On a pilgrimage to one of the land’s of my ancestors in 2014, about two months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, I was walking down a side street near my Warsaw hotel when I noticed a stark poster on a billboard.
In a prominent act of protest, the poster displayed a drawing of Vladimir Putin in the form of a skull and crossbones, the words “Achtung” and “Russia!” framing the image and likening Putin and Russia to Hitler and Nazi Germany.
When I later asked a Polish woman about the poster, she told me that if Putin dared to attempt to roll into Poland as he did Crimea the Polish would teach Putin and Russia a lesson.
I thought of that poster recently when I read Adam Mickiewicz’s verse play Forefathers’ Eve. Glagoslav Publications has recently published the first complete edition of Forefathers’ Eve by Mickiewicz (1798-1855), the national poet of Poland, in an excellent translation by poet, translator, and critic Charles S. Kraszewski.
In reading the play, I encountered the same defiance exhibited by the woman in Mickiewicz’s words concerning the Tsar:
“You’re not asleep, Tsar! Though the night is deep
And all your lackey’s snore, you’re not asleep!
The Lord is merciful: He has not rent
You from your soul, which warns of punishment
Awaiting you. But you would stifle it….
“He was not evil born, was once a man—
By faint degrees devolved he to tyrant;
The Lord’s angels depart when man rebels;
Thus he drew ever closer to the devils….”
Forefathers’ Eve should be of great interest to those interested in Polish and Romantic literature, in Mickiewicz’s body of literary work, and in how one literary writer presents the Polish view of Russia and the Tsar in his times and what that historical tension between Poland and Russia may mean for the present.
But even if he is interested in such a theme, the general reader will find the play a difficult read since Mickiewicz attempts to present his thoughts on much more.
Topics and characters come and go with great speed in this work. Here the reader encounters pagan ritual, ghosts, demons, romantic love, love of country, Satan, prisoners imprisoned for no good reason, evil Russian politicians, an evil and war-mongering Russian Tsar, suppressive Christians, an exorcism, and a fearful priest.
The Christian reader too, particularly the Catholic reader, will find the play difficult. Mickiewicz is considered a mystic of sorts, but his mysticism has little foundation in sound Christian ideals and his nationalism outweighs his religious sensibility. In addition, despite some moments of respect for Christian beliefs, running throughout the play is an undercurrent of anti-clerical and anti-Catholic sentiment.
Mickiewicz’s four-part Forefathers’ Eve is essentially two plays: One concerning a folk custom called the Dziady, a pagan celebration of ancestors, and the other the tyranny of Russia and the Tsar.
The first of these two works, which he opens the play with and returns to in the final section of the play, is a confused glorification of a syncretism of paganism, nationalism, and Christianity. The second, which is the primary concern of the third part of the play, is far more powerful and lucid despite flaws.
Pagan, nationalistic, political, and Christian ideas bump up against one another in this play. Like many intellectuals of his time and even our own, Mickiewicz sees Christianity as he understands it as an impediment to the full expression of the culture he envisions.
While I cannot judge the play in its original language of Polish, I can say that the English translation is excellent. The language and poetry soar throughout. Mickiewicz surely is a remarkable writer. His skillful writing, however, cannot overcome the confusion of his thought.
It is his ideas, his confused thoughts about religion and nationalism, that makes me balk at suggestions that Mickiewicz’s work is akin to that of Dante, who has a much greater understanding of and affinity with the Catholic Church and its teachings.
And while one might liken his ghosts and demons to Shakespeare’s witches, for instance, Forefathers’ Eve has little of the balance, cohesiveness, and subtlety of Shakespeare’s works. Language is never enough, as both Dante and Shakespeare abundantly prove. Their works combine brilliant language with unified thought.
In this play, Mickiewicz exposes a core that is pagan and excessively nationalistic. Central to his belief is that the Polish must embrace their pagan past, which Christianity and its “enlightened clergy” has suppressed. Along with this is his hostility toward Russia, which comes across as being central to the Polish soul.
Perhaps it is his nationalism and his willingness to stand up against tyranny, along with his skillful writing, that has made him the national poet of Catholic Poland. But I cannot see the ideas that Mickiewicz presents in this play as worthy of faithful, Catholic Poland.
Everywhere I traveled in Poland, I encountered a reverence for God and Christ, a faithfulness to the teachings of the Catholic Church, that superseded any excessively nationalistic spirit and love of country, and which, it seems to me, is the true expression of the Polish soul. I also encountered a sense that the Polish were at their finest when they lived the Catholic faith, despite their failure at times to do so.
I tend to think that if they had read Forefathers’ Eve the Polish faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church would look upon that poster of Putin and would see Mickiewicz’s brand of nationalism as little different from that of Putin.
In Warsaw, Krakow, and a number of small towns I encountered, Poles live their faith fully and have no fear of expressing it. They are a people whose forefathers lived the Catholic faith fully in the dark decades of the twentieth century, despite the tyranny of once atheistic Communist Russia, and who lived that faith in the dark days of domination by the Russian Tsar.
With such faith, they have no need of pagan ritual or excessive nationalism.