Jan Kochanowski

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Jan Kochanowski
Jan Kochanowski.png
Jan Kochanowski, drawing by Józef Buchbinder, 1884
Died22 August 1584 (age 54 or 55)
Resting placeZwoleń
Other namesJan z Czarnolasu
Alma materUniversity of Padua
Occupation(s)courtier, poet
Years active1550-1584
Known formajor influence on Polish poetry; first major Polish poet
Notable workTreny, Fraszki, Odprawa posłów greckich
Spouse(s)Dorota, née Podlodowska
Jan Kochanowski signature.svg

Jan Kochanowski (Polish: [ˈjan kɔxaˈnɔfskʲi]; 1530 – 22 August 1584) was a Polish Renaissance poet who wrote in Latin and Polish and established poetic patterns that would become integral to Polish literary language. He is commonly regarded as the greatest Polish poet before Adam Mickiewicz[1][2] and the most important Slavic poet before the 19th century.[3]: 188 [4]: 60 

In his youth he traveled in Italy (where he studied at Padua University) and in France. Returning to Poland in 1559, he became a courtier, first at the courts of Polish dignitaries, eventually at the court of King Sigismund II Augustus, where from c. 1563 he served as a royal secretary. By the mid-1570s he was largely retired at his estate in Czarnolas.

A prolific writer throughout his life, he is most famous for his Polish-language Treny (Laments) – elegies on the death of his daughter Urszula – regarded as masterpieces of form and style; drama Odprawa posłów greckich (The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys); satire Zgoda (Accord [pl]); and Fraszki (Epigrams).[1][5]



Jan Kochanowski was born in 1530 at Sycyna, near Radom, Kingdom of Poland, to a Polish noble (szlachta) family of the Korwin coat of arms.[3]: 185  His father, Piotr Kochanowski [pl], was a judge in the Sandomierz area; his mother, Anna Białaczowska [pl], was of the Odrowąż family.[3]: 185  Jan had eleven siblings and was the second son; he was an older brother of Andrzej Kochanowski and Mikołaj Kochanowski [pl], both of whom also became poets and translators.[3]: 185 [4]: 61 [6]

Little is known of Jan Kochanowski's early education. At fourteen, in 1544, he was sent to the Kraków Academy.[3]: 185  Later, around 1551-52, he attended the University of Königsberg, in Ducal Prussia (a fiefdom of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland); then, from 1552 to the late 1550s, Padua University in Italy.[3]: 185-186  At Padua, Kochanowski studied classical philology[4]: 61  and came in contact with the humanist scholar Francesco Robortello.[3]: 185  During his "Padua period", he traveled back and forth between Italy and Poland at least twice, returning to Poland to secure funding and attend his mother's funeral.[3]: 185-186 [4]: 61  Kochanowski closed his fifteen-year period of studies and travels with a visit to France, where he visited Marseilles and Paris and met the poet Pierre de Ronsard.[3]: 186 [4]: 61  It has been suggested that one of his travel companions in that period was Karl von Utenhove [de].[3]: 186 


In 1559 Kochanowski returned for good to Poland, where he was active as a humanist and Renaissance poet. He spent the next fifteen years as a courtier, though little is known about the first few years of his activities on return to Poland. Around 1562–63 he was a courtier to Bishop Filip Padniewski [pl] and Voivode Jan Firlej. From late 1563 or early 1564 he was affiliated with the royal court of King Sigismund II Augustus, serving as one of the royal secretaries. During that time he received two benefices (incomes from parishes). In 1567 he accompanied the King during an episode of the Livonian War: a show of force near Radashkovichy. In 1569 he was present at the sejm of 1569 in Lublin [pl] which enacted the Union of Lublin.[3]: 186 [4]: 61 

Death of Jan Kochanowski, by Feliks Sypniewski, 1884

From 1571 Kochanowski spent increasing time at a family estate at Czarnolas, near Lublin. In 1574, following the decampment of Poland's recently elected King Henry of Valois (whose candidacy to the Polish throne Kochanowski had supported), Kochanowski settled in Czarnolas to lead the life of a country squire. In 1575 he married Dorota Podlodowska [pl], a daughter of Sejm deputy Stanisław Lupa Podlodowski,[3]: 186  with whom he had seven children. At Czarnolas, following the death of his daughter Ursula, which affected him greatly, he wrote one of his most memorable works, Treny (the Laments).[3]: 187 

