Two distinguished poets have translated into English a sixteenth-century Polish poet whose work reads as if he were our contemporary. The very possibility that we can respond to works written long ago is always fragile. After all, how often do we fail to overcome the gap in time that separates us from a given literary work, except when we read it as students of history, fascinated more by a reconstruction of past mores and ways of feeling than by the work itself? The rare accomplishment of Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney in translating Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), a Polish poet of the Renaissance, is that they allow us to forget about differences in mentality and read Laments as a powerful work of literature.

The art of translation has become in this century an important activity for American poets. A certain anti-elitism liberated translators from their former dependence on departments of philology specializing in a given language. Here the boldness of Ezra Pound, who, without having learned Chinese, produced some excellent adaptations of old Chinese masters, had an influential effect. The question of whether, and to what extent, the poet should know the language from which he or she translates has not been resolved; and yet the impressive translations produced by writers with little knowledge of the original language has forced critics to consider the qualities needed to practice the craft. One of the great craftsmen was the California poet Kenneth Rexroth, whose many translations and adaptations from French, Chinese, and Japanese are of particularly high quality. Rexroth usually worked with someone familiar with a language he did not know himself; he did not hide the fact that his talents for speaking or reading foreign tongues were very limited. In his essay “The Poet As Translator” he observes that “the greatest translators of Chinese”—

Judith Gautier [into French], Klabund, Pound—knew less than nothing of Chinese when they did their best translations. In fact, Judith Gautier’s lover and informant was a Thai, and himself had only the foggiest notion of the meanings of the Chinese text.1

Rexroth praises the exceptional genius of the English philologist Arthur Waley: “Not only have the best ‘translators’ not known Chinese, there is only one great translator who has, and only one in the second class—Arthur Waley, of course, and Bernhard Karlgren [into Swedish]. Waley is a special case. He is a fine poet who has deliberately limited himself, as a kind of rigorous aesthetic discipline—a little like the self-imposed rigors of Paul Valéry—to translation from the Chinese and Japanese.”2

For Rexroth the main virtue of the ideal translator is not his ability to match the words of the text with the words of his own language but sympathy—“identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one’s own utterance.” Such sympathy, he writes,

can carry you very far if you have talent to go with it. Hart Crane never learned to speak French and at the time he wrote his triptych poem “Voyages” he could not read it at all. His only informant was Allen Tate, a doubtful guide at best in this field, and his image of Rimbaud was an absurd inflation of the absurd Rimbaud myth. Yet “Voyages” is by far the best transmission of Rimbaud into English that exists—the purest distillation of the boyish hallucinations of the “Bateau Ivre.”3

Rexroth’s own translations—or translations in inverted commas—from Chinese and Japanese are already classics; they adapt that poetry to a modern sensibility, which is, in my view, unavoidable. What happens if contemporary taste, marked as it may be by vices of our civilization, is ignored? A huge anthology in English and Chinese, 300 Tang Poems, A New Translation, published in China in 1987, is the work of some forty scholars and professors, undoubtedly well prepared and competent in English. Unfortunately, they are not poets. The 400 pages of the book give the impression of a pains taking labor, with everything diligently rhymed; the Tang dynasty anthology sounds like an anthology of Victorian poetry.

Translation of Slavic language poetry into English poses considerable difficulties, not unlike those of poetry from the Far East. Among the graduates of the Slavic departments few are poets, and among English-speaking poets a knowledge of Russian, Czech, or Polish is rare. Russian poetry, hardly translatable because of its particular features—strongly rhymed singsong verses among them—is little known in America, though in the last decades some progress has been made in presenting the work of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Brodsky. Modern Polish poetry does a little better because, in contrast to Russian, the Polish language benefits from abandoning both meter and rhyme, so that equivalents in English can more easily be found. In my own case, my collaboration on translations of my work with my friends Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, themselves fine poets as well as translators, has convinced me of the benefits of working with writers who know little Polish.


Stanislaw Baranczak has been a prodigy of Polish literature of this century, because of both his own verse and his nearly acrobatic deftness in rendering into Polish Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and Seamus Heaney—not to mention the English metaphysical poets, a major achievement in itself. When translating into English, he prefers to trust the linguistic instinct of native speakers—thus, in the present case, his alliance with Seamus Heaney, who does not know Polish. The results show what a good choice he made.

