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Project RastkoHistory of Serb culture
TIA Janus

Jovan Deretic

Literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Chapter from the book
"The history of Serbian Culture"
The history of Serbian culture  


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After the Great Migration in 1690, the centre of the literary and cultural life of the Serbian people moved from the South to the North - from the Turkish territories to the regions governed by Habsburg monarchy. Almost everything that Serbian literature produced in the following hundred years and more was created in that new environment, in historical circumstances which were basically different both from those existing previously and from those in which other parts of the Serbian nation lived at that time.

In the beginning, literary work followed the traditional path. Poetics was traditional, Byzantine Church Slavonic, but with important innovations. The influence of Russian-Ukrainian Baroque was seen in the works of some authors, and the expressive vernacular penetrated into the literary language stronger than ever before. The new literary era was opened by the voluminous Slavo-Serbian Chronicle by the would- be despot Djordje Brankovic. It was written in a hardly comprehensible language, but it had a significant influence on the development of Serbian historiography and political thought in the eighteenth century. In the prevailing monastic literature, works written in the vernacular stood out: among others, there was a travelogue of the Holy Land by Jerotej Racanin in 1721, and the numerous homilies of Gavril Stefanovic Venclovic (the second half of the seventeenth century - around 1747) who wrote in both old Serbian Church Slavonic and in the vernacular. He was an excellent connoisseur of Serbian, a true language innovator and a master of rhetorical style.

The Serbian Shield with Verses which explain its meaning, Stematografija by Hristifor Zefarovic, 1741

However, Serbian literature did not follow the paths opened by Venclovic. Unprepared for life in the new milieu, without schools and teachers, having no books or printing houses, the Serbs turned to "co- confessional" Russia to seek help. The first regular schools were founded by Russian teachers, and they used Russian books, written in Russian Church Slavonic, which then became the language of the liturgy and of the entire culture. Other innovations came with the Russians too: the domination of verse over the former rhetorical prose (the basic verse was the so-called Polish 13-syllable verse), Baroque ornamentation and drama. The scholastic gymnasium in Sremski Karlovci (1733-1739), whose founders were former students of the Kiev Religious Academy, was the first centre of the new Baroque literary culture. From that constitutive phase of the new style, besides religious poems, patriotic poems and poems written for special occasions, there are also two larger works in verse: the Baroque drama Traedokomedija (performed in 1734) by Emanuel Kozacinski and a collection of coats of arms and heraldic poems, Stematografija (1741) by Hristifor Zefarovic. In both works, the vision of Serbian history is brought into concord with the national aspirations and needs of that time.

In the following decades, two versatile authors rose from those foundations - Jovan Rajic (1726-1801) and Zaharije Orfelin (1726- 1785). The former was a theologian, a historian and a poet, and the latter was a gifted painter, a scientist and a poet. Among Rajic's works, the monumental History of Various Slavonic Peoples, Especially the Bulgarians, Croats and Serbs (I-IV, 1794/5) stands out, a synthesis of all earlier Serbian historiographic literature, permeated with patriotic feelings and the ideas of the enlightenment; it is also valuable as a treasury of literary motifs from national history. Orfelin was mostly guided by the needs of the people at that time. He started the first magazine among South Slavs (the Slavo-Serbian Magazine, 1786), wrote school textbooks, papers on economics and physics and put out a large monograph about the Russian emperor, Peter I. His most significant poem is The Serbian Lament (1761), a national lamentation, liberal and critical, written in two language versions - Serbian and Church Slavonic. Like Rajic, Orfelin proceeded from the Russian Baroque models of the seventeenth century and later came closer to the ideals of the Russian and Western enlightenments.


