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...