Meeting Joel Barlow in Poland
by William Sommers
The remains of the eighteenth century American poet and diplomat, Joel Barlow lie buried near a small parish church in southern Poland. William Sommers recounts how his search for Barlow helped keep his memory alive and also resulted in a renovated church roof — an effort facilitated with good Polish brandy. —Assoc. Ed.
This narrative recounts my experience in re-connecting with a once famous American poet and diplomat — Joel Barlow — while working in Krakow, Poland. A bit of background is perhaps in order.
First, who is — was — Joel Barlow? Born in Redding, Connecticut, in 1754 Barlow became one of the most celebrated champions of the early republic. He graduated from Yale University, served as a chaplain in the Continental Army. He showed a renaissance zest for human activity being at once patriot, businessman, politician, polemicist, poet and diplomat. He backed Fulton’s steamboat, referring to his good friend as “Old Toot.” He also founded the American Mercury magazine, coined the much abused word “utilize” and proposed a national university which eventually surfaced as Columbian College, known now as George Washington University.
And a whole host of interminable poetry of which only “Hasty Pudding” and “Advice to a Raven” are still readable: “The sweets of Hasty-Pudding. Come dear bowl, glide o’er my palate, and inspire my soul…” And “Advice to a Raven” is a bitter — but well written — denunciation of Napoleon and his ilk. A very distant descendent of Joel Barlow, now teaching in New York City, uses his interpretation of the “Raven” poem as a critique of the Iraq War!
Barlow was also one of an early band of diplomats whose resourcefulness, intelligence and devotion raised a standard of excellence that is even more impressive today. He wrestled with international terrorism and brigandage, negotiated for the lives of American hostages held by the pirates of the Barbary Coast. At the behest of President James Madison – and his then secretary of State, James Monroe – Barlow’s last assignment took him to Napoleon’s court in Paris and then, in the depth of winter, to Vilna, the temporary focal point of the great General’s attack on Moscow. But it soon ended in Napoleon’s retreat and Barlow’s cold death in the little Polish village of Zarnowiec on December 26, 1812…where his lost bones still rest and where his monument inside the parish church has now, at last, been reconstructed.
Second, What is my connection to all this? While employed with the United States Department of State on a DC assignment, I worked in the United States Archives, taking notes on a number of famous American writers who also represented the United States overseas either as diplomats or consular staff. Eventually, the notes were re-written as a series of articles for the Department’s monthly magazine and included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Brett Hart, James Russell Lowell, Washington Irving, John Lothrop Motley, William Dean Howells – and, of course, Joel Barlow. And there it ended — or so I thought.
In the middle 90s my wife and I were living in Krakow, Poland, enjoying its marvelous “rynek,” its architecture, music and the cultural ambience that is part of its heritage. Toward the end of our fourth year, I started to cull papers that had piled up during our stay and came across the Joel Barlow article. In re-reading I hovered over the ending which told about Barlow’s death in Zarnowiec, Poland. And here I am in Poland with the opportunity of visiting his grave site! Where is Zarnowiec? I located two on the map: one was up in what used to be Prussia — west of Gdansk. Not likely. Barlow was supposed to have traveled a south western route to escape the Russian offensive hoping to reach Vienna and safety. The other Zarnowiec was an hour’s drive west of Krakow in Katowice province. That must be the one.
Apprehending my favorite taxi driver, Josef, — we began the search. After many inquiries and a few false clues, we found Zarnowiec, the parish church —and its brandy-drinking pastor, Father Mieczyslaw Kowal. We knocked at his door. After explaining the purpose of our visit, he, with a flourish and graciousness, took us into the church and showed us the marble plaque placed in the vestibule a few years after Barlow’s demise. It was barely legible, showing the wear of a hundred and eighty years! Adjourning to Father M’s kitchen we were plied with good Polish brandy while being shown the parish’s yellowing birth and death register where the demise of Joel Barlow was recorded. But the good Father told us that after so many years and two world wars, the very old gravesites had disappeared into the landscape.
And so we embarked on a six month project to restore Barlow’s deteriorating plaque. The US Consulate helped with advice and support — but no money— while Father M agreed to its repair as long as I would help him get some American money so he could repair the leaking roof of his church. By the chance suggestion of a Polish friend we located a world famous Polish restoration group — PKZ — who were reviving some of the older parts of Krakow. PKZ (The Ateliers for Conservation of Cultural Property) earned their international reputation directing a major excavation and rebuilding of Hatshepsut’s west bank temple across the Nile from Luxor’s famous ruins.
Their technicians removed the plaque from the church, took it to their Krakow workshop and honed the marble until they had a clean and shiny surface after which they re-carved the Barlow dedication, and then painted the incised lettering with resplendent gold paint. With the help of the State Department archives I got a good reproduction of a Barlow portrait from which one of the firm’s artist, using a small specially cut marble plaque, reproduced the portrait in color which was placed on top of the rejuvenated plaque.
We also solved another question. Who erected the original plaque? In one of Barlow’s biographic sketches there is a mention of his widow sending funds to erect the plaque.
But no record of this transaction exists. Local folklore has it, however, that just before Barlow, then suffering from growing pneumonia; reached the village he picked up a soldier on the side of the road who was a nearly frozen retreating member of the Polish contingent that had fought with Napoleon against the Russians. His name was Adam Piwowarski. Barlow’s kindness saved Piwowarski’s life and he recovered sufficiently to rejoin Count Pionatowski’s Polish Regiment and fought in the battle of Leipzig early the next year where Napoleon was finally defeated. Piwowarski survived and returned to Zarnowiec where, in acknowledgement of Barlow’s life-saving gesture, he ordered the plaque and had it placed in the church. This was all corroborated by one Stanislaw Piwowarski, a local historian — and the great-great-great grandson of the original Adam Piwowarski who wrote a wonderful paper at the plaque’s dedication, recalling his father and his grandfather’s recollection of this historic event.
Our activity was brought to a grand conclusion on May 4, 1996 with the official dedication of the restored plaque at the Parish Church in Zarnowiec in which a whole host of local, regional and national figures participated. The high point was the reading of a Polish version of Barlow’s last poem, “The Raven”, a summing up of his strong dislike of Napoleon and his debilitating warfare.
A few years after the dedication, the U.S. organization of retired diplomats and consular officers — DACOR — raised sufficient funds to erect an outdoor memorial to Joel Barlow on the grounds of the Zarnowiec Church — and to the delight of Father Mieczyslaw Kowal, gave him sufficient funds to repair the roof.
While no detailed record of expenditures was kept, I am certain that some funds were allotted for the purchase of a modest supply of good brandy which, on a return visit in 1998, was duly noted and fully sampled by myself and the good Father as we visited the priory and Barlow’s plaque for the last time.
William Sommers worked as a municipal administrator for many years in the United States and worked overseas advising on various local government assistance programs He and his wife, Joan, spent four years in Krakow, Poland from 1992 – 1995 where they became involved with Joel Barlow. They also lived and worked in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt and Hungary. Sommers’ last overseas assignment was in Bosnia. They now live in North Carolina where Joan has continued her painting and William has continued writing and working on improvements in aspects of local government.