Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

Journal | Volume | Article

Wholeness and disruption

Cyprian Norwid, Roman Jakobson, and Polish structuralism

Christian Zehnder(Fribourg University)

pp. 127-148


This essay examines how the poetry of the late Romantic Cyprian Norwid became a particularly appealing case for Polish structuralist analysis. Polish formalists, such as Manfred Kridl, laid the groundwork for a linguistic reading of Norwid. Two detailed analyses by Roman Jakobson (1963 and 1975 respectively) constitute the most radical expression thereof. Curiously, the Polish structuralists, such as Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska and Michał Głowiński as well as the major German scholar of Polish literature, Rolf Fieguth, only very partially followed Jakobson’s model. As this essay argues, they struggled with the total analytic integration and rationalization of all elements of a given poem that characterizes Jakobson’s grammatical and phonetic approach. What unites the structuralist readings of Norwid is that all, in different ways, address the problem of wholeness as posed both by Norwid’s poems and his aesthetic thought. Under the auspices of reader-response theory, the notion of wholeness became increasingly problematic to the structuralist interpreters but was never abandoned altogether.

1As Zdzisław Łapiński observed, anyone who has written about Cyprian Norwid (1821–1883) since the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century is exposed to a “constant temptation” to link his work with their own convictions and preferences. For that reason, Łapiński argued, critical essays have long outweighed historical and systematic writing on Norwid. This circumstance, again, was an expression of Norwid’s special status within Polish literature since his rediscovery during the fin de siècle: a peculiar consensus took shape among the most diverse authors that Norwid is best read as “our contemporary” (in contrast to Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński who always seemed to be inextricably tied to Romanticism). Regarding his own approach to Norwid, Łapiński (2014 [1971], 203) remarked with disarming frankness, “[…] I did not hesitate to give in to this temptation. I discuss Norwid’s texts in the same way I generally do with regard to contemporary texts.”

2Łapiński has been a collaborator of the Institute for Literary Research (IBL) at the Polish Academy of Sciences since 1971, alongside the structuralists Janusz Sławiński, Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska, and Michał Głowiński, authors of the famous Zarys teorii literatury [Outline of Literary Theory, 1962]. Łapiński himself always remained rather a fellow traveler of structuralism. By dating the “temptation” to read Norwid in an ahistorical key to the turn of the century, Łapiński makes it clear that he is not identifying a typical feature of the structuralist approach. Nor does his commitment to Norwid as “contemporary” reveal a specifically synchronic outlook. Rather, it distinguishes Łapiński as a literary scholar who, for all his academic acuity, understands himself as a “critic” and thus a participant in the literary process. To be sure, Sławiński and Głowiński had also emerged as literary critics in their young years during the Thaw (i.e. in the late 1950s) and later engaged in the theorizing of literary criticism [krytyka literacka].1 An image of the structuralists as dogmatically systematic and dry scientists is therefore flawed from the beginning. And it would be equally mistaken to assume that their method was blind to literary history. On the contrary, the diachronic processuality and openness of structures constituted namely in Sławiński’s version of structuralism, no less than for the Prague School, the main concern of the scholarly endeavor.2

Tracing the Norwid of the Polish structuralists back to Kridl and Jakobson

3Nevertheless, Łapiński’s “contemporary” reading of Norwid is significant in shedding light on Norwid’s role in literary structuralism in Poland from the 1960s to the 1980s. Krzysztof Trybuś (2000, 17) speaks of “feedback” [sprzężenie zwrotne], a kind of mutual implication between the exploration of Norwid and structuralism in that period. The broader context of this particular affinity lies in the fact that in the wake of the Thaw, there had been, as Stanisław Barańczak (1988, 168) notes, “a true explosion of renewed fascination with Norwid”, even beyond literary circles.3 According to Barańczak (1988, 168), the 1960s in fact mark “a period of forced attempts [as stimulated by Politburo member and admirer of the poet, Zenon Kliszko – Ch. Z.] to make Norwid virtually a patron of official ‘cultural policy.’” The structuralist interest in Norwid thus expresses both a general fashion of the time and an attempt to counter a tendency toward ideological oversimplification—Norwid as “poet of labor”, “bard of statehood”, and the like—with thorough formal analysis. However, Norwid’s poetry was not an end in itself for the structuralists. Rather, Norwid played “the role of an exemplum, his poetry illustrated the main theses of the theoretical propositions [of structuralism] […].” (Trybuś 2000, 17) The other way around, the examination of Norwid’s language actively “fostered the development of the contemporary knowledge on the structure of the literary work.” Trybuś thinks first and foremost of Głowiński’s study on the “virtual recipient” [wirtualny odbiorca] as inherent in the structure of the literary work (Głowiński 1977 [1966] and, for a German translation, Głowiński 1975). More to the point, this and other studies by Głowiński mark the reader-response turn within Polish structuralism, which took place in the mid-1960s4 and which laid the basis for the widely shared teaching that presents Norwid as a “poet of dialogue” (Fert 1982). Still, a specifically structuralist interest in Norwid dates at least to the early 1960s, to Roman Jakobson’s analysis of Norwid’s poem “Przeszłość” [The Past, 1865], which served as a supplement to the Polish translation of his “Linguistics and Poetics” (1960). Moreover, if we take Polish formalism into account—as a “pre-structuralism”—we must mention already Manfred Kridl’s “O lirykach Norwida” [On Norwid’s Lyric]. In this essay, Kridl (1933, 1135) stated programmatically:

