BOLESŁAW LEŚMIAN’S LIFE AND HIS POETIC OEUVRE
Bolesław Leśmian (1877–1937) [bawLESwahv LESHmiahn] (Lesman, by birth) was a Polish poet, playwright, critic, translator and member of the Polish Academy of Literature, one of the most influential literary figures of the twentieth century in his homeland and one of the greatest Poland’s poets of all time.
Born in Warsaw on January 22, 1877, he was a child of well-educated and fully assimilated middle-class Polish Jews with serious intellectual interests. His father Józef Lesman was a bookseller; his mother Emma came from the Sunderlands who owned a faience factory in Iłża. Bolesław had two younger siblings, Kazimierz and Aleksandra. After the early death of his mother, his father remarried Helena Dobrowolska, and in 1885 they moved to Kiev, where he was appointed manager for the State Railroad Company.
He made his debut as a poet in the newspaper Wędrowiec with the cycle “Sekstyny” [Sestinas] in 1895. Two years later he published a sonnet in the paper Bluszcz under the pen name “Leśmian,” which, in fact, was his last name slightly modified by him to sound “more Polish and poetic” (probably on the advice of his close friend Franciszek Fiszer, a philosopher, raconteur, and widely known Varsovian bon vivant). In 1896 he graduated from the Classical Grammar School in Kiev, and, after studying law, he graduated from Saint Vladimir University, also in Kiev, in 1901.
In the same year the poet moved to Warsaw where he took up the position of a legal assistant in the Office of Warsaw-Vienna Railroads. At that time he started to contribute to the influential art magazine Chimera, edited by Zenon Przesmycki (better known by the pen name Miriam), who soon became his good friend; many a time he supported him financially and had a significant impact on his world view and literary taste.
During that time he had a love affair with his cousin Celina Sunderland (an addressee of several love poems in the poet’s first book Sad rozstajny). In 1903 the poet went to Munich and then to Paris, where Celina introduced him to Zofia Chylińska, a student of painting in Paris, daughter of a physician in Łomża, Poland. Leśmian was instantly enchanted by her beauty and “easy-goingness,” and since his love was reciprocated, they soon got married in Paris, in 1905. They had two daughters, Maria Ludwika “Lusia” (1905) and Wanda “Dunia” (1907).
In 1906 the Leśmians returned to Warsaw, and, because of financial difficulties, they lived with Bolesław’s father and stepmother. At that time the poet renewed his love affair with Celina and started to contribute regularly to the two periodicals Nowa Gazeta and Prawda. Journalism gave him financial stability. In 1911 Leśmian together with Kazimierz Wroczyński, a writer and theater critic and Janusz Orliński, an actor, founded the experimental theatrical enterprise Teatr Artystyczny [Artistic Theatre].
In 1912 the poet’s debut volume of verse Sad rozstajny [Crossroads Orchard] came out. In it he departed from the manifesto and aesthetics of Chimera and the poetry of Młoda Polska [Young Poland, a modernist period in Polish visual arts, literature and music covering roughly the years between 1890 and 1918]. A year later he brought out Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza [The Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor], Klechdy Sezamowe [Sesame Tales] (both based on the Arabian Nights’ Tales), and the translation (with his preface) of Edgar Allan Poe’s Opowieści niesamowite [Extraordinary Tales] from the French rendition by Charles Baudelaire. At the beginning of 1914 the Leśmians went to France, where they spent several months on the French Riviera, and where the poet wrote Klechdy Polskie [Polish Old Tales] (published posthumously in London, in 1956 because the poet could not come to an agreement with his publisher Jakub Mortkowicz).
In the years 1914-1916 he contributed his poems and feuilletons to Myśl Polska [Polish Thought] under the pseudonym “Kostrzycki.” In 1916-1917, on the initiative of Janusz Orliński, he became the literary director of the Teatr Polski [Polish Theatre] in Łódź. The repertoire of the theatre included world classical dramas as well as Polish plays of that time by Stanisław Wyspiański. Contemporary critics rather unfavorably received Leśmian’s theatrical ideas. That position was short-lived due to the sudden death of Orliński.
In the summer of 1917, staying with Celina in Iłża, the poet met Dora [a diminutive for “Teodora”] Lebenthal with whom he fell in love at first sight. She became his next muse and inspiration for his love poems – belonging to the most beautiful Polish love verse – especially the cycle “W malinowym chruśniaku” [In the Raspberry Brushwood]. Their liaison, which eventually turned out to be an open secret, continued until the poet’s death.
