God and Man in The Poetry of Karol Wojtyła – John Paul II – chapter I


The poetry of Karol Wojtyła, a young high school student from Wadowice, and subsequently student of Polish literature at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, cleric in the Major Seminary seminary, priest, bishop, cardinal and Pope John Paul II – continues to arouse a big interest among readers, particularly from the moment of his election to the Holy See. The poems are undoubtedly an important key to getting to know the spiritual interior of the Holy Father John Paul II, his spiritual maturing and his personal relation toward God. They reveal his vision of the world, his way of understanding values, inter-personal relations and his attitude towards himself.
Poetry accompanies the spiritual maturing of Karol Wojtyła from his early high school days when young Karol became aware of his own spiritual identity, through the stormy years of the war and German occupation, the difficult times of Socialist communism, up to the moment of accepting the responsibility for steering the boat of Peter – the universal Church in Rome. The beginnings of this spiritual journey should be looked for in the period when Karol Wojtyla attended High School in his native Wadowice, particularly in the writings which reveal his first ideological fascinations and his attempts to define himself and determine his own place in the world. The beginnings were very important for the young poet. The themes which he took up then continued to arouse his interest throughout his entire life.

In the present publication, we rely on the volume Karol Wojtyla – Jan Paweł II, Poezje, dramaty szkice. ‘Tryptyk Rzymski’ (Karol Wojtyla – John Paul II, Poems, Plays and Essays. “The Roman Triptych) which comprises the fullest and most complete collection of K. Wojtyla’s poems, plays and essays that were created over the period of 60 years and have appeared in print before. The first writings date back to the years 1938-1939, the last – Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/ was written in the year 2002. The majority of the above writings appeared in print before, in fragments or else in their entirety in the Catholic periodicals: “Głos Karmelu”, “Tygodnik Powszechny” or “Znak”; most of them were published under the pen name Andrzej Jawień, A. J., or Stanisław Andrzej Gruda.
In the section entitled Poezje /Poems/, one finds literary texts which the author refers to by the name of psalms, sonnets or poems . Among the poems one should mention: Renesansowy psałterz (Księga słowiańska) /Renaissance Psalter – Slav Book/ (1938-1939), Harfiarz /Harpist/ (1939), Pieśń o Bogu ukrytym /Song of the Hidden God/ (1944), Pieśń o blasku wody; Matka /Song of the Brightness of Water; Mother/ (1950), Myśl jest przestrzenią dziwną /Thought – Strange Space/ (1952), Kamieniołom /The Quarry/ (1956), Profile Cyrenejczyka /Profiles of a Cyrenean/ (1957), Narodziny wyznawców /The Birth of Confessors/ (1961), Kościół /The Church/ (fragments) (1962), Wędrówka do miejsc świętych /Journey to the Holy Places/ (1965), Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/ (1966), Myśląc ojczyzna… /Thinking My Country…/ (1974), Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/ (1975), Odkupienie szuka twego kształtu, by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi /Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Ankiety/ (1978), Stanisław /Stanislas/ (1978), Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/ (2002).

Among the plays, one finds such titles as : Hiob. Drama ze Starego Testamentu /Job. Drama of the Old Testament/ (1940), Jeremiasz. Drama narodowa we trzech działach /Jeremiah. National Drama in Three Acts/ (1940), Brat naszego Boga /Our God’s Brother/ (two versions, 1945-1950), Przed sklepem jubilera. Medytacja o sakramencie małżeństwa przechodzaca chwilami w dramat /Jeweler’s Shop. Meditation on the Sacrament of Marriage At Times Verging on Drama/ (1960), Promieniowanie ojcostwa (misterium) /Emanation of Fatherhood – Mystery/; Rozważanie o ojcostwie /Meditation on Fatherhood/ (1964).
Among the literary works of K. Wojtyla, published in the volume Karol Wojtyla – John Paul II Poezje, dramaty, szkice…/Karol Wojtyla – John Paul II, Poems, Plays, Essays…/, one also finds works which have the character of essays: O teatrze słowa /On the Theatre of the Word/, Dramat słowa i gestu /Theatre of the Word and Gesture/, Rapsody tysiąclecia /Rhapsods of the Millenium/, Dziady i dwudziestolecie /Forefather’s Eve and the Twenty-Year Period Between the Wars/, Przedmowa do książki Mieczysława Kotlarczyka “Sztuka żywego słowa” /Foreword To Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk’s Book “The Art of the Living Word”/. In the volume, the publishers also included Aneksy /Supplements/ which contain other versions of the above-mentioned works: Nad Twoja białą mogiłą /Over This Your White Grave/, Mousike /Music/, Harfiarz /Harpist/, Rozważania o ojcostwie /Meditations on Fatherhood/. They also incorporated those writings by John Paul II which shed light on His understanding of the concept of art: Homily delivered during the Mass on the Occasion of the Unveiling of Michelangelo’s Restored Fresco “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, List do artystów /Letter to the Artists/, O Cyprianie Norwidzie w 180 rocznicę urodzin poety /On Cyprian Norwid on the 180th anniversary of the poet’s birthday/.
Poetry accompanied Rev. Karol Wojtyla throughout his entire life becoming a means of expressing his personal feelings and experiences: his relation to God, to fellow human beings and to the world at large. It revealed the process of his spiritual maturing and his attempts at a self-definition. In it, the Poet found space to express his own personal feelings, doubts and problems which related to him and his everyday existence. From issues relating to friendship, he passed to describing problems associated with his pastoral duties and obligations connected with the bishop’s office; in it he described all the new problems that became part of his experience.
Similarly as his poems, Karol Wojtyla’s plays touch upon the mystery of human existence. They belong to the category of poetic drama which focuses on man’s soul and disregards the issue of plot and action. Wojtyla’s plays create what is known as the inner theatre, in which it is the issue of man’s existence, his place on earth, his relation toward God and fellow humans, that come to the foreground. Relying on the experience of the theatre of the word and the rich tradition of mystery theatre, Karol Wojtyla strove to enhance the status of the word as a means of expressing one’s personal communion with God and with fellow human beings.


