Czech Poetry Analysis

The fourteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The magnificence of fourteenth century Czech literature lies in the breadth and quality of poetry that appeared so suddenly, situating Bohemia firmly in the Western European literary context. Verse chronicles, epics, didactic literature and satire, courtly love poetry, sacred hymns, profane lyrics—such was the rich spectrum of Czech poetry in the fourteenth century, unequalled in any other Slavic literature at the time. For present-day readers, this rich poetic tradition serves as a reminder of the cultural unity of Bohemia with Western Europe; like other Central European cultures, Bohemia has always been oriented toward the West, something that the unfortunate political locution “Eastern Europe” managed to obfuscate.

The rich treasury of fourteenth century Czech poetry was the product of many well-educated and practiced poets working at the court in Prague, at the Caroline University, or in the monasteries. The oldest attested Czech hymn, from the fourteenth century, was based on a Greek refrain and bears some traces of Old Church Slavonic forms. This hymn, “Hospodine, pomiluj ny” (“Lord Have Mercy on Us”), was preserved as an integral part of the coronation ceremony of the Czech kings, which explains its antiquity. The typical fourteenth century hymn appears in rhymed octosyllabic quatrains, or even longer stanzas, as in “Kunhutina modlitba” (“The Prayer of Lady Kunhuta”). More interesting and indeed regarded as representative of...

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From 1409 to 1774

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

After the magnificence of the fourteenth century, the fifteenth century seems disappointing. Hymnal poetry was all that remained from the rich fourteenth century heritage, but in the religious strife brought about by Hussite Wars, the hymn was forced to assume a military function, and poetry suffered accordingly.

The period of religious strife was not, however, completely unsuited for literature of any kind: Pamphlets were produced in large numbers, as befitted an age of controversy. Particularly rich too is the satirical poetry of the period. Here, the medieval form of the satirical exemplum combines with a new content, the fruit of the fifteenth century religious pamphleteering of such Hussite thinkers as Petr Chelický (1390-1460). The didacticism of this satire works against its metaphorical elements to the extent that the latter are suppressed; the allegory in such works seems heavy-handed, so subservient is it to the propagandistic function of the Hussite cause. The Catholic cause did not remain undefended, and the result was a battle of pamphlets, and even a battle of satirical poems, in which both causes were ridiculed.

After the Hussite Wars, Bohemia found itself in a paradoxical position. Nationally—that is, from the point of view of the advancement of the Czech cause, Czech control of the main cities, the use of the vernacular, and so on—there was a clear victory. At the same time, the Czechs isolated themselves from the European context as heretics. This cultural isolation was sadly accompanied by the decline of the Caroline University, by the inability of the main European cultural movements of the Renaissance to establish themselves in Bohemia, and by the destruction of much of the Gothic heritage, including artworks of all kinds, but particularly manuscripts.

Thus, the Czech literary tradition was interrupted, and it was only at the end of the fifteenth century that a cultural revival began, under the influence of Italian Humanism. At first, this influence appeared primarily in translations from classical literature, and...

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The age of revival (1774-1918)

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Rather than a revolution from below, a fiat from above—in the form of an imperial edict on religious tolerance—stands at the beginning of the Czech national revival. The revival of Czech as a literary language was also given impetus by the pan-European fascination with folk culture that preceded the Romantic movement. In particular, Johann Gottfried Herder’s collection of folk songs, Volkslieder (1778-1779), directly influenced, after a delay of several decades, such Czech folklorists as Václav Hanka and Frantiek Ladislav elakovský. Hanka could not withstand the temptation to provide Czechs with an ancient epic comparable to Ossian and so produced two forgeries of ancient epics. This basically Romantic impulse was rewarded, surprisingly, by an impressive result that played a positive role in firing the imagination of other revivalists.

