Sorrow Songs and the Paschal Narrative:
the Narratives of Du Bois' "Of the Sorrow Songs" and the Gorzkie Zale Lyrics

Jeff J. Koloze
Reproduced with Permission

Narrative is first understood by our students in the traditional sense of a way of paragraph development which consists of three criteria. First, narrative is usually first-person unless third-person is used to distance the reader from what is happening. Second, narrative has a chronological order, whether that is forward movement, reverse chronological order, or in medias res. Finally, a narrative should show strong emotion. This traditional definition of narrative is, of course, later complicated so that concerns about the reader's reception of the material can become paramount as well as the inherent purpose of the writing. For example, those of us who have taught some category of business writing course can attest to the demarcation of purposes between "literary" American English (what teachers want people to write) and "business" American English (what "goes down" in the real world).

The traditional definition of narrative is severely challenged by the two divergent texts I want to consider here. Each narrative group not only compares with the traditional definition, but also challenges it. In fact, important features of both narratives may be ignored when they are taught to American students who may not be well versed in the historical context of each narrative group. Similarly, another important feature which may be missed in the teaching of the narratives is their religious didacticism, particularly in the Gorzkie Zale lyrics. Finally, the teleologics of one narrative group differs significantly from the other.

These problems pose specific challenges not only for composition instructors, but also for those of us who incorporate literary theories into the composition curriculum. I believe that including both texts within appropriate branches of literary criticism, especially within border studies, historical criticism, and Marxist literary criticism, will resolve the problems posed by these divergent narratives. Comments about the Gorzkie Zale lyrics and the Sorrow Songs will often be presented in the following in a point-counterpoint style.

Du Bois is nebulous when he asserts the antiquity of the Sorrow Songs: they "are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words" (254). Similarly, little is known about the history of the Gorzkie Zale lyrics, except that they "began in Warsaw's Holy Cross Church during the 1700s" (Assumption). Other, imprimatured documentary sources trace the origin of the Gorzkie Zale lyrics to 1698 and extend the formative period of the composition of the lyrics only to 1707 (Droga 9-10). It is significant that the structure of the Gorzkie Zale devotion has remained constant over the centuries. After an introductory hymn, various intentions based on episodes of the Passion are announced to the participants. The three parts of the devotion in turn consist of three hymns: the first, a general hymn expressing the participant's sorrow; the second, titled "The Soul's Lament"; and the third titled "Mary's Dialog with the Soul". The lyrics of the songs concentrate on the events after the Last Supper and end with the crucifixion. Specifically, Part One covers Jesus' praying in the Garden of Gethsemani to His appearance before the Sanhedrin, Part Two considers the time from Jesus' appearance before the Sanhedrin to the crowning of thorns, and Part Three concerns the time from Jesus' crucifixion to His death.

The introductory hymn before Part One offers some features that can help to elucidate the intent of the entire Gorzkie Zale devotion. This introductory hymn consists of ten verses. While the notes accompanying the words rise and fall across the measures, the downward movement is evident by the last phrase. This hymn sets the tone of the entire devotion which follows: deep sorrow attends the events depicted in the part which is sung for the particular week during Lent. The opening verse begins with a first-person plural command: "Let us pray in contemplation" (5). The inclusion of the participant in the call for sorrow is repeated in verse two with another first-person plural command to "let us grieve" (5). The sorrows to be recalled are denoted in verse seven as "our Savior's sacred passion" (5). Verses eight and nine begin with a second-person command with a direct address to Christ, but end with the first-person plural object pronouns: "Touch our hearts, O Lord most holy" and "By Your precious Blood redeem us;/ From sin, malice, oh Lord, free us" (6).

Grammatically, through the bulk of the verses which constitute the opening hymn, two through seven, frequent use of present participles include the participant in the sorrow to be experienced. The hearts of the participants are described as "repenting"; "the sun and stars are fading"; "sadness" is "pervading" all "nature"; "sealed tombs" are "loudly thund'ring"; "sorrow" and "desolation" are "overwhelming all creation"; and finally, "our Savior's sacred passion/ [is] Moving all to deep compassion" (5).

