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Adam Mickiewicz was born on 24 December 1798, either at his paternal uncle's estate in Zaosie (now Zavosse) near Navahrudak (in Polish, Nowogródek) or in Navahrudak itself[a] in what was then part of the Russian Empire and is now Belarus. The region was on the periphery of Lithuania proper and had been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1795). Its upper class, including Mickiewicz's family, were either Polish or Polonized. The poet's father, Mikołaj Mickiewicz, a lawyer, was a member of the Polish nobility (szlachta) and bore the hereditary Poraj coat-of-arms; Adam's mother was Barbara Mickiewicz, née Majewska. Adam was the second-born son in the family.
Mickiewicz spent his childhood in Navahrudak, initially taught by his mother and private tutors. From 1807 to 1815 he attended a Dominican school following a curriculum that had been designed by the now-defunct Polish Commission for National Education, which had been the world's first ministry of education. He was a mediocre student, although active in games, theatricals, and the like.
In September 1815, Mickiewicz enrolled at the Imperial University of Vilnius, studying to be a teacher. After graduating, under the terms of his government scholarship, he taught secondary school at Kaunas from 1819 to 1823.
In 1818, in the Polish-language
Tygodnik Wileński (Wilno Weekly), he published his first poem, "Zima miejska" ("City Winter"). The next few years would see a maturing of his style from sentimentalism/neoclassicism to romanticism, first in his poetry anthologies published in Vilnius in 1822 and 1823; these anthologies included the poem "Grażyna" and the first-published parts (II and IV) of his major work, Dziady (Forefathers' Eve). By 1820 he had already finished another major romantic poem, "Oda do młodości" ("Ode to Youth"), but it was considered to be too patriotic and revolutionary for publication and would not appear officially for many years.
About the summer of 1820, Mickiewicz met the love of his life,
. They were unable to marry due to his family's poverty and relatively low social status; in addition, she was already engaged to Count
Wawrzyniec Puttkamer , whom she would marry in 1821.
Imprisonment and exile
In 1817, while still a student, Mickiewicz, Tomasz Zan and other friends had created a secret organization, the Philomaths. The group focused on self-education but had ties to a more radical, clearly pro-Polish-independence student group, the Filaret Association. An investigation of secret student organizations by Nikolay Novosiltsev, begun in early 1823, led to the arrests of a number of students and ex-student activists including Mickiewicz, who was taken into custody and imprisoned at Vilnius' Basilian monastery in late 1823 or early 1824 (sources disagree as to the date). After investigation into his political activities, specifically his membership in the Philomaths, in 1824 Mickiewicz was banished to central Russia. Within a few hours of receiving the decree on 22 October 1824, he penned a poem into an album belonging to Salomea Bécu, the mother of Juliusz Słowacki. (In 1975 this poem was set to music in Polish and Russian by Soviet composer David Tukhmanov.) Mickiewicz crossed the border into Russia about 11 November 1824, arriving in Saint Petersburg later that month. He would spend most of the next five years in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, except for a notable 1824 to 1825 excursion to Odessa, then on to Crimea. That visit, from February to November 1825, inspired a notable collection of sonnets (some love sonnets, and a series known as Crimean Sonnets, published a year later).
Mickiewicz was welcomed into the leading literary circles of Saint Petersburg and Moscow, where he became a great favorite for his agreeable manners and extraordinary talent for poetic improvisation. The year 1828 saw the publication of his poem Konrad Wallenrod. Novosiltsev, who recognized its patriotic and subversive message, which had been missed by the Moscow censors, unsuccessfully attempted to sabotage its publication and to damage Mickiewicz's reputation.
In Moscow, Mickiewicz met the Polish journalist and novelist Henryk Rzewuski and the Polish composer and piano virtuoso Maria Szymanowska, whose daughter, Celina Szymanowska, Mickiewicz would later marry in Paris, France. He also befriended the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and Decembrist leaders including Kondraty Ryleyev. It was thanks to his friendships with many influential individuals that he was eventually able to obtain a passport and permission to leave Russia for Western Europe.
