Vanessa Redgrave
Stane Sever


  Who could this man be?  
he year 1836. The world was no better and no worse than it is now, only different. Life was less comfortable, but more easy-going. People could certainly afford to take more time over everything they did than those born so many years later. The stomping of horses' hooves echoed on the cobbled streets and squares of Ljubljana; instead of Mercedes, Audis and BMWs ladies and gentlemen - in other words, the pillars of society - travelled around in well (or not so well) upholstered coaches and chaises. There were no problems associated with industrial air pollution yet, although it was hard to breathe in the narrow streets of this capital of the ancient Duchy of Carniola: horse manure and the assorted rubbish the townspeople dropped wherever it suited them, created more than ample opportunities for the development of unpleasant odours - people used to describe them as 'bestial'. Running water was still science fiction: the Ljubljana authorities did not build water mains until half a century later. Human excrement would simply fall into open cesspits, so that the smell spread far and wide; they were emptied only when somebody felt like doing this unpleasant job. Slovenes did not even have their own word for toilet: up until 1844, only foreign words were used - such a 'Abtritt', 'Privet' or 'sekret'. Only in 1844 did Kmetijske in rokodelske novice (The Farming and Crafts News), edited by the vet Dr Janez Bleiweis, suggest the use of the word "vstraniše" for the contraption which is nowadays taken for granted, as "we throw away into it that which cannot go anywhere else" (Translator's note: the Slovene word 'vstran' means 'away'). Thus it is not surprising if towns then - just like medieval walled trade and craft settlements - were still a breeding ground of all sort of diseases. Tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever, dysentery, typhus, trachoma, smallpox, various sexually transmitted diseases and, from 1836 onwards, cholera, were everyday visitors to Ljubljana households. Fire, too, was a great problem - particularly because many house owners at the outbreak of fire still ran to church to pray for intercession from St. Florian, instead of taking action to extinguish it.

  Customs and habits
In general, people sought comfort in drink: the inns, coffee houses, gin houses and houses of even worse repute were full. Priests, as the professional guardians of public morals, criticised and warned against various intoxicating substances, but even their crusade against alcohol was totally ineffective. The Slovene attitude to the "drops which bring comfort to the needy" has always been marked by broad-mindedness and tolerance (there are few other Slovene words with so many diminutives as the word for wine vino - vince, vinček, vinčece - although many swear by 'fire water' as a much faster route to a false paradise, which does not require you to pass water so frequently). Secular experts also had to resign themselves to defeat: the Ljubljana town medical officer Fran Viljem Lipič, who completed his career as a professor at the Vienna medical school, in 1834 published in the Carniolan capital the world's first scientific anti-alcohol treatise, but in spite of this the drinking did not abate. Not drink, but sobriety was the enemy!

  The fashion of the time dictated that ladies should wear various hats, decorative bows and long skirts; for special evenings they also wore fancy crinolines; waists had to be tightened as far as possible. Gentlemen used to wear long trousers (usually striped or checked; only now and again in the evening could you still see wide knickerbockers with long silk socks, which were customary in the 18th century), waistcoats and tall hats, and to carry walking sticks; jackets were quite long, particularly at the back, so that they reached down nearly to the knees. In Ljubljana, trousers known as 'congress trousers' were a particularly distinguished part of the male wardrobe nearly right up until 1830 (in memory of the Congress of the Holy Alliance in 1821). The 'best society' found entertainment playing cards (the Bishop of Ljubljana at the time, Anton Alojzij Wolf, was very fond of this), at the theatre (even the saintly bishop from St. Ambrož and later Maribor, Slomšek, would occasionally find his way there) and on the dance floor: people would twirl tirelessly, perspiring to the sounds of the waltz, the (fast) polka, the galop, the polonaise, the mazurka. The rhythm was dictated by the two famous Vienna band masters Josef Lanner and Johann Strauß Senior.

