Croatian Poetry Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The beginnings of Croatian poetry coincided with the introduction of Christianity to the Croats in the ninth century, when the disciples of the missionaries Cyril and Methodius came to the South Slavic lands, bringing with them writings in Old Church Slavonic concerning church rituals. Unfortunately, most Croatian literary works of that period have been lost. The earliest extant Croatian poetry is contained in Misal Kneza Novaka (1368; the missal of Prince Novak), written in glagolitsa, a special alphabet devised by the missionaries on the basis of the local tongue. Numerous church songs from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries show a great variety of rhymed and unrhymed metrics—from seven to twelve syllables—but there are also songs in free verse. All of this poetic activity, limited though it was in subject matter and scope, constituted the necessary preparation for, and transition to, the blossoming of artistic literature in general, and poetry in particular, in cultural centers along the Adriatic coast from the second half of the fifteenth century to 1835.

The Croatian territories on the Adriatic coast escaped Turkish rule and, as a result, were able to develop in every respect. This was especially true of the Republic of Dubrovnik (Ragusa). Culturally, this area was under the direct influence of Italian Humanism and Petrarchan poetry. Many Croatian poets were educated in Italy and wrote for the most part, or exclusively, in Latin. More important, even though the general tenor and spirit of their poetry were unmistakably under the Italian influence, the Croatian poets of Dalmatia were able to give their poetry a native slant and color, not only in language and setting but also in their own understanding of the function and purpose of literature and poetry.

Fourteenth to sixteenth centuries

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The first writer of stature who excelled in both Latin and Croatian was Marko Maruli (1450-1524). His many writings on religious and moral issues were widely circulated throughout Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century. Maruli was at times suspicious of the secular spirit of the Renaissance; his poetry is steeped in piety and Christian morality, often touching on the social problems of his time, especially the immoral behavior of some members in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He also warned repeatedly about the danger of the advancing Turks, who had besieged his native Split. His most ambitious work, the epic Judita (1501; Judith, 1990), uses a biblical story to reflect on conditions in Dalmatia in his time, particularly the Turkish threat and the need to preserve freedom.

iko Meneti (1457-1527) and Dore Dri (1461-1501) were two of the early Dubrovnik writers who laid the foundations of Croatian medieval poetry with their somewhat scant poetic contributions. Meneti was a patrician and Dri a priest; they complemented each other in that the former was a more conventional and the latter a more spontaneous poet. Meneti’s lyric poetry follows closely the spirit of Petrarch, while that of Dri reflects the spontaneity and freshness of folk poetry.

The works of these two poets soon began to exert influence on the second generation of Dalmatian poets in the first half of the sixteenth century. Hanibal Luci...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

On the strength of the solid foundation laid by almost a century of unhindered growth, Croatian poetry of the Renaissance reached its pinnacle in the seventeenth century. The greatest Croatian poet of the century, and indeed of the entire era, was Ivan Gunduli (1589-1638). Continuing in the Christian tradition of his predecessors, Gunduli added a pronounced nationalism in order to present the life of Dubrovnik and of his people in general. In Suze sina razmetnoga (1622; the tears of the prodigal son), his deep religiosity is reflected in the realization of the transience of all things and of the need to seek God. It is the long, unfinished epic poem Osman (1651; English translation, 1991), however, that qualifies Gunduli as one of the greatest poets in all the South Slavic literatures. Osman reflects Gunduli’s preoccupation with the freedom of his people in their struggle against the Turks. The defeat of the Turkish sultan Osman by Poland is used by the poet to instill hope in the Slavs. What makes the epic outstanding is an artistic quality not previously seen in Croatian poetry: a richness of poetic expression, a strong rhythm and deft rhyming, and a skillful mixture of lyric and realistic elements.

Seventeenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

After Gunduli, the literature of Dubrovnik began a slow decline. There were only two other poets of note: Ivan Buni Vui (1591-1658) wrote Anacreontic poems with an emphasis on love and other sensuous experiences, composed in flowing octosyllables and couched in picturesque images. Ignjat Djurdjevi (1675-1737) wrote most of his poetry in the eighteenth century, but in spirit, he belonged to the preceding century and, as such, concluded the golden age of the literature of Dubrovnik. Like Vui, Djurdjevi wrote love lyrics stressing sensuality and the unhappy ending of the love experience.

While Dubrovnik relinquished its leading position in Croatian literature, other parts of Croatia began to assert themselves. In the seventeenth century, there were three noteworthy poets in Croatia proper: Petar Zrinski (1621-1671), Fran Krsto Frankopan (1643-1671), and Pavao Ritter Vitezovi (1652-1712). The first two belonged to aristocratic families, which furnished the leaders of Croatian society at that time. They were involved in a conspiracy against Austrian rule and, because of this, lost their lives while still very young. They managed to write only a few poems each, drawing from their great knowledge of foreign literatures and concentrating on translation from these literatures. In their own poetry, they were influenced by folk traditions and by the fashionable poetry of their time, including that of Dubrovnik. Vitezovi, the first professional writer in Croatia, distinguished himself by his work in cultural matters and by his efforts toward the unification of all the Southern Slavs.

Eighteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the eighteenth century, the poets of Croatia proper failed to match the achievements of the Dubrovnik literature of the past, but they prepared the ground for greater achievements that would soon follow. Andrija Kai Mioi (1704-1760), for example, imitated folk poetry in a versified historical chronicle, Razgovor ugodni naroda slovinskoga (1756; a pleasant account of the Slavs), thus foreshadowing the importance of folk poetry during the national revival of the Southern Slavs in the next century. Matija Antun Reljkovi (1732-1798), primarily a didactic poet, endeavored in his main work, Satir (1762; the satyr), to help his people free themselves from foreign rule as well as from ignorance. Tito Brezovaki (1757-1805) also wrote primarily to educate his people and, in the process, used their own language.