Today, the case of Norwid is so convoluted, so far from being clarified and from a rational formulation, that in order to write about any aspect of his work, it is necessary to “clear the ground”, cleanse it of various prejudices, suggestions, traditions, snobbery, and fetishism, so that one might finally approach him as a poet and try to realize what is most important in him, i.e., the artistic value of his work.5

4Kridl, the author of the famous Wstęp do badań nad dziełem literackiem [Introduction to the Study of the Literary Work, 1936], had thus set the tone for a reading of Norwid oriented toward form and structure, which implied a departure from the dominant position within existing criticism of the didactic poem Promethidion (1851) and a clear turn toward Norwid’s lyric poetry, especially the 1866 collection Vade-mecum. In the formalist-structuralist line, leading from Kridl to Jakobson—both men would become friends in the United States after the War6—the dialogical structure of Norwid’s poetry did not play any role at first. Hence, we cannot attribute Norwid’s alleged special suitability for structuralist approaches predominantly to that dimension of his poetry, as Trybuś suggests. The appeal must have other factors.

5My impression is that these are essentially two: first, Norwid’s struggle for wholeness, and second, less obviously but no less important, his heavily referential understanding of language as well as, in many instances, the affirmation of language’s mimetic power, that is, of a natural relation between the signifier and the signified. I would argue that by virtue of his strongly holistic impetus and equally powerful fragmenting counter-tendencies, Norwid became—though perhaps not always consciously—a test case for the characteristic orientation toward wholeness in Polish (pre)structuralism. Such a holistic concern can be traced from Kridl’s dismissal of Norwid’s heterogeneity7 through Jakobson’s total analytical integration of every linguistic element of the poems to Głowiński’s montage- or collage-like understanding of Norwid’s open ends as well as Rolf Fieguth’s interest in “unity-disrupting factors.”8

6As for Norwid’s belief in the referential and at the same time mimetic power of language, he invited a scholarly projection of this idea onto syntactic structures, namely Jakobson’s “poetry of grammar”, as well as to sound-semantic readings of his verse. Maria Dłuska (1966, 268), in her Jakobsonian analysis of Kazimierz Wierzyński’s “Gdzie nie posieją mnie…” [Wherever They Sow Me…, 1919], wrote, “[…] the poet [Wierzyński] makes sure at every step to ‘give things their proper word’ [odpowiednie dać rzeczy słowo, ‘Ogólniki’]—or ‘to give words their original expression back’ [słowom wrócić ich wygłos pierwszy, ‘Kolebka pieśni’], as Norwid said of the indispensable work on language in poetry.”9 The boundaries between the accent on the referential and the accent on the mimetic power of language, to which these two Norwid quotations hint respectively, tend to be fluid. As to Dłuska’s argumentative strategy, interestingly enough, Norwid still functions to a certain extent as a discursive cue—now, of course, no longer in an “ideological” sense, but with regard to the conception of language. Even Jakobson’s analyses of “Przeszłość” and of “Czułość” use discursive references from Norwid’s essayism. The aim is to render plausible the structuralist approach on the basis of gnomic sentences by the author himself (for example, Jakobson 1975, 230; 234; 236). Through these discursive references, the formal/structural approach loses some of its meta-linguistic sovereignty; to a certain degree, the structuralist description becomes entangled with its study object.