After World War One, from 1918 through 1922, Leśmian was appointed public conveyancer (a very lucrative and prestigious governmental position) in Hrubieszów. During that time he brought out his second book of poems Łąka [Meadow], which was received very enthusiastically by some of the most influential critics (Karol Irzykowski and Ostap Ortwin, among others).
In 1922 he took office again as public conveyancer, this time in Zamość, and held it until 1935. Leśmian was not a dedicated official and treated his job as an exile and an onerous chore. Actually, he accepted it only for financial reasons; he often took leave and traveled to Warsaw to rendezvous with Dora, assigning his duties to his deputies. That insouciant attitude to his job resulted in the embezzlement of a significant amount of money, perpetrated by one of his assistants (1929), and the poet was obliged to return every penny of it. Thus ended the several years of prosperity, and he again fell into financial straits. Dora sold her apartment in Warsaw to help her lover repay at least a portion of the money.
In the following years his poems and reviews seldom appeared in print. Generally, in his own lifetime, Leśmian was not an “all-the-rage” poet; moreover, once in a while he was attacked by the Skamander poets [a Polish group of experimental poets founded in 1918 by Julian Tuwim, Antoni Słonimski, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Kazimierz Wierzyński and Jan Lechoń], pseudo-critics and xenophobes, who, by nature, criticize everything that is “different.” It was not until the early thirties that interest in his poetry increased. His poems were published in the opinion-forming magazine Kultura, and soon, in 1933, he was appointed as a member of the Polish Academy of Literature [the most prestigious and important literary institution in Poland between the wars]. At the same time the two leading literary periodicals Wiadomości Literackie and Skamander published his poems and critiques.
His position as a poet solidified after the appearance of his third volume of verse Napój cienisty [Shadowy Potion] in 1936. The two last years of his life Leśmian spent with his family in Warsaw, where he died on November 5, 1937 and was buried in Powązki Cemetery, in the Alley of the Meritorious, among other notable Polish writers, artists, politicians and military officers.
In 1938, thanks to the efforts of his widow and daughters, and friends, the fourth volume of his poems Dziejba leśna [Sylvan Befallings] came out. Following the turbulent and dreadful experiences of World War Two, his younger daughter Dunia settled permanently in Enland, and his elder daughter Lusia with his wife immigrated to Argentina. Saving from the ravages of war, the latter two took with them, inter alia, the surviving manuscripts of Skrzypek opętany [A Frenzied Fiddler], (first published in 1985), Pierro i Kolumbina [Pierro and Columbine], and Zdziczenie obyczajów pośmiertnych [The Decadence of After-Death Customs] (1994).
Bolesław Leśmian’s only surviving close relative is his granddaughter, Gillian Hills Young, a British and French actress and singer as well as an illustrator (New York). She acted, among other things, in Antonioni’s famous film Blow-Up (1966) and then in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
* * *
Until now there have been published innumerable editions of Leśmian’s literary output as well as scholarly studies on his poetry, master’s dissertations, doctoral theses, etc. The crowning editorial achievement was publishing in 2010-2013 the poet’s complete works in four volumes: Poezje zebrane (vol. 1, 2010) [Collected Poems], Szkice literackie (vol. 2, 2011) [Literary Essays], Baśnie i inne utwory prozą (vol 3, 2011 [Folk-tales and Other Works in Prose], Utwory dramatyczne. Listy (vol. 4, 2014) [Dramas. Letters].
After World War Two subsequent publications of Leśmian’s works kindled more and more interest in his brilliant poetry, and now it is widely assumed that he is the greatest Polish poet of the 20th century and equals such Poland’s bards as Jan Kochanowski, Adam Mickiewicz, Julisuz Słowacki, and Cyprina Kamil Norwid. Currently we can observe an ever-growing “Leśmianophilia,” and new generations of readers, scholars, artists and fans, fascinated by his poetry, discover “something for themselves.” In fact, Leśmian has become the most-read and most-studied, the best-loved and best-selling Polish poet of all time.
