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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter V. National Heroism: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

The mountain wreath

Petar II Petrović Njegoš
Traduction de Vasa D. Mihailovich

Texte intégral

1Title: Gorski vijenac (The mountain wreath)

2Originally published: Vienna, 1847

3Language: Serbian

4Modern edition: P. P. Njegoš, Gorski vijenac (Zagreb: Matica hrvatska, 1947).

5The excerpts selected are from p. 50 and pp. 128–131 of the English edition: James W. Wiles, trans., The Mountain Wreath (London, Allen & Unwin, 1930).

About the author

6Petar II Petrović Njegoš [1813, Njeguši (Montenegro) – 1851, Cetinje (Montenegro)]: prince-bishop and poet. He was born into the Njegoši clan, the ruling family of Montenegro, in whose hands were united the spiritual and political leadership of the principality. After the death of his uncle, Petar I Petrović, in 1830, he became prince-bishop and ruler of Montenegro, under the name Petar II Petrović Njegoš. He was educated by Sima Milutinović Sarajlija, a learned Serb from the Habsburg Empire and an adherent of romantic aesthetics. As ruler Njegoš tried to undermine the tribal structure of authority in the principality and create the basis of a modern centralized state mainly by introducing the rudiments of an educational and communication infrastructure. He eliminated the office of the civil governor traditionally elected from the rival Radonjić clan and established a council consisting of twelve local chieftains to perform the executive and judicial as well as legislative functions of government. After visiting Russia, the staunchest and most influential political ally of Montenegro at the time, he brought back equipment for the first printing house, which was opened in 1834 in Cetinje. During his reign the first Serbian-language school in the country was founded, also in Cetinje. Njegoš personally knew Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, whom he had met in Vienna in 1833 and whose work on language reform he strongly supported. Although he was autodidact in matters of literature and the arts, he created lyrics and poems of extraordinary strength and influence. Inspired by patriotic enthusiasm and the spirit of folk culture, he wrote about the ‘heroic past’ in a way that brought it to the fore and related it to the present. His philosophically grounded epic poems have shaped Montenegrin and Serbian collective memories.

7Main works: Luča mikrokozma [The ray of the Microcosm] (1845); Gorski vijenac [The mountain wreath] (1847); Lažni car Šćepan Mali [The False Tsar Stephen the Little] (1851).


8Gorski vijenac was published in 1847, in the same year as the second edition of the Srpski rječnik (Serbian Dictionary) of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, the important language and cultural reformer, and Rat za srpski jezik i pravopis (The struggle for the Serbian language and spelling) by Đura Daničić. What was significant about these three books was the fact that all were written in the vernacular language (narodni jezik). This differed significantly from the more elitist Slavo-Serbian idiom, a late eighteenth-century ‘literary language’ combining Church Slavonic, the popular idiom and many borrowings from Russian, coined by the emigrant Serbian clergy in the Habsburg lands in the second half of the eighteenth century. The simultaneous appearance of these three crucial works signaled the triumph of Vuk Karadžić’s language reform and at the same time the formation of an alternative literary and political program. The change in language paradigms ended a conflict that had existed for decades between the Church literary culture and the emerging Serbian cultural revival, resolving it in favor of the latter.

9Since its appearance in the mid-nineteenth century, Gorski vijenac has served as an inspiration for the national projects of both the Serbs and Montenegrins, as well as in the construction of Yugoslav cultural unity and common identity. The question of whose identity is at issue has been raised and disputed in various contexts. While at the time when Petar II Petrović Njegoš wrote his celebrated poem the ethnonyms Serbian and Montenegrin were used practically interchangeably, this had not been the case throughout history, nor does it apply to the current cultural and political debates that surround the issue of the national identity of the Serbs and the Montenegrins.

10The ambiguity of the ‘national message’ of the poem is due to the complexity of its cultural references. The verses of Gorski vijenac are inspired by the legends of the Battle of Kosovo (1389), the single most significant symbol in Serbian history and mythology. Therefore, Gorski vijenac transcends the centuries of historical “non-being”, between the loss of national existence on the field of Kosovo and its subsequent resurrection, and connects the ‘mythical forefathers’ and the modern founders of nation. Apart from promoting the amalgamation of Serbian and Montenegrin national fates, the text is filled with references to other nations and religions, particularly Muslims (Turci) and Venetians (Mleci, Latini). These ‘Significant Others’ are conspicuously denounced, and their ‘normality,’ even their ‘human condition,’ is called into question throughout the text. Through the description of an event of local significance, the so-called “destruction of the converts to Islam” (istraga poturica) that allegedly took place in Montenegro at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Njegoš summarized the mission of Montenegro and created the core of its national program for years to come. Njegoš sets the eradication of Islamized Serbs against the backdrop of the struggle of the Serbian people for liberation. But through his poetic and mythological approach he goes beyond narrow national limits and transports it to the domain of general motives of freedom, death and resurrection.