  A new era is coming, the middle-class is awakening
Of course, the simple country-people could be differentiated from the higher classes - the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie - by their appearance: they were not just shabbier but also different at first glance. According to the beliefs of the time, adulthood came with confirmation (godparents did not give their godchild a mobile phone, as it had not been invented yet, but a wide-brimmed hat, which they then wore at special occasions throughout their life). Their dwellings were dark and humble; in some houses you could even find domestic animals in the living quarters. The impoverished peasants, cattlemen and carters had no practical say in public matters: although having their personal freedom, they still had to pay socage to those with secular and church powers, who in return behaved extremely arrogantly towards them. Thus, even as late as the first half of the 19th century, a particular castle official used to tell peasants in the Slovene part of Styria that he was no more and no less than God's fourth authority on earth. But at the same time, many were already aware that the era of the millennium-long feudal social order was running out. The industrial era was knocking on the door. Its symbols were the steam engine and the railway, and the words usually defining this era are progress, technology and energy. In 1844, Bleiweis's newspaper drew the attention of Slovenes to the fact that: "The one who does not go with the flow of time, drowns." Urban life was less and less dependent on the seasons: factories worked day and night, flooding the market with their products year after year. If in the past wealth and social prestige were granted by the ruler's decrees on privileges, now money became the deciding factor: it could buy practically anything. Those in whose pockets coins jingled were considered honourable and worthy of respect, as were those who could boast a university degree. Whoever proved their capabilities either through wealth or learning could count on being listened to and viewed favourably by society. Among the inhabitants of the provincial capital Ljubljana - in the middle of the 19th century there were around 15,000 - one could in 1836 come across France Prešeren. Nowadays every Slovene knows this man, but this was not so then. Not that he looked anything special. A man dressed as they used to dress in towns - just like all the others who had anything to do with the court. He was not as good looking as his brother Jožef, who died very young and had a reputation as "the most handsome student in Ljubljana", but this does not mean that we should consider him ugly or uninteresting in the eyes of the Ljubljana (and other) beauties. (The well-off Miss Khlun from Graz, for example, was very interested in him at one time). Anyway, the lawyer born in the village of Vrba in Upper Carniola at the turn of the century (3rd December 1800), who in 1828 graduated in law with distinction at the venerable University of Vienna, was perhaps too often busy with 'liquid matters', but who could begrudge that to an unmarried man! No-one is perfect. (And in this context, everyone is no-one.) After all, one had to relax after a heavy day, as Slovenes even then - as today - put a lot of energy into going to law, suing and defending and, with the help of 'smooth-talking lawyers', appealing, revising, recurring, protesting, complaining, liquidating, arbitrating and subverting. In his later years, Prešeren described his working day with the following words: "For seven hours a day I work at Dr Crobath's (i.e. the lawyer's office), so I can then drink at old Metka's for two hours." But in spite of his close friendship with 'demon alcohol', he never lost a lawsuit.

