Mato Kosyk’s writings are intimately and thematically connected to his biography. Therefore, in order to gain a better understanding of his work, it is important to know more about his life. The following summary of his life and work attempts to highlight the most important events in his biography. It is based on information provided by the poet himself (especially in his letters, see Kosyk 1980) and on relevant publications (especially Mětšk 1985 and Dalitz/Stone 1977).
Note on the Spelling of Names
Since Mato Kosyk lived in Sorbian, German and English surroundings there are many variant spellings for personal and place names. Sometimes the names are even completely different. For example, the poet’s first name is variously written as Mato, Matthäus, Mattheus, Matthew. His last name can appear as Kosyk, Kósyk, Kossik, Koßick, Kossick. In this biographical sketch only the first spelling will be used. Likewise, Sorbian spelling will be adopted for names of people with a Sorbian background. Place names from Lusatia will be given in the Sorbian and the German version (e.g. Chośebuz/Cottbus). The language(s) and the people(s) will be referred to as Sorb and Sorbian even though Wends and Wendish can also be found in English usage. If necessary, Sorbian will be specified as Lower or Upper Sorbian.
Kosyk’s Home: the Błota/Spreewald and the Lower Sorbs
The Kosyk family originates from the Błota/Spreewald in Lower Lusatia. The Błota/Spreewald is a vast swampy area west of Chośebuz/Cottbus where the Spree river splits up into many small rivulets that form a forested swamp extending all the way to Lubin/Lübben. Until recently it was only accessible by water and was thus an ideal retreat in times of unrest. In this area special forms of agriculture, forestry and hydroculture were developed. Many traditions that were lost in the surrounding areas stayed alive in the Błota/Spreewald.
The Błota/Spreewald is especially important for the Sorbs in Lower Lusatia. Beginning in the 6th century, the Sorbs settled in this area that was largely deserted by its former inhabitants and they represent the autochthonous population. The Sorbs are part of the Slavs, who moved from their original home (most likely in the swamps of the Pripjat’) towards the west and south in the context of the migration of peoples. Together with the Czechs/Slovaks and the Lechitic group they make up the Western group of the Slavs. The Sorbs are divided into two groups on the basis of linguistic differences: the Upper Sorbs in Upper Lusatia and the Lower Sorbs in Lower Lusatia.
The German „Drang nach Osten“ (colonisation of Eastern areas) brought about increasing assimilation of the Sorbs and a subsequent shrinking of the language area. In Lower Lusatia it was the Brandenburg district Chośebuz/Cottbus and within it especially the Błota/Spreewald that resisted assimilation longer than any other area. Until the end of the nineteenth century the population there was almost completely Sorbian.
In the Błota/Spreewald, Wjerbno/Werben was one of the more important villages. It was the main village of the parish with the same name and the parish church was situated there. Here, too, Lower Sorbian was the language generally used (as late as 1884 the population of about 2500 was 95% Sorbian; of the remaining 5% Germans four fifths were linguistically assimilated so that only 1% of the population did not understand Lower Sorbian).
The Kosyk family probably originated from the village Brama/Brahmow that was part of the Wjerbno/Werben parish. Kosyk’s grandfather Mato Kosyk married into a Wjerbno/Werben family and remained in that village.
Kosyk’s Youth (1853 - 1877)
Mato Kosyk’s father (Juro Kosyk, 16-I-1826 – 17-I-1896) was born in Wjerbno/Werben and married Maja Žylojc (12-I-1834 – 13-XII-1917), also from Wjerbno/Werben. He was a farmer just like his father before him. The family lived first at the parents’ house in the centre of the village, but then moved to a farm that was built on their own property. The family had four children, but two of them died at an early age: Mato (18-VI-1853 – 22-XI-1940), Kito (1856-1886), Juro (1859-1863), and Majka (1864-1872).
Mato visited the village school in Wjerbno/Werben. Since he seemed particularly gifted, the pastor gave him private lessons and convinced his parents to let the boy study at the gymnasium (secondary school) in Chośebuz/Cottbus. His goal was to continue his studies at the university and to become a pastor. He left the gymnasium, however, in 1873 without having passed the final exams for the abitur which would have been the prerequisite for enrolling at the university. For this reason he could not matriculate at the university and ultimately qualify for ordination.
