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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter I. Historicizing the Nation: Images of the Past, Continuity into the Present

Bright graves, Grandfather and grandson

Jovan Jovanović Zmaj
Traduction de Vedran Dronjić

Texte intégral

1Title: Svetli grobovi (Bright graves), Ded i unuk (Grandfather and grandson)

2Originally published: Svetli grobovi was read on the grave of Djura Jakšić, a famous poet of the time; it was first published in 1881

3Language: Serbian

4Excerpts are from the modern edition: Mala pevanija (Beograd: Dečja knjiga, 1956), pp. 51–55, 172.

About the author

5Jovan Jovanović Zmaj [1833, Újvidék (Srb. Novi Sad), – 1904, Kamanc (present-day Sremska Kamenica)]: physician, writer, journalist and editor. He was born into the family of a lawyer in Novi Sad. After finising primary school in his home town, he attended the Gymnasium in Halas and Pozsony (Ger. Pressburg; today Bratislava, Slovakia) and studied law in Pest, Prague and Vienna. However, he did not finish his studies and continued his career working in the local administration in Novi Sad. In 1863 he was appointed director of Thökölyanum, a Serbian educational foundation in Pest, where he also continued his studies in medicine. Finally, he returned to Novi Sad in 1870 as a graduate in medicine. He worked as a physician for the rest of his life, often changing positions and places of residence. Apart from his medical practice, Zmaj engaged in publishing activity. He wrote, edited and published newspapers and magazines: Javor (literary), Zmaj (politico-satirical), Žiža (satirical), Starmali and Neven (for children). He also translated and adapted poetry, most notably from Hungarian. Close to the metre of folk songs, Zmaj’s poetry gained great popularity among the reading public. His lyric poetry expresses a feeling of oneness with his wife, children, and extended family—and in an even broader sense with the entire Serbian nation and with humankind. His political sympathies in the 1860s and 1870s were on the side of liberalism and the ‘United Serbian Youth’ (Ujedinjena omladina srpska), and this political context heavily influenced his poetry. During the 1860s, together with Svetozar Miletić, he was a prominent figure of the intellectual-political circle in Vojvodina. Later on, after the splits in the Serbian Liberal Party, his political loyalties often shifted, but his poetic works remained under the influence of Romanticism, coupled with the social and religious ideas of Tolstoy.

6Main works: Đulići [Roses] (1864); Pevanija [Song book] (1879); Đulići uveoci [Withering roses] (1882); Snohvatice [Dream land] (1895, 1900); Čika Jova srpskoj omladini [Uncle Jova to the Serbian youth] (1901).


7Together with Đura Jakšić and Laza Kostić, Jovan Jovanović Zmaj is one of the most important figures of Serbian romantic literature. He was also politically engaged, sympathizing with the ideas of the ‘United Serbian Youth,’ a movement which attracted a number of influential figures in Serbian public life in the period of the 1860–1870s. These included the politicians Svetozar Miletić, Svetozar Marković, Jevrem Grujić; the historians Stojan Novaković, Vasa Pelagić; and the political writer Vladimir Jovanović. The prominent literary critic, Jovan Skerlić (1877–1914), went so far as to argue that the whole of Serbian romantic literature, which also includes Laza Kostić, Milorad P. Šapčanin, Čedomilj Mijatović, Vladimir Vasić, Draga Dejanović and others, arose within the intellectual and ideological circle of the ‘United Serbian Youth.’

8The poem ‘Bright graves’ seeks to construct a normative image of the Serbian national past in the romantic key, turning the motif—prevalent in Orthodox Christianity—of sacred graves, conferring sacredness on the land in which they lay, into the core of a ‘national’ identity-discourse. It speaks of the promise of the descendants to continue what their ancestors began, the continuous sacrifice of many generations for the noble cause, and a hard but glorious past which helps new generations to find the right path into the future. The examples handed down by venerable ancestors teach the new generations noble ideals. Zmaj therefore does not depict the graveyard as a place for the dead but as a cradle of a new life, the root of the nation, as it were. ‘Bright graves’ was specially written in honour of Zmaj’s friend, the romantic poet and painter, Đura Jakšić, just after his death. It evokes the cycle of life, the passing of generations, and a strong feeling of belonging to the community that unites all its members whether dead or alive. The grave becomes a powerful metaphor of tradition, honor and trans-generational solidarity.