The poetry of Karol Wojtyla – a young high school student from Wadowice, and subsequently a student of Polish literature at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, cleric in the Religious Seminary, a priest, bishop, cardinal and finally pope – continues to arouse a big interest, particularly since the moment of the election of the Polish Pope to the Holy See. The above poetry no doubt constitutes an important key to the understanding of the spiritual interior of the Holy Father John Paul II, as well as his spiritual growth and his personal relation with God. The poems reveal his vision of the world, his way of understanding human values, inter-personal relations as well as his attitude towards himself.
Poetry accompanies Karol Wojtyla’s spiritual maturing from the very beginning of high school when he first began to become aware of his own spiritual identity, through the stormy war years and the German occupation, then throughout the difficult times of communism, up to his acceptance of the responsibility for the steering the boat of St. Peter – the Catholic Church in Rome. The beginnings of this spiritual journey should be looked for in the Wadowice high school, in the readings which reveal the first ideological fascinations and the attempts to define oneself and mark out one’s own place in the world. The beginnings are always important in the life of a poet as they single out those experiences which one constantly comes back to.
Among the many motifs which appear in Karol Wojtyla’s juvenile poetry, it is his attitude towards God that plays a fundamental role. The poet’s personal “I” is shaped through his reference to the Creator, in the creative dialogue which we call prayer.

1. The Editions of Karol Wojtyla’s Poetry

The volume Karol Wojtyla, Poezje, dramaty, szkice. Jan Pawel II, Tryptyk rzymski /Poetry, Plays and Essays. The Roman Triptych/, comprises the fullest and probably the most complete collection of K. Wojtyla’s – John Paul II’s poems, plays and essays which arose over the period of over 60 years and which have been published up till now. The first works are dated 1938-1939, whereas the last work – the Roman Triptych was completed in the year 2002. The above collections were published in their entirety or else in parts in the Catholic weeklies “Glos Karmelu”, “Tygodnik Powszechny”, or else in the “Znak” Publishing House, under the following pseudonyms: Andrzej Jawień, A.J., Stanislaw Andrzej Gruda.
In the part entitled Poezje /Poems/, one finds works which the author refers to by the name of psalm, sonnet or poem . As regards the poetic works, one should mention here: Renesansowy psałterz (Księga słowiańska) (1938-1939) /The Renaissance Psalter- The Slav Book/, Harfiarz (1939) /Harpist/, Piesń o Bogu ukrytym (1944) /The Song of the Hidden God/, Pieśń o blasku wody. Matka (1950) /The Song on the Brightness of Water. Mother/, Myśl jest przestrzenią dziwną (1952) /Thought – Strange Space/, Kamieniołom (1956) /The Quarry/, Profile Cyrenejczyka (1957), /Profiles of a Cyrenean/, Narodziny wyznawców (1961) /The Birth of Confessors/, Kościół (excerpts) (1962) /The Church/, Wędrówka do miejsc świętych (1965) /Journey to the Holy Places/, Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 (1966) /Easter Vigil, 1966/, Myśląc Ojczyzna…(1974) /Thinking My Country/, Rozważanie o śmierci (1975) /Meditation on Death/, Odkupienie szuka kształtu, by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi. Stanisław (1978) /Redemption Seeking Your Form To Enter Man’s Anxiety. Stanislas/, Tryptyk rzymski (2002) /The Roman Triptych/.
The following works should be classified as plays : Hiob. Drama ze Starego Testamentu (1940) /Job. A Drama Based on An Old Testament Story/, Jeremiasz. Drama narodowe w trzech działach (1940) /Jeremiah. A National Drama In Three Acts /, Brat naszego Boga (dwie wersje: 1945, 1950) /Our God’s Brother – two versions: 1945, 1950/, Przed sklepem jubilera. Medytacja o sakramencie małżeństwa przechodząca chwilami w dramat (1960) /Before the Jeweller’s Shop. Meditation on the Sacrament of Marriage, at Times Verging on Drama/, Promieniowanie ojcostwa (misterium). Rozważanie o ojcostwie (1964) /Emanation of Fatherhood – a Mystery. Meditation on Fatherhood/.
Among the literary works of K. Wojtyla, which appeared in the volume Karol Wojtyla, Poezje, dramaty, szkice…/Karol Wojtyla, Poems, Plays, Essays…/, one also finds Szkice /Sketches/ which have the character of essays: O teatrze słowa /On the Theatre of the Word/, Dramat słowa i gestu /The Play of the Word and Gesture/, Rapsody tyciąclecia /The Rhapsods of the Millenium/, Dziady i dwudziestolecie /The Forefathers’ Eve and the Twenty-Year Period Between the Two World Wars/, Przedmowa do książki Mieczysława Kotlarczyka “Sztuka żywego słowa” /Preface to Mieczysław Kotlarczyk’s book “The Art of the Living Word”/. In the above volume, the publisher also included Aneksy /Annexes/ which present other versions of the above-mentioned works: Nad twoją białą mogiłą /Over This Your White Grave/, Mousike /Music/, Harfiarz /Harpist/, Rozważania o ojcostwie /Meditations on Fatherhood/. The publisher also incorporated into the volume those texts of John Paul II which shed light on his understanding of art: Holimia podczas mszy św. z okazji odsłonięcia odrestaurowanego fresku “Sąd Ostateczny” Michała Anioła w Kaplicy Sykstyńskiej /Homily delivered during the holy mass celebrated on the occasion of the unveiling of Michelangelo’s restored fresco the “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel/, List do artystów /Letter to the Artists/, O Cyprianie Norwidzie w 180 rocznicę urodzin poety /On Cyprian Norwid On the 180th Anniversary of the Poet’s Birth/.