11The “destruction of the converts to Islam” was a fictionalized clash between the Montenegrin Christian clan leaders and converted Montenegrin Muslims for supremacy over the country. In the excerpt, one of the Christian leaders, Voivode Batrić, expresses the conflict in the following words: “Our land is small and it’s pressed on all sides,” and adds “Bairam cannot be observed with Christmas”. The ultimate fight between Christians and Muslims, in which the Muslims of Montenegro were massacred, is presented in the final part of the poem. The dialogues of the thirty-four Montenegrin clan leaders with Prince-Bishop Danilo and Abbot Stefan introduce the main actors of the event and set forth their attitude to their Islamized kin: the rebirth of the Serbian nation will only become possible through the death of its “infidel traitors.” These dialogues are also intended to reveal the archaic way of life and the tribal customs and world-view of the Montenegrins. Significantly, because of their familiarity and aphoristic form, many verses from Gorski vijenac have passed into proverbs.

12The reception of the poem is intertwined with the history of the complex relationship between Serbian and Montenegrin identity-discourses. The question whether the Montenegrins are in fact of Serbian origin or whether, on the contrary, they have autochthonous ethnic roots has been the key question of these identity debates, particularly during the twentieth century. Indeed, various opinions relating to that question can be found from as early as the end of fifteenth century, when the names “Montenegro” and “Montenegrins” were for the first time mentioned in the sources. Since then three main theories about the ethnic origin of the Montenegrins have crystallized. According to the first, the Montenegrins are of Serbian ethnic origin, and Montenegro and Serbia represent two Serbian states. A core argument for this theory is the documented habit of Montenegrin rulers, including Bishop Vasilije, Petar I Petrović and Petar II Petrović Njegoš, to declare themselves Serbs. In the case of the author of ‘The mountain wreath,’ this could be explained as due to the formative impact of Sima Milutinović Sarajlija, who brought the young prince up on stories about the glorious Serbian past that nurtured Njegoš’s feeling of belonging to Serbian history and tradition. The second view argues that the Montenegrins are in fact of Croatian origin, and the third says that the Montenegrins represent an autochthonous ethnic entity. This theoretical division also had political connotations and consequences. While the theory of the Serbian origin of the Montenegrins was dominant throughout the nineteenth century, the idea of a separate and autochthonous Montenegrin identity started to develop at the beginning of the twentieth century under Prince (from 1912, King) Nikola, and was formulated concretely by Sekula Drljević in 1920s. In fact, it could be said that stronger insistence on the separateness of the Montenegrin national identity began with the creation of the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian Kingdom in 1918.

13As for the appropriations of Njegoš’s text for the purposes of national-building, there are several historical phases in its interpretation, as documented by Andrew Wachtel. Characteristically, although Njegoš saw himself as a definitely Serbian poet, his epic came to be later canonized as the most important work of ‘Yugoslav’ literature. In the first stage, ‘The mountain wreath’ was treated as Njegoš’s greatest work and as a major achievement of South Slavic romanticism. It has been republished a dozen times since its original publication in 1847, and an authoritative commentary by the Slavist Milan Rešetar was produced in 1890.

14After the founding of the ‘Yugoslav’ state, a new nation was ‘searching’ for its national poet and Njegoš seemed a suitable candidate for this role. ‘The mountain wreath’ was thus reinterpreted in a Yugoslav key and this project was supported with the transportation of Njegoš’s remains from Cetinje to a mausoleum on the top of Mount Lovćen in 1925. The post-war Yugoslav Communist government further enhanced Njegoš’s cult as a Yugoslav ‘national poet.’ The celebration in 1947 of the 100th anniversary of the first publication of ‘The mountain wreath’ served as a timely occasion for playing out yet another side of the text. The rhetoric used in describing and promoting the jubilee makes clear that Njegoš’s belonging to the Montenegrin nation was emphasized, which could be related to the Yugoslav Communist policy of ‘brotherhood and unity’ and the promotion of the Montenegrins who were accorded the status of a separate ‘nation’ in 1943. Thus, the poem has been used as a source for various layers of collective identification, both on a national (Serbian, Montenegrin, even Yugoslav) and ideological (socialist) level. Nevertheless, the divergent readings of ‘The mountain wreath,’ even if undertaken in different social and political contexts, have focused on the same set of ‘eternal’ values and relations which feature in the poem, such as the notions of manhood, bravery, heroism, betrayal and the ideals of heroic sacrifice for the sake of the community.

15In Serbia and Montenegro Njegoš’s epic is still read uncritically, disregarding the complexities of the historical formation of the image of the Islamized population. Njegoš’s work has never been viewed from a historical distance, and his ‘message’ was constructed as an ideal representation of the nation. In other words, the universality of Njegoš’s artistic achievement has been blurred with the historically conditioned and notably political aspect of the epic. Conversely, this perception has induced many recent observers to depict Njegoš as the catalyst of Serbian hatred of Muslims and his epic as a blueprint for genocide.


Petar II Petrovic Njegos: The Mountain Wreath

Voivode Batric

  • 1 A Turkish word meaning feast-day.