9The poem ‘Grandfather and grandson’ has a simpler symbolic message. Its central motif and metaphor of the glorious past is the gusle (an archaic string instrument) – the accompaniment of epic songs, the carrier of tradition. In the poem the grandfather sings to his grandson about heroic battles and demands from the boy, who does not understand the symbolism of the performance, to kiss the gusle and pay respect to it. The poem focuses on the motif of supra-personal temporality, epitomizing the central value of the folk spirit as a source of national rebirth based on the strength of the people, featuring its values, its culture and its institutions as a vital and authentic cultural and political force. As a trope, the gusle epitomizes the need for independence and national consciousness. It was a key symbol in the work of Vuk Karadžić and Petar Petrović Njegoš and the title of Prosper Mérimée’s famous poetic mystification of Serbian epic poetry, La Guzla (1827). As Vladimir Jovanović, a leading liberal politician and ideologist of the United Serbian Youth, put it in his work, ‘For the freedom and the nation’ (Za slobodu i narod, 1868), they are “symbols of freedom.” You should not play the gusle, but as an “instrument of freedom”: it should be kept “in every Serbian home” and “in acknowledged and public Serbian companies.” Had they forgotten the gusle, the Serbs might have forgotten their freedom too. As a matter of fact, the popularity of Zmaj’s poems is due to the institutionalization of ‘national culture’: for a long time they—particularly the first one, ‘Bright graves’— were part of the school curricula and had to be recited, fostering thereby patriotic feelings and sense of national continuity.


Bright graves

11(First recited at a meeting organized by students of the higher Belgrade grammar school on 25 January 1879, in honor of the family of Đura Jakšić)

Have you been, my young brethren,
Have you ever been to a graveyard,
To a large graveyard?
– Well, we are always in a graveyard.
The earth we walk on is a graveyard;
The water we sail on is a graveyard;
Yards and gardens are graveyards;
Hills and valleys are graveyards,
Each foot
Grave next to grave.
The monument of all times is a graveyard;
The books we read are a graveyard;
The history book of all lands,
Of the olden emperors, kings,
And the obituary of higher images
Of the chosen ones, of martyrs,
From as far back as memory goes;
It’s all a graveyard –
But a cradle too.

There is no name and no number
For all the stars high above,
And even less can there be number and remembrance
For the graves in the dear earth!
Millions were swallowed by darkness,
The pitch darkness of many a millennium,
Nobody remembers them still,
But a candle always burns for some of them.
It is either a candle, or the name is bright,
Or the deeds are ever-burning,
So that they adorn with their rays
The rows of the endless cemetery.
These graves,
Old, new,
They shine
For every generation –
When minds get engrossed in the past
For them not to get lost in the darkness;
When you plunge into the holy ancient times,
Both holy and cursed ancient times,
For your thought not to get you off your way.
They are harbinger fires,
Which reach from distant eons
In that long procession –
Shining a light for one another
With a stream which flows forth,
Striving toward a single goal, –
And so the bright beams
And so the bright traces
Of a single spirit of various ages,
A spirit which has no grave.
– It merely chucks the bones into the grave,
Shakes off the ashes which impede it.
For a faster progress, higher flight
Toward an elevated future.
He who turns around to look
With a clear eye and sight
At these bright graves,
History books in a long succession,
He must hear how,
Through centuries, through mist,
Grandfather to grandson, father to son,
Warrior to warrior
Loudly cried:
‘Where I stopped – you will go!’
‘What I couldn’t – you will do!’
‘Where I couldn’t – you’ll arrive!’
‘Whatever we owe – you pay it off!’
These are the words, these are the voices,
Which adorn the past,
Which penetrate through the world of darkness
From those shining graves,
Binding with a thunderous roar
And with a divine force,
Binding centuries together
And binding man with man.

Grandfather and grandson

The grandfather took his grandson,
Sat him on his lap,
And sang to him to the accompaniment of the gusle
Of what had once been.

He sang to him of Serbian glory
And of Serbian heroes,
He sang to him of fierce battles,
Of many a hardship.

The grandfather’s eye glowed,
So he shed a tear,
And he told his grandson
To kiss the gusle.

The child kissed the gusle
And then asked with interest,
‘Tell me, grandpa; Why did I
kiss that gusle?’

‘You do not understand, you little Serb –
Us old folk, we know;
When you’ve grown up, when you’ve thought it out,
You’ll see for yourself!’


Vedran Dronjić (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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