From 1873-1877 he was employed by a railway company in Leipzig and was mainly based in that city. Presumably he had contact to Sorbs living in Leipzig and towards the very end of his stay in Leipzig he sent his first poems to the Lower Sorbian newspaper, the Bramborski Casnik. These first poems, as all his later texts, were written in Lower Sorbian. (In some publications it is maintained that Kosyk started out writing in German but there is no documentary evidence to support this).
„Man of Letters“ in Wjerbno/Werben (1877-1883)
Towards the end of 1877 Mato Kosyk quit his job because of health problems and returned home. For the next six years he stayed in Wjerbno/Werben as a „freelance writer“ („Literat“ as he called himself, i.e. a „man of letters“). These six years, the Werben period, were the most productive in his literary career. During this time almost all of his longer works were written: Serbska swaźba w Błotach (The Sorbian Wedding in the Błota/Spreewald, consisting of 2000 hexametres), a historical trilogy, and two dramatic texts. The larger part of his poetry also stems from this period. Furthermore, he was very much involved in the revision of the Lower Sorbian church hymnal, Serbske duchowne kjarliže. From 1880 onward he also served as a co-editor of the Lower Sorbian weekly newspaper Bramborske nowiny.
It was during this period that he established contact with the most important representatives of Sorbian cultural life. For the Lower Sorbian area especially the contact with Kito Šwjela (1836-1922), Hajndrich Jordan (1841-1910), Bjarnat Krušwica (1845-1919), and the non-Sorbian promotors of Sorbian literature: Juro Surowin (Georg J.J. Sauerwein, 1831-1904), and Alfons Parczewski (1849-1933) was important. In the Sorbian context his most important partners were Michał Hórnik (1833-1894), Arnošt Muka (1854-1932), and Jan Arnošt Smoler (1816-1884). Kosyk was also one of the founding members of the Lower Sorbian Maśica Serbska, the „academy“ of the Sorbs that was especially active in language, literature, and cultural politics.
His literary and cultural activity during this period was richly variegated and he worked intensively. He probably did more for Lower Sorbian literature and culture in this period of time than all the other persons active in the field taken together.
His activities were not rewarded properly, however. Above all, he could not make a living of literature since the literary market was too small (in fact he had to finance some of his publications out of his own pocket). This lack of income caused conflicts with his father who showed little understanding for his literary endavours. Additionally his literary activity was not completely satisfying because it did not bring him closer to his goal of becoming a pastor. Since he could not be ordained in Germany he decided to emigrate to the United States in order to pursue his dream there.
Emigration, Theological Seminary, and First Parish
Towards the end of October 1883 Mato Kosyk left Wjerbno/Werben, travelled by way of Wětošow/Vetschau to Hamburg from where he sailed to New York. From there he travelled by way of Buffalo (NY) to Springfield (IL). There he enrolled in Concordia Theological Seminary, a practical preparatory institution affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The Missouri Synod, and thus also the seminary, represented of a conservative strain, within the American Lutheran community. A few months later, January 1884, Kosyk transferred to German Theological Seminary in Chicago (IL) that was affiliated with the General Synod. In contrast to the Missouri Synod the General Synod was more progressive. The reasons for the change given by Kosyk were the practical nature of the Springfield seminary and the particular brand of Lutheranism to which the seminary adhered. Further reasons might have been the fact that at Springfield only the classes were in German whereas the students conversed in English (in Chicago German seems to have been used by the students as well). Additionally the seminary in Chicago was smaller than the one at Springfield, thus allowing for a rather intimate contact with the director and only teacher, E.F. Giese.
Slightly more than a year later Kosyk was ordained. He took up his first position in Wellsburg (IA) and became a member of the German Wartburg Synod. His parish was essentially composed of East Frisian farmers. It seems that there were not only linguistic problems (the farmers being used to their Low German dialect) but also an incompatibility of mentalities. One and a half years later he resigned from his position and returned to Lusatia.
In his first American years he continued to write poetry and his texts were regularly published in Sorbian newspapers and journals. He also remained in contact with those people active in Sorbian culture at home. Thus he continued his activity as a man of letters even though his workload did not allow him to write as much as before. In this first American period of his writings one can already find many motifs inspired by the New World.