Turkish brothers—may I be forgiven! —
we have no cause to beat around the bush.
Our land is small and it’s pressed on all sides.
Not one of us can live here peacefully,
what with powers that are jawing for it;
for both of us there is simply no room!
Accept the faith of your own forefathers!
Guard the honour of our dear fatherland!
The wolf needs not the cunning of the fox!
Nor has the hawk the need for eyeglasses.
Start tearing down your minarets and mosques.
Lay the Serbian Christmas-log on the fire,
paint the Easter eggs various colours,
observe with care the lent and Christmas fasts.
As for the rest, do what your heart desires!
If you don’t want to listen to Batric,
I do swear by the faith of Obilic,
and by these arms in which I put my trust,
that both our faiths will be swimming in blood.
Better will be the one that does not sink.
Bairam1 cannot be observed with Christmas!
Is that not so, Montenegrin brothers?

Abbot Stefan

  • 2 Reference to the ‘mosque of Omar,’ built on the hill Moriah in Jerusalem by Mohammed II in the sev (...)

I have now reached eighty years of my life.
But ever since the loss of my eyesight,
I have lived more in the spirit’s kingdom,
though my body still has hold of the soul,
keeps and hides it within its boundaries,
as underground cavern protects a flame.
I have traveled through much of the wide world.
Of God worship, the most sacred places
which the earth has raised up toward heaven,
I have beheld, one after another,
and I’ve inhaled the altars’ holy smoke.
I have climbed up the holy Mount Olive,
from which the most horrible prediction
of its ill fate Jerusalem once heard.
I have also visited all three caves:
where the sun of Christianity rose,
where the heavens cast light on the manger,
and where the kings came with their offerings
to bow before the one heavenly child.
I have seen, too, Gethsemane’s Garden,
defamed by sin, passion, and betrayal.
The evil wind put out the holy lamp!
We see ugly thorns that have multiplied
and are scattered across the fertile fields,
and Omar’s temple2 has reared into the sky
on Solomon’s sacred foundations;
St. Sophia is but a stable now.
Unusual are the traits of earthly things.
They are full of crazy transformations.
All of nature keeps nourishing itself
on the purest milk of the clear sunlight.
But the milk, too, changes into hot flame;
today it sears what yesterday it fed.
Not all rivers on this earth do possess
the kind of bed they should have for their flow.
Do we not see these terrifying things
devastating the earth mercilessly?
Our time on earth and human destiny,
two faces of highest absurdity,
the most profound science without order,
the children or the fathers of man’s dreams —
do we only imagine this order,
whose deep secret we cannot unravel?
Is it true that things are as they appear,
or do our eyes only deceive us so?
The world demands some kind of firm action,
duty gives birth to new obligations,
and defense is closely tied up with life!
Nature provides everything with weapons
against a force that is oft unbridled,
against trouble and dissatisfaction.
Sharp spikes are there to protect the corn stalks,
and thorns defend a rose from being plucked.
Myriads of teeth has nature sharpened
and has pointed innumerable horns.
Various tree-barks, wings, and speed of feet,
and the array of seeming disorder,
always follow some definite order.
Over all this huge conglomeration
again a wise, mighty force reigns supreme.
It won’t allow for evil to triumph.
It snuffs the spark, strikes the snake in the head.
Man does defend his wife and his children.
People defend their church and their nation.
Honour is a nation’s sacred relic.
Generations must bear their own burden.
New needs give birth to new powers in man.
Every action strengthens human spirit.
Heavy pressure brings thunder to action.
The blow calls forth a spark out of the stone,
without the blow the spark stays imprisoned
Suffering is the virtue of the Cross.
Tempered in trials and suffering, the soul
feeds the body with electric fire,
through hope the soul is bonded with Heaven,
as the sun’s ray binds droplet with the sun.
What is man? (And it’s his fate to be man!)
A small creature deceived oft by the earth,
yet he sees that the earth is not for him.
Is not the real more puzzling than the dream?
If man attains an honest name on earth,
his being born then wasn’t at all in vain.
But without his honest name—what is he?
Generation which was made to be sung,
muses will vie for many centuries
to weave for you garlands worthy of you.
Your example will teach gusle singers
how one should speak of immortality!
A fierce struggle lies ahead for you all:
Part of your tribe has renounced its own roots
and is therefore serving the dark Mammon!
The curse of shame has now fallen on it.
What is Bosnia and half of Albania?
They’re your brothers of the same parentage.
United all, there’s enough work for all!
Your destiny it is to bear the Cross
of the fierce fight against brothers and foes!
The wreath’s heavy, but the fruit is so sweet!
Without death there is no resurrection.
Under a shroud of glory I see you
and our nation’s honour resurrected.
I also see the altar turned eastward
and a fragrant incense burning on it.
Die in glory, if die indeed you must!
Wounded honour inspires courageous hearts;
those hearts cannot tolerate such illness.
The altar by pagans desecrated
will once again receive the grace of God.

17Translated by Vasa D. Mihailovich, available at​knjizevnost/​umetnicka/​njegos/​mountain_wreath.html


1 A Turkish word meaning feast-day.

2 Reference to the ‘mosque of Omar,’ built on the hill Moriah in Jerusalem by Mohammed II in the seventh century.


Vasa D. Mihailovich (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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