You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Flames of Goodness

THE POLISH POET Cyprian Norwid—though he is known to his compatriots as an artist of the highest eminence and read by schoolchildren in Poland almost universally, and is, more generally speaking, a poet of Western-canonical significance to whom scholars often compare Hopkins and Browning, and even more insightfully Dickinson and Pound—is unfortunately an obscure poet in the English-speaking world. Though Jerzy Peterkiewicz, Burns Singer, and Christine Brooke-Rose together supplied a serviceable translation of Norwid’s work in 2000, and Adam Czerniawski published last year his more-than-serviceable translation in a second edition, it is at last Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Norwid, with the original text presented side-by-side with facing-page translations into English, through which English-speaking readers should familiarize themselves with this authentically strong poet. It is Borchardt, with his faithfulness to Norwid’s idiosyncrasies and his fluent music, who best conveys Norwid’s fierce originality, his condensations of thought and elliptical ironies. If there are less ambiguous or less obscure English translations of Norwid, Borchardt’s is still the most lucid and moving.  

Norwid’s obscurity is by no means a new theme in the criticism of his poetry. Born in 1821, Norwid began his literary career with a bang in Warsaw around 1840 but was later rejected by the Polish milieu of his time, and he lived out the rest of his life, blind and deaf, hand-to-mouth, in exile, dying rather pitifully in a Polish hospice in Paris in 1883. One of Norwid’s contemporaries, Józef Tokarzewicz, suggests that the principal reason for Norwid’s obscurity was that “his ideas, despite his profound learning and detailed familiarity with the achievements of contemporary knowledge, move in a diametrically opposite direction to that of the modern philosophical current … [He] knew how to uncover in every thing such a relation of it to other things that it would become so original as to appear almost unrecognizable.”

This is perceptive criticism, but it is anticipated by Norwid himself in “Obscurity,” one of the poems in his great collection of 1886, Vade-mecum. Roughly translated from the Latin as “Go with me,” the phrase refers to a kind of manual, which speaks both to Norwid’s desire to converse with his audience, as any poet might desire, especially one in exile, and also to his rather revolutionary mode of Christo-Socratic didacticism:

You protest the obscurity of my speech,

– Have you yourself ever lit a candle?

Or did your servant always bring you

Light? … watch – for I know you well.

A wick, lit with a spark, burns down

And warms the wax, which rises like a ball

At its pole, the flame suddenly drowns;

Its Light is wan – a fading glow –

Quick – quick, you think it will die, as

From below the hot liquid drowns the light –

It’s faith you need – ash and spark are not enough…

Have you faith? … then watch – watch it blaze!...

Such are my words, o! my fellow man,

Yet you stint them one meager moment,

Ere, first kindling epoch’s chill,

They cast a flame into the skies, in atonement…

The poet here imagines worldly experience as a candle, the wick of which is to be lit with the spark of poetry and sublimated into “a flame,” a figure for the revelation of divine truth. But the addressee of the poem, indeed the beholder of the sublimation that the poem enacts, is skeptical. He or she (wrongly) suspects, watching the candle burn alongside Norwid-as-“servant,” that the rising “hot liquid” will drown the flame; that worldly experience, agitated by the imminence of revelation, will kill revelation. And so the poet instructs his skeptical reader to have faith that the candle will not extinguish itself, but that instead it will, astonishingly, “cast a flame into the skies, in atonement.”

The poem recommends itself to us with the intimacy of its address (the Czerniawski translation altogether neglects this quality by declining the pronouns of its first quatrain in the third person, so that the speaker comes off not as intimate but rather as bitterly alienated); and the poem recommends itself to us also with its elegant figuration. But it perhaps most recommends itself to us with the smooth modulation of its vision, as severe (if just) Socratic questioning is soon ironized by the poem’s deeply tender and charitable latent presupposition that a faith worthy of the poem is already enkindled within us.  

“Obscurity” was also a new kind of spiritual lyric for the period, marked by the Norwidian difference. Against the tradition of “propheteering” in Polish poetry he so detested, the poet casts himself here not as the medium through which God speaks, but rather as a “servant” who is domestically, physically laboring as he lights the candle in an attempt to behold the divine. And indeed, throughout his work, Norwid argues against the “received idea” of physical-labor-as-curse, a Romantic cliché, and instead proposes labor as a means of purification and elevation, especially when informed by sacred art.

The poet also rather originally conceives of poetic creation as an act of cooperation between his reader and himself, where the reader’s faith is a precondition for the poet’s all-benefitting success. That is, the poem itself cultivates an intimate sense of community, which, in addition to having spiritual significance, had—during the Age of Partitions, when the Russian tsars had all but annexed Poland—political significance as well. While his great contemporary Mickiewicz played (in better poetry than Norwid’s) at being a Polish Moses, Norwid avoided such postures, motivated by his denial, revolutionary for its time, that God is embodied in human history. As Norwid rather brutally implies, no benevolent god could be so embodied; for human history “knows only: ‘blood! ...’”

