Maurycy Mochnacki: an entangled revolutionary

Passionate, volatile, demagogic and captivating: Maurycy Mochnacki both co-creates and embodies the model Polish Romantic hero. It seems as if he descended from the pages of the poems and novels that he praised and promoted. And yet he lived, burned and suffered a defeat in the most real of stories.

by Wojciech Stanisławski


He died of tuberculosis, in poverty, with the manuscript of his most important work unfinished (and lost after his death), four days before Christmas Eve, in exile. It is obviously a better start to a biographical note than the standard ‘He was born in the year…’, but still pretty dire. Only that it perfectly shows how Mochnacki’s biography fits well into the Romantic model, incidentally without any particular contribution from the main protagonist himself who paid little attention to poses and styling. On the other hand, would he have made such an impact on his contemporaries and posterity had he not died young?

Maurycy Mochnacki (photo: public domain)

He wrote for at least a dozen newspapers, edited several more, and we know of at least three that he founded, either officially or working behind the scenes. He made his living (with varying degrees of luck) from writing, but would have probably cringed if described as a ‘journalist’. He (most probably) completed a university law programme but never truly intended to be a lawyer. He was not a professional historian, although among the books written in Polish in the 19th century describing the past few have had such an impact (felt to this day) as his work on the November Uprising. He composed music, gave public and private piano concerts, and the best poem written about him begins with the line ‘Pale like a cadaver, Mochnacki sat down at the clavichord’. In music, however, he was an amateur, with no pretensions either to virtuosity or the profession of a pianist. His two fascinations were revolution and literature: he was not entirely successful in or faithful to either of these two fields although it is impossible to imagine the history of both – in the case of Polish revolutions and Polish literature – without him. Had he been born in France, he would have been Julien Sorel. In Poland, he was Maurycy Mochnacki.


The Red and the Black in the East and in the West

That was because his adolescence fell almost entirely within the fifteen years between the Congress of Vienna and 1830. For Julien Sorel, the time horizon of maturity was marked by the July Revolution, for Mochnacki by the November Uprising. That fifteen-year period of rule by hurried, aging cavalrymen from Napoleonic times, of the Holy Alliance, of candles wavering in candlesticks, of bare-headed young men in fancy stock ties round their necks, of conspiracies, daggers, secret slogans and secret police dealing with them without too much trouble, had, however, a somewhat different shade in France and in Poland. In France, like in most Western European countries, there continues a struggle between democratic and conservative elements, and Napoleon is remembered as a military genius, an emperor or a king-killer. In Poland, where after the Congress of Vienna the post-Partition order has been restored (with major border corrections), i.e. with Poland divided between the three partitioning states, revolutionary and romantic fervour is all the stronger as the conspirators also strive for independence. Napoleon is remembered as the one who restored at least a substitute of Polish statehood and gave hope for more, and the red-and-dark-blue uniforms are remembered with all the more nostalgia because the Polish troops wearing them reached as far as the Kremlin in 1812, as allies of France.

In the Kingdom of Poland, established under the provisions of the Congress and Tsar Alexander I’s (temporary) weakness for liberalism, the memory of Napoleonic times was not entirely cursed. It could not be, since its political and military elite consisted of former Napoleonic officers. Yet it was Grand Duke Constantine, the tsar’s brother with manners of a non-commissioned officer, that became the commander of the Polish army. The tsar himself, who crowned himself king of Poland, controls the foreign policy of the state, and there is the ever-present fear that the cavalrymen who marched east towards Moscow would this time around be sent west to suppress revolutionary revolts in Paris or Brussels.


University students and policemen

Studying under private tutors before, Maurycy arrives in Warsaw in 1819, aged sixteen: the best age for choosing the most foolish of destinations. He enters the final year of a renowned comprehensive school and in 1820 is admitted to the Faculty of Law at the University of Warsaw, to almost immediately find himself also in conspiracies populated by secondary-school and university students. Exaltation prevails over organisation there: until the time of the Uprising, Maurycy’s most serious revolutionary act would be to slap the policeman who had snatched from his mouth a pipe he was smoking in the street (against the law). Incidentally, he was sentenced for that act (personally by the Grand Duke!) to six weeks of housekeeping, as well as expelled from the University. A pipe, a slap in defence of one’s honour, a street riot, a trial before an autocrat, an exemplary but not overly severe punishment – even the minor episodes of Maurycy’s life inevitably have a romantic tinge to them.

Much more serious and far-reaching was another case of his contact with the police, a year later. Listed among the members of one of the student conspiracies, interrogated in prison, he breaks down and writes an extensive memorial in which he denies his rebellious tendencies, expresses remorse, and – worst of all – lists the names of other co-conspirators and lecturers inciting the youth. Well, in 1823 there were no ombudsmen or instructions on how to behave during an interrogation: that testimony was, however, something Mochnacki was criticised for on many occasions. Looking at it from another angle, though – can there be a Romantic hero who does not experience a fall?

“The return of squads of Polish army from Wierzbno to Warsaw” by Marcin Zaleski, 1831 (photo: public domain)

It may have been stuffy in the capital of the Kingdom of Poland (due to the secret police and the Grand Duke), but there were more newspapers and periodicals published than in St Petersburg. Maurycy earns his living in Izys polska, a monthly devoted to economic issues, but he most willingly cooperates with Astrea, Dziennik Warszawski, Gazeta Polska or Kurier Polski, writing – tirelessly, with zeal, often anonymously – about Shakespeare, music, the piano, experiments with electricity and ether, and finally about the poems of young Adam Mickiewicz or Seweryn Goszczyński. It was precisely in that role – one of a critic and a prophet – that he probably proved most successful, heralding the arrival of the Romantic era, advocating ‘national’ and folk poetry, and creating a definition that could be translated from the exalted Polish of 200 years ago as follows: literature is the means by which a national collective recognises its own essence, its own nature.


