Kochanowski, Jan (1530–1584)

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KOCHANOWSKI, JAN (15301584), Polish and Neo-Latin poet, humanist, royal secretary and courtier, arguably the outstanding literary figure of the Slavic world before the Romantic age. Kochanowski was born to a middling gentry family of Little Poland. He matriculated at the standard age of fourteen in the Cracow Academy in 1544, then spent 15511552 at the Lutheran university in Königsberg, where he once returned (15551556), perhaps in search of a patron at Duke Albert Frederick's court. Over the years 15521559, Kochanowski spent three longer periods at the University of Padua, where he studied with one of Italy's leading humanist scholars, Francesco Robortello. He completed his study years with a tour of France (1558/1559), where he came into contact with the poet Pierre de Ronsard.

Upon his return to Poland in 1559, Kochanowski began a fifteen-year period of activities connected with politics and the royal court. We find him among the clients of Little Polish magnates, including the Calvinist palatine of Lublin, Jan Firlej, and crown vice-chancellor (later bishop of Cracow) Piotr Myszkowski, thanks to whose patronage he became one of King Sigismund II Augustus's secretaries and courtiers. Around 1571 Kochanowski's ties with court life began to loosen, and he retreated more and more to his country estate at Czarnolas in Little Poland, where he lived from 1575 until his death in 1584.

Kochanowski began as a Neo-Latin poet, but his place in literary history is secured by his pioneering work in Polish. This "father of Polish literature" attempted to establish Polish models for the entire canon of classical and humanistic genres. During his court period, Kochanowski focused on poetry in an epic tonality (Susanna, c. 1562; Chess, between 1562 and 1566) and occasional poetry, as well as political poetry (Harmony, 1564; Satyr, or the Wild Man, c. 1564). He gradually shifted toward what would be his strength, lyric poetry. A central work here was his Songs (published posthumously in 1585), composed over nearly twenty years and based on Horatian and Petrarchan models. Over the same years Kochanowski worked on his Trifles, a collection of mostly short poems, often of personal or topical content, ranging in style from epic to anacreontic. They continue to find imitators among Polish poets. Kochanowski was the author of Poland's first Renaissance tragedy, The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys (written probably c. 1565 but first performed in 1578, before King Stephen Báthory, and published that year). From the last, rural period come his Laments (1580) on the death of his beloved daughter Urszula. Kochanowski began work on his masterpiecea versified Psalter, based on the model of George Buchanan's Latin version (among others)while still at court, but he did the lion's share of the work at Czarnolas, publishing it only in 1579.

Kochanowski received recognition as the premier Polish poet during his lifetime, and traditions of reading and imitation of his work have continued uninterrupted. His Psalter was issued twenty-five times by the middle of the seventeenth century, and it influenced similar projects in Russian, Romanian, Lithuanian, German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, and Lusatian. Polish Catholics and Protestants sang his versions of the Psalms in their churches (often without realizing whose they were), and seventeenth-century Polish Catholics sought to make him into an orthodox post-Tridentine Catholic, evidently troubled by the tonalities of Horatian epicureanism, Senecan stoicism, and Erasmian irenicism in his life and work.

See also Polish Literature and Language.


Fiszman, Samuel, ed. The Polish Renaissance in its European Context. Bloomington, Ind., and Indianapolis, 1988.

Langlade, Jacques. Jean Kochanowski: L'homme, le penseur, le poète lyrique. Paris, 1932.

Pelc, Janusz. Jan Kochanowski: Szczyt renesansu w literaturze polskiej. Warsaw, 1980.

David Frick