Among the earliest extant Serbian poems are church songs commissioned and often composed by Saint Sava (1175-1235), the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and of Serbian literature. These poems were patterned after Byzantine church songs, but there were also original Slavic songs among them. As the Serbian state grew in size and strength, more poetry was written, mostly in the form of pohvale (encomiums) to national and church leaders. In addition, in the famous biographies of Serbian kings and archbishops, as well as in historical writings, there are passages so strikingly lyrical and rhetorical that some scholars now treat them as poems. “Slovo ljubve” (c. fifteenth century; a song of love), by Stephan Lazarevi, and “Pohvala Knezu Lazaru” (1402; the encomium to Prince Lazar) are good examples of this kind of poetic literature. “Slovo ljubve” is written in a rather intricate form of acrostic, indicating that the poet drew on a sophisticated literary tradition.
With the advance of the Ottoman army into the Balkans and the gradual loss of Serbian independence, beginning with the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and ending with the fall of the last piece of Serbian territory (1459), Serbian literature entered a period of eclipse that would last almost until the eighteenth century. During this period, written literature was very difficult to maintain. Books were written exclusively by monks in secluded monasteries, aided by numerous intellectuals and writers from other countries who were fleeing the Turks. Among these writers, Dimitrije Kantakuzin (c. 1410-1474) and Pajsije (1550?-1647) stand out with their spiritually suffused poems.
The demise of written literature was more than offset by abundant folk literature in oral form—lyric and epic poetry, folktales, fairy tales, proverbs, riddles, and so on—and this folk tradition exercised a powerful influence on Serbian poets down to the present day. Indeed, when Vuk Stefanovi Karadi (1787-1864) collected, classified, and published a rich variety of Serbian folk literature in the first half of the nineteenth century, it was praised by such writers as Johann Gottfried Herder, the Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, Prosper Mérimée, Alexander Pushkin, and Adam Mickiewicz, and it inspired them to translate many poems and stories.
Serbian folk poetry consists of both lyric and epic poems. Lyric, or “women’s poems,” as Karadi termed them, depict every phase of life: worship, work, play, customs, friendship, and, above all, love. Many poems have mythological elements, some of them showing kinship with the folk literature of other peoples in Europe and Asia, hinting at a common ancestry. These lyric poems are in various meters and verse forms and are often accompanied by a tune to be sung by a woman or an ensemble of women. As the poems were passed on from generation to generation, their linguistic form changed accordingly. They were recorded by Karadi in a language that differs little from present-day Serbo-Croatian, indicating that they were probably the first literary works to be composed in the vernacular.
The epic poems of the folk tradition are on a much higher artistic level. For the most part, they deal with historical events, though often they transform history into legend. Divided chronologically into cycles, they follow the rise and fall of the medieval Serbian Empire, its glory and the subsequent misery under the Ottoman rule. Two cycles stand out: the cycle about the feats of the Nemanji Dynasty from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, culminating in the tragic but glorious defeat at Kosovo, and the cycle of poems about the legendary hero of the Serbs, Kraljevi Marko (Prince Marko). Like the lyric folk poetry, these epics reflect the national philosophy of the Serbs, their understanding of life as a constant struggle between good and evil, and their willingness to choose death rather than succumb to the forces of evil. It is the...
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