France Prešeren, the poet
the Poet of National Awakening
Tu pride flashFrance Prešeren and Slovenian Identity
France Prešeren is to Slovenes as Goethe is to Germans, Dante to Italians, Robert Burns to Scots, Puškin to Russians, Mickiewicz to Poles, Shakespeare to the English. However, it is quite unlikely that outside the Slovenian ethnic context - Slovenes number just over 2 millions - anything would be known about him. This is not the case in Slovenia. Ask any school-age child, and he would answer without hesitation that Prešeren is the first and greatest Slovenian poet.
Prešeren was not a prolific writer. Almost everything he produced was contained in one book of poetry - Poezije (Poems), published in 1847. Yet his work gave a new life to Slovenian literature, held back in its development by political and social conditions. The themes and prosodic structures of his verse set new standards for Slovenian writers, and his lyric poems are among the most sensitive, original, and eloquent in Slovenian. In his "Sonetni venec" (1834; "Garland of Sonnets"), inspired by his unhappy love, as in his later lyrics, he expresses the sense of national identity that he sought to raise in his compatriots. He also wrote satirical verses (1845) on contemporary literary conditions in Slovenia. The epic poem "Krst pri Savici" (1836; "The Baptism on the Savica") deals with the conflict between paganism and the early Slovenian converts to Christianity and illustrates Prešeren's patriotism, pessimism, and resignation.
Prešeren was born in the village of Vrba near Lake Bled in Gorenjsko to peasant parents. This was at the time of Napoleon's wars, when the French for a time occupied parts of central and southern Europe which had been for centuries under the Austrian rule. Prešeren finished his law degree In Vienna, the capital of Austria, but was unable to open his own office until two years before his death in Kranj. His request to do so was rejected five times. In the meantime he worked as a law clerk in the office of Blaž Crobath in Ljubljana, the capital of the Austrian province of Carniola (Kranjska), which then had a population of barely 12,000 inhabitants. He lived unmarried and died poor.
France Prešeren is a symbolic figure that in a sense dominates the entire Slovenian cultural scene. The government authorized a competition for the best electronic presentation of the poet. A feature film about his life, based on literary historian Matjaž Kmecl's screenplay, was produced. There are symposia and scholarly conferences and lectures. One might get the impression that the golden age of poetry has returned, and that the art has reassumed that important place in the nation's culture which it had held, when the nation was taking shape in the 19th century.
Slovenia, independent state since 1991, has beside the ecclesiastical feast days a number of commemorative days such as Dan samostojnosti (Independence Day, 26 December), celebrating important events in the nation's history. However, by far the most important is “Prešernov dan” , the anniversary of France Prešeren's death, on 8 February. On Prešeren Day everybody who is anybody on the national scene gathers to take part in the ritual awarding of Prešeren prizes in Cankarjev dom, the Slovenian cathedral of culture, to the most prominent artists, poets, writers, dramatists, painters, sculptors, architects, composers, set designers, choreographers, ballet dancers, directors, and other creative artists.
Literature in the nineteenth century was an important contributing factor in the formation of new European nation states, including Germany, Italy, and Poland; however, to the best of my knowledge, nowhere else did literature achieve such importance as in Slovenia. My colleagues like to point out as evidence, that in World War II Slovenes gave military units the names of Slovenian poets, among them, of course, Prešeren's. Poets’ burials are national events conducted with pomp and ceremony.
The poets of Slovenia poets can also count on respect and social standing during their lifetime. They receive a special pension, though they may never have been employed. By tradition, our poets and writers are rewarded not only for having written something good and for attracting a large readership; they are frequently cast in the role of national cultural, political, and moral authorities or arbiters. In the daily papers they are spokesmen for long-term Slovenian interests, democracy, and humanist ideals. They criticize society’s shortcomings and entangle themselves in politics, forgetful that Plato would have had them banished from the ideally organized state, possibly for being too naive, exclusive, radical, and not giving due consideration to the consequences of their decisions - acting in opposition of politicians, those artisans of compromise and search for a middle ground most acceptable to the majority. Despite all this it is also true that they and their poetry played a large and significant mobilizing role at critical moments of the Slovenian nation’s existence.
To a literary historian like myself, it is of course, of greatest interest, what kind of verses France Prešeren wrote, which literary tradition he followed, what innovations he introduced, and similar scholarship issues. Yet such questions are of little relevance to the significance of Prešeren in the national consciousness. For the reaffirmation of Slovenian identity, it is sufficient to be convinced that Prešeren excelled in his poetic profession more than anyone else in his own time or later, the first to wield the Slovenian language as a tool to express the most complex personal and social problems and has done this in the most exceptional way. Through his poetry he raised Slovenian language to an enviable cultural level, demonstrating its capacity for articulating the most complex matters. Before Prešeren Slovenian was held to be capable only of very simple expression for most ordinary use, and suitable only for the lowest classes. Since a developed language was one of the key conditions for recognition of a unique national identity, it can be said that Prešeren did in fact lay the groundwork for an independent Slovenian national identity. Historians date the birth of Slovenian nation in the second half of the 19th century, when at mass gatherings the Slovenian people, speaking in Slovenian, first began to speak up for their “slovenstvo“ and demand their national rights.
