"Verweile doch, du bist so schön"
-Faust to Mephistopheles
-Faust to Mephistopheles
The labyrinth that makes up Zygmunt Krasiński's Letters to Delfina Potocka is as inviting as it is dangerous. To understand this it is enough to apply the same Faustian adage towards The Letters as Krasiński himself applies to his muse:
"There is something perfect in you, something so very refined, so proudly and gracefully given by God, yet at once completely unforced, as if revealed in a casual moment of inattention, so very much authentically you that it becomes necessary for the soul to repeat the words of Faust in his bargain with Mephistopheles: 'Stay awhile, you are so beautiful.'"
The notion of letters or diaries as literature is a well established trope. The poet is incapable of writing except as a poet. Even the most mundane scribbles about the most practical matters are elevated when formulated by the poet. Love letters are never mundane. It could be argued that they are in fact the greatest of any poet's works because they compel the concentration of all of the poet's literary abilities towards his beloved.
Be that as it may, our literary curiosity is always tempered by good manners. Love letters are intimate and only the coldest of literary critics could go about reading and analyzing them without some level of fear, shame and reverence towards the private nature of the correspondence.
Just as Krasiński's Letters are full of an undercurrent of apprehension as the poet gives himself over to the slavery of romantic love, so too we must share in this apprehension as we go digging for wisdom in what are essentially the ebb and flow of the romantic tide between a man and a woman.
Krasiński invokes the Faustian bargain as both flattery of a woman and as a reminder to himself of the risk he is taking. Delfina is no doubt flattered to find herself in possession of the same powers of persuasion as Eve, just as Krasiński is well aware of the fact that his love treads on thin ice. It is not that Krasiński considers his letters a Faustian surrender. His love is as pure as Delfina's vanity appears vast. It is rather that Krasiński wishes to write his letters with a clean conscience: to do so he must confess that an element of diabolism lurks on the peripherals of all romantic loves.
It is so difficult, when overwhelmed by such love, not to fall into these peripherals. The life he is given; whether the salons, the emigre community, Rome itself - all of it pales, all of it is boredom and suffering. There is only happiness in romantic longing - in the cruel misery of distance in both space and time. Krasiński is like Odysseus, except that his exotic journey is the daily life that he lives; a life transformed into a sojourn through hostile seas by virtue of the absence of his beloved. And yet unlike Odysseus, a dark fate seems to hang over Krasiński's love.
The egoism of the poet is likewise laid bare in the form of a confession. This egoism is inescapable, given that The Letters are meant to offer up Krasiński's ego before his beloved. Love has a way of reducing the scope of our concerns to the most immediate and provincial for we suddenly discover the greatest and highest beauty in the person who has captured our heart. Under such circumstances our heart pours forth.
Yet Krasiński is no young Werther, nor Faust. His romanticism is Polish, and as such it is distinct on the European stage. We should not expect of him what our run of the mill romantic portends:
"We Poles are a happy people because we are capable of combining all of the concepts of civilization with all of the chaos of unruly life; we always act in Nature, that is to say we act as befits the living. We are capable of the deepest thoughts, to conceptualize the spheres of high mathematics, to understand the thinking of all of the various peoples of the world. We are gifted with a readiness to undertake any action combined with idealistic intelligence. We are gifted with eternal youth and indeed in this old Europe who remains ever young? - We and we alone!"
Thus does Krasiński recognize and resist the Faustian temptation of a romantic longing for his muse, thus does he lay bare his egoism - going so far as to require an empty Church wherein he can pray alone.
Thus we too must recognize and resist the Faustian temptation to discover literature where there is simple and intimate love, thus must we too lay bare our egoism: we read Krasiński because we are curious about the poet's love, not out of some duty to the poet's work. If we are able to admit all of this about ourselves as readers - in the same spirit with which Krasiński admits it of himself as a lover - then and only then can we hope to learn not the literary greatness of The Letters, but the lessons they hold about the love between a man and a woman.