At the beginning of 1780s, in the era of emperor-reformer Joseph II, Serbian literature entered a period of radical transformation. The initiator of these changes was one of the Enlightenment's participants, the rationalist Dositej Obradovic (1739- 1811). Born in Banat (in a part which is now in Romania), he started his spiritual development with a double escape: first from his apprenticeship to a monastery, and then from the monastery into the world; thereafter he spent the greater part of his life travelling. During the first period of his life, Obradovic, as a fugitive monk, travelled mostly around the countries of the Orthodox southeast, becoming acquainted with all the peoples, cultures and languages of the region. Before departing for the West, he developed into a writer and humanist of the eastern European type, predominantly under Greek influence (and not Russian, as was the case with many Serbian authors of that time). This is seen in several of his early works which were not published during his lifetime (Izica, The Alphabet Wreath, Hristoitija, and others). In the second period of his life (after his departure for Vienna in 1771), Obradovic turned completely toward the West and he became familiar with the central European countries. He attended lectures at universities in Paris and London, learned both classical and all major European languages quickly and easily and translated from them. During this period he changed completely. He left the priesthood and became an educator. From a fugitive monk he became a free-thinker, a European, a philosopher in the spirit of the eighteenth century, the first modern Serbian writer. Obradovic's work has dual foundations: his personal experience, his knowledge of people, his experience as a traveller and his contact with other nations on one hand, and his remarkable familiarity with classical and modern languages on the other. As a writer, he demanded that the confessional presuppositions of earlier culture be left behind, and that a literature be created in the vernacular, according to the classical and modern European models. This programme was concisely formulated in his enlightenment manifesto A Letter to Haralampije, and in broad strokes, on the basis of his experience, in his main (autobiographical) work Life and Adventures (Vol. I, 1783; Vol. II, 1788). His other works were created mostly as a free adaptation of foreign texts (Counsels of Sound Reason, Fables, Anthology, and others). In terms of genre, his works are heterogeneous, containing anecdotes, fables (Obradovic's favourite form), narratives, occasional verses, and in one case even a drama (Lessing); there were also moralistic essays, philosophical tractates and so on. In the best of them, one finds that which is in the autobiography: a vivid sensitivity toward the needs of people, teaching, humour, lively characters and poetic descriptions of nature. As the most important author of the eighteenth century, one of the leading representatives of the Enlightenment in central and southeastern Europe whose works were translated into Romanian while he was still living, Obradovic was the founder of modern Serbian literature. He had an enormous influence on the forthcoming generations of writers and on the streams of literature as well, up to this very day.

The first page of the first edition of the paper Slavenoserbskija vjedomosti, 1732

In the final decades of the eighteenth century and early decades of the nineteenth century, the foundation for a new Serbian culture and literature was being laid: schools were founded, compendiums of the basic scientific disciplines were written, and new literary genres were introduced (novels, drama, essays, various poetic forms). Of all of them, the novel was to have the greatest influence. Its main proponent was Milovan Vidakovic (1780-1841), who became a beloved writer for the reading public with his moralistic and sentimental stories, and with his "sweet style". The work of Joakim Vujic (1772- 1847), "the father of Serbian theatre" was characterised by the same orientation. He organised amateur theatrical groups, and for their needs he "Serbianised" the dramas of German authors (Kotzebue, etc.). While prose was inclined toward pathos and lyrical sensitivity, the ideals of the highest erudition, whose models were found in classical literature, prevailed in poetry. This orientation gave birth to the first Serbian poetic style - classicism. Its creator was Lukijan Musicki (1777-1857), the archimandrite of the monastery of Sisatovac, who later became archbishop. In his poems of didactic and patriotic inspiration, he fostered the classical poetic forms, and several generations followed his lead.


In the first half of the nineteenth century, the domain of cultural activity began to spread. After two liberation uprisings (1804/1815) literature began to develop in Serbia, and later in Montenegro, which had been partially liberated by the end of the seventeenth century, along with other regions south of the Danube and Sava. Certain entirely new phenomena found expression in these regions: a folk, patriarchal culture, collective creative work, and oral poetry. These forms penetrated into the sphere of the written word and began to destroy traditional values while creating new ones. Literature entered into a period of long- lasting, merciless battles from which it would re-emerge transformed.