Since 1960s, the author of Łąka has found his way into popular culture; his poems set to music and sung by Ewa Demarczyk, Magda Umer, Marek Grechuta, Magda Kumorek, Stanisław Sojka, to name a few, reached a mass audience. In 1990 Polish television produced the fictionalized biographical movie Leśmian. With the coming of the Internet, more and more websites devoted to Leśmian and his poetry are laucnhed. Both professional and amateur actors and singers interpret his verse on YouTube, which is easily googleable. In 2012 Aleksandra Szymańska created the very touching movie Lilith. It was inspired by Leśmian’s poem “Panna Anna” [Hanna Anna]. All this proves the power of his poetic oeuvre. As somebody once said, “Classics remain classics – often in dusty books – only geniuses are always modern.”
It is hard to believe that Leśmian’s poetry during his lifetime met a rather cool reception; only a few critics bestowed on him the high accolade (Ostap Ortwin, among others). That approach resulted mainly from inability, or lack of goodwill, to be comprehend his originality and sublime genius. The unparalleled artistry and value of his poetry are reflected in his concept of the world combined with poetic language. In other words, the form and content of each of his poems make the wholeness that is highly harmonious and emotive, profoundly intellectual and philosophical – just beautiful to the core.
In contrast to his contemporaries, he was influenced and guided by the ideas of Henri Bergson, a French philosopher. His concepts of intuition and creative evolution, especially his “vital force” (orig. élan vital), which are brilliantly epitomized by Leśmian’s oeuvre. According to the poet, the rhythmic structure and metrics of verse, can most emphatically and faithfully render the diversity and complexity of the world, and all possible and “impossible” forms of existence and nonexistence, and all the states between them – permeated with the élan vital. In his poems, there are numerous modifications of words and syntax, neologisms, archaisms, dialectal terms – all those means not only enrich his poetic language but also make it magical (if not mystical) and unique; however, never as a purpose in itself.
The poet frequently refers to myth in the form of folk stories, ballads, fairy tales and legends. He peoples his poems with frail, poor, weak, often maimed humans, such as Szewczyk [Poor Cobbler] or Dwoje ludzieńków [Two Poor Wights], who seek their happiness, love, and God regardless of their existential status – often experiencing a kind of “near-nonexistence” or “nearunbeingness” as, for instance, Znikomek [Nearunbeen], or “living” in an“afterdeathness” as characters in “Pierwsza schadzka za grobem” [The First Tryst After Death]. Also, he populates them with fantastical creatures, such as Dusiołek [Chokester, a nighmare or incubus resembling the one on the canvas painted by Henry Fuseli]. He places all those beings in the world or in “noworld,” in time or in the “notime.” In Leśmian’s poetry, life and nature interpermeate – nature is humanized, nature is “naturized” (the idea of natura naturata), and nature naturizes intself (natura naturans). The poet often conveyed the dynamism of these processes by means of virtuosic word-smithing techniques, which resulted in the poetical language that is vivid, explicit, sensuous, and concrete to the extent that it creates peculiar hyperrealism, and at the same time – Boschesque and phantasmagoric imagery.
The grotesque visions of horror and macabre are brilliantly counter-poised by ecstasy, fulfillment and sardonic or perverse humor, which combined with metrical virtuosity, make his poetry brilliant and unique – the one that sends shivers up and down the readers’ spines and incites them to ponder over their existence.
Dissociating himself from symbolist poets, Leśmian rejected the pervasive practice of treating objects as symbols and aims at recovering the sense of the “thing in itself.”
He adopted the narrative schemes of romantic ballads (well represented throughout this book) and adhered to restrictive principles of traditional poetics, particularly its accentual-syllabic meter and melic or euphonious qualities of a poem. Leśmian had almost an ethnographic passion for semantic and morphological quest on the chronological and geographical confines of the Polish language, boldly experimenting with words. This resulted in hundreds of coinages – constituting the means of creating new “realities” at the crossroads of the world and the beyond.
Especially, his ballads are peopled by folk protagonists, by nature, romantic, and searching for answers to their existential questions. The narratives focus on human beings, God, various aspects of existence, and nonexistence (the void, the notime, nothingness, the “no-everything”). The pprotagonists are “under-existent,” and often “otherworldly.” They struggle heroically for their happiness, and try to comprehend the unknowable in themselves, in God, and in the universe in order to avoid the unavoidable, mostly through love – even after death.
Leśmian’s poetical idiolect not just “beautifies” a poem but rather brings about his worlds and “noworlds.” It is not just a collection of verbal constructs.
