The Polish Lucifer, or Towards Progressive National Art

The missing person is a symbol-character, a myth-character, strongly present in Western Europe at the time and almost completely exorcised from Polish Romanticism: Lucifer.

Jakub Majmurek


First of all, I would like to reformulate the question, implicit in the subject of the project, of the currency of Romanticism. Rather than asking the question of currency, usefulness, significance of Romanticism today, I would like to pose the question of an absence in Polish Romanticism which bars it from being current and significant for us nowadays.

The absence, I would venture to claim, concern not a theme, but a character. The missing person is a symbol-character, a myth-character, strongly present in Western Europe at the time and almost completely exorcised from Polish Romanticism: Lucifer.

The Luciferian (in a wider sense: satanic) myth was one of the chief topoi of Romantic imagination in English and French literature. It is virtually absent from the Polish.

The missing figure of Lucifer is what differentiates Polish from Western European Romanticism. Obviously, devils and infernal powers figure in Polish Romanticism, and in its central texts, like Mickiewicz’s Dziady and Słowacki’s Kordian. Whenever they do figure, however, the text rejects their professed wisdom and blocks the power of the Luciferian symbol introduced by the figures. I will argue that the absence makes Polish Romanticism so disarmingly, even childishly, helpless to intellectually challenge the capitalist modernity and the Enlightenment.

Romanticism in countries of Western Europe was “the fruit of a double revolution”, to use Eric Hobsbawm term. It could only appear in a society shaped by two revolutions: the political French and the economic Industrial, which gave rise not only to completely new social relations, but also to a new notion of the individual: far more uprooted from the ties of primal communities, individualised and de-sacralised than history had ever witnessed[1]. Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre understand Romanticism, first and foremost, as a reaction to living in the modern capitalist society, as a critique of modernity[2]. Contrary to Isaiah Berlin, a critique that is irreducible to Counter-Enlightenment, since the Romantic critique of modernity on numerous occasions is critically loyal to modernity, performing on it a dialectical operation. It is an internal critique; the modern dissolution of primal communities and the creation of the individual conceiving of oneself in singular categories are its condition of possibility.

Nonetheless, the dialectical dialogue with modernity is barely present in the Polish Romantic tradition. Since it either assumes a progressive political-moral attitude, affirming the dimension of political emancipation in the modern project, while plunging in intellectually barren fantasies, barring itself from any understanding of its contemporaneity (the case of Mickiewicz), or else an understanding of actual processes and the historical stakes of the period causes its politics to become extremely reactionary (the case of Krasiński).

I would claim, fully aware of the ostensible eccentricity of the claim, that the devil is the missing link, the absent mediator between Polish Romanticism and the dialectical dialogue with modernity. Therefore

the task of revising Romanticism here and now, in Poland, must mean one thing first: a re-discovery and a dialectical resurrection of the myth of Lucifer as the figure providing a privileged understanding of modernity.

The First Exile

Satan accompanies the birth of the bourgeois society since its inception, already in the pre-romantic era. It is one of the chief symbols which the artists employ to diagnose the new order, as it arises before their eyes.

Since its beginnings, the symbol is endowed with powerful ambiguity. The figure of Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost is the original example. Milton’s Lucifer, who driven out of Heaven, assumes the name of Satan, is both the tempter and the deceiver, bringing humanity to moral perdition and expulsion from Paradise, as well as the noble rebel against tyrannical power. The image of angels’ rebellion against God is an obvious allegory of the subsequent early modern revolts against feudal power, from the 16th-century Dutch Revolt (war of independence) to the English Civil War. Milton was himself a witness and participant in the War, engaged in the revolutionary turmoil on the side of Cromwell and the Parliament. The first edition of Paradise Lost was published after the failure of the revolution, already during Restoration, in 1667. The fallen, banished angels are easily identified with the defeated, disempowered Puritans.

