A plan of Posielenije, which evolved into Anhelli (posielenije – in Russian: a forced resettlement to Siberia), a page from Juliusz Słowacki’s Eastern Notebook (the Russian State Library in Moscow)

I did some work in the mountains of Lebanon, and now the effects of my musings are with me as I journey on. I even thought of locking them in a bottle so that I could throw them in the sea and thus leave something of myself, should we be shipwrecked. But then some sort of a religious philosophy came over me and, keeping in mind the vanity of all earthly things, I thought: if I’m to be taken, then let all that is mine be taken by Neptune as well.

A letter by Juliusz Słowacki to his mother, 15th June 1837, written at sea on the way from Tripoli to Livorno

Jacek Malczewski, Dante and Virgil, 1915, the National Museum in Kraków

Anhelli requires a commentary, just like Dante, for I set out to write it concisely and with a great economy of detail; thus all those who fail to endow every single verse with an effort of their imagination will think it altogether lacklustre.

A letter by Juliusz Słowacki to Konstanty Gaszyński, 22nd May 1839, Paris

Juliusz Słowacki, the title page of Anhelli, Paris 1838, the Museum of Literature in Warsaw

For there are two melancholies: one comes from power, the other from weakness; the first is the wings of tall people, the second is the stone of those drowning.

Juliusz Słowacki, Anhelli

Stanisław Wyspiański, an illustration to Anhelli, ca. 1900, pencil on paper, the Museum of Literature in Warsaw

Jacek Malczewski, Death of Ellenai, 1883, oil on canvas, the National Museum in Kraków

His Anhelli, so solitary and forlorn, witnessing the death of everyone he holds dear, is the perfect poetic symbol of our fate. […] One human comfort is left to Anhelli: his sister Ellenai, the penitent. But such a man cannot even enjoy a human comfort for a long time: the sister dies too. Her death scene: what a masterful description, full of divine simplicity.

Zygmunt Krasiński, a letter to Konstanty Gaszyński, 18th November 1838, Venice

Alone he remains now, completely alone, for all of his brothers in exile have killed themselves, lost themselves, died; Anhelli is overwhelmed and full of longing. His last company is the angel Eloe, originally created by Alfred de Vigny, now sent by Słowacki to the land of polar snow; an angel born from a tear shed by Christ in Calvary; an angel of mercy who was led astray by satan; an angel that now buries the bones of the dead in the white vastness illuminated by northern lights. That angel was born for the second time by Słowacki’s pen.

Zygmunt Krasiński, a letter to Konstanty Gaszyński, 18th November 1838, Venice

Wlastimil Hofman, Eloe with Anhelli’s body, 1917, oil on canvas, the District Museum in Leszno

Stanisław Popowski, Death of Anhelli, 1907, oil on canvas, the Museum of Literature in Warsaw

Anhelli, finally alone, bows down his head, and his spirit leaves him. No sooner he dies than a knight comes charging on a horse, like a rider of the Apocalipse, and calls in a voice like thunder: “To arms!”. But Eloe tells him: “Ride on, for Anhelli is dead, he is mine forever now”.

Zygmunt Krasiński, a letter to Konstanty Gaszyński, 18th November 1838, Venice

Truly, it requires a mighty talent, magical, genius and surpassing, to so bedeck the Siberian void in the alabaster snow and the blue eyes of stars. […] For a few nights I dreamt of Siberia, seeing it as a melancholic Eden. […] In Anhelli, the hell of Siberia, while still remaining hell, takes on a strange charm, both lovely and terrifying, sinister and seductive.

Zygmunt Krasiński, a letter to Roman Załuski, 13th May 1840, Rome

Witold Pruszkowski, Death of Anhelli, 1879, pastel on paper, the Museum of Literature in Warsaw

Wlastimil Hofman, Anhelli and the angel, 1915, oil on plywood, private collection

Wlastimil Hofman, Anhelli and the angel, 1915, oil on plywood, private collection

Yet have hope; for hope will pass to future generations and give them life; but if it dies in you, future generations will be dead.

Juliusz Słowacki, Anhelli