But while Norwid has one eye fixed on the heavens, so does his other unflinchingly speculate on our history, contaminated by violence and sorrow, tears and blood and “the spirit [that] seeps out under oppression.” Indeed, the poet claims that his reason for moving against contemporary philosophical and poetic currents is that those currents misconceive and misrepresent—or worse, are ignorant of—the horrors of their historical locus, as is argued in “Why Not in Chorus”:

Sing you, in chorus bound – –

And I? – corrupt the intonation

In triumphant supplication

      For I’ve seen blood…!

Norwid is a metrical virtuoso, whose sense, like that of any great poet, cannot be divorced from his sound, and therefore is much deserving of Borchardt’s technically meticulous translation above: the harmonious tetrameters of the second and third lines of the quatrain, the sweet and accomplished rhyme on “intonation” and “supplication”—all corrupted by the arresting dimeter and harshly insistent spondee “seen blood” of the final line; and it is only by means of such an uncomplacent style, the poet suggests, that Romantic Polish poetry could be true to the spiritual, political, and personal occasions out of which it arose, the “blood” in which Poland was weltering.

Here, for comparison, is Czerniawski’s translation of the same quatrain:

Sing in triumphant chorus

Your praises unto God – –

I? – could spoil your song.

      I have seen blood! ...

Less faithful to Norwid’s enjambments and his punctuation, and not as sonically conscious as Norwid’s poetry requires, this translation pales in comparison to Borchardt’s, which is not Czerniawski’s failure so much as it is Borchardt’s success (though the difference in the quality of the two translations is generally not so pronounced as it is here, and certainly Czerniawski has his share of successes as well).

Norwid will go on to drape his uncomplacent style on a number of new modes, like the fierce satire of “Nerves,” where the “coffin-like chambers” of starving Poles are juxtaposed against an aristocratic parlor, with its allegorical parrots painted “on the plafond” that “from beak to beak will cry: ‘Socialism!’” The targets of the satire of “Nerves” are those who “sell [their] soul to a civilization,” as Norwid articulates it in his prose; or, to put it another way, those whose solution to societal suffering is political rather than spiritual.

Of course, this rigorously Christian element of Norwid’s thought might be alienating to a reader in the America of the twenty-first century, but it must be contextualized within Norwid’s belief that civilizations are innately limited, mere means to an end, and that their limitations inevitably destroy them from within (think the decline and fall of the Roman Empire); whereas spiritual solutions to social problems, Norwid thinks, are transcivilizational, transhistorical, and therefore beyond the cycles of creativity and degeneration and decline that doom all other human projects from the start. But, ideology aside, any reader can enjoy “Nerves” for its tongue-in-cheek critique of realism in favor of a more visionary poetics (“Candelabras make a wry face at realism”), despite the essentiality of this critique to Norwid’s satire; and readers may also be moved by Norwid’s brutally self-loathing indictment of himself as “a taciturn Pharisee,” that he has in part sold his soul to civilization by consorting with the Polish aristocracy.

I have scarcely represented the poetic strength of Norwid here, and indeed it would be impossible to do so, so wide is his emotional range and so ingenious are his generic and modal developments. He truly contains multitudes: the lover’s melancholy and political outrage, tightly-wound epigrams and humane parables and rhapsodic solemn-lined elegies, blackly humorous satire and nothing less than the visionary sublime. At his best, he can hit all of these keys in pitch-perfect sequence, as in this astonishing section from what is perhaps his finest lyric, “Chopin’s Grand Piano”:

The very one! … that [piano which] proclaimed Poland

– From the zenith of Ages’ all-perfection

Captured – in hymns of Rapture;

That Poland – of transfigured wheelwrights –

That same piano – cast – on a street of granite!

– And so it is, like man’s noble thought,

Besullied by men’s wrath,

Or, so it isever and evermore

With all that will awaken!

And – thus – as Orpheus’ body

A thousand passions tear it into shreds;

And each one howls: “Not I!

Not I!” – grating her teeth –

The poem treats the defenestration of Chopin’s piano (Norwid and Chopin became friends in exile), perpetrated by Russian soldiers during the Uprising of 1863. In the section above, the speaker’s incredulity that an object of such universal cultural significance could be so mindlessly destroyed soon gives way to high sentimentality, stuttering outrage, grave generalization, and finally to profound pathos, in which both the ruins of the piano and, subtly, the poet himself are metamorphosed into “Orpheus’ body” as it’s torn “into shreds” by the Thracian Maenads. And as the piano is destroyed with the violence of its fall, so is the poet with the magnitude of what has been lost, by his “thousand passions” cataloged in part above, which are a scourge set upon him and his compatriots by vicious human institutions lurching through history to their own ends. It is only in thinking on “our grandson yet to come” and exhorting him to “rejoice” that the poet is able to recollect himself.

And indeed, Norwid’s descendants have rejoiced—in the rediscovery of their spiritual ancestor’s works. They recognize in him a canonical style and a deep wisdom molded in misfortune, by means of which Norwid reconciled himself to the world of which he was part. Though these poems are difficult, didactically requiring much of their readers, the pleasure to be derived from so consummating them is great. They please as part of their instruction.

Joshua Wilson is a former literary intern at The New Republic and a student at Harvard College.