Kochanowski died, probably of a heart attack, in Lublin on 22 August 1584, aged 54. He was buried in a crypt in a parish church in Zwoleń.[3]: 187 [4]: 61 [7][8]


Portrait by Józef Holewiński, 1885

Kochanowski's earliest known work may be the Polish-language Pieśń o potopie (Song of the Deluge [pl]), which some scholars think may have been composed as early as 1550. His first printed work, considered his first publication, is the 1558 Latin-language Epitaphium Cretcovii [pl], an epitaph dedicated to his recently deceased colleague, Erazm Kretkowski [pl]. Kochanowski's works from his youthful Padua period comprised mostly elegies, epigrams, and odes.[3]: 187 

Upon his return to Poland, his works generally took the form of epic poetry and included works such as the commemoratives O śmierci Jana Tarnowskiego [pl] (1561) and Pamiątka... Janowi Baptiście hrabi na Tęczynie [pl] (1562-64); the more serious Zuzanna [pl] (1562) and Proporzec albo hołd pruski (The Banner, or the Prussian Homage [pl], 1564); the satirical[1][5] social and political commentary poems Zgoda (Accord [pl], or Harmony, ca. 1562) and Satyr albo Dziki Mąż (The Satyr, or the Wild Man [pl], 1564); and the lighthearted Szachy (Chess, ca. 1562-66).[3]: 187  The latter has been described as the first Polish-language "humorous epic or herocomic poem".[9]: 62 

Some of his works can be seen as journalistic commentaries from an era before journalism existed, expressing views of the royal court and aimed at the members of the parliament (the Sejm) and the voters.[9]: 62–63  This period also saw the creation of most of his merry Fraszki (Epigrams) reminiscent of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. They have been described as among Kochanowski's most popular writings, and spawned many imitators in Poland.[3]: 187  Czesław Miłosz calls them a sort of "very personal diary, but one where the personality of the author never appears in the foreground".[9]: 64  Another of his works from that time is the non-poetic political-commentary dialogue, Wróżki [pl].[3]: 188 

A major work from that period was Odprawa posłów greckich (The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys, written ca. 1565-66 and first published and performed in 1578; translated into English in 2007 by Bill Johnston as The Envoys[10]). This was a blank-verse tragedy that recounted an incident, modeled after Homer, leading up to the Trojan War.[6][11] It was the first tragedy written in Polish, and its theme of the responsibilities of statesmanship continues to resonate to this day. The play was performed on 12 January 1578 in Warsaw's Ujazdów Castle at the wedding of Jan Zamoyski and Krystyna Radziwiłł.[3]: 188 [12] Czesław Miłosz calls it "the finest specimen of Polish humanist drama".[9]: 68 

Kochanowski with dead daughter Ursula, by Matejko, 1862

Another of Kochanowski's works commonly described as masterpieces is his Treny (Threnodies, usually rendered in English as Laments, 1580), a series of nineteen elegies on the death of his beloved two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Urszulka (the diminutive for "Ursula"). In 1920 it was translated into English by Dorothea Prall, and in 1995 by Stanisław Barańczak and Seamus Heaney.[13] As in the case of his light-hearted Fraszki, it has been described as enduringly popular and as the wellspring of a new genre in Polish literature.[3]: 188 [4]: 64  Milosz writes that "Kochanowski's poetic art reached its highest achievements in the Laments". Kochanowski's innovation, which Miłosz describes as "something unique in... world literature... a whole cycle... centered around the main theme", scandalized some of the poet's contemporary peers, as it applied a classic form to a personal sorrow, and to an "insignificant" subject – a young child.[9]: 75–76 

