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Cyprian Norwid (1821–1883)

Cyprian Norwid, original and versatile poet, prose writer, playwright, sculptor, graphic artist and painter; born in Lasków-Głuchy. The acclaim he received for his poetical debut in 1840 scarcely heralded the misunderstanding with which his later émigré work would be approached. This outstanding thinker of second-generation Romantic writers, deeply concerned with the fortunes of his homeland, sought to make an impact on his countrymen both in his enslaved country and abroad. Yet, despite being a shrewd critic of his era, he did not succeed in making himself heard during his lifetime. His sweeping aesthetical and socio-philosophical thought, by far surpassing the conventions of the time, earned recognition only after his death.

Before embarking on a tour of Europe in 1842, Norwid wandered the Mazovian countryside together with ethnographer Oskar Kolberg. During those trips, he became closely familiar with Polish folk art, which was later reflected in his concept of art expressed in the narrative poem Promethidion. Norwid developed an unmistakable, ironic and allusive writing style. His concepts of art and philosophy – on the one hand – and society and civilisation – on the other hand – rank among the most interesting and intellectually independent in the history of Polish culture. These ideas were presented inter alia in the cycle of a hundred lyric poems entitled Vade-mecum , dramas such as Zwolon, The Actor, The Ring of a Great Lady, Cleopatra and Caesar, narrative poems Promethidion, Quidam, On the Freedom of Speech, Assunta, novellas, including Bracelet and Civilisation, as well as a volume of treatises On Art.

In 1846, while in Berlin, Norwid was denounced by Prussian police to the Russian embassy and imprisoned for his refusal to collaborate with the Russian intelligence service. Upon release from prison, he started considering himself a political émigré. He went to Belgium, where he continued his painting studies, and later to Italy, where he developed his sculpting passion. After a period in Paris (1848), he travelled to the United States (1853), to return to Europe only a year and a half later. He then stayed in Paris for most of his time in exile, living in poverty, and died alone at the Saint Casimir Home there.

Żaneta Nalewajk, PhD
Unit of Comparative Studies
Institute of Polish Literature
University of Warsaw