  Prešeren and Kopitar
Of course, people knew that Prešeren wrote poems. His sonnets, written in German and Slovene were known in the middle-class salons, whereas in the smoke and alcohol vapour filled rooms of various drinking houses he was more known for his improvised occasional verses, which could not be printed because of the boldness of the thought expressed in them or the critically-ironic causticity. Words which appeared in public were under the watchful scrutiny of the 'organs of public order'. In the imperial capital Vienna, the very strict and conservative first minister Clemens Count Metternich (1773-1859) was in charge of government matters. He was not a stupid man, far from it, but he found it hard to accept the constant change taking place in the world around him. What he most wanted was for everything to remain as it was. The crown was on the head of the simple, rickets-afflicted emperor and king Ferdinand (from the Habsburg lineage), who did not interfere in politics. His most famous regal act was the formulation of the sentence which history has remembered very well: "I am the emperor and I want some noodles!" Metternich created a network of police agents throughout the Habsburg monarchy, which stretched from Italian Milan in the south-west, to Ukrainian Lvov in the north-east, and from Czech Prague in the north-west to Montenegrin Kotor in the south-east. But above all he managed to muzzle the press using censorship. Even though this was more of a nuisance than a serious obstacle to the spread of new liberal ideas (freedom, equality, brotherhood), it was still bothersome. Many Slovenes also served the hard-driving minister; the best known among them was, without a shadow of a doubt, the pushy grammarian Jernej Kopitar (1780-1844), who following his "years of education" in the Ljubljana house of the enlightened noble Žiga Zois Baron of Edelstein (1747-1819), took a job at the court library in Vienna and then zealously climbed the official ladder. The terribly ambitious Kopitar was quite a negative force: because in 1808 or 1809 he had published the academically impeccable grammar of the Slavonic language spoken in Carniola, Carinthia and Styria, he maintained that he was now and forever to be the first judge of matters relating to the Slovene language. As a censor, he pressed hard on his fellow countrymen, whilst being quite flexible towards the authorities. He used to plot against all those who were slightly above average: he spread vicious rumours against the poet and linguist Valentin Vodnik (1758-1819), he baited the first academic teacher of the Slovene language, Janez Nepomuk Primic (1785-1823), who was employed at the secondary school in Graz (Kopitar's insidiousness was one of the reasons why Primic went mad) and used every possible way of hindering the publication of Kranjska čbelica (The Carniolan Bee), in which Prešeren published some of his works. The hopelessly authoritarian Kopitar, who felt threatened by virtually every literary gifted Slovene, was of insignificant appearance, but tried to hide this by keeping up with all the fashionable novelties and follies. It is no wonder that Prešeren wrote the following satirical sonnet on Kopitar's account (the original is in German):

  You've heard about the wicked designs of the goblins:
how these red-haired beasts
greedily grabbed coins,
and yearned for the love of beautiful girls;

but when they failed in all their attempts,
they dragged the beauties up the slopes,
locked them inside high walls,
so that no-one could disturb their prey.

Don't think that this is just hot air;
I saw him, the disgusting pander,
that threat to pretty girls.

"Who is the sly fox?" "Mister Jernej Kopitar."
"And the girl?" "Slovene literature."
"The prison she's kept in?" "Censorship."

(Translator's note: in those instances where no published translation of a poem is available, a rough translation of the basic sense of the poem is provided.)

  The poet was not particularly kind to the sullen Vienna censor, who was all but a happy man in his private life, but he was not unjust to him. Particularly not in view of the fact that Kopitar was an ardent supporter of the eccentric grammarian Fran Serafin Metelko (1789-1860), who created havoc among his fellow countrymen with his ridiculous alphabet (he concocted it from Latin, Cyrillic and newly made-up letters; it was a very inelegant and unintelligent mess). Luckily, more sensible people, led by Prešeren and his friend Matija Čop (1797-1835), in a polemic conducted through letters and in newspapers, blocked Metelko's alphabet, which would otherwise have separated Slovenes from other European nations not just in their language but also in the way they wrote. Prešeren also wrote the famous sonnet on kaša (porridge) against those advocating the new alphabet and their Frankenstein leader from Vienna.

  Prešeren's poetic themes
The poet simply could not stand stupidity and tyranny, in any shape or form. He unambiguously attacked the notoriously stupid Slovene grammarians, who had long tainted the lives of their fellow Slovenes with their desperately silly ideas and petty whims. He also tackled those who prescribed the direction literary development was supposed to take; he dealt with these in his satirical dialogue Nova pisarija (The New Writing) and in the parabolic legend Orglar (The Minstrel). In the latter even God himself warns his over-zealous servant, who wants to teach the holy songs to the nightingale as it celebrates its love:

  The nightingale is just and right
For what he sings is my command (…)

To him that I inspired I gave
The gift of melody divine;
So let him sing these songs of mine
Till he be silenced in the grave.