7Contrary to what one might think, Jakobson’s contributions did not have a great impact neither within traditional Norwid scholarship nor among his Polish followers, the emerging Polish structuralists. Thus Głowiński, who as a young scholar had witnessed Jakobson’s first appearance in Poland at a conference on linguistics and poetics in Krynica Górska in 1958, stated soberly but unmistakably critically in retrospect:

These studies can hardly be called interpretative, the scholar [Jakobson] is interested in the functioning of grammatical mechanisms, how they work in a poetic text written in a given language. […] They made little impression on the Polish public, and passed almost unnoticed. […] Jakobson treated [Norwid’s] poems as a kind of “examples of grammar”, and he relegated the question of a specific poetic message to the background. What was lacking was a hermeneutics, the presence of which one always expects in one way or another in the analysis of poetic texts.10

8Głowiński’s objection that Jakobson ignored the hermeneutic dimension of philology may sound surprising coming from a structuralist. Perhaps it shows that Głowiński understood structuralism more as a tool among others, and less as a universal key to literature. Still, one wonders to what extent he is recalling here his own assessment from the temporal distance of half a century, rather than a generalized expectation of the public (which he did not necessarily share himself).

9What Głowiński tellingly does not address is the essential sound-semantic part of Jakobson’s analyses. In this respect, one could argue that a highly controversial belief in the natural signifying potential of sounds—the so-called Cratylean myth—is at play.11 Głowiński did not belong to the inner circle of Jakobson’s Polish disciples; from the beginning, Głowiński obviously regarded with distance the treatment of poetics as part of linguistics, as he confirmed recently (Głowiński 2018, 159). In his articles on Norwid, the poetry of grammar and sound-semantics conspicuously do not play any role whatsoever.12 Instead, Głowiński’s writings deal in a groundbreaking way with Norwid’s allegorical mode and the communicative situation of his poetry, that is, with the rhetoric dimension and dialogue — aspects that Jakobson omits in his two contributions on Norwid. Among Jakobson’s closest Polish followers from the older generation were Maria Renata Mayenowa, and from the younger generation Krystyna Pomorska, his later wife. They themselves did not work on Norwid, and one of the only “orthodox” Jakobsonian contributions within Norwid scholarship remains a relatively marginal article by Roman Jaskierny (Jaskierny 1980).

Unity-disrupting factors: Fieguth’s contribution

10Rolf Fieguth, the major German scholar of Polish literature, has long been a loyal but explicit critic of Jakobson with regard to Norwid. Fieguth’s work on Norwid—to be seen in the context of the Constance reader-response school [Rezeptionsästhetik]—in many respects follows similar intuitions as Głowiński’s, which seems all the more plausible because Głowiński was Fieguth’s main research advisor on Norwid in Poland.13 Their close personal exchange also explains, I assume, why there are so few formal references to each other in their respective writings on Norwid.

11Fieguth remarks, in connection with the “unaesthetic” accumulation of monosyllabic form words [gdzieś, tam, coś and the like) in Norwid’s poetic language, that “such passages can be cited as evidence for Roman Jakobson’s ‘poetry of grammar’”—after all, Fieguth recalls, Jakobson did analyze two poems from Vade-mecum in this context. “Yet”, he continues, “this by no means undoes the character [of those passages] as unsmoothed defective forms [ungeglättete Fehlformen].” Furthermore, when Fieguth addressed Norwid’s “blatantly irregular, overabundant punctuation” [kraß regelwidrige, überreichliche Zeichensetzung], he took a stand not only against harmonizing tendencies in Norwid editions, but, implicitly, also against Jakobson’s rationalizations of such irregularities (Fieguth 1981, 41–42).14 Fieguth’s rather fundamental reserve mirrors the distanced reception of Jakobson’s linguistic analyses of Norwid in Poland. Jakobson was surely an unquestioned authority; moreover, he put Norwid and to some degree Polish literature in general on an international scholarly agenda (given for example the prominence of his analysis of “Czułość” in the 1975 festschrift for Wiktor Weintraub). Nevertheless, Polish readers had a hard time to make sense of “his” Norwid.

12Referring to Jan Mukařovský, Fieguth searches for a “unifying structural principle” [vereinheitlichendes Strukturprinzip] in Vade-mecum—a text that he edited in German with the support of Hans Robert Jauß,15 then the influential head of the Constance School—without dismissing all those elements in the volume that do not conform to such a totalizing principle. Fieguth (1981, 37–38) very clearly names the central premise of his approach:

The starting point will be the structuralist thesis of the “general imperative intentionality” [allgemeine imperative Absichtlichkeit] of the work of art, which includes the unintentional because all its elements and properties together form its style and structure.

