An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: France Prešeren

Posted on July 25, 2014


So sad. So very, very sad.

In the Western world, we have something of a love affair with the tortured artist. We, whether secretly or openly, desire our writers to be troubled, to be hopeless flawed human beings. We preferably like them to write about love and loss, and again preferably that love would be unrequited and the loss will be devastating. It’s an awful human tendency, to desire the trauma of others, but few can deny it when hand is placed upon heart. France Prešeren, the heavyweight of Slovene cultural history, ticks every single box above.

France Prešeren was born on December 3rd (or 2nd, who knows) 1800 in the village of Vrba, the name of which translates as ‘willow’ in English. Vrba is a tiny village in the north of Slovenia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. Prešeren was born into a fairly well off peasant family, if such a thing is accepted to exist. His father was a farmer, and his mother was particularly well educated. This keen awareness of the importance of education stood Prešeren in good stead. He was an obviously talented child, and began his educational journey in earnest in Ljubljana. By an early age, he had managed to learn Latin, Ancient Greek and German. Not bad chap, not bad at all.

After receiving his Law degree in Vienna, he returned to Ljubljana with the hope of becoming an independent lawyer. He attempted to open his own firm, but was rejected on five separate occasions. This was because during his time in Vienna he had begun to read the Romantic poets, and his freethinking personality was considered politically dangerous. It was during university that he began writing himself. In 1825 he showed some of his stuff to renowned philologist Jernej Kopitar, in the hope of some constructive criticism. Kopitar wasn’t so constructive however, and in a fit of almost-childlike petulance, Prešeren destroyed all of his work. He wouldn’t truly write again for years.

 ‘…Until the changing years show how life flows, into a vessel that is leaking fast.’

His first important poem would come in 1828. It was entitled ‘A Farewell to Youth’. As the title would suggest, it is lamentation of the end of the one’s younger years, along with clear annoyance at the opportunities afforded to those who are born into wealth. The poem was published in 1830, and this would mark the most productive time of his creative life. His close friend Mateja Čop, a scholar himself, assisted him immensely. Čop encouraged Prešeren to delve deeper into his poetry, and was always on hand to provide advice and approval. It would be a huge blow to Prešeren when Čop drowned in the Sava in 1835. Prešeren himself had declined to swim on that day, and would blame himself for the death of his friend for the rest of his own days. The poem, ‘The Baptism on the Savica’ was a dedication to Čop.

Even the influence of Mateja Čop would be dwarfed however by the spectre and shadow of the lady known as Julija Primic. They met at church in Trnovo, and Prešeren was deeply in love from the start. The love would go unrequited throughout his life, and it would torture Prešeren to the brink of madness. It would also send him to the bottle, and his drinking would contribute directly to his eventual death. Ljubljana’s central square is named after Presšeren, and the statue in the middle of it is facing the former home of Primic, where he would pine after her. Julija Primic never reciprocated Prešeren’s love however, and she would eventually marry a rich bloke in 1835. With Čop drowning and Julija marrying, 1835 was the shittest of shit years of France Prešeren, and it led to him becoming more and more alienated.

The desperate situations would continue. He met Emil Korytko, who introduced Prešeren to the work of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Within two years however, Korytko died. Not to worry however, as around the same time Presšeren’s childhood friend Andrej Smole came back to Slovenia. The two became practically inseperable, spending all of their time together. In 1840, Smole would die in Prešeren’s arms. After giving up on Julija, Presšeren would go on to father three children with the poor servant Ana Jelovsek. They never married, and there was no love in their relationship. Prešeren was falling deeper and deeper into depression, struggling to come to terms with his lack of legal success and his still deep love for Julija. He drank heavily, and had many affairs. He became more and more confrontational. Everything would come to a head, and Presšeren would attempt suicide on a couple of occasions.

It was the years 1830 until his awful 1835 that would be his most productive poetry wise. In 1830 he published what is regarded as the first Slovene ballad, entitled ‘The Water Man’. His work was hugely inspired by his own personal setbacks; giving it the resigned quality that poetry often revels in. ‘Wreath of Sonnets’ (1834) was his most important early poem. It was an epic that tied together his own unhappy experiences in love with the unhappy, unfulfilled nature of his homeland, Slovenia. Prešeren was very happy with this work, but his confidence and optimism would be shattered by, yeah, you guessed it, Julija Primic. She didn’t like ‘Wreath of Sonnets’, and from then on Prešeren’s work took on a much more bitter stance. He would hit his most despairing with ‘Sonnets of Misfortune’. Of course, a collection with a title as such is always going to be kinda miserable.

His productivity did slowdown as he grew older although he did manage to write ‘Zdravljica’ (A Toast) in 1844, a piece that would go on to become the Slovene national anthem when independence was declared in 1991. In 1846 he was finally given the go-ahead to open his own law firm, and he chose Kranj in which to do this. It was in Kranj that he would die just three years later. He spent his final years working as a lawyer and sorting out his messy private life. Oh, and drinking, so very much drinking. The liver disease would be the end of him, and on his deathbed he would admit that his love for Julija Primic had never waned at any point. He died poor, he died lonely, and he died young. He was 48 years old.

There is no bigger figure in Slovene cultural history that France Prešeren. He is without doubt the national poet, in a country where poetry is the most admired form of art. The day of his death is celebrated as the national cultural day. As mentioned, one of his poems provides the words for the Slovene national anthem. When independence came, he was on the 1000-tolar note. When Slovenia moved over to the Euro, France Prešeren was the face on the 2euro coin. The highest Slovene prize for artistic achievement bears his name. There are countless squares, streets and roads throughout the country named after him.

As contemporary European nations began to form in the great empires in the 19th century, literature was one of the most influential art forms of the time. France Prešeren wrote during a time of harsh Austrian censorship, and he wrote with an undeniably Slovene feel. He was as important as any other human to the formation of a national Slovene identity. Taking a purely literature-centric look, he is to Slovenes what Goethe is to the Germans, Dante to the Italians, and Pushkin to the Russians. He is to Slovenian literature what Shakespeare is to English literature. He introduced Slovenia to the ballad, the sonnet and many other poetic forms. He was the unelected representative of the neglected peasant classes of the time.

France Prešeren lived an unhappy life, full of romantic disappointments and intense personal trauma. He died poor and alone. Despite this, his reputation has grown posthumously, and it is clear that he was a Romantic spirit that his time was unable to appreciate. He is the archetypical troubled writer. He is the very definition of Slovene culture. An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery indeed.