Slovak Poetry Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Slovakia is the least known among the West Slavic group of nations: Poland, Bohemia, and Slovakia. That is also true of its poetry. The reasons are mainly historical. The Slovak nation dates its beginnings to the ninth century Great Moravian Empire that, in its flourishing under Svätopluk, included the territory of the former Czechoslovakia, southern Poland, parts of Austria, and most of Hungary. Attempts to Christianize this territory go back to the eighth century missions from the West, but it was in 863 that the apostles of the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius, arrived from Constantinople with the Old Church Slavonic liturgy. In the tenth century, the Great Moravian Empire, after a period of decline, was defeated by the Magyars, and Slovakia became a part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Slovakia remained under Hungarian rule until 1918, when the new state of Czechoslovakia was established.

Slovak literature in general, and Slovak poetry in particular, reflect this tragic history. The lack of independence for more than a millennium forced Slovak poets, historians, and scientists to use other languages: Latin, Hungarian, German, and biblical Czech. While such literary works are usually mentioned in Slovak literary history, they are also claimed by others. There was, then, a long period when Slovak poets wrote their poetry predominantly in foreign languages: the Multilingual Period (tenth through sixteenth centuries). The Revival Period (1790-1863) saw a great flourishing of Slovak literature, especially of poetry. In the Period of Struggle (1863-1918), this revived literature met the challenge of Magyarization, the campaign by Hungarian authorities to stamp out the Slovak nationalist aspirations and to suppress the Slovak language. Large-scale emigration to the United States was one consequence of this harsh policy. The Modern Period (1918 to present) has been shaped by the increasing influence of foreign literary trends, by the ideological influence of the former Soviet Union, and by the resurgence of Catholic poetry.

Multilingual period (900-1790)

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Slovak poetry did appear sporadically even in the multilingual context. Of crucial importance to Slovak poetry is the rich heritage of folk songs, some of which are of ancient origin. Also extant are a number of religious and historical songs; the latter describe military events resulting from Tatar (1241) and Turkish (sixteenth and seventeenth century) invasions of Slovakia. Descriptions of sackings of castles and fortresses predominate, as in Muráó (song about Murán castle) and Modrý kameó (song about Modrý Kame castle), but there is also a more sophisticated poetry, based on the chivalrous epic, as in the ballad Siládi a Hadmázi (Siládi and Hadmázi), a tale of battle against the Turks. Most of these historical compositions are anonymous.

Of more importance are the religious songs. The popularity of this genre is attested by the approximately 150 editions of Vithara sanctorum (1636; the lyre of saintliness), a Protestant hymnal compiled by Juraj Tranovský (1591-1637). Among translations, this hymnal included Slovak songs still sung in Slovakia today. Cithara sanctorum was also tremendously influential as a manual of versification and therefore played an important role in the development of Slovak poetry. The establishment of the Jesuit University in Trnava further strengthened the use of Slovak for literary purposes; there Benedikt Szöllösi-Rybnický compiled a collection of songs, Cantus...

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Revival period (1790-1863)

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bernolák’s Slovak was only a beginning, and there was quite a struggle ahead for the literary use of the Slovak language. Those who used Czech advanced the argument of unity to anyone suggesting the use of Slovak for literary purposes, while others would use Slovak, but not of Bernolák’s variety—that is, they preferred another dialect. Thus, Jozef Ignác Bajza (1755-1836) published Slovenské dvojnásobné epigramatá (1794; Slovak double epigrams) in his own Slovak, using hexameter and pentameter in the first attempt to adapt classical prosody to Slovak poetry. Bajza’s work was mercilessly criticized by Bernolák, and Bernolák’s approach prevailed. An entire Bernolák movement appeared, first acting through the Learned Society, founded in 1792 and comprising some five hundred influential members throughout Slovakia. It is the Bernolák movement that must be credited with saving Slovakia from total assimilation. Bernolák also authored the monumental Slovak-Czech-Latin-German-Hungarian Dictionary (1825-1827), which runs to six volumes and more than five thousand pages.

After the generation of Bernolák and his followers, who prepared the soil with dictionaries and grammars, a generation of talented poets appeared. Pavel Jozef afárik (1795-1861), the founder of Slavic studies, wrote a collection of poems, Tatranská múza s lýrou slovanskou (1814; the Muse of Tatras with a Slavic lyre), that includes poems about the legendary robber Jánoík (1688-1713), a Slovak Robin Hood. afárik also organized the systematic collection of folk songs and inspired Ján Kollár (1793-1852) to do the same. The latter thus produced Národnie zpiewanky (1834, 1835; folk songs). afárik also popularized Bernolák’s notion concerning the unity of Slavs, later known as Pan-Slavism. Individual Slavic nations, according to this idea, were merely various tribes of Slavdom. Kollár wrote a great epic poem animated by Pan-Slavism: Slávy dcera (1824, 1832; the daughter of Slava).

An equally important poet of this period was Ján Hollý (1785-1849), author of historical epics and beautiful...

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Period of Struggle (1863-1918)

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In 1867, the political situation in Hungary (the northern part of which was Slovakia) radically changed for the worse: Minorities were held in disfavor, and Slovak nationalist aspirations were deemed treasonous.