2. Saying good-bye to his mother

The collection Renesansowy psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ opens with a moving poem entitled Nad Twoją białą mogiłą /Over This Your White Grave/ which is dedicated to Karol Wojtyla’s mother Emilia who died prematurely. It appears to be Karol Wojtyla’s very first poem which was composed in the spring of 1939 . The author stops at the grave and ponders on the image of his mother which he carries deep in his heart and soul. In a prayerful reverie he conducts a personal conversation with his mother who continues to be very close to him and is spiritually present in his life as a “winged spirit”: “-oh, how long ago it was – / how distant it seems today”. In an inner monologue, there comes to life a memory from childhood, although the grave had been “closed” for many years.
In the poem there predominates the symbolism of white. The white flowers blooming on the grave are a symbol of life and peace which is as incomprehensible as death. The mother’s “grave” is also white bringing back the recollection of death and the feeling of powerlessness that the poet remembered from his childhood. Yet, from the mother’s grave, there also “emanates bright silence” in which one can clearly distinguish a light: “Over this your white grave/there radiates a bright silence, /as if something soared up, /as if hope strengthened”. A bright ray emerging from the white, becomes a symbol of hope which is borne out of the encounter at the grave.
Amid an atmosphere of melancholy, sadness and sorrow, it is the figure of the praying poet that comes to the foreground. He kneels at the grave succumbing to the feeling of nostalgia for the past times and the inexorable power of transition: “Over this your white grave/ I knelt with my sorrow – / o, how long ago it was”. In spite of the acute sorrow, deep in his heart, the silence which the poet experiences when standing at his mother’s grave, also arouses hope. Ultimately, the dialogue which is full of longing and sorrow, becomes a sigh and a simple prayer which expresses the poet’s gratefulness for love: “…O Mother – extinguished love – / my lips whispered powerlessly: / – Give her eternal peace –”.
The dirge Nad Twoją białą mogiłą /Over This Your White Grave/ is the reckoning of the maturing poet with the experience of his deceased mother which had left an indelible mark in his heart. His mother constitutes a part of his life and continues to be present in it. However, the poem is also an expression of the author’s acceptance of the mystery of death of a close person and of experiencing the presence of this person on another, spiritual level.

3. The Slav Harpist

The second poem in the collection, entitled Pieśń poranna /Morning Song/ is a psalm-prayer of a “Slav harpist” which is addressed to God. The prayer form of many of Karol Wojtyla’s poems is imposed by the adopted literary genre, namely that of the psalm; the latter is by its very nature, a hymn in honor of God the Creator and Redeemer. Yet, psalms are not only songs which worship God. They also contain a motif of request and ardent supplication addressed to God in moments which are difficult and important for the author . There exudes from them a sincere desire to enter into a profound dialogue with God, so as to fathom His mystery – to get to know God and gain a better insight into oneself.
The psalm Pieśń poranna /Morning Song/ was written in the autumn of 1939 which can be deduced from the second verse, where the author speaks about the spring which is full of longings and autumn marked with a song of mourning after the defeat – ” Let the longing harp strings not burst inn the autumn” (p. ) The author, a “descendant of Piast” identifies himself with David and requests God to burn out a “sign” in his heart – an indelible mark of a poet which will allow him to spell out the whole drama of the moment.
The psalm is a supplicatory prayer addressed to God, requesting Him to descend in all his might and offer support at this dramatic moment of imminent danger which has appeared on the national horizon. The author requests God to endow Piast – who symbolizes here the entire Polish people, with the strength of David which is sufficient to defeat Goliath: “Zion, Moriah beg you:/ descend and assist us! / such is the morning song / of David – the Shepherd” (p. ). Zion which is situated on the hill of Moriah, was a place where Abraham wanted to make a sacrifice of his only son Isaac. Yet God transformed the son into a lamb. Isaac’s sacrifice is an augury of the sacrifice of Christ. For the author of the psalm, Zion on the hill of Moria is a symbol of the sacrifice which is made by the Polish people. Like David before him, the poet stands in place of the entire nation begging God for mercy.

