aesop, read throughout Europe in Latin translations. Marcin Bielski related in the first general history written in Polish some important local events, e.g.,
Death and Funeral of Zygmunt the Old
. The anonymous stories of
Owlglass Facetious and Amusing
, derived from the German folk tales about Till Eulenspiegel, copious compilations of plebeian romances, including
Conversations Which Wise King Solomon Had with the Coarse and Vulgar Marcholt
, and bawdy epigrams by Jan of Kijany, e.g.,
, provided common people with an abundant supply of ribald entertainment.
The Latin prose works of Nicholas Copernicus constitute the paramount achievement of Renaissance science. Fully aware of the implications of his discovery for the accepted teachings of the Church, Copernicus tried to protect himself and his work from the attacks of hostile scholars and clergymen. When after a long delay he decided to have the new theory of the universe published, he dedicated the
, in a carefully worded letter of introduction, to Pope Paul III. In the field of historiography, Marcin Kromer's
De origine et rebus gestis Polonorum
(1575) became a worthy continuation of Długosz's monumental
. Issued in many editions and adaptations abroad, Kromer's lively descriptions served for many years as a major source of information about Polish people, history, culture, economy, and political system.
Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski
, a prominent political writer, was a utopian thinker and moralist who intended to enlighten and edify the nation. His bold ideas concerning a thorough reform of the state and the church, expressed in
Commentariorum de Republica emendanda
(1551-1554), won renown among European humanists, though they could not have been put into practice. Frycz considered Christian morality as the foundation of society and state, education and public duties as the most important obligations of citizens. He postulated the creation of a universal church, which would embrace the main teachings of Catholic and Protestant doctrines. He believed that the state should strive to preserve peace, be prepared to repel enemies, and engage only in just, defensive wars.
, Frycz's adversary, was a gifted polemicist and ardent patriot who wrote with consummate skill on major religious issues. He also concerned himself with weighty problems of State reorganization, gaining immense popularity among the gentry whose causes he championed with fervent eloquence. Zealous and impassioned, he was unable, however, to rise above his changeable and, at times, narrow concerns.
Another prominent prose writer was Piotr Skarga, an inspired Jesuit preacher who became engaged in the debates and polemics stirred by the Reformation. Skarga, who dedicated his entire life to serve God and his fellow man, especially the poor and the unfortunates, believed that his principal mission was to promote a reform of the country. His major work was a series of eight eloquent
Sermons to the Diet
(1597), in which he depicted the moral and political degradation in Poland. Skarga called on all citizens to fulfill their duties not only towards God, Church, and their neighbors, but also towards the imperiled homeland. His appeal for moral regeneration, written in a vivid language that was inspired by the Bible, emerged as a model of lofty, classical Polish.
The Polish Courtier
(1566), an adaptation of Castiglione's
Il libro del cortegiano
, became the most elaborate affirmation of Renaissance values. Written in masterly prose, the
offered a high-minded view of Renaissance civilization transposed to the Polish soil. In Górnicki's conception, the courtier's obligations extended beyond his palace duties, embracing education and art as well as chivalry and moral probity, all of them shaping a human being of refined culture and character. A picture of the ideal statesman was drawn by Wawrzyniec Goślicki in his
De optimo senatore libri duo
(1568). Goślicki was ahead of his time in advocating that kings should be held responsible for their deeds. Translated into English as
The Counsellor exactly portraited in two books
(1598), the first edition was promptly confiscated, but other translations and adaptations followed. They became popular among dissidents, who used excerpts from the book in political debates.
One of the most important Renaissance writers, called by many "the father of Polish literature," was
. This versatile and prolific author, keenly interested in political, religious and moralistic issues, was a staunch advocate of Calvinism and of the Polish language. His programmatic motto recorded in the collection of epigrams entitled the
Among other nations let it always be known
That the Poles are not geese, have a tongue
of their own.
Rej's language was indeed his own; it was pithy and picturesque, at times chatty, but always lively and witty. His poems and prose works gained him immense popularity, a clear confirmation that literature could develop in the national language and that literary ability was appreciated by a great number of readers.
Rej excelled in a variety of genres. His
Short Conversation Between Three Persons, a Squire, a Bailiff, and a Parson
is a mordant satire directed mostly against the gentry and the clergy, to some extent against the peasantry. Rej's views on education, military service, married life, as well as on farming and household activities, were contained in
The Life of an Honest Man
, a veritable encyclopedia of everyday life of the gentry in the countryside in sixteenth century Poland. His
was a collection of about seven hundred epigrams presenting portraits of outstanding personalities, including Luther and Kochanowski, and the
, a book of short poems in ribald style. Rej also wrote verse plays, religious treatises, and translated the psalms.
