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Zakrzewski

Pan Tadeusz: A New English Translation in Prose

 

Christopher A. Zakrzewski

 

Christopher A. Zakrzewski is a professional literary translator. He teaches Latin and the Russian novel at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry’s Bay, Ontario. In recognition of his “significant and disinterested contribution to Polish culture,” including his new translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, the Polish Institute of Houston, Texas, has awarded him the 2010 Sarmatian Review Literary Prize.

 

Introduction:

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), Poland’s national bard, stands comfortably in the pantheon of literary greats alongside Virgil, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, and Pushkin. His masterpiece Pan Tadeusz encapsulates the national genius of Poland even as The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Faust, and Eugene Onegin encapsulate, respectively, the national geniuses of Ancient Rome, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Russia. All the above are, suitably qualified, nationes unius libri (nations of one great book). English and French literature have nothing comparable to this. To appreciate the phenomenon one would have to imagine reducing Shakespeare’s entire corpus to a single quintessential work. Indeed, the element of compression is supremely significant in all the poetic masterpieces named above.

Every generation of literature lovers deserves to know Pan Tadeusz in their own language. Of what worth, otherwise, are the claims as to the work’s transcendence of time and national boundaries? Yet, strange to say, Pan Tadeusz is still hardly known in the English-speaking world. As to the reasons why, I have speculated at some length, without exhausting the question, elsewhere.[1] The main reason, however, lies in the sparsity of good translations arising out of the fact of Mickiewicz’s own deceptively “simple” poetic style, which like Dante’s or Pushkin’s,[2] presents a supreme challenge to the resources of even the best translators. Whether or not my rendering fits the bill is not for me to say. What I can say is that in translating Pan Tadeusz into English prose, I have taken special pains to make the narrative accessible and enjoyable to the modern English-speaking reader; for, when everything else is said and done, any rendering of Pan Tadeusz worth its salt ought, like the Polish original, to be a “rollicking good read.” I have a suspicion that my translation “works.” I have tried it, with striking success, on my undergraduate students who know little or nothing of Polish history and culture. I recently presented excerpts of the work at a public reading under the auspices of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, where it also generated keen interest. Hence this article.

 

Completed in 1834 and set in the turbulent Napoleonic era, the poem (its full title is Pan Tadeusz or the Last Foray in Lithuania: A Tale of the Minor Nobility in the Years 1811-1812) consists of twelve books and runs to 10,000 rhymed hexameter lines. My English rendering, two excerpts of which I include below, runs to just over 94,000 words excluding the editorial apparatus, which runs to another 11,000 words.

From the “Translator’s Foreword”

“Epics may be written in prose just as well as in verse.”

Don Quixote

 

Heroic attempts have been made to render Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece into a semblance of English verse, including one by myself.[3] I very quickly realized, however, that my earlier attempt was a vain one, not only because I have no real skill in writing English verse, but also because of the extraordinary nature of Mickiewicz’s work, which baffles categorization as a literary genre. Pan Tadeusz is neither an epic poem, nor a mock-heroic in the eighteenth century tradition, nor a pastoral idyll, nor a Romantic narrative poem, nor a realist novel in verse, nor a fairy tale. It is all these things—and much more. The integration of such disparate generic elements in an artistically sound whole is primarily a matter of striking the right style; and Mickiewicz was above all a master of style.

 

In Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz achieved in traditional verse what in our current age is arguably no longer achievable by even the best of poets. This at least was the view of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz:

 

[Mickiewicz] knew how to use conventional phrasing and, without straying beyond its limits, transform it into something completely new. That is not easy. Many poets maintain their standards only at the price of being unconventional, and drop into dullness as soon as they venture into traditional methods. Through a slight retouching of words, a genuine poet is able to invest a commonplace phrase with charm. But genuine poets are rare, and there are periods of history when such an operation is impossible, because the use of a ‘common style’ is then beyond the reach of even the great poets.[4]

 

Donald Davie, one of the few genuine English poets to have tried his hand at rendering Mickiewicz’s verse, agreed with Miłosz:

 

These observations, and the implication behind them that Mickiewicz can today be an unusually fruitful model, are as timely and as apposite in London as in Warsaw. The example of Mickiewicz can be of great help to the English poet of today who is conscientiously trying to learn his trade. For English poets of today must be engaged just as their Polish contemporaries are… in fighting their way back, from surrealism and poésie pure and belated Victorianism to a classical dryness and to the formula coined by T.S. Eliot and echoed by Mr. Miłosz, “the perfection of a common language.[5]

 

These words were written some fifty years ago in a relatively benign literary context, yet if anything the intervening passage of time has only enhanced their relevance. One need not be a close observer of contemporary “hyper-modernist” poetic trends to be able to conclude that we have by no means put behind us the “period of history” alluded to by Miłosz. Indeed, the historical context in which we now find ourselves compels even the most sanguine observers of culture to attach a darker significance to Miłosz’s and Davie’s words than these poets perhaps entertained, or at any rate intended.

