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Jan Kochanowski was born in 1530, the son of Piotr Kochanowski, and of Anna Bialaczowska. His father owned large tracts of land in Radom and was for some time a magistrate in the town of Sandomierz. At the age of fourteen years Jan embarked upon a life of study and travel. In 1544 he entered the University of Kraków, which had developed in accordance with the literary tastes and traditions of Renaissance Humanism. He remained in Kraków for five years and left the university without having received any formal degree. Kochanowski spent the next seven years outside of Poland. He passed on from Kraków to Padua University, following in the footsteps of Nicolaus Copernicus, who had attended this renowned centre of learning some years before. Kochanowski devoted himself to the study of Classical philology. He achieved a mastery of Latin and a good knowledge of Greek whilst specialising particularly in the works of Cicero. During his sojourn in Italy Kochanowski often visited Rome, "attracted by the possibility of association with learned men, of whom at that time there was a multitude."


The Threnodies are regarded as Kochanowski’s greatest literary achievement and their genesis lay in the tragic death of his daughter Orszula, in response to which he wrote this collection of nineteen poems. Kochanowski sought desperately in these poems both to intimate the true depth of his feelings for Orszula and to come to terms with the revelation of his own innate human frailty. The cycle of poems was a highly personal undertaking by the poet and written in a form unknown to Classical or Renaissance authors. The Threnodies are a mixed genre ranging from epigram to elegy to epitaph, not to mention psalmodic song. During the Renaissance rules for the threnody, a funeral song for the dead, dictated that the genre should be reserved for a persona gravis, but Kochanowski's creativity recognised no such boundaries. Kochanowski experiences in the Threnodies the gamut of feelings which manifest themselves as a result of mourning for his beloved child. Kochanowski repeatedly laments his loss and one senses that the poet is constantly striving to overcome the limitations of language to express his, paradoxically, unlimited depth of feeling. Kochanowski overcomes such limitations by means of a poetic exploration of the tradition of Latin consolatory literature so prevalent in Roman times. Every exclamation, question and exhortation has its counterpart in Classical literature. Not only did Kochanowski borrow heavily from and muse over the writings of names such as Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch and Statius, but he also looked to examples of lamentation found in Homer and Greek Tragedy.

Kochanowski was especially interested in the unavoidable universality of grief and bereavement and his mixture of Biblical and Classical allusions speak of the human fate to suffer in this life and hope for better things to come in the next. Such an outlook led him to draw upon themes present in Greek sepulchral epigrams of the Planudean Anthology and Latin epitaphs. During his time in Padua Kochanowski was preoccupied with the writing of Latin elegies and the Threnodies exhibit a certain knowledge of Latin epitaphs. Kochanowski's exploitation of the Planudean Anthology in these poems reflects an avid interest on the part of sixteenth-century students and scholars alike in Greek epitaphs, who would signal their familiarity with the anthology by producing Latin translations or variations.

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