In Memoriam: Zygmunt Kubiak April 20, 1929-March 19, 2004

By Mikos, Michael J. | Sarmatian Review, January 2005 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam: Zygmunt Kubiak April 20, 1929-March 19, 2004


Mikos, Michael J., Sarmatian Review


Zygmunt Kubiak, a distinguished Polish writer, essayist, and translator, died suddenly in his Warsaw apartment, leaving his wife Henryka, son Piotr, daughter Monika, their families, many friends, and countless readers to mourn his death but find consolation in remembering his life and his remarkable literary achievement.

Born in Warsaw where he spent his entire life, Zygmunt experienced early the horrors of war followed by the long years of Communist oppression. His formal schooling was interrupted, but he read voraciously and became fascinated with the ancient Greeks and Romans. From 1948 to 1952 Kubiak studied classical philology at Warsaw University. When his plans for an academic career were thwarted by the Communist authorities, he found employment with Tygodnik Powszechny where he was a staff member from 1951 to 1953. One of the few leading intellectuals who was always unyielding in his opposition to the regime in Soviet-occupied Poland, Kubiak was denied regular employment and for a number of years was unable to publish his writings.

He found spiritual and material support in the Catholic Church as a translator of Josephus Flavius's Antiquitates Judaicae (1965, 1979, 1993). After the end of Stalinism he returned to Tygodnik Powszechny (1956-1959) and devoted himself to freelance writing and translating. He excelled as an essayist, reflecting variously on Homer and the Bible (Polmrok ludzkiego swiata, 1963); his literary readings (Wedrowki po stuleciach, 1969), the European tradition in literature (Szkola stylu, 1972); the Mediterranean cultural tradition (Przestrzen dziel wiecznych, 1993); Poland's place in European culture (Brewiarz Europejczyka, 1996), and travels, including a trip to the United States (Jak w zwierciadle, 1985).

Many of Kubiak's essays were inspired by his translations from Greek and Latin. He created a veritable canon of classical literature in Polish including The Greek Muse (1960, 1968, later published as Palatine Anthology, 1978, 1992), The Roman Muse: Poetry of Ancient Rome (1963, 1974, 1992); commentaries on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (1990); St. Augustine's Confessions (1978, 1982, 1987, 1992; and Virgil's Aeneid (1987), the last two considered his most important achievements. He crowned his lifelong communion with the ancient world with his best-selling Mythology of the Greeks and Romans (1997), Literature of the Greeks and Romans (1999), and History of the Greeks and Romans (2003). In his carefully honed, almost sinewy language he conveyed to his readers the spare simplicity of ancient Greek and Latin.

Kubiak also translated from modern Greek and from English. His two-volume Constantine Cavafy: Complete Poems (1995) combined a biography of the celebrated Alexandrian poet with the first comprehensive anthology of his poems. Kubiak's 554-page anthology Twarde dno snu (1993) traced the Romantic tradition in the English language. The book, which features the poems of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Longfellow, Hardy, and others, elevated its author to the rank of a leading translator of English literature into Polish.

Kubiak had a special love for Polish literature. In sixteenth century Polish poetry he saw a rich repository of the classical tradition exemplified most clearly in the poetry of Janiciusz, a peasant's son from Znin who was crowned with poetic laurels in Italy; and Jan Kochanowski, a law-giver of the vernacular poetry, whose Latin poems Kubiak translated into Polish. …

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