(Translated by Janko Lavrin)

  Everyone should thus live in harmony with their inner self; no-one, however well-intentioned, has the right to bully others. People should be accepted as they are and not be asked to 'improve', 'correct' or 'adjust' themselves. Prešeren despised any curtailment of freedom: it is thus not surprising that he did not even have a watch chain (as was customary at the time), as it reminded him too much of a real chain, a symbol of serfdom. Nor did the poet observe the gloomy political conditions at the time of Metternich's absolute rule with indifference. At the sunset of his life, he wrote Zdravljica (A Toast) which, under a banner of freedom, united into universal brotherhood all people of good will and all the nations of the world. Admittedly, this was Utopia, but a Utopia that was worth imagining. Prešeren's poem found an echo in the hearts of his fellow Slovenes; thus, the following monumental verse became the central message of the Slovene national anthem:

  God's blessing on all nations,
Who long and work for that bright day,
When o'er earth's habitations
No war, no strife shall hold its sway;
Who long to see
That all men free
No more shall foes, but neighbours be.

(Translated by Janko Lavrin)

  But Prešeren's poems did not all revolve around the great theme of freedom; his verses were first and foremost an expression of his powerful love - for the opposite sex as well as for his nation. The love we see in Prešeren's poetry has many faces: it can be full of tender hope and open confidence, as in the 7th Ghazal (No two who read my verses ever think the same), but also of endless suffering, as in the following sonnet, describing the fate of an unrequited lover:

  Sometimes it happens that the Muhammadans,
the Buddhists in remote China,
or the people among whom Brahmins preen,
celebrate with their Christian captives.

The joy of the first three is shown by their loudness,
the trumpets' sound, the sound of flute with tamboura;
whilst the latter celebrate in the depths of their hearts,
in lonely corners, surrounded by darkness.

It was your name-day, and strings played loud,
they were rejoicing with singing and dancing,
all your happy friends;

whilst I celebrated with tears in my eyes,
in loneliness, my prayers for happier days
rose from my full heart and up to heaven.

  The poet knows both happiness and unhappiness in love. The former is linked to the joy of literary creativity, and the latter to the pain accompanying the recognition that sometimes even total devotion, as well as the best intentions and wishes, do not open the heart of the loved one. Prešeren, who dedicated Sonetni venec (A Wreath of Sonnets) to his chosen love - the delicate Miss Julija Primic from Ljubljana - sensed that he would be rejected (just like the unhappy Italian poet Torquato Tasso, who in the 16th century adored Leonora d'Este). He says:

  Since from my heart's deep roots have sprung these lays,
A heart which can't be silenced any more;
Now I am like Tasso who of yore
Would sing his Leonora's fame and praise.

He could not plead his love whose tortuous maze
Bemused his years of youth, and fiercely tore
His life beyond all hope; and yet he bore
The burden he revealed in secret phrase.

My passion is aflame, although I find
Your glance gives me no hope when you are near;
Lest I offend, my lips are sealed by fear.

My poor heart's fate, so bitter and unkind,
My secret burden - all this they make clear,
These tear-stained flowers of a poet's mind,

(Translated by V. de S. Pinto)

  But he loves her no less because of this. Like the other Romantics, he maintains that a human heart can not be dictated to, as love is not something which is exchanged (or even bought and sold) on the market of dreams and reality. On the contrary: the heart dictates to the individual, without taking into account profit or loss. Love simply is - and if necessary, it spites the whole world! You can never escape your fate. A real love drama can be deciphered from Prešeren's poetry. Its beginning can be seen in the verses:

  The years that endanger the heart,
the years of my youth, were taking their leave;
I had known beautiful local girls
and seen fair foreign daughters;
my heart's freedom was not taken,
proud thoughts arose in me
that love can do little or nothing
to the one that stands firm.

A virgin of heavenly beauty came,
but oh that I had never seen her face.
The red of dawn is shamed by her cheeks
and the burning heavenly stars by her eyes,
he will never recover whose heart is pierced
by the arrow of her clear gaze.
Who could describe the gentleness of her mouth,
or her seductive snow-white breast?

