The Greatest Slovenian Poet France Prešeren

The 8th February is a Slovenian cultural holiday, called Prešeren Day (Prešernov dan). It is when Slovenians celebrate the anniversary of the death of our greatest poet France Prešeren (3 December 1800, Vrba – 8 February 1849, Kranj). On the same day the Prešeren Award (Prešernova nagrada) is given to two prominent Slovenian artists.

Prešeren is now renowned as the greatest Slovenian poet of all time, but it was not always like that. During his lifetime he wasn’t well known at all, but after his death he became famous and a real national hero, which is not an isolated case. We have seen this many times in the history of mankind.

He was way ahead in thinking for that time, so he often struggled with the then narrow-minded society. France Prešeren was a lawyer and poet who preferred to work independently, in the spirit of freedom. He created in the 19th century, the time of Romanticism (romatika), which was an era of expressing emotions, glorification of beauty, imagination and abstract thinking, a movement completely opposite to Realism.

Prešeren’s portrait

Prešeren’s portrait

Prešeren could easily be compared with other artists of that time. His collection of poems was remarkable. He mainly wrote poems (pesmi), sonnets (soneti), ballads (balade), ghazals (gazele) and romances (romance). All his works were written in the Bohorič alphabet (bohoričica) which was a little bit different from the modern Slovenian alphabet.

His famous works include:

  • Zdravljica (A Toast)
  • Sonetni venec (A Wreath of Sonnets)
  • Krst pri Savici (The Baptism on the Savica)
  • Povodni mož (The Water Man)
  • Sonetje nesreče (Sonnets of Misfortune)
  • Turjaška Rozamunda (Rosamund of Turjak)

All the works, except Zdravljica (written in 1844), are gathered in the collection of poems, called Poezije, Poems, which was published in 1847. Zdravljica couldn’t be published due to the censorship. Back then Slovenia (historically Carniola) was a part of Austrian Empire, and Prešeren wrote about national freedom and united Slovenia in Zdravljica what they obviously saw as inconvenient and therefore refused to include it in the Poems. However, the 7th stanza of Zdravljica became the Slovenian national anthem in 1989 in the Socialist Republic of Slovenia.

Sonetni venec, A Wreath of Sonnets (1833), was Prešeren’s another great work which was dedicated to his unrequited love for Julija Primic. It talks about love towards Julija and a homeland. It consists of 15 sonnets, where the last line of one sonnet begins the next. The last sonnet, called Magistrale or the Master Theme, is composed of first lines of all previous 14 sonnets, which, if read downwards, gives a name of his muse, Julija.

Dedicated to Prešeren's muse, Julija Primic; 'PRIMICOVI JULJI' (To Julija Primic) – a dedication composed of initials of each line (the acrostic). In the present-day Slovenian it would be 'PRIMIČEVI JULIJI'.

Dedicated to Prešeren’s muse, Julija Primic; “PRIMICOVI JULJI” (To Julija Primic) – a dedication composed of initials of each line (the acrostic). In the present-day Slovenian it would be “PRIMIČEVI JULIJI”.

Krst pri Savici (originally Kerst per Savici), The Baptism on the Savica (1836), is Prešeren’s epic-lyric poem dedicated to his friend Matija Čop who drowned in the Sava River. The poem is composed of a sonnet dedicated to Matija Čop, Introduction (Uvod) and The Baptism (Krst).

Introduction talks about the battle between the Christians and pagan Slavs. The leader of the latter is Črtomir, a brave hero, who fights against a violent Christianisation. The leader of Christians is Valjhun – the winner. The last part, The Baptism, is more lyric and emotional. Main characters are Črtomir and his love Bogomila. At her wish he finally let himself baptise at the famous Savica waterfall (slap Savica).

I’m sure Slovenians also remember Prešeren’s first and most famous ballad Povodni mož (The Water Man). Urška is a beautiful and conceited woman whom nobody could resist. In the Old Square (Stari trg) in Ljubljana there is a Sunday ball where Urška rejects all the candidates who want to dance with her. An evening is slowly approaching. Suddenly she beholds a mysterious man who asks her for a dance. She agrees and they begin to dance and spin faster and faster (a dramatic peak), until both disappear in the whirlpool of the Ljubljanica River. Nobody has ever seen Urška or The Water Man again.

The monument of France Prešeren in Prešeren square (Prešernov trg), Ljubljana. Above him is his muse who holds a bay sprig. Prešeren square is a modern meeting point and a place of happening and people-watching.

The monument of France Prešeren in Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg), Ljubljana. Above him is his muse who holds a bay sprig. Prešeren Square is a modern meeting point and a place of happening and people-watching.

France Prešeren’s poetry is not some of the easiest to comprehend as, I think, we all realised in high school. It is written in older Slovenian and it has a different grammatical structure that can easily give you a headache. But we have to admit he was, despite his more or less unfortunate life, a poetic genius of that time.