A Man Who Turned Literacy into Art

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The presence of Prešeren’s name and image surrounds us: on the squares and streets, his visage marked the former currency, the tolar banknotes, and when a tourist travels back home from Slovenia, he can take home Prešeren in the form chocolates and spirits. His rather sad visage is on all kinds of things; non-Slovenes surely ask themselves, “Who is this Prešeren?” Who in fact is Prešeren? That’s like asking what air is. Prešeren is like air: mandatory and self-evident.


Slovenia’s Goethe

France Prešeren’s life was far from ideal. In his twenties, he was desperately, and unsuccessfully, trying to establish himself as a lawyer. By the time he was thirty, he started to write more and more poems and became more self confident as a poet. His friendship with Matija Čop, perhaps the most educated Slovene of that time, greatly helped him when it came to his creative process.

Prešeren is generally acknowledged as the greatest Slovene classical author. Being a classical author means that the works contain all the elements of the literary canon: the highest aesthetics, recognisable and other literary characteristics that serve as norms in grammar, genre, artistic and ethical values. Prešeren cast a new light on the Slovene language and raised it to the level of true poetic speech. In this sense, he belongs to the group of the greatest European authors: France’s Charles Baudelaire, Britain’s Lord Byron, Poland’s Adam Mickiewizc, Germany’s Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Croatia’s Miroslav Krleža.


The dark and “undesired” image of Prešeren

There are several anecdotes about his wayward thoughts and less-than-flattering public image. His contemporaries described him as a social butterfly, who was never out of jokes, who liked to sing and flirt with women. These details bring out the tragic Prešeren as opposed to the more “normal” middle-aged man that schoolbooks wish to pass on. After being disappointed in love, the anecdote goes that he and his friend from Bled wrote various unfavourable facts and jokes about Ljubljana’s bourgeoisie in Slovene, Italian and German on small pieces of paper and took them to parties and secretly dropped them on the floor. Then, all of Ljubljana could laugh at the conceited “worthies” and noble citizens of the city. Janez Trdina wrote that Prešeren knew all the secrets in the city and was a kind of poet-chronicler of scandalous local events.


Recognition

His death marked the start of a much brighter era for Prešeren’s public image. Janez Bleiweis, a canny politician, sensed that the poet’s name might become famous one day, so he arranged a solemn funeral and organised the erection of a monument, with which the Slovene nation could honour Prešeren’s memory. The story of collecting money for this monument is an excellent illustration of the then attitude to the poet as well as certain attributes of the Slovene character. Suffice to say, contributions were rather modest, but the monument today stands on Prešernov trg square in Ljubljana. France now has an eternal view on his unrequited love, as the bust of Julija Primic was erected on the house opposite to his statue on Wolfova ulica.


Omnipresent Cultural Icon

As one of the translators of Prešeren, Erika Johnson Debeljak once commented on Slovenes and Prešeren: if you gave a quiz in an elementary school in the USA on the “founding fathers of America”, only few would know the names Jefferson and Washington. If only few in a Slovenian elementary school knew who Prešeren was, it would be proclaimed a national scandal, an outrage.

Slovenes did not sculpt faces into a mountain, but they have succeeded in building a cultural icon, and today Prešeren is as natural as the air that we breathe.

Prešeren’s physical image, which somewhat resembles Beethoven’s with wavy black hair and a stern look, adds to his intriguing charm. In his life, his behaviour was far from an exemplary.

Today, however, that does not really matter: it is not important what Prešeren was, but what Prešeren is and there is no doubt: Prešeren is the greatest Slovene poet. On February 8th, the anniversary of his death in 1849, various cultural events praise his memory, throughout Slovenia and abroad. Slovenian embassies and Slovene expatriates around the world celebrate this Slovene national holiday by organizing different kinds of events: reciting his poetry in different languages, singing the national anthem in different languages and other ways of remembering Prešeren’s work and life.


Listen to Prešeren

In 2000, the publishing house Sanje issued a CD of Prešeren’s Sonnets of Unhappiness and Other Poems, presenting the best selected translations of Prešeren into English, interpreted by world famous theatre artists, including Vanessa Redgrave, Simon Callow and Katrin Cartlidge.

The CD also contains songs in German by world renowned Slovenian mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovšek with the guitar accompaniment by Anthony Spiri.

The warring clouds have vanished from the skies;
The war of men has ended with the night.
The morning sun gilds the three heads that rise
Supreme above Carniola’s snowpeaks white.
The lake of Bohinj calm in stillness lies,
No sign of strife remains to outward sight;
Yet in the lake the fierce pike never sleep,
nor other fell marauders of the deep.

(An excerpt from Prešeren’s epic poem The Baptism at The Savica;
translated by Alasdair MacKinnon)