Some Notes on the Text and the Author

Forefathers’ Eve is a strongly political drama, and was censured by both the 19th century Russian tsarist government and the 20th century communist authorities. An attempt to stage it in 1968 ended with social tumults, expelling of students and professors from universities, arrests of nearly three thousand people, and a purge of Jewish members from the communist party.

The drama, never finished, comprises of four parts usually read in the chronological order rather than the numeral. The second part goes first, followed by fourth, first and third. Each of them centres on another aspect of Mickiewicz’s worldview. 

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)

The Part Two above expresses Mickiewicz’s philosophy of life, based mainly on folk morality and his own thoughts about love and death. The three ghosts summoneded to the feast symbolize major moral virtues necessary for salvation.

The angelic children cannot enter heaven because they have never suffered. Since suffering was an inevitable effect of the occupation of Poland it became an important part of Polish romanticism. Till today martyrology is a significant aspect of Polish national identity.

The cruel master, who used to own the village and the serfs, cannot enter hell because he has never shown humanity. In 1791 the government of Poland proclaimed the May 3 Constitution abolishing serfdom. Poland’s neighbours – Austria, Prussia and Russia – used it as a pretext to further partitions of the country, and as soon as they annexed the lands they reverted the law, bringing serfs back under the power of the nobles. The move was supported by those who weren’t happy with the Constitution that expressed the views of the majority of nobles, but not all of them. Mickiewicz addressed his scorn to both the occupants and the cruel Polish lords.

The girl cannot enter heaven because she has never returned love or experienced earthly love. Those who cannot love cannot enter heaven.

Maryla (Marianna) Wereszczakówna

Maryla (Marianna) Wereszczakówna

Mickiewicz was a great poet and thinker, but he did not manage to live up to his ideas in his personal affairs. He summed up his own life along these lines:

My tears poured, copious, pure
Onto my childhood, blissful, angelic
Onto my youth, haughty and foolish
My age of mature, age of failure
My tears poured, copious, pure

He had an endless number of lovers, both married and single, but for the most part he didn’t seem to have reached the emotional maturity necessary to enter marriage. The one woman whom he loved, and who became his early muse, Maryla Wereszczakówna, was already engaged when they met. She wasn’t thought to be a beauty, but she was intelligent and very well educated. The feeling was mutual, and they had an affair soon after her marriage. Yet, Mickiewicz was arrested for his political activity, and exiled to Russia proper. He’d never see Maryla again, nor return to his family site.

Years later, when he finally married, he seemed to have made the worst choice possible. It’s often said about female writers that marriage would end their writing career, in this case, the marriage put an end to his.

Celina nee Szymanowska, emotionally unstable, became mentally ill four years after their marriage. Neither their living conditions (a tiny three room Paris apartment), nor his lukewarm affection for her, seemed to promote happiness early in the union. His wife treated him with derision. She was one of two persons in whom he ever confined and presumably she used his own confidences against him in their domestic quarrels. She spoke to him only to bite. At one point, after six weeks of a continuous nightmare, he was driven to a point when he wanted to hit her. The realisation scared him. He hid in the cook’s room. When Celina found him there he was ready to attempt a suicide.

He brought her to a hospital, and the situation would repeat in the future. Their living conditions would get even worse. In winter, in a cold apartment, with his wife away and even their servant becoming ill from the freezing temperature, Mickiewicz would be left to nurse his kids on his own.

Yet his attitude to her was not better. He was kind. He’d fulfil her various requests or buy her presents, but he wouldn’t befriend her. That place would be eventually taken by Xawera Deybel, a governess to their children, who’d become Mickiewicz’s muse, friend, and sexual partner for years. Unlike Celina she wasn’t pretty, she’s said to be extremely short and perhaps even crooked, but to Mickiewicz she was an endless inspiration.

Both Celina and Mickiewicz would do better if they never married. She was not the strong, energetic, purposed woman with whom he could have been happy. If she were, perhaps she’d divorce him, sparing them both the continuous misery. Celina’s mother divorced her father and began her European career. But maybe that was Celina’s problem, she grew up in the great world, but she was unlike her mother.

No matter how much Mickiewicz failed in his personal life he was a feminist. Women in his works take prominent roles. They’re strong, brave, heroic, intelligent and just.