Jan Kochanowski remained a leading poet in the Polish language until the nineteenth century, when he was overshadowed by Adam Mickiewicz. He was a learned humanist, educated at the University of Kraków and at Padua in Italy, who wrote verse in both Polish and Latin. The decorum of the time discouraged poets from writing about their personal lives, and we have no detailed record of his experience as a student in Italy, traveler throughout Europe, and courtier. Because of his secretiveness, we can only conjecture about his life from his poetry itself; but not much can be guessed from his early “songs,” which were so strongly influenced by Horace that often they are just adaptations. His short drama on a subject taken from Homer, The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys, is an act of homage by a humanist to a major literary theme of his day. His magnificent translation from the Latin of The Psalter of David could have been done only after pious immersion in the Bible. But if it were not for Laments his work would have been of interest only to those who could appreciate the harmonies of his poetic idiom in the original Polish. In Laments, however, a man of the Renaissance vividly reveals himself as torn by emotional contradictions at a difficult moment of his life.

Kochanowski lived at the time when Europe was being transformed by the new discovery of the dignity and power of reason, which, as in the work of Erasmus, was applied to the analysis of Holy Scripture. When independent minds refused to submit passively to authority, the result was religious conflict, particularly between rising Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Kochanowski witnessed the quick spread of the Reformation in Poland, of a Calvinist rather than Lutheran variety. When he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-four, in 1584, most of the deputies to the Polish Diet were already Protestant. The counteroffensive of the Vatican at the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563 established in Poland the Tridentine Catholicism that would last several centuries. In 1563 the Jesuit order arrived in Poland and in a few decades it succeeded in securing the victory of the Counter-Reformation. No literate man living in that age could claim ignorance of the basic religious choices of the day, even if some tried hard to maintain an “Erasmain” line and avoid, whenever possible, taking sides in the great controversy.

Was Kochanowski a Catholic or a Protestant like his predecessor Mikolaj Rej, “the father of Polish verse”? We do not know exactly what his affiliations were and we have no evidence that he changed from one religion to another; he spent a year, however, in Königsberg as the guest of the Prince Elect of East Prussia, who was a Lutheran. Perhaps Kochanowski was too much a rationalist and too much influenced by the books of Erasmus to make a spectacular show of embracing a new faith. The Jesuits suspected him and attacked him, perhaps because in all his work there is no mention of the name of the Holy Mary, an indication of Protestant leanings.

He had the good luck to live in a rather happy period of peace and prosperity. In contrast to France during the sixteenth century, with its religious civil wars, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under the rule of the Lithuanian dynasty of the Jagellons was a tolerant and multi-denominational country. Its king expressed that tolerance when he said to his subjects: “I am a king of your bodies but not of your consciences.” The next century, however, would prove to be much less humane in this respect.

The situation of Kochanowski was not unlike that of his contemporaries, the French poets of “La Pléiade.” They all drew inspiration from the revival of Antiquity, its literary works and its philosophy. Not only Latin but also Greek writers were widely read. Italian Neoplatonists were steeped in the works of Plato and the other Greek philosophers. The Bible and wisdom of the pagan world were undergoing a strange fusion, with characters from the Scriptures and from the mythology of Antiquity coexisting in works of art. The suddenness of the reappearance of Antiquity is somewhat exaggerated by historians of culture. After all, in the Divina Commedia Dante already had Virgil for a guide through the underworld, and one of the inmates of Hell was Odysseus.


Kochanowski and the poets of La Pléiade were linked by the Horatian philosophy of carpe diem—live for the moment, not the hereafter. The influence of Horace testifies to the continuing power of the writers of Antiquity. Horace was printed, translated, and paraphrased in many European languages and we may ask how it came about that in Christian lands, religious songs and lives of the saints were superseded by a poetry imbued with the pagan philosophy of Stoicism and Epicureanism. The presence of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid in that period, with consequences for poetry up to today, is usually taken for granted, but it remains a source of wonder.

