Adam Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve, Parts II and III. A New English Translation
Gustaw, a love-suicide, is called forth from the grave during the semi-pagan celebration of Forefathers' Eve to confront his faithless lover. Later, his selfish romantic love is turned outward, toward his suffering nation, as he takes on a new persona: the Messianic Konrad. Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady, the greatest expression of Polish literature, is presented here in a new English translation. More
Adam Mickiewicz’s drama Dziady (Forefather’s Eve) is the highest expression of Polish Romantic literature. Part III, written in Dresden in 1832, expresses the impassioned demands of the Polish nation, partitioned since 1795, for the political independence it had enjoyed since its Baptism in 966. It is the highest, and most important, expression of the Messianic strain of Polish Romanticism, according to which Poland is “the Christ of Europe:” an innocent slain by the repressive, reactionary tyrants of Russia, Prussia and Austria, who, however, will “resurrect” one day to freedom, and bestow freedom upon the persecuted peoples of Europe.
Influenced by Lord Byron, Mickiewicz created the shaman-hero Konrad, one of the “great souls” of Romantic creationism and individualism. However, Dziady III are also a critique and rejection of Byronism. In creating the Great Improvisation (scene ii), Mickiewicz strains the heroic possibilities of individualism to its extreme, as we witness Konrad calling out God Himself to a duel. This greatest soliloquy of the Polish stage, coveted by Polish actors as the role of Hamlet is in the English-speaking world, uncovers to our eyes the futility of the individual striving of even the most talented of human redeemers. Instead, Konrad learns at the end of the play that the best and surest way of bettering the world is through concrete acts of charity, which can build a society of love, a communion of individuals, who can one day lead the world to the liberty all deserve as sons and daughters of God.
While Part III is undoubtedly the greatest portion of Forefathers’ Eve, it was composed ten years after the appearance of Parts II and IV. In these portions, built around the semi-pagan celebration of departed ancestors, which was practiced in Lithuania during the Halloween-All Souls period, Mickiewicz examines the power and rights of romantic love. The main character, Gustaw, appears as a brooding soul called forth during the celebration to confront the girl who left him for another, more advantageous, liaison. Elements of romantic sentimentalism, echoes of Werther, and tasteful forays into the popular vampirism and spiritism of the Romantic period, Part II is nonetheless in the tradition of Catholic cosmography initiated in poetry by Dante Alighieri. The various shades, blessed (from Purgatory), damned (from Hell) and indeterminate (Gustaw) appear to the people in the nighttime chapel and recount their lives and their present states, both begging the prayers and intercession of the living (where that is possible) and warning them at the same time from behavior that can lead them to sorrow. It is in this aspect, most marked in Part III but present already in Part II, that Mickiewicz’s Dziady initiates the grand genre of Monumental Theater in Polish literature. This approach to the stage, in brief, posits a sense to the universe, and treats of the worlds of the living and the dead as two spheres which interpenetrate one another seamlessly, for the benefit of all.
Although Dziady III is that section of the work most frequently presented on stage, and that by itself, the reader unfamiliar with the entire work will find the scene where Gustaw transforms himself into Konrad in his lonely jail cell incomprehensible without a first familiarity with Part II. It is for that reason that this translation of Forefathers’ Eve presents the reader with the complete dramatic texts of both Parts II and III. In that way, having first come to know the Wertherian hero Gustaw, the reader will appreciate his transformation into the Messianic hero Konrad all the better. For in the composite hero Gustaw-Konrad, Mickiewicz marvelously describes the progression of the human soul from self-interest to charity, from an inward-looking, selfish love to the communion of the saints.