Poets and lieutenants

With such an understanding of literature (and of his role as a researcher into the ‘history of the national spirit’), Mochnacki had nothing to look for either in the administration of the Kingdom of Poland or at the censorship office, where he would spend several months in 1827 reviewing treatises by Schelling and Kant, before resigning, judging the work to be ‘incompatible with his conscience’. His work in censorship would sometimes be criticised by his opponents; yet his knowledge of Schelling remained.

In Warsaw, the candles are burning out while the atmosphere (especially after Nicholas I assumes the throne of Russia and Poland in 1825) is increasingly stuffy, especially when the Paris Revolution breaks out in 1830. Younger officers – humiliated by Grand Duke Konstantin, having read Goszczyński a lot and consumed by romantic fever, do not want to wait any longer: in November 1830, the conspirators decide to act. On 29 November, most of the young military men set off for the Belvedere to detain Konstantin (who ultimately escapes them). Maurycy is entrusted with proclaiming an insurgence at the other end of the city and leading the people to arms depots. He succeeds in both, but he is more interested in politics than the barricades: already that same night, among the leaders of the conspiracy, he discusses ways to seize political power in the city and in the Kingdom.

Russian POW introduced in Warsaw Castle 1831 (photo: public domain)

They would not succeed: the political history of the November Uprising (1830–1831) shows a futile attempt by the ‘young’ to wrest the reins of power from the hands of the aging cavalrymen. Mochnacki is flitting between politics, combat and journalism. He is omnipresent: writing proclamations, calling for the creation of new representative bodies of the people, which already clearly smelt of social revolution, and enthusing about successive military leaders more than a sixteen-year-old girl would, only to castigate them for their inefficiency a week later. However, when his critics’ taunts recalling his disgraceful 1823 testimony and the episode of his censorship service sting him, he enlists in the 1st Regiment of Riflemen fighting against the Russian army and fights bravely at Wawer and Ostrołęka, winning four wounds, the Golden Cross of Merit and the rank of second lieutenant.

He is writing feverishly. If not the work O literaturze polskiej w wieku XIX [On Polish literature in the 19th century], then the pamphlet ‘Co rozumieć przez rewolucję w Polsce’ [What to understand by a revolution in Poland] or another one titled ‘Dlaczego masy nie powstają’ [Why the masses do not rise]. He is voicing his opinion in Nowa Polska and Dziennik Narodowy, criticising the half-heartedness and opportunism of the military and civil authorities, dreaming of a combination of a national and social revolution, as well as granting civil rights to all adult men, including peasants.


Pamphlets and treatises

With the same fervour, he sneaks out of Warsaw, already occupied by the Russians, to the Prussian border after the fall of the Uprising, and with a false passport crosses to France, hospitable to Polish immigrants. There he argues about the reforms not carried out during the revolt, becomes alienated from successive factions of émigré milieus, criticises them, gives concerts, splashes ink all over, coughs blood into his handkerchief (he had been ill with tuberculosis earlier but it was only sneaking to the border in the cold autumn of 1831 after the fall of the insurgence that exacerbated his illness) – and writes. As legend has it, he wrote O literaturze polskiej w wieku XIX a month before the outbreak of the Uprising. He writes his new book – the first record of the political history of the Uprising – in less than a year. He does not have the skills of a historian (in fact it is difficult to speak of such skills in 1833: the works of Michelet and Ranke were not yet widely known, and neither Taine nor Mommsen had yet begun to write), nor administrative or military documents, nor access to any archives. All he has to make do with is his aching memory, his commentator’s temperament, a few packets of dampened Warsaw and Paris newspapers from three years previously, and a dozen or so accounts from émigrés whom he managed to persuade to write down their memories. Those were the conditions in which the work Powstanie narodu polskiego w roku 1830 i 1831 [The rise of the Polish nation in 1830 and 1831] was born.

To this day – despite 200 years of research, access to thousands of sources unavailable to Mochnacki and numerous errors, misrepresentations and inaccuracies pointed out to him – it still determines the shape of Polish memory of the 1830 Uprising. The division into noble cadets and the preceding generation of conservative procrastinators, indignation at the nobility’s reluctance to share land with peasants, and disdain for the revolt’s first military leader General Chłopicki – all this is taken from Mochnacki’s work.

Mochnacki’s grave in Auxerre (photo: public domain)

Its first two volumes have survived, with the chronicle stopping at the end of January 1831. Allegedly, a third volume was also written, and a fourth started, but both were lost. These are not the first manuscripts by Mochnacki that are unavailable today. The second volume of O literaturze polskiej w wieku XIX is missing, as are his articles, letters and notes; indeed, there is not even a trace of his grave in Auxerre, where he was laid to rest, bleeding to death, in December 1834. What remains is a tombstone monument carved by Oleszczyński, a scrap of his sweaty petticoat and some letters in the Ossoliński Library. But what kind of Romantic hero is there who does not depart in just such a way, who does not burn to ashes, leaving behind him, like a trace of a burnt-out fuse, shreds of a few manuscripts torn to pieces in an emotional surge, fluffs of tobacco, a drop of blood and a drop of lacquer? ‘Pale as a ghost, he entangles and tears up the notes played / Ripping out colour from under the keys: it is red.’ Because it was also his favourite shade.


Author: Wojciech Stanisławski
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki