Home > Polish literature > Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)

Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)


Yesterday marked the 125th anniversary of the death one of the greatest Polish 19th century poets – in fact one of the greatest Polish poets, period (and also sculptor, graphic artist and painter): Cyprian Norwid. This post is interspersed with his etchings and paintings as well as photos (daguerreotypes) of the artist.

As is the case with practically all the great Polish poets who never got a Nobel Prize (and, of course, there was no such thing as a Nobel Prize in the 19th century 🙄 ), Norwid‘s oeuvre remains essentially untranslated into English.

Norwid‘s poetry was groundbreakingly innovative, therefore the older he got – the more destitute he became. His drawings, paintings, and sculptures did not sell very well either. In fact, of the at least 15 canvases known to have been left by him, only 4 have been found and identified (3 of them are owned by the National Museum in Warsaw, one – by the Wrocław Ossolineum). He spent the last years of his life as an unwilling recluse, a tenant of the Dom Świętego Kazimierza (Saint Casimir House) – a shelter, tended by Daughters of Charity nuns, for indigent Polish émigrés who had no other place to live.

His works anticipated linguistic poetry – a 20th century current in Polish literature. They are full of brilliant, many-faceted puns, neologisms and word games which expose the hidden workings of language, the concealed relationships between words, they reveal unseen meanings which suddenly explode into unexpected epiphanies of newly discovered sense. This is where the novelty of Norwid‘a poetry lay: in his approach to language which is not only the medium of communication in his poems but also an object, in a very literal, material sense of the word.

The term “word games” used earlier is not meant to imply a sort of postmodern play with language (a “game for game’s sake”). Norwid was very serious in his “play” (which does not mean his oeuvre is completely devoid of a facetious side), his poetry is of a deeply reflective, philosophical kind. He was primarily concerned with ethics and religion. A quest to motivate man’s actions on this planet, indeed his very existence, pervades Norwid‘s works. In his art Norwid developed a very personal brand of Catholicism which was extremely radical and modern for its day – in many ways it prefigured late 20th century theology.

He died on May 23rd 1883. A single 😯 volume of his poetry had been published during his lifetime – in 1863:

It was this volume that Zenon Przesmycki – a Polish poet of the Young Poland era – accidentally discovered while visiting the reading room of a Vienna public library in 1897. This incident marked the beginning of Norwid‘s great reappraisal: Przesmycki was the one who initiated and oversaw the re-publishing and publishing of Norwid‘s literary output. Norwid became a hero to a new generation of poets who saw in him not only a literary genius but also a symbol of what happens to great art in a bourgeois society (BTW, it wasn’t until the 1970s that an edition of Norwid‘s complete works finally appeared).

As mentioned, apart from being a poet, dramatist, and excellent prose-writer, Norwid was also a painter and sculptor. It occurs to me now that there is some vague (and perhaps even tenuous) link between Norwid and another prodigiously gifted Polish writer (Bruno Schulz notwithstanding), this time of the 20th centuryLeopold Buczkowski (another genius, and similarly undertranslated). Leopold Buczkowski is said to have also been a good pianist and gifted amateur composer…


Which brings me to the last but perhaps most important topic. There is a strong link between Norwid and music: he was one of the handful of Chopin‘s contemporaries who recognized the Polish composer’s genius – perhaps not fully but to a great extent anyhow. He gave testimony to that fact in two wonderful texts: the poem Fortepian Chopina (Chopin’s Piano) and a section in the book Czarne kwiaty (Black Flowers).

The first of these two comes from Norwid‘s greatest poetic achievement (incidentally, not published in its entirety until 1947!): the cycle Vade-mecum (it is spelled that way, with a dash in the middle: see? you get a glimpse of his avant-garde approach to language already!). The poem is a meditation on the transience of all earthly things but also of the evanescence of great art, which on the one hand, through the fusion of effort and beauty – embodies the greatest ideals of the human spirit, on the other hand – is doomed to be destroyed and forgotten (eerily enough, one of Norwid‘s recurrent topics was how contemporaries never recognize the great men they share their times with).

The poem reaches its culmination in a description of the sacking of Chopin‘s old Warsaw apartment by Russian soldiers who throw the composer’s piano out of the window. The lyric closes with this disturbing vista: the instrument, which seemed to embody absolute beauty and all of its purity, hits the hard, paved road and is destroyed. Harsh, brutal reality gets the upper hand. Or does it?

Black Flowers is a prose cycle in which Norwid described his last encounters and last conversations with several people, among them two other of the greatest Polish poets: Juliusz Słowacki (d. 1849) and Adam Mickiewicz (d. 1855). But also a virtually anonymous Irish girl (of whom the poet knows very little – in fact, he isn’t even completely sure of her nationality). Among the meetings recalled in the book are also those with Fryderyk Chopin. The whole book is extremely moving, as it describes the actions of people who, for the most part, are aware of their own impeding end. Sometimes, however, that end seems to be more present in Norwid‘s thoughts than in theirs. As in this famous passage, wherein he describes one of his encounters with Chopin:

…then came the moment when it was best to leave him to rest, so I started saying goodbye, and he, grabbing me by the hand, threw back the hair that had fallen over his forehead, and said: “I am moving out!…” – and began to cough. Upon hearing this and knowing that it did his nerves good to sometimes vehemently contradict him, I assumed a feigned tone and, kissing him on the arm, said, as one says to a person strong and full of courage: “…That’s what you say every year… and yet, thank God, we still see you alive.”

Chopin responded by finishing the sentence his cough had interrupted: “I’m telling you that I’m moving out of this apartment to Place Vendôme…” That was my last conversation with him. Soon he moved to Place Vendôme and died there but I never saw him again after that visit at rue Chaillot…


[This post used to contain more images. All that is left at the moment comes from Wikimedia Commons and I’m assuming it is all public domain.]

  1. Jezetha
    25 May 2008 at 7:54

    A pity I can’t read Polish. Norwid seems to be the quintessential literay innovator, with obligatory poverty and neglect. I must think of Gerard Manley Hopkins when you describe Norwid’s poetry (another Catholic innovator of genius).

  2. Jezetha
  3. maciek
    26 May 2008 at 16:44

    Thanks for the link, Jezetha. 🙂 For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to look for English versions online. I have to say this, though: those are quite awful, travesties not translations! 😆 Even those by Pietrkiewicz, who should know better than that – he was a poet himself, once (though not a very good one), perhaps he even still is. I wish my grasp of English was better – I’d give it a try, there are tons of texts waiting. But then – what would I do with them once they’re translated? 😆

    As for the G.M. Hopkins link – difficult to tell, I only know a couple of his poems. 😳 Might have to fix that. 🙂

  4. 21 June 2008 at 3:08

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Undiscouraged!

  5. maciek
    21 June 2008 at 12:10

    The point is that while visiting his sick friend, Norwid was so apprehensive that Chopin would start talking about death and dying that he took Chopin’s completely literal remark about moving out as a metaphor for passing away – and in effect did something quite contrary to what he intended. Instead of brightening up the man’s day and keeping thoughts about death at bay, he actually introduced them into a perfectly casual conversation.

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