Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The patriotic Pan Tadeusz – Polish coffee, Polish frogs

Pan Tadeusz is mostly (mostly) not an obviously patriotic poem. One character claims that Polish coffee is the best, and at another point Mickiewicz tells us that Polish frogs sing the sweetest. Highly questionable sentiments.

At some point, though, the political undercurrent of the poem becomes clear. The story is set in the spring of 1812. Napoleon has appeared on the Polish border. French victory against Russia means, perhaps, freedom for Poland. The local story of the poem intersects with history.

The last canto of Pan Tadeusz (titled “Let Us Love One Another!”) describes “the last banquet in the old Polish style.” It’s a marvel. The plot, as such, is finished. The last canto has another purpose.

To begin with, a huge centerpiece, created as per the actual 18th century Polish cookbook The Perfect Cook:

Whipped cream and icing sugar white as snow
Covered the centrepiece, which seemed to show
A winter landscape.

Successive layers of icing melt, allowing the seasons to change. Next, royal beet soup, meat broth, sausage, caviar and:

The last of all, a rare and secret dish,
Consisted of a single uncut fish,
Fried at the head and roasted in the mid,
Its tail in a ragout with sauces hid.

The most remarkable section, hard to excerpt, is a dulcimer concert, followed by a polonaise, that embodies the finest elements and aspirations of Polish culture – a humanistic patriotism. The long section describing the dulcimer music, in translation, seems to me to mimic the tone and structure of the Eastern European wedding music that I’ve heard. I don’t see how its done. Maybe I’m imaging things. Anyway, the final pages really feel like the breathless party preceding the march to war. Here’s the end, toasts to:

Napoleon and the Generals of the host
Tadeusz, Zosia, and in turn the rest
Of the betrothed, and every present guest,
And all the friends of all the company,
And all the dead of hallowed memory.

And I was with them drinking wine and mead
And what I saw and heard all men may read.

That last couplet is the fairy tale ending. Pan Tadeusz resembles War and Peace in this regard – it ends on this lovely high note, before catastrophe strikes. Napoleon is crushed, Tadeusz and he Count are, presumably, killed or exiled, and Poland waits over a hundred years for independence. Mickiewicz himself more or less abandoned literature after Pan Tadeusz, spending the next twenty years roaming Europe, doing what he could for Polish independence.*

* Also, attending Goethe’s 80th birthday part and trying to seduce Margaret Fuller. Mickiewicz was an interesting fellow.

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