Slovenian Poetry Analysis

Early poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Reformation in the sixteenth century produced some poetry, mostly connected with the Church. Indeed, for many centuries, the clergy alone sustained Slovenian culture. It was not until 1689 that the first Slovenian secular poem, by Jozef Zizeneli, was recorded. It was only in the second half of the eighteenth century, under the enlightened absolutist rulers of Austria, that Slovenian literature began to develop. The poetry contained in three almanacs, the Pisanice (1779-1781), marked the first noteworthy attempt at genuine poetry in Slovenian. Although much of this poetry was highly derivative, it was written by Slovenes in their own language, which had been suppressed for centuries.

The first poet to write in the native tongue was Valentin Vodnik (1758-1819), usually considered to be the founder of Slovenian poetry. After unsure beginnings in Pisanice, he published two books of poetry, Pesmi za pokuino (1806; poetic attempts) and Pesmi za brambovce (1809; poems to the defenders). Vodnik discarded foreign models and took Slovenian folk poetry as the basis for his language, meter, and even subject matter. He greeted Napoleon’s creation of Illyria, in which the western Southern Slavs were united for the first time since their common arrival in the Balkans. Enthusiastic about the opportunities for education and liberation of his people promised at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he encouraged his mostly peasant nation to work and fight for its betterment. After Napoleon’s demise, Vodnik lost his position and soon died, but not before he had laid the foundations for Slovenian poetry, inspiring his followers to use the people’s language. He also was a forerunner of the Slovenian Romantic movement, which would have been unthinkable without his contribution.

Nineteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Slovenia produced its greatest poet in France Preeren (1800-1849), interestingly enough at about the same time as other Slavic literatures produced their greatest—Alexander Pushkin in Russia, Adam Mickiewicz in Poland, and Petar Petrovi Njego in Montenegro, for example. The son of a peasant, Preeren broke with many traditions: Instead of entering the priesthood, he studied law in Vienna; instead of writing religious and didactic literature, he expressed his own thoughts and feelings, particularly about love; instead of limiting himself to the narrow confines of a small nation, he employed classical, Renaissance, Romantic, and even Oriental forms and metrics and endeavored to write poetry at the world level. His Sonetni venec (1834; the wreath of sonnets) shows a remarkable maturity for a young poet from a hitherto unknown nation. Although the work deals primarily with his unhappy love affair and resulting suffering, it also declares, in an astonishingly developed Slovenian language, his love for, and faith in, his nation. It is this combination of the personal, the national, and the universal that lends Preeren’s poetry its power and poignancy. The epic poem Krst pri Savici (1836; the baptism on the Savica) underscores his preoccupation with the fate of his people, represented by a pagan leader who resists conversion to Christianity until his love for his betrothed leads him to it. It is generally thought that this epic signifies the poet’s own defeat at the hands of many enemies (the foreign-dominated clergy and the narrow-minded, middle-class cultural officials). Preeren’s last book, Poezije (1847; poems), voices the pessimism that marked the last years of his life. The unity of form and subject matter in this work, the genuineness of the poet’s feelings, the purity of his...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

At the turn of the century, Slovenian poetry, like that of other Slavic literatures, was transformed by a strong modernistic movement led by several strong personalities. The first of these, and perhaps the greatest writer in Slovenian literature, was Ivan Cankar (1876-1918). A great fiction writer and playwright, he made his debut with a book of poems, Erotika (1899; erotica). There is in these poems little of the fiery activism in the service of social justice that he would later espouse, yet they are indicative of his future development. They shocked the establishment by their boldness and directness, if not by their artistic quality.

Another modernist, Dragotin Kette (1876-1899), died too young to develop fully his poetic talent. In his only book of poetry, Poezije (1900; poems), he revealed himself as a genuine lyricist of an openhearted, direct, and cheerful disposition. His sonnets are proof of his knowledge of world literature and of his artistic promise. Josip Murn Aleksandrov (1879-1901) also died young (of the same disease and in the same room as Kette) and consequently never achieved his full potential. He began as a poet of the countryside idyll, but the premonition of death colored his outlook with premature melancholy. Most of his poems are impressionistic sketches that captivate the reader with their directness and genuine feeling.

By far the greatest modernist poet was Oton upani (1878-1949). He was born in a...

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Late twentieth century onward

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The traumatic experiences of World War II and the ensuing years of difficult reconstruction left little room for the development of poetry, particularly because the older poets who had survived the war were not heard from again. It was left to the new generation to revive poetry, although not necessarily to continue prewar traditions. In a relatively short time, a number of new poets arrived on the scene. Of these, Matej Bor (pseudonym of Vladimir Pavi; 1913-1993) won fame with his war poetry, in which he proved himself to be the most engaged of contemporary Slovenian poets. He shows a similar attitude in later poems about heroes and the dangers of the atomic age. Edvard Kocbek (1904-1981) wrote sparingly, but his poems reveal a completely contemporary spirit which draws him closer to young poets such as Toma alamun (born 1941) than to older figures such as Bor. Kocbek’s well-crafted poems, quiet in tone, cast an ironic eye on the world. His is not the irony of a man who feels superior to what he sees, but rather that of a man who is an endless victim, tied to the very thing he abhors.

Of the younger poets, Ciril Zlobec, Dane Zajc, Cene Vipotnik, and Gregor Strnia signal a decisive change. Zlobec (born 1924) began as a neo-Romantic, exploring the traditional themes of love and loss of childhood. Later, he turned to the problems of contemporary society and the individual. Zajc (1929-2005) similarly showed a strong individualistic attitude unhindered by...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

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 Slovenian, by a leading literary scholar. Although somewhat outdated, it still provides reliable information, especially about the older periods.

Biggins, Michael. “Slovenian Poetic Tradition and Edvard Kocbek.” Litterae Slovenicae 33, no. 2 (1995): 9-18. Biggins looks at the Slovenian poetic traditions as embodied in the poetry of perhaps the greatest contemporary Slovenian poet, Edvard Kocbek.

Cesar, Ivan. “In the Beginning Was a Sign: Contemporary Slovene Poetry.” Slovene Studies 7, nos. 1/2 (1985): 13-22. An expert survey of contemporary Slovene poetry.

Cooper, Henry R., ed. A Bilingual Anthology of Slovene Literature. Bloomington, Ind.: Slavica, 2003. Fascicle 1, in the Anthology of South Slavic Literatures series. Includes both short poems and excerpts from longer works.

Debeljak, Ale. “Visions of Despair and Hope Against Hope: Poetry in Yugoslavia in the Eighties.” World Literature Today 68, no. 3 (1992): 191-194. Debeljak looks at Yugoslav poetry, including Slovenian, on the eve of tumultuous events and changes in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. Poetry of the...

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