The poet, in contrast to symbolists and poets of avant-garde, subordinates phrase structure to rhythm, which for him has profound philosophical and metaphysical implications. He wrote in his U źródeł rytmu [The Roots of Rhythm] (1915): “Rhythm governs words and transforms them in its own way. It, as a mysterious magnet, attracts those unique, infallible and most accurate phrases, which join into the indivisibility of hexametrical exaltations. Finally, rhythm, the creative ‘livestock,’ with its contagious heartbeats, excites them to pulsation, changes their accents, rescues them from death and lifelessness, and appropriates them forever.” And in his Traktat o poezji [A Treatise on Poetry] (1937), he wrote: “If a flower could find apt and accurate words to write down, on one of its leaves, its gradual rhythmic development from the moment it felt a desire to be a flower until the moment it became one; this, apparently, trivial jotting, indeed, would be a marvelous poem.” This is exactly the same kind of verse as defined by Edgar Allan Poe: “the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.”
Leśmian’s poetry is, to a great extent, “creationist,” as wrote Marian Pankowski, a Polish writer and literary critic, in his book Leśmian, czyli bunt poety przeciw granicom [Leśmian: Poet’s Defiance of Limits] quoting Vincente Huidaro, a Chilean poet, who defined a creationist poem as “a new occurrence independent of the external world, free from all other realities except for its own because it exists in the world as a peculiar phenomenon – distinct and different from other phenomena.” Thus defined, a poet is a demiurge who has the absolute power over things through words, and, at the same time, he is primitive man, the so called “natural poet,” who comprehended the world instinctively and intuitively, and for whom, just as for Leśmian himself, the meaning of the word is connected with the very existence of an object, revealing its innermost essence.
On the one hand, throughout his life, Leśmian tried to find some kind of the philosopher’s stone, in this case – a poetic substance being capable of turning usual words into a perfect poem. On the other hand, he searched for some kind of code of all existence and non-existence – such a formula or theory of everything. He presumed that if the code existed, it consisted of words joined together into rhythmic poetic sequences, perfect helices of verses, which is, in fact, not so distant from what genetics proved many years later – the code of life is precisely organized structure like a perfect poem.
It is indeed surprising that Leśmian demonstrated such intuitive faculties sensing the mysteries of reality, still discovered by modern physics, with all those quantum fluctuations, the void which is never empty – exactly like in his poems where nothingness is active and busy. It is the same kind of intuition that Edgar Allan Poe had when he was writing his Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848). Maybe poetry and contemporary physics are interrelated in their description and understanding of the universe much closelier than we think. Conceivably, it will soon turn out that the easiest way to understand complexities of quantum mechanics, black holes, or Big Bang – is metaphysical verse of poets like Leśmian.
Czesław Miłosz, a poet, writer, Nobel laureate regarded Leśmian as “the unique phenomenon of world literature who deserves to be placed among the greatest figures of contemporary world literature.”
Jacek Trznadel, a leading expert on Leśmian’s poetry, emphasizes in one of his many monographs: “He does not fit into program – neither Modernism nor Symbolism. The artistic structure of his poems is consciously multilayered and opens the way to various interpretations. […] He is one of few poets who wanted to attain the most unattainable, to express the most inexpressible – not only the world but also the beyond, not only a moment but also eternity, not only earth but also heaven.”
From our present perspective, Leśmian’s poems, including these in this book, are profoundly existential, proving that he was a precursor of literary and philosophical existentialism. Mieczysław Jastrun, a Polish poet and essayist, aptly pointed out: “Similarly to Heideggerian ‘nothingness,’ Leśmian’s one has some inner activity – it ‘nothings itself’. The world does not exits – it ‘worlds itself’ at every moment .[…] For him nothingness is the principle and foundation of all things, and it peeps through all the slits in them. Leśmianian man is a hollowed-out being; he contributes his absence to the existential plenitude.” This makes him a modern poet-thinker, dealing with the most essential questions of our times. Unquestionably, his oeuvre is both timeless and universal, and, that is why, it is not only worth translating into English, the global language. In fact his Lesmian’s poems are in the process of Englishing by the undersigned and successively publishing them (to this day three volumes: 33 of the Most Beautiful Love Poems ,2011, Marvellations, 2014, Beyond the Beyond, 2017).
New York, September 2017