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An Anthology of Modern Bohemian Poetry/Modern Bohemian Poetry

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MODERN BOHEMIAN POETRY

 

When in the year 1832 Sir John Bowring issued his "Cheskian Anthology," modern Bohemian poetry was in its infancy. The language, which had long struggled for a mere precarious existence, had been overhauled and improved. For years it had been persistently ignored by the nobility of Bohemia—alien families whose authority dated from the Thirty Years' War. It had been banished to obscure rural districts, preserved in the mouths of illiterate peasants, and was in danger of extinction as a literary language, when, in the second half of the eighteenth century,

 
Prague, illustration from Anthology of Modern Bohemian Poetry, 1912.jpg
 

PRAGUE.

patriotic scholars revived their native tongue, which for so long had waged an unequal contest with German.

The poetical production of these men—Jungmann, Kollár, Šafařík—is largely represented in Sir John Bowring's book. But there is little token in their work of the splendid fruit their labours were to hear, fifty and a hundred years later. They were philologists and grammarians rather than poets, and most of their verses were more in the nature of academic exercises, intended to render the language more flexible and to widen its power of expression. Yet even here, especially in some of Kollár's patriotic sonnets, there are occasional signs of a freedom from conventional phraseology and a pleasing freshness which were to be the characteristics of Czech poetry in its full bloom.

The history of Czech poetry in the nineteenth century is a history of progress. The aim of the earlier writers was to kindle the spark of patriotism in the hearts of the people, and the nature of their poetry was in accordance with this plan. There was, for example, an extensive revival of the folk-song. F. L. Čelakovský (1799-1852) issued his famous "Echoes of Czech Songs" and "Echoes of Russian Songs," both collections being skilful adaptations of old material. The "Garland" of K. J. Erben (1811-1870) contained ballad poetry written in a popular style. An extract from this collection is given in the present volume.

The Romantic Movement also was not without its effect on the new poetry. It found its chief representative in Karel Hynek Mácha (1810-1836), an admirer of Byron, and author of the lyric-epic poem "Máj". Amid the wave of patriotism this passed almost unnoticed, and it was not until after his death that Mácha was duly appreciated.

Meanwhile the political events of the fateful year 1848, and the reaction which followed, stemmed the tide of poetical development in Bohemia. For a time the rights of the language were diminished, and a period of stagnation set in. Fortunately, this was not of long duration. After an interval of about ten years, a new era was established. The poetical production of this period far surpassed the earlier revival both in quality and extent. It was no longer confined to the promulgation of patriotic ideas. It was marked by a broadness of view and a profusion of fresh thought, which showed that the poetry of Bohemia was rapidly fitting itself for a place among the recognized literatures of Europe.

With this rise of Czech poetry are intimately associated the names of such men as V. Hálek (1885-1874), Svatopluk Čech (1846-1908), J. V. Sládek (1845), and Jan Neruda (1834-1901).

Hálek's "Songs of Evening" are full of a sentimental melancholy, which sometimes lapses almost into insipidity. A few extracts from these poems are given here, but it is scarcely fair to judge of Hálek by a translation. The fact is, the contents of his verse are almost too fragile to endure the ordeal of transformation into another language. What in the original is tender and sentimental appears almost grotesque and ridiculous when translated.

Svatopluk Čech is the author of numerous patriotic poems, by one of which, "Our Native Tongue," he is here represented.

J. V. Sládek, who lived for some time in America, is the author of the Czech version of Shakespeare's plays, and of Longfellow's "Hiawatha," besides translations from Tennyson, Byron, Polish and Swedish poets. Neruda, besides excelling as a poet, in his "Cosmic Songs" and "Simple Motives" became famous as a writer of short stories and sketches of Prague life. Čech was also a skilful story-writer.

Julius Zeyer (1841-1901) and Adolf Heyduk (1835) form a kind of transition between the old and the new generation. Zeyer travelled extensively, and his poetry is mainly epic in character. But he was by no means lacking in the lyric spirit, as the poem on page 128 shows.

Heyduk sought for and found inspiration in the Slovak regions of Northern Hungary. The influence of these journeys is seen in the "Gypsy Melodies" (see page 75).

The revival of the Czech nationality and the inroads made by the Czech language upon the German, tended to a limitation of intellectual development which would have boded ill for the Czechs, had these evils not been arrested before they had time to spread. The knowledge of German had meant a great deal to the Czechs. It was their link with general culture. Through the medium of German they became acquainted with the world's literature. By keeping aloof from German they were isolating themselves from their main source of enlightenment. Not until the Czech language offered them all, or nearly all, that the German had done, could they consider themselves justified in establishing an independent nationality. This great feat has been accomplished. To-day the Czechs possess all the best of the world's literature in their own language. And the man to whom they owe this great possession is Jaroslav Vrchlický. His real name is Emil Frida, but he adopted the more formidable pseudonym in his early years.