 

We find ourselves enmeshed in a Neo-Gnostic age when prevailing ideologically driven aesthetics and deconstructionist cultural forces conspire to propel not just poetic but all manner of discourse headlong in the very opposite direction of a true common language. Generic language imposed by edict, “politically correct” newspeak, so-called “inclusive language”—all of which violate the particularity and synechdocality of words (and, in a deeper sense, are “exclusive” to the core)—are egalitarian atrocities amounting to an Orwellian assault on the referentiality and clarity of ordinary words.

 

What influence poetry can exert against the background of this powerful onslaught on the nature of language and thought is a crucial question today. A jaded, image-saturated culture, which denies natural law and holds the meanings of words, logical discourse, and the very notion of objective truth in contempt, does not respond easily to refutation of error by reasoned argument. At the same time, as the mirror held up to that infinitely differentiating thing called nature, true poetic imagination finds itself fundamentally at odds with the current of procrustean, monistic thinking that prevails today. The particular, the odd, the eccentric, the asymmetrical, the unpredictable, the mysterious—the things that constitute the very impulse of artistic creation—are precisely the things that the post-Marxian strain of “soft” ideological thinking abhors and conspires to eliminate by the process of praxis and progressive marginalization. Not surprisingly, then, genuine poetic art, the most effective means of countering the relentless and universal rape and truncation of language, finds itself increasingly marginalized, denied a significant audience and, consequently, rendered impotent.

 

Upon this drab hyper-modernist landscape the art of Mickiewicz falls like something from a higher world. Mickiewicz’s genius consists in his bringing to perfection a sublime Classical poetic style of utter simplicity.[6] The hallmark of his poetic art is the stark purity of his language. With his Russian contemporary and friend, Alexander Pushkin, he shared that unique ability of packing powerful sentiment into the smallest compass (multum in parvo). We immediately recognize that same austere habit of mind, that fondness for dry depiction of emotions and their objectification through oblique mimetic details. And yet here we have two distinct species of simplicity. If Pushkin’s art achieves an effect of Mozartian “lightness” and centrifugal “expansiveness,” Mickiewicz’s achieves the very opposite effect: a taut vigor and centripetal “gravity” of the kind we find not in Mozart but in Beethoven and Tolstoy. Small wonder, then, that discerning modern poets, in their preoccupation with stylistics, should continue to find in the poetic style of Mickiewicz material as profitable as that of Dante in their search for the “objective correlative” and a common poetic idiom.

 

To its credit, the modern era with its preoccupation with style and stylistics has done much to shed light on the “indivisibility” of the poetic utterance.[7] Like Pushkin’s, although compassed by altogether different means, Mickiewicz’s simplicity is great simplicity because it blurs the conventional distinction between the “form” and “content” of a poem. It constitutes an ideal dynamic fusion, a reciprocal straining of elements in which the form becomes the content, and vice versa. Along with his sublime metaphorical flights and unerring sense of the native strength of the word, Mickiewicz achieves effects that close the gap between poetry and prose in an incomparable generic synthesis. He is indeed the “poet of transformation,” where the scope of the term encompasses not only the power of his protean imagination but also the very structures by which that imagination is expressed. Precisely this makes it so difficult to pigeonhole his masterpiece Pan Tadeusz as an artistic genre and, at the same time, makes it so amenable to what Prosper Mérimée called (with reference to Pushkin) “sober prose.” With Mickiewicz, as Marshal McLuhan would have put it, the style is the “whole show”; the style is the poem.

 

If nothing else, a fresh look at the art of Mickiewicz may give us occasion to pause and take stock of how far we have strayed from the notion and reality of a “common language.” My overriding rationale has been to produce a “close” rather than a “free” rendering of the poem within the limits and limitations of Standard English prose.[8] After a good deal of consideration I decided to retain (with a few notable exceptions) the original Polish proper names and spelling as they appear in the poem. Much is made of the alleged unpronounceability of Polish names, but I am mindful of the fact that the average modern English reader, who cares to read Homer, Virgil, and the Russian classics in translation, will usually gloss over the vast majority of difficult names without serious impairment of his or her reading pleasure. […]

 

Excerpts from Pan Tadeusz:

 

The Inn (Book IV)

The two inns leaned inward from either side of the highway. Their windows glared at one another like sworn enemies. The older establishment had belonged to the castle owner. The newer one, built as an act of spite against the castle, belonged to the Judge. Gerwazy lorded it over the one; Protazy presided over the other.

While there was nothing striking about the new inn, the old one was built according to a design originally conceived by the ancient craftsmen of Tyre, but then spread far and wide by the Jews. The architecture is foreign to our builders, for it is from the Jews that we inherit it.

