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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pan Tadeusz, epic poem of Poland

Pan Tadeusz ("Sir Thaddeus"), is the national epic poem of Poland. It was written by Adam Mickiewicz (whom Wikipedia calles a "poet, writer and philosopher") around 1798 but not printed until 1834, and reflects the topsy-turvy history of the region: the story takes place in a town in Lithuania, populated by ethnic Belorussians, among a Polish aristocracy, who curse the Russians who claim the land and praise the Bonapartists who have been trying to conquer it.

I recently read some of a translation by Kenneth Mackenzie and loved parts of it. (Epic poems are not known for their consistent quality.) Some of these are below.

Note that the titular hero of the poem is Tadeusz, whose name is pronounced something like "Tah-dah-yoosh".

The hunt, wherein hunters come across a castle:

Just then the huntsmen held their leashes strained,
All in their places motionless remained,
And each man to his neighbor silence signed,
While every eye towards the stone inclined,
Near which the Judge had seen the hare. He stands
With silent gestures signalling commands.
The others halt, while o'er the meadow wide
The Assessor and the Notary slowly ride.
Tadeusz, being nearer, past them went
And stood beside the Judge and watched intent.
'Twas hard for one long absent from the chase
To sight the hare in that gray, stony space.
The Judge was pointing where beneath a stone
With ears pricked up the cowering beast lay prone.
It met the huntsmen's gaze with crimson stare,
As if, bewitched and of its fate aware,
It could not turn its eyes away for dread,
Crouching beneath the stone as 'twere stone dead.
Meanwhile the dust draws nearer on the plain,
As Bobtail and fleet Falcon forward strain.
Then both at once the rivals shouted loud,
'At him!' and vanished in a dusty cloud.

While in pursuit the rival horsemen urged,
The Count from near the castle wood emerged.
That gentleman, it was well known to all,
For no appointment could be punctual.
He'd overslept again today, and cursed
His serving men as from the wood he burst,
The tails of his white coat spread in the wind,
His coat of English cut. His men behind
Wore little caps like mushrooms shining bright,
Short coats, top boots and pantaloons of white.
The servants who this style of costume wore
The name of jockeys in his palace bore.

This cavalcade is galloping to the leas,
When suddenly the Count the castle sees,
And checks his horse. Were these the walls he knew,
That in the dawn seemed beautiful and new?
He'd never seen them in the morning light,
And was astonished at the novel sight.
The tower that jutted from the mist seemed higher,
The sun had set the iron roof on fire,
The glass remaining in the window sashes
Shattered the sunlight into rainbow flashes.
A cloak of mist the lower floor concealed,
So that the cracks and gaps were not revealed.
Upon the wind the distant huntsmen's calls
Once and again were echoed by the walls.
You could have sworn the half-veiled battlements
Had been rebuilt and filled with residents.

-p.64 of Mackenzie translation

A straggler tries to catch up to the hunt:
He started for the manor in this mood
Just as the huntsmen issued from the wood,
And, since he loved the chase, to join them sped,
All other notions banished from his head,
Past gate and yard and all along the fence,
Till stopping at a turn he looked round thence.
It was the kitchen garden. Row on row
Of fruit-trees give their shade to beds below.
A cabbage sits and bows her scrawny pate,
Musing upon her vegetable fate;
The slender bean entwines the carrot's tresses
And with a thousand eyes his love expresses;
Here hangs the golden tassel of the maize,
And there a bellied water-melon strays,
That rolling from his stem far off is found,
A stranger on the crimson beetroots' ground.
Each bed is girdled with a furrowed border,
Where hemp-plants stand on guard in serried order,
Like cypresses, all silent, green and tall.
Between their leaves no serpent dares to crawl,
And their strong smell serves to defend the bed,
Insects and caterpillars striking dead.
Beyond, the whitish poppy-plants arise;
It seems as if a swarm of butterflies
With fluttering wings has settled on their stems
And glitters with a rainbow flash of gems,
With so great brilliance do the poppies blaze;
And like the mood amid the starry maze
With flaming countenance the round sunflower
Pursues the westering sun from hour to hour.

-p.80 of Mackenzie translation

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Wed Oct 31, 06:58:00 AM:
I think Simon Schama talks about this poem in Landscape and Memory, might be worth a look if you're interested...