Satan in Milton’s poem tempts and deceives mostly through rhetoric. He makes speeches to a rally of rebelled angels the way the commanders of Roundheads would do to their soldiers. Satan’s rhetorical figures clearly belong to the means of parliamentary speeches, or political pamphlets of the period. In his first speech after expulsion from Paradise and banishment to Hell, Satan addresses his still faithful angels, who refuse to yield to the power of God:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.[3]

The speech contains the most fundamental experiences of the modern subject, which are expressed by the Romantic tradition as well. Löwy and Sayre point out that the fundamental experience of the Romantic subject is the experience of general loss, exile, homelessness[4]. Satan’s famous speech begins with an evocation of nostalgia for lost Paradise (“Farewel happy Fields/Where Joy for ever dwells”), which later Romantic readers of Milton would identify with an image of lost, idealised past, a dream of the Middle Ages, of a world untouched by the Industrial Revolution, where life “[i]n Englands green & pleasant Land” (according to William Blake[5]), in mansions and dreamy market towns was peaceful and orderly, and the individual was rooted and supported by ‘organic’ communities.

Further on, the image of Hell (characterised as “mournful gloom” or “horrors”) would not but designate the image of England “among these dark Satanic Mills”[6], again in the words of Blake’s Jerusalem, in the times of the Industrial Revolution.

A dreary world, stripped of God’s providential protection, mechanicist, infinitely extensive universe of Newton, a world governed by the principle of instrumental rationality

(the metaphor of “Satanic Mills” is not too distant from Weber’s “iron cage of rationality”).

In Satan’s opening speech Milton embraces the world in a way which would frequently become profoundly problematic for Romanticism: he owns it, accepting as scene proper of human activity, the only space where human freedom and nature may be fulfilled. Satan’s call: “[b]etter to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n” would be reformulated by a section of Romantic tradition, and consequently, the entire 19th century (headed by Karl Marx) as: “better to reign the disenchanted world, then be mired in the idiocy of country life, enveloped in metaphysical illusions, vulnerable to whims of nature”. It is reason, understood as the site of individual’s creative powers, that “[c]an make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”. Every Romantic hero embraces Satan’s words: “What matter where, if I be still the same”.


The devil’s connection to the modern bourgeois era is articulated also in Goethe’s Faust. Goethe’s devil, like Milton’s, primarily speaks. His voice, however, is no longer the voice of a parliamentary speaker, or a military leader, but the voice of Enlightenment philosophy, emancipating middle classes. Peter Sloterdijk comments:

Geothe’s famous theatrical devil meets us at the zenith of the Enlightenment […] Mephistopheles appears in the stormy years of secularization that begin to liquidate the thousand-year-old inheritance of Christianity. […] The Devil is the first post-Christian realist; his freedom to speak must still seem infernal to older contemporaries. When the Devil open his mouth to say how it really is in the world, the old Christian metaphysics, theology, feudal morality are swept away. If his horns and claws are also taken away, there remains of Mephistopheles nothing more than a bourgeois philosopher: realist, antimetaphysicist, empircist, positivist.[7]

Inasmuch as the devil is an Enlightenment figure, Faust is already a posterior one. The question bedevilling Faust is: how to restore the knowledge which alienates from life and its energy, connection with Nature, to the service of life and the world. The answer is the pact with the devil. However critically Goethe’s readers might have regarded the satanic anti-metaphysics, they were perfectly aware of the fact that “only from the Devil can one learn «how things really are»”[8].

Faust, sealing the pact with the devil, passes through subsequent stages of the Romantic hero: the sentimental lover, the banished loner, finally, the heroic captain (or rather: the pirate) of industry, radically transforming (thanks to infernal powers) the face of the earth. The act of transformation likens him to a Romantic artist. For it is Romanticism that first postulates – fully, consciously formulated by the 20th century avant-gardes – that art be an instrument of complete transformation of entire communities, their consciousness and practices.

Gerald Gillespie claims that Goethe’s Faust introduced the idea that “the devil might take God’s place as the patron and model for art” [9]. Satan becomes the highest incarnation of the figure of creative genius, as the creator of his own world, different from the God-created world[10].

