Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 5
7 February 2000

Bust of PreserenS L O V E N I A:
Ljubljana's Mr Boisterous

Samuel Willcocks

When asked why they celebrate their national poet Francè Prešeren on the anniversary of his death, rather than remembering his birthday as most of the rest of us do with our writers, the Slovenes will say "Because he only became famous after he died," or "Because we are very gloomy people and he was such a gloomy poet," or "Because we all had to learn his verses by heart in school and are so thoroughly sick of him that we’re glad he’s gone." Whatever the reason, this Tuesday is, like every 8th February, the official Day of National Culture (Dan slovenske kulture or Slovenski kulturni praznik) in Slovenia itself and an occasion for food, booze and verse for Slovenians worldwide, much like Burns Night but without the tartan.

Although he was almost pathologically shy of having his portrait drawn or painted in life, representations of Prešeren, such as that on the banknotes, agree in showing him in dark business clothing with a foppish bow-tie; pretty much what we expect from a poet who earned his crusts as a lawyer. His sombre (though not sober) image and anguished subject matter, mostly hopeless love or historical tragedy, rather belie the literal meaning of his surname — "Mr Boisterous" or "overly happy". The statue that stands on Prešeren Square in the centre of Ljubljana gazes longingly at the window of his lost lady-love, Julia, his suffering unrelieved even by the bare-bosomed Muse of Poetry who holds a laurel wreath over his head. German-speaking citizens at the end of the nineteenth century who objected to a monument to a Slovene poet used to climb up the statue and drape a shawl around the muse’s shoulders.

Preseren Square, Ljubljana

Another, no more jovial, monument to Prešeren is on the wall of the Church of St John the Baptist in the Trnovo quarter of Ljubljana, where he first saw Julia (who broke his heart by marrying a German banker). Down the street from the church is a more cheerful establishment, the Kulturna Družba France Prešeren (sometimes translated as "Culture Club", rather disconcertingly for those of us who remember the 1980 pop group), an arts venue for theatre and music of all kinds, with a gallery and a very friendly bar. Never forget that it was Prešeren who wrote the words which have become the Slovenian national anthem, "Friends, the grapes have brought forth another wine harvest!", although perhaps unsurprisingly he put some emphasis on the drowning-one’s-sorrows aspects of drink. By the fourth verse we move on to universal peace and brotherhood.

For the true Ljubljana completist, a Prešeren stroll must include lunch at the inn where he would meet and drink with fellow writers. The story goes that he would wander around the town with a pocketful of dried figs to give to children - hence the name of the pub today, Figovec - though rumour does not record whether he took to this habit before or after being jilted by Julia.

Samuel Willcocks, 5 February 2000

Bibliographical Information

Very little of of Francè Prešeren's poetry has been translated into English, and none is currently in print. The following books may be available:

Henry R. Cooper, Francè Prešeren (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981). [Can be ordered from Amazon.com]

Francè Prešeren, Poems: A Selection Translated from the Slovene, W.K. Matthews & Anton Slodnjak (London: John Calder, 1963)

The Parnassus of a Small Nation: An Anthology of Slovene Lyrics, W.K. Matthews (London: John Calder, 1957).

One Sonnet has been reprinted in The Traveller's Literary Comanion: Central & Eastern Europe (Read the CER review of this book)

Other Sites

Izbrana poezija dr. Franceta Prešerna (ISO 8859-2 encoding)

Francè Prešeren - Poezije (A large collection of Prešeren's poems in Slovene - without diacritics).

Slovenska knjizevnost (Slovene Literature Site, including bibliography of literature in English.




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