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December 2000

France Prešeren (3 December 1800 - 8 February 1849)


What Shakespeare is to the English, Racine to the French, Dante to the Italians, Goethe to the Germans, Pushkin to the Russians, and Mickiewicz to the Poles, Prešeren is to the Slovenes - thus, in 1866, critic Josip Stritar described the place France Prešeren held in Slovene literature.


In the past and still today Prešeren was and is considered the first and leading classic of Slovene poetry, classic not only in the national or regional sense but also according to the standards of the developed European cultures.


Prešeren is a major landmark in the development of the Slovene literature; he was the first to boldly step beyond the borders of provincial poetry and its didactic intentions and establish the poetry as poetry, as autonomous literary art.


The breakthrough of the Enlightenment in the second half of the 18th century produced a number of conspicuous works of secular literature, especially poetry and drama, but the linguistic and stylistic culture was still very backward and unreliable. It was only Prešeren with his expressive and spiritual capabilities who achieved the sovereign art of poetry. While he was deeply anchored in the domestic spiritual and poetic tradition, he was at the same time an inner cosmopolitan who lived with the peaks of European literature from the Greek and Latin Antiquity and the Renaissance to modern times with Romanticism in its center. When the German critic Vinzenz Rizzi evaluated Prešeren's Poezije (Poems) in 1849, he wrote that Prešeren "accepted in himself the whole of European culture" and on that rich basis "founded a new Slovene literature".


France Prešeren was born into a peasant family, the third of eight children, on December 3, 1800, in the village of Vrba, not far from today's well-known tourist center Bled. He had to leave home quite early (1808 or 1809) because his clergymen uncles took him to live with them and arranged for his education. Thus, he attended primary school in Ribnica in Dolenjska region (1810-1812) and then in Ljubljana (1812-1813), where he finished six grades of secondary school (1813-1819) and two years of philosophy (1819-1821). In 1821, he went to Vienna where he finished a third year of philosophy. He entered the Faculty of Law in 1822, graduated in 1826, and in 1828 received his doctoral degree in law. He studied with the help of the Knafelj Scholarship, tutoring, and support from his uncles. The Vienna period was relatively the most relaxed period of the poet's life and spiritual growth. In the summer of 1828, he returned to Ljubljana, practicing in law firms, in the finance office, and at court, and in 1832, he passed his bar exam in Klagenfurt. He then decided to pursue a career in law, which seemed to offer the most independence. His career, however, was not a happy one. He was a capable lawyer, and the reasons for the official rejections were essentially political, primarily a result of his nonconformity, that is, his inability to adapt to the norms of private, political, and religious life of the time and his freethinking attitude, which was not tolerated by the Metternich regime and provincial conservatism.


He also came into conflict with the majority opinion in his home territory regarding the essential questions of literature. With his friend, the well versed critic and theoretician Matija Čop (1797-1835), he refused to accept the simplified didactic type of domestic literature and oriented himself toward esthetically demanding and free poetry, arousing indignation and counter-measures in leading Slovene cultural circles. On his professional path, he was granted an independent law office in Kranj only after his sixth petition in 1846. He moved there in autumn of the same year, spiritually exhausted but still capable of decisively managing several collective law suits of Kranj citizens and farmers against the ruling authorities. A little over two years after moving to Kranj, he died of cirrhosis of the liver on February 8, 1849. His grave is in the old Kranj cemetery that now bears the name Prešernov gaj (Prešeren Grove).

Love - the most inviting and inevitable theme for poetry 

Besides his choice of vocation and politics, women greatly influenced Prešeren's life. In his unconventional love life, there were two more important but completely different love affairs: on the one hand, a high, fictive, we can say romantic, love for the inaccessible Julija Primic (b. 1816), the daughter of a rich Ljubljana merchant, who became one of the primary inspirations for his poetry; and on the other hand, a realistic love for the housemaid Ana Jelovšek (b. 1823), with whom he had three illegitimate children (Rezika, 1839-1840); Ernestina, 1842-1917); and France (1845-1855). Prešeren's poetry has deep roots in his life, but in its spiritual reflection, imagination, and poetic stylization, it far surpasses the framework of the poet's biography, into which literary history has often reduced it.