13Fieguth takes this assumption from Miroslav Červenka (1978, 61), who himself developed it in dialogue with Mukařovský’s 1943 reflections on the interplay of the “intentional and the unintentional” in the work of art (Mukařovský 1974).16 At stake, then, is an overall intentionality that embraces contingency insofar as each element helps shape the final textual structure, regardless of the individual motivation of each element or the “direct control of [the author’s] consciousness”, as Červenka puts it. Fieguth (1981, 66–67, n38) notes that this formulation of intentionality by the Czech structuralists reveals a clear “uneasiness” with the formalist-structuralist notion of a pure intentionality as expressed in concepts such as “deformation” or “stylization” and which, we should add, was highly characteristic of Jakobson’s analyses of Norwid. Fieguth (1981, 38–39) comments, “That assumption is applicable here if one questions its connection with the idea of the closed work of art, teleologically adjusted to its wholeness in every part.” According to him, what is at play in Vade-mecum is precisely a “different authorial intentionality”; the volume constitutes an “open work of art” that “does not integrate its individual parts completely, whose fragments do not unanimously refer to a teleology of the work as a whole, but often enough turn against the idea of harmony, coherence, and wholeness in general and of this work in particular.” This restriction is remarkable. For it not only justifies why Norwid is a suitable “exemplum” of structuralist theory (as Trybuś put it), but, more importantly, uses Norwid as an objection to the ideal of uniformity of that very theory. Fieguth seems to be driven by an uneasiness with his own structuring activity as a literary scholar and so, eventually, he answers the question of the “unifying structural principle” in this way: it consists, he writes, in a “dialectic of unity-creating and unity-disrupting factors.” Fieguth reads Vade-mecum, then, as an unfinished, and unfinishable, wholeness. The question remains to what extent the “unsmoothed remnants, misforms, and incoherences” can be examined and appreciated as such if they are always already functionalized for a “dialectical” logic. In the end, what is crucial in Fieguth’s reading is that this function is a mimetic one: The structural principle assigns “to the ‘dysfunctional’ factors the function of representing the disruption of unity [die Funktion der Darstellung von Einheitsstörung].”17 That is, contingent elements in literature (on several layers, i.e. in lexis, syntax, sentence linkage, and punctuation) have the precise function of enacting contingency tout court. The incoherent becomes an iconic sign of crisis phenomena in general and of a critical moment in literature in particular. Fieguth’s Norwid is, then, above all a great mimetic artist, a master of the illusion of a natural relation between the signifier and the signified.18 In this regard, Fieguth remains faithful to Jakobson.

14Almost three decades later, Fieguth (2012, 145) again took Norwid as an occasion to reflect on structuralism. This time, too, it was a matter of what one might call loyal criticism. He pointed out the “iconophobia”, an anxiety of and blindness to images, as a fundamental deficiency of (Polish) structuralism. He began with a general personal remark, speaking of

[…] a certain overemphasis on the Copernican turn in twentieth-century literary criticism, which abandoned the idea that poetry is supposedly about thinking in images, and at last gave the “poetic work in the word” or “the poetry of grammar” a prominent place in the analysis of a literary text. I have to confess right away that I myself was and still am under the spell of this turn and some of its representatives, including Roman Jakobson and Janusz Sławiński. But it is impossible not to admit that we have sacrificed quite a few aspects of imaginative sensuality as present in all literary genres to the purity and coherence of our theories and analyses.

15Fieguth understands the visual appearance of the poetic world as one of those too little appreciated sensual “aspects of imaginative sensuality” and, interestingly, refers to Viktor Šklovskij’s famous image of the stone that has to be made stony again, that is, to the sensual-existential dimension of (early) formalism partly lost in the institutionalized structuralism of the 1960s and 1970s.19 By foregrounding the Polish phenomenologist Roman Ingarden against an overly reductionist structuralism, Fieguth now reinforces a methodological proposal that he had made as early as 1967 in his dissertation under the guidance of Jurij Striedter (Fieguth 1967). With a more philosophical scope, Elmar Holenstein proposed an analogical take on the problem when he interpreted Jakobson’s own thinking of the structure as phenomenological (Holenstein 1975).

Reassessing Jakobson’s Norwid analyses

16Fieguth related his diagnosis of iconophobia to the concrete effects the structuralist paradigm had produced in (Polish) literary studies. The case study he uses is a fascinating one: the phenomenon of chiaroscuro in Norwid’s epic tale Quidam (1862). In a series of subtle close readings, Fieguth demonstrates Norwid’s sophisticated, multi-perspectival “directing of sunlight.” For some passages, Fieguth (2012, 151) extends his analysis to the phonetic level, as for example here:

The double light has its poetic counterpart in the sound layer (e.g., the repetition of the words “door” [drzwi] and “hallway” [przysionek] as well as of the syllable ku in the forms przysionku, oku, and obłoku]. The power of its falling on the fountain is emphasized by the poetic ambiguity of syntax and verse segmentation […].

