Bohemia's claim for freedom/The language and literature of Bohemia

For other versions of this work, see The language and literature of Bohemia.
Bohemia's claim for freedom  (1915) 
The language and literature of Bohemia by Cyrill Spal


THE Bohemian language is the crystallisation of a great number of Slavonic dialects, of which, as the result of political conditions, that spoken in Bohemia by the ruling division of the Slavonic race, is the one that generally prevails.

The language as it is spoken at the present time must be divided into three groups: first, that used throughout the Kingdom of Bohemia; second, that of Moravia; and third, the dialect spoken by the Slovaks of North Eastern Hungary. The literary form of the language is that of Prague, but in course of time it has undergone numerous changes, so that it does not agree with any special dialect, but stands as the most cultivated example of the language used by any of the Slavonic family.

There are three periods recognised in the literary history of Bohemia. The first period ranges from the earliest written documents to the works of John Hus (1410). The next period takes us on to the reign of Joseph II (1774). Finally, the modern period extends from the end of the eighteenth century until the present time.

The ancient folklore, traditions, lyric and epic verse, with the fables and sayings, must be considered as the first fruits of the Bohemian literary tree; these were reproduced in later chronicles and other documents, the originals of which, unfortunately, have not been preserved.

By the more general adoption of the art of writing, and by the mighty regenerative movement caused by the acceptance of the Christian faith, a great development of literature was inaugurated. The scriptures were translated, hymns composed, and the saintly legends written.

The pious meditative spirit expressed itself in the composition of religious romance and descriptions of the passion. It is to be regretted that even of this period (ninth to fourteenth century) only a few of the original manuscripts have come down to us.

Chronicles and works of an historical kind are a prominent feature of this time. The most ancient is by Kosmas (1045-1125), who is called the father of Bohemian history.

The great immigration of Germans into Bohemia under the last kings of the Premysl dynasty awoke a strong national feeling. One of the fruits of this movement is a chronicle called "Dalimil's," written in Bohemian at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and it is full of patriotic feeling and love of country. Other writers of historical works about this period were Benes Krabice Weitmile (d. 1375), Vavrinec Brezove, the old Lord of Rozmberk, who wrote for the most part on the subject of law, and Ondrej Dube.

The decline of morals in the Roman Church caused an unprecedented agitation throughout the country, and a strong desire for reform was manifested by the people. The depravity of the clergy was attacked vigorously by pen and sermon by such men as Konrad Waldhauser, J. Milic, Matez Janova, and Tomas ze Stitneho, who was the first to write in Bohemia on moral philosophy. This great movement culminated in the appearance of John Hus, who became the recognised leader in the great moral revolution. The earnest desire of the reformers for the restoration of purity in the Church is fully expressed in the copious theological literature of the time contributed to by Hus, and after him, amongst many others, by Petr Chelcicky (d. 1460), who was the spiritual founder of the later "Jednota bratrska" (Unity of the Brethren), which became the embodiment of the reforming spirit.

The invention of the art of printing and the contemporaneous spread of the knowledge of classic literature infused new life into Bohemian literature aad at the same time brought a change of style.

The science of law was expounded in eminent works by Viktorin Cornelius ze Vsehrd (d. 1520) and Daniel Adam z Veleslavina (1546-99). The latter achieved great fame in consequence of his efforts for the development of literature and the scientific purification of the language.

It was at this time that one of the greatest monuments of Bohemian literature was produced by the Unity of Brethren, in the form of a complete translation of the Bible.

The battle of the White Mountain was the forerunner of a rapid decline in literature. In consequence of the merciless persecution of all who refused to yield to the Catholic Church, the best Bohemian families went into exile. The great teacher John Amos Komensky (1592-1671), was forced to leave his country, and in foreign lands he wrote in the interest of and for the Bohemian people. In 1647 he came to London at the express wish of the Long Parliament. To his humanitarian work many English colleges owe their origin. And so high was this Czech humanist esteemed in England that on an old English engraving dated 1642 we find the following beautiful inscription:—

Loe, here an Exile, who to serue his God
Hath sharply tasted of proud Pashur's Rod,
Whose learning, Piety and true worth beeing knowne
To all the world, makes all the world his owne.

In other directions the literary decay seemed so complete that even eminent Bohemian scholars began to fear that the nation and its language would be extinguished.

A mighty impulse was necessary to awaken the people from their lethargy, and this came from two sources. First, from the west, as the result of the French Revolution, which aroused the self-consciousness of the nation; and secondly, from within, through the national reaction against the oppressive Germanising efforts of the Government. The leader of this new movement was an eminent student of Slavonic languages, Josef Dobrovsky (1753-1829), and next to him the historian, F. M. Pelcl (1734-1801).

The poetry of this time was the expression of the aims and aspirations of men who, with patriotic zeal and ardour, were striving to raise the standard of literary excellence to a level worthy of the Bohemian nation. Later, another

Forget-me-nots, from a lithograph by Josef Mánes.jpg

From a lithograph by J. Manes
generation of eminent poets arose in F. L. Celakovsky, J. Kollar, and K. J. Erben (1811-1870), whose works have a well-established pre-eminence. Also, the eminent journalist Karel Havlicek showed us with biting satire the frivolousness of society in this time.

After the eventful year of 1848 there were again marked signs of the influence of foreign thought and style on the literature of Bohemia. The best exponent of this modern form unquestionably was Jan Neruda, who first introduced the light style of the feuilleton.

One of the most productive poets of the new era and tlie most versatile is Jaroslav Vrchlicky, who brought poetic language to perfection, although in the order of merit he is closely approached by Svatopluk Czech. Then we have Jul. Zeyer, an excellent writer of the romantic school, and J. V. Sladek, to whose genius we owe the new translation of Shakespeare's works.

Historical tales and romances founded on Bohemian historical incidents are worthily represented by the works of V. Benes Trebizsky and Alois Jirasek.

Special reference is due to our translators. Most foreign classical works are to be had in the Bohemian language, and many of the translations exhibit all the signs of conscientious and patient labour. This is especially evident in the series of Shakespearian plays which are well calculated to attract and favourably impress Bohemian readers with the wide-ranging genius of England's greatest dramatist and poet.

As proof of our high appreciation of English literature, it is with pleasure that we state that before the war special arrangements had been made to issue as frequently as possible all the best examples of English literary work, and in this way build up what we may reasonably style our "English library." (Editor, J. Otto-Prague.)

Bohemian scientific literature can be said only to have made its first appearance in the nineteenth century, as previously Bohemian savants published their works either in German or Latin. However, the nationalisation of this branch of the work is progressing steadily. In the several departments of scientific writing, the names worthy of special mention are Fr. Palacky, Jos. Dobrovsky, P. J. Safarik, V. V. Tomek. Bohemian philology owes much to the labours of Jos. Dobrovsky, P. J. Safarik, Jos. Jungmann, M. Hattala. The history of literature has been dealt with by J. Dobrovsky, J. Jungmann, J. Vlcek, and V. Flajshans; history is represented by the works of Purkyne, Jos Krejci, Jan Palacky, Fric, and Celakovsky. Metaphysics has an excellent representation in the highly intellectual works of A. Smetana, Ot. Hostinsky, T. G. Masaryk. In the science of Law A. Randa, E. Ott J. Prazak, A. Zucher, Boh, Rieger, and Braf have achieved great eminence.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).