Vrchlický was born in 1853. After completing his studies at Prague University, he obtained a tutorship in an Italian aristocratic family. His residence in Italy had considerable influence on his poetic production. Upon his return he was engaged in educational and secretarial work, until in the year 1893 he was appointed professor of modern literature at Prague.

Merely to review Vrchlický's literary activity is a difficult task. His lyrical production, for example, is so extensive that two anthologies of his work have appeared, each containing over six hundred pages! He has published over forty volumes of lyric poetry, twenty dramas, together with imaginative and critical prose. Quite apart from all this original work, he has been an untiring translator. Indeed, his translations alone represent a good life's work. They include Goethe's "Faust" (both parts), Dante's works, Tasso, Ariosto, numerous poems of Victor Hugo, Schiller, Leopardi, Carducci, Spanish and English poets. His versions from Shelley, for example, are masterly. He has translated, amongst numerous other works, the "Dziady" of the Polish poet Mickiewicz, the "Crown Pretenders" of Ibsen, Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac," "L'avare" of Molière, the "Lusiad" of the Portuguese poet Camoens, and he has collaborated in versions from the Hungarian of Petöfi and Arany, from the Persian of Hafiz, and from the Chinese Shi-King. Dr. Josef Karásek says of him:—"Jaroslav Vrchlický is to-day the most prolific and universal poet, both lyric and epic, with whom no contemporary writer can be compared. His poetical sphere knows no earthly bounds, his spirit traverses the whole history of mankind. He soars back into chaos, tarries in Indian lands, hastens over the rose-gardens of Persia to the land of beloved antiquity, penetrates into the mysteries and shadows of Bohemia’s past. . . . His numerous collections of lyric poems, that went forth into the world under the most curious flags, contain the purest pearls of poetry. His fluency, his skill in the mastery of language, is extraordinary. Without hesitation he reproduces verses from a foreign language in his own. He bestowed upon Czech literature the greatest treasures of about ten nations, disclosed to his compatriots the sources of the finest poetry of Romance, Germanic and Slavonic literatures. Moreover, he reproduces foreign works in their own spirit, in the metres of the original."

This enormous activity could not fail to leave its stamp upon Czech literature. On the one hand Vrchlický's translations set the example to numerous other writers, with the result that the series entitled: "Sborník Světové Poesie," of which Vrchlický is editor, comprises the best poetry of all nations, translated by prominent authors. On all sides arises the desire to become acquainted with the productions of foreign nations. The firm of Otto, in Prague, publishes a World Library (each volume costs only twopence), a Russian Library, an English Library (containing amongst others Czech versions of J. M. Barrie, H. G. Wells, F. Anstey, Rudyard Kipling, George Moore, Rider Haggard), and similar enterprises.

On the other hand Vrchlický's formal mastery of verse is of the utmost importance. He rendered the language still more flexible, employed all metres—sonnets, ballades, rondeaus, Persian ghazels—and prepared the way for the latest generation of Czech poets. It would be difficult to estimate the debt that they owe to him.

A reaction against Vrchlický and his school began in the nineties. It was instituted by those young writers who were strongly under the influence of hypermodern ideas, whose tendencies were towards foreign models—Maeterlinck, Wilde, Whitman, Nietzsche. Their poetry is marked by a certain artificiality, deadness, sometimes even by perversity. With this movement are associated such names as Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, Viktor Dyk, Jan z Wojkowicz, Josef Holý, Stanislav K. Neumann, Otakar Theer. Neumann (b. 1875), one of whose volumes bears the title: "I am the apostle of a new life," represents the anarchistic, rebellious element in modern Czech poetry. Another dauntless polemist is Jan Svatopluk Machar (b. 1864), who occupies an official post at Vienna. He is the poet of realism, of biting social satire, the enemy of all hypocrisy and pseudo-patriotism. In his non-political lyrics, he is the poet of deep pessimism, to which the translations in this collection bear ample testimony. The most noteworthy member of Machar's school of poetry is Petr Bezruč, whose personality appears to have been shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Under this pseudonym—adopted by a postal official of Brünn in Moravia, where he was born in 1867—appeared in 1903 a volume of poems entitled "The Silesian Number," of which a revised and augmented edition was issued in 1909 under the title "Silesian Songs."

Among these poems are to be found verses whose poignancy and human appeal would be difficult to rival in the poetry of to-day. Perhaps the "Rowton House Rhymes" of Mr. W. A. Mackenzie or some of John Davidson's poems strike a similar note. Bezruč deals with the miners in Austrian Silesia, the Czechs who are in danger of losing their nationality, whose language is despised and penalised. In dealing with these specifically localised social conditions, Bezruč tends to become a mere local poet, and many of his poems, indeed, suffer under this disadvantage. Without a commentary their meaning is obscure to the foreign reader. In many of them he employs local dialect and expressions—a kind of Polish-Czech jargon spoken in the districts of which he writes. But certain of his poems are universal in their appeal to humanity,—"Ostrava," "Thou and I," and "Who will take my place?" all of which are quoted here. In the poem "I," he flings a gauntlet in the face of the ruling classes. His ballads hint at rather than actually describe an event, but they are remarkably effective. Interesting, too, are his poems inscribed with the names of places, wherein by a few deft strokes he gives the characteristics of a particular race. Thus, for instance, in the poem "Kyjov" (see page 86) he deals with the Slovaks of Northern Hungary.