Dismissal of the Greek Envoys, 1578 first edition

Also highly regarded was Kochanowski's poetic translation of the Psalms, Psalterz Dawidów (David's Psalter, 1579). [1][5][3]: 188  By the mid-18th century alone, it had gone through at least 25 editions and, set to music, became an enduring element of Polish church masses and folklore. It also became one of his more influential works on the international scene, translated into Russian by Symeon of Polotsk and into, among other languages, Romanian, German, Lithuanian, Czech, and Slovak.[3]: 188 

His Pieśni (Songs [pl]), written throughout his life and collected and published posthumously in 1586, have been described as reflecting Italian lyricism and "his attachment to antiquity", in particular to Horace,[4]: 65–66  and as being highly influential for Polish poetry.[3]: 187 

Another unique work was Kochanowski's historical treatise O Czechu i Lechu historyja naganiona [pl], a critical analysis of Slavic myths, with a focus on the titular origin myth about Lech, Czech, and Rus'.[3]: 188 

His notable Latin works include Lyricorum libellus [pl] (Little Book of Lyrics, 1580), Elegiarum libri quatuor [pl] (Four Books of Elegies, 1584), and numerous poems composed for special occasions. His Latin poems were translated into Polish by Kazimierz Brodziński in 1829, and by Władysław Syrokomla in 1851.[1][5]

In addition to creating works of his own, Kochanowski translated into Polish a number of Greek and Roman classics, such as the Phenomena of Aratus and fragments of Homer's Illiad.[3]: 188 

In some of his works, Kochanowski used Polish alexandrines, wherein each line comprises thirteen syllables, with a caesura following the seventh syllable.[9]: 63 


Zamoyski visits Kochanowski in Czarnolas, by Karol Hiller, 1878

Details of Kochanowski's life are sparse; they come mostly from his own writings, and he wrote little about himself.[14]: 61  Like many persons of his time he was deeply religious, and a number of his works are religious-themed. However, he avoided taking sides in the strife between the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations; he stayed on friendly terms with figures of both Christian currents, and his poetry was viewed as acceptable by both.[9]: 62 


Kochanowski is commonly regarded as the greatest Polish poet before Adam Mickiewicz.[1][2] Tadeusz Ulewicz [pl] writes that Kochanowski is generally viewed as the greatest poet not only of Poland but of any Slavic country until the advent of 19th-century poets such as Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki in Poland and Alexander Pushkin in Russia.[3]: 188  He also argues that Kochanowski both created modern Polish poetry and introduced it to the general European culture.[3]: 189 

Similarly Czesław Miłosz writes that "until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the most eminent Slavic poet was undoubtedly Jan Kochanowski", and that he "set the pace for the whole subsequent development of Polish poetry".[4]: 60  Norman Davies names Kochanowski as the second most important figure of the Polish Renaissance, after Copernicus. Kochanowski, writes Davies, can be seen as "the founder of Polish vernacular poetry [who] showed the Poles the beauty of their language."[15]: 119 

Kochanowski never ceased writing in Latin. However, his main achievement was the creation of Polish-language verse forms that made him a classic for his contemporaries and posterity.[13] He greatly enriched Polish poetry by naturalizing foreign poetic forms, which he knew how to imbue with a national spirit.[1][5]


Kochanowski statue, Kochanowski Museum, Czarnolas

Kochanowski has been the subject of a variety of artistic works – literary, musical, and visual. Jan Matejko portrayed him in a painting, Kochanowski nad zwłokami Urszulki ("Kochanowski and his deceased daughter Ursula"). Kochanowski and his writings have also received scholarly treatments.[3]: 189 

Most of the recognition of his achievements has come from Polish-language artists and scholars; he has been described as little-known in English-language – and generally in non-Slavic-language – works; and, as of the early 1980s, had been passed over or given short shrift in many reference works[16] – though, as early as 1894, Encyclopedia Britannica called him "the prince of Polish poets".[17] The first English-language monograph devoted to him was published in 1974 by David Welsh.[18]