The front resembled a ship, the rear, a four-faceted temple. The front was a veritable Noah’s ark. (Today it would go by the common name of “stabling.”) All manner of livestock, horses, cows, oxen, and bearded goats stood stalled within. Birds and reptiles (at least a pair of each) and swarms of insects thronged the rafters. The rear of the building resembled a marvelous temple, recalling that great edifice of Solomon’s, which Hiram’s builders, skilled in the joiner’s craft, first erected on Mount Sion. The Jews still model their synagogues on the same design. The same concept informs their stables and inns. The roof, made of straw and roughly fashioned boards, curved upward into a peak like a Jew’s tattered cap. From under the gables there jutted a gallery supported by wooden columns: architectural wonders in their solidity, for they were rotted half-through and mounted atilt like the Tower of Pisa (unlike Grecian columns they had neither plinth nor capital). Spanning the tops of the pillars were semicircular arches. These too were of wood construction and in the Gothic style. The facade of each arch was garnished with curious motifs, not traced, as with a chisel or etching tool, but hewn out with deft strokes of the carpenter’s hatchet—all bent and crooked like the branches of a Sabbath candle-tree. Small button-like knobs, reminiscent of those which the Jew suspends over his brow while praying (and which he calls tsitsiot), swung from the joints. Seen from a distance, the tottering lopsided hostelry brought to mind a Jew nodding his head in prayer. The roof was his fur-lined cap; the ragged thatch, his beard; the grimy smoke-smeared walls, his black sarafan; and the sculpted facade of the arches, his tasseled prayer shawl.

Like a Jewish synagogue, the interior of the tavern was divided into two parts. One consisted of a number of narrow rectangular rooms reserved for traveling gentlemen and their ladies; the other part housed an ample hall. A narrow wooden table with many legs ran the length of each wall; alongside each table stood short-legged benches resembling their sires, the tables, in every respect, only smaller.

Village-folk and members of the local minor nobility were now seated shoulder to shoulder along these tables; the overseer sat alone. After morning mass at the chapel—the day being Sunday—they had dropped in at Jankiel’s for a tipple and a share of fellowship. Each patron’s cup frothed with hoary vodka. The hostess, bottle in hand, hovered busily over her guests. Behind her stood the Jewish proprietor clad in a floor-length sarafan with silver clasps. With one hand thrust under his black silken sash and the other solemnly stroking his silver beard, he looked about him, giving orders, greeting the newcomers, trading banter with the seated guests, settling quarrels, yet serving no one.

Jankiel was an old Jew respected everywhere for his probity. In all the years he had kept the inn, no rustic or nobleman ever lodged a complaint at the Manor; nor was there cause, for his drinks were neat and choice. He kept a strict account and cheated no one. By no means opposed to boisterous spirits, he brooked no drunkenness. He was inordinately fond of parties, threw his house open for every wedding and christening and, on Sundays, invited over the village band with its array of musical instruments, including a bull fiddle and a doodle sack.

Jankiel knew music; indeed, he was famous for his musicianship. With his native instrument, the hammer dulcimer, he made the rounds of the district manors, impressing all with his playing skill and songs, which he delivered in a voice that was both trained and sure. Although he was a Jew, he spoke Polish with a clean accent. For Polish folksongs he had a special fondness. After every trip across the Niemen, he would bring home a great many of them: mazurkas from Warsaw, kolomyjkas from Halicz. Rumor had it (though rumors can be false) that he was the first to bring home and popularize that song now famous around the world—the one our legions’ bugles first pealed forth to the Lombard on the Ausonian fields. The art of singing pays well in Lithuania. Music wins everyone’s favor; fame and wealth accrue from it. Jankiel made a fortune. Eventually, having had his fill of fame and profit, he hung up his sweet-stringed dulcimer and, after settling into the inn with his children, turned to ply his trade as a spirits vendor. (He also served as under-rabbi in the neighboring town.) Everywhere they received him as a welcome guest and trusted adviser, for he knew the wherries and the grain trade (indispensable pieces of knowledge in the country); in short, people esteemed Jankiel as an honorable Pole.

It was Jankiel who put an end to the frequent bloody shindies that raged between the two taverns; he leased the pair of them. Respected alike by the old Horeszko partisans and the Judge’s men, he alone was able to keep the grim Warden and the testy Sergeant-at-Arms in check. In Jankiel’s presence, both men bridled their grudges. Grim Gerwazy curbed his sword-arm; Protazy, his tongue.

Today Gerwazy was absent. He had left with the hunting party, for he would not think of allowing the raw, inexperienced Count to venture alone on so great and perilous an expedition. And so he went with him as his escort and adviser.

Father Robak sat in Gerwazy’s place between two benches in the corner farthest from the door where those of the Orthodox faith hang their holy icons. Jankiel had seated him there himself; clearly, he held the Bernardine in the highest regard, for whenever he saw Robak’s mead-pot run low, he would promptly recharge it himself. It seems they had befriended each other during their youth, while traveling abroad. Robak often visited the inn under the cover of night to confer with the Jew on various important matters. People said the priest trafficked in contraband, but this warranted no credence.

Robak sat hunched over the table, holding forth quietly. All around him, listening intently, stood the nobility, noses bent over the Bernrdine’s snuffbox. Helping themselves to a pinch, our minor squirearchy sneezed like a battery of mortars.

Reverendissime!” snorted Skołuba. “Now there’s snuff that goes straight to your head! Never in my born days has this beezer of mine sniffed the like!” (He stroked his long nose and sneezed again.) “Genuine Bernardine! From Kowno no doubt, a city famous for her snuff and mead! I was there once. When was it now—?”

