Remnants of Polish Empire: Milosz and Sienkiewicz

The Polish Empire…I confess my ignorance, immense ignorance, and thus shamefaced astonishment to find such an empire existed once. I realise anew how parochial US education is. Perhaps in high school’s elective class on European History there was a mention, but I remember Poland above all as a tragedy, a land of both centrality and flatness, leading to repeated invasions by countries and peoples bigger and stronger and bent on a vastness of domination. I am not sure how much is my failure and how much faulty interpretation U.S. style, where Polish jokes were sadly legion through my growing up and our own history of conquest and empire (and fear of decline) so steadfastly ignored. Both of which perhaps explain avoidance of presenting this history and its aftermath alongside the tragedy (which is no less true for the existence of the commonwealth).

A map of the changing borders:

Territorial-changes-of-Poland-1635-2009-small
By Esemono – Own work, Public Domain

 

I am going to Poland! It is a good year for going places, given unemployment and a wonderful partner who I can trail after like the discombobulation of stars behind a comet. Hopefully at some point here we will start trading off who gets to be the comet and who the (poetic rather than realistic) discombobulation. Anyway, I came up with a list to read as I always do, and started in chronological order, now slightly broken but happily. I find Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword (1884 — translated by Jeremiah Curtain in 1898) more interesting since reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Issa Valley (1955) because of the way one echoes in curious ways the subjects of the other.

5145F9XFZ9LOf course, all of With Fire and Sword takes place in Central Ukraine, based on the historical uprising of the Cossacks against the land’s occupation by Polish nobility. That was initially a bit disappointing, but almost made up for by some splendid descriptions of Chigirin, giving it such a border town feel but also doing much to show the diversity of connections between town and wilderness and agriculture and the meeting of different cultures that I have become so interested in. Also, in this case, the machines of war.

Barabash pointed to the market-square and to the people moving around upon it. The whole square was thronged with great gray oxen on the way to Korsún for the army; and with the oxen went a crowd of herdsmen (Chabani), who passed their whole lives in the steppe and Wilderness,–men perfectly wild, professing no religion, (“religionis nullius,” as the Voevoda Kisel said). Among them were forms more like robbers than herdsmen,–fierce, terrible, covered with remnants of various garments. The greater part of them were dressed in sheepskin doublets or in untanned skins with the wool outside, open in front and showing, even in winter, the naked breast embrowned by the winds of the steppe. All were armed, but with the greatest variety of weapons. Some had bows and quivers on their shoulders; some muskets or “squealers” (so called by the Cossacks); some had Tartar sabres, some scythes; and finally, there were those who had only sticks with horse-jaws fastened on the ends. Among them mingled the no less wild, though better armed men from the lower country, taking to the camp for sale dried fish, game, and mutton fat. Farther on were the Chumaki (ox-drivers) with salt, bee-keepers from the steppes and forest, wax-bleachers with honey, forest-dwellers with tar and pitch, peasants with wagons, registered Cossacks, Tartars from Bélgorod, and God knows what tramps and “vampires” from the ends of the earth.

It continues with some of the persistent and matter-of-fact contextual anti-Jewish sentiment that shouldn’t have surprised me yet did.

The blaze from the piles on the square spread such a glare over the town that all Chigirin seemed burning. The bustle and shouts increased with the approach of night. The Jews did not peep from their houses.

Jews hide in their houses throughout this book in fact. The (simplified and partial) explanation for people’s own understanding of this is given by Hmelmitski, leader of the rebellion:

I want no war with the king, I want no war with the Commonwealth! It is the mother, and he is the father. The king is a merciful lord; but the kinglets!–with them it is impossible for us to live; their extortions, their rents, meadow-taxes, mill-taxes, eye and horn taxes, their tyranny and oppression exercised through the agency of Jews, cry for vengeance.

Sienkiewicz writes, of course, in celebration of the Polish kinglets vital to the existence of the Commonwealth. He tries for balance occasionally, but passages like the following occur over and over again expressing a belief in the requirements of progress through the civilization of the wilderness (we meet once again these tropes), and support for the unspeakable levels of violence acceptable for its achievement, though this is often sorrowful.

Order reigned in all the lands of the prince, with plenty, justice, peace, but also terror,–for in case of the slightest opposition the prince knew no bounds to his anger and to the punishments he inflicted; to such a degree was magnanimity joined with severity in his nature. But in those times and in those regions that severity alone permitted life and the labor of men to thrive and continue. Thanks to it alone, towns and villages rose, the agriculturist took the place of the highwayman, the merchant sold his wares in peace, bells called the devout in safety to prayer, the enemy dared not cross the boundaries, crowds of thieves perished, empaled on stakes, or were changed into regular soldiers, and the wilderness bloomed.

A wild country and its wild inhabitants needed such a hand…

Impalings and the destruction of entire villages along with each of their inhabitants…there is no ‘civilian’ in these battles. Nothing sacred. No woman unraped, no field unburned, no child spared. No cruelty too extreme.

They saw on both sides of the road a long row of “Cossack candles,”–that is, people with hands raised above their heads, and tied to stakes driven into the ground, wound around with straw steeped in pitch and set on fire at the hands.

A little thought and you realise the peasants must have quite a lot of grievances to have embarked on a course of rebellion.

“Why do you croak, grandfather, like a raven?” asked an old peasant. “We believe that the black hour is coming on the lords; and there will be neither on the Russian nor Tartar bank lords or princes,–only Cossacks, free people; there will be neither land-rent, nor barrel-tax, nor mill-tax, nor transport-tax, nor any more Jews, for thus does it stand in the letter from Christ which you yourself spoke of. And Hmelnitski is as strong as the prince. Let them go at it!

Again, the a long list that has me nodding my head until we reach the Jews. The violence shown by peasants in the revolt is treated very differently by Sienkiewicz of course:

Through the broken windows Skshetuski saw the multitude of drunken peasants, bloody, with rolled-up shirt-sleeves, going from house to house, from cellar to cellar, and searching all corners, garrets, lofts; from time to time a terrible noise announced that a nobleman, a Jew, a man, a woman, or a child had been found. The victim was dragged to the square and gloated over in the most fearful manner. The crowd fought with one another for the remnants of the bodies; with delight they rubbed the blood on their faces and breasts, and wound the still steaming entrails around their necks.

It is terrifying to read the battle cries on every side: Kill! Slay! It is full of irony to hear bemoaned on the one hand the terrible betrayal of the Cossacks joining with the Tartars in their uprising, and then on the other to celebrate the mercenary Tartar regiments of the crown putting down the rebellion.

Above all is the weight of contempt heaped upon non-Polish peasantry. I present you a short selection among so so many phrases:

in his ears the words of Yeremi were roaring: “Better for us not to live, than to live in captivity under peasants and trash.”

Or:

The peasant breaths, filled with the odor of gorailka, came upon the faces of those nobles of high birth, for whom the pressure of those sweating hands was as unendurable as an affront. Threatenings also were not lacking among the expressions of vulgar cordiality.

Or:

Would not every dog-brother of them be better at home, working his serfage peaceably for his land? What fault is it of ours if God has made us nobles and them trash, and commanded them to obey? Tfu! I am beside myself with rage. I am a mild-mannered man, soft as a plaster; but let them not rouse me to anger! They have had too much freedom, too much bread; they have multiplied like mice in a barn; and now they are dying to get at the cats. Ah, wait! There is one cat here called Yeremi, and another called Zagloba.

I have not started on the misogyny. I don’t think I will. I don’t know enough to argue that Sienkiewicz necessarily agreed with all of these views expressed through the mouths of characters and sympathetic narration. But the overwhelming feeling is their promotion, alongside a fierce nationalism tied to land and a certain kind of honour. Written, as well, in a period where Poland as a country did not officially exist.

So many of the better parts of the book engage in lyrical descriptions embodying a love of land, of crops, of wildlife. An understanding of seasons. A desire to create a peaceful land of fertility and beauty. This is partly what it shares in common with The Issa Valley, maybe why I kept reading. It could also be just the absurd knightly adventures with swords and romance.

9780349123318-uk-300Milosz’s memoir of the Issa Valley is lyrical, lovely, haunted. Its rural community remains divided, separate and ranked along the same lines established by the Commonwealth. A Polish ruling class still sits in position over Lithuanian ‘peasants’ (though Sienkiewicz’s account numbers a Lithuanian knight amongst the heroes. A man capable of cutting off three heads at once and splitting people down the middle a-la Song of Roland).

I found this about Czeslaw Milosz — In Memoriam, from the University of California, Berkeley:

Czesław Miłosz (d. 14 August 2004), Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the University of California, Berkeley’s only Nobel Prize winner from the Division of Arts and Humanities, was witness to much that was central to the history of the twentieth century. He was born on 30 June 1911 in Szetejnie/Šateiniai, a small town in rural Lithuania, then a part of the Russian Empire. His parents, Aleksander and Weronika (née Kunat), were members of the long polonized lesser Lithuanian nobility. Miłosz would always place emphasis upon his identity as one of the last citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a place of competing and overlapping identities. This stance—not Polish enough for some, certainly not Lithuanian to others—would give rise to controversies about him that have not ceased with his death in either country.

Again there is a narrative of colonization, of civilization of empty wilderness (but without the swords and scythes and impalings):

Starting in the sixteenth century, the Issa Valley had been colonized by settlers lured there by the Princes Radziwill, and the Bukowskis had come from the Kingdom of Poland in their covered wagons, through forests, across fords and uncharted wilderness, before reaching their destination in the virgin forests of Lithuania. Many fell on distant fields of battle — in the wars against the Swedes, the Turks, and the Russians. (92)

Covered wagons and virgin forests almost left me speechless, confused about the parallels with, or borrowings of, US mythologies. Again there is a constant divide between Polish (Polonized?) nobility and Lithuanian peasantry:

Masiulis, the wizard, sat with his back against the farmhouse wall, smoking his pipe. They were not on the best of terms. The magician laid claim to as much land as Romuald, but he was a peasant — a Lithuanian peasant. (93)

Or

But no Bukowski had ever married a peasant. (172)

Though this Bukowski did in fact end up marrying the peasant.

Thomas, the young boy of the story, comes of age and grows into the immensity of the distance between himself and the peasants who surround him, despite his love of the land, his knowledge of the harvest, threshing, hunting, fishing. He is increasingly separate, which he feels with sadness and longing and his family bolster with pride and constant vigilance. The book opens with pages of factual moving to lyrical description of the place, love and memory constantly well up through every phrase throughout the whole of the novel:

I should begin with the Land of Lakes…This part of Europe was long covered with glaciers, and the landscape has much of the severity of the north. The soil is sandy and rocky and suitable only for growing potatoes, rue, oats and flax. This explains why such care was taken not to spoil the forests, which helped to soften the climate and offered protection against the Baltic winds. The forests are [predominantly of pine and spruce, though birch, oak, and hornbeam are also in abundance… (1)

This continues to be a world where everyone has their scythe. This continues to be a world of peasant uprising and violence — a grenade is thrown through the mansion’s window. It fails to explode, and comes to rest under Thomas’s bed. This is the time of land reform — resented by the narrator’s family who use money and corruption to try to preserve their lands. The Deluge is remembered in the form of The Swedish Mounds, great earthworks from the 17th century battles.

I am a third of the way through Vol. 1 of Sienkiewicz’s second volume The Deluge, though I am a little at a loss as to quite why…

The other thing the two books share in common is the uncanny, which I quite love. An example or two from Milosz:

The Issa Valley has the distinction of being inhabited by an unusually large number of devils. (3)

And this brilliant thing that recalls another aspect of history:

…he was visited by a monster. Shatybelko described it as a sort of bumpy log that moved sideways, level with the ground, and which was mounted with three heads — all with Tartar features, he said — baring their teeth in hideous grimaces. (41)

With Fire and Sword, however, has Horpyna. A beautiful giantess dressed as a man and valiant, who shows promise of great supernatural powers.

I had served long in Wallachia, where there are more vampires than people, but where there are weapons against them. I sprang from the horse and thrust my dagger into the ground. ‘A vaunt! disappear!’ and it groaned, seized the hilt of the dagger, and slipped down along the edge under the grass. I cut the ground in the form of a cross and rode off.”

“Are there so many vampires in Wallachia, father?”

“Every other Wallachian after death becomes a vampire, and the Wallachian vampires are the worst of all. They call them brukolaki.”

“And who is stronger, father,–the werewolf or the vampire?”

“The werewolf is stronger, but the vampire is more stubborn. If you are able to get the upper hand of the werewolf, he will serve you, but vampires are good for nothing except to follow blood. The werewolf is always ataman over the vampires.”

“And Horpyna commands the werewolves?”

“Yes, surely. As long as she lives she will command them. If she had not power over them, then the ataman would not give her his cuckoo, for werewolves thirst for maiden’s blood above all.”

Vampires! Werewolves! Still:

The giantess herself who guards the princess is a powerful witch, intimate with devils who may warn her against us. I have, it is true, a bullet, which I moulded on consecrated wheat, for a common one would not take her; but besides there are probably whole regiments of vampires who guard the entrance.

I was so hoping for a supernatural turn and a novel all about Horpyna, yet these are left only as stories. Still, I greatly desire a visit to Wallachia, part of Romania.

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