Polish Literature

Polish literature, the literary works of Poland.

Early History

The early literature of Poland was written in Latin: its chief figures included the historians Martin Gallus (12th cent.) and Jan Dlugosz (1415–80), the astronomer Copernicus, and the poet Klemens Janitius (1516–43). The first book printed in Poland was issued in Wrocław in 1475.

The Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries

Under the impact of humanism, religious reform, and the increasing sophistication of the gentry, the 16th cent. became the golden age of Polish literature. Mikolaj Rej (1505–69) is considered the father of Polish literature; other writers of this period are the great poet Jan Kochanowski; the humanitarian Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503–72); Piotr Skarga (1536–1612), a spokesman for the Counter Reformation; the historian Martin Bielski; and the political writer Stanislaus Orzechowski (1513–66).

After the mid-18th cent. there was a revival of classicism and a new flowering of the arts influenced by the Enlightenment. Modern Polish journalism was born, and light drama flourished under the playwrights Wojciech Bogusławski (1757–1829) and Franciszek Zablocki (1754–1821). Ignacy Krasicki wrote satire and fables. A disciple of Voltaire, Julian Niemcewicz, bridged the classical and romantic periods in Polish literature.

The Nineteenth Century

The romantic era, with its revolutionary and reform movements, was one of extraordinary productivity. Themes of nationalism and freedom predominated, developed by the patriotic poets Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński. Romantic novelists of note were Jozef Korzeniowski (1797–1863) and Henryk Rzewuski (1791–1866), and the major dramatist was Alexander Fredro (1793–1876). In the 19th cent. much Polish literature was written by émigrés in Paris and other European centers; these included the poet Cyprjan Norwid (1821–83).

Positivism, stimulated by the revolutionary fiasco of 1863, marked an effort to gain national strength through literary attacks on ignorance and reaction. A notable representative of this school was Bolesław Prus. The colorful historical novels of the Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz gained international popularity at this time. The last decade of the 19th cent. saw the appearance of the neoromantic school of Young Poland, influenced by French poetry and by Nietzsche. The poet and dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański, the novelists and dramatists Stefan Żeromski and Stanisław Przybyszewski, and the novelist Władisław Stanisław Reymont were the outstanding writers of this period.

The Twentieth Century

The regaining of Polish independence in 1919 after generations of partition inspired new literary activity. The Skamander group of urban poets, including Julian Tuwim and Kazimierz Wierzyński, called for an end to nationalist preoccupation and for experimental freedom; other significant figures included the novelists Marja Dąbrowska and Zofia Nalkowska (1885–1954) and the dramatists Karol Hubert Rostworoski (1877–1938) and Jerzy Szaniawski. The period's greatest writing, which gained recognition only after World War II, was the prose and drama of Stanisław Witkiewisz, Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz. Notable postwar writers who focused on the anguish of the period include Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament, Leon Kruczkowski, and the great expatriate Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981.

The advent of the Communist regime was accompanied by themes of socialist realism. Communist writers include the poet Constantine Galcyzynski (1906–53) and the novelists Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski and Kazimierz Brandys. In 1956 writers joined in the popular uprising against the Moscow-dominated regime, and subsequently there was some relaxation of literary strictures. The thaw (culminating in the rise of the "Solidarity" movement, the state of emergency, and the collapse of Communism) resulted in renewed contact with the West and a surge of literary experimentation. Many novelists continued to explore themes related to the war experience and its aftermath; others wrote works of psychological and political realism, reflecting current European trends.

Among the foremost postwar novelists are Wilhelm Mach, Leopold Buczkowski, Roman Bratny, Bohdan Czeszko, Julian Stryjkowski, Stanisław Dygat, Stanisław Lem, and Sławomir Mrożek, also well known for his plays and short stories. Postwar poetry in Poland deals principally with philosophical concerns. The chief poets of the era include Stanisław Jerzy Lec, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Wisława Szymborska (awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996). The works of Miron Białoszewsky, Jerzy Harasymowicz, and Stanisław Grochowiak are in a more lyrical vein. Notable among the writers who began as members of the Polish New Wave movement of the late 1960s is the expatriate poet and novelist Adam Zagajewski. Principal essayists and critics include Tadeusz Breza, Artur Sandauer, Jan Kott, and Jan Błoński.


See histories by M. Kridl (tr. 1967), J. Krzyzanowski (1978), and C. Miłosz (2d ed. 1983); M. M. Coleman, The Polish Land (1974); A. Gillon and L. Krzyzanowski, ed., Introduction to Modern Polish Literature (1982).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2016, The Columbia University Press.

Polish Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

A Survey of Polish Literature and Culture By Manfred Kridl; Olga Scherer-Virski Columbia University Press, 1956
Stranger in Our Midst: Images of the Jew in Polish Literature By Harold B. Segel Cornell University Press, 1996
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Cultural Pathology: Roots of Polish Literary Opposition to Communism By Tighe, Carl Journal of European Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, September 1998
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Cultural Pathology: Roots of Polish Literary Opposition to Communism By Tighe, Carl Journal of European Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, June 1999
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
A History of Central European Women's Writing By Celia Hawkesworth Palgrave, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Polish Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century" and Chap. 14 "Women Writers in Polish Literature 1945-95: From 'Equal Rights for Women' to Feminist Self-Awareness"
Poland By Oscar Halecki Frederick A. Praeger, 1957
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Literature"
Poland: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture By Clifford R. Barnett HRAF Press, 1958
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 21 "Art and Intellectual Expression"
Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature By Horatio Smith Columbia University Press, 1947
Librarian’s tip: "Polish Literature" begins on p. 630
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