France Prešeren was a Slovene Romantic poet. He is considered the Slovene national poet. Although he was not a particularly prolific author, he inspired virtually all Slovene literature thereafter.
He was born 3 December 1800 (Saturday) in the Upper Carniolan village of Vrba, then part of the Habsburg Monarchy (today in Slovenia), to a relatively well-to-do peasant family. Already as a child, he showed considerable talent, so his parents decided to provide him with a good education.
At the age of eight, he was sent to elementary schools in Grosuplje and Ribnica, run by the local Roman Catholic clergy. In 1812, he moved to the Carniolan provincial capital of Ljubljana, where he attended the State Gymnasium. Already at a very young age, he learned Latin, Ancient Greek, as well as German, which was then the language of education, administration and high culture in most areas inhabited by Slovenes. In Ljubljana, Prešeren's talent was spotted by the poet Valentin Vodnik who encouraged him to develop his literary skills in the Slovene language. As a high school student, he became friends with the future philologist Matija Čop, who would have an extremely important influence on the development of Prešeren's poetry.
In 1821, Prešeren enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he studied law, against the wishes of his mother who wanted him to become a priest. In Vienna, he became acquainted with the western canon from Homer to Goethe, but he was most fascinated by Dante and the Italian trecentists, especially Petrarch and Boccaccio. He also read contemporary Romantic poets, and he was even fired from the teaching post at the Klinkowström's Jesuit institute for having lent a booklet of banned poetry to his friend Anastasius.
After acquiring a law degree in 1828, he returned to Ljubljana, where he got employment as an assistant in the firm of the lawyer Leopold Baumgartner. He was constantly striving to become an independent lawyer by putting in as many as six applications, but he was not successful. In 1832, he shortly moved to Klagenfurt in the hope of furthering his career, but returned to Ljubljana after less than a year. In the spring of 1833, he met Julija Primic, the daughter of a rich merchant, who would become the unfulfilled love of his life.
Around 1836, Prešeren finally realized that his love for Julija would never become mutual. The same year, he met Ana Jelovšek, with whom he entered into a permanent relationship. They had three children, but never married. Prešeren supported Ana financially and treated her as his rightful mate, but engaged in several other love affairs at the same time.
He also spent a lot of time travelling throughout Carniola, especially to Lake Bled, from the scenery of which he drew inspiration for his poems. In 1834, he began working as an assistant to his friend Blaž Crobath who gave Prešeren enough free time to engage in his literary activities. In 1846, he was finally allowed to open his own law firm and moved to Kranj with his family. He died there on 8 February 1849. Upon his deathbed he confessed that he had never forgotten Julija.
In general, Prešeren's life was an unhappy one. He was confronted with constant rejections, had an unstable sentimental life, and saw most of his closest friends die tragically. He lived in confrontation with both the civil and religious establishment, as well as with the provincial bourgeoisie of Ljubljana. His talent was far too high to be fully acknowledged by the contemporary culturally backward society of Slovenia. He fell victim to severe drinking problems and tried to take his life on at least two occasions. The motive of "the hostile fortune" is a frequent one in his works.
Prešeren's first serious poetic attempts date from his student years in Vienna. In 1824, he wrote some of his most popular poems, still under the influence of Valentin Vodnik and the rich tradition of Slovenian folk poetry. In 1825, he completed a collection of "Carniolan songs", which he showed to the philologist Jernej Kopitar. Kopitar was very critical of the young man's literary attempts, so Prešeren destroyed the whole collection.
Kopitar's rejection hindered the development of Prešeren's creativity; he did not publish anything more until 1827, when his satirical poem "To the Maidens" (Dekletom) was published by the German language journal Illyrisches Blatt. In 1828, Prešeren wrote his first important poem, A Farewell to Youth. It was however published only in 1830, in the literary journal Kranjska č'belica ("The Carniolan Bee"), established the same year by the publisher Miha Kastelic in Ljubljana.
In 1830, Prešeren's old high school friend Matija Čop returned to Ljubljana and re-established contacts with Prešeren. Čop soon recognized his friend's poetic talent and persuaded him to adopt Romanic poetic forms. Following Čop's advice, Prešeren would soon become a master of the sonnet. His poems were noticed by the Czech scholar František Čelakovský who published several highly positive critiques of it. Čelakovský's praise was extremely important for Prešeren's self-esteem and gave him the strength to continue in the path on which Čop had orientated him.
Between 1830 and 1835, Prešeren composed his esthetically most accomplished poems, which were inspired by the setbacks in his personal life, especially by the unhappy love for Julija Primic. Prešeren followed Čop's advice and transformed Julija into a poetic figure, reminiscent of Dante's Beatrice and Petrarch's Laura, as can be seen in this first stanza of his poem Gazele:
Let my poem, like a shrine, contain - your name;
In my heart shall ever proudly reign - your name;
Let my countrymen hear echoes, east and west,
Of the music in that joyous strain - your name;
On this shrine shall nations henceforth read your fame;
Here it stays to glow and glow again - your name.
When both you and I have crossed in Charon's boat,
Even then the glory will remain - your name.
More than Cynthia, Laura, Delia and Corrina,
Time will ever hallow my refrain - your name.The Wreath of Sonnets
The most important poem from this period is the crown of sonnets Sonetni Venec ("A Wreath of Sonnets"), written and published in 1834. In it, Prešeren tied together the motives of his own unhappy love with that of an unhappy, subjugated homeland. In the seventh sonnet, Prešeren made something that was later seen as a prophecy of his own glory: referring to the ancient myth of Orpheus, he invoked the skies to send a new Orpheus to the Slovene people, the beauty of whose poetry would inspire patriotism, help overcome internal disputes and unify all Slovenes into one nation again.
In the eighth sonnet, he went on in exposing the reasons why such an Orpheus—the metaphor for high culture in general and poetry in particular—had not yet been produced by the Slovenes. Exposing a decidedly negative vision of Slovenian history, consisting of nothing but foreign invasions and internal disputes ("the roar of tempests o'er a home unkind"), he maintained that it was the lack of glorious deeds that had hindered the flourishing of poetry. The few flowers of poetry still growing on the Slovenian Parnassus were fed only by tears and sighs:
Where tempests roar and nature is unkind:
Such was our land since Samo's rule had passed
With Samo's spirit - now an icy blast
Sweeps o'er his grave reft from the nation's mind.
Our fathers' bickerings let Pepin bind
His yoke upon us, then came thick and fast
Bloodstained revolts and wars, the Turk at last -
With woes our history is deeply lined.
Our age of glory needs must disappear
When deeds of valour ceased in our past state
And triumphs that our songs could celebrate.
The flowers on our Parnassus shyly rear
Their heads - the flowers that have been spared by fate:
They were all fed on many a plaint and tear.
But, he went on in the next sonnets, there was still hope for the renewal of Slovenian poetry and thus for the coming of an Orpheus that would unify all the nation with his gentle singing: Julija only had to "send rays from her eyes for their glory to renew". Prešeren's message was clear: if Julija accepted his advances, she would become the muse inspiring solemn poems which would bring a new high culture to the Slovenes and thus make them a nation again.
Besides the complex and sophisticated content, the "Wreath of Sonnets" has an interesting format, too: the last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the next one, making all fourteen sonnets of the circle an intertwining "garland" of emotional lyricism; one sonnet cannot exist without the other. The first lines of all the single fourteen sonnets form in turn another sonnet, called the "Master Theme" or the Magistrale. In the English translation by Vivian de Sola Pinto the Master Theme is as follows:
A Slovene wreath your poet has entwined;
A record of my pain and of your praise,
Since from my heart's deep roots have sprung these lays,
These tear-stained flowers of a poet's mind.
They come from where no man can sunshine find,
Unblest by soothing winds of warmer days;
Above them savage peaks the mountains raise,
Where tempests roar and nature is unkind.
They were all fed on many a plaint and tear;
Frail growth these blossoms had, so sad and few,
As over them Malignant storm-clouds flew.
Behold how weak and faded they appear!
Send but your rays their glory to renew -
Fresh flowers will spread fragrance far and near.
In the Slovene original, however, the first letters of every verse form the words Primicovi Julji, meaning "to Julija Primic". The poem was recognized as a masterpiece by Matija Čop, but it did not gain much recognition beyond the small circle around the Kranjska č'belica magazine. Moreover, Julija was unimpressed. Understandably, Prešeren moved to more bitter verses.
The Sonnets of Unhappiness
Another important work from this period are the "Sonnets of Unhappiness" (Sonetje nesreče), which were first drafted already in 1832, but were published only in 1834, with some changes. They are undoubtedly the most pessimistic of Prešeren's works. It is a group of six (initially seven) sonnets expressing the poet's despair over life. The first sonnet, in which Prešeren regrets having left his home village, became extremely popular during the late 19th century. Several musical interpretations of the poem have been created, the most famous a folk rock version by a prominent Slovene musician Vlado Kreslin. The other sonnets from the circle have not gained such a widespread popularity, but are still considered by scholars to be among Prešeren's most genuine and profound works.
1835 was Prešeren's annus horibilis. His closest friend Matija Čop drowned while swimming in the Sava river, Julija Primic married a wealthy merchant, and Prešeren became alienated from his friend and editor of the Kranjska č'belica literary magazine Miha Kastelic. Following Čop's death, Prešeren wrote his magnum opus,"The Baptism at the Savica Waterfall" (Krst pri Savici), dedicating it to his late friend. The poem, set during the Christianisation of Karantanians in the late 8th century, addresses the issues of hope, faith and resignation. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek interpreted the poem as a paradigmatic example of the emergence of modern subjectivity.
