Friday, November 6, 2009

Poetry: Julian Ursin Niemcewicz - America and General Washington

My third and final entry for the Great American Local Poem Genealogy Challenge

The challenge is to:
Find a poem by a local poet, famous or obscure, from the region one of your ancestors lived in. It can be about an historical event, a legend, a person, or even about some place (like a river) or a local animal. [follow link for complete rules]
To recap:
Half of my maternal ancestry is Hungarian. My goal was to find a final poem for this challenge to represent my Polish ancestors - 75% of my paternal ancestry. But I found a Polish poet who was born in Lithuania, capturing the remaining 25%. Furthermore, he spent some time in Germany, where a few of my maternal ancestors originated. And he spent some time in America as well.

JULIAN URSIN NIEMCEWICZ (1758-1841), Polish scholar, poet and statesman, was born in 1757 in Lithuania. In the earlier part of his life he acted as adjutant to Kosciusko, was taken prisoner with him at the fatal battle of Maciejowice (1794), and shared his captivity at St Petersburg. On his release he travelled for some time in America, where he married. After the Congress of Vienna he was secretary of state and president of the constitutional committee in Poland, but in 1830—1831 he was again driven into exile. He died in Paris on the 21st of April 1841. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition]

Niemcewicz, scion of a moderately well-to-do Polish noble family, graduated from the Warsaw Corps of Cadets.

He subsequently served as aide to Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski and visited France, England and Italy.

During the Great Sejm of 1788–92, Niemcewicz was a deputy and an active member of the Patriotic Party that pushed through the historic Constitution of May 3, 1791. He subsequently was a founder of the Zgromadzenie Przyjaciół Konstytucji Rządowej (Assembly of Friends of the Government Constitution), formed to help support and implement that progressive document.

After the victory of the Targowica Confederation in 1792 and the consequent overthrow of the May 3 Constitution, Niemcewicz, along with other Patriotic Party members, emigrated to Germany. [Wikipedia entry]

And here's the poem. (Despite the title, it's as much about Poland and the events that led to Niemcewicz's exile. His life reminds me of the poet, Victor Hugo, for whom I created a website back in 2000.)


With my wounded commander* compelled to depart
From thee, oppressed Poland, the pride of my heart;
An asylum I sought o'er the dark rolling sea,
In the land of the noble, the brave and the free;
But e'en there the sad thought of my country would rise,
And the tears of deep anguish would roll from my eyes.

In boundless savannas, where man never strayed,
Amid woods that ne'er echoed the axe's keen blade:
In the foaming abyss, where the clouds of bright steam
Round the falls of the roaring Niagara gleam;
And on the deep sea, when the white sails are spread,
Lo! the shade of my country, all gory and dead.

Full of bliss to my heart is the thought of that day
When to Washington's mansion I wended my way;
To visit the warrior, the hero and sage,
Whose name is the day-star to each coming age;
By his valor the new world rose happy and free,
And her glory his endless memento shall be.

His features are still on my memory defined,
With the fadeless and delicate colors of mind.
Full, noble, majestic, with a crown of swan-hair.
And a brow deeply writ with the finger of care:
Old Roman simplicity marked his fine face,
Expressive of dignity, grandeur and grace.

How oft on his accents with rapture I hung,
While wisdom and kindness distill'd from his tongue;
And whene'er the sad tale of our fall I'd relate —
How brilliant our struggle, yet awful our fate —
A sweet tear-drop of sympathy stole down his cheek —
Better pledge of affection than language could speak.

Precious tear! a rich proof of his sorrow for thee,
Loved home of my fathers! once peaceful and free.
And oh, could I that gem which so peerlessly grows,
In some costly and beautiful crystal enclose,
So priceless a treasure a witness I'd keep,
That o'er Poland's sad ruin a great man could weep.

* General Kosciuszko

Source for poem: Poets and Poetry of Poland: a Collection of Polish Verse, 1881, p. 165. [It's not clear if the translation was done by the editor of the collection, Paul Soboleski, or someone else.]

Note: Further research on this author indicates he wrote some rather polemical works including "The Year 3333" and "Levi and Sara, or, the Jewish lovers" - which lead me to compare him to my distant cousin, Chief Magistrate William Stoughton, who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. While he represents a region where some ancestors originated, he doesn't represent those ancestors. (Except in foreshadowing what would happen a century after his death.) But while I am less fond of the man, I can attempt to separate the poem from its author. The patriotic imagery in the poem above is still very moving.


Anonymous said...

I would say you covered your remaining bases with this poet-


Bill West said...

Thanks for taking part in the
challenge. I enjoyed all three
of your choices.


Judith Richards Shubert said...

John, I enjoyed reading this poem. I thought it very moving and wondered as I read it what those who question Washington's character today might say about the tears he shed about Poland's plight?
Thank you for sharing all of your poems with us.