Another stylistic feature might be seen as minor, but needs to be addressed since it demonstrates the matter of praxis versus theory. I use praxis here as Barton and Hudson consider it: a sense of "a given practice of interpretation" (90). The Gorzkie Zale lyrics seem to have an inherent flexibility about them. Introducing the history of the musical composition of the devotion, Joseph C. Brozeski, whose father began the effort to adapt the lyrics to contemporary music notation, states in his web site that the original musical notations for the devotion may be irrevocably lost. "The old Polskie Spiewniczek [the basis for the musical accompaniment for the devotion] is no longer available", Brozeski states, "nor are other Polish hymnals" (Assumption). More significant is Brozeski's further comment about the hymnal project:

Since many people today are not able to improvise the [original, ancient] accompaniment, this hymnal was formatted in an easy-to-play fashion. The hymns are written in a standard sheet music format: a single, melody line with accompanying chord notations and a standard two hand format. The chord progression in the melody line will allow anyone with the musical background to improvise his/her own accompaniment. (Assumption)

The key word used in the preceding quote is "improvise" and accommodates the varying interpretation of the lyrics as they are sung. For example, in Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, one of the Roman Catholic churches here in Cleveland which celebrates the Gorzkie Zale service during Lent, I have perceived an elongation in the introductory hymn, accomplished by supplying extra syllables for certain monosyllabic words or certain syllables. If the lines "Let us pray in contemplation/ While we sing this lamentation" (5) are scanned as is typically done in formalist analyses of poetic works, they would be designated thus:

/ - | / - | / - | / -
Let us pray in contemplation
/ / | / - | / - | / -
While we sing this lamentation.

The trochaic tetrameter form of the above is obvious. In practice, however, certain monosyllabic words and certain syllables are elongated with an extra unaccented syllable, thus:

/ -| /- | / - - | / -| / - | / -
Let us pray in co-o- on-tem-plation
/ - | /-| / | /- | /- | /-
While we sing this lamen-tation,
/ - |/ - / -| / |/ -|/ - | / -
While we sing this la- men- tation.

If the extra syllables are scanned, and with the exception of a dactyl in the first line and a monosyllabic foot in the second, the trochaic tetrameter becomes trochaic hexameter. Metrical variation occurs further with the repeated second line. This "third" line is still dominantly trochaic, but it is now extended with a monosyllabic foot to trochaic heptameter. Lest this be written off as a quirk in one particular church's rendition of the lyrics, the addition of syllables in the already ascending-descending lyrics is replicated in the recorded version produced by Brozeski and the Blessed Virgin Mary Church Choir, a contemporary performance of the lyrics in Polish, recorded between 1987 and 1999.

I will now ask myself the same question that my students ask when I have them scan poems: so what? What's the difference, what's the point about trying to scan a line of poetry in such a manner? Isn't that torturing the text? That is exactly my point. Changing the quantity of the meter from tetrameter to hexameter and even heptameter has three consequences for the participants in this devotion. First, the elongation prolongs the chanting effect of the line, stretching it from a four-foot line of poetry to a six- or seven-foot line. Second, the dominance of trochees in the meter is noteworthy. Trochees imply heaviness in poetry, unlike iambs whose accents move the line happily along. Finally, recall that the second line in each example is repeated; thus, while the reader may quickly read two verses of two lines each, the participant is immersed in two verses expanded to three lines. Extending the metrical feet prolongs the sorrow; the sufferings which one is called to experience become inescapable. The same prolongation of words can be found in other verses of this and subsequent hymns in the Gorzkie Zale service.

The written text of the Sorrow Songs lacks this flexibility, or elongation, of syllables. Although Du Bois admits "I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase" (253), the printed examples of Sorrow Songs demonstrate a one-to-one correspondence between notes and syllables. The musical notation for the first lyric measured, the "Do bana coba" African lyric of Du Bois' "grandfather's grandmother" (254), illustrates the conformity of the one-to-one correspondence exactly, as does the "My soul wants something that's new" (258). The "Poor Rosy" and "Let us cheer the weary traveller" lyrics conform with only two variations. We know, of course, that the songs can be sung with as much creativity as the vocalist wants to convey.