17The fact that Fieguth is referring both to Jakobson’s poetry of grammar and the latter’s phonetic-semantic analyses is so obvious that he does not even need to point it out—all the more so since he named Jakobson as an important inspiration at the beginning of his essay. On the other hand, it is surprising that Fieguth does not mention Jakobson’s analysis of Norwid’s “Czułość” [Feeling, 1865] in this context, as it actually does elaborate on visual aspects. For Jakobson (1975, 229–230), in a large part of that analysis, does nothing but differentiate the vowel distribution according to “bright” and “dark”, and he concludes that of the twenty-three stressed vowels in the short poem twenty are “dark”, or tend to be dark, and only three are “bright.” And then Jakobson (1975, 232) names it: “The author’s ‘extraordinary sense’ for chiaroscuro becomes evident here.”20 A crucial question, of course, asks whether to view Jakobson’s demonstration of Norwidian chiaroscuro solely on the phonetic level as evidence of structuralism’s outreach to visual dimensions, or just conversely, as a symptom of what Fieguth calls iconophobia. To be sure, Jakobson, supports his own conclusion with a reference to Kazimierz Wyka’s study Cyprian Norwid. Poeta i sztukmistrz [Cyprian Norwid: Poet and Craftsman, 1948], i.e., a book largely untouched by structuralism. In fact, Jakobson polemicizes against taking the four comparisons “Czułość” offers—a cry, streaming water, a funeral procession, and the blond braid of a deceased wife—as “images.” Contrary to what other interpreters claim, these four comparisons do not, according to Jakobson, illustrate feeling. Rather, Norwid’s “poetics of comparison” is concerned with unfolding the tertium comparationis of the four items. Only this tertium comparationis, namely ‘dynamics’, relates to the “tenor” (the feeling), not the images in themselves (Jakobson 1975, 236). Therefore, there indeed is a certain iconophobia or at least abstractionist distance vis-à-vis the iconic in Jakobson’s analysis. Yet his determination of the qualities of the comparisons (loud/quiet, slow/fast, durative/resultative, discrete/steady) speaks to the fact that he had studied them very carefully as images. Completely absent from Jakobson’s study on “Czułość” is an explicit reader-response perspective, to which Fieguth at least hints by referring to Ingarden’s “schematic views” [schematisierte Ansichten].

18 Michał Głowiński’s wording seems, then, almost ironic when he states that Jakobson’s analyses of Norwid “lack” a hermeneutics. With regard to “Czułość”, Jakobson precisely wants to denigrate existing hermeneutic commentaries (among others, Juliusz W. Gomulicki’s understanding of the images as expressions of false sentiment). In order to abolish those hermeneutic routines, however, Jakobson makes assumptions that are themselves anything but neutral. First, the sound-semantic part implies a rather eccentric belief in the mimetic potential of language and is, in a way, reminiscent of the Russian avant-garde’s cult of language Jakobson had once been part of.21 Second, reading the four comparisons of “Czułość” as a paradigm held together by a distinct tertium comparationis or simile, as he puts it, reveals a far-reaching rationalist belief in the ordering power of poetry.

19By the same token, Małgorzata Zemła and Imke Mendoza have pointed out a monologizing and unifying tendency in Jakobson’s better-known analysis of “Przeszłość.” The poem is about “that one” [ów] who first created the past by breaking the laws—the devil (first stanza). In Jakobson’s words, the poem thus exhibits the “childish myth of the past in its literal signification, that is, of something past, really past, lost, a space deprived of men, inhuman” as the work of the devil. In reality, Jakobson supplements, the past does not disappear for Norwid but remains “immovable and unchangeable” and as such constitutes a fixed point of timely reality (second stanza) (Jakobson 1963, 450). The problem with this view, as Zemła/Mendoza (in Jakobson 2007, 357n10) argue, is that Jakobson excludes the third stanza from his paraphrase. There, the past no longer appears as something static (an oak flickering behind the wheels of the chariot of time), but as an animated “village” and thus as an extension of the present or even of the original eternal present which has been broken by the devil. In this point, Zemła/Mendoza (in Jakobson 2007, 362n22) refer to Eugeniusz Czaplejewicz (1986), who read “Przeszłość” dialogically — perhaps against Jakobson, but tellingly without reference to him.

20Despite this major shortcoming, one should emphasize Jakobson’s numerous lucid observations. One of the most fascinating of those concerns the phrase “ów, co prawa rwie” (‘he who breaks the laws’). Jakobson (1963, 450) argues that prawa rwie replaces the “extinct idiomatic metaphor ‘prawa łamie’ [‘breaks the laws’]” and thus gives rise to a “subtle paronomasia: r.w.—rw.” This observation brings us back to the “mimological” (Gérard Genette) dimension of structuralist reading strategies: the rw in rwie becomes an iconic sign of the literally diabolic work of destruction; from prawa (‘laws’) the harmonizing vowel between r and w is violently taken out.

