of Jan


Extracts from the book:
Jan Kochanowski,
Threnodies and
The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys

by Barry Keane


Kochanowski nad zwlokami Urszulki – obraz Jana Matejki

‘This translation with a commentary of the Threnodies and The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys is a labour of love on which Barry Keane has been engaged for more than five years, and it has now come triumphantly to fruition. […] A learned poet needs a learned commentator, and that is what Kochanowski has received here in the person of Barry Keane. This book deserves to be studied closely by anyone interested in the literary achievement of the father of Polish literature.’

—John Dillon, Regius Professor of Greek, Trinity College Dublin


Jan Kochanowski was born in 1530, the son of Piotr Kochanowski, and of Anna Bia_aczowska. His father owned large tracts of land in Radom and was for some time a magistrate in the town of Sandomierz. At the age of fourteen years Jan embarked upon a life of study and travel. In 1544 he entered the University of Kraków, which had developed in accordance with the literary tastes and traditions of Renaissance Humanism. He remained in Kraków for five years and left the university without having received any formal degree. Kochanowski spent the next seven years outside of Poland. He passed on from Kraków to Padua University, following in the footsteps of Nicolaus Copernicus, who had attended this renowned centre of learning some years before. Kochanowski devoted himself to the study of Classical philology. He achieved a mastery of Latin and a good knowledge of Greek whilst specialising particularly in the works of Cicero. During his sojourn in Italy Kochanowski often visited Rome, "attracted by the possibility of association with learned men, of whom at that time there was a multitude."

For two years Kochanowski experienced courtly life in the court of Prince Albert I of Prussia at Konigsberg. Kochanowski also had occasion to spend three and a half months travelling in France, and while in Paris he became personally acquainted with the French writer Pierre de Ronsard, to whom he later dedicated the Latin elegy Ronsardum Vidi. During this period Kochanowski's literary output was limited to the writing of Latin elegies which were not published but circulated in manuscript form. These elegies received such universal acclaim that Kochanowski on his return to Poland was hailed as a distinguished Latin author.

Kochanowski's return home to Poland marks the second period of his life. Piotr Myszkowski, the Bishop of Kraków and Deputy Royal Chancellor, secured for Kochanowski the post of secretary and courtier to King Sigismund Augustus. Kochanowski spent the next number of years performing numerous missions for Sigismund Augustus both at home and abroad. He thrived in the King’s court, favoured by both its humanistic climate and cultural ambition. It was during this stage in his career that he began to write lyrical poetry in the Polish vernacular, undoubtedly inspired by the achievements of the poets Petrarch and Ariosto in Italy and Ronsard in France. Kochanowski created a new Polish vernacular literature based upon an assimilation of Greek and Latin models. His innovation gave rise to some of the most celebrated works in Polish literature.

Following the death of Sigismund Augustus in 1572, Kochanowski retired from public activity. He settled down happily to a rural existence at Czarnolas, a part of the family estate which he had inherited. In 1575 Kochanowski married a noblewoman Dorota Podlodowska, who bore him seven children, six girls and one boy. For the first time in his life Kochanowski found himself free from patronage and established for himself an independence that he had previously been unaccustomed to having, holding himself aloof from public affairs and cultivating his literary talent. Sadly, Kochanowski's idyllic existence at Czarnolas was thrown into turmoil when his daughter Orszula died at the age of thirty months; her death is thought to have occurred at some time towards the close of 1579. To compound the poet’s grief, Orszula was joined soon after by her younger sister Hanna. He did not long outlive his daughters. On 22 August, 1584, Kochanowski succumbed to apoplexy in the city of Lublin.

Kochanowski achieved fame in his lifetime as the author of such works as the Psalms of David (Psa_terz Dawidow), the Horatian Songs (Pie_ni) and his Ovidian-styled Satires (Satyry). As formidable as these achievements were, however, they paled in significance to the artistic achievement of the death cycles Threnodies (Treny) and the tragedy The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys (Odprawa Pos_ów Greckich).

