Known as the Father of Polish Literature, Mikolaj Rej (1505–1569) was the first writer to produce a substantial body of original work in the Polish language. "Let the neighboring nations know that Poles are not geese, but have their own language," he once wrote, according to Czeslaw Milosz's The History of Polish Literature.
The comment was characteristic of Rej, whose writings were practical, often humorous, and down-to-earth in a way that recalled such Western European writers as medieval England's Geoffrey Chaucer and François Rabelais of early Renaissance France. Rej's own writings were poised between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For the circle of Polish nobles, of which he was a part, he wrote instructional texts, humorous and satirical poems and dialogues, and sermons. Like the medieval writers of the West, he struggled to shape a vernacular, everyday language into a literary instrument. In one critical way, however, Rej's writing was on the cutting edge in its own time: he dealt frequently with the great schism in European Christianity between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Had Spotty Education
Rej (or Rey) was born February 4, 1505, in Zurawno, near Halicz, Poland. Rej's father, a minor nobleman, was illiterate, and Rej spent much of his childhood hunting and fishing, activities for which he never lost the taste. Starting school at the age of nine, he attended primary schools for four years in the cities of Skalmierz and Lwów and spent part of one year at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Despite the brevity of his formal education, Rej was curious and read widely on a great variety of subjects, studying drama and the history of art, among other fields. In 1525 the 20-year-old Rej was sent to the court of a relative in Sandomierz, a nobleman named Andrzej Teczynski, to acquire the Polish expected of an aristocratic young man.
Rej's father died in 1531, and at that point he moved on to the court of another relative, Herman Mikolaj Sieniawski, near Chelm. Sieniawski was a leading figure of Polish Protestantism, and at some point in the 1540s Rej became a member of the Calvinist faith. Earlier in his life he had been described as anticlerical (an opponent of the clergy). It is possible that he had Protestant sympathies during this time, but hid them; Protestantism was repressed under the reign of Poland's King Sigismundus I (died 1548). Rej admired the German religious reformer Martin Luther, and later wrote a short poem praising him. Well-connected and active in Polish politics, Rej moved at some point to the Naglowice and was appointed administrator of towns in the vicinity.
Rej began his literary career in 1543, using the pen name Mikolaj from Naglowice. (He also sometimes used the pseudonym Ambrozy Korczbok Rozek.) Rej's first book, often still considered his greatest, was a 2,000-line satirical poetic dialogue called Krötka rozprawa miedzy trzema osobami, Panem, Wöjtem a Plebanem (A Short Discourse Among the Squire, the Bailiff, and the Parson). The three figures in the poem represent the three classes of Polish society, the nobility, the common people, and the clergy, respectively; they are Polish counterparts to the various social types represented in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They argue, point out each other's failings, and form temporary alliances. The Parson, at one point addressing the Squire, asks (as translated by Michael J. Mikoś), "Is this the bailiff cackling loud? / With what could we fill up his mouth? /If we had a jug of good beer / We could talk down the wise master." Though Rej was himself a member of the noble class, the Squire and the Parson get the worst of it in the debate.
Corruption among the Catholic clergy was an important theme in the Discourse, and it frequently recurred in the work of the Protestant Rej. Although his work was often humorous and even obscene at times, Rej felt that his writing had a moral purpose. He was tolerant in spirit, however, and as he grew to a position in which he oversaw large estates, he permitted his subjects to hold Catholic services if they wished, and he had friends among both Protestants and Catholics.
Adapted Works by Foreign Authors
Rej wrote two other poetic dialogues during the 1540s, works that lay closer to the dramatic end of the spectrum between poetry and play than did the Short Discourse Among the Squire, the Bailiff, and the Parson. The Zywot Józefa z pokolenia zydowskiego, syna Jakubowego (Life of Joseph of a Jewish Tribe, 1545) was a 12-act biblical drama modeled on a play by a Dutch author. The work also incorporated elements of earlier Latin religious dramas. "Even if Joseph is very boring in his Puritan virtue, one cannot say that the siren who tries to seduce him, the wife [Zefira] of the Egyptian lord Potiphar, does not make a lively figure of a woman possessed by her passion," Milosz wrote. These scenes of temptation are comic interludes in the otherwise serious work. Despite its length, the play has been staged by modern theatrical producers. When Rej adapted works by other writers, he always added a great deal of local and characteristically Polish detail. His works are considered valuable sources of information about Polish life in the sixteenth century.
Rej's other verse drama of the 1540s was Kupiec (The Merchant, 1549). That morality play, about the final judgment of an immoral merchant, had an explicitly Protestant theme, perhaps made possible by the death of King Sigismundus the previous year. It was based on a play by a German writer, Neogeorgus. The merchant is brought before the scales of justice along with a group of powerful churchmen—princes, bishops, and abbots of monasteries. They throw the records of their churches, monasteries, and good deeds onto the scales, along with letters from the Pope, but the scales do not move. The merchant has no such good works to advance his case, but in the end, consistent with the Protestant doctrine of faith in Christ as the sole path to salvation, he is saved by his faith alone.