Norwid dialogically: Głowiński’s contribution

21The canonical reference on the dialogic structure of Norwid’s poetry today, besides Józef Fert’s aforementioned book, is Michał Głowiński’s short study “Norwidowska druga osoba” [Norwid’s Second Person, 1971]. In it, Głowiński (1971a, 131) conceptualizes a “partner” present in so many of Norwid’s poems and utters opinions “that one can be sure the poet does not approve”, but which nevertheless acutely affect the construction of many of his poems. In the case of “Przeszłość” this would apply to the middle stanza, which Jakobson failed to recognize as a “foreign word”; this stanza introduces, among other things, the image of the wheel (of time) [koło], through which the poetic subject, in the third stanza, will set the concept of the past right.

22To whom belongs that voice? Who is the second person? asks Głowiński (1971a, 131). And he gives this answer, very typical of his ever-so-scrupulous style of argumentation: “As it seems, we cannot attribute it [the voice] to anyone in an unambiguous way, and such an attribution would miss the point, since it is precisely a domain of ambiguity, of ambiguity assumed from above.” This is exactly the point; the concept of ambiguity constitutes perhaps Głowiński’s most important contribution to Norwid scholarship. By putting Norwid’s allegorical mode on the scholarly agenda in his essays “Norwida wiersze-przypowieści” [Norwid’s Parabolic Verse, 1973] and “Ciemne alegorie Norwida” [Norwid’s Dark Allegories, 1984], Głowiński made ambiguity a central concern for the exploration of Norwid’s poetry.22 In the course of the Romantic period, allegory lost the clear and stable universal system of reference it had held by virtue of universal norms.23 This is precisely what Głowiński means by “darkness”: allegorical speech as placed in a context that lacks the system of reference that it traditionally required. Thus, the unambiguous form becomes contextually ambiguous and largely incomprehensible to contemporary readers—a development that, according to Głowiński (1973, 107), continues to deepen in modernity, culminating in Franz Kafka’s opaque parabolic poetics (while the modern readers became more and more accustomed to the fact of incomprehensibility). The allegory, after it lost its traditional framing, requires all the more active “cooperation of the reader” [współpraca czytelnika].24 This empowerment of the reader illustrates how in Głowiński’s essays on Norwid the reader-response turn and a neo-rhetorical/tropological turn of structuralism go hand in hand.

23In general, I would argue, the lasting impact of Polish structuralism on the study of Norwid lies in its attempt to describe “wholeness” soberly and to raise awareness of disrupting factors, inconsistencies, and a far-reaching openness. Thus, structuralism also became the basis of the few poststructuralist readings of Norwid that have emerged since the mid-nineties—curiously enough, without acknowledging their dependence upon the structuralists’ achievements. By 1989, structuralism as a dominant paradigm of literary criticism in Poland had passed its zenith. After 1989, structuralist considerations functioned at best as an implicit undercurrent within Norwid scholarship. A historical-biographical exploration of Norwid’s work on the one hand and a strong interest in the religious dimension of Norwid’s writing and his Catholic conservatism on the other came to the fore.25

24Several of Głowiński’s works are still routinely cited in contemporary Norwid scholarship regardless of the specific subdiscipline, as well as Fieguth’s “Poesie in kritischer Phase” [Poetry in a Critical Phase26]. Łapiński’s book Norwid that I mentioned at the beginning—which could be described as loosely structuralist—is still one of the most frequent references on Norwid in general. On the other hand, Jakobson’s thought-provoking proposal that the study of Norwid’s poetics should become a domain of linguistics was never seriously considered at all. (This virtual lack of reception might also explain why the attempts at a deconstruction of Norwid did not refer to Jakobson’s holistic Norwid; they simply did not identify him as a possible target. Instead, they attacked canonizing strategies and quasi-hagiographical routines that dated back to the beginning of the twentieth century, the time of the first broad rediscovery of the poet.) Linguistic work on Norwid has indeed long been provided; Norwid’s language forms a branch of research in its own right (as introduced by linguists and stylists, such as Teresa Skubalanka and Jadwiga Puzynina and pursued today by Tomasz Korpysz, Anna Kozłowska, and others). Yet Jakobson’s poetry of grammar and his sound-semantics, for which Norwid’s poems were prime case studies, seem to be terra incognita in today’s Norwid scholarship. The fact that organic wholeness and a firm belief in the power of language was once a postulate of structuralism—and not necessarily of a “metaphysical” exegesis —is no longer self-evident to Norwid’s readers and therefore worth recalling today. Thus, structuralism could help to bridge conflicting paradigms and quarreling factions within “norwidology” and become, somewhat unexpectedly, a resource of a new critical integration.