The greatest advocate of this great national movement was Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic (1787-1864), reformer of the literary language, the codifier of the oral tradition, a historian and ethnologist. Born in the village of Trsic near Loznica, into a family which had resettled from Old Herzegovina in the first half of the eighteenth century, Vuk attained an exceptional knowledge of the language, poetry and customs of the common people during his childhood and youth. After the collapse of the First Serbian Uprising (1813), in which he participated, Karadzic went to Vienna at the age of 26. He had never thought, as he himself admitted, about a vocation in literature. His encounter with the Slovene Slavist, Jernej Kopitar, was critical in his decision. After acquiring a fundamental philological knowledge and instructions for his work from Kopitar, he got down to work. During his fifty years of tireless activity, he accomplished as much as an entire academy of sciences. Karadzic was one of the leading personalities in European folklore. His first-class collections of folk literature (Serbian Folk Songs I-IV, Serbian Folk Tales, Serbian Folk Sayings), which came out as a selection from the enormous amount of material gathered by him and his associates, was well received all over Europe. Serbian folk songs were translated into many languages, illustrious authors (like Goethe, for example) wrote about them, and they were the object of imitation in many languages. In philology, the field in which Karadzic accomplished most, he carried out four fundamental tasks: he wrote the first grammar, the first dictionary (the Serbian Dictionary, 1818), he created the modern Serbian alphabet based on a phonological principle by reforming the traditional Cyrillic alphabet, and he created the standard modern Serbian literary language on the basis of the vernacular dialects. His critiques of the literary language of the time and the ongoing controversy with his various rivals were the first experiments in Serbian philological and literary criticism. In his texts about folk literature, he founded the theory and history of the oral tradition. His reform was crowned by his excellent translation of the New Testament (1847) which was later accompanied by a translation of the Old Testament by his younger associate Djuro Danicic (1825-1882). Along with his engagement in language and folk literature, Karadzic also occupied himself with other aspects of folk life. Throughout his entire literary career he gathered materials in order to describe the "customs, superstitions, mythology and domestic life of the Serbian people". Part of that material was incorporated into the Serbian Dictionary (which thus exceeded its original intention and became an encyclopedia of folk life) and into some of his other works as well, while the synthetic work The Life and Customs of the Serbian People was to go unfinished. As a historian, he depicted all the major events and personalities of the First and Second Serbian Uprisings, published a volume about Montenegro in German, and collaborated with German historian Leopold von Ranke on Die Serbische Revolution, by means of which the European public became acquainted with Serbian history. Karadzic was an excellent prose writer, "a creator of pure Serbian prose and style". This is noticeable in all his works: in his bitter, temperamental disputations about linguistic topics, in his descriptions of folk life in the Serbian Dictionary, in his stylisation of folk tales, and in the translation of the New Testament (the Bible in Serbian, translated by Vuk Karadzic and Djuro Danicic, is the most beautiful monument of the Serbian literary language ever, based on the vernacular). However, the greatest testimony to Karadzic's literary talent is found in his historical writings. As a narrator, he extended the art of the oral tradition. His style is in opposition to the spirit of Serbian sentimental-didactic prose. It has nothing superfluous or flowery, there are no admixtures of pathos or sentimentality. He narrates everything in a calm, epically indifferent style, aiming constantly at preserving his position as an objective chronicler whose main goal is to offer accurate testimony. In fact, he is much more than that: he is an portrayer of social temperaments, an outstanding characterologist, a historical thinker.

The title illustration of Sobranija by Dositej Obradovic

The sources for the Memoirs of Karadzic's contemporary, the priest Mateja Nenadovic (1777-1854) were the same. Nenadovic was a leader in the Uprising and he was also the first diplomat in the new Serbia. Karadzic reports as an impartial observer, Nenadovic as an active participant in the rebel epopee. He writes in the style of an inspired story teller, exposing simplicity and naivete, but also the hard realities of life, history, contemplation and humour. It is the most beautiful book of memoirs ever written in Serbian.

Sima Milutinovic Sarajlija (1791-1847), one of the leading poets of the era, was also one of those from the Uprising. A restless soul, a wanderer, a know-it-all, a curious man who was lacking in patience, he produced a voluminous and heterogeneous opus: a lengthy epic poem about the First Serbian Uprising, Serbijanka, three dramas (of which the most important is The Tragedy of Karadjordje), lyric poetry, cosmic epic poems, a collection of folk songs, some historical works, and so on. The value of his works is not uniform, and they are difficult to read due to his complicated language which is full of neologisms. An interpreter of the epic tradition and of rebel heroism, a poet of romantic temperament with strong admixtures of classicism, he left a deep impression on his contemporaries and influenced many authors. The greatest of Serbian poets, P.P. Njegos, is the most in his debt.

The main centre of cultural life remained in the north, in today's Vojvodina and in Serbian settlements in Hungary and Romania. The leading literary centre was in Pest, where in 1825 the first scholarly society, the Matica srpska, was founded and the first periodical "Srpski letopis" ("The Serbian Chronicle") was started. The periodical is published still today under the title "Letopis Matice srpske" ("The Annals of the Matica srpska"), which it has had since 1873. This highly developed urban milieu did not easily accept innovations coming from the South. It patriotically embraced the folk songs, but Karadzic's vernacular seemed to be too primitive, insufficient for the highest cultural needs. Over a period of several decades, a real literary war was waged over the fundamental questions about language and literature, a battle between writers from this milieu and Vuk Karadzic. Literature followed the tradition of the eighteenth century -- Dositej Obradovic, Vidakovic, and Musicki. Obradovic was a teacher of sound reason, a "Serbian Socrates", a European. Vidakovic's novels produced several insignificant epigones. Musicki created the first poetic school, the school of "objective lyric poetry", or of "calm emotions" as it would later be called by the Romanticists. Through Musicki, this style was linked to Horace and to classical poetry, but it was also open to more modern poetic trends, to Goethe and Schiller, to German and European classicism and pre-Romanticism and to (Serbian) folk poetry. From this school arose a poet of everlasting value - Jovan Sterija Popovic (1806-1856). He was an excellent writer in other genres as well, especially in drama.