The Threnodies are regarded as Kochanowski’s greatest literary achievement and their genesis lay in the tragic death of his daughter Orszula, in response to which he wrote this collection of nineteen poems. Kochanowski sought desperately in these poems both to intimate the true depth of his feelings for Orszula and to come to terms with the revelation of his own innate human frailty. The cycle of poems was a highly personal undertaking by the poet and written in a form unknown to Classical or Renaissance authors. The Threnodies are a mixed genre ranging from epigram to elegy to epitaph, not to mention psalmodic song. During the Renaissance rules for the threnody, a funeral song for the dead, dictated that the genre should be reserved for a persona gravis, but Kochanowski's creativity recognised no such boundaries. Kochanowski experiences in the Threnodies the gamut of feelings which manifest themselves as a result of mourning for his beloved child. Kochanowski repeatedly laments his loss and one senses that the poet is constantly striving to overcome the limitations of language to express his, paradoxically, unlimited depth of feeling. Kochanowski overcomes such limitations by means of a poetic exploration of the tradition of Latin consolatory literature so prevalent in Roman times. Every exclamation, question and exhortation has its counterpart in Classical literature. Not only did Kochanowski borrow heavily from and muse over the writings of names such as Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch and Statius, but he also looked to examples of lamentation found in Homer and Greek Tragedy.

Kochanowski was especially interested in the unavoidable universality of grief and bereavement and his mixture of Biblical and Classical allusions speak of the human fate to suffer in this life and hope for better things to come in the next. Such an outlook led him to draw upon themes present in Greek sepulchral epigrams of the Planudean Anthology and Latin epitaphs. During his time in Padua Kochanowski was preoccupied with the writing of Latin elegies and the Threnodies exhibit a certain knowledge of Latin epitaphs. Kochanowski's exploitation of the Planudean Anthology in these poems reflects an avid interest on the part of sixteenth-century students and scholars alike in Greek epitaphs, who would signal their familiarity with the anthology by producing Latin translations or variations.

* * * * *

Jan Kochanowski


Tales sunt hominum mentes, quali pater ipse
Iuppiter auctiferas lustravit lumine terras.


Threnody I

All the weeping and tears of Heraclitus,
And the laments and plaints of Simonides,
All the world’s preoccupations, all the sighs,
Pining, grieving, the wringing of hands held high.
Come all and sundry to my home without delay.
Help me cry for my delightful little girl this day,
Whom unmerciful Death has snatched from me
And destroyed my joys all too suddenly.
As when a dragon eyes a nest all hidden
And assails its young nightingales, no warning given.
All the while the mother squeaks and cries,
Pecking the beast over and over again she tries.
Vain this effort! The cruel dragon rounds on the mother,
Who barely saves her plumage fleeing this slaughter.
‘In vain these tears’- caring friends may claim.
By God, what of this world is not then vain?
All is vain! We grope for rational cheer,
But the presence of grief is all too clear.
Error - the age of man! Where lies the ground:
To grieve, or my reason violently confound?

Commentary: The first poem of this cycle is a dramatic and heart-rending affair. It begins with a call by the poet to all and sundry to come to his house to mourn the death of his beautiful daughter, decrying Death for having taken his little girl and leaving him in this shattered state. Jan qualifies his struggle with Death by a simile of a dragon wreaking murderous havoc on a nest of baby nightingales, as the mother hopelessly attempts to fend off the beast, almost bringing death upon herself by doing so. The poem ends with the grief-stricken poet asking himself how he should address this predicament: should he simply grieve openly until the tears run dry or should he stoically seek consolation in philosophy?

Threnody III

All mine you scorned, my sweet little heiress!
Your father’s estate, fixed as your inheritance,
You judged too meagre a reason to stay.
True, it could never have been enough to sway
Your burgeoning reason and sublime grace:
Virtues whose promise would yet find their place.
O your chatter and games, your endearing bow,
How distraught I am without you now.
And you, my child, to me will not return.
Lost to your solace, forever must I yearn.
What else, what else, myself I must prepare to make
Ready for the footsteps you have had to take.
For there, God grant, I’ll find you so sweet,
And you’ll embrace your daddy when we meet.

