“To whom with acclamation and song shall we our first toast give?” F. Prešeren – A Toast
8th of February is one of the national holidays in Slovenia, officially known as Prešeren’s day or the Slovenian cultural holiday. It commemorates the death of one of our most important poets, France Prešeren.
The man behind the holiday
France Prešeren (1800-1849) was a Romantic poet from the 19th century, who is widely regarded as the greatest Slovenian poet of all time. In fact, the 7th stanza of his poem A Toast (the one in the lead paragraph of his post) is now the Slovenian national anthem and his statue proudly stands in the main square of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. He wrote both the first Slovenian epic and the first ballad and was basically the first person to show that Slovenian as a language can be used to write proper, quality literature. He systematically cultivated and elevated the language by writing poetry in foreign forms such as sonnets, romances and fancy classical Latin forms. Most of the later date Slovenian poetry was strongly influenced by him and whether you like his poems or not, his contribution to the development of Slovenian language was enormous, which made him into the legend he is today. However, like most legends, Prešeren is a rather controversial figure and his life was a deeply unfortunate one.
He was born in Vrba, a small village where you can visit his house and learn a bit more about him, which was a part of the Habsburg monarchy back then. His parents sent him to school to Ljubljana, where his literary talent was recognised by some of the influential Slovenian intellectuals of the time and where he met most of the friends that would influence him later in life. After Ljubljana he studied in Vienna with great success, got a law degree and returned to Ljubljana, where he desperately tried to become an independent lawyer.
The absolutistic authorities refused to grant him his own practice because of his poems until 3 years before he died, which was a huge source of unhappiness for him. Another source of misery was his ever unfortunate love life, starting with Julija Primic, a rich merchant’s daughter. Depending on who you ask she was either the unrequited love of his life or just one of his muses – as previously stated, Prešeren was and remains a controversial Slovenian figure, because his very persona managed to get caught in a political and ideological struggle.
Prešeren was a true Romantic poet and like most members of the Romanticism movement, he drew inspiration from personal misfortune and his nationality was his true muse. Because of his nationalistic tendencies, he was a thorn in the side of authorities while he was alive and became even more notorious as a Slovenian national icon after he died. Depending on who you ask, he was either a failed lawyer and a bitter, miserable drunk who wrote good poetry or a tortured good soul who represented the poor for free and carried figs in his pocket for children, but he was first and foremost a man.
Either way, Julija was one of his notable love interests and while she probably wasn’t very aware of his existence, he dedicated some of his best poems like the Wreath of Sonnets to her. While he was pining for Julija, however, Prešeren also liked to admire other women from afar and write snarky poetry about them if they turned him down (a good example? the Water man). Eventually he settled down with Ana Jelovšek, a 23 years younger governess with whom he had 3 children. Although he supported her financially and treated her as a partner, they were apparently quite mismatched and she was never really one of his muses. He never married her and occasionally fell hopelessly in love with other women, from afar and for poetic reasons of course.
He continued to write poetry throughout his life, however the authorities refused to publish his work uncensored, because it was deemed too inflammatory, which was another source of deep misery until 1843, when his poetry finally got published. In 1845 they even granted his own law practice in Kranj, but by then his illness (he had ascites) had progressed so much that he was barely able to work and he died soon after that.
Several of his close friends and family members also died tragic deaths well before their time, so he struggled with loss and frequent (somewhat self-inflicted) rejection for most of his life, which is where the drinking accusations come from. On the one hand, he is said to have been a sensitive soul, who felt all injustices quite deeply, and he did have plenty of reasons for drinking due to personal misfortunes, but on the other hand he was way too busy and too productive in his later years to have been a real drunkard, so I leave it to others to figure him out.
In short, our national icon may or may not have been a failed drunk, but he did have an indisputably unfortunate life, in spite of his surname (Prešeren means merry in Slovenian). He wielded his poetry like a hammer against all the women who scorned him, glorified those who hadn’t (yet) and loved to complain about his misfortune in verse like most of the Romantic poets. In fact, he even wrote the Sonnets of Misfortune to do it properly.
