Sonnets From the Crimea

Cover of "Sonnets of Crimea"
Cover of “Sonnets of Crimea”

As I write these words, the political situation in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea is explosive. Historically part of Russia but given to Ukraine in the 1950s, Russia is threatening military action to recover it. So this week I am featuring verses by the Polish poet and activist Adam Mickiewicz, entitled Sonnets From the Crimea. (in Polish, Sonety Krymski). Originally published in 1826, this edition is from August 1917, one of the last books issued by Paul Elder prior to his retirement from regular publishing. It is a slim undecorated volume, with uninspired typography but well-made and printed on quality laid paper.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is a renowned figure in Polish literature. He is one of Poland’s “Three Bards,” along with Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, and is of comparative importance to Lord Byron in English or Goethe in German. He was also a political activist, and campaigned for Poland’s independence from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania–for which he spent five years in exile in Russia. He spent most of his later life in Rome and Paris, but died in Istanbul while organizing Poles and Jews to fight against Russia in the Crimean War.

Title page of "Sonnets of Crimea"
Title page of “Sonnets of Crimea”

The poem highlighted in the image below, “The Ruins of Balaclava,” refers to the Battle of Balaclava, fought on 25 October 1854 between the British and Russian forces. That was also the day of the Charge of the Light Brigade, where miscommunication among the British officers led to the brigade’s charge directly into Russian cannons, resulting in grievous casualties. Tennyson wrote his famous poem just six weeks later, to great acclaim.

The poetry was translated by Edna Worthley Underwood (1873–1961), who learned many languages despite little formal education. Her first works were chiefly historical novels, but by the time of Sonnets From the Crimea she had turned chiefly to poetry and translations. In addition to Polish, she also worked in Russian, Spanish, Farsi, Japanese and Chinese.

Page 31 of "Sonnets of Crimea"
Page 31 of “Sonnets of Crimea”