The literary revival of Czech language was given further impetus by the nationalist reaction against the Germanizing tendency at the end of the eighteenth century, but the movement directly responsible for bringing into play all the forces conducive to revival was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought the Counter-Reformation to a decisive end, symbolized by the suppression of the Jesuit order. Those active in the Enlightenment were also active in the nationalist, revivalist movement following the 1774 clash over the compulsory use of German in Czech schools—an edict that provoked massive resistance and heightened national consciousness.

As an overview of the entire revivalist period, Arne Novák’s periodization seems particularly helpful: Enlightenment (1774-1815), classicism (1815-1830), early Romanticism (1830-1848), and late Romanticism (1848-1859). (Novák omits the period from 1860 to World War I, for by 1860, the revival was an accomplished fact.) In the period of Enlightenment inaugurated by the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, the literary revival profited from historical and linguistic scholarship; notable is the work of the learned Jesuit Josef Dobrovský (1753-1829), whose Geschichte der bömischen Sprache und Literatur (1792; history of Czech language and literature) laid the foundation for such revivalists as Josef Jungmann and Pavol Jozef afárik.

The revival of Czech poetry began with the Puchmajer group of poets. Antonín Jaroslav Puchmajer (1769-1820), influenced by Dobrovský, published Sebrání básní a zpv (1795; collection of poems and songs), an anthology of poems by young Czech poets.

At a time when Romanticism had already conquered Western Europe, Czech poetry went through a brief phase of classicism, exemplified in poetry by Jungmann (1773-1847) and his poetic school. Jungmann translated widely from both classical and modern European literature; his translations from English, French, and German poetry had an enormous impact on young Czech poets, although this impact was largely limited to formal imitation of Jungmann’s hexameters. Jungmann’s school included scholars and poets such as the professional soldier Matj Milota Zdirad Polák (1788-1856), the author of a rare and precious lyric poem in six cantos, Vzneenost pírody (1813; the nobility of nature). The greatest poet associated with Jungmann, eclipsing him as the personification of the age of revival, was Ján Kollár (1793-1852), a Slovak writing in Czech and thus claimed, not unreasonably, by both nations as their national poet. His magnum opus is Slávy dcera (1824, 1832; the daughter of Sláva), organized into five cantos that situate the poem geographically and mythologically at the foci of five rivers: Elbe, Rhine, Moldau, Lethe, and Acheron. Following the form of the Petrarchan sonnet with trochaic meter, Kollár manages to be most inspiring when mourning the fate of the Lusatian or Sorbian Slavs—those Western Slavs who, by Kollár’s time, had been almost completely absorbed by Germany.

Frantiek Palacký (1798-1876) and—a Slovak—Pavol Jozef afárik (1795-1861) were two other outstanding figures in the national revival: Palacký mainly as a cultural and literary historian, afárik as a Slavist, the author of the first comparatist history of Slavic literatures, published in 1826.

Palacký, folklorist elakovský, and others were much impressed by Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848), a Prague thinker of Italian origin but a German patriot. Bolzano influenced Czech religious thought and poetry in the rationalist direction, and his influence explains in part the distinctive character of the late-blooming Czech Romantic movement.

Unlike Western European Romanticism, which began as a reaction against the rationalist sensibility of the Enlightenment, Czech Romanticism, hampered by the Hussite heritage as well as by the influence of Catholic thinkers like Bolzano, was of a decidedly rationalist orientation. Folklore, which played an important role in the Romantic movement throughout Europe, was particularly significant in Czech Romanticism. Many Czech Romantics began as collectors of folktales and folk songs, and their immersion in the folk tradition and the poetics of folk literature distinguishes them from the scholarly classicists, with their finely honed versifying and precision of poetic expression.

Karel Jaromír Erben

Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870) is known as the greatest poet of the ballad, a folk genre he enriched through his wide ethnographic experience. He was also an author who, aware of many native and foreign influences, was able to elevate a humble folk genre into a sophisticated vehicle of poetic expression. Of particular importance is the first...