Laments is a sequence of nineteen poems about the feelings of the poet in response to misfortune, the loss of his very young daughter, Ursula. The eternal question “Why?” comes from a Christian whose imagination has been formed by humanism and religious controversy, and who is already touched by doubts that could be called modern. The title in the original is Treny—Threnodies—a genre that, like others, had to follow certain rules codified by celebrated writers of the time, most importantly by Julius Caesar Scaliger, the French scholar of Italian origin who wrote in Latin, the language of all educated Europe. According to those rules the threnody should mourn the death of a persona gravis, i.e., a person known to the public and holding a high position in society—a monarch, a prince, or a bishop. The poet, weeping over the loss of the unknown little Ursula in verse, exposed himself to a serious reproach on the part of his readers: he had gone beyond the prescribed borders of a convention. Yet not entirely, for to a large extent he preserved the structure of a threnody. And it is precisely his balancing act on the borderline of convention, and indeed his violating it, that contributes to the vividness of the poem. The procedure seems to us familiar, but it was not so in 1580, when the Laments was published.

Laments was written in the Polish vernacular, which, under the influence of Medieval Latin, elaborated a pattern of so-called syllabic rhymed verse. The form was suited to the character of the Polish language, which has a steady accent on the penultimate syllable of a word, as in Italian. Yet poets in Poland (as in neighboring Hungary) for a long time wrote predominantly in Latin. The vernacular suddenly came into use thanks to the writings of Mikolaj Rej (1505-1569), a poet who directly preceded Kochanowski and was still alive when Kochanowski began his literary career. Rej’s education was erratic and he never fully mastered Latin; therefore he turned to Polish. Within a few decades Polish poets were producing a sophisticated and mature verse—a remarkable development whose rapidity nevertheless remains puzzling. Rej’s vocabulary, syntax, and metrical patterns today seem medieval, while Kochanowski reads as if he wrote in modern Polish.

Something similar happened in French to the poets of La Pléiade. They established the pattern of versification for generations of poets to come. A friend of mine amused himself by showing me two French poems and asking me to guess their respective authors. Their vocabulary and versification were very similar. One was by a sixteenth-century poet, the other by Baudelaire. Rebellion against this frozen versification was an important factor in the French liberation of verse in this century.

Kochanowski is a marvelous poet of the “golden mean,” of soberness and equilibrium, very different from his successors of the seventeenth century, with their Baroque weirdness, flowery style, and ardent Roman Catholicism. In Polish literature he stands for the age of harmony and of wise compromises between clashing political and social forces, as can be seen in his political poems. His drama, The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys, takes a pacifist view of relations between states. For the Polish student today, largely thanks to Kochanowski, the Renaissance is the period when Europe was united by the same classical heritage, transmitted through Latin, which was not only a universal language but also provided the standards for writings in national idioms.

The nineteen poems of Laments, though rhymed, seem a spontaneous expression of grief; they are in fact a carefully arranged sequence written by a man whose extensive reading informs the whole. When the opening lament invokes “All Heraclitus’ tears, all threnodies” to help the author in composing his dirge, Kochanowski presupposes our knowledge of the Heraclitus legend—how he wept over the fate of his city. In a later poem, Death carries the narrator’s infant child to the underworld ruled by Pluto (or Hades) and his wife, Persephone, the “dark-hearted queen.” Today’s readers may have to turn to a classical dictionary to refresh their memory of the gods’ family affairs and confirm that Persephone was the queen of shadows:

O cruel, unjust law! How can you be
So implacable, so hard,

The underworld of the Ancients was not a suitable place for a Christian soul. Yet the narrator confesses in the tenth lament his ignorance of what befell his daughter and considers various possibilities, both Christian and pagan, including a stay in a philosophical realm of soul-ideas.

Ursula, my sweet girl, where did you go?
Is it a place or country that we know?
Or were you borne above the highest sphere
To dwell and sing among the cherub choir?
Have you flown into Paradise? Or soared
To the islands of the Blest? Are you aboard
With Charon, scooping water while he steers
And does that drink inure you to my tears?
Clad in gray feathers of a nightingale
No longer human, do you fill some vale
With plaintive song? Or must you still remain
In Purgatory, as if the slightest stain
Of sin could have defiled your soul? Did it return
To where you were (my woe) before being born?
Wherever you may be—if you exist—
Take pity on my grief. O presence missed,
Comfort me, haunt me; you whom I have lost,
Come back again, be shadow,
   dream, or ghost.

I like the image of a soul carried in a boat through an underworld river, scooping up water which confers on it forgetfulness of earthly existence. But there are also purely literary references, such as the allusion to the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Philomela, who, pursued by King Tereus, was changed into a nightingale.