Lusatian Interlude (1886-1887)
In the autumn of 1886 Kosyk sailed back to Germany. The trip was prompted by the death of his brother Kito who had until then taken care of the family farm. Mato as the only surviving son had to help his parents settle legal and personal matters.
During his stay at home he tried to get his United States ordination accepted as the equivalent to a German ordination. He was especially interested in working in a parish in the Sorbian area. Actually there were two vacancies in the area at that time, one in Hochozy/Drachhausen, another one in Łuta/Lauta. His efforts, however, were in vain: his American theological preparation was not considered adequate for service in the German church.
There were hardly any other perspectives for him. He might have succeeded his brother on the family farm but only for a few years since his nephew Kito, who was four years old at that time, was the official heir to the farm.
In view of this Kosyk decided that he could not stay in Germany and left Lusatia to settle permanently in the United States.
The New Home: Vocation, Family, Writing (1887-1913)
Upon his return to the United States he soon received a new Call, this time from a parish in Nebraska. This prompted him to become a member of the German Conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska. In Nebraska he was a pastor in several parishes:
1887 - 1889 Ridgeley, Dodge Co.
1889 - 1895 Princeton, Lancaster Co.
Autumn 1895 to summer 1896 he was out of work and lived in Roca, Lancaster Co.
1896 - 1899 Stamford, Harlan Co.
1899 - 1907 Ohiowa, Fillmore Co.
All of these parishes were German speaking and rather rural which also means that his flock was rather small.
In 1890 he became one of the founding members of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska. It evolved out of the German Conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Nebraska and joined the General Synod.
1908 he accepted a last Call from El Reno (OK). As early as 1913 he resigned his position and retired. The reason usually given for this early retirement was increasing deafness. Furthermore it seems that he did not depend on a pastor’s income anymore.
His visits in Lusatia had convinced him that he could not hope to become a pastor in Germany. He thus resolved to stay in the United States permanently and organized his life accordingly. Since a Lutheran pastor was generally expected to be a married man he sought a German bride through correspondence. Upon her arrival a wedding took place in 1890 at Princeton to Anna Wehr from Duszno (Hochberg), the daughter of a German junker. The marriage seems not to have been very happy probably due to the different background of the spouses. In 1891 the only son, Georg Ludwig (George Louis, Juro), was born. In 1894 Mato Kosyk and his family were naturalised.
Once he decided to settle permanently in the United States upon his return from Germany, he neglected both his writing and his contact to people active in Sorbian cultural life. It was not until 1892 that he began to write again. His second American period lasted from 1892 to 1898. It was triggered by Bogumił Šwjela (1873-1948, the son of Kito Šwjela) who wanted to publish an anthology of Kosyk poems, which eventually comprised poems already published as well as new texts. Another reason for Kosyk’s renewed activity might have been his marriage and especially the birth of his son. The anthology was published in 1893 but Kosyk continued to write afterwards and his texts were also published. Slowly, however, his poetic activity faded. His last poem in this phase was written in 1898. The contact with people in Lusatia (with the exception of his family) eventually ceased.
In Albion (OK) Kosyk had acquired a farm in 1908 and the family moved there upon his retirement. Obviously it was planned for the son Juro to run the farm while his parents would live there in retirement. This was not to be, however. Juro died of apoplexy only two years later (1915) having not even reached the age of 24. The family life seems to have become increasingly difficult afterwards since Kosyk’s wife spent most of her time at her son’s grave and scorned her husband’s poetic activity. After her death (1929) Kosyk seems to have become increasingly lonely since his wife had essentially assured the contact with the neihghbours. In 1935 he employed Wilma Filter as a housekeeper and eventually married her in 1938.
After the First World War A. Muka and B. Šwjela renewed the contact with Mato Kosyk. They encouraged him to write again. Thus began the third American period in his writing that lasted until shortly before his death. He was regarded as the patriarch of Lower Sorbian literature and influenced the younger generation, especially Mina Witkojc (1893-1975), with whom he exchanged letters.
Mato Kosyk died on November 22, 1940, at the age of 87 on his farm. The following day he was buried in the cemetery at Albion. His widow left the next year and took all of Kosyk’s papers with her. It is not known what became of them. Most likely they are lost.