Poetry & Literature

Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska in England by Professor Tony Howard and Basia Bogoczek

‘England has given you some kind of infernal Shakespearean gravity’ (Antoni Słonimski, 1941)

In September 1939 Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska and her husband Stefan Jasnorzewski drove out of Warsaw. He was a serving air force officer heading for Poland’s regrouping forces. She was a celebrated poet, playwright and painter. Her play Baba-Dziwo: Weird Sister, a satire denouncing totalitarianism and Hitler, premiered in the blacked-out Teatr Nowy, Warsaw, on the day of the invasion.

Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, photographs by Jan Pawlikowski (her second husband), Private Collection. By Descent from the Artist (recent acquisition by the NPG)

They reached London in July 1940, and then moved on to Lancashire where he was assigned as a communications officer to air force bases around the country during the Battle of Britain and the course of the war. And so for almost five years Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska lived with other refugees in the Waterloo Hotel, Blackpool.

Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, photographs by Jan Pawlikowski (her second husband), Private Collection. By Descent from the Artist (recent acquisition by the NPG)

She was born Maria Kossak in 1891, into a family of eminent artists; her father and grandfather were both famous for their paintings of historical military subjects. At the beginning of the century the Kossaks’ home in Kraków was a welcoming centre for artists and celebrities. It was fertile ground for the development of Maria’s multiple talents, and as a teenager she wrote of her wish to ‘throw myself into experience’. She married three times and went on to transmute her experiences into art in both settled and insecure situations.

Portrait of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska by Witkacy, 1924, pastel on paper, Museum of Literature, Warsaw

She emerged as a poet with Blue Almonds (1922), the first of over a dozen volumes of verse. She was, and remains, best known in Poland for her distilled, enigmatic lyrics – witty, surprising, and concise as a haiku. Czesław Miłosz, who called her the ‘Polish Sappho’, also recognised the philosophical dimension to her work; her poetry was always contemplative and preoccupied with transience, the poignant instability of love and the body. Meanwhile the complexities which she compressed into lyrical verse were allowed room to breathe in her very successful plays, often comedies. During her theatrical career she explored multiple facets of the condition of women, both contemporary and timeless.

Now, for her, exile to England proved both tragic and transformative.

Circumstances made Maria Pawlikowska – she could not publish controversial work under her current married name since Jasnorzewski was a serving officer – a war poet of a new kind. Here was a writer giving voice to a refugee’s sense of displacement, an exile’s isolation, a pacifist’s horror at the insanity and monstrosity of all war, and her intense personal disgust at the way language could degenerate into propaganda: ‘The war’s lies’, she wrote in 1941, ‘are choking me like gas’ (letter to her friend the poet and critic Antoni Słonimski).

She spoke English but felt unable to write in it. Stripped of her identity by exile, she poured private thoughts and emotions into her diaries, poetic prose, and correspondence, but she found herself alienated ideologically from much of the Polish community in Britain. She wrote for émigré journals but she refused to glorify the war.

Two volumes of new poems were published by the Polish émigré press in 1941. Foreshadowing a widespread postwar crisis in poetry, her Róża i lasy płonące (The Rose and the Burning Forest) registered her realisation that the exquisitely formed and sophisticated lyrics she had written before 1939 were inappropriate now, if not impossible:

Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, Vision, c.1916, watercolour and gouache on card, 60 x 45 cm, Society of Friends of the Fine Arts, Krakow

Today I don’t know how to tie my heavy words
With a flowery ribbon – I don’t know how to match
A shade to a shade, a sound to a sound… Goodbye,
My old and happy games, half a maestro’s half a child’s…

The volume Gołąb ofiarny (The Sacrificial Dove) was a traumatic denunciation of the ‘cataclysm’ of war in all its forms. Under pressure she removed her poem ‘Grób nieznanego żołnierza’ (‘The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’) from the book: there could be no ‘just war’, it argued, only fratricide.

And yet what ultimately emerges from what Słonimski called her ‘beautiful and bitter’ writing in England is her profound outsider’s sympathy for the ordinary victims of this war against civilians – Britain’s ‘bombed, homeless, wounded’:

Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, The Night of the Zeppelins, c.1920, pencil, ink wash and Chinese white on paper, 28 x 18.5cm, Private Collection

Who will weep for you? Not John and not Mary.
Neither Percy nor William. Not Gladys – nor Sybil
Hardened by the cold and tough as the seagulls.
But a sad woman from Kraków will. She was born next to Wawel castle,
In a country where we were taught to cry our eyes out by the birches,
By the robins in the park, by Chopin, by black cherries.
From a land with a culture of tears, a land of melancholy…

She wrote about the everyday heroic stoicism of the blitzed citizens of Coventry and Manchester. In the midst of a mechanised violence, with mass destruction delivered by faceless technology from the air, at least poetry could give some victims a name. And her compassion embraced all those trapped in the fratricide, whatever their nationality:

When the enemy parachutist after a doomed flight,
Wounded, broken and weak, landed in the meadow
Next to the small house that Ann owned – Ann, the farmer’s wife –
Ann took him prisoner, saying, ‘Sorry’.
She dressed his wounds by the fire and
Seized by mercy poured him a hot cup of tea.

Into the hell of anger, into the furious abyss of the nations,
An absurd ray of light burst, shining into the rubble
Of a satanic scrapheap… and there arose the scent
Of Biblical balsam… nard from Palestine…

It’s beautiful, the aroma of English tea.

Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska died of cancer in Manchester on July 9th 1945. Keeping her diary to the end, she recorded her last days in harrowing detail. It was consistent with her earlier writings. In the 1920s and ‘30s she had celebrated female eroticism and shattered a taboo. Denouncing a war in wartime, she did so again. Writing so openly about the details of terminal illness, she broke a third taboo, the last. She is buried in the South Cemetery, Manchester, with her husband.

Even though her period in England was so significant, most of her work remains unknown in this country. This began to change in 1995, when Anna Maria Grabania’s one-woman play, Maria, was performed in London. Maria was played by Fenella Fielding. A selection of her poems was published in Kraków (2000) in Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard’s translations, and their website dedicated to her can be found here. In 2021 Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska’s paintings were shown at the William Morris Gallery in the exhibition Young Poland: The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement 1890-1918. Her play Portrait of Doom was performed there.


Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard, ‘Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (b. 1891, Kraków, d. 1945, Manchester): The Pictorial Art of Young Poland’s Daughter’, in Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski, Young Poland: The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918, Lund Humphries, 2020, pp. 134 –145

Barbara Bogoczek is a translator and interpreter based in London. Her literary translations, with Tony Howard, include Wyspiański’s The Hamlet Study and the Death of Ophelia (London: Shakespeare’s Globe, 2019) and the works of Tadeusz Różewicz, Ewa Lipska, and Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska.

Tony Howard is Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick. His publications include Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).