At first glance, the most visible and in its time the most provoking theme of Prešeren's poetry was love. The reasons that it took such a strongly emphasized position lie not only in the poet's eroticism but also came from the outside. The topic of love was the most supervised - that is to say, forbidden - theme in Slovene literature. And so it happened that it also became the most inviting and inevitable theme for poetry, which wanted to cross the borders of the forbidden and drive on to freedom. Love became a primary theme that allowed the poet more freedom to exploit personal experience and personal expression. Prešeren's early translation of Bürger's Lenore from the mid 1820's is certainly connected with this rebellion against the prohibition of the erotic.


Prešeren's love poetry has a relatively large span, encompassing all the situations of experiencing love from light playfulness to fatal importance, from hope to resignation, from mythicized to completely de-mythicized love, from powerful search for its fulfillment to the capacity for noble renunciation. Here Prešeren replaced and completed the Renaissance, the greatest gap in the history of Slovene poetry. He expressed the experience of love in very diverse genres and stylistic variations, from the popular to the highly artistic schooled by representative models of European poetry from Antiquity and the Renaissance through the Baroque and pre-Romantic to the Romantic, his fundamental style. Among the most noticeable is the Petrarchan model of adoration of women. At the peak of his romantic love lyrics is Sonetni venec (Wreath of Sonnets, 1834) that followed the formal model of the wreath of sonnets of the Sienna Academy from the 15th century (15 sonnets) but was filled with original contents leaning on the Orphean and Iphigenian motif of creative catharsis as the way out of personal crisis.


The next main theme of Prešeren's poetry is existential, defining too the erotic from its side and its tense interior oscillations between hope and fear, two elementary positions of the poet's consciousness. Prešeren is the first poet in the history of Slovene literature to radically depart from the domestic spiritual tradition and fall from the safe "religion of parents" as he also fell from the optimism of the bourgeois Enlightenment and from all safe systems of thought in general.


The cycle Sonetje nesreče (Sonnets of Unhappiness, 1834) is his most complete existential poem, marking all the main positions of personal cognition (6 sonnets-6 positions) from the initial position of hope through delusion and despair to the awareness of the absurd and beyond, all the way to the extreme marked by "disgust of life". However, in the conclusion itself, in the middle of resignation as the final condition, a gesture of upstanding defiance appears, although without a clear goal. Toward the end of the 1830's, Prešeren's existential lyric turns into the cathartic recognition that the poet must accept the fate of suffering and persevere between the heaven and hell of open and unprotected human existence.


A representative of his third main thematic circle of his poetry, that is his patriotic and political poems, is Zdravljica (The Toast), written in 1844 but only published after the March revolution in April 1848 because of the intervention of the censors. It is the most radical text of the Slovene awakening at the beginning of the "Spring of Nations". This is a poem with distinctly expressed demand for the right to a nation's independence set in the framework of a wider international political humanism and the modern ideas of equality and fraternity among all the nations of the world. It is about the ideals of the French revolution - equality, liberty and fraternity - adapted to the political needs of the Slovenes at the end of Metternich's absolutism and the beginning of the new independence movements among the Austrian nations. However, in all his uncompromising defense of the Slovene identity, he remained beyond any kind of chauvinism. He also wrote poems and published in German and proclaimed German culture as his greatest teacher without hesitation. Even one of his central poems that along with intimate revelations contained a sharp social critique - for which the censors never forgave him - was written in German. This was the elegy "Dem Andenken des Matthias Čop" (1835), written upon the death of his friend. "Zdravljica", however, remained his most famous political poem and played an important role in all subsequent crises in Slovene history, including the period of the resistance between 1941 and 1945. With independence in 1991, "Zdravljica" became Slovenia's national anthem.


The internal fusion of Prešeren's three thematic circles occurred in his poem or "narration in verse" Krst pri Savici (Baptism on the Savica) published in April 1836. This is an historical poem, a love poem, and an existentially religious poem that links personal and general themes and, following the model of Romantic poems, is revealingly universal.


If one attempts to mark Prešeren's place on the map of European Romantic poetry, it is impossible to ignore its unique union of the German and Italian poetic cultures in an original Slovene variant shaped through a very distinctive and unique poetic personality.



Extract from Slovenia Quarterly, No.1/1999 (author: Boris Paternu)



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