However, if we view the work separately from the author, as we should, he was also a genius. He took it upon himself to improve the aesthetic potential of the Slovenian language and succeeded masterfully. His poems in their original language flow like smooth silk when read right and some of them are so full of feelings and a kind of elusive, profound understanding that you feel as if you’re just on the verge of understanding the meaning of life, because that’s what good poetry does. My personal favourite is Pevcu (to the Poet) and I imagine no translation will ever do it justice, because it is simply beautiful, even though it portrays the image of the misunderstood, tortured visionary poet in proper Romantic style.
It is actually surprisingly hard to find more than a couple of Prešeren’s poems translated online, although they have been translated into about 10 different languages by now. His entire collection of poems, aptly named Poezije (Poems), has also been translated into a couple. In light of this, here’s one of his shorter, non-unfortunate poems:
Pesem moja je posoda tvojega imena,
mojega srca gospoda, tvojega imena;
v nji bom med slovenske brate sladki glas zanesel
od zahoda do izhoda tvojega imena;
na posodi v zlatih črkah slava se bo brala
od naroda do naroda tvojega imena;
z nje svetloba bo gorela še takrat, ko bova
onstran Karanov’ga broda, tvojega imena.
Bolj ko Delije, Korine, Cintije al’ Lavre
bi bilo pozabit’ škoda tvojega imena.
Let my poem, like a shrine, contain – your name;France Prešeren – Gazele/Gazelle (translation from Preseren.net)
In my heart shall ever proudly reign – your name;
Let my countrymen hear echoes, east and west,
Of the music in that joyous strain – your name;
On this shrine shall nations henceforth read your fame;
Here it stays to glow and glow again – your name.
When both you and I have crossed in Charon’s boat,
Even then the glory will remain – your name.
More than Cynthia, Laura, Delia and Corrina,
Time will ever hallow my refrain – your name.
8th of February – the holiday
The 8th of February was first proclaimed as a Slovenian cultural holiday after World War II in honour of Prešeren’s death and became a public holiday of the newly independent Slovenia in 1991. Since it is a public holiday and a work-free day, all the shops and public services are closed, but all the museums and galleries are open and even free to enter on culture day. There are also plenty of commemorative events, like public poetry readings, and cultural festivals like the Prešeren fair in Kranj. So, if you’re ever in Slovenia on the 8th of February, go get yourself a healthy dose of culture!
This year my boyfriend and I were a bit lazy, so we decided to skip the museums altogether and have a festive Slovenian lunch (cooking is cultural too, right?). I own an old school Slovenian cookbook from Sister Vendelina, the famous Slovenian cooking nun, who was THE expert in middle class city recipes. Since I only follow recipes on special occasions, this was the day to do it and we decided on the following:
- Celery root cream soup
- Beef meat rolls stuffed with bread, cheese, ham, butter-glazed onion, egg and parsley stuffing and vegetable (carrots, onions, celery root, parsley, lemon juice) gravy
- Rice, cheese, butter-glazed onions and parsley stuffed tomatoes
- Cooked and oil-roasted potatoes with herbs (parsley, thyme, oregano and marjoram)
- Cream, rum-soaked raisins, yoghurt, bread crumbs and sugar stuffed baked apples
Our Prešeren’s day lunch in 2020
We were so full from the main courses that we ended up having dessert for dinner. The stuffed apples were accidentally left in the oven for about 30 minutes too long, which is why they look like exploded mess on a plate, but they still tasted great. I’d say we did pretty well in the cooking department, but I do have one complaint for the esteemed Sister Vendelina: there are other herbs and spices besides parsley too. 🙂
“May joyful cheer,F. Prešeren – A Toast
from all good hearts now gathered here.”