The literature of this epoch is mostly characterised by the dramas, along with poetry, philology and history. Original drama was created in the third decade of the nineteenth century, and among its authors, Sterija is the most significant. In parallel, he wrote historical tragedies ("sad scenes") and comedies about contemporary life ("merry scenes"); the latter are of lasting value. Sterija was a moralist, a social critic and a satirist. His comedies are directly involved in the social and cultural events of his time. They unmask poor upbringing and snobbery, mocking the pseudo-erudition of Serbian writers and their "contorted", "Slavonic" language. Even shortcomings of universal character, like avarice for example, are clarified from a local perspective (The Miser). He reached the peak of his involvement in his comedy about the political behaviour of the middle class, who vacillate between pretentious patriotic statements and the trade of issues of national interest (The Patriots). His Roman without a Novel is close to comedy, a sort of Serbian Don Quixote, in which he parodies Vidakovic and the earlier forms of the novel altogether. As a poet, Sterija reached his peak in his later years, when he published his book Davorje (Laments) in 1854. His meditative, pessimistic and intellectual poetry contains the contemplations of a disappointed and sick man who has withdrawn from public life. Its origins are in the classicist tradition, and it is opposed to the spirit of Romantic poetry which was dominant at the time.

The title page of the first edition of The Serbian Annals, Buda, 1824

Like almost all the literature of central and eastern Europe, Serbian literature produced its greatest poet in the first half of the nineteenth century. Petar Petrovic Njegos (1813-1851), the Bishop and ruler of Montenegro, embraced the entire epoch in his poetic development - from folk poetry, through the aspirations of Classicism, up to Romanticism. He started off as a folk singer, writing poems about Montenegrin battles with the Turks, then submitted to the classicist manner, his literary models being more Russian than Serbian in inclination. His classical ideals were not Roman, but Greek - above all Homer, Pindar and the writers of tragedies. In his final phase he drew close to contemporary Romanticism (Pushkin, Hugo, and Lamartine). Njegos's work is not thematically heterogeneous, for he is a poet with two basic themes. His fundamental themes are cosmic human destiny and the historical fate of Montenegro and of the Serbian nation. At the very foundation of his cosmic poetry lies reflection about the unity of man and God, about human pre- existence in heaven, man's moral guilt, the fall and later redemption. His poetry speaks of man's spiritual return to the origins of his being, to the sources of his existence. This theme was developed in a series of poems (the best among them being "Thought"), and he rendered that theme in final form in his cosmogonic poem The Ray of the Microcosm (1845); here, the motif of man's biblical fall is transposed from the Earth to the Heavens and interpreted along the lines of the neo-Platonic tradition on one hand, with a knowledge of the natural sciences as understood at that time on the other. His best poem is Hymn to the Night, a phantasmagoria of love, an unusual merging of eroticism and spirituality. Njegos's dramatic poems The Mountain Wreath (1842) and Stefan, the False Emperor (1851) have their origins in Montenegrin history; the former is his best work.

The road he had travelled and the entire epoch in which he was formed as a poet are seen in The Mountain Wreath. Njegos created a new poetic form, based on the folk song, combining it with the tradition of European poetry from Homer to Romanticism, and including the experience of contemporary Serbian poets, most notably that of his teacher, Milutinovic. The Mountain Wreath is synthetic in the way it grasps at tradition and in its artistic features. Using a rather insignificant event as its starting point, Njegos presents all of Montenegrin history, lauding the glorious events of the past, describing everyday domestic life, presenting a picture of the neighbouring nations -- the Turks and Venetians. Thus, this work presents three worlds, three civilisations - western European, Islamic, and, stuck between them, Serbian. This poem is also open toward nature and the universe; that openness takes on various forms, from folkloric observations of heavenly conditions, through the macrocosmic visions of Bishop Danilo, up to the philosophical meditations of Hegumen Stefan in which the Christian tradition comes into contact with modern science. The structure of the poem, in discord with the rules of dramatic form, has more profound foundations. The Mountain Wreath begins as a poetic vision, continues as a political-historical drama, and ends with scenes based on the parallelism of historical events and philosophical reflections. It is a kind of poetic encyclopedia which encompasses all poetic forms and all aspects of Montenegrin reality and history, one of those extraordinary poetic compositions in which it is as if the entire experience of individual nations is united into one. The poem has been translated into the major European languages, into some of them even several times over.