Folk traditions

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During these centuries, there was another literature—folk literature—which existed like an underground river. The folk poetry of the Croats developed simultaneously with that of the Serbs; sometimes it is impossible to tell them apart unless they deal with clearly identifiable historical events and figures. Like their Serbian counterparts, Croatian folk poems concern themselves with the basic conflict of the medieval history of the Southern Slavs—the struggle of Christendom against Islam. Croatian lyric folk poems are almost identical with those of the Serbs in that they, too, depict the everyday concerns of the common people. They are also rich artistically. While the Serbian folk lyrics are mostly decasyllabic, Croatian folk lyrics employ a greater variety of meters, most of them in a twelve-syllable meter known as bugartica.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Folk poetry gave a strong impetus to the national revival in all the South Slavic lands at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The sense of oneness among the Serbs and Croats, as evidenced by folk poetry that could be read and appreciated in all parts of the Serbo-Croatian linguistic and ethnic domain, led to the reawakening of national identity and to the formation of the so-called Illyrian movement. This movement originated in Croatia, where it also had its strongest and most eloquent support. It consisted of people from all walks of life, although writers, especially poets, predominated. The movement was influenced, somewhat belatedly, by Western European Romanticism, notably that of German literature. Nationalistic...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the period of realism (1881-1895), there were only two significant poets: August Harambai (1861-1911) and Silvije Strahimir Kranjevi (1865-1905). While Harambai wrote light, musical poems in which he extolled freedom and exhorted people to fight for it, Kranjevi developed into a poet of fiery spirit. His four books of poetry constitute one loud cry of protest against the injustice and senselessness of contemporary social conditions and of human existence in general. Nevertheless, he expressed the hope that somehow conditions would improve. The author of several outstanding poems, he enriched Croatian literature like no other poet in the nineteenth century, and with his spotlight on human relationships and on the inequities contained therein, he made a sharp turn toward modernity in Croatian poetry.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The modern spirit came into full recognition and expression with the next generation of poets, grouped around the movement fittingly calling itself Moderna. Moderna was keenly attuned to contemporary problems and concerns; it also welcomed the influence of foreign authors to a degree unprecedented in Croatian letters. Poetry was its strongest voice, although other genres and arts were also involved. Long strides were made in matters of form and poetics. The movement did much to free Croatian poetry from its provincial confines and to make it a worthy though still neglected partner on the international scene.

There were several competent poets in the Moderna movement. One of the first to...

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The world wars

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The advent of World War I brought about a decisive change in Croatian poetry, just as it did in other South Slavic literatures. New faces and forces occupied the central stage during and after the war, elbowing out the older ones, even the writers of Moderna. Most of the new poets considered it their first duty to protest against the horrors and madness of war. The strongest new voice belonged to Miroslav Krlea (1893-1981), a writer of remarkable power and breadth who would dominate Croatian letters for seven decades. A politically engaged intellectual, an insistent advocate of social justice, a passionate polemicist, a writer of unusual prowess and broad erudition, Krlea expounded his views in a highly artistic manner in all of his works, of which poetry constituted only a small part. He led Croatian literature during the period of feverish activity and artistically satisfying creativity between the two world wars.

There were other poets worth mentioning (in addition to prewar poets such as Domjani and Nazor): Tin Ujevi (1891-1955), Antun Branko imi (1898-1925), Gustav Krklec (1899-1978), Dobria Cesari (1902-1980), and Dragutin Tadijanovi (1905-2007), to name only some of the most accomplished. The first two should be singled out. Ujevi was a bohemian by nature and a highly original poet of intense, mostly pessimistic experiences. In his eight books of poetry, he trod the tortuous path of an often misunderstood loner in his struggle for inner freedom and identity. imi’s poems strike a similarly tragic chord, intensified by illness and premonitions of early death. Both of these poets have exerted a strong influence on their younger counterparts and on contemporary Croatian poetry.

During World War II, most poets were silent, but a few gave expression to the tragic experiences of their people. Nazor joined the partisans and wrote poems extolling their struggle in his usual positive fashion. Those were the last noteworthy poems he wrote; he died soon after the war. A young poet, Ivan Goran Kovai (1913-1943), also joined the partisans and gained prominence with his long poem Jama (1944; the pit). It is written in a very strict form, full of magnificent imagery and powerful use of language, raising to a tragic level the theme of human suffering and the horrors of war. Kovai himself was a victim of the war.

Postwar and late twentieth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the first postwar years, several older poets—Ujevi, Nazor, Krklec, Cesari, Tadijanovi, and others—reappeared with new works, but in almost all cases, their earlier poetry is much better. In the first postwar generation, Vesna Parun (born 1922) and Jure Katelan (1919-1990) occupy prominent positions. In 1947, Parun published her first book, Zore i vihori (daybreaks and whirlwinds), a collection that was influential among young poets and was at the same time denounced by the Socialist Realist critics. Primarily a poet of love, she combines sensuousness and great compassion with the rich texture of her spiritual intuition. For her, love is a redeeming force that can rescue the world, but from the beginning, one also...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Barac, Antun. A History of Yugoslav Literature. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Joint Committee on Eastern Europe Publication Series, 1973. A standard history of all Yugoslav literatures and poetry, including Croatian, by a leading literary scholar. Although somewhat outdated, it still provides reliable information, especially on the older periods.

Debeljak, Ale. “Visions of Despair and Hope Against Hope: Poetry in Yugoslavia in the Eighties.” World Literature Today 68, no. 3 (1992): 191-194. Debeljak looks at Yugoslav poetry, including Croatian, on the eve of tumultuous events and changes in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. Poetry of the...

(The entire section is 362 words.)