Rej also wrote a lot of specifically religious material, beginning with a prose paraphrase of the Psalms of David in 1546. His major religious work was the Postilla of 1557, a 7,000-page collection of sermons filled with Rej's particular brand of down-to-earth religious maxims. The Postilla was a key work in spreading Rej's reputation around northeastern Europe; it was translated into Lithuanian and Ruthenian, and went through five editions in Polish.
By the time he wrote these works, Rej was a wealthy man, the owner of two castles. He founded two new towns, Rejowiec and Oksza, and was the administrator for 20 others, establishing Protestant churches and schools in many of them. Rej tried to avoid the entanglements of administrative work, however, so that he could devote as much time as possible to writing and to his favorite leisure pursuits. By the mid-1550s he was considered an old man in a society where the average lifespan was about 20-25 years. His last decade of writing, indeed, was as productive as his first.
Wrote Major Work in 1568
In 1558 Rej published Wizerunek wlasny zywota czlowieka poczciwego (A Faithful Image of an Honest Man), a 10,000-line poem about a young man who travels the world in search of truth, visiting ancient philosophers and sages such as Aristotle, Diogenes, and Epicurus, and asking them about the secrets of life. The work was modeled on a Latin-language poem called Zodiacus vitae by the Italian writer Paligenius, but Rej once again added a wealth of local detail that made it familiar to Polish readers. The Greek sages visited by the young man, in the words of Manfred Kridl (writing in A Survey of Polish Literature and Culture), "discuss, with great knowledge, the deficiencies of the Polish gentry and clergy (already known to us from the Short Discourse); they are very well acquainted with Polish cuisine, accuse the Poles of dining too elaborately, holding bizarre parties, and characterize Polish officials and land-lords." A Faithful Image of an Honest Man appeared in several new editions after Rej's death.
Rej's sense of humor also appeared intermittently in his next work, Zwierzyniec (The Zoo, or the Bestiary, 1562). The book was a collection of eight-line poems on subjects ranging from historical and mythological figures to current events and human follies. Rej wrote poems about himself, about his contemporary Jan Kochanowski, about Martin Luther, and about the pope. He also aimed gibes at Catholicism in such poems as "The Old Woman Who Cried During the Passion of Christ." As a priest intones the Passion story in Latin, the woman says (in Mikoś's translation), "I don't cry because of that; But recall my dear little donkey which is dead / It brayed with the voice which sounded just like the priest's / It whimpered from time to time and then was at peace."
The major work of Rej's late years was Zwierciadlo (The Mirror, 1568), a work that has parallels among other national literatures in its attempt to define the well-lived life. The Mirror is a large work, written partly in verse and partly in prose, and it once again is an invaluable source of information on the life of Poland's upper classes during the period in which Rej lived. Rej begins with a lengthy discourse on the astrological and chemical forces that shape the lives of humans; he believed in the medieval doctrine of the four humors, but he believed that reason could overcome such forces. He proceeds through the proper education of a young man, stressing the importance of horseback riding, shooting, and sports. Rej believed that literacy was important but asserted that such difficult subjects as grammar and logic should be avoided at all costs.
Moving on to adulthood, Rej stresses the importance of choosing a good wife and gives advice to this end; he was perhaps qualified in view of his own happy marriage to one Zofia Kosnowna. He extolled the joys of life on a country estate, delving into cuisine, hunting, and the natural world. Christian themes are introduced, with the warning that moderation is necessary in whatever pleasures a nobleman may seek out. Written as a philosophical meditation on life and virtue, the book was perhaps a portrait and a summing-up of Rej's own long and happy life.
Rej died at Rejowiec between September 8 and October 5 of 1569. For several centuries his name was little known, but he was rediscovered by the nineteenth-century Polish poet and nationalist Adam Mickiewicz. He was the subject of scholarly studies and plays (in Polish) in modern times, and one of his descendants, Nicholas Andrew Rey, served as Poland's ambassador to the United States in the late twentieth century. Not widely read in the West, partly due to the difficulty of translating his colloquial Polish, he remained an appealing figure with high status in his native land. In 2005, on the 500th anniversary of his birth, Poland's parliament proclaimed a "Year of Mikolaj Rej."
Kridl, Manfred, A Survey of Polish Literature and Culture, Translated by Olga Scherer-Virski. Mouton & Co. ('s-Gravenhage, Netherlands), 1956.
Mikoś, Michael J, Polish Literature from the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century: A Bilingual Anthology, Constans (Warsaw), 1999.
Milosz, Czeslaw. The History of Polish Literature, 2nd ed. University of California Press, 1983.
"Mikolaj Rej, the Father of Polish Literature, 500th Anniversary of His Birth," http://www.culture.polishsite.us/articles/art343fr.htm (January 20, 2006).
"Prominent Poles: Mikolaj Rej of Naglowice (aka Ambrozy Korczbok Rozek), writer, politician, musician," http://www.angelfire.com/scifi2/rsolecki/mikolaj_rej.html (January 20, 2006).