After serving five years of exile to Russia, Mickiewicz received permission to go abroad in 1829. On 1 June that year, he arrived in Weimar. By 6 June he was in Berlin, where he attended lectures by the philosopher Hegel. In February 1830 he visited Prague, later returning to Weimar, where he received a cordial reception from the writer, scientist and politician Goethe.
He then continued on through Germany all the way to Italy, which he entered via the Alps' Splügen Pass. Accompanied by an old friend, the poet Antoni Edward Odyniec, he visited Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome. In August that same year (1830) he went to Geneva, where he met fellow Polish Bard Zygmunt Krasiński. During these travels he had a brief romance with
Henrietta Ewa Ankwiczówna , but class differences again prevented his marrying his new love.
Finally about October 1830 he took up residence in Rome, which he declared "the most amiable of foreign cities." Soon after, he learned about the outbreak of the November 1830 Uprising in Poland, but he would not leave Rome until the spring of 1831.
On 19 April 1831 Mickiewicz departed Rome, traveling to Geneva and Paris and later, on a false passport, to Germany, via Dresden and Leipzig arriving about 13 August in Poznań (German name: Posen), then part of the Kingdom of Prussia. It is possible that during these travels he carried communications from the Italian Carbonari to the French underground, and delivered documents or money for the Polish insurgents from the Polish community in Paris, but reliable information on his activities at the time is scarce. Ultimately he never crossed into Russian Poland, where the Uprising was mainly happening; he stayed in German Poland (historically known to Poles as Wielkopolska, or Greater Poland), where he was well received by members of the local Polish nobility. He had a brief liaison with Konstancja Łubieńska at her family estate. Starting in March 1832, Mickiewicz stayed several months in Dresden, in Saxony, where he wrote the third part of his poem Dziady.
On 31 July 1832 he arrived in Paris, accompanied by a close friend and fellow ex-Philomath, the future geologist and Chilean educator Ignacy Domeyko. In Paris, Mickiewicz became active in many Polish émigré groups and published articles in
Pielgrzym Polski (The Polish Pilgrim). The fall of 1832 saw the publication, in Paris, of the third part of his Dziady (smuggled into partitioned Poland), as well as of
The Books of the Polish People and of the Polish Pilgrimage, which Mickiewicz self-published. In 1834 he published another masterpiece, his epic poem Pan Tadeusz.
Pan Tadeusz, his longest poetic work, marked the end of his most productive literary period. Mickiewicz would create further notable works, such as
Lausanne Lyrics, 1839–40) and Zdania i uwagi (Thoughts and Remarks, 1834–40), but neither would achieve the fame of his earlier works. His relative literary silence, beginning in the mid-1830s, has been variously interpreted: he may have lost his talent; he may have chosen to focus on teaching and on political writing and organizing.
On 22 July 1834, in Paris, he married Celina Szymanowska, daughter of composer and concert pianist Maria Agata Szymanowska. They would have six children (two daughters, Maria and Helena; and four sons, Władysław, Aleksander, Jan and Józef). Celina later became mentally ill, possibly with a major depressive disorder. In December 1838, marital problems caused Mickiewicz to attempt suicide. Celina would die on 5 March 1855.
Mickiewicz and his family lived in relative poverty, their major source of income being occasional publication of his work – not a very profitable endeavor. They received support from friends and patrons, but not enough to substantially change their situation. Despite spending most of his remaining years in France, Mickiewicz would never receive French citizenship, nor any support from the French government. By the late 1830s he was less active as a writer, and also less visible on the Polish émigré political scene.
In 1838 Mickiewicz became professor of Latin literature at the Lausanne Academy, in Switzerland. His lectures were well received, and in 1840 he was appointed to the newly established chair of Slavic languages and literatures at the Collège de France. Leaving Lausanne, he was made an honorary Lausanne Academy professor.
Mickiewicz would, however, hold the Collège de France post for little more than three years, his last lecture being delivered on 28 May 1844. His lectures were popular, drawing many listeners in addition to enrolled students, and receiving reviews in the press. Some would be remembered much later; his sixteenth lecture, on
Slavic theater, "was to become a kind of gospel for Polish theater directors of the twentieth century."