  • 1 See Poprawa 2019 on Głowiński, and, among other publications, Sławiński’s edited volume Badania nad krytyką literacką [Research on Literary Criticism, 1974]. – All translations are mine, Ch. Z.
  • 2 See for example Sławiński 1975 and Głowiński 2018, 160–161.
  • 3 For a documentation of the norwidiana from 1956–1970 see Łapiński 1971.
  • 4 See Gierowski 2013, 175. Pivotal lyric scholars to use Norwid as an “exemplum” include Maria Dłuska (see Dłuska 1962, 98f.; 262–66; 270f., et passim] and Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska (see Okopień-Sławińska 1964 and Okopień-Sławińska 1998 [1985], 91–93). For a recent instance see the reading of Norwid’s “Fortepian Szopena” [Chopin’s Fortepiano, 1863/4] in Balcerzan 2018, 175–177.
  • 5 Emphasis in the original. This essay became part of the Norwid chapter in Kridl’s Literatura polska (na tle rozwoju kultury) [Polish Literature (on the Background of the Cultural Development), 1945] (in English Kridl 1967 [1956], 306–315). There was a second polemical essay arguing against a “confessor’s” approach to Norwid in the 1933 number of Droga, Karol W. Zawodziński’s “Odkrywająca i zakrywająca norwidologia” [Opening and Closing Norwid Scholarship, 1933]. Between Kridl and Jakobson, i.e., in the 1940s and 1950s, a series of scholars highly sensitive to formalist approaches emerged, among others, Irena Sławińska and the young Zdzisław Łapiński.
  • 6 Jakobson advocated for the establishment of a chair for Polish literature at Columbia University, which Kridl would hold from 1948 to his death in 1957 (Pomorska 1984, 55).
  • 7 According to Kridl (1933, 1136), literary aesthetics requires “that the work of art be an organism, an accomplished whole [organizmem, skończoną całością].” Kridl harshly criticizes Norwid for his discursive, declarative penchant, which, Kridl argues, undermines the artistic unity. For an “organicist” genealogy of the structuralist notion of wholeness see Sériot 1999.
  • 8 Głowiński 1976, 87; Głowiński 1984a, 108–109; Fieguth 1981, 39. Curiously enough, Wiesław Rzońca, in his resistance to the “wholeness” discourse in Norwid scholarship, paid virtually no attention to the (pre)structuralist line, neither to Kridl nor Jakobson nor Głowiński. He mentions Jakobson exactly once (Rzońca 1995, 24, n1) as one of the “interpreters” of the poem “Przeszłość”.
  • 9 The volume was reedited in 2001 by the publishing house obraz/terytoria, Gdańsk. Jakobson’s third comprehensive study on Polish poetry besides his two essays on Norwid is an analysis of Wierzyński’s poem “Znów miejsca znaleźć żadnego nie mogę…” [Again I Cannot Find any Place…] under the title “O slovesnom iskusstve Kazimira Vežin’skogo” [On the Verbal Art of Kazimierz Wierzyński, 1972, publ. 1981]. Jakobson and Wierzyński maintained a close friendship in the 1960s in the United States (Pomorska 1984, 54). Interestingly, Michał Głowiński (1971b) read Norwid’s idiomatic line Odpowiednie dać rzeczy – słowo [give things their proper word] not in a typically structuralist way, but with a strong focus on orality and the Romantic philosophy of the Word.
  • 10 Głowiński 1999, 255–256. Unlike his articles on Norwid, Jakobson’s famous study of Baudelaire’s “Les chats” (Jakobson/Lévi-Strauss 1971) was intensively discussed in Poland.
  • 11 See Bogalecki 2012, 435–446. Bogalecki discusses, among others, Maria Renata Mayenowa’s, Zofia Mitosek’s, and Edward Balcerzan’s affinities with the Cratylean myth. Fundamental in this regard is Gérard Genette’s Mimologiques. Voyage en Cratylie (1976).
  • 12 Even where Głowiński uses the supposedly formalistic term kalambur, ‘pun’, he does not even consider understanding it as a play on the phonetic similarity of two lexemes (see Głowiński 1984b). Instead, he understands kalambur exclusively etymologically, in the sense of ‘literalization’.
  • 13 In 1969–70, Fieguth spent a year at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. In the environment of the Workshop on Historical Poetics, he became friends with Głowiński and was first introduced to Norwid’s poetry by the latter (information from a personal conversation with Fieguth on July 8, 2021). Fieguth acknowledges Głowiński in his introduction to Sławiński 1975, 8: “My thanks also go to Dr. Michał Głowiński, Warsaw, from whom I received a great deal of information about the Warsaw structuralist group.” In a 1980 article by Fieguth, we find the following remark: “I also thank Michał Głowiński for his valuable comments in letter form. He drew my attention to the Catholic reception of Norwid. Due to the lack of material in our