  Unrequited loves
Here, everything is still well; not a cloud in the sky. But the sensitive poet still can not be completely free of worry as the circumstances of the first encounter with the chosen one might have a deeper meaning, as we can see from the sonnet Je od vesel'ga časa teklo leto (A year has passed since the happy event). The joyful Christian time - the birth of the Saviour Jesus Christ - had passed long ago and the poet found himself in a place whose name is more reminiscent of Christ's death (Trnovo - a crown of thorns). The time is also all but happy: the Saturday of Easter Week is in fact the day of God's death (Prešeren does not mention "God's grave" unintentionally). The birth of love, which is another name for life or its source, is a kind of miracle at a moment like that (a moment marked by death). But it is a miracle only for Prešeren: other people, engaged in pious tasks, see things differently; the mixture of religious and romantic faith (a spark which cannot be extinguished - an eternal flame - is its symbol) is for them an unacceptable sacrilege. Prešeren's loved one also shares this opinion, as the beginning of his love also means the beginning of his misery. But (let us not forget here that this was the time of incorrigible and inconvertible romantics!) that was not a sufficient reason for a man to give up his deepest feelings. Particularly if the man was a poet, as he may discover in his hopelessly unhappy love - just as in hopeful happiness - a source of the deepest poetry (as can be seen in the sonnet in which Leonora and her admirer are mentioned). Or to put it another way: even unhappiness is not beyond purpose, even though that purpose is sometimes hard to discern. But it needs to be said that Prešeren sees this purpose very clearly in the Wreath of Sonnets: his poetry wishes to awaken the whole of "Slovenehood", that is to say all those who speak the Slovene language. Here, the sensual love for a women is linked to an active love for his fellow Slovenes, the nation he belonged to. Thus, nothing is lost; nothing is in vain - even though many things may be to no avail.

  Julija Primic of course did not return Prešeren's feelings. Prešeren did not seem a solid enough man to her domineering mother who, day and night, took care of the spiritual and physical well-being of her beloved daughter. He had a university degree, but had not climbed the ladder of promotion at work as he should have done; he seemed unable to get his own legal practice, thus acquiring a reliable and, more importantly, sufficient income. But the poet knew that himself, as he realised with bitterness in his heart that wisdom, justice and knowledge were like dowerless virgins (because it is true in all areas of life that "only money can buy fame" and "a man's worth is measured by what he can pay"). In those days, marriage was as much a consequence of business as of love: the clever individual married with riches in mind! Wealth woos wealth. Money creates money (and misfortune creates misfortune). Anyway: what was a man who announced his proposal in a newspaper thinking!? (The wreath of sonnets with the acrostic dedication "Primicovi Juliji" was published as a supplement to the newspaper Ilirski list, which was printed in German.) Had the era of troubadours and noble knights not passed long ago? Even serenades were less and less common with every passing night! No no, Prešeren was not the right one. He could not be. He must not be! Julija's mother probably thought something along these lines - and promised her daughter's hand to the wealthy nobleman Jožef pl. Scheuchenstuehl. The man was a 'good catch' whichever way you looked at it, and on top of everything else he could boast an aristocratic lineage. Of course, by that time people knew that aristocrats had no 'blue blood' running through their veins - they even had to go to the toilet like everyone else! - but a pl. in front of the surname (short for 'plemeniti', an aristocratic title) still held a magic magnetic power for most of those who could not boast of one. Prešeren's great contemporary, the French writer Balzac, for example, put a lot of effort into convincing people around him of his aristocratic background (his surname should thus have been de Balzac; because he was a brilliant writer, he succeeded in this completely and the whole world fell for it, even though it was a hoax: in fact, the man was a self-made nobleman!)

