Born on 24 December 1798 in Zaosie near Nowogródek or in Nowogródek itself. He was baptised on 12 February 1799 and given the names Adam Bernard. He came from a family of low nobility. His father, Mikołaj, was an attorney in Nowogródek, and his mother, Barbara (née Majewska) was the daughter of a steward from Czombrów. In 1807 he commenced his education in the district school in Nowogródek, which was run by the Dominicans. His first poetic attempts came from this period. On 16 May 1812 the poet’s father died, which brought about a deterioration in the family’s material conditions. In the summer of the same year Napoleon’s troops, heading for Moscow, marched into Lithuania. Nowogródek hosted Hieronim, the Westphalian king. The citizens celebrated the emperor’s birthday with due ceremony. A few months later Mickiewicz observed the retreat of the remnants of the Grand Army. A field hospital was organised in the Dominican school which he used to attend.
In 1815 he left for Wilno where he entered the university which at that time was an important centre of Enlightenment culture in Lithuania. He studied at the Physics and Mathematics Faculty. He also attended lectures at the Faculties of Moral and Political Studies and Literature and Liberal Arts. He simultaneously applied for admission to the Teachers’ Seminary which was also at the university. Because of his material situation he also applied for a state scholarship which was awarded to candidates preparing for the profession of teacher. After graduation he would have to work off the scholarship by teaching in a school appointed by the university. He was one of the founders of the secret society, Towarzystwo Filomatów (Philomats’ Society) (1817). Its aim was self-educational and scientific work, but also the patriotic upbringing and education of university youth. "Tygodnik Wileński" (1818, VI, pp. 254-256) published Mickiewicz’s first printed poem: Zima Miejska. In 1819 he graduated from university with an MA degree. He received a good humanistic education in the fields of classical philology, history, the theory of poetry and pronunciation. He was sent to a district school in Kowno (1819-1823). In 1822 the first volume of Poezyje (including Ballady i romanse), which was dedicated to his friends, was published in Wilno. The novelty of this collection meant that the year 1822 is considered as the breakthrough of Romanticism in Poland. One year later Mickiewicz published his second volume of Poezyje. It included Grażyna and Dziady II and IV (Parts II and IV of "Forefathers’ Eve").
In July 1823 in Vilnius an investigation into secret youth unions in Lithuania was commenced. On the night of 4/5 November 1823 Mickiewicz was arrested. He was imprisoned in a Basilian monastery until 1824. He was sentenced for "the spread of unreasonable Polish nationalism through teaching" to working as a teacher in "provinces remote from Poland" and left Poland in the autumn of 1824.
His five-year stay in Russia played an important role in Mickiewicz’s life. At first he briefly stayed at Petersburg, then in Odessa, from where he travelled in 1825 to the Crimea, which resulted in the publication of Sonety krymskie ("Sonnets from the Crimea"). From December 1825 until April 1828 he lived in Moscow, where he was formally employed in the office of the governor-general. He entered the environment of the intellectual and social élites in Moscow and Petersburg. He achieved the fame of a Romantic poet; his improvisations evoked general admiration in the salons. He met Russian poets, Pushkin among others; he made friends with some Decembrists (K. Rylejew, A. Biestuzew). In his later works he would use the knowledge which he gained here about the Russian Empire and the tsar’s despotism. In 1826 he published Sonety ("Sonnets") in Moscow, then in 1828 Konrad Wallenrod ("Konrad Wallenrod") in Petersburg. He spent the last year of his stay in Russia in Petersburg. In May 1829 he received a passport thanks to the help of Russian friends and left Russia on an English steamboat heading for Hamburg.
He travelled around Europe: in Berlin he listened to Hegel’s lectures, in Weimar he met Goethe, in Bonn A.W. Schlegel, in Bohemia - V. Hanka. He also visited Switzerland and Italy. When in Rome he learned about the outbreak of a November uprising (1830/1831) in Warsaw. He did not take part in it although he set off for his country with a false passport. He reached only Wielkopolska.
In March 1832 he went to Dresden. There he wrote the third part of Dziady ("Forefathers’ Eve" III) (published in Paris 1832), and fragments of translations from Byron. In July he left for Paris where, apart from brief intervals, he would spend the rest of his life. At the beginning he became involved in the work of émigré groups. He became a member of the Literary Society and the Lithuanian and Russian Lands Society; in 1833 he was the editor and main journalist of "Pielgrzym Polski" ("Polish Pilgrim"). He included his thoughts on Poland’s mission and the tasks facing the émigrés in Księgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa polskiego ("Books of the Polish Nation and its Pilgrimage") (1832).
Mickiewicz, disappointed in his hopes for an early political coup d’état in Europe and disheartened by "the hellish arguments" among the émigrés, separated himself from public life. He then went through a period of a deepening of religious life, he read mystical writers: Boehme, Saint-Martin.
In 1834 he married Celina Szymanowska. Mickiewicz did not have any regular income, and setting up a family worsened his financial situation, which was already bad enough (in 1835-1850 his six children were born). From November 1839 he lectured in Latin literature at the Lausanne Academy. He abandoned, however, his lecturing activity in the autumn of 1840 in order to take up the Chair of Slavic literature at the Collège de France. His Parisian lectures aroused lively interest, and not only among Polish émigrés. His audience also included Russians, Italians, Czechs and Frenchmen (J. Michelet, E. Quinet, George Sand), among others.
In July 1841 Mickiewicz met A. Towiański. After a conversation with him Mickiewicz became convinced about Towiański’s mission and accepted his teachings. He would soon become their main propagator. He became a leader of the Divine Matter Circle, which was founded by Towiański. Mickiewicz’s political views (which he expressed in his lectures) and the propaganda of Towiański’s ideas brought about his suspension as a professor by the authorities in May 1844.
In March 1848 he organised the Legion, which fought in Italy until July 1849. Mickiewicz presented the ideals of this struggle in Skład zasad. Along with a group of emigrants of various nationalities Mickiweicz founded in Paris "La Tribune des Peuples", which propagated a radical social programme. Soon the paper was suspended and Mickiewicz, together with other Poles, abandoned the editorial office as a result of the Russian Embassy’s intervention. In 1852 he obtained a post in the Arsenal Library.
In 1855, during the Crimean War, he went to Turkey to support the action of the organisation of a Polish legion for the struggle against Russia. He died, probably of cholera, in Istanbul on 26 November 1855. His corpse was transported to France and buried in the cemetery in Montmorency. In 1890 the coffin was transferred to the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.