In the mid-forties Vuk's battle for literature in the vernacular entered its final phase. The turning point is established by the publishing of the books which came out in 1847 - Karadzic's translation of the New Testament, Njegos's The Mountain Wreath, Poems by Branko Radicevic, and the philological treatise The War for the Serbian Language and Orthography by Djuro Danicic. The period which started with those works brought victory to Romanticism as a stylistic movement. Previously being only one of the literary trends, starting with B. Radicevic, Romanticism appears as the counterpart of Classicism, and after his death it became the style which dominated the epoch. The preconditions of Serbian Romanticism were Karadzic's language reform, folk poetry, and the European influence. The last of these was varied: German poetry, especially Heine, Byron and byronism, Petefi, Shakespeare in drama, and there were others. Serbian Romanticism was, as in the rest of Europe, predominantly lyrical. Short lyric poems, confessional in content, patriotic or meditative, were the main types of Romantic poetry. The other two poetic genres of Romanticism - the Byronic poem and historical drama - were subordinated to the lyric principle. Lyricism was also characteristic of Romantic prose, which was less significant in any case in terms of its achievements.

Vuk Karadzic's letter to Prince Milos, Zemun, 1832

The founder of Serbian lyrical Romanticism, Branko Radicevic (1824- 1853), after breaking away from both old-fashioned classicism and the non-creative imitation of folk poetry, introduced Serbian poetic art into European Romanticism. He is a poet of primordial sensitivity, close to the animalistic and pantheistic understanding of the world. His simplest poems usually contain small lyrical stories, scenes of young men and women outdoors. They are joyful, cheerful, loving, and licentious and sensual at the same time. Other poems are full of melancholic tones and gloomy, plaintive moods: the most famous of them is "In the Face of Death". Although primarily a lyrical talent, Radicevic never- theless aimed at creating greater poetic compositions and dreamt of writing a great epos. His creativity and talent are best seen in his two lyric poems "The Pupils' Parting" and "Sadness and a Reminder", as well as in the satirical poem "The Road" in which he praises Vuk Karadzic and mocks at his opponents. The first two works belong in two opposing stylistic camps. "The Pupils' Parting" takes us into the poet's most private domicile, into the dazzling area of Karlowitz and the Fruska Gora, to the period of carefree schooldays filled with joyful round-dances and merry songs, in which the rhythm of the songs accompanying the round- dances of Srem and the merry flow of folk life are felt. "Sadness and a Reminder" reveals a different world in a different way. It is a more lengthy lyrical composition written in octaves, mostly in iambic decasyllable, according to models taken from late German Romanticism. It has a banal love plot about two young people, first separated by the young man's departure for another place and then by the death of the young woman; it is lyrically developed on several levels through visual and auditory images of nature. With its complex structure, magnificent imagination and blurred meaning, the poem presents Radicevic in a different light than that which is seen in his other poems. This all speaks of the myriad abilities of this poet who best described his own destiny in verse: "He wanted much, he started many things,/ The moment of death stopped him short".

The philologist Djuro Danicic, the Romantic narrator Bogoboj Atanackovic, the poet Jovan Ilic, and most significant of all, the travel writer Ljubomir Nenadovic (1826-1895) - the son of the priest Mateja Nenadovic - all belong to Radicevic's generation. Among Nenadovic's travelogues, Letters from Italy and Letters from Germany stand out because of their artistic value. The former is also important as a book about Njegos, with whom Nenadovic travelled around Italy.

Branko Radicevic remained an isolated phenomenon in his time. He died too early to see the trend he started prevail. However, in the fifties, a new generation of poets appeared, carrying out his heritage to the full and establishing Romanticism as the leading trend.

