“Crimean Sonnets” by Adam Mickiewicz: Is the New Reading Possible?

Walenty Wańkowicz. Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz on the Ayu-Dag Cliff

For almost 200 years since the “Crimean sonnets” of Polish genius Adam Mickiewicz were published in 1826, the main interpretations of this cycle are mostly settled. The sonnets are marked as a prominent example of orientalism, an important trend in romantic literature of that time. Besides this, the cycle written by Mickiewicz during his Russian exile, and published in Moscow, has nuances of Polish and Russian interpretations. Polish tradition puts accents on the innovative genre and language of the cycle, its nationally colored reflectivity – with an image of a pilgrim and implicit theme of Polish pilgrimage. Russian tradition highlights the sensitive romantic hero, secretly inspired by the idea of freedom – partly because right before his Crimea trip, of the summer/autumn of 1825, Mickiewicz became friends with Russian Decembrists in Moscow and then in Odesa. He also struck up a friendship with Pushkin and accepted him like a brother in freedom (Mickiewicz was deeply disappointed in Pushkin a few years later) – so it was easy to view “Crimean sonnets” poetically somewhere in-between “The Giaour” of Byron and “The fountain of Bakhchisarai” of Pushkin, in dialogue with them.

The dialogic structure of “Crimean sonnets” is visible to the naked eye: some sonnets are written as a direct dialogue between the lyric hero (Pilgrim or Giaour) – and Mirza, his experienced Crimean guide. But this plot was mostly recognized as belonging to Orientalism: a dialogue between East and West. Reading the cycle from today we can see, that the dialogism of “Crimean sonnets” has a more deep and fundamental character. By and large, it’s just a different dialogue – between two oppressed cultures (Polish and Crimean Tatar), where the geography is not as important as history. In this sense, Mickiewicz’s palette is richer than that of many poets of his time. When Mickiewicz, a rarely gifted polyglot with also a complicated identity (Polish poet with Lithuanian and Belarusian background) arrived in Crimea, he was already open to deeper relations with this place, than the romantic paradigm of East-West. He was a bearer of an unprecedented optic, which makes the cycle especially relevant for our time.

How was it reflected in the poems?

The cycle, which includes 18 sonnets, shows more and more deep inclusion of Mickiewicz in Crimea’s history. The way of the hero symbolically goes up from the sea line to the historic towns and valleys of Crimea and then to the mountains, to be finished with a panoramic view from Ayu-Dag. In the first part, which can be provisionally named “Sea sonnets” (sonnets 1-4), the sea trip to Crimea from Odesa is depicted. Interesting, that the first – and very famous – sonnet “Ackerman steppes” is not really connected with the sea, but pictures the Ukrainian steppes in the Odesa region – these steppes are given in the open association with the sea, as its foreboding. The comparison of the steppe and the sea is very typical for the Ukrainian attitude and poetry – Mickiewicz could have learned it while being in Odesa.

The poet twice mentions Ukraine in the author’s comments on the cycle – and the first time right in connection with “Ackerman steppes”. He explains the meaning of the Ukrainian word burjan – weeds – which is important to the perception of this specific place (in the next sonnets he will the same carefully preserve concepts of the Tatars’ life and of course Crimea’s original toponyms). For the second time, Mickiewicz mentions Ukraine in the comment to the sonnet “The tomb of Potocka”. Speaking of this legend he links to Ukrainian liberation uprisings when Tatars often raided Ukraine – it’s how a noble Polish girl from the Potocki family could get into the khan’s harem.  In this way, from the first sonnet, we see Mickiewicz as a person that extremely open to other cultures. For him, Crimea is not an exotic separated East as in Orientalism, but a specific point on the historic and cultural map, which needs to be understood. Feeling quite aloof from his fellow travelers during the sea trip (keep in mind that these people are just travelers, while Mickiewicz is still in exile) he is already prepared to meet Mirza. We will observe their first conversation in sonnet 5, “View on mountains from Kozlov steppes”.

This poem, “View on mountains from Kozlov steppes”, preсeds a very important part of the cycle, so-called “Bakhchisaray sonnets” (sonnets 5 – 9). It’s a first look of the hero on real Crimea (with an amazing view of the Chatyr-Dag mountain far away). It’s also the first open dialog between Mirza and Pilgrim, at the end of which the Pilgrim freezes in delight in front of the greatness he saw (exclaiming just a-a!, like in search of a new language). This sonnet is the first and only instance where Mickiewicz uses the new Russian name for this place (Kozlov) – from that point forward, after genuinely learning the essence of the Crimea spirit, he only uses the original Tatar names.