“Good health!” broke in Robak. “Good health to you, noble sirs. As to the snuff, well, it hails from a good deal farther than Mr. Skołuba supposes. Jasna Góra! Aye, the Pauline Fathers grind this tobacco in Częstochowa, home of the wonder-working image of the Blessed Virgin, Queen of the Polish Realm—Grand Duchess of Lithuania, as she is called even now. Even now she holds the royal office, and yet schism reigns over the Duchy!”

“Częstochowa, you say?” struck up Wilbik. “I was there to make my confession once; it must have been thirty years ago. Is it true the French have taken the city? Do they intend to destroy the church and seize the treasury? That is what The Lithuanian Courier says.”

“Not true!” countered the Bernardine. “The Emperor Napoleon is an exemplary Catholic; the Pope himself anointed him. They see eye to eye and together they revive the faith of France, which admittedly has seen better days. Aye, Częstochowa has poured a great deal of her silver into the national coffers. But it is for the good of the nation! For Poland. God Himself enjoins it! His altars have always served as Poland’s treasury. A hundred thousand patriots (perhaps soon there will be more) stand under arms in the Duchy of Warsaw. Who’s to pay for it? Is it not up to you, Lithuanian Poles! Why, it is coins you drop into Moscow’s coffers.”

“Deuce take it!” roared Wilbik. “They seize it by force.”

“Reverend Father!” piped up a meek little rustic, bobbing and scratching his head. “The nobility suffer, aye, but not as bad as us. Why, they fleece us to the bone!”

“Bumpkin!” bellowed Skołuba. “Fool! It is easier for you. Peasants are used to being skinned like eels. But we born-and-bred gentlefolk have grown accustomed to our golden liberty! Aye, my brothers, in the old days ‘the gentleman on his grange—’”

“Yes, yes, we know, they cried out one and all, ‘The gentleman on his grange stands equal to the governor!’”

“Aye,” Skoluba resumed, “but now they question our pedigree and make us rifle through our papers to prove our gentle birth.”

“Oh, spare me!” yelled Juracha. “Your sires were but nobled peasants; but I spring from princes! To ask us for our letters patent—that is another matter! God only knows when we received our title. You might as well tell the Muscovite to inquire of the forest oak who entitled him to lord it over the shrubs.”

“Beguile others with your tales, O Prince,” broke in Żagiel. “There is more than one noble house that displays a coronet.”

“Your arms display a cross!” retorted Podhajski. “An allusion to a converted Jew gracing your line.”

“Lies!” roared Birbasz. “My family descends from Crimean counts; yet my coat of arms also has crosses—atop a galleon under sail.”

“A Rose Argent,” said Mickiewicz, “with a coronet, on a field of gold. Now there’s a princely crest! You have only to consult Stryjkowski. His armorial makes frequent mention of it.”

A great murmur broke out in the inn.

Robak fled to his snuffbox and proffered them each a pinch. At once the clamor died down, as, out of courtesy, they inhaled a few grains and fired off a salvo. Profiting from this pause, the Bernardine resumed.

“Would you believe it, if I told you General Dąbrowski has taken four snorts from this snuffbox?

“Not the Dąbrowski?” they queried.

“The very one, the General. I was in his camp the day he took Gdańsk from the Germans. He had a letter to write. Afraid of nodding off, he took a pinch, sneezed, and clapped me twice on the shoulder. ‘Father Robak’ he said, ‘if all goes well, we shall meet in Lithuania before the year is out. Be sure her sons greet me there with snuff. This Częstochowa snuff, mind! I will take no other.’”

Robak’s words aroused so much wonder, such transports of joy among the boisterous assembly that for a moment they fell silent. Soon half-audible whispers broke out, “Snuff? From Poland? Częstochowa? General Dąbrowski? From Italy?” Then all seemed to come together: thought fused with thought, word with word, as everyone, as if on cue, cried out in unison, “Dąbrowski!” And joined in that single roar, they fell into a common clasp. Peasant embraced Crimean Count, Coronet embraced the Cross, Roses Argent embraced Griffin and Galleon. All cares went by the board, and the priest sat entirely forgotten. They sang out the Dąbrowski mazurka, all the while shouting, “Vodka! Mead! Wine!”

Father Robak suffered them to sing on for a while; but at last it was time to intervene. Seizing the snuffbox in both hands, he broke up their singing with a sneeze. Before they could start up again, he hastened to speak.

“You find my snuff praiseworthy. Is that right, noble sirs? But have a closer look at the box and see what’s depicted there.”

And wiping the dust off the inside of the lid with his handkerchief, he revealed to their gaze a miniature depicting a tiny swarm-like army. In the center, big as a beetle, sat a mounted rider: clearly, the commander of the host. With one hand on the rein, the other raised to his nose, he reared his horse, as if urging it into the heavens.

“Now,” said Robak, “look well on this awesome figure. Who is it?”

Intrigued to no end, they examined it closely.

“I will give you a clue. He is a great man, an emperor, but not Russia’s emperor. Czars never take snuff.”

“A great man? Wearing a grey coat?” shouted Cydzik. “I thought great men paraded themselves in gold. Doesn’t every Muscovite general look like a saffron-dusted pike, dripping with gold?”

