Opinion Poland

A land without a country: Literary myths of rural Poland

Polish identity has long been shaped by its relation to its lands, and nature has always been a key aspect to understanding Polish people. Even today, a large part of the population dreams of having a private dwór, or, more simply, a smaller dworek, Poland’s traditional house in the middle of a green meadow or close to the forest, symbol and embodiment of a country heading towards and closely linked to its nature and rural land.

Poland’s attachment to its lands and rural life

The importance of Poland’s rurality is furthermore contained and hinted at in the country’s name itself: “Poland” derives from an early Slavic word, “pole”, which means the field. But throughout the centuries, this pastoral representation of Poland began to drift. Nowadays, influenced largely by a national modern literature celebrating Polish lands and traditions, rural Poland has become an allegory of a lost Arcadia – which had a durable impact on politics, culture and life itself.

This emphasis on rural Poland owes a lot of its weight to Adam Mickiewicz, widely considered as one of the most important Polish writers and poets, famous including for his 1834 book, Pan Tadeusz. Narrating the aftermaths of Poland’s partitions, Pan Tadeusz is viewed as the national Polish epic poem and tells the story of a world living its last remaining days: the world of Polish country nobility, the szlachta, noblemen dismembered by the three partitions of Poland, and last remaining testaments of a culture and traditions slowly wiped out.

Countryside is the symbol, the setting where this golden age comes to its end. Mickiewicz wrote about the modest nobility whose aristocratic standing is determined, not by its wealth but by the land it possesses, may it be the most modest patch of grass. The flourishing nature described by Mickiewicz is a disappearing Shangri-La.

Nature beyond political borders

This plentiful land is embodied by Lithuania. Pan Tadeusz begins with the famous incipit “Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! ty jesteś jak zdrowie;/Ile cię trzeba cenić, ten tylko się dowie,/Kto cię stracił.”, “Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health/How much you must be valued, will only discover/The one who has lost you.” Mickiewicz described Lithuania as a God, the Muse of an ancient epic. Following the codes of the epic, he implored a divine entity to give him the inspiration to write. No more pagan gods: Adam Mickiewicz prays to his home country and Lithuanian landscapes.

The choice of the word Lithuania rather than Poland gives us an insight into a period where the political geography of this region wasn’t settled yet. Despite being Polish and writing in Polish, Adam Mickiewicz was born in what had once been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, part of the Russian empire during his time and, today, located in modern-day Belarus. His image of fatherland stems from the nature and landscapes he encountered rather than a well-defined nation-state with fixed political borders.

The isolated Lithuanian village of Soplicowo, where the story takes place, is the quintessence of the nature in which the Polish mentality is rooted. The main characteristics of Soplicowo are certainly its remoteness and its luxuriant nature. Far away from the rest of the world and its political shifting, Soplicowo endured less the change of regime. If the Russians, now rulers of this part of Poland-Lithuania, do appear, the relative isolation of Soplicowo allows the traditional Polish culture, threatened by the partitions, to fade more slowly than elsewhere in the country. The older nobles are still wearing their traditional kontusz and living in their vivid traditions.

However, the younger generation of Soplicowo is more and more interested in foreign countries. Mickiewicz who himself wrote from France, exiled, peppered his text with nostalgia. And anxiety: he feared that the influence of the countries which swallowed Poland-Lithuania (Russia, Prussia and Austria) may weaken the Polish identity; he dreaded the dispersal of Polish people, chased away from their land by politics – a fact he encountered himself while he was writing his Pan Tadeusz with the Great Emigration. Between 1831 and 1870, a large part of Poland’s elite emigrated to France — and Mickiewicz was among them.

The mythologization of pastoral Poland

Fighting against the dismantlement of Poland, Mickiewicz provides us with a an incredibly valuable testament of old Poland: Soplicowo. The village and the nature are separated from the rest of the world to such an extent that, when its inhabitants stand up against the Russians, the news cannot spread — a storm cut Soplicowo off from the rest of the world. The nature becomes Poland’s ally.

This mythologization of pastoral Poland finds another prominent spokesperson in Stanisław Wyspiański and his play Wesele, The Wedding. In 1901, almost seventy years after Pan Tadeusz, Wyspiański bears witness to another side of rural Poland: not from the point of view of the szlachta, but from the one of Poland’s intelligentsia and ordinary farmers.

In 1900, Wyspiański attended the wedding of his friend Lucjan Rydel with a country girl, Jadwiga, in the village of Węgrzce, near Krakow. At this time, the Polish intelligentsia was fascinated by the spirit of countryside, and it wasn’t uncommon for an urban intellectual to marry a rural girl, like Rydel and Wyspiański did himself. And Wyspiański transposed the whole wedding in a theatre play, Wesele, now considered as one of the most important of the Polish repertoire.

The Polish countryside, between hope and remembrance

His play portrays countryside Poland as a place of hope, not of remembrance, like Mickiewicz. Historical Poland is not identically conserved in rurality as in amber; Wyspiański makes the case that the alliance of peasants and intelligentsia is the only way to restore the Poland of old, still partitioned at that time. Summoning historical and mythical Polish characters, he mingles the reality of the wedding and the hopes of an insurrection which would save Poland.

These characters join the wedding and speak with the guests. We have for example Wernyhora, a mythical Ukrainian prophet who might have prophetized and predicted the partitions of Poland. Wernyhora gives a golden horn to a farmer boy to urge the Polish people to revolt, which the boy soon loses, symbolizing the failure of the insurrection. The alliance between the intelligentsia and the countryside farmers came to nothing.

Wyspiański summoned traditional rural figures to embody the jolt of Polish hopes—like the Chochoł, the Straw Man. The Chochoł is a countryside custom of surrounding a tree trunk with straw in winter to protect it. This tradition became a mythical creature made of straw in Polish folklore. At the end of the play, the Chochoł leads all the guests to dance — and this state of helplessness and bewitchment symbolizes the end of Polish hopes. “Miałeś, chamie, złoty róg,/miałeś, chamie, czapkę z piór”, declares the Straw Man: “ You had, boor, a golden horn/ you had, boor, a feathered cap…”

Poland, a land without a country?

The image of rural Poland became, notably through literature, a key element of Polish mentality. In Mickiewicz and Wyspiański’s works, the Polish countryside symbolizes both the country’s past and its future, a place of nostalgia and hope.

Rural Poland is the image of a country without a land and a land without a country. Poland-Lithuania has been partitioned at the end of the 18th century; but the land and its traditions remained, and existed alone, without any official country. This dichotomy durably influenced the Polish way of thinking. The idea of a martyr, Christ-like and innocent Poland is still noticeable in Poland’s current political discourse, divided by the narration of its own history; and this story, full of tragedy and suffering, leads to the establishment of a national ideology.

Maybe Polish people should, as Witold Gombrowicz suggested in his novel Trans-Atlantyk, free themselves from Poland.

Written by Louise Ostermann Twardowski

A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg. Passionate about Central European history, culture and literature, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Interested in Central European literature? Check out Louise’s latest articles right here!

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