Commentary: Praise of the dead child is a common trait in Latin consolations. The writer would praise the deceased child’s possession of adult virtues such as modesty, charm, grace and honour. Even though they died before their various talents could blossom, their virtues were such that the writer was left in no doubt that their talents would have, if they had lived, realised true greatness. These same writers evoked a tragic pathos by recalling the parents' joy in listening to their child’s early progress with speech. In this poem Kochanowski, whilst not burdening Orszula with such an adult demeanour, relishes the memory of her childlike decorum. He yearns for her babbling sounds to reverberate once again throughout the house, but silence has fallen over the house and, alone, Kochanowski is left to anticipate his death, for it is only in death that he can hope to reunite himself with his daughter.

Threnody VI

My witty songstress, my Slavic Sappho!
My estate and that which I truly know -
My Lute - were to be your rightful bequest.
I think of poetry itself, yet to manifest.
Songs perpetually brought to life all the day
By a little girl, chirping happily in her merry way.
Just as the nightingale, all hid in green brake,
Sings abroad on the night of her rapturous state.
The song fell silent all too quickly for me,
For dread Death startled you, my chirping baby.
The songs you sang no longer please my ears,
I pay for them now with lavish, bitter tears.
You never ceased to sing at your death knell,
But kissing your mother, you bade her farewell:
"O Mother dear, I will tend you no more;
Nor shall I take my seat at your table as before.
So I must relinquish the keys and set off alone,
To forsake for always my darling parents’ home."
And so, for the father’s true pain, he can not sally
To recall to mind his little girl’s final rally.
O that the mother’s poor heart could endure
The pain of hearing a farewell so demure.

Commentary: In this poem Kochanowski portrays a bouncing and jolly girl, fondly terming Orszula his Slavic Sappho; her voice, echoing throughout the house, is likened to the most melodic of God’s creatures, a nightingale. But her song breaks mid-flow and Death enters the fray.

Threnody XII

I fancy that no one loved his child more,
Or felt the pain that I ardently bore.
And scarcely has any child been born
More deserving of its parents’ place to mourn.
Obedient, unspoilt, a presence grown,
Her legacy, to speak, sing and rhyme as shown.
She would mimic every bow and attitude,
Adept in the arts and wiles of maidenhood.
Prudent, decent, humane, never one to whine,
Confident, well-mannered, modest, shy, mine.
Never of a morning was breakfast the issue
Before she had spoken prayers the Lord is due.
She never went to sleep at night until
She kissed her mother and asked God to keep us from ill.
Always she would cross every threshold to see
Her father, excitedly greeting the end of any journey.
She obliged with every household duty and chore,
Often anticipating the servants’ work and more.
In such a way did she behave, at her tender age,
Yet to surpass thirty months, but an infant stage.
The mantle of such virtuousness and bravery
Bore too heavily upon the little baby.
Dead before the harvest, my unique ear of corn,
Yet to rise, and I, bereft of your prime, forlorn!
I sow your seed once again into the sad ground,
Where my hopes with you lie buried and bound.
Because never more shall you sprout up or rise,
Or blossom before my listless eyes.

Commentary: Adopting a Senecan consolation, Kochanowski blames the mantle of virtue for her premature death: "Whatever has reached perfection, is near its end. Ideal Virtue hurries away and is snatched from our eyes, and the fruits that ripen in their first days do not wait long for their last." To Marcia on Consolation XXIII 3.

