Jan Kochanowski (1530--84) was the greatest poet of Polandduring its existence as an independent kingdom. His Laments arehis masterpiece, the choicest work of Polish lyric poetry before thetime of Mickiewicz.
Kochanowski was a learned poet of the Renaissance, drawing hisinspiration from the literatures of Greece and Rome. He was alsoa man of sincere piety, famous for his translation of the Psalmsinto his native language. In his Laments, written in memory ofhis little daughter Ursula, who died in 1579 at the age of thirtymonths, he expresses the deepest personal emotion through themedium of a literary style that had been developed by long yearsof study. The Laments, to be sure, are not based on any classicmodel and they contain few direct imitations of the classical poets,though it may be noted that the concluding couplet of Lament XVis translated from the Greek Anthology. On the other hand they areinterspersed with continual references to classic story; and, moreimportant, are filled with the atmosphere of the Stoic philosophy,derived from Cicero and Seneca. And along with this austereteaching there runs through them a warmer tone of Christian hopeand trust; Lament XVIII is in spirit a psalm. To us of today,however, these poems appeal less by their formal perfection, bytheir learning, or by their religions tone, than by their exquisitehumanity. Kochanowski's sincerity of grief, his fatherly lovefor his baby girl, after more than three centuries have not lost theirpower to touch our hearts. In the Laments Kochanowski embodieda wholesome ideal of life such as animated the finest spirits ofPoland in the years of its greatest glory, a spirit both humanisticand universally human.
G. R. Noyes
Laments - Motto and dedication
Tales sunt hominum mentes, quali pater ipseJuppiter auctiferas lustravit lumine terras.
To Ursula Kochanowski
A charming, merry, gifted child, who, after showing greatpromise of all maidenly virtues and talents, suddenly,prematurely, in her unripe years, to the great andunbearable grief of her parents, departed hence.
Written with tears for his beloved littlegirl by Jan Kochanowski, her hapless father.
Thou art no more, my Ursula.
Come, Heraclitus and Simonides,
Come with your weeping and sad elegies:
Ye griefs and sorrows, come from all the lands
Wherein ye sigh and wail and wring your hands:
Gather ye here within my house today
And help me mourn my sweet, whom in her May
Ungodly Death hath ta'en to his estate,
Leaving me on a sudden desolate.
'Tis so a serpent glides on some shy nest
And, of the tiny nightingales possessed,
Doth glut its throat, though, frenzied with her fear,
The mother bird doth beat and twitter near
And strike the monster, till it turns and gapes
To swallow her, and she but just escapes.
«'Tis vain to weep,» my friends perchance will say.
Dear God, is aught in life not vain, then? Nay,
Seek to lie soft, yet thorns will prickly be:
The life of man is naught but vanity.
Ah, which were better, then — to seek relief
In tears, or sternly strive to conquer grief?
If I had ever thought to write in praise
Of little children and their simple ways,
Far rather had I fashioned cradle verse
To rock to slumber, or the songs a nurse
Might croon above the baby on her breast,
Setting her charge's short-lived woes at rest.
For much more useful are such trifling tasks
Than that which sad misfortune this day asks:
To weep o'er thy deaf grave, dear maiden mine,
And wail the harshness of grim Proserpine.
But now I have no choice of subject: then
I shunned a theme scarce fitting riper men,
And now disaster drives me on by force
To songs unheeded by the great concourse
Of mortals. Verses that I would not sing
The living, to the dead I needs must bring.
Yet though I dry the marrow from my bones,
Weeping another's death, my grief atones
No whit. All forms of human doom
Arouse but transient thoughts of joy or gloom.
O law unjust, O grimmest of all maids,
Inexorable princess of the shades!
For, Ursula, thou hadst but tasted time
And art departed long before thy prime.
Thou hardly knewest that the sun was bright
Ere thou didst vanish to the halls of night.
I would thou hadst not lived that little breath —
What didst thou know, but only birth, then death?
And all the joy a loving child should bring
Her parents, is become their bitterest sting.
So, thou hast scorned me, my delight and heir;
Thy father's halls, then, were not broad and fair
Enough for thee to dwell here longer, sweet.
True, there was nothing, nothing in them meet
For thy swift-budding reason, that foretold
Virtues the future years would yet unfold.
Thy words, thy archness, every turn and bow —
How sick at heart without them am I now!
Nay, little comfort, never more shall I
Behold thee and thy darling drollery.
What may I do but only follow on
Along the path where earlier thou hast gone.
And at its end do thou, with all thy charms,
Cast round thy father's neck thy tender arms.
Thou hast constrained mine eyes, unholy Death,
To watch my dear child breathe her dying breath:
To watch thee shake the fruit unripe and clinging
While fear and grief her parents' hearts were wringing.
Ah, never, never could my well-loved child
Have died and left her father reconciled:
Never but with a heart like heavy lead
Could I have watched her go, abandonèd.
And yet at no time could her death have brought
More cruel ache than now, nor bitterer thought;
For had God granted to her ample days
I might have walked with her down flowered ways
And left this life at last, content, descending
To realms of dark Persephone, the all-ending,
Without such grievous sorrow in my heart,
Of which earth holdeth not the counterpart.
I marvel not that Niobe, alone
Amid her dear, dead children, turned to stone.
Just as a little olive offshoot grows
Beneath its orchard elders' shady rows,
No budding leaf as yet, no branching limb,
Only a rod uprising, virgin-slim —
Then if the busy gardener, weeding out
Sharp thorns and nettles, cuts the little sprout,
It fades and, losing all its living hue,