“Nay!” broke in Rymsza. “As a lad once I saw Kościuszko, our commander-in-chief. Now there was a man for you. He went about in a peasant’s caftan, a czamara, that is.”

Czamara my eye, sir!” snorted Wilbik. “You mean a taratatka.”

Czamaras come with fringes and braids,” countered Mickiewicz. “A taratatka is plain and smooth.”

Quarrels broke out over the various cuts of tunic and coat. Seeing the talk go astray, the artful Robak steered it back to the campfire—his snuffbox. Again he proffered it. They sneezed and drank each other’s health, and the priest resumed.

“When Emperor Napoleon takes his snuff, pinch after pinch, it is a sure sign the battle is going well. Take Austerlitz, for example. The French stand beside their guns—like so. The Muscovites bear down on them in a dark swarm, while the Emperor looks on in silence. Every French salvo cuts a broad swath through the enemy ranks. Squadron after squadron charge up and tumble from their saddles, and each time the Emperor takes a snort. At last, one after the other, Alexander, his brother Constantine, and Franz, the German prince, decamp. And Bonaparte, seeing the battle won, breaks out into a laugh and dusts the snuff from his fingers. So bear this in mind should any of you fellows here have the good fortune to serve in the Emperor’s army.”

“Ah, dear Father,” cried Skołuba, “when will that be? The year drags on, feast day after feast day. Each time they tell us to expect the French. We strain our eyes, we stare and stare until we blink, and still the Muscovite grips us by the neck. Why, by the time it dawns, the dew will have dimmed our eyes!”

“Come, sir,” replied the priest, “grousing’s for grannies! It is the Jewish thing to stand around, arms folded, until a traveler comes knocking at the tavern door. With Napoleon on our side, it is no trick to beat the Muscovite. He has tanned the Swabian’s hide three times already. Has he not drubbed the dreaded Prussian and flung the English back across the sea? Oh, he’ll attend to Ivan all right! But what will come of it, sir? That is what I wish to know. What’s the gain, if our nobility take to horse and sword when there’s no one left to fight? Having done it all himself, Napoleon is sure to say: ‘I managed without you, sirs, so who are you?’ It is not enough to wait for the guest and bid him come. A good host summons his servants, prepares the tables. Before the feast he must clean house. Clean house, I say! I repeat, my hearts, clean house!”

There fell a moment of silence; then, voices in the crowd piped up again. “Clean house?” they asked. What means Father by that? We will do anything you say, anything! We stand ready, only please, Father, do make your meaning clear.”

But the priest waved silence; something outside had caught his attention. He leaned out the window, then rose to his feet.

“No time now” he said. “We shall have occasion to discuss this at greater length later. Tomorrow I have errands to run in the district town. On my way back I shall be looking in on you, sirs, for alms.”

“Then be sure to spend the night with us in Niehrymów!” called out the overseer. The Ensign will be glad to see you. Why, it is an old saying in Lithuania, ‘Happy as an almsman in Niehrymów!’”

“And look in on us, if you would” said Zubkowski. You can always count on us for a roll of linen, a tub of butter, a fatted calf or sheep. Remember, ‘Happy the parson who stocks up in Zubkowo!’”

“And do not forget us!” bawled Skołuba.

“Nor us!” yelled Terajewicz ‘No Bernardine ever left Pucewicz feeling peckish!’”

Such were entreaties and pledges with which the nobility plied the monk; but by now Robak was well out the tavern door.

It was a pale, sullen-looking Tadeusz he had just seen burning up the highroad past the window. The sight of the lad hunched low in the saddle, bareheaded, belaboring his horse with crop and spur, caused him much consternation. Striking a brisk pace, the priest set out after the youth. The road took him in the direction of the great forest, which brooded low on the horizon as far as the eye could see.

The Hunt (Book IV)

Who has searched the soundless depths of Lithuania’s wilderness; probed its innermost recesses, its very heart? The fisherman dragging his net along the seashore plumbs not the Deep. The hunter stalking the marges of Lithuania’s forest knows but its outward face and form; its heart remains a mystery. What lies there only rumor and fable can tell. Strike but deep enough into those thickets and overgrown wilds and you come up against a great palisade of trunks, stumps, and roots. Fortifications abound: quaking bogs, streams, tangled undergrowth, ant-heaps, wasps’ and hornets’ nests, and writhing snakes. Those who by a superhuman effort brave this barrage and strike deeper, run into still greater perils. Quagmire pools—unimaginably deep and half-overgrown with grass—yawn out like wolves’ lairs at every turn (demons are said to lurk there.) The waters, stained a rusty blood-red hue, gleam with a lurid sheen. From their depths rises a foul-smelling fume, a pestilence that strips the surrounding trees of leaf and bark. Drooping boughs—bare, stunted, worm-eaten, sickly, and matted with moss—and bearded stumps humped by grotesquely misshapen fungi, all press up to these pools like a coven of witches huddled for warmth around a caldron in which seethes a rotting corpse.