The first of these writers was Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj (1833- 1904) who left a massive opus behind him, heterogeneous in its themes and genres. It is based on intimate lyrical, love and family poems, collected mostly in two thematically related books of poems Djulici (Roses) and Djulici uveoci (Faded Roses). Zmaj's lyric poetry expresses a feeling of deep connection and unity with his family - his wife, children, and extended family - and in an even broader sense with the entire Serbian nation and with humankind. Roses has the characteristics of a lyrical diary or a poetic novel about love and happy family life. In contrast, Faded Roses is a book full of sadness and grief, inspired by the death of his beloved. His feelings are interwoven with nature and dissipated into it, so that in the first book there are bright, idyllic landscapes, and in the second gloomy autumnal scenes, visions of nothingness, non-existence and apathy. Lyric poetry was actually only a small segment of Zmaj's poetic opus. His productivity in the field of social poetry was enormous. As a writer of patriotic poems, Zmaj was never on equal footing with the other great Romanticists, but in political and satirical poetry he has remained without peers, both through his productivity and through the quality of his writing, evident especially in many of his satirical poems. Zmaj was also a great writer of children's poetry, rendering unforgettable scenes and characters from a childhood world in his numerous poems, creating a genuine epos of childhood. Some of the other aspects of his far ranging activities should be pointed out. He translated and adapted the poetry of a variety of eastern and western nations, of which the most distinguished are those of distant, oriental nations and that of neighbouring Hungary. He also published and edited many magazines and periodicals, participating in cultural and public life. He wrote easily and quickly, and he never put much effort into form or expression. Hence, there is much carelessness and slovenliness in his work, but never monotony. His aspiration for diversity is felt at all levels, in his themes, emotions, verses and strophes. Close to the metre of folk songs and to the vernacular, Zmaj's poetry gained great popularity among the reading public. At the same time, his work contributed to the development of Serbian poetic expression and verse, and it had a constant influence on the poetry of the time.

The title page of The Mountain Wreath by Petar Petrovic Njegos, Vienna, 1847

The most conspicuous Romanticist among the Serbian Romanticists is Djura Jaksic (1832-1878), a versatile and gifted author, painter, poet, narrator and playwright. His path in poetry was unique. He is the most subjective of the modern poets. His deep personal discontent with the circumstances in which he lived grows into the typical romantic conflict of an exceptional, unfortunate person, unhappy with the world around him. The poet's self is in a state of perpetual belligerence with the world and there is no real human contact, no dialogue between him and others. That attitude is expressed in several ways, through the poet's disdainful rejection of the world, his Promethean defiance, his contempt of all that is earthbound, and the poet hurls poetic anathemas at the world. Even so, there are also many poems in which more gentle emotions are expressed: sadness, the need for human warmth, love and beauty, the longing for peace and tranquillity under the cover of nature. A poet of night, of hollow silence, anxiety in the face of the unknown, Jaksic raged at foreign invaders and domestic tyrants, and he gained the reputation of being a Serbian Tyrtaeus. He also wrote historical tragedies, with heroic inspiration characterised by strong lyricism, in which the characters are monumental or one dimensional ("Jelisaveta" and others). He was a prose writer as well, the most significant narrator of the Romanticist epoch.

The last great poet among the Romanticists, Laza Kostic (1841-1910), was a controversial personality, and the critics had a field day with him. He was more celebrated than understood in his youth, and he experienced a general loss of popularity in his old age, and real fame came to him only after his death, although even that was slow in coming. Nowadays, it is generally accepted that he is the originator of modern Serbian poetry, the predecessor of the avant garde and other creative experiments which prevailed in Serbian poetry much, much later. In his life, and in his poetry as well, he constantly deviated from the ordinary and the customary, becoming known as an example of a bizarre, eccentric Romanticist who was rarely taken seriously by anyone. Yet, this poetic fantast was the most educated Serbian poet of the time; he knew classical and modern languages, translated Shakespeare, was a writer of aesthetic and philosophical treatises, and was the most significant thinker of Serbian Romanticism. Kostic was a poet of spiritual and philosophical inspiration. His poetry is not that of the heart and emotions, it is rather the poetry of spirit and imagination, completely different from the direct lyric poetry of Radicevic or Zmaj, the poets whose cult he was struggling against. He was an innovator and experimentalist. The inner form of his poems is characterised by complex depiction, the inclination toward allegorization, fantasy, humour, word play, neologisms and mannerisms. Artistically erratic, Kostic wrote poems of extraordinary value, among which three great ones should be singled out: "A Memory of Ruvarac", "Adriatic Prometheus", and "Santa Maria della Salute". The first is cosmic-philosophical, the second patriotic-philosophical, and the third is erotic-philosophical; the third is also his most famous poem. Kostic was the leading drama writer of Romanticism (Maksim Crnojevic, Pera Segedinac).

