Grün Herbert:
On Prešeren

    The greatest of the Slovenian poets died long years ago in a little town four hours’ walk to the north of the nation’s capital. In this little town the poet’s picture - under glass or even without a transparent plate to protect it - hangs on the wall of every inn, virtually every office, every room, large or small, designed for public gatherings or at any rate for semi-public groups of people. There are as many of these pictures as if France Prešeren had been not a quiet, lonely outcast of a poet but a tyrannic ruler (still alive, of course), the absolute lord of these parts, a lord and a ruler accorded almost divine honors. Or at least as though he were defender of the faith and ecclesiastical patron of the region; the poet’s name really is used to add luster to all sorts of things, inns and associations, institutes and offices include in their title the additional attribute “The Prešeren…”.

    And in the village where the man was born stands an insignificant little church. It is the modest supplementary church of a bigger parish, scarcely used for divine service; mass is celebrated there at most two or three times a year. So the faithful believers hardly ever go there, but there are many pilgrims who come here to pay their respects to Preseren’s memory, the reason being that the poet makes one mention in a sonnet of the church and its patron, St. Mark. In passing, these devotees of the nation’s past can view the recently discovered frescoes. But the verger has not forgotten his duty and looks after the tiny church as if the Latin service were still continually sung there. The altar is carefully and beautifully covered with its cloth. And as is fitting, the front of the cloth is embroidered with a pious pronouncement. It is the same in all churches: the pronouncements are chosen from holy scripture or from well known hymns. But on the altar-cloth in the little church of St. Mark is embroidered - though a little modified and detached from its context - just that one line of Prešeren’s sonnet. Only two little words are changed and one slightly adapted, so that the line has been changed grammatically from a dependent to a main clause, the content from the poet’s image, embodying a sorrowful and disenchanted comment, into a simple, pious appeal. In Prešeren’s sonnet it says:

“Saint Mark, my nearest neighbor -

Would save my home from fire, my corn from hail.”

That is: if I had not left home and gone out

into the world.

On the altar cloth it is only a little different:

“Saint Mark, our nearest neighbor,

save thou our home from fire, and corn from hail.”


    Yes - in Slovenia there is an understandable and justifiable irony for the disrespectful observer… the only thing still lacking is that Prešeren, that totally disenchanted unbeliever should be canonized and placed on the altar as an actual saint!

    It might perhaps be said that things of the kind happen in other countries, too. Still, there is a noticeable distinction. It is true that the Germans bestow on their greatest writers all sorts of olympian and princely titles and pupils in Germany are really obliged to learn innumerable biographical stories thought up by dry-as-dust historians; the English have certainly developed a flourishing devotional industry on Shakespeare’s account; the French have still not decided to whom they will allot the undisputed first place. But no nation has actually canonized the greatest of its poets, not even the Italians or Russians (Pushkin or Tolstoy).

    What must seem most surprising to the disinterested - and at least slightly casual - observer is above all this: how has it been possible to create successfully such a general atmosphere of sanctity and worship around a poet who is actually not a man of the people? It would still somehow be understandable if such an idol were to be made of a poet of passionate calls to arise or of appealing hit-songs; but the nation and the spiritual leaders of the nation have chosen a pure artist, a poet who was not much concerned whom he was serving with his verses.

    Nevertheless it is wholly impossible to believe that this cult is no more than the fruit of assiduous school education. It is true that a good measure of this phenomenon is the consequence of educational propaganda - the name of Prešeren is on the lips of those who do not read his poems or scarcely know them. Only this cannot be the explanation and the point of so important, so extraordinary a historical and ethnographic phenomenon.

    Some thinkers have tried to settle this complicated question with the phrase “the noble genius of the Slovenian people”, taking Prešeren to be in all his personal nature - as expressed in the poems - an exact and magnified embodiment of the Slovenian national character, of the general nature of the Slovenian people. An even simpler answer is this: the Slovenians naturally chose as their spiritual patron that artist who was in reality - by all absolute standards - the greatest and purest. However, it is scarcely probable that consciousness of supreme beauty and artistic mastery would have been capable of creating and sustaining collective veneration and the way in which the Slovenians honor Prešeren has in it all the characteristics of true veneration, veneration with no questioning and no doubts. And the notion that Prešeren’s personal and poetic character, as its essence and extract on a grand scale accords with the general Slovenian national character - that too is questionable. The idea of the “communal genius” of the Slovenian people may be disproved with just the same sort of unthinking colloquial smartness as the thought itself was expressed with unthinkingly enough, as no more than a glittering piece of wit and convincingly effective - but not solidly based - colloquial epigram.

