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Leśmian, Bolesław

(1877–1937), poet and essayist. The great-grandson of Antoni Eisenbaum, director of the Warsaw Rabbinical School, Leśmian (whose last name originally was Lesman) was baptized in 1887. He spent his youth in Ukraine where, in 1901, he earned a law degree from the University of Kiev. After returning to Warsaw, he was active in the city’s literary life, joining a circle of modernist writers gathered around the journal Chimera, co-funding and directing the innovative Artistic Theater, and traveling extensively in Europe. During the interwar period he worked as a notary in Hrubieszów and Zamość. In 1933, Leśmian was elected to the Polish Academy of Literature.

In his youth, Leśmian wrote in Polish (first published in 1895) and Russian. He published several volumes of poetry: Sad rozstajny (Orchard at the Crossroads; 1912), Łąka (Meadow; 1920), Ballady (1926), Napój cienisty (Shady Drink; 1936), Dziejba leśna (Woodland Tales; 1938); and prose: Klechdy sezamowe (Legends of Sesame; 1913), Przygody Sindbada Żeglarza (Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor; 1913), and Klechdy polskie (Polish Tales; 1913). He also wrote plays and essays, and translated foreign literature.

One of the leading Polish poets of the twentieth century, Leśmian is today considered a precursor of modernism who, according to critic Ryszard Nycz, expressed “the profound consequences of the experience of modernity” long before they became apparent, and formulated its aesthetic and philosophical creeds. Philosophically and artistically his poetry can be placed in the context of symbolism and the thought of Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche: the concept of time, antisubstantialism, reliance on intuition, belief in the autonomy of poetic language, and the theory of poetic rhythm, understood as the original rhythm of the universe. Ontological problems play the crucial role in Leśmian’s works, which center on the issues of existence and nothingness and on the endless mutability and multiplicity of forms. Leśmian’s poetic language draws heavily on everyday experience, the moment, the ephemeral, and the coincidental. Its key artistic rules include the use of epiphany, the grotesque, and references to the aesthetics of ugliness. In structural terms, two currents can be distinguished in Leśmian’s poetic output: works following the traditional narrative model of verse (e.g., metaphysical ballads rooted in folklore) and the innovative descriptive-reflective model based on synecdoche and juxtaposition. Leśmian’s writings drew on diverse cultural traditions: the Bible, Slavic folklore, and the cultures of the Near East and India. Direct references to Jewish matters (e.g., Yiddish literature) rarely appear in his work. Although Leśmian became the target of antisemitic press attacks that intensified during the interwar years, he never publicly took a position on the Jewish question. Some of the newest interpretations of Leśmian’s lyric poetry link aspects of his metaphysics to Jewish mysticism.

Suggested Reading

Anna Czabanowska-Wróbel, “‘Kto cię odmłodzi, żywocie wieczny?’: Mistyka żydowska w poezji Bolesława Leśmiana,” Pamiętnik literacki 3 (2003): 85–101; Michał Głowiński, Zaświat przedstawiony: Szkice o poezji Bolesława Leśmiana (Kraków, 1981); Piotr Łopuszański, Leśmian (Wrocław, 2000); Ryszard Nycz, “‘Słowami . . . w świat wyglądam’: Bolesława Leśmiana poezja nowoczesna,” in Literatura jako trop rzeczywistości: Poetyka epifanii w nowoczesnej literaturze polskiej (Kraków, 2001); Maria Podraza-Kwiatkowska, “Gdzie umieścić Leśmiana: Próba lokalizacji historycznoliterackiej,” in Somnambulicy, dekadenci, herosi. Studia i eseje o literaturze Młodej Polski, pp. 314–339 (Kraków, 1985); Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, “Kwestia żydowska,” in Leśmian: Encyklopedia, pp. 141–143 (Warsaw, 2001).



Translated from Polish by Magda Opalski