Joseph Conrad


  The Gdansk newspapeer, GLOS WYBRZEZA (Voice of the Coast) for 21 December 1975 published Tadeusz Skutnik's "Conrad w poezji polskiej" (Conrad in Polish Poetry), an article later expanded into a 140 page book published in 1977 by Wydawnictwo Morskie (Sea Publishing). The book contained 51 poems concerning the novelist's life and work, all but four originally published in Polish, including a fragment called "Poetic Tract" by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz. The four exceptions were Johannes Bobrowski's German "Josep Conrad," Jorge Luis Borges' Spanish "Manuscrito Hallado en un Libro de Joseph Conrad" and two poems translated from English, E. A. Bojarski's "Wild Woman" and T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men."

More important than the poetry itself was Skutnik's careful assessment of how the poems dovetailed into the ebb and flow of Polish poetics over a half century. What is offered here a translation of the article which grew into the book. It is hoped that the JCF will be able to contact Tadeusz Skuitnit, a Gdansk journalist, and the publisher to obtain permission to translate the book. The translation was done without permission as a quid pro quo since no one asked permission to translate your editor's poem into Polish.


Greeted in verse on the threshold of life by his father Apollo Korzeniowski's "Christening Song," an effort permeated by the discreet tones of the traditional Polish Christmas koledy (carols), Joseph Conrad was eulogized at death by other Polish poets and has since often attracted the attention of the poet. Writing at the end of 1975 in Poland, Tadeusz Skutnik says that the Polish poets bade Conrad farewell as though only to greet him again and rediscover him anew as writer and man. He points out, too, that Conrad's biography has been of at least as much interest as his work in Poland and therefore received as a text of a kind--not written but acted and therefore all the more difficult to "read." The central point of discussion was (is and will be, one should add) the "Polishness" of that biography.

In the Polish critical and journalistic writing about Conrad in the twenties there was a vacillation "from adoration to contempt," from "patriotism" to accusations of "betrayal." For example, in the year of Conrad's death, Jerzy Bandrowski wrote, "...I--as a Pole--will strew no flowers on his grave." Into poetry, on the other hand, which is, of course, not free of the main currents of the debate, there seeps the barest opposition between the biography of a patriot and that of a cosmopolite. And so we already discover patriotic themes in the cradle song of Apollo Korzeniowski, a pretty fair country poet himself, who laid down for his novelist-to-be son the following precepts:

Child! Son! Tell yourself
That you're without land, without love,
Without Fatherland, without humanity,
While Mother Poland is in the grave.

Whether and how the son remembered this has been discussed over many years, in fact, until this very day. As early as 1923 Antoni Slonimski was reversing the father's proportions (which in those years was a bravura act of courage), assigning to the son of Apollo the following words in a fictional conversation in "Dialogue on the Love of Country Between Joseph and Stefan":

The love of country
I do not acknowledge
And he is not a Christian
Who loves not people
But nations.

Suggesting Conrad's membership in the supranational "society" of the seaman, Slonimski gave a beginning to the actual dialogue about the biography of the author of The Mirror of the Sea in the categories of cosmopolitanism--not very accurately, in the end, because Slonimski had to revise his own judgment in the matter years later.

At the antipodes of Slonimski's text stood Franciszek Lipinski's "Elegy on Conrad Korzeniowski" which unrestrainedly and what's worse, tastelessly, demanded bluntly "the return" to Poland by Albion of the falsely imprisoned countryman and writer. But, remembering the voice of Bandrowski, these are extremes which only convey a clearer idea of the scale of the emotional range of the problem of Conrad's "Polishness."

The remaining two poems written during Conrad's lifetime, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz's "Conrad" (1921) and Stanislaw Mlodozeniec's "Songs of Conrad Korzeniowski" (ca. 1922), also echo Polish accents--"On a Polish soul's bloody wing. You narrowed the wide world..." writes Mlodozeniec. It can be said without fear that Iwaszkiewicz's frivolously begun octet (a port bar, the colors of women) is ended on an unexpectedly harsh note: "I recall days--when your father bit his nails in sorrow, pining for Zytomierz in snowy Vologda." The horrible experiences of childhood from which it is impossible to free ourselves embitter maturity, and in Conrad's case that childhood might even have been happy if not for the recollection of his father's imprisonment. That seems to be the most direct way to interpret Iwaszkiewicz.

Conrad was also linked to his childhood and youth in the works of Marjan Cuchnowski (1960) and Jan Koprowski (1969): the former recollected the father's funeral in Cracow and the departure from Poland and the latter the moment before the arrest and exile into the vastnesses of Russia.

On August 17, 1924, just two weeks after Joseph Conrad's fatal heart attack, there appeared a special number of Wiadomosci Literackie (Literary News) dedicated to the English novelist, and in it two poems, an untitled one by Jan Lechon and "On Conrad's Death" by Antoni Slonimski. Lechon recalled the memory of the father's funeral: "Your father, too, had a grand and gloomy funeral," closing his epitaph with the father (and the nation) calling Conrad to a rondezvous in the world beyond. Slonimski "protested" against the burial of Conrad "in the County of Kent" (and after 30 years consequently repeated, "And he never returned to his own home, because his home in Kent was not his home"). Slonimski demanded a seaman's burial:

Dress him in a sailor's peajacket
And wind him in sailcloth
Then throw him straight over the side.