  Even though Prešeren was mercilessly snubbed on the marriage market of provincial Ljubljana, his ardour did not cool. This, after all, is not an emotion which relies on the reaction of the other person or others. Nature demands free passage - even though civilisation, with all its conventions and prejudices, tries its best to oppose it. Therefore the following sonnet, written as a justification of the Wreath, was no surprise, even though it raised a considerable amount of dust among the upright townspeople of the Carniolan capital:

  He knew no prayer, the hard-headed knight,
other than the one in praise of she,
who became the mother of God;
but he always prayed with the right thought in his mind.

When his spirit broke free from his troubled flesh
the legend says a beautiful blossom
grew from his grave straight from his heart,
with letters in gold saying: "Ave Maria!"

From dawn until daylight turns to dusk,
my fiery song sounds out at night
only for you, and no other daughter of Eve;

that before death put out the strength of the flame
a wreath grew from my heart, forgive me,
which bears the letters of your name!

  Prešeren, as a man of noble romantic sentiments, could not admit defeat, even though he closely resembled the limited hard-headed knight in the medieval legend. Like a pious pilgrim he used to go to the studio of his friend, Matevž Langus, who had been commissioned to immortalise Julija's image (and whose name is spelled out in the Slovene acrostic):

  Many a pilgrim goes to Rome, to Compostella
Or where St. Anthony guards Jesus,
they visit Trsat or St. Višarje,
or even Mary's Celje once in their life.

They yearn to glimpse images of life
in paradise. A trace of the shadow
from the glory beyond, imprinted on the altars,
cools the desires of their pious love.

And so to look at the image of the maiden,
The shadow of her heavenly beauty, a cheating dream
in which there is barely a trace of truth.

My desires command me to your home;
My heart is less tortured by the arrows,
The hours run quicker, the sighs from my heart softer.

  His friends' deaths
Even though Langus did his best to depict the freckled Miss Julija (who on top of everything else apparently had one shoulder noticeably lower than the other) in as flattering a way as possible, it has to be said that this portrait of Prešeren's eternal love is not a particularly wonderful work of art. And anyway: a picture is a picture. Which, sooner or later, has to leave the painter's studio. And the poet was left to his own devices. But still, his thoughts circled around a single matter, as his poem Kam? (Where Now?) bears witness.

To add to his misfortune, death took from him one friend after another: in 1835, when it was crystal clear that Julija was beyond his reach, Matija Čop, a connoisseur of everything beautiful and a sensitive critic, drowned whilst swimming in the Sava. Five years later, the unfortunate bon-viveur Andrej Smole (1800-1840) also bade farewell for ever. He had been full of grandiose plans for the blossoming of Slovene literature. Prešeren glorified the memories of both men with deeply felt verses: to the former, he dedicated both a German and a Slovene elegy, as well as the relatively long verse narrative Krst pri Savici (The Baptism at the Savica), and to the latter one of his most beautiful poems, bearing the simple title V spomin Andreja Smoleta (In Memory of Andrej Smole).

The "Baptism at the Savica" is a rather grim tale of medieval battles between the invading Christians, who use not only words, but also fire and sword to spread their message (and to top it all, are helped by foreign, i.e. Bavarian, military intervention), and the old Slovene pagans, who defend the freedom of their people without any hope of victory. The main hero of the poem, the pagan leader Črtomir, after defeat on the battle field and because he loves Bogomila, who has already accepted the new faith, converts to Christianity and becomes Christ's soldier - a priest. On the surface, this is a totally unheroic act: Črtomir did not give up his life for his ideals. But what if there is nothing beyond the grave? What if death is nothing but an absolute end - the end of any purpose - and nothing else? Why then sacrifice oneself? (And anyway: is physical death the worst that can possibly happen to a man? Is the worst not the death of one's spirit(uality), which the body may even survive?) Prešeren, in his poems of personal confession, never talks about what there is after life: in the Sonnets of Unhappiness and other poems which deal with human existence and its cessation, he only says that there (i.e. on the other side) is different from here. In The Baptism, too, the curtain falls when the poet would have to say something clear about the 'other side': Črtomir and Bogomila part and never see each other again in this world. But whether Bogomila's hope of meeting again in heaven is fulfilled or not, we are never told. Thus, behind a relatively simple story, there is a heap of hidden, crucial questions, to which there are no answers. In the poem God remains silent and does not answer people's fears or hopes. Is it then surprising that the life of those people ("travellers") seeking the truth in one of the Sonnets of Unhappiness, is described as "despair", and its setting as an "abyss"? The poem dedicated to Andrej Smole is on a similar 'wavelength': all that can be said about the deceased is that he is not unhappy - as he had been whilst still among the living. Nothing else. No comforting thought about how a man is rewarded in 'the other world' for his goodness (and the poet says about his dead friend: "… There was no one half so good in our city!").

