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the Complete Review
the complete review - epics

The Mouseiad

Ignacy Krasicki

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To purchase The Mouseiad

Title: The Mouseiad
Author: Ignacy Krasicki
Genre: Epics
Written: (1775-1780) (Eng. 2019)
Length: 232 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: The Mouseiad - US
The Mouseiad - UK
The Mouseiad - Canada
  • and other Mock Epics
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Charles S. Kraszewski
  • Includes:
    • The Mouseiad (Myszeida, 1775)
    • Monachomachia or The War of the Monks (Monachomachia, 1778)
    • Anti-Monachomachia (Antymonachomachia, 1780)
    • The Chocim War (Wojna chocimska, 1780)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good fun, in a very lively translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Mouseiad collects four epics -- of very manageable rather than truly epic length -- written in the eighteenth century by Ignacy Krasicki. Three are 'mock epics', satirical works that pit unlikely sides (like cats and mice) in (mock-)grand clashes and dramatic battle; the fourth is a more serious work, which translator Charles S. Kraszewski does his best to (really) lower expectations about from the beginning, describing it already in his Introduction as: "the less than scintillating serious epic Chocim War"
       The epics are written in ottava rima (lines rhyming: ABABABCC) -- "the preferred verse form of Tasso (Orlando Furioso [sic !]), Krasicki's favourite poet", Kraszewski notes. [Orlando Furioso is written in ottava rima, if not by Tasso; nevertheless, Tasso did also favor ottava rima; see e.g. his Jerusalem Delivered.] Kraszewski follows suit, with slight modifications, in the three mock epics, while opting for blank verse for the rather heavier 'The Chocim War'. Certainly the sprightly meter -- which Kraszewski throws himself into wholeheartedly -- makes for lively comic texts; it is well-suited for the playfulness of the stories and plots of the mock epics -- though of course the strict rhyme-scheme often forces rather free (translated-)word-choices. But Kraszewski certainly captures the spirit of the endeavours, and the mock epics are good fun to read -- and, with the theatrical flair of both language and action, lend themselves to being read out loud.
       As befits mock epics, the conflicts at the hearts of these don't exactly compare to the contests of the great classical epics, as everything is rather smaller-scale -- though, in its own ways, no less grandiose. Warfare here doesn't have great armies of well-trained trained soldiers clashing -- but is no less heated and hard-fought for that. And part of the joke is, of course, how seriously things are taken by those involved.
       'The Mouseiad' is even loosely based on an ancient Polish legend, featuring King Popiel, a degenerate human ruler who is:

Slothful, of soft delight lethargic slave,
He delegates rule, lapped in luxuries.
       He's not exactly your paragon-sovereign, as he: "Infected all with shame, touched all with rot". He's also capricious: briefly -- for nine days -- mice strike his fancy, and he declares an: "open season on cats", but just as quickly he finds himself: "of rodent passion quit" and instead fawns over cats -- with Mruczysław, the king of cats, his new and feline favorite. The mice are now the persecuted, and they try to organize under their king, Gryzomir.
       The mice (and rats) go into battle with the cats; they are routed, but the cats also suffer casualties -- notably Filuś, the favorite of Princess Duchna. Deprived of her beloved pet, she then eggs her father on:
'Relent not, Daddy ! Bank the coals of hate !
Revenge Filuś ! All the rodents -- exterminate !'
       Gryzomir makes for the hills -- and falls into a witch's trap. He is able to convince her to spare his life -- and soon finds himself joy-riding with her on her broom. Alas, he also tumbles off, landing most inconveniently. But while his minutes soon seem numbered, a reprieve comes: the witch swoops down to save him. Meanwhile, his brother Gryzander is regrouping; soon, the mice and rats are gathering support, as King Popiel is prepared to go to all-out war.
       The next time, the cats do not fare nearly as well in battle against the mice (and rats). A distraught King Popiel flees, but the rats are hot on his heels. Things do not end well for him.
       If a bit abrupt in some of its turns, 'The Mouseiad' is a very enjoyable brisk little epic. With its natural adversaries -- cats and mice -- and the one side obvious underdogs (but, as the title suggests, the side whose exploits are the focus: it's the mice's (and rats') battle), Krasicki already has the pieces for an amusing epic-in-miniature, but of course it's the roles of the foolish humans as overlords who find themselves undone by their actions and their underestimated underlings that really make the story (and much of the humor). Some of the detours along the way -- notably the role of the witch -- are a bit more awkwardly fit in -- but also allow Krasicki some of his more vivid scenes. (Gryzomir's not so soft landing into the lap of the enemy, as it were, after he falls off the witch's broom is obviously ridiculously convenient, but does make for some good scenes.)
       'Monachomachia or The War of the Monks' is, as the title promises, a conflict between monks, as the Dominicans and Carmelites have things to sort out. It begins harmlessly enough: "I insist we must / Challenge our rivals to a clash of wits", the Dominicans decide, and off they go, suggesting to the other order:
'Good fathers, now's the time the world to show
Who has the better claim to wisdom's seat;
Whose academic deeds more brightly glow.
       As it turns out, the monks are not exactly as scholarly as their reputations might suggest, preferring some of life's simpler pleasures -- but now: "It looks / As if we must set mugs aside, and reach for ... books". That's easier said than done, however, as the monks really haven't been pursuing any form of scholarship for quite a while now:
'Thus, we must hit the books. Now, ancient lore,
Passed down by generations of our kind,
Declares that, somewhere, we've a hefty store
Of books, patiently waiting for the time
Someone shall crack them open. It's been more
Than thirty years since Alphonse had a mind
To broach the -- what'd you call it ? -- library
Up in the rafters; it's high time we go and see