4. The Poet’s prayer

After Pieśń poranna /The Morning Prayer/ in the volume Poezje, dramaty, szkice…/Poems, Plays, Essays…/, one finds an introduction to the collection of poems entitled Sonety – zarysy /Sonnets – Outlines/, which comprise altogether seventeen poems displaying a regular structure similar to that of the sonnet . Some of the poems consist of four stanzas: the first and the last two number four verses. Yet in most cases, the author abandons the classical structure of the sonnet and resorts to the use of three stanzas consisting of four verses each and one final stanza consisting of two verses. Sometimes, the two-verse stanza appears as the third successive one.
The sonnets constitute the first part of Renesansowy psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ which is a sizable collection of Karol Wojtyla’s juvenile poems bearing a dedication: List do przyjaciela /Letter to a Friend/ or Do przyjaciół /To Friends/ and appearing at the beginning of some poems.
Sonety – zarysy /Sonnets – Outlines/ open with an introduction entitled Do sonetów! /To the Sonnets!/ which was written “in the year of war” and, it seems, already after the completion of the psalms, as the author has a clear perspective of the war and of what he had written up until then. The poet also explains the origin of the poems by placing them in time – “the songs of spring, the spring of the tragic year ” – no doubt a reference to the spring of 1939; thus the poems must have been written in the context of the approaching war. At the end, the poet adds a comment: “I have finished on the day of St. John 1939” which confirms once again that the poems were completed before the outbreak of World War II.
The poet stands before the reader like the prophet of the Old Covenant, who is able to foresee future events, and sense out the approaching defeat. He confesses that his songs originated from his inner pain and from the experience of proximity to God: “Songs cheerful with hope, certainty and the beginning of something: visions- desires, longings, acts. Songs – forebodings. Sonnets conceived, derived and composed into songs – From the earth and heaven, from God and man, from hills and trees, and from solstice nights” (p. ). The forebodings and prophetic visions concerning the future originated in the difficult times of spiritual turmoil and expectation of what was to occur. The author is clearly able to hear voices of warning, summoning people to repentance and conversion as well as well as words of blasphemy against God .
The author of these prophetic visions identifies himself with Cyprian Kamil Norwid who amid pain wrote words of warning and comfort to the people. His tragic forebodings became fulfilled: “Created in pain and fear, amid continual doubt that it is not – Truth, but a game of illusion, a playground of rhymes – and nothing more. But some dark force said: It is the Truth, – maybe not the truth of the world, but certainly your truth, such as you’ve chosen and perceived” (p. ). Like a genuine Romantic bard, the poet realized that at least for the past year, he has had the inner power of anticipating future events: “Speak!” – and I spoke of what I thought, what I wanted, what I sensed. These were but shreds, scraps, the very first syntheses, the pale glimmers of dawn. But they were nevertheless flashes of truth” (p. ). The poet was touched by an Angel who endowed him with the power of the Word and summoned him to accept the mission. Whereas he himself, in the spirit of faith, undertook the mission of prophesying to the people and decided to fulfill it by warning the nation against the danger that had posed a threat to it. When his vocation was born, the poet decided to summon his close friends as witnesses.
The collection Sonety – zarysy /Sonnets – Outlines/ which constitutes a part of the volume Renesansowy psałterz /Renaissance Psalter/ opens with three letters addressed to a friend; the poems arose in the spring of 1939. Their author writes from a distant perspective. He turns to his friend and says hello to his native land which continues to be very close to his heart: “Say hello to the solstice gatherings from me… say hello to the Madochora / with its rugged pines–/ It is very pretty in Your place today, in the mountains!” (Renesansowy psałterz /Renaissance Psalter/ I, p. 30) . Subsequently, he introduces himself as a “poet – Piast-Kołodziej” (the legendary first ruler of Poland), who has a special mission to fulfill; this mission consists in his having to build bridges. Above all, he is to build a bridge of “upward strivings” which is to join man with God; then he is to build a bridge which will join man with another man.
The starting point for this song-prayer is the experience of pain which is common to all of nature and to all creatures. The whole of nature strives to become united with God, and that is why, one has to listen to its song: “Does it not long together with us with the yearning of the mountain-peeks and poplars, / from the Gothic towers which have sprung up from painful foundations?” (RP, IV, p. 31). From the heart of the earth, from the mountains, from trees and plants, there blurts out a profound prayer of nature which worships God, the Creator. In the prayer, one finds the very first, natural experience of God who is the Lord of the universe and who expresses his goodness through offering creatures the sun that warms the earth.
In the broad context of nature turning to God-the Creator, there emerges the experience of Piast who had opened up his heart to God: “On the road to dawn, I will not pass through the rainbow of melody, / as wide as the heart of Piast, when he opened his home, / as free as the stained glass, which would pray all night, / so silent… – I listened to such dawns many a time” (RP, V, p. 32). A deep sigh in Piast’s heart was the first prayer which was closely linked with the song of nature sung in God’s honor, still before his descendants became cleansed in the water of baptism.
According to the author of Sonety /The Sonnets/, it was “polonez”, a song born at the very beginning of the nation’s history, from the primeval experience of the Creator, that constituted Piast’s first prayer. The song expresses the soul’s deepest longings which lead from “polonaise” – the song of nature, to the hymn which touches upon the mystery of God: “Let the soul pass from polonaise to the hymn! / – For polonaise is the symbol of the Renaissance incarnations – / Strike my heart with the hymn! Strike it with a hundred smoke sacrifices! / with the stigma of Gothic retreats! The Omnipotent Eli!” (RP, VI, p. 32-33). During the times of Gothic cathedrals, Piast’s song of nature, which extended to primitive sacrifices, became entwined with a prayer to God revealed in the History of Salvation. This primeval prayer is still present in the prayers sung in the church, in the music of the organ and in the smoke of incense. It is also present in the psalms which are sung in the church and which are directed towards the cross.