  But let us go back to 1836, when Prešeren published "The Baptism at the Savica". Most of his poetic work, which had slowly grown into the book "Poems", was already behind him. He also had a clear vision of his future, as he jokingly described in one of the early sonnets:

  Cupid, you and your beautiful old woman
will no longer lead me by the nose;
I won't sing your praises without pay
till the end of my days like poor Petrarca.

Parca has spun me a sufficient number of years,
what have I gained from my singing?
No girl has ever loved me,
I'll no longer burn incense for the two of you.

Your promises are empty jokes,
I'm fed up of serving you, who are so ungrateful;
the years ahead that are left to me,

I'll spend all day making a mint from lawsuits,
in the evenings, I'll empty goblets with my friends
chasing away the clouds of worry with wine.

  The backdrop to the drama of the poet's life became darker and darker, but he did not stop creating, even though it had become just another name for suffering - just as it used to be another name for hoping (even the truest expression of hope). In 1838, he wrote the exceptionally carefully and rigorously formulated poem Pevcu (To the Poet) (all the stanzas in the original have their own final vowel and are symmetrically arranged around a central axis; there are fourteen lines, as in a sonnet), which talks about the poet's fate in a very embittered way:

  To Whom
'Tis given to lighten the soul-fretting gloom!

Who may
Rout the vulture that seizes the heart for its prey.
From dawn unto darkness, from darkness till day!

Who shows
How to blot out the memory of yesterday's woes,
And the eyes before threatening anguish to close,
To flee from today with the irk of its throes!

Thy care
A poet is not vain if though dare
Both heaven and hell in thy bosom to bear!

Nor cease
To think of thy calling, and grieve without peace!

(Translated by Paul Selver)

  The relationship with Ana Jelovšek
The late 1830s were probably the lowest point in Prešeren's life. He became entangled in a sexual relationship with Ana Jelovšek, the young adopted daughter of the old Mrs Primic (the girl was thus Julija's adopted 'sister', but had, however, escaped from her adoptive 'mother'). But this love was not a sacred altar to him, it was only a "beautiful thing". The fate of their children was sad, as the parents, due to financial hardship, could not take good care of them: two died in childhood. The other, Ernestina, who became a seamstress, later wrote a book about her father in German. At the beginning of the 20th century the poet Anton Aškerc published it in Slovene.

  In the forties, the skies cleared a little (but sadly, not completely). In Ljubljana, the Imperial farming society for the Duchy of Carniola started publishing an agricultural weekly Kmetijske and rokodelske novice (The Farming and Crafts News) (1843). Dr Janez Bleiweis, the "father of the Slovene nation" became the editor. He saw his role as a very wide one and soon began to devote some space in the weekly to literature. This was of great significance, as our poets and writers had very few opportunities to publish their work. Prešeren, too, took advantage of the opportunity. And after many rejected applications, he also now managed to get a legal practice in Kranj.

