Adomas Mickevičius – the Most Famous Lithuanian Writer Who Didn’t Write in Lithuanian


There are many cases in the history of literature where several countries have argued over one writer – usually a very famous one. This usually happens when the author writes in a language that is different from the language of the country in which they were born or lived. This is the case of Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), a writer of Lithuanian origin, but Polish nationality and one of the most important poets of European Romanticism: Poles consider him to be a classic author of Polish literature, while Lithuanians consider him a classic author of Lithuanian literature not written in Lithuanian. The fact that Lithuania was very important to this writer is confirmed by the first lines of his most famous poem Master Thaddeus (‘Pan Tadeusz’): ‘Lithuania! My homeland! You are health alone.’ 

Mickiewicz was born in Zaosye, near Nowogródek. Although this is now in Belarus, it was the historical territory of the Republic of the Two Nations (RTN) formed by Lithuania and Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). The future writer studied at Vilnius University and founded the Society of Philomaths [Greek for lovers of learning] with his friends in 1817. The young poets gathered to read poems, share their reports on political, social and cultural issues, and spoke out against tsarist Russia. The Philomaths became so influential that in 1823 Mickiewicz was even put in prison at the Gates of Dawn in Vilnius. After graduating, the writer worked as a teacher in Kaunas County. He left for Moscow in 1825, and from 1832 settled in Paris.

In the nineteenth century, Mickiewicz was admired throughout Europe. World-famous poets such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Alexander Pushkin dedicated their poems to him. The image of this romantic poet is used on candy wrappers and napkins. The death of Mickiewicz is also romantic and mysterious in its own way. He died completely unexpectedly, in 1855 in Constantinople, where he had come to support Polish troops in preparation for war with Russia. He was buried in Paris, but his body was later transferred to Wawel Cathedral in Poland.

Mickiewicz wrote his first poems while studying at Vilnius University. He was fascinated by romantic ideas – the spirit of the nation, mysticism, inspiration from old tales and stories, because, according to the Romantics, they preserved the experience of previous generations. He published his first collection of poems, Poetry, in Vilnius in 1822. The series of poems Ballads and Romances from this collection is considered to be the beginning of the Romantic era in Polish and Lithuanian literature. The second volume of Poetry appeared in 1823. It includes the poem Gražina, which depicts Lithuania’s past, and focuses on Lithuanian folklore, ancient beliefs, and rituals. There is a lot of mystique in his poetic drama Forefather’s Eve (‘Dziady’), which Mickiewicz considered to be his best work. The action takes place on All Souls’ Day, the day of honoring the dead, when the graves of loved ones are visited. Late in the evening, the protagonist of the poem, Gustaw (Konrad), communicates with the spirits of the dead, who are telling him their destinies and prophecies. Mickiewicz’ poem Master Thaddeus (‘Pan Tadeusz’), published in 1834 in Paris, describes the life and customs of the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. One of the main features of Romanticism – the longing for ancient times – is turned in this poem into a longing for a homeland left behind.

There are many places dedicated to the commemoration of Mickiewicz in Lithuania – streets are named after the poet as well as a valley in Kaunas (Ąžuolynas). A house on Bernardinų Street in Vilnius where the poet lived in 1822 has been turned into a museum. The prison cell in which Mickiewicz was imprisoned did not survive: a new house was built on the site, but a symbolic museum called Konrad’s Cell was created there. The first rally against the Soviet government took place near the monument to Mickiewicz on Maironis Street in Vilnius in 1987, when Lithuania was occupied by Soviet Russia.

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