In the footsteps of Adomas Mickevičius.
A brief biography of the poet
Adomas Bernardas Mickevičius (Adam Bernard Mickiewicz) was a Polish and Lithuanian poet, dramatist, essayist and activist who lived in a stormy historical period. He was born on 24 December 1798 in Zavosse, near Navahrudak (in present-day Belarus), soon after the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and died during the years of the Crimean War (in 1855). In his lifetime there were a multitude of events, including the Napoleonic Wars, the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw and the Congress Kingdom of Poland, the November Uprising and the Spring of Nations (the 1848 Revolutions). During the times in which Mickevičius lived, the Romantic period reached its peak in literature and art and came to an end.
The poet was born into the family of Mikalojus Mickevičius (Mikołaj Mickiewicz) and Barbara Majevska (Barbara Majewska), and was the second of five sons. The family belonged to a class of minor nobles, the szlachta, and were not wealthy, so the parents tied their children’s future to education. The father traced his lineage to the Lithuanian Mickevičius-Rimvydas family and considered himself to be a citizen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. That meant the poet’s family were firm supporters of the union of Poland and Lithuania. They were heirs to a historical tradition and did not strictly divide ethnicity and nationality into separate categories. National identity was associated with social relationships, one’s status as part of a responsible social layer and the state’s territorial vision. Belonging to one or another ethnic group meant little.
The future poet spent his childhood years in Navahrudak, where he finished his studies in a Dominican school in 1815. His years spent at the school were an oppressive memory for him. The teachers dissociated themselves from any kind of educational innovations, compelling the pupils to learn Latin by rote, to read the works of the ancient classics and to constantly pray. Corporal punishment was administered to those who disobeyed. Later, from 1815 to 1819, Mickevičius studied at Vilnius University (at first, natural science and mathematics, and later, literature and the liberal arts). The diligent and well-read student immersed himself in works of literature, history and philosophy, learning many languages (Latin, French, German, English). His perspective was significantly broadened by the lectures of the notable instructors of that time, the rich collections of the university library and a variety of cultural activities.
In 1816, Mickevičius was awarded the degree of Candidate of Philosophy. A year later, in 1817, together with students Tomasz Zan, Józef Jeżowski, Franciszek Malewski, Onufry Pietraszkiewicz and others, he organised the illegal anti-tsarist Filomaci (Philomath Society). The organisation discussed questions of national liberation from oppression, encouraged patriotism and cultivation of national culture and nurtured a democratic way of thinking. Encouraged by their professors, the members of the Philomath Society discussed political, social and cultural texts, and read literature in Polish, Latin, Russian, French, German and English. They read and critiqued their own literary experiments. For example, during a meeting of the group on 19 January 1819, Mickevičius read aloud his poem Mieszko, książę Nowogródka (Mieszko, Duke of Navahrudak) for the first time.
In 1819, having completed his studies at Vilnius University, the poet was assigned to teach at a school in Kaunas. Before leaving for Kaunas in August 1820, at the Tuhanovičius manor in the vicinity of Navahrudak, Mickevičius met a young woman, Maryla Wereszczakówna, whose image was to accompany him throughout his life. Her portrayal is vivid in many of the poet’s works. She was already engaged to another man. Troubled by forlorn love, the poet returned to his teaching position. He taught literature, poetics, rhetoric, grammar, ancient and world history, morality, natural and political law, and was the school’s librarian. Life in the small city with only 4,000 residents was oppressive, and so Mickevičius endeavoured to maintain a connection to life in Vilnius: he travelled to meetings of the Philomath Society, corresponded with friends and presided over the Society’s literary chapter. With the death of his mother in 1820, and a year later with the marriage of his beloved Maryla to another man, the poet’s troubles found expression in his creative work. In 1823, the second tome of Poezje was published (the first having been published in Vilnius, in 1822). It included the poem Grażyna, Duchy (the poetic introduction to Dziady) and parts II and IV of Dziady.
In 1822, Mickevičius was awarded the degree of Master of Philosophy. In the autumn of 1823, for his activity in the Philomath Society, he was imprisoned at the Basilian monastery in Vilnius, and later exiled from Lithuania.
From 1824 to 1829, he lived in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa, and visited Crimea. In Russia, he became acquainted with writers and prominent figures: Alexander Pushkin, Kondraty Ryleyev, Alexander Bestuzhev, Alexander Griboyedov, Ivan Kozlov and Ivan Krylov. The well-known Sonety Krymskie (1826) and Konrad Wallenrod (1828) were written while he was in exile.
In 1829, Mickevičius managed to leave Russia. He lived for a time in Germany and in Italy. From 1832, he mostly lived in Paris. While living there, his vision of the Homeland was reborn; his largest work, Pan Tadeusz (1834), and other works highlighted the poet’s talent even more. He participated in the political activity of the Great Emigration (those émigrés who moved, mostly to France, after the November Uprising). In 1833, he became the editor of the Pielgrzym Polski newspaper.