Burial themes, i.e., funerals, are found in the work of poets of lower imaginative flights and therefore higher shrillness--in Franciszek Lipinski, Roman Koloniecki, Artur Rzecyca, and after the war in Zbigniew Chalko and Jan Leszczyca. Rigor mortis is beginning to set into these works, now completely or almost dead.

On the borderline between the biography and the work of Conrad there is the ballad "In Memory of the Departed" by Jozef Czechowicz. Earlier only Jan Brzekowski wrote an erotic poem enigmatically tied to Conrad's novel, "The Nigger of the Narcissus on the Deck of Paris- soir" (It will be remembered that the titular Negro, James Wait, dies during the voyage.). Jozef Czechowicz's ballad spans the distance between an idyll and a sea storm, the idyll of the past and the surrounding sea storm of life today. The poem is pervaded with searching, a pining for some point of contact, and it is just here that Conrad appears "in the gale, islands, anchor, the storm, he searched for a big voice, of the eagle, Conrad the sailor."

Conrad appears as a moral authority and receiver of doubts about the world rapidly rushing toward catastrophe, and therefore in the embodiment to which the writers of the occupation will often refer. Faith in a lost cause (in the words of Maria Dabrowska), defense at all costs of a few basic values, thanks to which we have the right to be called humans--these are the symbols of Conradian ethics which determined that he would become the unquestioned model of the humanistic position "on the depths of anarchy." After years Jan Leszcza caught correctly the sense of this moral patronage:

Shine Conrad, sensitive lantern
On the depths of anarchy
For in us thought has completely broken down
Like the engine of a ship.

Kazimierz Wierzynski (author of the poem "Lord Jim") in the titular verse of the volume Rose of the Winds in his own name and those of the legions of wanderers such as himself wrote:

From the mimic marks of the world, from naive legend,
How close to the heart and how often everyone
Under the Conradian sky
Seeks his own star
And sailing, would like to guess by the winds, whither.

Wierzynski probably grasped most accurately the sense of all the searches for individual paths "under the Conradian sky." The verses, which were also such searchings, have survived the test of time.

An example is Czeslaw Milosz, who closed his "Moral Tract" (1948), a dissertation on the impossibility of salvation, on a half ironic note:

Let us go in peace, common men.
Before us is "The Heart of Darkness."

The Heart of Darkness, to which he also assigned the quality of greatness in "Poetic Tract" (1957), counting it among the most important in the literature of the twentieth century, most deeply reflecting the catastrophic tone which is so essential to Milosz's poetry and that of Czechowicz and the entire generation of poets who debuted during the war.

The year 1957 and those following "burst out" with a whole series of versified creations devoted to Conrad. They weighed, of course, anniversary considerations, but did not outweigh them. The pathos and monumentality fortunately did not kill the poetry in at least a few of the verses. During this period the previously mentioned Slonimski, Milosz, and Czuchnowski published their work, as did Aleksander Rymkiewicz, Franciszek Fenikowski, Zbigniew Chalko, Jan Leszcza, Jozef Zywina, Antoni Podsiad, and Wieslaw Rustecki, and the epitaphs of Lechon and Slonimski were reprinted. The great return of Joseph Conrad after a few years of official silence recorded itself in Polish poetry grandiosely. The wave of high interest in Conrad, albeit he is not nowadays such an absolute moral authority as during the occupation, did not fall in the sixties. Up to 1972 poetic texts were published by Wit Tarnawski, Wincenty Faber, Jan Koprowski, Zbigniew Jankowski, Stanislaw Stabro and two distinguished poetesses, the no longer living Halina Poswiatowska and Teresa Ferenc, whose effort is given below in full.


Words have grown for me
I can hide in them as in branches
Hide and rest as under the black forest.

They have their interiors
Are capacious.

Within their edges I feel unthreatened
By any Beaufort scale
Nor the deafness of absolute silence.

They call me into the spreading ocean

Now I must reach the border
On pelican wings
Fly on that trail
Human trail
Now reconcile myself
On movable thresholds.

Into the repertoire of poetic themes were entered permanently after the war the elements of the marine biography of the author of The Nigger of the Narcissus in the work of poets called marinists. Among them are Fenikowski, Faber, Ristecki, Perkowski, and Jankowski. Those elements existed, of course, before then because Conrad invariably appeared against the background of the sea, but they existed in mythological form--Ulysses, Jason, the eternal wanderer. Under the pens of the marinists the mythical vision of the sea transformed itself into a maritime one and therefore closer to the author of Nostromo.

In closing this necessarily dry registry of the most important facts, I would like call attention to at least two things. The first is that the presence of Conrad in the work of the Polish poets is not the result of accident, fashion, or "inspiration on demand." Conversely, it reaches deep into the subsoil of creativity and reaches widely. In the register presented we come across the names of representatives of practically all poetic orientations and groupings of the past fifty years. Secondly, that the presented state of affairs is not something usual in the average world reception of the work of Joseph Conrad. It is absolutely certainly an exceptional state of affairs, "for nowhere in the world," writes Zdzislaw Najder, "is Conrad so popular as in the country from which he came."

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Editorial comment: The translation is by E. A. Bojarski. Skutnik's book is being translated for inclusion in a volume to contain all known poems concerning Conrad. The editorial staff of Conrad Concepts invite contacts by those interested in translating some of the poems from the Polish or having original poetry to be included in the volume to be published by Conrad Books, a branch of the JCF.

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