In 1848 in Rome Margaret Fuller wrote:

The Poles have also made noble manifestations. Their great poet Adam Mickiewicz has been here to enroll the Italian Poles publish the declaration of faith in which they hope to re-enter and re-establish their country and receive the Pope’s benediction on their banner. In their declaration of faith are found these three articles:
  1.   Every one of the nation a citizen, every citizen equal in rights and before authorities.
  2. To the Jew, our elder brother, respect, brotherhood, aid on the way to his eternal and terrestrial good, entire equality in political and civil rights.
  3. To the companion of life, woman, citizenship, entire equality of rights.

This last expression of just thought the Poles ought to initiate, for what other nation has had such truly heroic women? Women indeed, – not children, servants, or playthings.¹

However, Mickiewicz’s view on women went further than universal suffrage. In his opinion women should exercise their sexuality in the same way men did.

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller, an American feminist, was of an opposite opinion when they met in Paris in the 1840s. She viewed her virginity as a necessary condition to keep her independence. Nonetheless, she and Mickiewicz agreed on many other points, and by the time she left France he promised to correspond with her.

Mickiewicz found in Fuller a “true person”, the only “woman to whom it has been given to touch what is decisive in the present world and to have a presentiment of the world of the future.” But that meant to him that she needed still more rooting in the physical present. In his first letter to her he wrote:

For you the first step of your deliverance… is to know whether you are permitted to remain a virgin.²

When she wrote to Mickiewicz about having met Ossoli he urged her to deepen the relationship.

Prolong your good moments. Do not leave those who would like to remain near you. This is in reference to the little Italian you met in the Church.


Try to bring away from Italy what you will be able to take of it in joy and in health. There is nothing else to take!¹

Ossoli proposed to Fuller early in their acquaintance, but she refused, judging them very unfit. He was ten years younger, and from an aristocratic family. She fled. But Mickiewicz wrote again, telling her she must not limit her life to books and dreams:

You have pleaded the freedom of women in a masculine and frank style. Live and act as you write. … I have seen you, with all your knowledge, and all your imagination, and all your literary reputation, living in a bondage harder than that of a servant. … The relations that are right for you are those which develop and free your spirit while answering the legitimate needs of your body. You are the only judge of those needs.

Mickiewicz argued that if she was to become a woman of the new epoque she must part from her American friends and seek freedom.

A few months later Fuller returned to Ossoli, to soon become his lover. She was happy, she felt freed, but she became pregnant. Her anxiety diminished when she assured herself that Ossoli would remain by her side, but she was conflicted, unable to agree her own views and condition with the restraints of the society.

I’m not sure whether Mickiewicz could fully understand her position. To him it was simpler, but so it was to the women he knew. The situation would cause some gossip within the Polish society, but the woman would retain full respect, she would not become an outcast, she would keep her literary reputation, and her chances on the marriage market would not be threatened. After all Mickiewicz had many affairs with both single and married women from the Polish nobility. Chopin lived with George Sand in a free relationship for many years, both attended Mickiewicz’s lectures in College de France regularly. Mickiewicz lived in a threesome for a good part of his marriage, and Xawera Deybel, originally hired by Celina as a governess to their children, became an important persona in the Polish literary circles. She accompanied Mickiewicz everywhere, they had a daughter, and yet she still married afterwards. Maria Szymanowska, a divorcee, Mickiewicz’s mother-in-law, was known to not have a nun’s disposition. Maria Walewska was regarded as a heroine for agreeing to enter into an adulterous affair with Napoleon. Countess Delfina Potocka divorced her husband with whom she had two daughters, and became a friend, muse and lover to Polish romantics. Chopin dedicated his Minute Waltz to her. Her love affair with Krasiński lasted even after he had married Countess Eliza Branicka, and they still remained friends afterwards. Antoni Malczewski (a friend of Byron’s to whom he told the story of Mazeppa) engaged in an ill-fated affair with Zofia Rucińska, the wife of his friend. Countess Ewelina Hańska, who first wrote to Honoré de Balzac accusing him of uncomplimentary portrayal of women, kept her correspondence with him for nearly 10 years until her husband died and they finally met. They went on several voyages together during which she gave birth to a still born child. Afterwards he came to Ukraine to meet her family and marry. Count Aleksander Fredro fought for 10 years for the divorce of his beloved so that he could marry her. Out of female writers Narcyza Żmichowska, considered the first Polish feminist, was gay and never married. She was published even though she was fired from her governess position after the parents of her charge accused her of an affair with their daughter. She was active in the Polish conspiracy and became jailed for some time. Afterwards she went to study at Sorbonne. She argued against the notion of her American colleagues that men use their power over women, but then indeed, Polish men did not. Maria Wirtemberska or actually Maria Anna nee Czartoryska Duches von Württemberg-Montbéliard divorced her husband over politics after he had supported the enemies of Poland.