  During this period, as before, the poet took a keen interest in the world around him, in spite of his increasing health problems. Thus, for instance, he noticed and welcomed in his own way the arrival of the then wonder of technology, the railway, in Slovenia (the witty dialogue poem Od železne ceste - About the Railway; in 1846, trains started running between Graz, the capital of Styria, and Celje). He also knew about the greatest musical virtuoso of the first half of the 19th century, the Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini, whom he mentions in the poem Ženska zvestoba (Female Faithfulness) ("… like Paganini, he got used to playing on one string only"). He participated as much as he could in the revolution of 1848, which not only led to the ultimate demise of the feudal order and did away with the much hated, humiliating socage, but was also a real "spring of nations". As the unpleasant censor Kopitar died in 1844, Prešeren was able once again to start thinking seriously about publishing his poems. Fran Miklošič (1813-1891), a liberal minded Slovene from Styria, became the new supervisor of Slavonic print in the Habsburg monarchy. He was much more generous than his predecessor and did not create any special problems for Prešeren. (In 1848, he also became one of the initiators of the idea of a united Slovenia, as well as being a renowned professor at the university in Vienna, and a member of the Academy of Science there; the Emperor Franz Josef even gave him the title of knight). Thus, at the end of 1846 (1847 in the actual book) France Prešeren's "Poems" finally saw the light of day. The literary public - both German and Slovene - received them favourably and Bleiweis's Novice started referring to Prešeren as a celebrated poet.

But this success came too late. Prešeren's alcoholism and physical ruin were becoming increasingly obvious. In mid-1848 the poet, because of the suffering linked to his unstoppably progressing cirrhosis of the liver, tried to commit suicide, but was saved in time. He spent the last few months of his life in a state of total despondency. Various visitors appeared at his bedside: doctors trying to cure him (but miracles are not within the domain of their science; even the triumphs of the medical profession are sooner or later buried beneath the earth!), relatives enquiring about his legacy, and acquaintances one after another coming to say their goodbyes. At the end, even a priest visited this liberal-minded man and tried to offer him religious comfort. The press, too - the public's eyes and ears - showed a relatively high level of interest in the course of Prešeren's illness, even though he was not a prime minister, a president, a rock or film star. And there was no shortage of news in those days: the Emperor's grey-haired, eighty-two-year old field marshal, Count Radetzky (who spoke Slovene; in Zidani Most he once addressed the railway workers in Slovene and gave them money to buy themselves a drink), and his regiments - the most famous among them the "steel" 47th Lower Styria regiment - mercilessly chased the Italians along the river Po; in Hungary, there was an abortive attempt to remove the Habsburg dynasty from the throne there and an unsuccessful revolution; the Communist Manifesto was published and threatened the capitalists on the workers' behalf… In short, in the 19th century they really did respect people of spirit, not just good looks or the mayflies of the entertainment vanity fair.

  The poet died at dawn on the 8th of February 1849. On the same day, the following obituary appeared in Ljubljana:

  The leader of the National Guard in Kranj informed Slovene society in Ljubljana that our famous poet, Mister

France Prešerin,

Doctor of Law, and Imperial lawyer, died on the 8th day of this month at eight in the morning, after a long illness, having received the final sacrament.

The funeral will be on Saturday, 10th day of this month, at ten in the morning. We invite all his friends and acquaintances, all the bodies within Slovene society and all Slovenes generally, to come to the funeral in Kranj and pay this famous man their last respects.

  Since then Prešeren has meant much more to generations of Slovenes than just one of the nation's literary figures. He is nothing less than our poetic genius. He accompanies us from the cradle to the grave. Time moves on, but Prešeren's work remains an island of permanent beauty in a turbulent sea of change.

  prof. dr. Igor Grdina


The text was published in the book Prešeren.doc, published by Rokus.
Založba Pasadena © Založba Pasadena d.o.o., Ljubljana
web site programming TiBor, Dokumentarna d.o.o.
 skupina TiBor

This web site is optimised for Explorer 5.* and resolution 800x600 with 32-bit graphics.
The creation of the web site was supported financially by the Ministry of Culture.