The author of Sonety /The Sonnets/ also perceives the prayer of nature in some Slavic customs, in dances and folk songs, in deep longings and strivings: “I see this cordial, rhythmic, pious plainsong/ I see the seas of eyes: the moonlit sparkly waves – / they follow the footpaths in procession, they walk along coarse fields / with the sacrifice of hearts and eyes – with burnt offerings” (RP, VII, p. 33). This simple experience leads the author of the psalms to the mystery of Resurrection. His “Slavic soul” is by nature open to God, through the experience of beauty and the longing after eternal happiness in paradise, as well as through the longing after peace which the author refers to as a “Slavic sacrament” carried in the monstrance.
Prayer, which is combined naturally with the longing after freedom, is inscribed in the Slavic soul: “There is within you freedom and frolicking of spruces – the forest brawlers. / there are coffered ceilings of cloud, – there are green slopes of trees, / and above this eternal freedom, there is the pious whiteness of mountain-peaks / and there is the lofty reverie in the harmony of sharp-arched tones” (RP, IX, p. 34). The Slavic “dreamer” soul naturally strives towards God whom it perceives as a heavenly beauty. Its characteristic feature is its love of song which expresses itself in the “wistfulness of cordial prayers” that one may hear before every shrine, particularly in the month of May. This soul which is immersed in prayer finds its most complete expression in the architecture of the arches in the chapels of the royal Wawel castle; the arches seem to shoot out into the sky like a melody.
The Wawel castle whose form, with its numerous shrines and chapels, reminds the author of Renesansowy psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ of the Greek Acropolis, is crowned with crosses which snatch and carry the Slavic soul towards the sky: “After centuries the diamond crosses over Acropolis , /Christ’s incarnation in the Doric and Ionic shapes-/O soul which has grown out of freedom, carve out the Messianic power/ and transform it into psalms of Love – into a Renaissance psalter” (RP, XI, p. 35-36). The Christian soul of the Slav-Poet draws from the “oak delights”, following in the footsteps of Christ, and His Gospels. In the Poet’s soul, the evangelical experience becomes closely united with the Slavic nature, thereby creating a new quality.
The experience described by the Poet takes place on the night of Kupala which he refers to as the “Kupala night”; it is a time when the Slavs burnt fires and worshipped their gods. On such a night, the primeval experience becomes united with the experience of the mystery of the Spirit which is symbolized by the Dove: “Afterward kneel down in the orchids – and calm down, my Friend, / at the solstice fire. – By the radiant glow of tongues, / the organ of woods – do you hear? – over and above the glitter of lightening/ over the cenacle of the world there descended – the Dove” (RP, XIII, p. 37). The solstice fire becomes transformed into fiery tongues which give the light of the Holy Spirit and enable one to get to know God, whereas the primeval experience becomes what is known as the experience of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in the “cenacle of the world”.
The pre-Christian mystery of bread leads the Poet to the experience of the mystery of the Eucharist – “of Bread and the Lord’s Blood”, as well as to ardent prayer in which the poet implores the Lord that the sacrifice of the Cross could extend to all sufferings and pains of the world. It is a request for the Love which flows from the “crucified hands” and the pierced Heart: “The ever more profound prayer of the humankind will shoot out with a longing – / The Era, the Everyday and Man are an expectation for the Spirit,/ the hearts of solstice gatherings and people, united by a longing after the Word” (RP XIV, p. 38). In the poet’s prayer, it is the Word that comes to the foreground; it is also the Word that combines all of man’s efforts, both these from the pre-Christian times, and those which were given special significance by St. Francis of Assisi – a great lover of the Cross.
In his vision of the cross, it was St. Francis of Assisi, a “cordial brother from Alwernia”, who was the Poet’s chief mentor and guide. It was none other but St. Francis who at the turn of the Gothic and of the Renaissance era, revealed to the world the beauty of the cross. The cross – a symbol of Love which “looks on mercifully from the crossroads”, has become a permanent element of the landscape of the Wawel castle as well as of the contours of St. Mary’s basilica in Cracow. It is a sign of the suffering which Christ took upon himself and at the same time, of His condescension to the plight of man. It is about this cross that the Evangelists selected from the land of the Slavs speak about: “O you, with the burning heart! You are the Lord’s Evangelist! / Lift, o Slavic soul, this Ark of Divine Revelations, / descend upon the pining era and enlighten it with the brightness of the roadside crosses” (RP, XV, p. 38). This cross soars up above the whole land crowning the mountain-peaks and soaring up above the clouds. For the country seen from the perspective of the Tatra mountains, the cross is a sign of salvation, like Moses’ stick which marks out the horizon of longings.
The Sonety /Sonnets/ which constitute the first part of Renesansowy psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ end with a song which is a visionary invocation addressed to friends. The poet sees three columns which rise up above the ruined world; he sees three fires which burn with the flame of freedom. The three columns are united to form a single “evangelical brightness”.
A brace which, as it were, fastens together all of the Sonnets is the psalm…”And when David came back to his native land”; this psalm reminds us that the songs are sung by a Slavic David who derives his inspiration from his native land. The Slavic David prays supported by the experience of his native land and his prayer expresses his unity with God: “I ran amid your flowery paths, like shepherds do, / my native land – and I communed with God/ I climbed up your hilly pathways, pulled out weeds and cleared bright trails for the advancing Traveler” (Psalm, p. 40). In his heart, there arose youthful yearnings and strivings to surrender totally to God. It was a wish of the poet, of the Slavic David , who implored God to anoint him with His power: “And I too began to rustle – a beech among beech trees, / and the shepherds’ song became so sacred for me, / that I, a descendant of Piast – an Israeli David, desired that the Lord should anoint my forehead…” (RP, Psalm, p. 40.). In the prayer, the poet discovered his vocation to speak on behalf of the whole nation, for which he became anointed by God. His poetic vocation allows him, in the likeness of a Romantic poet, to pass through the door of sensual reality to “Brightness”, where God resides. In the person of the poet, the soul of the bard becomes united with the soul of a priest who wishes to sacrifice his life for his brothers. In the end, the poet requests his mother to stand close to him when he decides to undertake such a great effort: “My Mother, I wish to confess to you/ my constitution and to uncover the lid of my longings/and disclose what overwhelms me, the entire Slavic pressure and pain” (RP, Psalm, p. 41.).
The above psalm, which was completed in the autumn of 1939, is a prayer to God which is said by a Slavic David; the latter asks God for compassion and freedom for the entire nation. He stands up like a priest in order to make a sacrifice and implore God for mercy.

