The Ambiguous Maria Konopnicka – Poland’s Patriotic Sappho

October 8 marks the anniversary of the death of one of Poland’s greatest poets, Maria Konopnicka. A strong patriot, her poem Rota was once proposed as the national anthem… yet it is almost certain that she was gay, something that many Poles today still find impossible to reconcile with being Polish.

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In Poland, school children are still required to read Konopnicka, even a century and more after her death. Her lines in Rota, ringing with national sentiment with their defence of the Polish language, defiance of the ‘Teuton’, and invocation of the Christian god, leave no room for doubt that she was a Pole to the core.

But her personal life tells a story that many would not find it easy to accept, even in 21st century Poland.

Maria Konopnicka was born in Suwałki in May 1842, and married at the age of 20. With her husband Jarosław she had six children, but he was a man unimpressed with his wife’s literary talent, and eventually she left him, moving to Warsaw with their offspring.

Konopnicka continued to write, producing stories for children as well as poems, and focusing her pen on oppression of Polish Jews, Irish revolutionaries, and oppressed women.

Later, she became close to and lived with a woman called Maria Dulębianka, younger than her, whom she addressed as ‘Pietrek’. Dulębianka, rather masculine in appearance, compared to Konopnicka’s feminine style, was present at Maria’s side at family events, and, nine years after Konopnicka’s death in 1910, she was buried in the same grave, at Konopnicka’s family’s wishes.

Later, her body was exhumed and buried elsewhere – and there has never been an explanation why.

Rota, by Maria Konopnicka

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