'What's to be found there; perhaps something of use ?
       Unsurprisingly, the actual conflict quickly degenerates from high-minded intellectual contest into a brawl -- to good comic effect:
The screams and shouts of war fly through the hall.
Here, one curls foetally, there someone bleeds;
Father Remigius, sinewy and tall,
Swings with ruthless precision his heavy beads.
Capistran, brained by barrel, swooning, falls;
Dydak fells Symphorus with mug of mead.
Like viper hissing, Regulat pins his man,
While Longinus, sword-like, brandishes frying pan.
       Finding things have quickly gotten far too far out of hand, the difficulty then is how to make peace. The solution is fortunately at hand: "let's send / For the Bottle" ! There's a grand jug -- "the jug of jugs !" -- and its sheer volume and the promise of the contents -- "Eyebrows were raised / In awe at how much liquor it might hold !" -- is sufficient to ensure the monks get their priorities right again.
       Krasicki's more than gentle mocking has the monks in 'Monachomachia' conclude that: "Ignorance is bliss". Amusingly then he next conceives an 'Anti-Monachomachia', set into motion by the discovery of his poem of the 'War of the Monks'. It falls into the hands of the Hag of Discord and ... well, you can imagine what she does with it.
       It's pretty easy to get the monks worked up: "His words of mockery hurt, I say ! They sting", they moan, and, not having learned their lesson, maintain: "We'll show the churl how monks defend their right -- with might !" Despite: "a plot / Fantastic, silly, unworthy serious thought", this 'War of the Monks' did hit to the quick, and they don't want to stand for it. There is again some debate over how to counter-attack, and bluster again easily drowns out common sense:
'So now, let's hit the books !' 'The books ? What for ?'
Gaudenty bellowed, swollen anew with bile.
'Let weak-limbed wisemen over strophes pore [sic],
And boast their wit, their maxims, and their style !
With fist, not feather, we'll even the score !
Let us go, as of old, to armed trial.
When stains to honour are to be redressed,
Where arm ... or art, is mightier -- there is righteousness !
       Krasicki has good fun painting his (earlier) book as one causing such strong reactions far and wide, but does allow reason (and, helpfully, more alcohol) to prevail. The Rector is allowed to point out:
Why all this anger ? What's in this book, then,
That's made you all to quake in pain and fear ?
The follies of a lightweight poet's pen
Can so afflict the learned, pious ear ?
       Summing up for all three of his mock epics, Krasicki here makes the case that:
The weapons of wit can be harmful, snide,
But helpful too, when they're necessary.
Behind the jokes, salubrious warnings hide,
And he, who opts to employ them boldly
Deserves not to be harshly vilified,
Oppressed and insulted vengefully !
       Krasicki's mock epics are broad and general enough that they easily transcend some of the time- and nation-specific critiques contained in them; they remain more or less timeless, and can quite readily be enjoyed by contemporary readers. (Translator Kraszewski's boisterous and energetic rendering helps, too.)
       'The Chocim War' is then -- as Kraszewski repeatedly already warned in his Introduction -- a different sort of work, more traditional, entirely earnest, and, yes, not quite so riveting. So also there is a great deal of repetition, faithfully if apparently reluctantly reproduced by Kraszewski. The English version does, however, not quite follow the original presentation, Kraszewski explaining that:
By deciding to translate the Chocim War into blank verse, we freed ourselves from the tyranny of the stanza, and were able to cut out a good deal of the fat with which Krasicki was obliged to lard his pan.
       While it can seem 'The Chocim War' is included more as completist-filler -- the mock epics alone fill a mere 120 or so pages --, it's not entirely merely historic curiosity (or dead weight). In true epic form, it is based on an actual conflict, the Battle(s) of Chocim of 1621, between (essentially) Polish warriors and an invading Ottoman force. The Polish forces were long led by: "Chodkiewicz, Poland's saviour, Poland's hope" -- who, to add a dash of romance to the whole thing, had just married (his second wife) shortly before being called into battle. After his death, it is Lubomirski who: "Took on the role of your nation's saviour", seeing to it that the Ottoman leader Osman II was: "forced to sue for a disgraceful peace" (previously having already: "turned tail and basely fled").
       Sticking closely to the actual events -- though certainly elevating the Polish exploits as brightly and loudly as Krasicki could --, 'The Chocim War' is a fairly typical, and typically over-heated, local European epic -- fortunately relatively small-scale, and not going on at near endless epic length. Kraszewski warns and complains of the repetition, but, really, the whole thing moves along quite quickly and painlessly enough. It's certainly not the centerpiece of this collection, and hardly something to seek out on its own, but it fits well enough in here as a contrasting example of Krasicki's verse-work (and, yes, does support the consensus that Krasicki's strength lay very much in the comic rather than the serious).
       In bringing Krasicki's three mock epics into English, in Kraszewski's free but energetic and very accessible translation (the ottava rima form just bouncing right along), The Mouseiad is a very welcome collection to now have in English. Kraszewski also provides a lengthy Introduction which is useful and quite interesting, though perhaps not ideal as such; a splitting-up of this supporting material into a briefer, more specific (and spoiler-freer) introduction and then lengthier afterword might have served readers better. The inclusion of 'The Chocim War' is ultimately also welcome, Kraszewski gamely trying to make it more agreeable to English-speaking readers' ears; at its manageable length, it's not entirely a dud (and an interesting contrast to the other works).
       The humor of the mock epics, and the language throughout -- i.e. Kraszewski's ebullient rendering -- make for a really enjoyable read -- both silent, for oneself, and out loud. The latter, especially: the language and some of the slightly tortured constructions might be a bit of a challenge for the kids, but these really can be recommended as read-out-loud works, as good family fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 November 2020

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The Mouseiad: Ignacy Krasicki: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Ignacy Krasicki lived 1735 to 1801.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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