The Life of Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883) (2021)

By: Józef Franciszek Fert
Translated by: Urszula Błaszak, Stan Mickiewicz
Published by: Literary Waves Publishing

Cyprian Norwid (1821–1883) is today one of the most valued Polish writers. He also practised drawing, graphics and sculpture. His life was full of hardships and storms, but very fruitful artistically and literally. As a child, he lost both of his parents, but thanks to the help of his family, he gained the basics of a good education. In 1842 he went to the West to deepen his artistic studies. In 1846, as a result of a provocation, he was imprisoned by the Prussian police and after his release, he left for the West as one of the many Polish exiles of that century. In 1852 he left France for the United States, from where he returned in mid-1854, trying to settle down in England; after a few months he returned to Paris, which was closer to him and stayed there until the end of his life. He spent the last years (1877-1883) in an asylum for emigrants. This book tells about this difficult but creative life. It is a sketch of Norwid’s biography and literary and artistic output.


This page on the Polish Cultural Institute website features news of events to celebrate Norwid’s bicentenary, including Vade Mecum, a new short film by the Brothers Quay, and a translation of Norwid’s verse comedy of manners Pure Love at Sea-Side Bathing by Adam Czerniawski.

Buy online:

Zielony Balonik book club notes:

The biography by Fert that we chose read is confusing, hard to follow.

Norwid left Poland in his early 20s, and lived abroad for the rest of his life, mainly in Paris, with an interlude in the USA, where he thought he distance himself psychologically from Poland, but that wasn’t the case. There is little trace of his life outside Poland in his work. His work was little read or appreciated during his lifetime. He went deaf in prison, which meant he couldn’t hear music. Nonetheless his poems rely on the sound of language. His work contains many referencess to Polish rural landscapes – fields of wheat, bees – the emigré retained strong feelings for his own country, and felt sympathy and understanding for others in a similar position. He was also an accomplished visual artist.
He was unlucky in love, never marrying, or finding a long-term lover – he had little to offer, in terms of money. Despite living in Paris, he disliked cities.

Norwid transcends Polish particularity; he envisions not merely a new Poland, but a new world.

Norwid  used common street language of his times, which is hard to translate now. How to make him sound avant-garde now, as the demotic keeps changing?

We looked at Norwid’s ‘Fortepian Szopena’ / ‘Chopin’s Piano’ in Moja Ojczyzna-Polszczyzna / A Polish Anthology, ed. Filip & Michael, 1944, which includes the original Polish and a translation into English prose; and at the more recent translation by Jerome Rothenberg and Arie Galles. (This appears online with an additional brief commentary underlining Norwid’s difficulty, and the importance of Chopin to him.) The poem mentions ‘wheelwrights’ more than once – the mythical founder of the Polish royal family was Piast, who followed that trade. Czerniawski, in the Carcanet (Anvil) edition, didn’t include this poem, due to what he claimed was its “untranslatability”. We discussed the poem’s emotional timbre, especially the final lines, referring to book, gutter, street. One reading is that the ideal has ended up in the gutter, i.e. has been dishonoured; another is that it has finally engaged with the world as it is, surging towards the cobblestones of its own accord.

‘Larva’, gospel, the very stones – protest. He never lost his faith in religion. It’s not society, but people that must change. Poland will only be saved by God, but Norwid looks beyond the idea of Poland as the ‘martyr of nations’, seeing universal suffering brought about by the destructive power of modern capitalism. While others think, go back to the past, Norwid  is not convinced by this. He attacks those who ignore people in slums. 

‘Nerves’: simple & well-constructed. A protest against aristocracy. Skillful juxtaposition (like ‘Larva’); squalor and the Baroness. The narrator acts from politeness – he cannot bring himself to talk about the other side, as entertainment… suffers a loss of nerve. Chance – he nearly died on the piece of wood, but happened to be saved. Irony. Foresees the folly of socialism. This not long after the Spring of Nations, 1848.

Norwid influenced or is compared to GK Chesteron, Tolkein, CS Lewis, in their way of trying to understand the world.

He remains an influential poet, widely read in schools, while many composers over the past 70 years have set his words. His Collected Works were finally published in the 1970s.

Norwid would no doubt find the movement of his remains (such as they are) humorous. (The story is mentioned in the recent short film Vade Mecum by the Quay Brothers.)

It’s good to have anniversaries to remind us of certain people and works we might otherwise overlook, or not return to.


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