Modern Czech Poetry/Introduction


The Czechs are Slavs, and their poetry has all the impulsiveness, the music and the melancholy which are a common heritage of their stock. But the historical vicissitudes through which they have passed, together with the special influences to which they have been subjected as a result, have modified their national characteristics, just as their language is phonetically differentiated from that of kindred races. Thus, while their poetry is rich in the dreamy cadences and elegiac moods which are, so to speak, Pan-Slavonic manifestations, it also frequently sounds the notes of satire, defiance and rebellion. Again, the local conditions of life in Prague, with its sombre atmosphere of bygone glory, have produced a curious element of artificial romanticism, which finds its inspiration in the faded, the sinister and the aristocratic. These latter ingredients are to be met with especially in the verses of the Czech decadents, in striking contrast to the typical Moravian poets, whose fondness for bright colouring and quaint phraseology is due to the regional peculiarities of their native district.

By its geographical situation Bohemia has been more directly exposed to Western European influences than any other Slav country. In literature, and especially in poetry, the Czechs have shown a preference for French or Italian sources, and they have deliberately ignored the more immediate German models. Thus Jaroslav Vrchlický, who was born in 1853 and died in 1912, the founder of modern Czech poetry in the stricter sense of the word, derived his main inspiration from Victor Hugo and Dante. He introduced every variety of metre into Czech literature, and thus established a valuable tradition of formal exactitude. Vrchlicky's importance as an original poet is considerable, and although his collected verses fill 70 volumes, he maintained a surprisingly high standard. His historical significance lies in the fact that he fixed the future course of Czech literature. He stands at the cross-roads which mark the separation of Czech culture from the German variety. To this process he contributed an enormous store of translations (the whole of Dante, Tasso, Ariosto, together with a good deal of Shelley, Victor Hugo, Whitman, Calderon and Mickiewicz, forms only a fraction of them), and in this direction he set an example which has been cultivated by numerous successors. The result is that the present generation of Czechs has been emancipated from the need for German versions of European literature. Vrchlický's occupation with foreign models, which left inevitable traces in his own poetry, was unjustly taken amiss by a number of Czech critics; unjustly, because they overlooked his achievement in raising the whole plane of Czech literature, whose national capacity he paradoxically extended by introducing international elements. Moreover, his creative influence on the Czech language was of the utmost value even to those poets who had no great regard for his artistic tendencies.

The most prominent among the many talented Czech poets of today are J. S. Machar, Antonín Sova and Otakar Březina. J. S. Machar (b. 1864) is a poet (and prose-writer) of revolt. He has not altogether escaped the national bent for melancholy brooding and sentimental elegy, which indeed, form the chief contents of his early poems. But it is the pugnacity in his temperament that has dictated his most characteristic work; and the prominent objects of his satire are chauvinists and priests. In his "Tractate on Patriotism", for example, he coldly analyses and rejects the attitude of the average nationalist towards his native country. Only a man of considerable courage could have ventured to publish such a poem in Bohemia, where feeling ran very high on such matters. The same applies to his "Golgotha", a vivid and non-clerical interpretation of the death of Christ, which did, in fact, arouse a storm of indignation on its appearance in 1893. Under the general title of "The Consciousness of the Ages", Machar has issued a series of volumes in which the leading figures and episodes of history are depicted in a poetical style whose energy and lack of obscurity harmonize with the directness of each recital. It is these qualities, together with the gift of commenting on topical events without lapsing into triviality, which have made Machar the most popular Czech writer of today. During the war Machar was imprisoned by the Austrian authorities, apparently on account of four poems which they considered dangerous to public order. In a prose-work entitled "The Jail" he has described the incidents leading up to his arrest, and his experiences in prison. This narrative, with its unflagging vividness and clarity forms a literary and historical document of quite unusual interest.

Sova was born in the same year as Machar, to whom, however, he presents a complete contrast. He expresses all the dreamy, the sensitive and the tragically melancholy features of the Czech character. His early work consists of poetry which admirably reproduces external impressions of town and country scenery. He then applied the same penetrative vision to the recording of emotional phenomena, and from this point onward, Sova's poetry becomes a chronicle of inner struggles, of bitterness, of despondency, till in the "Harvests" (1913) he arrives at a mood of reconciliation which clarifies the world with a mellow autumn radiance. The delicacy, richness and subtlety of his style ("impressionism", is here a vague and inadequate label) are peculiarly adapted to the allegory and symbolism which render his most typical poems so profoundly moving. Yet Sova can also reveal a racial ferocity as uncompromising and outspoken as that of Machar. Thus his poetical invective, entitled, "To Theodor Mommsen" is a masterpiece of passionate rhetoric.

In the poetry of Březina (b. 1868) — a remarkable and baffling figure, who has spent his life in the obscurer districts of Moravia — all contact with the world of reality has been eliminated. His native Czech pietism has been stimulated by literary influences, and much of his work bears a superficial sesemblance to that of Whitman. His diction with its bewildering wealth of imagery combines the two extremes of primitive simplicity and intellectual refinement. And, while occult things are familiar to him, in familiar things he often discovers an equally occult aspect. Briefly, the subject-mater of his five concentrated volumes is a search for the meaning of life. But the anguished questionings of his "Secret Distances" of 1895 represent an attitude entirely superseded by the passionate optimism of "The Hands", his final volume, in which he intones an enraptured hymn to human brotherhood for, like Sova, he has arrived at an affirmation of life, although by a difference route and through a different medium.

The remaining representatives of contemporary Czech poetry must here be dealt with by a process of selection, which aims only at discussing a few typical personalities. In the first place, no account of the matter would be complete without a reference to Petr Bezruč. This remarkable and somewhat mysterious figure is the author of a single volume which originally appeared in 1903 under the title "The Silesian Number", a revised and extended edition of which was re-issued in 1909 as "Silesian Songs"; Bezruč is a regional poet whose subject-matter is derived from the local conditions in the Teschen district, where the Czechs have, for years past, suffered socially and racially from the encroachments of the Germans and the Poles. In a variety of poetical forms, Bezruč intones variations on this single theme, and in his most characteristic passages he attains such a monumental utterance, such rhetorical and spontaneous vigour, that these verses have made their author's name a household word throughout the country.

While the impulse underlying the poems of Bezruč proceeds from the collective emotions of "Seventy Thousand", — the Silesian Czechs, — the verses of Karel Toman (b. 1874) are essentially individual in character. These fragile and elusive snatches of song are a direct expression of an equally fragile and elusive nature. They are pervaded by a bitter-sweet melancholy and a musical tearfulness which have suggested comparisons with Villon and Verlaine. In his later poems Toman has attained a firmer and maturer style, without sacrificing the delicacy of his previous work.

The poetry of Otakar Theer (1880—1917) is also intensely and poignantly personal. His literary beginnings date back to the period of so-called "decadence" in Czech literature, a movement which approximately corresponds to the English "Yellow Book" activities. Theer never entirely emancipated himself from this influence, and at the time of his death he was still in an experimental stage. On the whole, he was probably tending towards a systematic cultivation of free rhythm, although he also employed regular strophic forms with artistic skill and in great variety. But the leading feature of Theer's verse is its emphatically subjective tone. It expresses the mental conflicts of a tragical personality, which were due to the lack of harmony between the intellectual and emotional tendencies in his character. Theer was certainly one of the most gifted among the younger Czech poets, and his premature death is a heavy loss.

This survey of modern Czech poetry takes into account only those writers who are represented in the accompanying extracts. It should, however, be added that their contemporaries are numerous and interesting. A more detailed account of their work may be given on a later occasion.

This work was published before January 1, 1928 and is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or less since publication.