5. Discovery of the Cross

An important place in Renesansowy Psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ is taken up by the poem Symphonie – scalenia /Symphonies – Unifications/ which consists of three parts: 1. Poezja (uczta czarnoleska) /Poetry – Czarnoleska Feast/, 2. Mousike (symfonia) /Music – Symphony/, 3. Słowo – Logos (rapsod) /The Word – Logos (rhapsod)/. In the case of the second part, the author made note of the date when the work was written: “(inspired and recorded on 31 December 1938)”.
The poem Poezja (Uczta Czarnoleska) /Poetry – Czarnoleska Feast/ is sung by a Piast poet who is strongly rooted in the Slavic tradition. Poetry is for him a reflection of the deepest longings which pervade the rocky pillars, reaching up to the skies. In it, one is able to see the reflection of Christ who is present in the Eucharist. Through the natural experience of a Slavic soul, the poet is able to find himself in the proximity of God: “Today I pray to You, O Sunny, Radiant God! – My thatch covered profusely with gold is burning” (Symphonie, p. 42). The prayer leads him to the experience of the proximity of God who is present in nature.
The poet’s task is to disclose the secrets of the human hearts and to reveal the truth about God. The poet stands between God and people so as to express what man feels deep in his heart: “To guess what’s in people’s hearts is the poets’ task, /to hammer words into God’s and Christ’ chain. – / O Holy! Melt your and your neighbors’ pain into poetry / and let your brothers pray on a wondrous rosary” (Symphonie /Symphony/, p. 44). Poetry is similar to prayer as it reaches up to God, in a similar way as prayer does. Through it, the poet expresses the thought which through Christ soars up straight up to God himself.
A central place in the Poet’s prayer is taken up by Christ, to whom the poet stretches out his hands. It is Him who is the “real Truth” which every human thought strives to attain. The encounter with Christ, gives a new dimension to the poet’s prayer. His song addressed to God “does not conceal or belie any desires or longings”; it is not an expression of some vague craze, but a conscious choice of Christ and of His cross: “I am going to take off my patterned, fancy dress – /I shall put on a homespun coat and a Lent sack – /One has to repent with You, my Crucified Christ, /O YOU, the realization of strivings – Free and Worthy of Love!” (Symphonie / Symphony, p. 45). Christ in the Gothic and Renaissance cross became clearly inscribed in the history of the Slavic nation. He became close in St. Francis as well as in the cross of penance associated with Lent, the one that the poor wretch loved so much. The cross of penance constitutes for the Poet a symbol of the Slavic soul which selects Love and Freedom.
In the poet’s prayer, one can find a reflection of his Slavic soul which accepts the gift of faith and through it, it enters new areas of freedom. It becomes united with the Cross which endows the Slavic sorrow with a salvific character: “And on a Lent evening, with the lunar pane beside me / and with Him on the Cross, I am in a shaded retreat. / In my sobbing breast, a sorrow trembles, until the breast becomes more noble and strong by a hundredfold” (Symphonie /Symphony, p. 47). The above prayer becomes transformed into a great song which reaches out to God, soaring up into the sky like “liquid gold”, like “singing pearls” and a “flowing train”.
The Slavic song which flows out from the Poet’s breast is his prayer; in it, his Slavic nature is closely united with the revealed truth. In his Slavic sonnets and psalms, the poet wants to fully express the mystery of the union between nature and grace: “Slavic. And hospitable. Descended from the Piasts. And my own. / Like the tiny fountain, / like the spread-out spring, and the lofty pine, singing the song of Christs – the Morning Poetry” (Symphonie / Symphony, p. 48). Poetry is an area, where the poet discovers the possibility of reaching out to the very source, the very nature of the “Slavic soul”, in which nature and grace become one.
The poem Poezja (uczta czarnoleska) /Poetry – Czarnoleska Feast/ closes with the Poet’s reflection which sums up his search after the mystery of the Slavic soul. The poet sees in it a vast wealth of experience of national heroes: particularly that of prince Mieszko, kings Boleslas Śmiały, and Szczodry, of martyrs St. Stanislas and Andrew, poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki, of hetman Żółkiewski and Samuel Zborowski. The cross, with its two beams – the vertical and the horizontal one, which for the poet symbolize the achievement of the Gothic and the Renaissance, decidedly constitutes an integral part of the great national history. The Gothic which is lofty and slender like a cathedral, expresses the “soaring way” of the soul, like that of St. Francis embracing Christ on the cross: “The Gothic has a soaring and narrow path. Let us put in a symbol in the middle, for instance that of a Gothic cathedral” (Symphonie /Symphony/, p. 49). The vertical beam of the cross symbolizes man’s unlimited aspirations which grow out of this vale of tears, of man’s dreadful humiliation; these aspirations soar up, towards the crucified Savior.
The horizontal beam of the cross symbolizes the effort of the Renaissance, an interest in man and his everyday activities. It is summed up in the call “Let us love each other”, which leads to a love for all people which “is no smaller than that of St. Francis”; yet this love has another pole in the shape of selfishness and a negation of oneself. It is only a love which is shown in the Cross of Christ, which is a combination of the vertical and the horizontal beam, of love of God and one’s own neighbor as oneself, that may lead to a harmony: “The Gothic way leads upwards, the Renaissance one leads sideways. The two ways intersect each other. The form, Salvation and the Cross come from this intersection” (Symphonie /Symphony/, p. 49). The cross which is a union of the vertical and the horizontal beam expresses most fully the essence of the Slavic soul which is open to God and to a fellow man.