The hymn which follows the intentions for Part One increases the involvement of the individual in the sufferings experienced by Jesus. Other devotions emanating from the Passion focus on Christ, describing His sufferings. Think of the great Northern European crucifixion scenes, especially the German Renaissance ones, depicting a bleeding Christ whose musculature shows the torture of having been crucified. The Polish lyrical devotion complements the practice of other Western European artistic renditions of the Passion by finishing the idea: it is not so much Christ crucified per se which is emphasized, but the importance of that crucifixion for humanity. Thus, Polish piety is relational, bringing the individual into the "discussion", into the narration of the agony which the God-Man suffers. The first line of the hymn used in this Part One demonstrates this relationship between object viewed (Christ) and the viewer:

Sorrow afflicts me:
my heart bleeds with pain
As in the Garden,
Jesus prays in pain. (8)

The balance of the five-stanza hymn recounts how soldiers and the rabble attacked and abused Christ in Gethsemani and during His incarceration at the hands of the authorities.

This first hymn is notable for introducing some other considerations into the devotion: its graphic sense and assignation of personal guilt for the sufferings of Christ. Jesus is described as "drenched in bloody sweat" (8). Moreover, while the perspective is maintained (first-person pronouns mixed with third-person illustration of what happens to Christ in Gethsemani), the hymn ends with the first instance that the viewer is responsible for what is occurring. "I'm sorry, Jesus, for offending you", the participant sings (9). Remember that this hymn within Part One focuses on the activities of others perpetrated against Christ. The Gorzkie Zale lyrics, however, assign the responsibility for the abuse of the divine to the person singing.

After assigning personal guilt, the last line of the hymn reads "My God, I love you" (9), whose theme becomes the refrain for the second song within the triad, "The Soul's Lament". After direct address ("Jesus"), attributes of Christ are given in extensive apposition (covering three lines of text to be sung or read). This portion of each of the ten stanzas is sung by one individual, usually the organist or leader. After this portion, the audience or congregation respond with the refrain "My Jesus, I love You" (10ff). It is significant that, whereas the assignation of guilt occurred in the previous five-stanza hymn, and while "ownership" of Christ is indicated by the personal pronoun, here in this "Soul's Lament", the repetition of "I love You" ten times should be more than enough to remove the personal responsibility for the divine suffering. Moreover, the end of the "Soul's Lament" indicates the direction of the love: from mankind to the divine. After direct address to Jesus, "all honor" is given "to You" no less than three times (12).

The final component of Part One is titled "Mary's Dialog with the Soul", which is curious for several, at least four, reasons. First, of course, is the fact that there would be a perceived need to include the Virgin Mary in a devotion focused on the sufferings of her son. The first reason is that the inclusion of a Marian hymn is important because the Virgin Mary is perceived as the perfection of humanity in Catholicism. From the Immaculate Conception to her Assumption into Heaven, Mary's life is considered the exemplar for humanity. There is no corresponding image of perfected humanity within the Sorrow Songs. Second, engaging in dialogue with the suffering Christ narratologically would impede the purpose of Christ's sufferings. After all, Christ's purpose is to be the mediation between God and man, reconciling both halves of a fractured world. So, if you do not want to impede the salvific purpose, what's the next best thing? Talk with His mother. Third, just as the addition of extra syllables in sample lyrics prolongs the sorrow being communicated, concentrating on the sufferings of Jesus' mother prolongs the experience of the sorrow.