The two leading poets of this period, particularly of the last two decades of the century, were Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský (1847-1916) and Pavol Országh-Hviezdoslav (1849-1921). Vajanský, the author of Tatry a more (1879; the Tatras and the sea) and two other collections, was a journalist, novelist, and critic, as well as a poet. His first book of poems was a breakthrough and gained for him a wide readership, but his attempt to write a novel in verse was abandoned in favor of prose writing. Vajanský, though very interesting, is overshadowed by Hviezdoslav. Hviezdoslav’s best-known work is Krvavé sonety (1914; bloody sonnets), but this collection alone does not permit a fair assessment of his lifework. Indeed his oeuvre, which includes lyric and epic poetry as well as drama, is of such variety and richness that it has no equal in Slovak literature. Among his epics, Hájniková ena (1844-1886; gamekeeper’s wife) should be mentioned, and among his dramas, Herod i Herodias (1909).

Ludmila Podjavorinská (1872-1951) was the first significant female Slovak poet. She painstakingly documents the clash of Romantic and realistic worldviews in works such as Po bále (1903; after the ball), while her Balady (1930) takes up allegorical, symbolic, and tragic themes close in spirit to the Romantic school.

Podjavorinská in one way and Hviezdoslav in another seem to be poets of transition, ushering in the new poetic sensibility in Slovak literature known as Moderna. The main representative of this movement was Ivan Krasko (1876-1958), author of two slender collections: Nox et solitudo (1909) and Ver (1912). Another Moderna poet of note was Vladimír Roy (1885-1936), who, influenced by the power of Krasko’s art, took the modernizing tendency even further, into the modern period.

Modern period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Out of the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the World War I, a new state appeared: Czechoslovakia. Slovak national life was strengthened, despite the fact that the new government continued the nineteenth century fiction of a Czechoslovak nation, instead of two distinct nations of Czechs and Slovaks. Thus, the Slovak nationalist movement persisted, and in 1939, a Slovak Republic was proclaimed under Nazi pressure and with a pro-Nazi government lasting until 1945, when the Czechoslovak Republic was reestablished. The communists took over the government through a coup in 1948, and only after the fall of communism in 1989 did the country manage to free itself of totalitarianism and become a democracy. In 1993, the Czech and Slovak Federation separated, and two states emerged: the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. This was an amicable divorce, arranged by the political elite.

Institutionally, Slovak culture received a tremendous boost with the reopening in 1919 of Matica Slovenská, a central cultural institution. Slovak schools were organized, from the elementary level to Comenius University, founded in 1919 in Bratislava with the help of Czech professors. Thus the obligatory instruction in Hungarian ended, and Slovak poetry ceased to be the sole repository of Slovak cultural, national, and linguistic aspirations.

Enthusiasm, a sense of a new beginning, a desire to catch up with the rest of Europe—such was the prevailing mood of the period between the wars. Slovak poets became aware of a variety of foreign literary movements from which they borrowed eclectically without committing themselves wholly to a single program. The only exception is Surrealism. From the mid-1930’s to the mid-1940’s, this movement united poets, artists, and critics in a spontaneous manifestation of creative and aesthetic unity reminiscent of the efforts of the revivalist generation of túr. The older, more conservative, but at the same time best forum for Slovak literature during this period was the literary magazine Slovenské pohlǎdy (Slovak views), founded in the nineteenth century (1846), Europe’s oldest continuously published literary magazine.

Ján Smrek (1898-1982), the most popular and widely read Slovak poet of the twentieth century, began his career with an eclectic style influenced by French Symbolism and, to a lesser degree, Hungarian poetry. Soon, however, he formed his own vision: Sensuality, healthy eroticism, and the celebration of love and tenderness are his main characteristics, as in his Básnik a ena (1934; the poet and a woman). To these he added in later years melancholy reminiscences and the nostalgic celebration of women.

The career of this Dionysian poet was complemented by that of the Apollonian poet Emil Boleslav Luká (1900-1979). While in Smrek’s works, from Básnik a ena to the nostalgic Obraz sveta (1953; image of the world), the reader encounters the world of the senses—of the individual appreciating the happiness, beauty, and love of women—in Luká one finds the opposite. Luká was tormented by his philosophical musings,...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Cincura, Andrew, comp. An Anthology of Slovak Literature. Riverside, Calif.: University Hardcovers, 1976. An extensive collection of works in various genres, including poetry.

Hawkesworth, Celia, ed. A History of Central European Women’s Writing. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Contains a number of essays that focus specifically on Czech and Slovak women writers. Map, bibliography, and index.

Kirschbaum, J. M. Slovak Language and Literature. Winnipeg: Department of Slavic Studies, University of Manitoba, 1975. A volume in the Readings in Slavic Literature series. Illustrated. Bibliography and index.

Kovtun, George J. Czech and Slovak Literature in English: A Bibliography. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1988. A useful reference work.

Kramoris, Ivan Joseph, ed. An Anthology of Slovak Poetry: A Selection of Lyric and Narrative Poems and Folk Ballads in Slovak and English. Scranton, Ohio: Obrana Press, 1947. A varied collection of works in several genres.

Manning, Clarence A., ed. An Anthology of Czechoslovak Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1929. The first volume in the Publications of the Institute of Czechoslavak Studies series.Includes both Bohemian and Slovak poetry.

Petro, Peter. A History of Slovak Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995. A thoughtful work, combining history and literary criticism. Bibliographical references and index.

Smith, James Sutherland, Pavol Hudik, and Jan Bajanek, eds. In Search of Beauty: An Anthology of Contemporary Slovak Poetry in English. Translated by Jan Bajanek. Mundelein, Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2004. Thirty-eight members of the Slovak Writer’s Society contributed to this collection of 177 poems. Includes works by Jan Bajanek, Dezider Banga, Rudolf Cizmarik, and Millan Ferko.