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Can you become Greek? The case of the Polish romantic literature


Maciej Junkiert. Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Poland.


Can you become Greek? The case of the Polish romantic literature

Maciej Junkiert. Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Poland.; address: ul. Fredry 10, 61-701 Poznań

In the case of Polish literature one of the main issues connected with the ancient tradition one can investigate is the dramatic change in the paragon of tradition that took place in the beginning of the XIX century. This was the times of a great cultural change. Due to historical circumstances, especially the loss of independence by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish literature revaluated its paragons.

Ever since the Middle Ages, Roman history and culture were a point of reference for the Poles including literature, education, erudition and political customs. In the Polish history ancient myths have always played a special role because the modern country was built on the idea of particularly close relations between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Roman Republic. The roots of the myths were varied. Since the Renaissance, the political similarities were emphasized, in particular a similar role to play in history due to a large area of governance and multi-ethnic population. It was also believed that the beginning of the Polish statehood was largely connected to the activities of the Roman refugees from the Empire. Wincenty Kadlubek, a Polish chronicler, was regarded responsible for this common belief. These connections were of political or genealogical nature, also, cultural and literary but to a lesser extent. With the fall of the state, a need to build a new imagined community appeared and this time it is Hellenism that turns out to be the necessary element of the future Polishness.

After 1795 Poles tried to deal with the new reality which resulted in an attempt at creating a new type of legitimisation. Literature created a new model of a Pole who could become the new European Greek. These attempts boiled down to the task of combining two issues. On the one hand, the Polish artists were convinced that the Polish nation had its roots in the Greek world of democracy, art and the eternal desire for freedom. On the other hand, they wanted to show the relations between the Greek literature and history and the Slavic memory. Memory serves as a key notion for the Polish romanticism, and particularly memory that is a way to find the truth about the early Slavic folk past, which is the source of the truth about the Polish identity and place in the history. This is how the Greek antiquity came across the voices of the ancient Slavic ancestors in the Polish romantic literature. And the poets and critics that attempted to show that these two sides are practically one and the same.

Griechenmythos was a key event that the Polish artists had to deal with. It was a conviction that Greeks and Germans were strongly connected. Both Polish and German romantic literature, though each in its own way, tried to create the cornerstone of a totally new Kulturnation. In my paper, I will try to describe and analyse this process in the output of important figures of Polish romantic literature (Adam Mickiewicz, Kazimierz Brodziński) and humanities (historiography and philology).

The influence of Griechenmythos was quite limited in the Polish culture. After some years, it was Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish poet of the 19th century, a student of Groddeck (philologist) and Lelewel (historian) in Vilnius, who returned to this topic. He was a lecturer of Latin literature in late 30. and early 40. at the University of Lausanne, and later professor of Slavic literatures at Collège de France. During his lectures he frequently referred to the topic of the reception of ancient traditions at the beginning of the century, especially the German one. A recurring issue in his thinking was the fact that there is nothing or nearly nothing to link ancient Greece and Poland. This area of tradition only evoked his distrust as Mickiewicz brought Poland back on the road towards Rome.

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