libraries, however, I have not been able to fill this gap so far.” (Fieguth 1980, 69n4) For a structuralist—who typically brackets the religious connotations of a given literary work—this indication seems unexpected. Nonetheless it is characteristic of Głowiński’s broad intellectual horizon. Głowiński, for his part, gave the laudatory speech when Fieguth was awarded the Polish PEN Club prize in 2001 (Głowiński 2001). He (2001, 8) points out how appealing Polish structuralism was in general to the visiting scholar at the turn of the 1960s and the 1970s, while not specifying his own impact on the younger researcher. With regard to Fieguth’s work on Norwid, Głowiński (2001, 10) said most notably: “The cycle [Norwid’s Vade-mecum], as a specific poetic structure, has sometimes—rarely enough—been addressed, but only Fieguth showed its real importance [nadał mu doniosłość].”
  • 14 For example, the comma in the first line of “Przeszłość”: “Nie Bóg, stworzył przeszłość...” [Not God, created the past…].
  • 15 On the occasion of a translators’ meeting in 1973, the structuralist Edward Balcerzan asked the question of Norwid’s translatability and distinguished two translational approaches to the poetics of Norwid: one (exoticizing) “reporter-like” [reporterski] and one (universalizing) “artistic” [artystyczny] (Balcerzan 1973, 225), clearly giving preference to the second. Very much indebted to the Cratylean myth, Balcerzan (1973, 222) was concerned with celebrating the “non-conventionality” [niekonwencjonalność] of the “literary sign” [znak literacki]. In his replica to Balcerzan’s theses, Fieguth (1973, 233f.) relativized the distinction between the reporter-like and artistic translation in sharp words. In his own 1981 translation of Vade-mecum, Fieguth would stunningly prove that a strong documentary element does not necessarily detract from the artistic quality of a translation.
  • 16 Červenka’s main argument for the “imperative intentionality” here is the fact that a given author “accepts his work as a whole” by designating it for publication. The fact that Fieguth does not take up this author-oriented side of Červenka’s argument is understandable insofar as Norwid did not manage to publish Vade-mecum and reworked many of the poems several times. Since a number of poems are fragmentary and others are missing altogether, the volume, as it has come down to us, has on the whole the character of an unfinished work (see Fert 1984). This circumstance, of course, affects the idea of intentionality.
  • 17 See in this context Mukařovský’s (1974, 65) phrase “disturbance of the unity of the overall sense”.
  • 18 It is noteworthy that Ryszard Nycz’s “objectivist” reading of Norwid’s prose (Nycz 2001), by virtue of its insistence on mimetism, constitutes a much more immediate continuation of structuralist concerns than it would seem. However, Nycz does not argue on the basis of linguistic analysis.
  • 19 Interestingly, in one of his latest essays on Norwid, Łapiński would also focus on Norwid as a “poet of the senses” (Łapiński 2013).
  • 20 Pomorska (1984, 53) speaks of a “technique of chiaroscuro”.
  • 21 See in this context Jakobson 1997 and Aage Hansen-Löve 2008.
  • 22 Wiesław Rzońca’s (1995), Ryszard Nycz’s (2001), and Michał Kuziak’s (2003) poststructuralist readings of Norwid all continue more or less directly Głowiński’s insights.
  • 23 In contrast to allegory’s essential reference to tradition, Głowiński (1984a, 104) writes, the Romantic symbol “crystallized, as it were, only in the course of its utterance.”
  • 24 See also Głowiński 1977 [1966], 88.
  • 25 Zofia Trojanowiczowa’s [et al.] Kalendarz życia i twórczości Cypriana Norwida [Calendar of Cyprian Norwid’s Life and Work, 2007] marked a culmination of the first trend. Stefan Sawicki’s [et al.] new Collected works [Dzieła wszystkie] as well as the monographs and collected volumes edited by the Center for Research on the Work of Cyprian Norwid at the Catholic University of Lublin are most characteristic of the second trend.
  • 26 A Polish translation of it appeared soon (Fieguth 1986). Later, the essay also lent its title to one of Fieguth’s critical collections (Fieguth 2000).


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Publication details

Published in:

Mrugalski Michał, Jeziorska-Haładyj Joanna (2022) Polish structuralism I. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 4 (1).

Pages: 127-148

DOI: 10.19079/actas.2022.s4.127

Full citation:

Zehnder Christian (2022) „Wholeness and disruption: Cyprian Norwid, Roman Jakobson, and Polish structuralism“. Acta Structuralica 4 (1), 127–148.