6. Adoration of God

Mousike (O Muzyko) /Oh Music/ is a song of nature in honor of God the Creator who is Harmony, Beauty, Music and Melody. The poet opens up his heart to the song of nature which sings the glory of God and which touches upon His mystery: “O Lord! / You are the supreme Harmony! / Your music is your eternal daughter – / from the height of your spheres / you send the earth the happiness of your melody” (Mousike, p. 51). The beauty of God is reflected in the creatures, in the music of the shepherds, in the singing of angels and in the songs of maidens who sing in the fields. In this music, there is harmony which introduces order into the songs sung in God’s honor by a variety of creatures beginning with Angels and ending with the simplest of beings. This music is a prayer of adoration for God who is Unity and Beauty .
The song of nature finds its unique expression in a prayer which fills the village church like a melody and which soars up towards God: “The melody travels down the mountain slopes./ In the village church everyday / the choir sings – /to protect us against plague, famine and fire / and war –/ from Bielany at two o’clock past midnight/ the bells toll, / with the sound of forgiveness, with power and might/ the blessed – / They sound ever more powerful, / how this prayer intensifies – /and the supplication flows with the clouds/ and implores like a request” (Mousike, p. 53). The music soars up skywards and becomes ever more spiritual. The clouds sing a song of adoration, worshipping the greatness of Love.
Yet, the poet returns to the church which is filled with the wonderful melody of the organ, up to the very Gothic arches. This music is combined with the song of nature – with the singing of “beetles, nightingales and bumble-bees”. The Prayer – Symphony of nature in honor of God the Creator culminates in a simple tune played on a shepherd’s pipe: “Go you singer and street musician, / from house to house – /and pour out joy of the strings as a reward,/ and lavish the joy of tones. / Play your pipe on the mountain pastures – / shepherd, be a joy to the ear!/ O, we shall hear you from a distance, the Lord God listens with joy” (Mousike, p. 54). In the symphony, the melody of nature which worships God is combined with man’s prayer which is being sung with man’s entire life.
The poem Mousike is a prayerful song sung in honor of God. The poet empathizes with the infinity of nature and listens in to the rhythm of the human heart, discovering in them a great longing after the Creator. The melody of nature and the rhythm of the human heart seem to chant the same song of adoration.

7. Prayer reaching out to God

The poem Słowo – Logos (Rapsod) /The Word – Logos (Rhapsody) is an evening prayer of the Poet who wins an insight into the mystery of God – the Word, the beginning and principle of all existence (c.f. Jn 1:1-18). The prayer involves all nature which is preparing to a night’s rest; it soars up to God like a “towering conclusion”. It is unarticulated speech, the “sobbing” of the soul which pines after God. From the level of nature, the Poet’s prayer becomes a call to the One who is listening: “The poet whispers the evening prayer, he is asking for the Gothic range of thought, / begs for the word of miracle: Effeta – / so that the gates would open in time, / so that he could listen in the mosque-like towers to the evening prayers, in their child-like beauty” (Słowo /Word/, p. 55). The poet’s prayer is like a Gothic church tower which reaches out to the sky – to God. It is a call which breaks out from the depths of a man’s soul; this man aspires to greatness, but at the same time, he gets to know the humiliation of sin and that is why, in the evening he sings his psalm of penance.
In the evening prayer, the Poet experiences the closeness of the Word – God Incarnate which gives sense to the entire history of the world: “I see you – the Word, / among floors and sunrises/ a rising strength – like a fruit of paradise / a mighty power in the history of the humankind – /to the sky and the earth – to both halves” (Słowo /The Word/, p. 56). The prayer connects him with the mystery of God who is the Word – the Beginning of all things and who gives us a share in the mystery of God – the Creator, the “Sculptor of All Things”. It gives him an insight into the Word Incarnate which reveals the true face of the Father: “And the Word is the love of the Father, / it the greatest miracle of omnipotent eyes and a continuous process of self-recognition, / it is the Light of Love – a golden image” (Słowo /The Word/, p. 58). In the mystery of the cross, the Word grew into the “wheat soil”; it became a part of the reality which was well-known to the poet; it was recognizable in people’s faces as well as in their longings. The cross became a distinctive sign of this earth, expressing the deepest longings of the human hearts after Freedom and Love.
The Word is present in the Eucharist – the “bloodless sacrifice”; it extends to all of human longings and that is why, the poet turns to God with a humble request to feed the hungry hearts: “You shall multiply the holy bread for them with a miracle – / feed me with the bread and my brethren” (Słowo /The Word/, p. 62). The request for the divine Food ends with a prayer “Our Father”. The evening prayer closes with a prayer to the Father, in which man’s sighs are combined with the “Amen” of the whole of nature.

8. The Joy of prayer

An important place among the juvenile poems of Karol Wojtyla is played by the prayer entitled Magnificat – which is a song of the poet’s gratitude for the gift of the word, which God had granted to him in such abundance: “My soul, magnify the glory of the Lord, Father of great Poetry – and so good. With wondrous rhythm he fortified my youth, on an oak anvil he hammered out my song” (Magnificat, p. 63). The poem expresses an adoration of God who lavishly distributes all kinds of gifts; it expresses particular gratitude to God for the gift of gaining an insight into heavenly issues and for the possibility of passing this knowledge to others.
The author imitates the prayer entitled Pieśń Maryi /The Song of Mary/, which worships God for the gift of choosing the Word of God for the Mother. He empathizes with Her situation and even borrows some of her expressions, in order to give voice to his gratitude for the possibility of probing into the mystery of the word: “Let happiness magnify You – a great mystery: with primordial song you have stretched my lungs, made my face sink into the blue of the sky, a shower of music falling on my strings – and in this melody You came as Christ” (Magnificat, p. 64). He thanks for the Slavic soul which sings songs to the only God. He worships God for His ability to understand and empathize with man in situations marked with both joy and sufferings; he praises God for both the flights of the spirit and for the misfortunes.
Like a prophet, the poet wishes to adore and worship God with his song, talent, soul and to sing the hymn of Angels with his entire being: “Holy, Holy, Holy!” In this song of adoration, the Slavic soul and the soul of the poet become one, singing Magnificat.