Four sonnets about Bakhchisaray, the old capital of Tatar khans, tell of the ruins of culture ravaged by the Russian invasion. The invasion left the city with only “ivy and decay invade the palace’s galleries” and only the solitary cry of a fountain declares the capital’s brilliant past. In the sonnet “The tomb of Potocka” the hero relates to the fate of the legendary concubine of khan Giray, Potocka, – and openly tells of his own exile. He cries near the old graveyard in the sonnet “Harem graves”, and Mirza recognizes him as an exception from all foreigners who came to this land. The main tone of Bakhchisaray sonnets is a deep sympathy for the destroyed Tatar civilization, and awareness of the injustice of history. The dialogue between Pilgrim and Mirza comes here to a new level. Two oppressed nations (Tatars and Poles) speak through them, and the historic winners – Russians – just remain barbarous.

The sonnets of “Crimean valleys” (10 –13) are the most self-reflective part of the cycle. The Crimea landscapes deeply touch the poet through the prism of Tatar culture. He sees fog as through a Tatar robe, night as odalisque… he observes how the lamp of Universe fell down on Chatyr-Dag… The last of these four poems, sonnet 13 (Chatyr-Dag) is transferred to Mirza, who prays to the unique mountain, savior of the national memory. The hero is just quiet…

Sonnet 14, which starts the last, “mountain” part of the cycle, is the most confessional. Titled “Pilgrim” it gives birth to the topic of Polish pilgrimage, important for the mature lyrics of Mickiewicz, and his conception of the Polish purpose. His nostalgia for Lithuania, in connection with the sadness about his left love, sends us to the epigraph of “Crimean sonnets” from Goethe: “To know a poet you need to know his country”. The country of Mickiewicz is nowhere and everywhere, but it grows from the real image of his motherland. His view is cosmopolitan, with an emphasis on inclusion and empathy for other people’s lives.  And as it happens, traveling through Crimea becomes for Mickiewicz – a person of the world – also a deep personal journey.

The last four poems, starting from “Road over the abyss in Chufut-Kale” describe the mountain landscapes of Crimea. In these sonnets mutual understanding between Mirza and Pilgrim becomes complete – in fact, Mirza turns out to be a mentor for his younger friend. He teaches him to pass through dangerous mountain roads, listen to his intuition and trust his horse – and read the timeless Crimea beauty. The symbolic end of “Crimean sonnets” is made by the sonnet “Ayu-dag”, where the poet looks at the land from the mountains. We see that during the cycle he gets more and more scale optic – to finish his travel by words in honor of poetry “and just songs will stay with you from the squall – crown of immortality for you brow”.

Mickiewicz wrote his cycle in the genre of Petrarch’s sonnets – and his choice had a fundamental meaning. He was a consistent “petrarchist” – not just in his understanding of poetry, but also in his conception of history. He believed in Europe as a multicultural space, where nations will find their peace and development. Two indirect confirmations of these we can find in Russian resources: first is the poem of Pushkin “He lived among us…” (“Он между нами жил…”) about Mickiewicz. Pushkin describes Mickiewicz by the time of his Russian exile as a person who “spoke of times to come when people forgetting strife join a great family”. The second is a case of polemics by Mickiewicz with his future censor Kachenovsky, which happened right in August of 1826 when Mickiewicz was preparing his sonnets to publish. Revolted by the article of Offman “Dispute on Petrarch poems”, which was published in Kachenovsky’s magazine “Bестник Европы” (“Herald of Europe”), Mickiewicz exclaimed “No poetry in the world if this is not poetry!” and called Petrarch the most tender and passionate of poets ever. It’s very symbolic, that the main Russian magazine, oriented on European history and art, rejected the figure of Petrarch – the biggest profit of future Europe.  

Mickiewicz’s conception of Europe was developed in harmony with his personal history. Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine were not alien to him. As France, Italy, Greece and Great Britain were not alien to him either. He believed that the ability for dialogue and mutual understanding will determine the development of Europe. In the face of the Russian Empire, he discovered a barbarous state, speaking just the language of aggression. Not dialogue, but rather strife was the tradition of Russia. The destroyed culture and life of Crimea Tatars became for him one more confirmation of this. The dialogue of Pilgrim and Mirza in his cycle is a dialogue of two conquered nations, two victims of history. West and East are just conditional measurements for Mickiewicz, while the clash of civilization and barbarism is a real conflict of his life.

Reading “Crimean sonnets” by Mickiewicz, we see a poet of an open mind, with a consciousness close to us, people of the XXI century. He is a person of civilization, and a person of human values, based on the value of freedom. Looking at his noble nature, it’s a real shame to read Pushkin’s “To the slanderers of Russia”, “The anniversary of Borodino” or “He lived among us…”, written after Polish uprising and directly dedicated to his former friend – but full of aggression, neglect, and selfishness. There are centuries between these two people. And there are invisible oceans between Russia and Europe.

The Crimean Sonnets in its original language Polish, and also English and Russian translations.

1. Crimean Sonnets in Polish

sonety-krymskie.pdf (wolnelektury.pl)

2. Crimean Sonnets in English translation

Sonnets from the Crimea – Wikisource, the free online library

3. Crimean Sonnets in Russian translation 

Крымские сонеты — Викицитатник (wikiquote.org)

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