Introduction by Vladeta Popovich
Introduction to the first English edition of The Mountain Wreath translated by James W. Wiles, published in 1930 by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London. The writer of this Introduction is the author of Shakespeare in Serbia, the third volume in the “Shakespeare Survey” series, made under the general direction of Sir I. Gollancz. Lit. D., F. B. A., and published for the Shakespeare Association by the Oxford University Press, London, 1928.
What Shakespeare is to England, Njegosh is to Serbia: her greatest and most nationally representative poet. Njegosh's finest work, The Mountain Wreath (Gorski Vijenac), has had a success unparalleled by any other product of Serbo-Croatian literature, both at home and abroad. English is the tenth language into which it has been translated, the others being Russian, Bulgarian, Czech, Slovene, Italian, German, Hungarian, Swedish, and French [Popovich writes about beginning of the XXth Century (note by D. Laban)]. In Serbo-Croatian lands it has had a better fate than classics usually have: it is not admired from a respectable distance, but much and widely read and loved. It has been frequently reprinted, the best critical edition being that of Professor Milan Reshetar. The subject of Njegosh and his work has attracted many distinguished Yugoslav writers, among them three whose names are already known in England: Professor Pavle Popovich deals with the literary aspect of The Mountain Wreath, Professor Brana Petronijevich with its philosophy, and Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovich with the religion of Njegosh. More than any other work The Mountain Wreath reveals the essence and substance of a race that has had to go through many tribulations and to fight against many difficulties.
The author of The Mountain Wreath was born in 1811 or 1813 in Njegushi in Montenegro. The name he received at baptism was Rade. After the death of his uncle, Petar I, Bishop of Montenegro, who had designated him as his successor, Rade was made monk in 1831, changed his name to Petar, and in 1833 went to Russia to be made bishop. He was the last of a succession of bishops who, since the end of the XVIIth Century, had gradually gathered into their hands the full power of a secular ruler over the Montenegrin clans. He died of consumption in 1851. His full name and title was Petar II Petrovic Njegosh, Bishop of Montenegro, but he is generally known as Njegosh.
Njegosh was a cultured man who had read much, meditated much, and experienced much. He was for quite a long time the only educated man in his country. Most of the priests were illiterate. They carried arms like other men and fought with the Turks. A typical example of a pop or priest is that given in a humorous scene in The Mountain Wreath. Pop Micjo cannot read a letter which he has himself written. He is laughed at by Bishop Danilo and the chieftains, but he is not dismayed, and coolly remarks that if he had had better teaching he would read better. For the church service he needs no books: he learnt by ear as a boy all he needs, and he delivers it from memory when occasion demands. Cases like that of Pop Micjo were quite usual not only in the XVIIIth Century, but also in the time of Njegosh. Njegosh never went to school abroad, nor to a regular school at home, for there was none in the whole of the country. His education was begun in the monastery at Cetinje, and for a time continued at a monastery in Bocche di Cattaro.
The first man with university education with whom Njegosh came into contact was Simo Milutinovich, the most romantic of Serbian poets. He came to Cetinje in 1827 to be secretary to Bishop Petar I, and remained there three or four years. His duty was also that of teacher to the young Njegosh. Milutinovich had studied for some time in Germany, where he made connections with Herder, Grimm, Uhland, Goethe. He was by nature a romantic, a gifted poet, and a heroic man, but extravagant in style, so that he never came near to perfection in his literary work. He had attached himself to the pseudo-classical movement in poetry, and had acquired some of its bad qualities. His work overflows with the names of classical gods and goddesses. Nevertheless, his influence on Njegosh was for good. He showed him the greatness of Serbian folk-poetry, which had attracted much attention even from such men as Goethe, and he imparted to him a love of the great poetry of Europe, ancient and modern, and gave him a taste for philosophy.