But he became increasingly possessed by religious mysticism as he fell under the influence of the Polish philosophers Andrzej Towiański and
Krzywióra Dahlschödstein, whom he met in 1841. His lectures became a medley of religion and politics, punctuated by controversial attacks on the Catholic Church, and thus brought him under censure by the French government. The messianic element conflicted with Roman Catholic teachings, and some of his works were placed on the Church's list of prohibited books, though both Mickiewicz and Towiański regularly attended Catholic mass and encouraged their followers to do so.
In 1846 Mickiewicz severed his ties with Towiański, following the rise of revolutionary sentiment in Europe, manifested in events such as the Kraków Uprising of February 1846. Mickiewicz criticized Towiański's passivity and returned to the traditional Catholic Church. In 1847 Mickiewicz befriended American journalist, critic and women's-rights advocate Margaret Fuller. In March 1848 he was part of a Polish delegation received in audience by Pope Pius IX, whom he asked to support the enslaved nations and the French Revolution of 1848. Soon after, in April 1848, he organized a military unit, the Mickiewicz Legion, to support the insurgents, hoping to liberate the Polish and other Slavic lands. The unit never became large enough to be more than symbolic, and in the fall of 1848 Mickiewicz returned to Paris and became more active again on the political scene.
In December 1848 he was offered a post at the Jagiellonian University in Austrian-ruled Kraków, but the offer was soon withdrawn after pressure from Austrian authorities. In the winter of 1848–49, Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, in the final months of his own life, visited his ailing compatriot and soothed the poet's nerves with his piano music. Over a dozen years earlier, Chopin had set two of Mickiewicz's poems to music (see Polish songs by Frédéric Chopin).
In the winter of 1849 Mickiewicz founded a French-language newspaper, La Tribune des Peuples (The Peoples' Tribune), supported by a wealthy Polish émigré activist,
Ksawery Branicki . Mickiewicz wrote over 70 articles for the Tribune during its short existence: it came out between 15 March and 10 November 1849, when the authorities shut it down. His articles supported democracy and socialism and many ideals of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic era, though he held few illusions regarding the idealism of the House of Bonaparte. He supported the restoration of the French Empire in 1851. In April 1852 he lost his post at the Collège de France, which he had been allowed to keep (though without the right to lecture). On 31 October 1852 he was hired as a librarian at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal. There he was visited by another Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid, who wrote of the meeting in his poem, "Czarne kwiaty" ("Black Blossoms"); and there Mickiewicz's wife Celina died.
Mickiewicz welcomed the Crimean War of 1853-1856, which he hoped would lead to a new European order including a restored independent Poland. His last composition, a Latin ode Ad Napolionem III Caesarem Augustum Ode in Bomersundum captum, honored Napoleon III and celebrated the British-French victory over Russia at the Battle of Bomarsund in the Åland Islands in August 1854. Polish émigrés associated with the Hôtel Lambert persuaded him to become active again in politics. Soon after the Crimean War broke out (October 1853), the French government entrusted him with a diplomatic mission. He left Paris on 11 September 1855, arriving in Constantinople, in the Ottoman Empire, on 22 September. There, working with Michał Czajkowski (Sadyk Pasha), he began organizing Polish forces to fight under Ottoman command against Russia. With his friend Armand Lévy he also set about organizing a Jewish legion. He returned ill from a trip to a military camp to his apartment on Yenişehir Street in the Pera (now Beyoğlu) district of Constantinople and died on 26 November 1855. Though Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński and others have speculated that political enemies might have poisoned Mickiewicz, there is no proof of this, and he probably contracted cholera, which claimed other lives there at the time.
Mickiewicz's remains were transported to France, boarding ship on 31 December 1855, and were buried at Montmorency, Val-d'Oise, on 21 January 1861. In 1890 they were disinterred, moved to Austrian Poland, and on 4 July entombed in the crypts of Kraków's Wawel Cathedral, a place of final repose for a number of persons important to Poland's political and cultural history.