from the book:
The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys
by Barry Keane
nad zwlokami Urszulki obraz Jana Matejki
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
] 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.
Dillon, Regius Professor of Greek, Trinity College Dublin
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
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 Kings 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 poets 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.
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 Kochanowskis 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.
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.
* * * * *
Tales sunt hominum mentes, quali pater ipse
lustravit lumine terras.
TO ORSZULA KOCHANOWSKA,
A SWEET, DELIGHTFUL, EXTRAORDINARY CHILD, WHO HAVING SHOWN BUDDING PROMISE
OF EVERY MAIDENLY ACCOMPLISHMENT, PASSED AWAY SUDDENLY AND WITHOUT WARNING,
AT AN INFANT AGE, TO THE INCONSOLABLE GRIEF OF HER LOVING PARENTS. JAN
KOCHANOWSKI, THE UNFORTUNATE FATHER, WROTE WITH TEARS TO HIS BELOVED CHILD:
YOU ARE FOREVER LOST TO ME, MY ORSZULA.
All the weeping
and tears of Heraclitus,
And the laments and plaints of
All the worlds 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
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
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?
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?
mine you scorned, my sweet little heiress!
Your fathers 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
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, Ill
find you so sweet,
And youll embrace your daddy when we meet.
Praise of the dead child is a common trait in Latin consolations. The
writer would praise the deceased childs 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 childs 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.
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 fathers true pain, he can not sally
To recall to mind his little girls final rally.
O that the mothers poor heart could endure
The pain of hearing a farewell so demure.
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 Gods creatures, a nightingale.
But her song breaks mid-flow and Death enters the fray.
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
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
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.
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.
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 souls life is nobler than the bodys 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 worlds pleasures?
You may value those earthly delights like treasure,
Yet biting pain and sorrow are all thats 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 todays sorrow, which is so hard?
You say nothing, I see, but please, dont 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 Gods name what has she lost?
For a husband did she fork out a dowrys 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 waters chill, others of hunger,
Some, though rarely, have drifted upon a plank to shore.
Had she lived longer than
the ancient Sibyls age,
She could never have hidden from dread Deaths 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 deaths 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 sins stain.
My son, entertain no doubts, for her all is fair.
On the childs behalf, please, dont 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 misfortunes hands, it is plain.
And so you must submit to universal law,
Prevent poisonous mishap from turning your heart raw.
Remember the times when misfortunes 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 times 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 mans 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?
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 Jans 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. Jans
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 Gods
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 Tomaszuks
'Doctor Felix,' performed by the Wierszalin Theatre, won first prize at
the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Barry Keane EighthSquare.com P.O. Box 580, New York, NY 10113