1859: A pre-execution tribute to John Brown, and a warning

In 1859, Polish poet Cyprian Norwid wrote a poem concerning the then-upcoming execution of John Brown, famous American abolitionist. He had spent about eighteen months, from September 1852 to April 1854 in New York.

The “peculiar institution” obviously made a huge impression on him; more than five years after his return to Europe, he felt the need to write about a figure who brought the conflict between American ideals and American reality to the forefront.

Cyprian Norwid was, put simply, the first of the Polish modern poets. I hope to include as many translations of his works as I can, but here is the first.

Do obywatela Johna Brown
(Z listu pisanego do Ameryki w 1859, listopada)
To Citizen John Brown
(From a letter written to America in November, 1859)

Przez Oceanu ruchome płaszczyzny
Pieśń Ci, jak mewę, posyłam, o! Janie…
Like a seagull, I send a song to you, O John,
across the ocean’s floating plane,

Ta lecieć długo będzie do ojczyzny
Wolnych – bo wątpi już: czy ją zastanie?…
– Czy też, jak promień Twej zacnej siwizny,
Biała – na puste zleci rusztowanie:
By kata Twego syn rączką dziecinną
Kamienie ciskał na mewę gościnną!
Long will be this flight, to the home
of the Free – for there are already doubts: will it arrive?…
– Also whether the beam from thy frosty white
nobility will be assigned to the empty scaffold:
So the childish hands of thy executioner’s son
will throw stones at the guest seagull!

Więc, niźli szyję Twoją obnażoną
Spróbują sznury, jak jest nieugiętą;
So they check the ropes and
see that your bare neck is unyielding;

Więc, niźli ziemi szukać poczniesz piętą,
By precz odkopnąć planetę spodloną –
A ziemia spod stóp Twych, jak płaz zlękniony,
Pierzchnie –
więc, niźli rzekną: “Powieszony…” –
Rzekną i pojrzą po sobie, czy kłamią? –
So you’ll search for the ground with your heels,
So as to cast off this debased planet –
But the earth takes flight from under thy feet,
like a frightened reptile –
Then they will utter the word: “He’s hanged…” –
They’ll mutter and glance at each other: “is this a lie?” –

Więc, nim kapelusz na twarz Ci załamią,
By Ameryka, odpoznawszy syna,
Nie zakrzyknęła na gwiazd swych dwanaście:
“Korony mojej sztuczne ognie zgaście,
Noc idzie – czarna noc z twarzą Murzyna!”
Therefore they crumple his hat down upon his face
Before America can recognize her son
and shout at her twelve stars:
“Extinguish the unnatural fires of my crown;
The night is coming – a black night with the face of a Negro!”

*
Więc, nim Kościuszki cień i Waszyngtona
Zadrży – początek pieśni przyjm, o! Janie…
Bo pieśń nim dojrzy, człowiek nieraz skona,
A niźli skona pieśń, naród pierw wstanie.
So, before the ghosts of Kościuszko and Washington
tremble – accept the origin of this song, O John…
For before his song matures, a man will sometimes die,
But that the song survives, a nation will first arise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


one + = 10