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Katolická Moderna and modernist movements

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In turn, a reaction against this poetry of social protest was initiated by a group of poets known as Katolická Moderna (modern Catholic movement), the most important of whom were Antonín Sova (1864-1928) and Otokar Bezina, (1868-1929). This group eclipsed, by both their artistic strength and their numbers, the movement of social protest.

Sova was an anti-Parnassian and thus was at odds with the Vrchlický school as well as with the school of social protest. A strong individualist, he crafted intimate lyrics, rejecting social values. With Bezina, Czech poetry gained a fresh and original voice worthy of the fine tradition of Czech Catholic verse. Religious poets in modern Bohemia still find Bezina refreshing and profound, for he is a poet of mystery, a reflective poet whose verse reveals his study of ancient and modern philosophy. In some literary histories, both Sova and Bezina are mentioned in connection with the Symbolist movement, an identification made tenuous by the fact that in Bohemia, Symbolism appeared simultaneously with realism, metaphysical Romanticism, and other movements.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Czech literary situation was complicated by a proliferation of movements under the general heading of modernism. The age of manifestos began in 1895 with the proclamation of the Manifest ceské moderny. This was the era of the Decadents, such as Jirí Karásek ze Lvovic (1871-1951), Hlaváek, and later, Otakar Theer (1880-1917): a period characterized by the glorification of death and of free love; by Satanism, irony, and nihilism; by the so-called Illusionist Baroque of Hlaváek and the tragic metaphysical vision of Theer’s sensuous lyrics. Here, at the beginning of the modern age, one can find the origin of a basic division that has continued to plague twentieth century poetry: modernism versus social protest.

The modern period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The year 1918 saw revolutionary changes: The Czechoslovak Republic was established after generations of poets and patriots had spent centuries hoping, dreaming, and writing about the day of independence. When independence finally came, however, euphoria was mixed with deep shame and despair following the moral disaster of World War I, which ushered in modernity in a way that few had expected. If anything, the fact of independence intensified many social problems, for there was no more national oppression to be used as a scapegoat. These social problems paled, however, when compared to the huge human losses that came twenty years later, following the debacle of the Munich Treaty of 1938 and subsequent occupation of Bohemia and...

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The next generation

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The following generation produced a trio of significant poets: Jan Skácel (1922-1989), Miroslav Holub (1923-1998), and Karel iktanc (born 1928). Of interest are Skácel’s collection Hodina mezi psem a vlkem (1962; the hour between the dog and the wolf), Holub’s Achilles a zelva (1960; Achilles and the turtle), and iktanc’s Slepá láska (1968; blind love). Catholic poets such as Zahradníek and the older Jakub Deml (1878-1961) reentered the Czech literary consciousness in the 1990’s after a long period of neglect and suppression during communism. This holds true as well for Václav Renc (1911-1973), Zdenek Rotrekl (born 1920), and Josef Palivec (1886-1975).

Poetry by women, who became more visible in the 1980’s, made a strong contribution. The work of Marcela Chmarová (born 1951), Marta Gärtnerová (born 1948), and Marta Chytilová (1907-1998) should be mentioned. Exile, not always a good experience for poets, nevertheless enabled publication of such poets as Jirí Grua (born 1928) and Ivan Divi (1924-1999). It also helped popularize authors of protest songs, forbidden at home during the communist rule, such as Karel Kryl (1944-1994), Jaroslav Hutka (born 1947), and Svatopluk Karásek (born 1942).


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Büchler, Alexandra, ed. Six Czech Poets. Translated by Alexandra Büchler, et al. Todmorden, Lancashire, England: Arc, 2007. A volume in the New Voices from Europe and Beyond series. Introduction by the editor is in English. Poems are presented in bilingual form, with Czech text along with English translation.

Cejka, Jaroslav, Michael Cernik, and Karel Sys. The New Czech Poetry. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1992. The works of these three poets from the generation after Holub, all born during the 1940’s.

French, Alfred. The Poets of Prague: Czech Poetry Between the Wars. New York: Oxford...

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