Pawlikowska, Maria (1891–1945)

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Pawlikowska, Maria (1891–1945)

Poet and playwright who in the years since her death has been recognized as one of Poland's most original modern poets. Name variations: Maria Kossak; Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska; Marii Pawlikowskiej-Jasnorzewskiej; Maria Jasnorzewska Pawlikowska. Born Maria Kossak in Cracow, Austrian Poland, on November 24, 1891; died in exile in Manchester, England, on July 9, 1945; daughter of Wojciech Kossak; cousin of Zofia Kossak (1890–1968); married three times, her last husband was the aviator Stefan Jasnorzewski.

Now universally regarded as one of Poland's most original modern poets, in her own lifetime Maria Pawlikowska was a highly controversial artist, whose verse was considered little better than infantile scribblings by some critics while she was hailed as a major voice with a talent approximating that of genius by others. She was born into an aristocratic family in 1891. Both her father Wojciech Kossak and her paternal grandfather Juliusz Kossak were celebrated painters, and her cousin was the writer Zofia Kossak . A stimulating home environment during her childhood and adolescence encouraged intellectual independence. Pawlikowska was educated at home by private tutors until she enrolled at Cracow's Academy of Fine Arts, intending to become a painter like her father. Although she displayed considerable talent at painting, Maria was eventually more drawn to writing.

She had written poetry since childhood, but her literary debut did not take place until 1922, when she published her first volume of verse, Niebieskie migdaly (Blue Haze). In this work, the young author's style—based on an economy of words along with a disregard for most of the traditional rules of versifying—was already in evidence. From 1922 until the German attack on Poland in September 1939, she would publish 11 more books of poetry, as well as one volume of lyrical prose.

Pawlikowska's major themes remained the same throughout her career: her personal preoccupation with youth, aging and the onset of old age, as well as her fears in the realms of love, death, and nature. Even before the poet had reached her mid-30s, she was considering the effects of old age. In her 1924 poem "Starosc" (Old Age), she reflected:

I am alone.
My name is Grandmother—
I feel like a black stain
On the world's rainbow-colored tapestry.

In many of her poems, Pawlikowska viewed the passage of time much like a personal tragedy, seeing it as synonymous with the fading of her own looks and desirability. Such feelings are strongly reflected in her poems "Przekwitla tancerka" (The Faded Dancer) and "Stara kobieta" (The Old Woman). By 1926, when she published Pocalunki (Kisses), Pawlikowska had established a reputation, scandalous in conservative circles, for both her unconventional personal life (she was married three times) and innovative poetry steeped in erotic themes. By the early 1930s, she would be known in literary circles as "the flower" or "the Polish Sappho. "

During the crisis-ridden decade of the 1930s, Pawlikowska wrote a number of controversial plays in addition to publishing more poetry. Although several of these plays were successfully staged, often becoming storm centers of dispute, various factors prevented most of them from being published until 1985, four decades after her death. First performed in Cracow in December 1938, her Baba Dziwo (The Amazing Woman) was an antitotalitarian and antifascist "tragic farce" whose female protagonist was a thinly veiled dictator of Hitlerite proportions. In Warsaw, the German Embassy lodged a protest against the play, regarding it as an insult directed against the Third Reich and its führer. Only weeks before war broke out in September 1939, Pawlikowska published Szkicownik poetycki (Poetic Sketchbook), containing allusions to the conflict on the horizon. As early as 1937, in her poem "Krystalizacja" (Crystallization), she had pointed an accusing finger at herself for having been politically indifferent until so late a date:

How did you dare to write about roses
When history was burning like a forest in the summer heat?

Maria and her third husband, the pilot Stefan Jasnorzewski, fled Poland in September 1939 to escape the German invaders. After a brief period in Rumania, they moved to Paris, but here too they were forced to flee Nazi forces in the summer of 1940. They settled in Blackpool, England, where Polish aviators had their headquarters. Two volumes of verse published under the difficult circumstances of exile in 1940 and 1941 reflect the poet's despair. She described the war's destructive fury as a form of "helpless insanity of the insane." Adding to her grief were the deaths of her parents and her own rapidly declining health due to cancer. Two major surgeries and radiation therapy slowed but could not stop her illness. Stoically, she recorded her own process of dying in Ostatnic notatniki (Final Notes), a work that would not be published until 1993.

Maria Pawlikowska died in Manchester, England, on July 9, 1945. Held in low esteem by Marxist literary critics because of the subjective and pessimistic nature of the verse, her work was relatively little known in People's Poland for decades. Starting in the late 1960s, however, she began to be reevaluated, and since that time, her powerful literary legacy has enjoyed a renaissance among Polish readers.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Pawlikowska, Maria (1891–1945)

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