The Litanies of Satan

Satan remains for the Romantic author a profoundly ambiguous figure. On the one hand, he represents the principle of negation, rebellion against the established order, on the other, he magnifies all the qualities of the Romantic subject and art defined by the subject, self-liberated, self-martyred and self-critical, always questioning oneself and one’s discourse through the figures of Romantic irony.

The ambiguity may be found in such authors as Byron, Hugo, Leopardi, and on the threshold of modernism, in Baudelaire.

Lord Byron presents in his works e.g. The Corsair, Manfred or The Giaour, an entire gallery of Luciferian characters: proud, rebelled, stained with inerasable guilt, doomed to self-exile from the world, where they refuse to be service-men. Lucifer himself figures only in his dramatic work Cain, which despite the biblical costume, primarily concerns the equivocality of the modern era.

Lucifer himself is an equivocal character. On the one hand, he brings fall upon Cain, leading him to murder his own brother; on the other, he is a Promethean figure, teaching people husbandry, domination over nature. Gillespie notes that Lucifer, expounding to Cain the vision of nature, employs the language of Enlightenment mechanicism, but not one of Newton’s, but Marquis de Sade’s[11]. He confronts Cain with a vision of cold, disenchanted universe, where God/Nature (the difference for a human is practically senseless, Satan argues) is completely indifferent to human desires, demands and woes. Byron shows that the knowledge makes life unbearable, but only through its acceptance, in work and struggle on the disenchanted earth, against indifferent nature, can a human dignity be maintained. Lucifer might be a little heavy-handed, but indispensable master of the modern subject. Cain represents the heroic Romanticism, which does not flee from the truth of the disenchanted world into fantasy, but confronts it in revolt and poetic work.

The very same ambiguity characterises Lucifer also in the unfinished, late long poem of Victor Hugo of 1886. Lucifer in the poem is the father of two daughters: Lilith-Isis and Freedom. The former embodies the principle of sensual desire and intellectual error, which characterised Lucifer in medieval theology. The latter, born of the feather fallen from Lucifer’s wings during his plunge into Hell, is the principle of revolt, leading humanity to emancipation. Hugo’s image was praised by the pope of surrealism, André Breton, who wrote in his essay of 1944, Arcanum 17:

“The Angel of Freedom, born of a white feather shed by Lucifer during his fall, penetrates the darkness. The star it wears on its forehead grows, becoming first meteor, then comet, then forge. […] Revolt itself and revolt alone is the creator of light. And this light can only be known by way of three paths: poetry, freedom and love” [12]

The three paths are equally the three strategies employed by the Romantic subject to cope with the disenchanted world.

Satan is imbued with ambiguity also by Baudelaire.

The poem “To the Reader” presents Satan as the prince of this world, lord of the fallen reality, leading the humanity, thrown into the abyss, to damnation:

It is the Devil who holds the reins which make us go!
In repulsive objects we find something charming;
Each day we take one more step towards Hell — 
Without being horrified — across darknesses that stink.[13]

“The Litanies of Satan”, however, make him the patron of the rejected, accursed, marginalised in the modern society, their guide in the work of rebelling against it. The poet apostrophises Satan thus: “O thou who knowest all, each weak and shameful thing,/Kind minister to man in anguish, mighty king”; “Thou that dost teach the leper, the pariah we despise,/To love like other men, and taste sweet Paradise”[14].

A closer look at Baudelaire’s characterisation of Satan clearly reveals his close ties to modernity: “Thou that hast seen in darkness and canst bring to light/The gems a jealous God has hidden from our sight”; “Thou to whom all the secret arsenals are known/Where iron, where gold and silver, slumber, locked in stone”; “Thou who best taught the frail and over-burdened mind/How easily saltpeter and sulphur are combined”. Satan appears to be a bourgeois entrepreneur, the 19th-century captain of industry, harnessing science to alter the world, wresting the earth’s mysteries and treasures, forging weapons out of them, which will allow the oppressed to win their freedom.

The Lucifer of the Nations

Strikingly, the Poles are missing from the Baudelairian gathering of Satan’s foster children, and the fault is our own. A nation lost to over a century of exile, its state fallen to the hands of neighbouring powers; it is astounding that none of the Great Prophets of Polish Romanticism (endowed with extraordinary religious imagination) came up with the idea of using the Miltonian metaphor to describe the Polish condition of the times.