In England some affairs would happen only within the aristocracy, the USA had no aristocracy, but Poland had no middle class. Everyone was a noble within the Polish society, everyone was welcome into the highest spheres, even the impoverished Mickiewicz and Chopin. Sex was fair game. The only famous virgin of those times (although likewise a daughter of divorcees) was Countess Emilia Plater who died at the age of 25 after having organised her own regiment and joined the Polish army against Russia in the November Insurrection, 1830. She was one of many women who fought for Poland since the late 18th century, but she was the first one promoted to the rank of Captain and given a commanding position in the army.

Emilia Plater and her scythemen (click to enlarge)

Emilia Plater and her scythemen (click to enlarge)

For Fuller, with her American background and conservative social links, things weren’t that simple. It’d take a few more years before she and Ossoli would decide to live openly together. During her pregnancy she was scared and depressed.

For several weeks in February and March, Adam Mickiewicz was a comfort to her. He came to Rome to raise a Legion of Polish exiles to join the Italians in their fight for national sovereignty. For him and his idealistic colleagues, Italy’s liberation was only the first step in a world revolution to liberate all oppressed people and inaugurate a new era of human freedom. Mickiewicz took rooms on the Via del Pozzetto, only a few blocks from Fuller’s apartment. He encouraged her to view her condition as a cause for rejoicing instead of guilt and morbid musing. Her depression, he told her, was no more than a fear of the future; a woman who had written so compellingly about the better world ahead should not suffer from melancholia. Pointing out that it was “very natural, very common” to be pregnant, he accused her of carrying on in an “extravagant manner”. Once she regained her morale, her physical sufferings would diminish.¹

Mickiewicz wasn’t a libertine, he never seduced a woman, he avoided lies. Before proposing to Celina he gave her a detailed confession of all of his weaknesses and dealings with women. But he fully believed that woman’s freedom must equal that of man’s in everything, including the sexual sphere, over 100 years before the sexual revolution in the USA. His writings, the most important and the most widely read in Poland, shaped both the Polish national feeling and the self image of Polish women.

The fourth ghost differs from the previous three. He came uninvited, breaking social rules. The people gather to help some ghosts of their former neighbours and family members. They decide who is invited, and offer them food and other ailments that could help their situation. The kind of responsibility for one’s ancestors is still very strong in Polish culture, just as the tradition of mourning is, not whiny, but quiet and full of reflection. The ghost, however, is unsocial. He comes uninvited, refuses to speak, and he doesn’t want anything from them. He refuses to leave either.

This is beyond human understanding!… There is something horrid in it.

Those sentences reflect people’s fear at someone’s daring to break the old established rules of the society.The shaman was about to tell the History of Forefathers, but the entrance of the fourth ghost puts an end to the mysterium and begins a drama.

This is a romantic hero, a Werther-like character. He rejects the society, and the society doesn’t understand him. He suggests to have felt an adulterous love to the shepardness, and he dared to have taken his own life.

From an additional poem, linking parts II and IV we learn that indeed that was the case. Mickiewicz offered a continuation of Werther’s story. The man is punished for suicide, and that means that every year he must return to the living for a month’s time, see the woman again, without the possibility of speaking to her or touching her, and then again he must leave her. The agony that led to his death will repeat over and over.

He resembles Gustaw, the main hero of Part IV.

When Mickiewicz made the acquaintance of Goethe this part was already written. I wonder whether they spoke about it.

Mickiewicz and Goethe shared their admiration for one woman. Goethe was rumoured to have fallen deeply in love with Maria Szymanowska, the great European piano virtuoso and a pre-romantic music composer, who later became Mickiewicz’s mother in law.