Three other writers should be mentioned: the gentle lyricist Jovan Grcic Milenko, the virtuoso writer of comedies Kosta Trifkovic, and Nikola Petrovic Njegos the Montenegrin king.


Realism revealed the ordinary man and his world. Literature caught hold of the mainstream of the nation. Writers focused all their attention on the various aspects of national life - from those aspects which were archaic and folkloric, to those which were brought about by the new era. They aspired to present the way of life, the customs, characteristics and dialects of certain regions. Regional themes entered literature, and dialectal features burst into the language. Enamoured with traditional patriarchal ways of life that were on the verge of disappearing, the realists recorded family and social circumstances in the villages and little towns with familiarity and understanding. At the same time, they shuddered at the modern city and European way of life.

Serbian Realism embraces a wide and heterogeneous panorama of literary phenomena over a lengthy time scale. The very first writers with this orientation appeared as early as the 1860s, at the height of Romanticism: Jakov Ignjatovic (1822-1889) and Stefan Mitrov Ljubisa (1824-1878), both in the same generation as Branko Radicevic. The former originated from the Serbian diaspora, born in Szentendre, in the heart of what is now Hungary. After trying his skill in various literary genres and in politics, in his forties Ignjatovic went to work on novels and short stories with plots taken from contemporary life, and gained a reputation in the field as the Serbian Balzac (Milan Narandzic, Vasa Respekt, The Eternal Groom, and others). More than any other realist, he presented the most sweeping social panorama and the richest gallery of characters. In spite of the weaknesses in his artistic elaboration, language and style, he was a powerful writer, an intuitive observer of life, and an excellent judge of people. He is the only ingenious novelist among the Serbian Realists, who were mostly story oriented. Ljubisa came from the uttermost south, from the patriarchal seaside parish of Pastrovici near Budva. He was called the "Njegos of prose" because, similar to the great poet, he depicted national history and "the way of living, thinking, and conversing" of the people from his region, using forms of oral tradition and the style of "folk eloquence". Some of his stories are masterpieces (Kanjos Macedonovic).

Zmaj's drawing and handwriting

Realism became a leading trend in the seventies. At that time, the centre of cultural and literary life moved from Vojvodina to Serbia, from Novi Sad to Belgrade. The programmatic basis of Realism was formulated by a socialist, Svetozar Markovic (1846-1875), in his articles "Writing and Thinking" and "Reality in Poetry". The new trend realised itself most through expressionism in stories from folk life ("country stories"), the creators of which were Milovan Glisic (1847- 1908), Laza Lazarevic (1851-1891), and Janko Veselinovic (1862-1905). Glisic and Veselinovic remained within the poetic boundaries of the movement, expressing its opposing stylistic possibilities -- Glisic in humoristic-satirical narrative and Veselinovic in idyllic stories and novels about folk life and history. Meanwhile, Lazarevic exceeded those boundaries on many fronts. He was one of the best educated and most sophisticated people of his time, a distinguished doctor who wrote significant papers on medicine. He was also an admirer of the patriarchal tradition and its values, and in several of his stories he depicted family dramas in which the destructive forces are overwhelmed by mutual love and solidarity. However, more deeply than the others, he felt the convulsions which were brought about by the new age, and he disclosed the individual and moral aspects of the crisis in the old relationships; he was the first to show the fate of intellectuals in Serbian society. He raised himself above the other authors primarily with his sense for personal psychology, his poetic vigour in conjuring up ambient and atmosphere, his carefulness in constructing the composition and style of his stories. He is the originator of Serbian psychological prose, and his nine stories (which was all he managed to finish) are almost all masterpieces ("First Matins with My Father", "The Wind", "The People Will Honour It All", and others) and are to be placed among the classics of the nation.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century and first decade of the present one, Serbia was a country of story writers. They came from various areas, bringing their regional characteristics with them. Glisic, Lazarevic and Veselinovic all originated from western Serbia. The central region, Sumadija, produced Svetolik Rankovic (1863-1899) and Radoje Domanovic (1873-1908), who enriched prose with new qualities, the former in the domain of the psychological story and novel, and the latter in satire. Dealing more with the present than with the recent past, they offered a dark, pessimistic depiction of life, as opposed to the serenity and optimism of the early Realists. Rankovic presented the development of personalities, their clashes with the world in which their ideals are crushed, their characters changed, and in which the person gets the opposite of what he wants. Domanovic wrote humoristic-satirical stories, along with satirical stories with elements of grotesque fantasy, and allegorical-satirical stories which were his greatest achievements ("Stradija", "Danga", "The Leader", "Dead Sea", and others). Through the technique of pushing to the point of absurdity, he depicted the negative sides of the new society, its bureaucratic formalism, its alienation from authentic values, its servile mentality, and its obsequious upbringing. In his best satire ("The Leader"), he tells the story of the collective obsession with leaders. Although he began writing in the nineteenth century tradition, his satirical visions, make him a twentieth century in fact.