Polish Romanticism was capable of imagining Poland in most various roles, from the Christ to Winkelried of the nations, but fully incapable of imagining it in the one most obvious and natural: the Lucifer of the nations. Poland as the Lucifer of the European Holy Alliance, the leader of universal conspiracy against the tsars and the popes, the kings and the prelates, against the Jesuit school and the Prussian censor; the Poles as the Carbonari of the World, the former noble peers as eternal conspirators; the Polish community as the order of regicides – all of these metaphors fit the Romantic imagination perfectly, and even today they would be capable of firing our imagination, far more strongly than the quaint ponderings on the pilgrimage and martyrdom of the Polish nation.

Astounding is also the fact that none of the Polish national poets deems the Polish cause worthy of the Faustian pact with the devil.

Mickiewicz comes closest to the intuition in his Konrad Wallenrod, but Teutonic Gothicisms are a far cry from a national Faustian narrative.

The three major Romantic dramas perfectly illustrate the blocking of satanic wisdom and the Luciferian symbol. The third part of Mickiewicz’s Dziady has Konrad ultimately refuse the Faustian pact with the tempting devil that might have saved Poland. As soon as he ends his quarrel with God in the Great Improvisation, as soon as he ends the sentence “You are not the World’s Father, you are… the Tsar”, he swoons.

Słowacki’s Kordian takes up the Luciferian act of symbolic patri- and deicide, in the attempt on the Tsar, but is unable to carry the weight of the sublime deed and faints at the door of the Tsar’s bedroom. He is visited in the hospital by the devil and tempted in a language of disenchanted, cynical wisdom (“I crumble divine clay”), but not for a minute does Konrad entertain the possibility of accepting the wisdom offered to him by the devil. Finally, in Krasiński’s Nie-boska komedia [The Un-Divine Comedy], Pankracy, the revolutionary leader, is quite simply a secularised Satan, and the social revolution – a repetition of Lucifer’s revolt in the lay order, which is overcome, just as the Fallen Angel’s revolt, by the divine economy of salvation. Also later continuators of the Romantic tradition do not develop the symbol. An evident exception is the poetry of Tadeusz Miciński, but the Luciferian wisdom is lost here in the abysmal linguistic and intellectual depths.

A post-romantic devil appears in Polish cinema of 1970s, still not as the one from whom we may “learn how things really are”. In Andrzej Żuławski’s Diabeł [The Devil] (1972), the title protagonist, who seems to be offering a Faustian pact to Jakub that might bring about the saving of homeland, turns out in the end to be an agent provocateur. In Grzegorz Królikiewicz television version of Goethe’s Faust (1976), Faust builds the Northern Port in Gdansk with the help of the devil. Yet the images of modernisation in the People’s Republic of Poland (doable owing to the pact with the red-stained Kremlin devils) are juxtaposed to the images of naked bodies, taken from one of the modern death camps, bulldozed into a mass grave. Królikiewicz seems to by saying that if only the devil may teach us “how things really are”, the price for the knowledge is too high.

Through the Unknown, We’ll Find the New!

The lack of the Luciferian symbol to express the fate of defeated Poland relates to the weakness of the diagnoses of modernity in Polish Romanticism. Karl Marx once wrote that Germany carried out the counter-revolution with the rest of Europe without having carried out the revolution first; analogously for the Polish Romanticism and modernity. Modernity for the Polish Romantics is the most immediately political and factual experience of exile. The exile produced various responses: an idealisation of the lost past, a cult of folklore and the resulting peasant-manias, obscure religious constructions trying to bring consolation and salvation to the martyred Poland. Even when their politics was not always explicitly reactionary, their characteristic was an inability to enter into a dialectic dialogue with the arising (somewhat besides Poland) modern capitalist society and to understand the dialectics of modernity.

