Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz

Pan Tadeusz - Cover Image

Author: Adam Mickiewicz

Title: Pan Tadeusz

ISBN: 0781800331

Pages: 598

O Lithuania, my country, thou
Art like good health; I never knew till now
How precious, till I lost thee. Now I see
Thy beauty whole, because I yearn for thee.

So begins Pan Tadeusz, Poland’s most celebrated literary work and an epic poem taught to all Polish school children. That Poland’s literary masterpiece begins with a eulogy to Lithuania both enlightens and confuses, in equal measure, those not familiar with the complex and fractured nature of that region’s history.

Pan Tadeusz is set in 1811-12, a time following the end of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, when Poland no longer existed as a legal or geographic entity – a situation that would continue until the end of World War One. The country had been partitioned, with our story set amongst the Szlachta – the noble class of Poland and Lithuania – who find themselves under Russian rule waiting in hope for Napoleon’s approaching armies to bring them liberation.

The eponymous hero of Pan Tadeusz is a young nobleman returning home from studying in the city and arriving just ahead of news that Napoleon is recruiting Polish units in readiness for his ill-fated 1812 campaign against the Russian Tsar. Tadeusz finds his uncle attempting to make peace with a nearby rival family with whom they have been sworn enemies for many years, one which includes a young woman who Tadeusz falls immediately in love with – as seems to have been the fashion at the time. It is a seemingly doomed infatuation, as relations between the families quickly break down into bloody confrontation.

This all sounds deceptively simple, but there are a number of different plots running across each other in what is a beautifully told story. Parents long thought dead disguised as monks, young love between members of feuding families, high drama of noble life contrasted with more a humorous tone set by their servants, all combine to give a quite Shakespearean feel to the plot. This is allied to a satisfying slow-slow-quick-quick-slow pacing as scenes of idyllic country life and young love are inter cut with fierce arguments – the centrepiece being a wonderful battle scene about three quarters of the way through.

Then through the window opposite the door
The gentry led by Switch began to pour,
While Plut and Rykov standing in the hall
The nearest soldiers to their succour call.
Three bayonets gliding through the doorway shine
And three black helmets over them incline.
Beside the door Matthias waited like
A cat for rats, his switch upraised to strike
A fearful blow; but being too excited
Or else because the old man was short-sighted,
Before their necks appeared his switch had dashed
Their helmets off and on their bayonets crashed.

The various characters are well drawn, with my particular favourite being Gerwazy, a belligerently impulsive trouble maker who could start a fight in an empty room, but one who waits until it’s full of heavily armed men from two feuding families first. Exactly the kind of character that could do to be injected into some of the more dreary English costume dramas.

It’s that impulsive ‘act first, think later’ attitude that seems to be one of the most debated aspects of Pan Tadeusz, as it has been long discussed how accurate a portrayal that is of the Polish national character. Whatever the prevailing opinion is amongst Polish readers, I’m just happy that the impulsiveness of the characters provides an effective catalyst for action.

For non-Poles, Pan Tadeusz is a book that needs a little preparation, as an understanding of Polish history from that period is required for you to fully understand the background to which the action takes place. It’s well worth the effort however, as ‘Pan Tadeusz’ is a richly rewarding read.

The translation I read was by Kenneth R. Mackenie, which was the first to maintain the metre and rhyming couplets of the original throughout its 10,000 lines. Obviously there must have been some compromises made to achieve that, and there is the occasional rhyme that grated, but overall the poem reads as if it was written in English.

Without wanting to give the ending away, it is the various characters love of their country and determination to liberate themselves from Russian rule that overrides all other thoughts. Which makes it easy to see, even from a western viewpoint, how important a message that was to the Poles throughout their troubled history. For the rest of us, we can just enjoy Pan Tadeusz for what it ultimately is – a gem of world literature.

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~ by ThatCricketBlogger on 3 November, 2007.

One Response to “Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz”

  1. You make this sound like a great read! I love anything to do with Polish history and will certainly put this on the top of my books to read list!

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