    If anyone wants to observe the Slovenians where the people as a community express themselves most genuinely, that is in friendly company, he ought to visit a get-together in an inn, especially when the people drinking are happily or sadly singing. And there and then anyone who reflects only a little and does not abandon himself to his first, most proper belief, hallowed by being often expressed, must be struck by quite another thought; the “communal genius” of the Slovenians is not the dionysiac-apollonian artist Prešeren, but the writer of tender verses on the popular level, Simon Gregorčič. It is true anyway that Gregorčič - not as a great name, but as a writer - was for long years in actual fact the most popular poet in Slovenia. It is also true that no other poet has written so many poems that have become part of the popular heritage. And it is above all true that Gregorčič’s simply appealing and appealingly simple poems precisely fit the basic emotional moods of average Slovenians. The very sound of the easily understood and appealingly melancholy verses, the rich accounts of absolutely clear and far from incomprehensible troubles of the heart, the easy applicability of so many of the thoughts - all these are features that chime with the mood of the happy (and of course more often melancholy) people in the inn as they sing. And it is absolutely all the same to them what they sing, since another characteristic of Slovenians is that they can take the songs of any nation whatever and make them their own - whether they be old and venerable folk songs or the latest street ditty. And they are able to make all these songs doubly their own: not only do they love to sing them as if they were centuries-old Slovenian favorites, but they can use vocal colour and rhythm so to adapt them that they really do soon sound like homegrown Slovenian songs - even though the words are Russian or Italian or English.

    The most obvious characteristic of the singing in Slovenian inns is the phenomenon known as “singing above” (čez peti). Only the middle voice sings the melody, the lower voice more or less regularly accompanies it, while the high male voice freely improvises harmonic variations on the melody. (In some parts of Slovenia five-part male singing occurs). This higher male voice often moves into an actual falsettos but even when the singing is still in a pure male tenor voice the superimposed clearly audible and somewhat shrill high accompanying notes sound remarkably tender and soft - though not at all feminine. And here again, as in any reflection on Slovenian national characteristics, what comes to mind is tender response to emotion. This soft descant, which somehow stands out most among the three voices, evokes tenderness and in itself expresses tender susceptibility..

    This sort of reflection, explanation or even demonstration may of course be countered with: how can anyone presume to define national characteristics only on the way people sing in inns? - can people who sing in inns - a selection limited to particular age-groups, social levels or occupations and even to their local areas, since different places have different ways - can these people really be taken to represent the whole nation? But is not this reflection just another everyday smart comment - at least as superficial as that bright thought about “communal genius”?

    At any rate it is true that the characteristics of larger groups of people (class, social grouping, nation, state) are best perceived when there is a chance to see them when they are friendly and sociable, as that is the only occasion when people’s separate personalities interweave in a group experience, but the forms of this group experience are still not adapted either to special utilitarian needs - as in working in groups - or to a determined purpose and use or intention - as at a club or political meeting - but develop freely, only according to the inclination of the majority, or, to put it more precisely, according to the common denominator of the main inclinations of all the individuals in the company.

    Prešeren scarcely ever expresses tenderness. His personal and poetic destiny make him a stranger to soft sentiment. But he strikingly and challengingly excites and sustains tenderness of the highest degree - since with the basic form of his artistry he presents an almost crystally consistent example of the total phenomenon of beauty.

    The core and essence of Preseren’s artistry, of what Prešeren conveys is this:

    A highly painful dionysiacally incurable split, a contradiction of a personal nature reveals and expresses itself in harmoniously rounded, melodious, apollonianly pure structures of ideas. the name of poems.

    The paradox of Prešeren’s personal nature is this: a very simple, almost animal physicality with supremely powerful instincts and anything but indirect, making him, as the popular saying goes, flesh and blood - is joined with an exceptionally subtle, morally and aesthetically extremely sensitive, extremely delicate and extremely intricate neuropsychic system which respects every eventuality and every oblique complication. It is easy to understand that a personality in which are combined the crude instinctual male and the over-sensitive thinker and lover of dream beauty is bound to be unhappy whatever its surroundings.

    Still the unquiet, discordant, one would say crushing experiences deflect Prešeren’s unique poetic gift (truly unique, even beside Byron and Goethe) into unusually melodious, appropriate, clearly completely harmonious images and thoughts and conceptual compositions. Here of course it is not a matter of the prosodic order of the verses, nor of the classic poesis of standard forms: it is a matter of the balanced, organized - organized apparently altogether uncoerced by the brain - and lucid calm of the poet’s imagination, the poet’s visions and the poet’s ear and the poet’s invention and imagery, the poet’s thought.

    Beauty is always evident when in a naturally arising or artistically created phenomenon one is aware either of evidence of agonizing paradoxes - or of an example (still in spite of everything also sometimes possible) of harmony.

    Prešeren’s creativity unites both opportunities of experiencing evident beauty. The essential component of that human capacity which is called “tenderness” is the love of every sort of beauty. And the national characteristic which distinguishes Slovenians is this adoration of beauty - of that, after all tests, there is no doubt.

    Prešeren is loved by the Slovenians as a community - and by many individuals among them - above all because he was the creator of such a many-sided , or to put it more precisely, double-sided and thus truly consistent beauty.

    But the reason for this love can never of course be the awareness of artistic mastery, it cannot be the intellectual recognition of complete beauty but always only the unconscious conviction rising from those regions of personal and communal mind which we can sum up in a single simplified word as - taste.

    This kind of unconscious conviction, as many by way of playful paradox might call it - unconscious consciousness - this may indeed be the source and motive of the general belief, the general real love and the general veneration.

    This is why the “communal genius” of the Slovenians may indeed be Simon Gregorčič, but the most famous poet of the nation, given all the veneration due to a saint, now long years after his death, is France Prešeren.

Translated by Alasdair MacKinnon