In 1837, Prešeren met Emil Korytko, a Polish political activist from Galicia, confined by the Austrian authorities to Ljubljana. Korytko introduced to Prešeren the work of Adam Mickiewicz, which had an important influence on his later works. The two even jointly translated one of Mickiewicz's poems (Resygnacja) from Polish to Slovenian and started collecting Slovenian folk songs in Carniola and Lower Styria. In 1839, Korytko died, leaving Prešeren without an important interlocutor after Čop's death.
In the autumn of the same year, Andrej Smole, one of Prešeren's friends from his youth, returned home after many years of living and travelling abroad. Smole was a relatively rich young intellectual from a well-established merchant family, who supported the development of Slovenian culture. The two spent much of the winter of 1839-1840 on Smole's estate in Lower Carniola, where they planned several cultural and literary projects, including the establishment of a daily newspaper in the Slovenian language and the publishing of Anton Tomaž Linhart's comedy "Matiček's Wedding" which had been prohibited as "politically unappropriate" in 1790, due to the outbreak of the French Revolution. Both projects failed: the planned journal Ilirske novice was blocked by the Viennese censorship, and Linhart's play would be staged only in 1848, without Prešeren's assistance. Smole died suddenly in 1840, literally in Prešeren's arms, while celebrating his 40th birthday. Prešeren dedicated a touching, yet unexpectedly cheerful and vitalist poem to his late friend.
The Later Years
After 1840, Prešeren was left without any interlocutor who could appreciate his works, but continued to write poetry, although much less than in the 1830s. He gradually departed from the typical romantic trend, adopting an increasingly diverse and innovative style. In 1843, an important breakthrough for Prešeren happened: Janez Bleiweis started publishing a new daily journal in the Slovenian language and invited Prešeren to participate in its cultural section.
The two men came from rather different backgrounds: Bleiweis was a moderate conservative and staunch supporter of the ecclesiastical and imperial establishments and alien to the Romantic culture. He nevertheless established a fair relationship with the poet. Prešeren's participation in Bleiweis' editorial project was the closest he would come to public recognition during his lifetime.
In 1844, he wrote the patriotic poem Zdravljica ("A Toast"), the most important achievement of his late period. In 1847, a volume of his collected poems was published under the simple title Poezije dr. Franceta Prešerna ("Poems of Dr. France Prešeren").
Prešeren spent the last two years of his life occupied with private life and his new job as a lawyer in Kranj. According to some accounts, he was planning several literary projects, including a novel in the realistic style and an experimental play, but he was struck with liver disease caused by his excessive drinking in prior years. The revolution of 1848 left him rather indifferent, although it was carried out by the young generation who already saw him as an idol of democratic and national ideals. Before his death, he did however redact his Zdravljica, which was left out from the 1847 volume of poems, and made some minor adjustments for a new edition of his collected poems.
Today, Prešeren is still considered one of the leading poets of Slovenian literature, acclaimed not only nationally or regionally, but also according to the standards of developed European literature. Prešeren was one of the greatest European Romanticists. His fervent, heartfelt lyrics, intensely emotional but never merely sentimental, have made him the chief representative of the Romantic school in Slovenia.
Nevertheless, recognition came slow after his death. It was not before 1866 that a real breakthrough in the reception of his role in Slovenian culture took place. In that year, Josip Jurčič and Josip Stritar published a new edition of Prešeren's collection of poems. In the preface, Stritar published an essay which is still considered one of the most influential essays in Slovenian history. In it, he showed the aesthetic value of Prešeren's work by placing him in the wider European context. From then on, his reputation as the greatest poet in Slovene language was never endangered.
Prešeren's legacy in Slovenian culture is enormous. He is generally regarded as the national poet. In 1905, his monument was placed in the central square in Ljubljana, now called Prešeren Square. By the early 1920s, all his surviving work had been catalogued and numerous critical editions of his works had been published. Several scholars were already dealing exclusively with the analysis of his work and little was left unknown about his life. In 1944, the anniversary of his death, called Prešeren Day, was declared as the Slovenian Cultural Holiday.
In 1990, the seventh stanza of his Zdravljica was declared the national anthem of Slovenia, replacing the old Naprej zastava slave. In 1992, his effigy was portrayed on the Slovenian 1000 tolar banknote, and since 2007 his image is on the Slovenian two-euro coin. The highest Slovenian prize for artistic achievements, the Prešeren Award, is named after him.
His poems have been translated into several languages, although he still lacks the recognition accorded to some other poets of his rank.