It’s hard, in Britain, to imagine a popular museum devoted to a single poem. The Polish city of Wrocław hosts just such a shrine. It celebrates Pan Tadeusz, the verse novel written in his Parisian exile by the poet, dramatist and freedom fighter Adam Mickiewicz in the early 1830s, and now taught as a keystone of collective identity to every Polish schoolchild. Even the idea of a ‘national epic’ sounds like a great big bore, especially as the action of this one turns on a sideshow in the Lithuanian backwoods during the Napoleonic wars, while ‘the wide world ran riot/ In blood and tears’. Certainly, no previous translation has done much to persuade readers of English that Mickiewicz’s boondocks yarn of feuding, boozing gentry possessed by ‘the devil of vengeance’ merited their reverence.
Now, in time for the centenary jamboree to mark the restoration of Polish sovereignty, comes a kind of miracle. Bill Johnston, celebrated as a translator of landmark Polish literature, has crafted a wondrously eloquent and entertaining new version of Pan Tadeusz. Over 450 never-flagging pages, he converts Mickiewicz’s 13-syllable rhyming lines into iambic couplets deployed with stupendous skill, grace and agility. Nimble half-rhymes, lithe enjambment and mischievous wordplay channel all the story’s humour and exuberance, and banish any risk of jingling monotony.
The plot of Pan Tadeusz unfolds in Russian-occupied Lithuania in 1811–12. Mickiewicz, then, had just entered his teens. Poland and Lithuania, those ‘sister nations’, greeted Napoleon as a potential saviour. The French emperor might help them erase the shame of their lands’ partition (between Russia, Prussia and Austria), and restore the ancient glories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In remote Soplicowo, its flower-filled meadows, ringed by deep woods where bears, auroch and bison — ‘the forest’s emperors’ — hold sway, family quarrels echo in miniature the convulsions of Europe. Young Master (‘Pan’) Tadeusz returns from his studies in Vilnius to the manor where his uncle, the Judge, runs the estate. The fate of Tadeusz’s absent father Jacek, a fabled hell-raiser, casts a long thread of suspense that Mickiewicz spins at the close into a deftly-managed coup.
As the callow heir falls first for the sophisticated Madame Telimena and then her teenage ward, the garden-loving Zosia, a Romeo-and-Juliet motif sounds. A match between the pair might ‘reunite two feuding houses’. For now, the Soplicas — Tadeusz’s lot — and their Horeszko neighbours, Zosia’s clan, remain at daggers (and cudgels, broadswords and muskets) drawn.
The rough-hewn gentry let off steam through hair-raising bouts of scrapping and drinking. In these parts, ‘lawsuits will always be superfluous’. Vodka-fuelled posses enforce court orders in ‘forays’. Think Henry Fielding’s rambunctious squire-archy, with a steeper body-count, and higher alcoholic proof. After its fashion, the system works. From exile, Mickiewicz lauds the stubborn self-sufficiency of his warm-hearted, high-spirited kinsfolk (‘a quiet Pole is a German’), quick to pick a fight, then hospitably patch it up — ‘For Polish gentry, terribly conflictive/ And scrappy as they are, are not vindictive’.
Still, the Soplica-Horeszko spat darkens towards a vicious showdown. In a climactic, mock-heroic battle scene, gory barnyard antics turn, symbolically, into a joint assault by both camps on the Russian platoon sent to quell them. What role has the mysterious monk Father Robak played in starting the mayhem, and in ending it?
Meanwhile, presaged by an ominous comet, Napoleon’s march on Russia promises freedom and upheaval as war’s ‘crash reached every nook there is in Lithuania’. Amid the turmoil, wisdom and foresight lodge above all with the dulcimer-playing Jewish innkeeper Jankiel, ‘welcome guest and much-sought guide’ — and a hero from the decade when Dickens could only imagine Fagin.
Mickiewicz can’t pass a vegetable patch — where ‘cabbages with bald grey pate/ Sit pondering their vegetative fate’ — without a flourish and a gag, or ten. Johnston keeps pace at every turn with his teasing wit, snappy dialogue and sensual relish for every beast, plant, tree — and mushroom — in this beloved landscape of memory. A recipe for pork and cabbage stew, a scary bear hunt, a Jane Austen-like flirtation in the flower beds: anything and everything spurs Mickiewicz (and Johnston) into bravura, fun-filled verse.
At last, English readers can grasp why Pan Tadeusz belongs with Byron’s Don Juan and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in a glorious farewell trio that marked the swansong of the verse epic in Europe. Like them, its Romantic lyricism, nostalgia and baffled idealism come dressed in seemingly light-hearted irony and badinage. Mickiewicz, the voice of Poland’s ‘mourning-blackened generations’ of exiles ‘mad with long pain’, dreams of future liberation. Hostile powers carve up and trample down his homeland. So he looks back in yearning to ‘the land of childhood’ — to a bucolic idyll immune to history, ‘as sacred as first love, as pure’. He knows it probably never existed. This sumptuous poetry alone will make it real.