Czesław Miłosz writes that Kochanowski's first published collection of poems was his David's Psalter (printed 1579).[9]: 63  Many of his writings were collected and published after his death, first in a series of volumes printed in Kraków in 1584–90, ending with Fragmenta albo pozostałe pisma [pl] (Fragments, or Residual Writings).[3]: 189 [5] That series included works from his Padua period, and his Fraszki (Epigrams).[3]: 187  In 1884 a jubilee volume was published in Warsaw.[3]: 189 [5]

Many of Kochanowski's poems were translated into German in 1875 by H. Nitschmann.[5] As of the mid-1980s, the only English-language collection had been published in 1928 (translations by George R. Noyes et al.). Since then, several more translations have appeared, including The Laments translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Seamus Heaney (1995) and The Envoys translated by Bill Johnston (2007).[18][10][19]

A Jan Kochanowski Museum in Czarnolas [pl] was opened in 1961.[3]: 189 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainRines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Kochanowski, Jan" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  2. ^ a b Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Jan Kochanowski" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af Ulewicz, Tadeusz (1968). "Jan Kochanowski". Polski słownik biograficzny (in Polish). Vol. 13. Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich - Wydawawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Milosz, Czeslaw (24 October 1983). The History of Polish Literature, Updated Edition. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-04477-7.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Kochanowski, Jan" . New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
  6. ^ a b Kotarski, Edmund. "Jan Kochanowski". Virtual Library of Polish Literature. Retrieved 21 February 2023.
  7. ^ "Krypta ze szczątkami Jana Kochanowskiego dostępna dla turystów". dzieje.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 6 March 2023.
  8. ^ Pisze, Jakub (3 September 2012). "W poszukiwaniu wiecznego spoczynku – tułaczka szczątków Jana z Czarnolasu". HISTORIA.org.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 6 March 2023.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Milosz, Czeslaw (24 October 1983). The History of Polish Literature, Updated Edition. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-04477-7.
  10. ^ a b Kochanowski, Jan (2007). The envoys. Bill Johnston, Krzysztof Koehler. Kraków: Księgarnia Akademicka. ISBN 978-83-7188-870-0. OCLC 226295845.
  11. ^ Paczkowski, Grzegorz (31 July 2021). "Odprawa posłów greckich - streszczenie – Jan Kochanowski, Odprawa posłów greckich - opracowanie – Zinterpretuj.pl" (in Polish). Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  12. ^ Bogucka, Maria; Kieniewicz, Stefan, eds. (1984). Warszawa w latach 1526-1795 (in Polish) (Wyd. 1 ed.). Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawn. Nauk. pp. 157–58. ISBN 83-01-03323-1. OCLC 11843473.
  13. ^ a b Smusz, Aleksandra (11 September 2021). "Jan Kochanowski - informacje o autorze, biografia". lekcjapolskiego.pl (in Polish). Retrieved 24 May 2021.
  14. ^ Milosz, Czeslaw (24 October 1983). The History of Polish Literature, Updated Edition. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-04477-7.
  15. ^ Davies, Norman (24 February 2005). God's Playground A History of Poland: Volume 1: The Origins to 1795. OUP Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-925339-5.
  16. ^ ULEWICZ, TADEUSZ (1982). "The Portrait of Jan Kochanowski in the Encyclopaedias of Non-Slavic Countries: A Critical Survey". The Polish Review. 27 (3/4): 3–16. ISSN 0032-2970. JSTOR 25777888.
  17. ^ The Encyclopaedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature. Maxwell Sommerville. 1894.
  18. ^ a b Segel, Harold B. (1976). "Review of Jan Kochanowski". Slavic Review. 35 (3): 583–584. doi:10.2307/2495176. ISSN 0037-6779. JSTOR 2495176. S2CID 164224517.
  19. ^ Kochanowski, Jan (1995). Laments. Stanisław Barańczak, Seamus Heaney (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-18290-6. OCLC 32237008.

Further reading[edit]

  • David J. Welsh, Jan Kochanowski, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1974, ISBN 0-8057-2490-7
  • Barry Keane, The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys. A Verse Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Wydawnictwo Naukowe Sub Lupa: Warsaw, 2018 ISBN 978-83-65886-44-6.

External links[edit]