While at Cetinje, Milutinovich wrote two dramas. One of them was dedicated to Sir John Bowring, the translator of Serbian folk-poetry into English. The dedication is also interesting because it contains one of the earliest references in Serbian literature to Shakespeare. This drama dealt with a subject from Montenegrin history. Njegosh later found in this a precedent which he followed in his Mountain Wreath. Milutinovich's second drama treated of Milos Obilich, the greatest hero of Serbian folk-poetry. This play was written in eight days among the mountains, in a shepherd's hut during which time Milutinovich abstained almost entirely from food, and attained to mystic visions. The character of Milos Obilich left a powerful impression on Njegosh, and his name is frequently mentioned in The Mountain Wreath. It may be of interest to mention that the first man to write a drama about Obilich was an Englishman, Thomas Goffe, Master of Arts and Student of Christ Church in Oxford. The play was acted by the students of Christ Church on St. Matthew's Day, 1618. under the title of The Tragedy of Amurath, Third Tyrant of the Turks. It was first published in 1632, under the title of The Courageous Turk, or Amurath the First. Although the play does not bear his name Obilich is really its hero. In the conflict between the Turks and the Serbs on Kosovo Field in 1389 Goffe saw a situation which was for him symbolical of the conflict between Mohammedanism and Christianity.
Milutinovich was not a man who could give Njegosh systematic education, but he awakened in him the latent qualities of a poet, a thinker, and a hero. We do not know what books the master gave his pupil to study, but we know that they spent much time in wandering through the mountains, in bitter cold, in blazing sunshine, or through the driving rain. Evidently Milutinovich wished to make of Njegosh a man who could triumph over any physical difficulty. This exercise seems to have been sometimes carried to excess. It is related how master and pupil competed as to who could gaze longest at the blazing sun without flinching. However, one thing is certain: in those walks Njegosh learnt to commune with Nature, and to listen in his own soul to what the Black Mountains and the starry heavens whispered to him.
On the death of Bishop Petar I in 1830 Milutinovich left Cetinje. Njegosh was recognized by the chiefs of the people as the successor of his uncle. He was made monk and then archimandrite, and changed his name, according to the custom of the Eastern Church. Rade became Petar, in memory of his uncle. His desire was to be made bishop by the Russian Church, but circumstances were such that he had to postpone his journey to Russia for two or three years. Meanwhile he came into a dangerous conflict with the Turks. The Montenegrins made two unsuccessful attacks on a town within the Turkish territory. The Turks then sent an army against Montenegro. The Montenegrins were victorious, but the Turks prepared a more serious attack, which might have been disastrous for the Montenegrins if Russian intervention in Constantinople had not prevented it. The Russians had been the protectors of Montenegro for a number of years, and with financial help sent by them Njegosh began to work for the unification of the clans into a State. He instituted the first law-court at Cetinje, the chief function of which was to silence the feuds that existed between the clans. Some slight taxation was also imposed on the people. Then Njegosh went to Russia, where he was made bishop in the presence of the Emperor. He returned to his country as Petar II Petrovic Njegosh, Bishop of Montenegro. The Bishop, who was also the chief secular authority in the country, was then only twenty-two years of age, or, if we take 1813 to have been the date of his birth, perhaps only twenty.
The visit to Russia had a great influence on him. He saw the culture of Vienna and Petrograd, brought back many books, and published his first book of poems. He founded the first elementary school and the first printing-press, and ten years later a second elementary school. Roads began to be constructed in the country. Njegosh's chief end was to preserve the independence of Montenegro, to enlarge and fix its frontiers. The dream of his life was to see all Serbian lands free from Turkish or Austrian oppression. The transformation of his country from a clan State into a united, civilized State was very slow and laborious. The Turks remained a grave danger to the end of his life.
Njegosh travelled twice to Russia and three times to Vienna. In 1850 he began to spit blood, and went to Italy to seek a cure. He returned to Italy later, to spend the winter in Naples. But there was no remedy for his illness, and he died at Cetinje in 1851, at the age of forty or thirty-eight.
His favourite pastimes were hunting, billiards, and cards. He was a good rider and an excellent shot. But his chief occupation besides government was poetry: reading, meditating, and writing. His favourite poets were Lamartine, Byron, Dante, and Petrarch. He knew Russian and French well. English he did not know, although an English grammar in Italian and an English-German dictionary were found among his books. He had Byron's works in a Leipzig edition, and those of Shakespeare in a French translation;
Ossian in German. Scott's Life of Napoleon in Russian, and Ivanhoe in a Leipzig edition, as well as Hume's History of England in French, were also among his books. It is known that he possessed Milton's Paradise Lost in Russian, full of his own marks and notes, but this has disappeared from his library. Although Njegosh's poem on the Fall of Man, The Light of the Microcosm is an original creation, there are points of contact between it and Paradise Lost, and the loss of his Russian copy of Milton is regrettable. It might have revealed to us the exact way in which Milton was his inspiration. It has teen reported that, besides other poets, he had read all the Greek classics, probably in translation. Njegosh was a perfectly balanced nature, and it is not surprising to find from his works that his spirit was as much romantic as classical. His emotional and intellectual life had equal freedom of development.
