Serbian Poetry Analysis

Early poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

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.

Folk literature

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

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...

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Serbian diaspora

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The long occupation by the Turks, lasting in one form or another from the end of the fourteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, forced many Serbs to migrate north, into Austro-Hungarian territories north of the Sava River and in the Danube region called Voyvodina, where they were well received in the hope of stemming the Ottoman tide. They brought along their religion and cultural heritage, which they endeavored to advance under the auspices of the enlightened absolutist rulers of the Austrian Empire. When Austrian rule seemed to threaten the national identity of the Serbs, they turned toward the Russians for help. As a result, at the end of the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century, a new, hybrid language came into use, the so-called Russo-Slavic, employed by most Serbian poets of the time. Outstanding among these were Gavrilo Stefanovi Venclovi (died 1746?) and Zaharije Orfelin (1726-1785). It is significant that they strongly advocated the use of a language comprehensible to the people and themselves wrote poems in a vernacular.

By the end of the eighteenth century, after a prolonged exposure to Western influence, Serbian poets wrote more and more in the spirit of the Enlightenment. The Russo-Slavic language gave way to a more comprehensible Slavo-Serbian, only to be supplanted by a full-fledged vernacular about the middle of the nineteenth century. Serbian poets displayed an ever-increasing erudition and familiarity with contemporary currents in world poetry, abandoning the provincial outlook of a confined culture. Their poetry became philosophical and contemplative, couched in higher, solemn, dignified tones. In line with Enlightenment trends, Serbian poetry in this period was highly didactic; it also reflected the influence of neoclassicism, as exemplified by the leading poet of the period, Lukijan Muicki (1777-1837).

Nationalism and Romanticism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

A reawakening of national awareness among the Voyvodina Serbs was spurred by uprisings in Serbia proper against the centuries-old Turkish rule. This patriotic enthusiasm, coupled with the revolutionary reform of the written language carried out by Karadi in the first half of the nineteenth century on the principle “Write as you speak,” led to a nationwide renaissance. It first manifested itself during the transitional period leading toward Romanticism.

The leading proponent of this trend was Jovan Sterija Popovi (1806-1856), a playwright and a novelist as well as a poet. His only collection of poetry, Davorje (1854; laments), showing a mixture of classicist, didactic, and Romantic features, laments the transience of life. Other transitional poets with an increasing inclination toward Romanticism were Sima Milutinovi Sarajlija (1791-1847), Petar Petrovi Njego (1813-1851), and Branko Radievi (1824-1853). Milutinovi is more significant for his influence on other writers, especially Njego, than for his own works, but the few poems Milutinovi wrote are distinguished by their pure lyricism and their unaffected celebration of earthly love. Both he and Njego drew heavily from folk poetry, which, owing to Karadzi’s work, the rise of Romanticism, and the successful national revival, became the primary source of poetic inspiration. Njego wrote all of his works, including his plays, in verse. His short poems reveal a predilection for meditation, a willingness to try new forms, and a language close to that of the people, while his long epic poem, Lua mikrokozma (1845; the ray of microcosm), which resembles John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), offers in poetic form the author’s philosophical views on the origin of life and on the moral order of the universe. With this poem and the epic play in verse, Gorski vijenac (1847; The Mountain Wreath,...

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Early twentieth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

That turn manifested itself at the end of the century, when three powerful poets—Aleksa anti (1868-1924), Jovan Dui (1874?-1943), and Milan Raki (1876-1938)—brought completely new tones to Serbian poetry. While anti was, to a large degree, still related to the preceding generation in his emotional inclinations and closeness to the native soil, he nevertheless showed in his love poems and poems on social themes a new awareness of problems besetting his fellow humans. His pure, sincere, and highly emotional lyrics were often set to music and are still very popular among common readers.

It was with Dui and Raki, however, that the new turn in Serbian poetry received its full impetus. Both educated in the West, they were inculcated with the fin de siècle spirit of the Symbolists and the Parnassians. Dui used his erudition, refined taste, and aristocratic spirit to modernize Serbian poetry and free it from provincial confines. All traditional modes of expression were transformed into his peculiar idiom, primarily through new sensitivity, formalistic excellence, clarity, precision, elegance, musicality, and picturesque images. Though he paid lip service to the Decadence fashionable at the time, he was too much a poet of Mediterranean joie de vivre and of faith in life’s ultimate meaning to allow his pessimism to become a driving force.

Not so with Raki, who was unable to alleviate his constant pessimistic outlook on life, especially in matters of love and the meaning of life. His few poems, collected in a single volume, Pesme (1903; poems), reveal a deep-seated decadence and a firm belief that life inevitably brings decay and misery. This intellectual awareness of humanity’s futility in trying to mitigate pain and misery was not a mere pose, and it is Raki’s conviction and sincerity that, together with artistic excellence, render his poems highly poignant and aesthetically satisfying.

Other poets of the first two decades of the twentieth century worth noting are Vladislav Petkovi Dis (1880-1917), Sima Pandurovi (1883-1960), Milutin Boji (1892-1917), and Veljko Petrovi (1884-1967). They all wrote in the shadow of Dui and Raki, yet they all contributed to the broadening of horizons in Serbian poetry of their time.

Interwar period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Amid titanic struggles and profound changes in Serbia during and after World War I, Serbian poets changed with the times, bringing on yet another decisive break with the past, not only in poetry but also in other forms of literature. The entire period between the two world wars was marked by these fundamental changes. At first, a new generation of poets raised its voice against the horrors of war and clamored, often in vain, for humaneness and greater understanding. Duan Vasiljev (1900-1924), Milo Crnjanski (1893-1977), and Rastko Petrovi (1898-1949), the leaders among the modernist poets, reflected the influence of the German expressionists. Toward the end of the 1920’s, a group of poets, led by Duan Mati (1898-1980), Marko Risti (1902-1982), Oskar Davio (1909-1989), and Aleksandar Vuo (1897-1985), introduced a form of Surrealism, to which they gave a peculiarly Serbian twist.

In the 1930’s, a socially conscious poetry developed, dwelling on the pervasive social turbulence besetting the world in the decade prior to World War II. This pronounced politicization resulted in great commotion but not in great literature. During the war, the muses fell silent, as is often the case, nor were they articulate in the immediate postwar years, a period marked by profound political and social changes. It was only at the beginning of the 1950’s that Serbian poetry experienced another renewal.

Later twentieth century onward

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

To be sure, several major prewar poets continued to write after 1945. Some added relatively little to their opus, while others reached their full potential only after the war. Crnjanski published only one significant poetic work after the war, the long poem Lament nad Beogradom (1962; lament over Belgrade), continuing where he left off almost four decades earlier. If this late work was not innovative, however, it did add a reflective quality to the essentially elegiac movement of Crnjanski’s poetry. Stanislav Vinaver (1891-1955), another prewar modernist, also published only one collection after the war, Evropska no (1952; the European night), in which he confirmed his reputation as an interesting experimenter...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Armstrong, Todd Patrick, ed. Perspectives on Modern Central and East European Literature: Quests for Identity—Selected Papers from the Fifth World Congress of Central and East European Studies. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A collection of essays, many on relevant general topics, such as the quest for identity and problems associated with censorship, as well as one entitled “The Poetic Messages of Serbian Women Writers in Diaspora.”

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...

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