The most noteworthy of modern Czech lyrists are Otakar Březina (b. 1808) and Antonín Sova (b. 1864). The poetry of Březina defies all description. It sweeps along, laden with mystic visions of the cosmos, heavy with a wealth of splendid imagery, yet filmy and intangible in its symbolistic suggestiveness.

Through Březina's amazing array of words the reader perceives but dimly, as through a veil of mist, the underlying significance of the symbols and emblems which the poet has chosen to express his meaning. Often in a kind of ecstasy he discards rhyme and fixed metre, and revels in a flood of magnificent verbiage, a very riot of mystic poetical prose. It is interesting to note that Březina, whose real name is Václav Jebavý, is a school-teacher in Moravia.

Sova's mysticism is neither as intense nor as sustained as that of Březina, but his poetical horizon is far wider. Its width is best gauged by the comparison of two such poems as "The Yellow Flowers" and "Alder Trees" (pages 109 and 111).

Sova is, indeed, one of the best of the Czech nature poets. His volume "From My Country" contains in verse-form charming little pastels from the district of Tabor.

In common with other Czech poets—Neumann is an illuminative example—Březina and Sova have attained to a free and optimistic outlook on life after a somewhat complex poetical development. Their early poems display an uncertainty, a groping hesitance, with a tendency to insincere pessimism, derived rather from the study of books than from contact with life. But gradually the mask of unreality is laid aside, the affected cynicism is discarded, and life has become for these poets something tangible, something that inspires hope and happiness.

In the midst of all these cross-currents of tendencies and poetical movements, there are a number of poets who still remain true to the old poetical traditions, and whose work commands respect. Foremost among these is Fr. S. Procházka (b. 1861), a poet of strong patriotic tendencies, a skillul imitator of the folk-song, a writer of descriptive verse, marked by clearness, fluency, and an occasional touch of humour. His most famous collection is the volume "Songs of the Hradchin," a series of poems based on historical and patriotic motives; their popularity was so great that they passed through several editions in a few months. He has also edited the "Česká Lyra," an excellent anthology of modern Czech verse. His qualities as a descriptive poet are seen in such a poem as "Moravian Landscape" (page 104). His poem "The Ore Mountains" gives an example of his patriotic verse (page 105).

The poems of Fr. Kvapil (b; 1855), though not marked by striking originality, show a delicate sense of form and rhythm, and a deep love for nature. He has translated numerous lyrics from the Polish poet Asnyk, and the "Ungodly Comedy" of Krasinski. The version on page 92 aims at reproducing his poetical qualities.

Another poet who works on similar lines is Ant. Klášterský (b. 1866), the author of a collection of translations from modern American poets. He handles the ballad form with some skill, as in the poem "The Cloister Garden" (page 82). This type of love-poetry, in which the amorous element is evolved from, and harmonises with, external surroundings, seems characteristic of the Czech poets. A similar motive is seen in the poem by E. Lešeticky z Lešehradu (b. 1877) quoted on page 95. Here the night, with its atmosphere of gentleness and restraint, is in admirable harmony with the tender and wistful mood of the lover. In the poem "June," by the same author (page 96), a close and sultry atmosphere is made to correspond with a passion, mentioned only in the last four lines of the poem, but in words of fervid and almost frenzied energy.

Fr. X. Svoboda (b. 1860) represents yet a different type of poetry, exemplified by the "Song" quoted on page 114.

It is not possible here to deal with all the Czech poets of to-day, nor even to speak of them by name. In the before-mentioned anthology "Česká Lyra," over 150 poets are represented, of whom the majority are still alive. Many of these are quite young, some even in their early twenties, but their verse is already marked by a vigour and sense of melody which augur well for the future. Numerous examples of their work will be found among these translations.

The greatest Czech poetess is Eliška Krásnohorská (b. 1847), a fervent lover of her native country. Patriotism is the key-note of her poetry. She has shown her sympathy with the Slavonic cause in a practical manner by learning Russian and Polish, and producing admirable translations of Puschkin's poems and of the "Master Thaddeus" of Mickiewicz. She has also translated Byron's "Childe Harold."

Other women verse-writers are Irma Geisslová (b. 1855), Pavla Maternová (b. 1858), and Růžena Jesenská (b. 1863), whose poems are filled with a curious wistful mysticism.

Such is, in its broadest outlines, the Czech poetry of recent years. It is the poetry of a nation that has been labouring under a heavy yoke, but whose bonds have at length been shattered. And in its verse is heard the exultant cry of freedom, the vigorous utterance of young and lusty spirits. The poetry of the Czechs has won for itself a place among the poetry of more favoured nations, whose languages are widely spoken and who are able to look back upon a glorious literary past.

 

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1970, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 30 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.