Beyond these pools, both foot and eye probe in vain. Dense vapors rise up from the quaking bogs. Yet beyond these mists (so the local legend goes) there lies a fertile region of unparalleled beauty: the first city of the animal and vegetable kingdom. Yonder lie in store all the seeds of every tree and herb. From these seeds spring all the generations of plants that populate the world. Like Noah’s ark, the place is sanctuary to at least a brood-pair of every race of beast. In the city center, the emperors of the forest—the ancient Auroch, the Bison, the Bear—hold court. In the trees around them reside their watchful ministers-of-state: the glutton Wolverine and the sharp-eyed Lynx. Farther out dwell their feudal vassals, the Wild Boar, the Gray Wolf, the Beamed Elk; and high overhead, like talebearers sponging off the boards of their liege lords, the Falcons and wild Eagles soar. Hidden away in the very heart of the wilderness, unseen by men, these archetypal pairs send out their offspring to settle the world, while they themselves live out their lives in peace and contentment. Neither shot nor spear-thrust shortens their life. The old among them die a natural death. They even have their own cemetery, where, nearing death, the fowl retires to repose his plumage. and the four-legged beast—his pelt. When the bear finds his jaws too weak to grind his victuals; when the hoary roebuck grows too stiff to stir his legs, and the venerable hare feels his blood thicken in his veins; when the raven’s quill turns silver, the falcon’s eye grows dim; and the eagle’s ancient beak grows so bent as to close shut and prevent him from gorging his throat—then all these creatures make their way to the cemetery. Even the smaller beasts, maimed or ailing, hasten home to rest their bones in their native ground; that is why no trace of animal bones is ever found in the places known to and frequented by men.

The animals of this metropolis are said to enjoy self-government. From thence spring their gentle manners, for they live unspoiled by human civilization, innocent of the laws of property, which embroil the world of men. The very notion of duels and martial arts is foreign to their nature. Just as the grandsires lived in Paradise, so the scions live today in love and harmony—wild yet tame, given neither to biting nor butting. Were an unarmed man to stumble upon these regions, he would have no cause to fear for his safety. The beasts would merely stand by and gaze on him in the same awed manner as did their grandsires, when first they saw Adam in the Garden, on that last—sixth—day of creation, before Sin set them at strife. Happily, Man does not enter these regions. Toil, and Care, and Death bar his way.

Yet rash scenthounds, hot on their quarry’s traces, have been known to breach the barrage of bogs, mosslands, and pitfalls. Horrified by the sights that greet them on the other side, they take flight with wild looks and appalling whines; and long afterwards they stand terrified, trembling at their master’s feet, unresponsive to his reassuring hand. In the language of hunters, these city precincts unknown to man are called The Lairs.

Foolish bear! If you had but stuck to your den, the Chief Steward would never have discovered your whereabouts. What enticed you out? The scent of beehives? A hankering after ripe oats? You ventured to the edge of the forest where the trees grow sparser, and the ranger sniffed you out. In no time he dispatches his beaters and scouts to reconnoiter your lying and grazing grounds; and now he has drawn up his line of battle and cut off your retreat!

Tadeusz arrived on the scene only to learn that the hounds had plunged deep into the heart of the forest.

Silence. The hunters strained in vain to listen. All hearkened to the stillness as if compelled by the most eloquent speech. For what seemed like an age they stood motionless at their posts. Only the distant music of the forest reached them; and all the while the hounds tore through the undergrowth like divers probing the deep. Training their double barrels on the forest, the gunners had eyes only for the Chief Steward. He knelt down and bent his ear to the ground. Even as an ailing man’s friends and kinsmen strive to read the verdict of life or death on the physician’s face, so, trusting in the Steward’s skill, the hunters fixed upon him their anxious gaze. “He’s coming, he’s coming!” he whispered, rising to his feet. The men pricked up their ears; then, suddenly, they heard it too. A hound bayed, then two—then twenty. Hot on the trail, the entire scattered pack had taken up the scent and given tongue, howling and baying. No longer was this the long drawn-out music of bloodhounds on the trace of a fox, or hind, or hare, but rather a constant, furious, staccato chorus. No longer on the trace of a distant quarry, the pack hunted by sight. The clamor broke off. They held him! Fresh howls broke out; the bear was fighting back, inflicting wounds, for increasingly the howls of mortally clawed hounds were heard over the din.

Guns primed, bodies taut and bent like bows, the gunners waited and faced the forest. At last they could stand the strain no longer. One after another, they began to break rank and make for the forest—all seized by the desire to be the first to face the quarry. The Chief Steward did his best to forestall them. When his entreaties failed, he began circling their positions on horseback, swearing that the next yokel or nobleman to desert his post would feel the smart of his crop on his back. All to no purpose. Heedless of his threats, the gunners dashed into the woods. Three guns discharged at once, then a whole cannonade. At last, over the detonations of the guns, filling the entire forest, there broke forth the bawl of the quarry. An appalling roar of pain, fury, and despair! An instant later, the forest erupted in a thunderous din of baying hounds, men’s cries, and horn blasts. Some hunters struck deeper into the forest; others cocked their guns—all of them roused to a high pitch of elation. “They’re shooting wide!” the Steward alone lamented. Intent on cutting off their prey from his den, the hunters and beaters went one way; meanwhile, the bear, frightened off by man and dog, double-backed to terrain less carefully guarded, to the fields, which the hunters had all but deserted.