Maria Szymanowska, piano virtuoso and a pre-romantic composer
Maria Szymanowska, piano virtuoso and music composer

Wikipedia gives a short summary of the remaining parts of the drama:

Part IV is believed to be Mickiewicz’s manifesto of his romantic philosophy of life, and also a story about his love to Maryla Wereszczakówna. The main reason for associating the bard’s and his hero’s biography is the resemblance in what Gustaw (the protagonist of the drama) says about his tragic youth. He met a fine girl, with whom he fell in love. Unfortunately, she married a rich duke and, subsequently, Gustaw committed a suicide. A similar situation took place in the poet’s life, but he managed to forgive his lover. When he was depressed, he wrote the fourth part of Forefathers’ Eve, one of the most beautiful Polish poems about love, and also a fascinating example of the romantic poetry.

The action of the drama is divided into three episodes – the hour of love, the hour of despair and the hour of admonition. The book shows dangers of people’s romantic nature and reading sentimental masterpieces, which do not show the real world. On the other hand, Gustaw is presented as an owner of the metaphysical knowledge. It is him, not his teacher, who eventually notions to the philosophy of Enlightenment and visualises the true picture of the world, which is the reality conducted by paranormal laws.

Part I, published after Mickiewicz’s emigration to France, was probably written in the early 1820s, although never finished. Meant to be a picture of “emotion of the 19th century people”, it was immediately given up by the author. It shows a young couple, feeling confused and trying to choose between the sentimental idea of love, adjustment to the society and respect to own nature.

Part III is thought to be the most significant one, or even one of the finest poems in the Polish literature. The main character bears a resemblance to Gustaw from part IV, but he is no longer a ‘romantic lover’. The drama was written after the fall of the November Insurrection, an event that strongly influenced the author.

In the Prologue the protagonist of the drama writes on the wall “Gustavus obiit – hic hatus est Conradus” Today Gustaw died, today Conrad is born. Conrad is the name from Mickiewicz’s earlier novel, Conrad Wallenrod. Wallenrod sacrificed his life and happiness for his own country’s sake. Gustaw transforms from a woman’s lover into his country’s lover.

Mickiewicz dedicated his work to people fighting for the freedom of Poland in the 1830s insurrection and especially to those who were exiled to Siberia by the Russian emperor. The book describes the cruelty of tsar Alexander, and persecutions of Poles. It has many mysterious episodes and, among historical characters, the reader can find ghosts, angels and also the devil.

Poland, according to Mickiewicz’s vision, was meant to become “Christ of Europe” and the national suffering was to result in releasing all of the persecuted people and nationalities, as Christ’s death has brought salvation.

The characters of the drama are chiefly prisoners, accused of conspiracy against the Russian conqueror. The self-named protagonist, Conrad, is a poet. In his vision, commonly known as “Wielka Improwizacja” – Great Improvisation – he talks to God about his patriotic feelings and the intention of becoming a leader of the nation. His love and suffering make him a symbol of the Polish soul. Nevertheless, in God’s opinion he is too proud to free his country. Another character, a priest called Piotr, also has a vision. When he happens to foretell the country’s future, he says one of the most mysterious words of the whole drama, describing the person who will bring back the freedom of Poland:

“The Son of a foreign mother, in his blood old heroes
And his name will be forty and four”.

The mysterious numerical name of the hero is easily deciphered with the Hebrew alphabet:

Adam = דמ, where ד Daled = 4, and מ Mem = 40.

(Mickiewicz’s wife, Celina, came from a Frankist family. Frankists were a Christianized Jewish sect. In the 18th century thousands of Frankists were elevated to nobility.)

“The Son of a foreign mother” – Mickiewicz’s mother is supposed to have come from a Muslim Tatar family.

Adam Mickiewicz did not bring Poland’s freedom via his direct actions, but thanks to his writings Poles remained Poles for over 100 years of occupation and forced russification and germanization. Thanks to him they didn’t forget what it meant to be Polish.

Further Wikipedia writes:

The whole drama brings back the hope of Polish independence and gives a great picture of Polish society in so difficult a moment.

Our nation is like lava. On the top it is hard and hideous, but its internal fire cannot be extinguished even in one hundred years of coldness. So let’s spit on the crust and go down, to the profundity!

Great Improvisation and Prisoner’s Return from Part III in professional English translation.

¹ Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller by Joan Von Mehren

² The Woman And The Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings by Bell Gale Chevigny

Krzysztof Rutkowski about Xawera Deybel (in Polish)