9. Testimony of Christ

The collection Renesansowy psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ closes with the poem Ballada wawelskich arkad /The Ballad of the Wawel Arcades/ which begins with a motto from the Acts of the Apostles: “And Stephen said: “I can see heaven thrown open” (Ac 7:56); the above words point out to the biblical inspirations of Karol Wojtyla’s poetry. The poem opens with a Prolog, in which we are confronted with the poet who reaches out to the entire cosmos by means of his imagination. Like Pythagoras , he carves out forms out of words in the boundless space before him.
The symphonic poem is performed by the entire nature. The nightingale sings, the bell plays a tune in the birch wood, the melody drops down onto the floor of flowers, the moon sways in the branches. In the Romantic aura of the evening, one can hear Chopin’s piano which is combined with the music of the spheres: “Play Frederic, play about the meadow. / Then in the great hall, jasmine blossomed among the fingers / and the evening wind rustled in the grass on the keyboard” (Ballada /The Ballad/, p. 67). Chopin’s music is combined with the melody of nature, enveloping the entire space of the cosmos which is marked out by the planets. It is a silence which reaches out above time, to God’s mystery. It assumed the shape of the “Wawel arcades”.
The shapeless music reaches out to the mystery of the beginning expressing the Poet’s deepest desire: “I want to listen to all of you. From the crown to the roots, / I want to envelope the whole tree with love, and eat away at it like a woodworm./ (I lay down and am resting in the furrow) I want to see You, God, /face to face!/ / – like an angel, then on the first day” (Ballada /The Ballad/, p. 69). The beginning is known, whereas what is high up in the sky, among the stars, remains a mystery. The poet wishes to reach out to it by means of his intuition.
The music of the spheres suddenly gives way to the scene of Stephen’s stoning. He observed the Law and that is why he deserved the anger and scorn of the people: “Stephen looks on – unprotected by a shield. / Stephen listens to the raging anger of Jerusalem. /He hears: the fierce whirr of stones. / The circles of the querns swirl on” (Ballada /The Ballad/, p. 69). Amid the terrible confusion and violence, once again one is able to hear a melody in which one can clearly distinguish a call for help addressed to the Son of God. With his martyrdom, Stephen reached out to the very summit of heaven; he reached out to the “summits of Harmony of All Things”, to the “eternal zenith”. In this music of martyrdom, one can simultaneously hear the music of nature which reveals the beauty of infinity. God reveals Himself in the History of Israel; He reveals Himself during the flight from Egypt as a fire which protects the travelers. The poet hears this music; he recovers it from history and relays it to the listeners. He is like a pianist who plays the melody of history, resuscitating the past and revealing the future.
The poem Ballada wawelskich arkad /The Ballad of the Wawel Arcades/ is like a Chopin concert. It revives the history of Israel and inscribes it into the history of the Polish people: the hordes of Tartars, Gniezno, Warsaw, the insurrections and wars. Into this reality which is full of anxiety and turmoil, the poet introduces God who is able to weave a harmony of love out of this tangle of history, likewise from the martyr’s death of Stephen: “Then God entered the smithy. The smith’s hammer rested on the clouds. / The coal burnt in the hearth and the embers breathed out heavily. / The swords swelled for the battle. The roosts rusted in the fields. / Take me, o blacksmith and strike! The wind swept the prayer from the furrows of stone mouths, / it bent the sheaves in the fields, it pulled the strings of crossbows” (Ballada /The Ballad/, p. 74). A prayer springs to God from the heart requesting Him to grant victory and fill the world with harmony.
The Poet ends his Ballad of the Wawel Arcades with an Epilogue which introduces the listener into the Wawel courtyard where one can hear the music of the past.
Karol Wojtyla’s juvenile poetry gathered in the volume Renesansowy psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ includes a wide variety of works, ranging from the very first poems dating back to the time of the Wadowice high school, up to the period of Wojtyla’s studies in the department of Polish literature and subsequently, the times of the German occupation; it reveals to the reader the rich interior of the poet, as well as his creative experiments and longings after the ideal. In these poems, there dominates the spirit of a Romantic who is searching for the ideal of life and is constantly subjected to a confrontation with suffering which is caused by the death of the person who is very close to him – namely his mother. The poet overcomes the hardships of everyday life and looks for his own way in life.
In Pieśń poranna /The Morning Song/, the poet identifies himself with the “Slavic harpist”, so as to sing a hymn in God’s honor, in the manner of David who did so in his psalms. He reminds one of a prophet of the Old Covenant who perceives the approaching calamity which is to befall Poland. He stands before God requesting Him to have mercy on the Polish people. In the poem Sonety- zarysy /Sonnets – Outlines/, one can clearly sense the augury of the approaching war.
The poem Renesansowy psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ is a Slavic song, in which the poet wishes to present a history of the world. One finds here a prayer of Piast, the ancient ruler of Poland, who is looking for God in nature but is nevertheless open to the Revelation which the Christian missionaries had brought to Polish territories a thousand years ago. One finds here a tearful mood of Slavic songs and Latin hymns soaring up to God like Gothic cathedrals. One also finds here the pagan customs of the solstice night which are interwoven with the experience of the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
In the prayer of the young Poet, it is the mystery of the Eucharist, from which there flows infinite love that comes to the foreground. The poem Symphonie – scalenia /Symphony – Unification/ marks a transition from the experience of the natural faith of a Slav, to the faith revealed and concealed in Jesus. Christ on the cross reveals to the poet the mystery of His mission – the salvation of man. The Renesansowy psałterz /The Renaissance Psalter/ ends on a strong note, with the poem entitled Słowo – Logos (Rapsod) /Word – Logos (Rhapsody); the latter poem constitutes the poet’s evening conversation with Jesus – the Word Incarnate. It is in Him that the poet discovers the sense of the world and of his own life, the sense of joy and suffering. Thus, he ends with a hymn entitled Magnificat and with The Ballad of the Wawel Arcades – as it were revealing Christ entering into the history of Poland through Chopin’s concert.
The Renaissance Psalter is an attempt to understand history and to show how the Slavic spirit is linked to the experience of faith revealed in Christ.

Scroll to Top