Threnody XIX, or: A Dream

My sorrow did not permit me, late into the night,
To close my eyes, nor gave my crushed body respite.
It was scarcely an hour before the break of day,
When black wings enfolded me in a dreamlike haze.
All at once I saw my mother in front of me,
Holding Orszula in her arms, my sweet baby.
So like when she would come to me after prayers,
After rising from her bed with the morning air:
A white gown she wore, her hair in plaits, all the while
Her glowing face and eyes were so inclined to smile.
I gazed expectantly, then my mother spoke to me:
"Do you sleep Jan, or does pain still burn you deeply?"
I gave a sigh, feeling that I no longer slept,
And she, having for a short time her silence kept,
Once again began to speak: "Your every tear
My son, so inconsolable, has brought me here
From distant lands. For your bitter sobs have so led
To dismay even in the chambers of the dead.
I have led your precious child by the hand to you,
So as you may see her one more time and subdue
This anguish, which is only sapping all your strength
And ruining your health to a critical extent.
Just like a fire that reduces dry wicks to ash,
You must allow time to pass on, your thoughts are rash.
Do you really conceive us to be dead, simply undone,
Living on in a dark place, bereft of the sun?
In truth, the life we lead is more auspicious,
For the soul’s life is nobler than the body’s flesh.
Dust to dust! But do you think the soul is given
From Heaven to die where the body is stricken?
Do not fret. Find some peace of mind and please strive
To believe that little Orszula is alive.
And so for you she has appeared before your eyes
In a form that your mortal eyes can recognise.
But among the angels and the eternal host,
She, like a resplendent sunrise, shines the most.
As she would if alive, for her parents she prays,
Though as a child she only spoke in babbling ways.
Is your sorrow exacerbated by the thought
That her early years have been cut bitterly short,
Before she lived to see the world’s pleasures?
You may value those earthly delights like treasure,
Yet biting pain and sorrow are all that’s in store.
But you know this Jan, for grief tears you to the core.
Did the little girl ever give you such great cheer,
That all your joy and all that which you held so dear
Could liken to today’s sorrow, which is so hard?
You say nothing, I see, but please, don’t disregard
All that you have received. You must try not to fret,
Thinking of the painful death your sweet child met.
She left behind neither pleasures nor a happy life,
But relinquished an existence of toil and strife;
Of which the world holds so much. Indeed, any gain
That man enjoys can never truly be retained:
For from fear of disappointment and our failure
To be perfect, indulgence loses its flavour.
Why do you cry so? In God’s name what has she lost?
For a husband did she fork out a dowry’s cost?
Did she have to receive threats and cruel, cold disdain?
Did she have to suffer terrible labour pains?
Was she a witness to what her mother went through?
The unendurable suffering that ensued.
What is more agonising, birth or burial?
Your world is sweetened by moments so trivial.
Heaven is a place where true pleasure is to be found,
Peace of mind for eternity; kept safe and sound.
In Heaven work is unknown and no worries reign,
There is no misfortune or shrill minions of pain,
There is no suffering, sickness or sad old age,
And Death, ravenous for tears, must banish his rage.
We have eternal life, our thoughts perfect and clean,
We comprehend all things that are seen and unseen.
We enjoy always the bright presence of the sun,
For daylight remains and nightfall never comes.
We behold the Creator in all His majesty,
Something mortals can pray for, but will never see.
Son, you must hurriedly focus your thoughts in time,
To prepare yourself for the joys of a richer clime.
You know the world, its limitations and desires,
It is better that you look to matters higher.
Your child drew the correct lot, this you may believe:
Her life has been a great success, so much achieved.
Like a young novice who for the first time sets sail,
Yet grasps straight away the danger of a rising gale.
Others have ignored the signs and refused to dock,
Wrecking their ships, for their sins, upon treacherous rocks;
Some die of the water’s chill, others of hunger,
Some, though rarely, have drifted upon a plank to shore.
Had she lived longer than the ancient Sibyl’s age,
She could never have hidden from dread Death’s rampage.
What was to come she but sought to anticipate,
Sparing herself the cruelties that would lie in wait.
Some children outlive their parents that they so loved;
And must suffer the destitution of those orphaned.
For marriage, girls are often cast out of their home,
The stranger (God knows who) takes everything she owns.
Some girls must endure savage strangers as their lords,
Some girls must be servants to bands of pagan hordes,
Where, forced into a life of shameful slavery,
They must drink salty tears, awaiting death’s mercy.
Your precocious infant no longer needs to fear,
She is being cradled in a bright, heavenly sphere.
Your darling child has never known anxiety or pain,
Nor has her unblemished soul suffered from sin’s stain.
My son, entertain no doubts, for her all is fair.
On the child’s behalf, please, don’t let yourself despair.
Measure your loss, and on all that has been grievous,
Be wise! To reason and reflect is more precious.
Be the master of your senses in this sorrow.
Overcome all the distress that has sunk you so low,
Man is so born having to submit to one rule,
That there must be a reason for a fate so cruel.
Such a law is hard to ignore, though we may try,
But possessing good will or no, we must comply.
We are all borne down upon by on High, my son.
Do you truly think that you are the only one?
Your little girl was mortal, no different from you,
She lived until her time was called to an end. True,
It was too short, but in this man holds little sway.
And as for judgment, it is better to give way
To a higher wisdom. We are bound to accept
What the Lord has deigned, for it is His precept.
It is senseless to cry, for once the soul has fled
It shall never return, for the body is dead.
Man cannot sense the justice of the tragedy,
Dread and desolation are all that he can see.
He looks to expel all thoughts from his mind,
Even desirous ones that arose in former times.
Such is the power of Fortune, my bereft son,
That we must not complain when we have lost someone.
We must gracefully give thanks that something remains,
Our fate lies in misfortune’s hands, it is plain.
And so you must submit to universal law,
Prevent poisonous mishap from turning your heart raw.
Remember the times when misfortune’s hand has come.
We must call it profit, that which has not been undone.
Finally, what have you to say for the years lost
To your labours, the self sacrifice and great cost?
All those years spent poring over page after page,
Depriving yourself of the delights of this age.
Now is the time to reap the fruits of your labour
And attempt to save your shaken, fragile nature.
You have cheered others in such a predicament,
Shall you not yourself, listen to this argument.
Now, master, heal yourself! Time is doctor for all.
But the man who rejects custom of great and small
Should forfeit the cure that comes later in the day.
Time heals all pain, you must allow reason hold sway.
And what is time’s trick? Allowing old events to fade
To be replaced by new ones, often of a happier shade
Than before or sometimes of a similar measure.
A man of reason is always prepared, demure,
He looks rationally to the future. The boon
Of reason; being soundly prepared for either fortune.
Hold this thought, my son. Face like a man man’s affairs!
There is one Lord, sorrows and rewards he shares."
Here she vanished and I awoke. How should I feel?
Had I heard all this in a dream or was it real?

