A star has dropped from heaven’s height,
a dying star of dark blue light;
it falls through endless realms;
it dwells eternally in falling.
Its cry sounds from the grave of all,
a horrible shriek, a terrible scream.
“When will its falling end?”
Never—nowhere—there is no end.
There are many literary works that risk being ruined for readers simply because they are prescribed study in school, often presented in a rote manner that leaves its victims, er students, with few fond memories. No doubt, for generations of Czech students, Karel Hynek Mácha’s epic poem May might be remembered primarily as something they were required to read in school, old fashioned and difficult. But to come to this poem well into adulthood, without school-deadened experience and as someone whose first poetic passion was English Romantic poetry, this tale of romance, betrayal, patricide and brutal punishment is fascinating, as is the short, tragic life of its author.
Image from Twisted Spoon Press on Flickr
I was inspired to read this important Czech poem by my reading of Daniela Hodrova’s City of Torment earlier this year. Now recognized as the greatest Czech Romantic poet, Mácha is one of the many ghosts haunting this monumental trilogy and his story Márinka, which not yet available in English, forms an important part of the literary subtext of Hodrova’s work. May, however, has been published by Twisted Spoon Press in a handsome dual language volume translated by Marcela Malek Sulak with drawings by Jindřich Štyrský (1899–1942) that were specifically created for this poem.
Mácha was born in Prague on November 16, 1810 and educated in the two languages approved by the Hapsburg authorities, German and Latin. He would go on to study law at Prague University. Yet at heart he was a romantic who spent much of his time wandering the countryside, visiting castles and ruins, and embarking on extended walking tours across Moravia and Slovakia, even making his way to Venice on foot. His great inspiration was Byron.
Writing at a time when Czech poets were seeking to reclaim the Czech language from beneath to weight of two hundred years of imposed German, Mácha also chose Czech for his epic, but he rejected the current focus on folklore and myth as a means to define a new national identity and challenged the Czech language to stretch “to perform in innovative ways and borrowed from Italian landscape, Byronic themes, and local scandal” to fashion his tale of love and a passion denied by fate.
Image from Twisted Spoon Press on Flickr
The finished poem was not well received in Mácha’s circles, causing him to finance the publishing himself in 1836. He died of pneumonia later the same year, a few days shy of his twenty-sixth birthday and three days before he was to have married his lover, Lori, the mother of his child. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. His reputation grew over the decades following his death and a century later, in 1939, his remains were exhumed and he was granted a formal state funeral and buried in the Slavín Cemetery at Vyšehrad in Prague, his status as a national hero finally confirmed.
May consists of four cantos with two intermezzos. It relays the story of Vilém, the notorious “forest lord,” leader of a group of bandits, who is in love with Jarmila, a young girl who has been seduced by another man. In defense of his “wilted rose,” Vilém has killed her debaucher, unaware that his victim was his own father who had driven him out of his childhood home many years earlier. Sentenced to death, Vilém spends the night before his execution preparing to meet his fate:
“How long the night—how long the night—
A longer night yet comes for me!———
Perish the thought!”—The strength of terror
fells his thought.—
Profound silence.—A water drop,
falling, measures time once more.
The next morning, as a beautiful day dawns, the convict is led out to the hillock where a crowd has gathered. He surveys the landscape, bemoans that he will never see his beloved homeland again. The sword falls, and his head and broken limbs are left displayed on a pillar and wheel. Seven years later, a traveller, Hynek, encounters the site and Vilém’s remains. The following morning, the innkeeper in town tells him the tragic tale. Returning once more, many years later on the first of May, the traveller sits on the hillock until nightfall and sees his own and humanity’s fate reflected in Jarmila and Vilém’s story of love and betrayal.
Mácha’s attention to the beauty of nature in evident throughout this poem, from the opening lines of Canto I in which Jarmila waits in vain for Vilém to meet her:
It was late evening—first of May—
was evening May—the time for love.
The turtledove invited love
to where the pine grove’s fragrance lay.
The silent moss murmured of love,
the flowering tree belied love’s woe.
The nightingale sang rose-filled love,
the rose exhaled a sweet complaint.
The placid lake in shadowed thicket
resounded darkly secret pain,
embracing it within its shores;
the pristine suns of other worlds
were wandering through the sky’s blue band,
as fiery as a lover’s tears.
Holding close to his Romantic inspiration and instincts, nature reflects both the passion and the sorrow of his tale. The poem is well-paced and dramatic, speaking to particular style and time, of course, but with all the elements of an entertaining tragic romance. As Sulak explains in her Introduction, she tried to capture the exact meter of the original poem and, because Mácha paid close attention to sound when making language choices to capture his hero’s mental state, she tried approximate a similar affect with the words she used in Canto II, the prison sequence. Because Czech is a language with a much more flexible word order, an effort to reproduce the rhyming pattern was not made. These decisions help preserve the rhythm and flow, as well as the beauty and emotion that have made May such a well-loved poem.
May by Karel Hynek Mácha is translated from the Czech by Marcela Malek Sulak with drawings by Jindřich Štyrský and published by Twisted Spoon Press.
6 thoughts on “A romantic soul: May by Karel Hynek Mácha”
What a short tragic life, yet such foresight and determination to have self published this final poem, ensuring it had a life and appreciation long beyond his own.
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The life of a true Romantic poet! Like Keats and Shelley he died young and was not widely appreciated until after his death.
Such a tragedy, it reminds us that so many died young without a legacy, even if it were mere words on a page. I hope his son survived.
A tragedy indeed. Mácha died of pneumonia he contracted helping to fight a fire. It doesn’t look like his son reached his first birthday. He was new lawyer, but still died in extreme poverty.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the translations we read were dual language editions? I know, it wouldn’t be economically viable — and imagine Tomb of Sand, it would be an absurd size…
But even for people who don’t speak or read the original language, it would be nice to have a go at sounding the words to get the rhythm of it.