Polish Renaissance literature reached its highest point with the poetry of Jan Kochanowski. He was steeped in the great traditions of the ancient world, namely Greek mythology, Greek and Latin literatures, and the Bible. He was familiar with the programs and achievements of Italian humanists and the poets of the French
, whose goals, including the propagation of national languages and literatures, were advanced by the Reformation. He also reached out to his native heritage and language. Out of these deep sources of inspiration Kochanowski created modern Polish poetry, widening its thematic range and setting a course for its growth. He also enriched its form and stylistic options.
Kochanowski was above all a lyric poet. His books of
form a collection of about 300 epigrams, anecdotes, and light poems, a real compendium of the poet's experiences and observations. Some of them, to mention only
On the Linden Tree
, perceived as samples of national wisdom and pictures of the bygone beauty of nature, are read by every child in Poland. Others, including
On Human Life
, address in a few lines the essential topics of the Renaissance worldview. Still others, for example,
On a Spanish Doctor
To a Maid
, entertain the readers with good natured humor.
Kochanowski's major lyric form was the song. His songs were modelled on Horatian odes and Petrarchan
, and dealt with the themes of friendship, love, religion, and philosophy. One of them, published in 1562 and known as
Hymn to God
, a thanksgiving prayer expressing some of the most characteristic ideas of Renaissance philosophy, is full of serene optimism and joyful fascination with God's creation. The poem praises the beauty and harmony of the world and man's secure place in it. The poems from a cycle entitled
Saint John's Eve Song
attest to Kochanowski's interest in Polish country life, folk culture and customs. The songs were written in novel poetic patterns, varying in the length of lines, number of verses, and sequence of rhymes.
The poet's mastery of the vernacular and profound knowledge of the Renaissance ideas were displayed in his adaptation of the
Book of Psalms
, in which he used fifteen syllabic types of verse and thirty two types of stanzas. In
The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys
, an original Renaissance drama filled with the classical spirit, Kochanowski introduced unrhymed blank verse into Polish poetry. The
, the most mature and personal of Kochanowski's poems, form a cycle of nineteen elegies, written after the loss of his daughter. They are considered one of the most poignant expressions of a father's sorrow in world literature.
In 1584, when Kochanowski died suddenly, Sebastian Klonowic wrote in his honor thirteen
. A burgher from Lublin, Klonowic excelled in long descriptive poems based on keen observation of country and city life. In
Sailing, that is Navigating Boats
, Klonowic described the raftsmen's customs and activities during their annual voyages along the Vistula River to Gdańsk, while in
, he painted in fine detail many realistic scenes, featuring thieves, crooks, and tramps, frequent visitors in the town hall courts and jails.
The spiritual character of Polish poetry is visible in the elaborate sonnets of
Mikołaj Sęp Szarzyński
, a fervent Catholic, who often saw the human condition in tragic dimensions. Sęp Szarzyński struggled with an overwhelming sense of the vanity of life and with his own weaknesses, achieving in many a poem a dramatic tension which would subside in an emotional climax. A mood of religious reflection, colored by melancholy and pessimism, permeated the poems of Sebastian Grabowiecki, the author of
, who found inspiration in Spanish and Italian mystical poetry.
, who was influenced by the Bible and symbolical writings, concerned himself with questions of man's fleeting existence in the universe.
Kasper Miaskowski, Szymon Szymonowic, and Szymon Zimorowic occupy the borderline between the Renaissance and the Baroque. Although Szymonowic wrote mostly Latin verses, it was his
, a genre he introduced into Polish literature, that became his major poetic accomplishment. The provenance of the
is classical, their form imitates conventional eclogues, yet the best of them, including
, are realistic and true. Szymonowic was able to describe the beauty of nature and paint delicate scenes of rustic life, showing against this pastoral background the hard, sometimes brutal reality of the peasant's lot. Zimorowic's
Roxolans, or the Ruthenian Maidens
is a collection of melodious love poems, inspired by folk songs, a gentle echo of Renaissance harmony.
Printed source: Polish Literature from the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century. A Bilingual Anthology, by Michael J. Mikoś, Warsaw: Constans, 1999.