Commentary: The nineteenth Threnody stands apart from the others as it is entitled The Dream. In Threnody X Jan begged Orszula to appear to him as a ghost and his petition has been answered. The Book of Job seems to provide the inspirational sinews for the poem. The parallels, on a superficial level, between Jan and Job are twofold: they both suffer for some inscrutable reason; and Job is told by his friend Eliu about how God reveals himself to man in a way reminiscent of Jan’s visitation: "God speaks once, and repeats not the selfsame thing a second time. By a dream in a vision by night, when deep sleep falls upon men, and they are sleeping in their beds, then He opens the ears of men, and instructs them in what they are to learn. That He may save a man from the things he is doing, and may deliver him from pride. Rescuing his soul from corruption: and his life from passing to the sword." Job XXXI 14-18. Jan’s mother seeks to convince her son about the happy state of his daughter in Heaven and reminds him of the wretchedness of the human condition from which Orszula has been set free. Such consolations are in every sense Stoic and it begs the question as to how far Kochanowski has actually discriminated against Classical learning in favour of blind faith in God’s will. Kochanowski has paradoxically gone a long way to illustrating the shared aspirations of both pagans and Christians in their hope for a better existence in the afterlife, the consoling hope for mankind in any age.

Barry Keane was born in Dublin in 1972. He is a Doctor of Polish literature and teaches literary translation in the Department of English at Warsaw University. Aside from his book Jan Kochanowski, Threnodies and The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys ( _l_ska Library, Katowice, and Trinity College, Dublin, 2001), he is also the author of acclaimed works on the Polish modernist Skamander poets and has written two books of poetry: The Crystal Side (1998) and a forthcoming collection called Inshore, published by Shoregate Press (an excerpt, "Picador," is also featured on this site). In 1997 his translation of Piotr Tomaszuk’s 'Doctor Felix,' performed by the Wierszalin Theatre, won first prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.


Copyright© Barry Keane P.O. Box 580, New York, NY 10113