The Romantic Lucifer is first and foremost a dialectician and dialectical is his literary idiom – the Romantic irony. It is a tragic irony causing “laughter, born of pain, the experience of consciousness as disillusion and alienation” [15]. In the face of postmodern tyranny of frivolity, the category of dialectical, tragic Romantic irony seems to be currently necessary for serious expression. The dialecticisation of irony seems to be a better tactic than the naïve, non-dialectical belief in the possibility of return of authentic languages, unselfconscious, naïve, un-ironic, unmarked by cynicism. Again, the character of the devil, the Luciferian myth appears to be the perfect figure for the performance of the dialectical operation.

The artist, who in his works explores the contemporary weight of the Luciferian symbol, treating it as a figure of transformation of the Polish community, is Tomasz Kozak[16]. In his Monastery Inversus, he re-edits Potop (The Deluge, film adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz eponymous novel) so that it is the main protagonist, Kmicic, not the Swedes, who besieges Częstochowa, the heart of Polish sanctity. Kozak, by allowing Kmicic to conquer and desecrate the Marian sanctuary, finalises the Luciferian act, which Mickiewicz and Słowacki avoided. In his Luciferian Lesson, inspired by Miciński’s poetry, Kozak creates from the contemporary cinematic images the figure of Polish Lucifer as the twin of Poland-the Christ of the Nations, overcoming Christ’s passive suffering by Lucifer’s freedom and self-awareness.

The figure of Polish Lucifer should become the focal point of a revitalising revision of Romanticism and the starting point of a truly progressive national art.

Maria Janion’s call: “To Europe  yes, but together with our dead” should be radicalised: “To Europe – yes, but through a symbol never born here before”. We have an urgent duty to give birth to the symbol of Lucifer in Poland and find hidden traces of the radiance of the Light Bearer in Polish obscurantism. The symbol will open Polish Romanticism to a dialectical understanding of modernity, allowing the release of its repressed Promethean myth, Cainian current, a heroic attitude towards the disenchanted world. Finally, it will let us translate into Polish the modern commitment:
we want, this fire so burns our brain tissue,
to drown in the abyss — heaven or hell,
who cares? Through the unknown, we’ll find the new. [17]




[1] Cf. Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, Vintage Books: New York 1996 (1962), p. 259.

[2] Cf. Michael Löwy, Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, trans. by Catherine Porter, Duke University Press: Durham-London 2001, p. 17-18.


[4] Cf. Michael Löwy, Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, trans. by Catherine Porter, Duke University Press: Durham-London 2001, p. 21.

[5] W. Blake, Jerusalem [“And did those feet in ancient time”],

[6] W. Blake, Jerusalem [“And did those feet in ancient time”],

[7] Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. by Michael Eldred, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis-London 1987, p. 175.

[8] Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. by Michael Eldred, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis-London 1987, p. 175.

[9] Gerald Gillespie, The Devil’s Art [in:] Gerhard Hofmeister, European Romanticism. Literary Cross-Currents, Modes and Models, Wayne State University Press: Detroit 1990, p. 77.

[10] Gerald Gillespie, The Devil’s Art [in:] Gerhard Hofmeister, European Romanticism. Literary Cross-Currents, Modes and Models, Wayne State University Press: Detroit 1990, p. 81.

[11] Gerald Gillespie, The Devil’s Art [in:] Gerhard Hofmeister, European Romanticism. Literary Cross-Currents, Modes and Models, Wayne State University Press: Detroit 1990, p. 86.

[12] Quoted in: Donald La Coss, “Introduction” [in:] Michael Löwy, Morning Star. Surrealism, Marxism, Situationism, Utopia, University of Texas Press: Austin 2009, p. viii.

[13] ”To the Reader” trans. by Eli Siegel,

[14] “The Litanies of Satan” trans. by Edna St. Vincent Millay,

[15] Gerald Gillespie, The Devil’s Art [in:] Gerhard Hofmeister, European Romanticism: Literary Cross-Currents, Modes and Models, Wayne State University Press: Detroit 1990, p. 81.


[17] Charles Baudelaire, “The Voyage” trans. by Robert Lowell,

More / credits

Jakub Majmurek

Film expert, essayist, journalist.