Before going to the fourth reason, perhaps a closer reading should be done at this point about the inclusion of the Virgin Mary in the devotion just on the basis of the icon which she represents. "Icon" is a loaded word to use to refer to Mary in this connection; here I mean it strictly in the general denotative sense of an image referring to something else, or in the technical definition within literary studies of icon as "a type of sign that signifies what it represents by its inherent similarity to that object, person, or place" (Murfin and Ray 163). I find no comparable image within the Sorrow Songs to represent the ideal of purity, of goodness, or of a goal for which every human being should strive. If the Virgin Mary is the ideal and reachable goal of a human being (since striving for equality with the divinity is out of the question for mere humans), then Polish Catholics have an icon which can sustain them through their struggles. What is the comparable icon which Du Bois suggests? Unlike the Gorzkie Zale lyrics, which have tangible expressions of grief--the mother of Christ whose "heart [is] so heavily harried" (13) or Christ Himself who is "sweating blood in grief and pain" (14)--Du Bois can configure no determinate object of the sorrow to be expressed. The best he can state is that "the ten master songs I have mentioned...grope toward some unseen power and sigh for rest in the End" (Du Bois 257).

The final, fourth reason to account for the inclusion of a Marian hymn concerns the nature of the narrative changes from being monologic- to triadic-based communication. Consider that the introductory hymn is a monologic conversation; even though it is first-person plural, the "conversation" is an exploration of the sorrows affecting the group beginning its contemplation of Christ's passion. The intentions offered after the introductory hymn combine both monologic and dialogic features. It is simultaneously what "we" the participants in the service should recall as well as a dialogue from an entity to the congregation assembled. The hymn which follows the intentions is monologic throughout, except for the one dialogic line where the participant directs his or her love to Jesus. Thus far, the type of communication performed seems intrapersonal rather than interpersonal. The "Soul's Lament" is essentially a combination of two dialogues with an entity who is there but does not respond. The person who addresses Jesus and offers the extensive apposition is obviously speaking to (or with) Jesus. The participants, similarly, address Jesus with the refrain "My Jesus, I love You". It is only with the section "Mary's Dialog with the Soul", however, that the conversation assumes a triadic nature. Not only do the participants address the Virgin Mary; she talks with them. She even references her son, thus bringing the conversation out of the dialogic mode into the triadic -- beyond which, of course, there is no other since communication is three-way, involving the sender, the receiver, and the message (and the "message" in these lyrics happens to be incarnated).

Much of what I have said above speaks about the differences between Polish Roman Catholic faith as evidenced in the Gorzkie Zale lyrics and the Sorrow Songs of African Americans. There are, however, many more similarities. Consider the parallels which the Gorzkie Zale lyrics have with their African-American counterpart. "They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways" (Du Bois 253). Poles are an unhappy people--unhappy in that their nation was torn from them in the late eighteenth century after three partitions and was not restored until after a world war in the twentieth century. Poles are "children of disappointment" in that opportunities for political and social greatness passed them many times. The Jagiellonian dynasty, uniting Poland and Lithuania, eventually disintegrated. The extensive scholarly production of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries could have rivalled that of other Renaissance nations and even that of Britain, were it not for competing dynastic families strangling the country by contesting royal successions. For decades, calling oneself "Polish" was a joke. If you were Polish, you were intellectually inferior--never mind the likes of a Copernicus or a Chopin or a Curie or a Pope John Paul II. Poles speak of "death and suffering and unvoiced longing". Poles have suffered under Soviet oppression. Poles engage in "misty wanderings": since ancient times, Poles were known as the wanderers, eventually settling on the steppes of the northeast plains of Europe. Etymologically, "Poland" and "Pole" support this theory, since the Slavic root of the term designating the people and the country means "plain". Interesting, isn't it, that these words which fit the Polish experience were written by Du Bois about the slaves (253)?

Furthermore, much should be made of the historical facts that African Americans and Poles are both subjugated peoples. I am presuming that most American students are ignorant of Polish culture or history. While we all know that February is Black History Month to celebrate the contributions of African Americans, how many students know that October is Polish American History Month, a month designated for Americans to recall the efforts of one of the largest immigrant groups which blended their skills into the American work force? While it is easy for American students to understand how African Americans have been subjugated (captured as though they were less than human in their native lands, transported across the Middle Passage in horrendous conditions, and enslaved in a foreign land once or if they reached the land), the subjugation of the Polish people is not as evident. Poland, after all, is a nation--somewhere in Europe.