A foreign visitor, Dr. Biasoletto, describes Njegosh as “tall, of good stature, of magnificent appearance, kind and courteous, cultured”. His appearance also made a very favourable impression on an English traveller, G. Wilkinson, who recorded it in his book on Dalmatia and Montenegro.
The body of Njegosh reposes on the topmost peak of Lovcjen, the highest mountain in the region, more than 5,500 feet above sea-level. There he had built a little church and a tomb for himself. From that place can be seen the whole of Montenegro and parts of those other Serbian lands whose freedom was the dream of Njegosh.
A hundred times I've gazed at floating clouds,
Sailing as, phantom ships high off the sea,
And casting anchor on this mountain range!
Now here, now there I've watched them break away,
With darts of lightning and with rumblings dread,
And sudden roar of all the sky's artillery!
A hundred times have I watched from these heights,
And quietly basked beneath the genial sun,
While lightnings flash'd and thunders peal'd below:
I saw and heard how they did rend the skies;
Downpours from heaven of most hostile hail
Robbed Mother Earth of her fertility.
These words of Bishop Danilo in The Mountain Wreath must represent an actual experience of Njegosh, but they are charged with deeper, symbolic meaning: at the time of Bishop Danilo, Montenegro was the only Serbian land on which the sun of freedom shone; all the others were overhung by heavy clouds of servitude.
The part of Montenegro comprising Lovcjen rises like a tremendous fortress from the Gulf of Cattaro at the southern extremity of the Dalmatian coast. The contrast between the enchanting, smiling beauty of the Adriatic waters and the frowning barrenness of Montenegro is awe-inspiring. On the one side the blue waters of the loveliest gulf in Europe, the green of fertile land, and the gleam of small white towns bordering the coast; on the other, a sea of dark and jagged mountains, their barren greyness relieved only by tiny cultivated patches of earth. Here and there a lonely church or a small stone house: the gloom and desolation of a rocky desert, with a magnificence not of our planet but of the dead moon. Here the Montenegrin clans, with their cattle, eked out a sparse existence, perpetually fighting among themselves and with the Turks all through the XVIth, XVIIth, and XVIIIth Centuries. When Njegosh became chief of the country the rising sun of freedom shone brighter than it ever had done during the last two or three centuries, but the horizon was still dark with the menace of the Mohammedan power. In such surroundings and such circumstances a man with a poetic soul and a philosophic mind could not but plunge into the mystery of existence. Why was earth created? Why was man set upon it? Why is the life of man a constant misery and happiness only a dream? Njegosh was a pessimist, but he found the way that led out of the dungeon of life to bliss. All these experiences found powerful expression in his first great poem, The Light of the Microcosm.
The Light of the Microcosm was published in 1845, a year or two before The Mountain Wreath. From a purely literary point of view it is not equal to The Mountain Wreath, but it cannot be disputed that it is so far the most profound poem in the Serbo-Croatian language. It consists of a dedication to Simo Milutinovich and six cantos — 2,210 lines in all. The first reading is not an easy one, but like Paradise Lost and every other great poem, each repeated reading reveals new depths of thought and powers of imagination.
Full many a time with flaming soul have I besought
The blue vault of the sacred heavens, sown with starry seed,
To reveal to me the holy secret.
But neither nature nor the wise men of earth revealed to Njegosh the secret of the fate of man. Finally, he is led by the divine spark in his own soul into the world of eternity. There his guardian angel bids him drink from a source of heavenly waters, which discover to him the cause of the fall of man. He sees the beginnings of time, the abode of the Almighty, and His faithful servants, archangels and angels, who live in perpetual bliss. He sees the rebellion of Satan and his overthrow. One of the adherents of Satan repents in time, for which reason God softens the punishment which he had merited. The penitent was a mighty spirit called Adam. He and his followers were thrown into the prison of the flash on the planet-earth. But God sent His Son to bring the light of eternal life into the darkness of earth. Since then man may of his free choice partake of the life of bliss which he lost through Adam's treason to God.
Milton's Paradise Lost was no doubt a source of inspiration to Njegosh, but not an object of imitation. The theme is the same — the fall of Adam — but the treatment is quite different. The Light of the Microcosm is an original creation. Every line of it is the result of personal experience. Life was like a terrible dream to Njegosh:
Man has been thrown into a heavy sleep,
And terrible visions come to him,
And he can scarce discern
Whether he is of them or apart.
