Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz - like rolling balls of wool

Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz (1834) is the Polish national epic. That has a dreary sound to it, somehow - conjures images of bored schoolchildren memorizing patriotic passages - even though The Song of Roland, The Poem of the Cid, The Niebelungenlied, the great medieval national epics, are wonderful poems. They wouldn't have the status they do if they were boring.

Pan Tadeusz is hardly boring. It's set in the Grand Duchy of Lithuanaia (confusingly, in modern Belarus), amongst the Polish gentry. Young Master Tadeusz has just arrived from the university, to an estate that has not one but two lovely, marriageable ladies. The neighboring Count is his rival. Since it's a love quadrangle, the story ought to have a happy ending. One of the funniest scenes is during a bear hunt - Tadeusz and the Count both fire at the bear and miss, then both grab the same spear, then both run. These are not the usual epic heroics.

A lot of the long poem concerns itself with vivid descriptions of more or less ordinary life - hunting, mushroom picking, banquets. But there's also a lawsuit, a mysterious monk, and a battle against the Russians. A lot going on, actually. Pan Tadeusz is sort of a combination of a Scott novel, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and Goethe's "domestic epic" Hermann and Dorothea.

Mickiewicz and Pushkin were friends and mutual admirers (the only other Mickiewicz I've read are English translations of Pushkin's translations from the Polish, a pointless exercise). Compared to Eugene Onegin, Pan Tadeusz is less satirical, less digressive. I think Pushkin's characterization is also a bit deeper, although Mickiewicz has some fine touches. Acknowledging the limits of judging by tranlation, Mickiewicz is Pushkin's peer in inventive metaphorical language. Here one of the heroines is feeding her chickens:

Bare-headed in her morning gown she stands
Holding a sieve uplifted in her hands.
The fowls run up to her: like rolling balls
Of wool, the ruffled hens; the cockerels
Come rowing with their wings o’er ridge and brake,
While on their heads their coral helmets shake,
And spread their sharp-spurred feet in either side.
Here amber beaks, there crests of coral rear
Like fishes that above the waves appear.
The thrust-out necks sway gently to and fro
Like lilies on the water’s surface. So
A thousand eyes like stars on Zosia flash.
Book V

Every canto has something as good as the "rolling balls of wool" and the chicken-head lilies.

I read a translation by Kenneth R. Mackenzie, published by the Polish Cultural Foundation in London. The Polish was included, allowing me to see that the original and translation are both in regular rhyming couplets. That's about it. Another complete tranlsation is available in a PDF here.

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