The current political reality of Poland obscures some crucial points about Polish culture, such as the following three facts. First, Poland has a millennial history. True, Poland is not as ancient as the nations of southern Europe, but she has existed for over a thousand years. Second, Poland has been a bastion of Western Roman Catholicism since 966 AD--a significant fact when one considers that Orthodox and Protestant Christianity both found Poland a battleground for religious wars. Third, a corollary of the second, Poland's geographic position in Europe almost guaranteed its being a literal battleground for competing economic and political interests. It is true that Poland is the gateway to the west--for eastern imperialist forces wanting to obtain greater passage to the Baltic. It is also true that Poland is the gateway to the east--for western imperialist forces wanting to obtain greater access to the agricultural resources of the vast Russian interior. African Americans, too, have been the victims of economic forces which have dehumanized them so that legal protection from the greatest democracy in the world at the time would not extend to them.

One solution for composition faculty to resolve the problems posed by these divergent narratives can be the inclusion of both texts within appropriate branches of literary criticism, especially within border or postcolonial studies, historical criticism, and Marxist literary criticism. For example, border studies gives us the vocabulary which can help us appreciate the tenuous nature of the political fabric in which both texts were constructed. Poland is literally a border country in Europe: it is either the gateway to the East, or the gateway to the West. African Americans, similarly, contended with the geographic polarities of North and South. As Shamoon Zamir points out in recent research, it is interesting that Du Bois himself, throughout The Souls of Black Folk, travels from a much more conservative New England to a frenzied South to discover his roots (147ff).

Other literary theories could also assist us in having students appreciate both works. In fact, one could deconstruct the Gorzkie Zale lyrics on several points. John Cardinal Krol identified several polarities operating in "this literary medium" which provide the foundation for the deconstructionist project. If, as Krol says, the lyrics "[incorporate] prose and verse, chant and reading, prayer and meditation" (3), then the deconstructionist may examine the conditions under which the prose elements subvert the verse, or when the chant (essentially vocal prayer) usurp the power of the word as manifest in "reading", or, finally, whether "prayer and meditation" engage in the delightful jouissance that deconstructionists claim that words engage in, or whether the terms mean entirely different things in the realm of communication with the divine. Moreover, the inherent Marxist challenge of the Sorrow Songs was best expressed by Du Bois himself when he asked of white society and--then answered--the rhetorical question, "Your country? How came it yours?" (262). However, there is no corresponding challenge in the Gorzkie Zale lyrics. If there is any ideology in the Polish lyrics, then the competing ideology of sinful mankind finds resolution in the sufferings of Christ. The Marxist project of identifying the ideology and counter-ideology resulting in a synthesis or resolution of a conflict is achieved in the Gorzkie Zale narrative: one cannot argue with such a supreme sacrifice meant to reunite mankind and God.

Jeff Koloze, Ph.D.

Structure of Gorzkie Zale: introductory hymn; intentions; first, a general hymn expressing sorrow; second, "The Soul's Lament"; third, "Mary's Dialog with the Soul".

/ .- | / .- | / - | / -
Let us pray in contemplation
/ . / | / .- | ./ - | / -
While we sing this lamentation,
/ . / | / .- | ./ - | / -
While we sing this lamentation.

/ - | / - | / - - | / - | / .- .| / -
Let us pray in co-o- on- tem- plation
/ - | / - | / | / - | / -. | / -
While we sing this lamen- tation,
/ - | / - | / - | / .| / - | / - .| / -
While we sing this la- men- tation.

Three consequences of extending the meter: first, the elongation prolongs the chanting effect; second, the trochees make the lines heavy; third, extending the metrical feet prolongs the sorrow.

Four reasons for "Mary's Dialog with the Soul": first, the Virgin Mary is the perfection of humanity; second, dialoguing with Christ would impede the salvific purpose; third, concentrating on Mary's sufferings prolongs the sorrow; fourth, the narrative changes from monologic to triadic.

"They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways" (Du Bois 253).

Three facts about the political reality of Poland: first, Poland has a millennial history; second, Poland is Roman Catholic; third, Poland was and is a battleground because of its geography.