The work follows a pattern prescribed for a threnody. It progresses from the despair of loss, through an appreciation of the merits and virtues of the dead person, to a search for consolation. Ursula died when she was two and a half years old, and the description of her exceptional poetic talents—she is called “My Slavic Sappho, little poet-heiress”—seems hyperbolic, dictated by the exigencies of the literary genre. As for consolation, it is to be sought first through the search for Wisdom and, second, by appealing to “Golden-haired Erato,” a Muse of mimic poetry. The capitalized Wisdom comes straight from writings of the Stoics. A man who acquires it becomes impervious to changes of Fortune and liberated from distress and fear. Thus stoical Wisdom differs considerably from the Wisdom of the Old Testament, which is more like a Divine attribute (“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there ever was an earth”) (Proverbs 8:22-23). Kochanowski praises Stoic philosophy and looks for solace in it, but he soon concedes that its demands are beyond him. All his life he vainly tried to attain Stoic wisdom.

All delusion!
Wisdom for me was castles in the air;
I’m hurled, like all the rest, from the topmost stair.

Neither virtue nor piety can save us, for Fate is irrational:

Some enemy, indifferent to all
Our mortal fault or merit, plots our fall.

As Stanislaw Baranczak explains in his concise introduction, some scholars are inclined to a skeptical analysis of Laments, seeing in it a humanist’s fantasy which has nothing to do with a real event, the loss of a daughter. This is to go too far, since the poem is sustained by a strong current of feeling. But some passages too closely resemble classical models not to justify suspicions, particularly the one where the father, a poet, turns to his lute for comfort and wants to imitate Orpheus in his subterranean expedition in search of Eurydice. The same can be said for the motif celebrating the poet’s ability to describe the misfortunes of other people, in this case the tragedy of Niobe, and in that way to cure his own pain. Niobe, who boasted of having given birth to seven sons and seven daughters, lost them when she offended Apollo. Innumerable poems in various languages were written about her fate when, weeping over her loss, she turned into a rock and her tears became the source of a river.

Tears that flow down in streams where birds and deer
Gather to drink; but she, forever chained
On rocky heights, defies the howling wind.
This tomb keeps no corpse, this corpse keeps no tomb:
Here the room’s tenant is the tenant’s room.

For the last two lines the translators have found a figure of speech that sounds like a Baroque concetti and it is close to the original. Unfortunately, Kochanowski here is too much the learned imitator, and the couplet brings to mind rhetorical clichés, polished like a pebble in a stream.

When we place Kochanowski in his time, one of rationalistic speculations in theology and of literary forms borrowed from the Ancients, we see he was a man of divided loyalties. Perhaps the main interest of Laments consists in its mixture of borrowings from the classics and the Bible, and in its attempts both to use philosophical argument and to rely on religious faith. The work has a distinct movement as it expresses illusory temporary relief and then confesses to complete doubt and helplessness:

Reason, once adequate
To weigh and arbitrate
What God and life allow,
Is no help for me now.

It duly plays its part,
Tries to persuade my heart
To overcome its pain:
But all this is in vain.

The lament in quatrains from which I quote here prepares the way for a prayer to God, and the final parts of the poem suggest that the Book of Job is the only true guide to the enigma of suffering. The philosophy and literature of the pagan world are discarded and, instead, we have a hymn addressed to the “Eternal Lord,” asking for forgiveness of rebellious thoughts. Then, as if in response, the entire poem closes with a consoling vision of the poet’s dead mother. She appears to him in a dream, holding in her arms the smiling Ursula, who looks “just like those mornings when she’d come to say/Her prayers for me.” In a long speech the mother tells how the complaints of her son “disturbed my distant shore” and made her decide to bring him help. She contrasts the happiness of Ursula in Heaven with the “heartbreak and despair” of life on earth. Her speech is logical, well-constructed, and does not lack certain notes of Stoicism (incorrigible humanist!), for she talks of the burden of mortality placed upon all human beings. Why, then, should her son feel that he was singled out if we all must learn how to obey and accept the human condition? She seems sympathetic to his being steeped in learning, to the “time you spent poring over books,” advising him: “Now, master, you will have to heal yourself,” which indicates that a bookish wisdom is, after all, regarded favorably from above.

The verse of the translators, limpid, moving at a fast pace, makes the work a pleasure to read. I was surprised by its naturalness. A certain suspicion arises only as a second thought. The poem is full of classical allusions and paraphrases of sentences from Cicero and other classical writers who were highly regarded in the sixteenth century. The author’s Renaissance readers would immediately catch allusions and recognize the sources of paraphrased thoughts. Satisfied by smoothness of the lines, we seldom suspect what they hide.

