Francè Prešeren Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Francè Prešeren 1800-1849

Slovene poet and translator.

Prešeren is considered the “great poet of a small nation,” the first and greatest name in Slovene literature. His poetry is a major landmark in the development of the literature of his country, as it moved Slovene writing beyond the borders of provincial poetry and didacticism to literary art. Prešeren was deeply anchored in the spiritual and poetic tradition of his country, but at the same time was influenced by the wider European tradition, from the Greek and Roman classics to the poet's Romantic contemporaries in Britain, France, and Poland. His poems were of great importance in forming the Slovene literary language as well as providing a model for others to follow. Although he is best known for his shorter lyric pieces, especially sonnets and ballads, he also wrote a great 525-line epic, Krst pri Svici: Povest v verzih [1836; The Baptism on the Savica], which is considered the Slovene national epic. The seventh stanza of his poem “Zdravljica” [1848; “A Toast”] has been Slovenia's national anthem since its independence in 1991. Although he is little known in the English-speaking world, Prešeren is well loved in Eastern Europe and Germany.

Biographical Information

Prešeren was born in December, 1800 into a farmer's family in the village of Vrba, near present-day Bled in Slovenia. When he was eight or nine he left home to live with his clergymen uncle, who arranged for his education. He attended school in Ribnica and then in Ljubljana. In 1821 he moved to Vienna, where he completed his studies in philosophy and went on to receive a doctoral degree in law. Prešeren began writing poetry around 1824, but he would not publish his first poem, “Dekletam” [“To the Girls”], until 1827.

In 1828 Prešeren returned to Ljubljana, where he pursued a career in law. Although he was a capable lawyer, Prešeren's nonconformity and his freethinking attitude made it difficult for him to advance in his profession, and for many years he had difficulty securing his own legal practice. Shortly after Prešeren moved back to Ljubljana, he began a close friendship with the writer and critic Matija Čop, who was then one of the most educated Slovenes of his day. Both men were committed to the development of literature in Slovene. Following his friend's advice, Prešeren began to use Romantic poetic forms in his work, writing in tercets and stanzas. He also wrote his first sonnets, a form he would help introduce into Slovene literature. In 1830 there appeared the first edition of the literary journal Kranjska čbelica (there would be four more), with Prešeren being the primary contributor. The publication became the principal forum for the poet's works.

In the early 1830s, Prešeren met Julija Primic, a young woman from a rich merchant family, who would soon become his muse and object of unrequited love. In 1835, two tragedies struck in Prešeren's life: Primic married another man, and, even more devastating, Čop drowned while bathing in the River Sava. Prešeren began to drink heavily and fall deeply into despair. In 1836 he began a liaison with Anna Jelovsek, a working-class girl and former ward of Primic's mother. The couple would eventually have three children, but it was not an entirely happy relationship. Prešeren continued to drink heavily, despairing at his personal losses as well as the fact that his applications for a legal practice were continually being rejected. He finally published a collection of his poetry in late 1846 (although it carried a publication date of 1847), a slender volume entitled Poezíje Dóktorja Francèta Prešérna [The Poems of Dr. Francè Prešeren]. That year Prešeren was also granted an independent law office in Kranj after his sixth petition. He moved there in autumn of 1846. A little over two years after moving to Kranj, he died of cirrhosis of the liver on February 8, 1849.

Major Works

Prešeren published relatively little in his lifetime, and his complete oeuvre consists of only a hundred and fifty poems in Slovene and another thirty or so in German. His earlier works, published in Kranjska čbelica, include translations as well as pieces about politics, love, and literature. [1830; “Slovo od mladosti”] “Farewell to Youth,” an elegy to his friendship with Čop and published in the first volume of the journal, is considered one of his finest works. In “Nova pisarija” [1831; “The New Writing”] Prešeren heaps scorn on the popular teachings of the time that poetry was to be educational and utilitarian. “Sonetni venec” [1834; “Garland of Sonnets”], which he wrote after his failed love affair with Primic, is a series of fifteen sonnets, the last of which consists of the first lines of each of the preceding sonnets, which then forms an acrostic of the name of his beloved: Primicovi Julija. The poems are about more than just unrequited love, however; they speak of the history of the Slovenes, and in them the poet, while lamenting his country's unhappy past, is filled with hope for the future. The epic The Baptism on the Savica, which appeared in 1836 after Čop's death, is a poem in two parts that relates the capture of the fortress Adjovski Grad by the Christians. This poem also recounts the capture of the pagan leader Crtomir, and tells of Crtomir's love for the daughter of the guardian of the temple of the goddess Ziva and of his eventual conversion to Christianity. In this work Prešeren again seeks solace from his personal griefs in the history of his land.

Between 1836 and the mid-1840s, largely due to personal losses and his emotional and professional difficulties, Prešeren wrote little. But toward the end of his life he began writing again, and his 1847 collection contained new work as well as revised versions of earlier publications. The poems in The Poems of Dr. Francè Prešeren contain lyric poems, ballads and romances, miscellaneous poems and amusing verses, ghazals, sonnets, and his famous epic. Ironically, his celebrated poem “A Toast” was excluded from the only collection of verse Prešeren published during his lifetime because the censors objected to a line of it.

Critical Reception

Prešeren is to the Slovene people what Goethe is to the Germans and Shakespeare is to the English-speaking world. His poetry is memorized by Slovene schoolchildren, and he is considered a national treasure. Not only did Prešeren write poetry that tapped into the history and cultural heritage of his people, he helped Slovenes to offer their own unique, particular contributions to European literary culture. He raised Slovene letters above the provincial, demonstrated the language's poetic range, and expressed a deep national pride. Although he is not well known in the English-speaking world, a great deal has been written about Prešeren and his works in Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, German, and Italian. Beginning in the 1950s, a handful of translators and critics have sought to introduce his works to English-speaking readers. In their commentaries they have offered overviews of his work in the context of his life, examined his literary influences, stressed his contribution to the formation of the Slovene literary language, and discussed his form of Romanticism. They have emphasized the unfortunate neglect of the poet's work, due in large part to the fact that few people speak Slovene, and see his work as transcending his locale and speaking to all humanity about the depth of people's love for each other as well as their country.