At the edge of the thinning forest, three men—the Chief Steward, Tadeusz, and the Count—stood guarding a handful of beaters. They heard a roar and the cracking of timber. Then, like a bolt from the clouds, the beast burst out into the open. A pack of hounds encircled him, worrying him, snapping at his heels. Keeping them at bay with his roars, the bear reared up and took a survey of the terrain around him. In impotent rage, he began to rip up roots, charred stumps, and sunken boulders from the ground and hurl them at the men and dogs. Finally, after felling a tree-trunk and swinging it left and right like a club, he made a charge straight at the beaters and their two remaining guards—Tadeusz and the Count. Fearlessly, the two youths stood their ground, guns leveled at their quarry like a pair of lightning rods thrust into the heart of a rumbling cloud. In the same instant—oh, the inexperience of youth!—they pulled their triggers. Both guns discharged and missed. The bear reared up. Two pairs of hands scrambled for the hunting spear impaled in the ground; the youths grappled for the weapon. They looked up only to see, towering over them, a pair of vast red jaws flashing two tiers of fangs; even now the clawed paw was sweeping down on their heads. Paling with terror, they sprang back and bolted for the sparse bush. The bear, in hot pursuit, reared and lunged—missed again! Once more he charged, reared, and lunged at the Count’s flaxen head. The swarthy paw would have dashed off his scalp like a hat if the Notary and the Assessor had not sprung from the edge of the trees in the nick of time. A hundred paces closer, Gerwazy emerged from the bush, and beside him—without a gun—Father Robak. Three guns discharged at once as if on command. Like a hare beset by hounds, the bear vaulted into the air, crashed down head foremost, and cartwheeled over under the very feet of Count, knocking him to the ground by the sheer mass of his bloody carcass. Again the beast roared, tried to rise, but at that moment the enraged bulldogs, Chief Constable and Procuratrix, pounced on him and held him down.

The Chief Steward reached for the buffalo horn strapped to his side. It was long and coiled and mottled like a boa constrictor. Holding it to his lips with both hands, he swelled out his cheeks like balloons; his eyes turned blood red. Half closing his lids, he drew in his belly to half-size and, filling his lungs to full capacity, proceeded to wind the horn. Like a powerful gale the horn carried the music forth into the echoing wilderness. The gunners and huntsmen fell silent, marveling at the strength, the purity, and the strange harmony of the tones. Once more the old Steward fêted the ears of the hunt with the artistry for which he was famed in the forests of bygone times. At once, as if slipping the leash and loosing the hunt, he filled the stands of beech and oak with lively sounds. The recital seemed to relate the story of the hunt: first, a brisk flourish of vibrating notes—morning reveille; next, a series of whining tones—the chorus of the hounds; then harder sounds like thunder—the crack of musketry.

He broke off. But the horn remained at his lips. You imagined he was still blowing, but it was the echoes answering.

Again he blew. The horn seemed to change shape in his lips. One minute it thickened, the next it grew thin. The instrument began to mimic the calls of the wild beasts—now stretching out like a wolf’s neck, howling balefully, then swelling and roaring like a bear’s throat, then bawling like a bison.

He broke off. But the horn remained at his lips. You imagined he was still blowing, but it was the echoes answering. The oaks picked up the maestro’s masterpiece: oak passed it to oak, beech to beech.

He blew again. Now you would swear the horn contained a hundred horns. You heard all the sounds of the hunt at once: the cries of rage and alarm, the hunters, the pack, the quarry. At last, the Steward raised the horn to the heavens, and the triumphant paean smote the clouds.

He broke off. But the horn remained at his lips. You imagined he was still blowing, but it was the echoes answering. A winding horn for every bole in the forest! As one chorus to another, they picked up and carried the song. The music swelled ever wider, soared ever higher, grew ever softer, ever purer, ever more perfect, until at last it melted away at the very gates of Paradise.

The Steward withdrew his hands; spread wide his arms. The horn fell free and swung by the leather baldric. As one inspired, the Steward stood looking up, swollen-faced and radiant, still striving to catch the last fading notes of his winding. A thunderous ovation rang out, a thousand cheers and good wishes from as many pairs of lips.

Gradually, the tumult subsided. The eyes of the hunt turned to the great carcass of the freshly felled bear. Pierced with shot, bespattered with blood, the beast lay face down in a thick tangle of grass, forelegs splayed wide apart. He was still breathing. Blood streamed from the nostrils and, though the eyelids still stirred, the head no longer moved. The Chamberlain’s bulldogs clung to his throat—Procuratrix crouched on one side, Chief Constable on the other, gorging himself on the stream of gore that flowed from the severed jugular.

At the Steward’s command, the men prized open the jaws with an iron bar and rolled over the carcass with their rifle butts. Three more rousing cheers smote the clouds.

“So!” said the Assessor, twirling his firearm by the barrel. “So, my shooting piece! It is bully for us! Aye, little gun! A simple fowling piece, but what an account she gave of herself! No surprise to her, mind. She has never been known to waste a shot. See? The gift of Prince Sanguszko himself!”

