"And yet I leave behind me this fateful power" - On the Birthday of Juliusz Słowacki

4 September 1804, the Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki was born in Kremenets (Krzemieniec), 100 miles east of Lviv in present-day Ukraine.

“And yet I leave behind me this fateful power, / Useless while I live... it just graces my temples ; / But when I die, it will, unseen, press you ever, / Till it remakes you, bread eaters – into angels. (Juliusz Słowacki, “My Testament”)

An early portrait of Juliusz Słowacki with the open white shirt collar, 
in proper style á la Byron 
by the Ukrainian impressionist painter Ivan Trush (1869 – 1941)

The prophet has no honour in his own country, especially not during his life and times. It might have been that Słowacki carried his impersonation of a Byronic hero too far. Brilliant, belligerent, overbearing and a bit of a loner. And always in the shadow of Poland’s other national poet, Adam Mickiewicz, 10 years his senior and already established as the artistic voice of Poland’s struggle for freedom, especially in expatriate circles in France and Germany, Słowacki really had a tough act to follow. Nonetheless, Słowacki soon left the choir of voices expressing the tragedy of Poland and sung his monody.

The Google Doodle celebrating Słowacki's 205th birthday in Poland

Byron and his dedication for Greece’s freedom posed as a paragon for many young poets after the Restoration of 1815, especially in Eastern Europe, where the nations had been allocated among the three major powers Austria, Prussia and Russia and wars and revolutions became almost a daily fare. Słowacki was no exception, even though he stood out as especially gifted. Prominent as a lyric poet, his poetry is an amalgam of a rallying cry for freedom, history and Slavic paganism, the mandatory orientalism of the period and Słowacki’s very own but prominent interpretation of Byron’s irony, along with an immense creativity for bringing new words into being.

Henryk Siemiradzki (1843 -1902): "Curtain for the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków" (1894)

Słowacki never saw one of his excellent plays performed on stage and he lived most of his life in exile, travelling extensively and having few friends, Chopin among them, though, and his funeral in Paris was attended by just 30 people when he died at the age of 39 of tuberculosis as it is befitting for a Romantic poet true to his calling. Ten years after his death, he was already celebrated as one of the Three Bards of Polish Romantic literature and could at least draw level with Mickiewicz and his acquaintance Zygmunt Krasiński, while the next generations already regarded him as something of a national prophet. His remains were translated from Montmartre to Wawel Cathedral by Marshal Piłsudski, leader of the Second Polish Republic in 1927.

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