In 1834, he married Celina Szymanowska, with whom he had three sons and three daughters. In 1839, the family went to Switzerland, where Mickevičius taught Latin and literature at the Lausanne Academy (the present-day University of Lausanne). In 1840, he returned to Paris, where he was invited to hold the newly-established chair in Slavic literature at Collège National (the present-day Collège de France). He taught courses on Lithuanian mythology and Lithuanian history. He took an interest in Lithuanian folklore and the creative works of Kristijonas Donelaitis. From 1840 to 1844, he taught Slavic literature, and together with others founded and edited a newspaper, La Tribune des Peuples, which propagated democratic ideas. The publication was a platform for the idea of the common struggle of various peoples for societal progress.
In 1848, travelling to Italy, he organised a Polish legion for combat against Austria, one of the oppressors of Poland.
In the autumn of 1852, the poet was hired as a librarian at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris.
1855 was a fateful year for the poet’s family. His wife Celina died of an oncological disease. As the Crimean War continued, Mickevičius left for Turkey, where Polish legions were gathering for combat with tsarist Russia, but he suddenly died in Istanbul. Soon thereafter, his remains were transported to Paris and laid to rest in the Polish cemetery in Montmorency. In July 1890, his remains were reinterred in a crypt at the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.
Interesting facts about Adomas Mickevičius
- According to a family legend, the midwife, wanting to ensure that the child would grow up to be intelligent, cut the umbilical cord of the newborn Adomas by using a book as a cutting board. In some sources, it is claimed that the book was a book about court procedure, while elsewhere it is claimed that it was the writings of Ignacy Krasicki.
- The Mickevičius family was noble and had its own coat-of-arms, the Poraj.
- Because Adomas Mickevičius’s father was a lawyer, legal matters were often discussed in the family. All of that found a place in the future poet’s subconscious. Perhaps for that reason he later enjoyed composing statutes, by-laws and regulations.
- In childhood, Mickevičius was of slight build, and for this reason often portrayed women in his school’s theatre.
- At the age of 11, he began to write poems, but the teachers and family who read his work had a lot of trouble because the art of penmanship was nearly impossible for Mickevičius. His handwriting remained nearly illegible for the rest of his life.
- At the age of 12, Mickevičius wrote an ode portraying a fire that broke out in Navahrudak in 1810. The work was popular throughout the town and was read while collecting donations for the victims.
- The members of the Philomath Society ceremoniously drank milk during various ceremonies, because they were not wealthy and could not afford to buy expensive alcoholic beverages.
- During his years of study, Mickevičius’s favourite writers included Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Lord Byron.
- The poet was not indifferent to the fair sex. Women were his inspiration. However, his greatest love and most beautiful works were devoted to Maryla Wereszczakówna, whose path parted from his with the passage of time.
- Living in Kaunas, Mickevičius liked to visit Ąžuolynas and the valley of the Girstupis stream, sitting on a rock there. His friends called the valley “Adomas Mickevičius dale”, and carved the poet’s initials and the year “1823” into the rock. The rock is still there, and is listed by the state as a protected object.
Dates of the best-known works of Adomas Mickevičius
1818: debuted in the literary and historical journal Tygodnik Wileński, in which the poem Zima miejska (City Winter) was published.
1820: in Kaunas, wrote Oda do młodości (Ode to Youth). The work was published in 1827.
1821: wrote the poem Romantyczność (Romanticism).
1822: the first volume of his anthology, Poezje, composed of the cycle Ballady i romanse (Ballads and Romances) and other poems, was published at the printing house of Józef Zawadzki in Vilnius. This marked the start of Polish Romanticism.
1823: a second volume of his anthology was published, including the poems Grażyna and parts II and IV of Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve).
1826: Sonety Krymskie (Crimean Sonnets) and the poem Farys were published.
1828: the narrative poem Konrad Wallenrod was published in Saint Petersburg.
1832: the third part of Dziady appeared, as well as Księgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa polskiego (Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage).
1834: the poem Pan Tadeusz, czyli Ostatni zajazd na Litwie: historia szlachecka z roku 1811 i 1812 we dwunastu księgach wierszem (Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray: A Nobleman’s Tale from the Years of 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse).
- Girdzijauskas, Juozas. Estetinis literatūros kontekstas. – Portr. / Lietuvių literatūros istorija : XIX amžius. – Vilnius, 2001. – P. 257–267.
- Jastrun, Mieczysław. Adomas Mickevičius: poeto laikas ir asmenybė. – Kaunas, 1994. – 511,  p.
- Kalėda, Algis. Adomas Mickevičius. – Kaunas. – 127 p.,  iliustr. lap.: iliustr.
- Łukasiewicz, Jacek. Mickevičius. – Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1999. – 247,  p.: iliustr., portr., faks.
Prepared by Giedrė Narbutaitė.