He showed off his gun, an exquisitely crafted weapon to be sure, though rather small. He was beginning to rhyme off its virtues when the Notary, wiping the sweat from his brow, cut in:

“I was right on the bear’s heels, when the Steward calls out, ‘Stay where you are!’ But how could I stand there! The bear was hightailing it for the open field. Every second he was forging ahead, while I was running out of puff and falling behind; no hope of catching up. Then I look to my right and see him loping through the thinning bush! I put a bead on him, ‘Freeze, Bruin!’ I say to myself—and basta! Dead as a doorknob he lies. Noble firearm! A genuine Sagalas. Here, have a look at the inscription, ‘Sagalas London à Bałabanówka.’ A famous Polish gunsmith set up shop there. He crafted Polish guns, but adorned them in the English style.”

“A hundred thousand bears!” snorted the Assessor. “What? You killed him? Enough of your ravings.”

“Listen, you!” retorted the Notary. “This is not a police inquiry; it is a hunt, and I take everybody here for a witness.”

A fierce quarrel broke out as one faction took the Notary’s part, the other the Assessor’s; meanwhile Gerwazy stood entirely forgotten. With men still running up from every side, no one took notice of what was unfolding before them.

“Now here at last we have grounds!” the Chief Steward struck up. “For this is no mere jackrabbit. A bear is worth fighting over. Sword, pistol—take your pleasure. Your quarrel is hard to settle, and so, according to our ancient custom, we will allow you to fight a duel.

“I recall two neighbors in my day: upstanding men of respectable families. They lived on opposite sides of the Wilejka. One was called Domejko, the other Dowejko. Both fired on a bear at the same instant. Who killed her was hard to determine; and what a brouhaha ensued! They swore to shoot at each other with only the bearskin intervening between them. There’s nobility for you! All but muzzle to muzzle! I tell you, that duel set the whole neighborhood astir. Songs were sung about it in my day. I was their second. How it happened, I shall tell you from beginning to end.”

But before the Steward could begin his tale, Gerwazy settled the matter. After cautiously circling the bear, he drew out his hunting knife and cut the snout in two. Slicing open the lobes at the back of the skull, he found and extracted the bullet, wiped it on his frock coat, measured the gauge, and fitted the ball to his flintlock.

“Gentlemen!” he said, holding out the ball on the flat of his hand. “Neither one of you fired this bullet, for it sped from this Horeszko single barrel.” (He raised his ancient firearm all wrapped in cord.) “But it was not I that fired it! Oh no! That took courage! I shudder to recall it. My eyes failed me upon seeing the two gentlemen running toward me with the bear on their heels. There he was, towering over the head of my master. Aye, my master! Last male representative of the Horeszko family, albeit on the distaff side. ‘Jesus! Mary!’ I cried; and the angels sent the Bernardine to my aid. He has put us all to shame. Brave priest! As I stood trembling there, my finger frozen on the trigger, he seized the gun from my hands, aimed, and fired. Imagine shooting between two heads. At a hundred paces! And to hit the mark! To fire right into those jaws! Aye, that’s the way to knock out a tooth! Gentlemen, in all my born years I have seen but one man capable of pulling off such a stunt. One renowned for the number of duels he fought. One who could shoot the heel from out under a lady’s slipper! That knave of knaves! That famous one in an age of fame! That rascal, Jacek, known to all as Whisker! I will not stoop to utter his surname. No more bear-hunts for him! The scoundrel sits roasting in hell now—right up to his whiskers. But thank heaven for the priest! Two men’s lives he saved, maybe three. Gentlemen, I will not boast, but had the last representative of the Horeszko family fallen to those jaws, your Gerwazy would no longer be among the living. Even now Bruin would be gnawing on his brittle bones! Come, Father, let us drink your health!”

But the priest was nowhere to be seen. All they could ascertain was that he had remained on the scene for a moment after the shooting. Some had seen him run up to the two youths and, after finding them both safe and sound, raise his eyes to heaven, mutter a brief prayer, then make off like a hunted hind across the open field. […]



[1]               “‘The Crimean Sonnets’ of Adam Mickiewicz—A New Translation” in Canadian Slavonic Papers (September-December 1998) Vol. XL, Nos. 3-4, p. 401.

[2]               And yet Dante and Pushkin have found no end of more or less accomplished translators. I note with interest that two English renderings of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin have appeared in print in the last six years alone.

[3]               A fragment of this earlier version appeared in The Sarmatian Review (April 2000) Vol. XX, No. 2.

[4]               Cited by Donald Davie in “Pan Tadeusz in English Verse” in Wacław Lednicki, ed., Adam Mickiewicz in World Literature (Berkeley, 1956) 322

[5]               Davie 322

[6]               See my article “Miser of Sound and Syllable: Reflections on the Poetic Style of Adam Mickiewicz” in Poetry Criticism, Vol. 38 (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, Inc., 2002) 211-217

[7]               Iu. Lotman’s structuralist studies of Pushkin’s style are of singular importance here.

[8]               See Andrew Shewring’s use of these terms in his “Epilogue on Translation,” in Homer: The Odyssey (Oxford University Press, 1980).

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