A group of Belgrade high school students, 1871. Laza Lazarevic is in the third row, sitting, third from the left

The richest diversity in themes, techniques and styles was given by Simo Matavulj (1852-1908) and by Stevan Sremac (1855- 1906), because they both managed to successfully overcome domestic regionalism, to a higher degree than other authors. Matavulj lived in various regions, in his native Dalmatia, in Montenegro and in Serbia, and he travelled widely in foreign countries. All of this found its place in his works, among which there is a humoristic novel, Bakonja Fra-Brne, about the life of a Catholic priest. Several stories about life in Dalmatia and Belgrade stand out. He is a realist of the western type, who developed under the influence of Italian and French prose writers, and his is the closest to Maupassant. His artistic development from spontaneous, folkloristic story-telling, which was insufficiently organised, to modern artistic prose in which nothing is left to chance or improvisation. His talent is best shown in the short stories he wrote in the last decade of his life, of which some are even masterpieces ("Povareta", "Pilipenda", "The Inheritance", and "Oskopac and Bila", and others). Sremac was a native of Vojvodina, but he spent most of his life in Serbia, in Belgrade, and also some time in Nis, which had just been liberated from the Turks. These three milieus found their places in his stories and novels. Sremac was the most popular Serbian narrator. Readers were attracted by his nostalgic poetry of the old- fashioned lifestyle in semi-oriental Nis (Ivko's Slava, Zona Zamfirova), and by the highly developed humour and scenes of life in the lowlands in his most important work - the humoristic novel The Priest Cira and the Priest Spira. Yet, he also depicted other aspects of life, less exotic and less poetical, scenes in which satirical tones prevail (Vukadin), or in which there is serious analysis of phenomena in Serbia at that time.

The programme of Realism had fewer repercussions in poetry than in prose. The only eminent poet of the period was Vojislav Ilic (1862- 1894), the son of Jovan Ilic. Although he had much in common with the story writers of the period (the objective character of his poetry, its descriptiveness, and its narrative character), he cannot be called a Realist in his poetry. He wrote poems about country landscapes in which dark, twilight, late autumn and winter tones dominate. He had a feeling for the magic of the distant and foreign; he was attracted by ruins which tell stories of ancient times, and he also treated hoary legends from various meridians of the Eurasian continent, from India to Portugal. However, he gave greatest consideration to themes from the Greek and Roman classical period, with which classical forms and symbols entered into Serbian poetry. He is an artist in poetry, an "artist-poet", the reformer of Serbian verse. His most particular verse was the 16-syllable verse. He was a diligent stylist and a master of form. Although he was not an especially educated poet, not very well acquainted with the development of poetry in Europe, he created poetry which was close to western post-Romantic trends, especially to that of the Parnassians and symbolists. Thus, he had a great influence on Serbian poets at the end of the last century and beginning of this century.

Drama in this period produced one of the classics of Serbian theatre, Branislav Nusic (1862-1938). He was a polyhistor who tried his hand at various genres - comedy, historical and bourgeois drama, and at story, novel, feuilleton, travelogue, and so on. His talent is best seen in his comedies and in his humoristic prose. In his best comedies (The People's Representative, A Suspicious Person, The Cabinet Minister's Wife, The Deceased, and others) he unified all the virtues of his predecessors in this genre - the importance of Sterija's themes and the virtuosity of Trifkovic's dramatic technique. In many scenes in these pieces, he rendered a social comedy of Serbia in his time, presenting provincial merchants, district chiefs, police clerks, good housewives, greater and lesser villains who talk most frankly about their wickedness and the comic twist that occurs when they become the subjects of the two obsessive powers of contemporary society - power and money. Nusic is the magician of laughter, Serbia's most popular playwright; his works were performed on stages abroad and they gathered grateful audiences in many countries of the world. *

// Projekat Rastko / The history of Serbian culture //
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