Yet Kochanowski was not, like his contemporary Montaigne, a recluse sitting with his books in his castle. His poems are enlivened by images drawn from his garden and from the countryside around his estate. Rural observations provide some of the best lines of the work, as in Lament 5:

Just as an olive seedling, when it tries
To grow up like the big trees towards the skies
And sprouts out of the ground,
   a single stalk,
A slender, leafless, twigless, living stick;
And which, if lopped by the swift sickle’s blade
As it weeds out thorns and nettles,
   starts to fade
And, sapped of natural strength,
   cut off, forlorn,
Drops by the tree from whose seed it was born

From the life and work of every great writer there usually emerges a more or less legendary portrait. In Polish literature, Kochanowski is still seen as a gentleman and owner of a middle-sized farm, well-educated, peace-loving, satisfied with his retirement from the court, writing his verse in the shade of the big linden tree that figures in his poems. It is easy to find in that portrait the echo of bucolic Horatian pastimes—indeed, Kochanowski’s own poems and his adaptations from Horace resemble one another so closely that they are not always distinguishable.

He was, however, obedient to the rhythms of his native tongue and influenced by both folk songs and ritual incantations accompanying harvests, baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Even in Laments little Ursula addresses her mother in the words of a wedding song about a bride being separated from her parents:

Dear Mother, kiss me, I’ll no more be able
To do my tasks or sit here at your table;
I must give back my keys and go away,
Never return to where my parents stay.

A daughter was supposed to help her parents with household chores and then, provided with a dowry, she was given in marriage to a suitor. The parents would begin to prepare her trousseau when she was still a child. But in the truly moving Lament 7 we hear of

Pathetic garments that my girl once wore But cannot anymore!
The sight of them still haunts me everywhere And feeds my great despair.
They miss her body’s warmth;
   and so do I.
   All I can do is cry.
Eternal, iron slumbers now possess My child: each flowered dress,
Smooth ribbon, gold-clasped belt her mother bought
   Their worth is set at naught.
You were not meant, my daughter, to be led To that last, stone-cold bed
By your poor mother! She had promised more Than what your four planks store:
The shroud she herself sewed, the earthen clod I set down at your head.
O sealed oak chest, dark lid,
   board walls that hide The dowry and the bride!

Seamus Heaney and Stanislaw Baranczak deserve much praise for producing a strong translation of the Laments in contemporary English. The poem has previously been translated, notably in the Twenties by Professor George Rapall Noyes, who created the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Berkeley, working with his student Dorothea Prall Radin Noyes. Although their version has fine fragments, its archaic diction forces us to imagine ourselves in the Elizabethan era. But the poem is close enough to our own sense of poetry, and the subject is sufficiently universal, that the efforts of Baranczak and Heaney to render it in a modern idiom are entirely justified. (Another, and similar, attempt to translate the Laments into English has been made by Adam Czerniawski. His translation, which has many strong renderings, is included in a bilingual anthology of the verse of old Poland, Monumenta Polonica, edited by Bogdana Carpenter.4

Seamus Heaney, during his visit to Cracow in spring 1995, discovered that he has many admirers in Poland. His volume 44 Poems, selected and translated by Baranczak, had just been published, and the two poets were warmly received at their joint poetry readings. Perhaps a certain affinity between Poland and Ireland accounts for both the vivid response to Heaney’s poetry in Poland and his successful collaboration with Baranczak in translating Laments. That poets today can form a confraternitas transcending distances and language differences may be one of the few encouraging signs in the current chaotic world order. Two years ago in Poland Joseph Brodsky’s readings, both in Russian and in translation (another inspired translation by Baranczak, this time from the Russian into Polish), attracted enthusiastic audiences. Latin can no longer be an international language, but the increasing collaboration of poets from different nations allows for a faint hope of a new Renaissance.

Since quotations are the most convincing arguments for poetry readers, I should end with the lines of grief that are essential to Laments and have been finely recreated by the translators.

The void that fills my house is so immense
Now that my girl is gone. It baffles sense:
We all are here, yet no one is, I feel;
The flight of one small soul has tipped the scale.
You talked for all of us, you sang for all,
You played in every nook and cubbyhole.
You never would have made your mother brood
Nor father think too much for his own good.

This Issue

February 15, 1996