There had been no such large national events in Prešeren's time. After his death, the memory of Prešeren vanished for a time from the popular imagination. His national acclaim came twenty years later, when the poet Josip Stritar edited the first reprint of his poems and accompanied it with a eulogy. So Prešeren was "rediscovered". He became the symbol for the unique Slovenian linguistic, literary and cultural life and so contributed decisively to the evolvement of Slovenes into a nation. On Slovenia’s independence as a state, his poem “Zdravljica” (A Toast) with its humanist message was chosen as Slovenian anthem.
In his own time and today Prešeren has been known mostly as the "poet of love ". In the early poems women are coquettish and proud, declining the poet's love. Through the years another type of female develops - an unobtainable ideal of love. The beloved's name was Julija Primic, a sixteen-year old young lady from a middle class family. For his muse's nameday in 1834 he wrote and published Sonetni venec,(Wreath of Sonnets) as a special supplement to the newspaper. It was printed without the censor's knowledge and secretly sent to select recipients. In it, Prešeren begs Julija to return his love, which would give him inspiration to create high poetry for the refinement and redemption of the nation. As a poetical form the Wreath of Sonnets was an innovation. In German poetics of the time, the sonnet was regarded as evidence of a nation's linguistic culture. Prešeren masterfully wove fourteen sonnets together, writing the name of his muse in as acrostic of the first letters of each sonnet. The Primic family was deeply offended and closed his path to Julija. The unique Wreath of Sonnets has been since mythologized as a Slovenian poetic form.
Another great poetic act with emphatic national import is the epic Krst pri Savici (The Baptism on Savica). Prešeren wrote it in 1834 and published it in 600 copies at Blaznik's printshop. He soon sold two hundred, a considerable number at the time. The epic poem of 500 verses tells of the clash between pagan and Christian Slovenes in the Bohinj valley in the year 772, and the defeat of the pagan rebels in the battle, which leaves only the war leader Črtomir alive. After the battle he secretly meets with his betrothed Bogomila, who had been a priestess of the goddess Živa on Bled Island. She informs him that she was baptized, and had promised herself to Virgin Mary, if Črtomir survived. Črtomir is persuaded to receive baptism at the Savica waterfall and becomes a Christian priest.
The theme of the epic poem is the fundamental Slovenian dilemma, which recognizably determines the national existence even today. The dilemma is whether to preserve our identity in proximity of different languages and cultures. Črtomir’s response is a resigned acceptance of a foreign culture and a foreign religion - in conformity with a more enterprising and successful neighbour. The answer is in the compromise: we will preserve our language if we accept a foreign culture. The poem extolls renunciation of personal happiness in exchange for the survival of the community. The poem is complex and open, provocative of many different interpretations. In Prešeren's biography, the poem marks the farewell to his love for Julija and his best friend and mentor Čop, who had drowned in the Sava river. The spirit of the poem, its elegiac sense, and mood of resignation is already very distant from the optimism of the Wreath of Sonnets.
The pinnacle of Prešeren's Slovenian poetry is surely the poem Pevcu (To the poet, 1833), which in the tightly structured and harmonious form speaks of the disjointed, discordant poetic nature. Prešeren also wrote ballads and romances and adaptations of folk tales; he could be vulgar in his many epigrams and satires, and especially towards the end of his life wrote occasional, at times ribald and even bawdy verses.
Prešeren's merit as a poet is in having introduced into Slovenian literature the most beautiful European poetic form, the Italian Renaissance sonnet, and the leading concepts of a cultured humanity. By doing so he overcame the domestic tradition of didactic versifying. He advanced the principle of an autonomous poetic art and with his mastery of style and language demonstrated the versatility and expressive capacity of Slovenian. Considering that in absence of an independent Slovenian state language of poetry was the most important evidence of a unique cultural identity, Prešeren's achievement in effect contributed to the rise of Slovenian nation and Slovenian emancipation among the family of national cultures in the 19th century Europe. It is due to Prešeren that the connection of Slovenian national identity with the Western European cultures was made, leading to a full national blossoming. He substantiated Slovenian demands for an existence of independence and equality in central Europe. His cultural and political mission is best expressed in verses from the poem "Zdravljica," (A Toast) the national anthem, with its call for brotherhood and freedom of peoples. In this poem he still speaks to us today:
Žive naj vsi narodi,
ki hrepene dočakat dan,
da koder sonce hodi
prepir iz sveta bo pregnan.
prost bo vsak
Ne vrag le sosed bo mejak.
Let's drink that every nation
Will live to see the day,
When 'neath the sun's rotation
Dissent is banished from the earth,
All will be
With neighbors none in enmity.
(Translated by Tom Priestly and Henry Cooper)
Adapted from the lecture France Prešeren and Slovenian identity / France Prešeren in slovenska identiteta. held by Prof. Miran Hladnik in Toronto on 12-9-2000 and in Edmont, 22-9- 2000 on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Slovenian poet France Prešeren.
Full text of the lecture can be found on the web site: http://www.ff.uni-lj.si/slovjez/mh/preseren.html
There is a book in English about Prešeren by Prof. Henry R. Cooper, Jr. (France Prešeren, 1981). If you care to find the titles of editions of Prešeren's poetry or articles and books about him, simply type the name Prešeren in a Slovenian on-line catalog search (http://www.izum.si/cobiss). If you don't wish to spend money on purchasing Prešeren's books, you can obtain the poet's entire book of poetry on the Slovenian literature webpages (http://www.ijs.si/lit/leposl.html).
The article was adapted for publication in Sloveniana Webzine by Aleksandra Ceferin, with permission of the author, Prof. Miran Hladnik