Njegosh was a bishop, but he was not conventional in matters of religious belief. He spoke the truth which he found in his own soul, not what was imposed on him by the dogmas of the Church. When he speaks of the immortality of the soul he is not repeating an idea which he has taken on faith without being fully conscious of its truth. His ideas on immortality spring from his own consciousness: he was not accepting a dogma that the soul is immortal: he knew that it is immortal.
The appearance of The Light of the Microcosm marked the beginning of a new phase in the work of Njegosh as a poet. It was followed by his masterpiece, The Mountain Wreath, in 1847, by Stephen The Pretender, finished the same year but published in 1850, and by two poems about Montenegrin warriors. About ten years before The Light of the Microcosm Njegosh had published two collections of poems: one was inspired by his visit to St. Petersburg, the other by Montenegrin fights with the Turks. A third volume, also about the struggle with the Turks, was finished about that time, but was published after the poet's death. All these poems are in the blank verse of Serbian folk-poetry, mostly in the trochaic pentameter. Two main subjects run through all of them: the fight for freedom and man's relation to God. Stephen the Pretender resembles The Mountain Wreath in form, each of them being a series of scenes called by Njegosh “historical happening”, with the difference that the former is divided into five acts while the latter is not divided into acts at all. Stephen the Pretender is inferior not only to The Mountain Wreath but also to The Light of the Microcosm; nevertheless it is interesting to read. The central figure is an adventurer who came to Montenegro in the second half of the XVIIIth Century, and succeeded in convincing the people that he was the banished Emperor of Russia, Peter III. Njegosh clung too closely lo the facts of history, with the result that the freedom of his poetic creation was hampered.
The words “the mountain wreath” signify: the glory of the mountains — the glory of Montenegro as exemplified by scenes from her struggles with the Turks for the preservation of freedom and Christianity. The Turkish power had swept over the Balkans like a tidal wave. Montenegro was the last to be submerged of the Serbian lands, in the beginning of the XVIth Century. By the end of the XVIIth it began to reemerge into freedom — the first of Serbian lands to do so. But what the Turks could not do by military power, thanks to the inaccessibility of the Montenegrin land, their religion began to do. The spread of Mohammedanism among the Montenegrin tribes became a serious danger. Christianity and nationality with more or less primitive people were the same thing. If Christianity went, national customs went with it. Language would remain, but the people would be cut away from the bulk of the Serbian nation, and would feel like men a fog. This is what may he seen today in Bosnia: the Mohammedans speak Serbian and consider themselves as Serbs, but the stream of their energy has been blocked, and, not mingling with the current of Christian Serbia, it is flowing nowhere and is stagnating. The racial instinct of the Montenegrins was in mortal opposition to Mohammedanism. According to folk-tradition, Bishop Danilo, at the end of the XVIIth or beginning of the XVIIIth Century, instigated the eradication of Mohammedanism from Montenegro. Historians are not of one opinion as to the date of the consequent massacre; some of them think that it never really took place; but it is the subject Njegosh chose as the main theme of his best poem.
The Mountain Wreath is a series of scenes in the form of dialogues and monologues. The poem opens with a monologue by Bishop Danilo. He sees, as in a vision, the spread of Turkish power in Europe, and sees himself impotent to oppose it. Mohammedanism is spreading in the country: the Christians, the people as well as their chiefs, are ready to start a decisive fight with their faithless countrymen, but the Bishop is torn by an inner conflict. He sees that the struggle is inevitable, but he dreads the issue. If the opponents are equally matched, brothers of two different creeds will exterminate each other, and the only Serbs who have kept the spirit of the race free will vanish from the earth. For this reason the Bishop hesitates, in spite of his desire, to take action. Like Hamlet, he always finds some reason for postponing the action until the end of the poem, when he is hurled into it. Bishop Danilo, as created by Njegosh, is quite different from the bishop of the folk-tradition. In The Mountain Wreath Bishop Danilo has partaken much of the nature of his creator: a man of intellect, not only of will, a man who thinks long before plunging into the abyss of uncertainty.
Between the first gathering of the chiefs to deliberate as to venturing upon the ordeal of the sword concerning Islam and the execution of their decision a number of scenes illustrating the life and culture of the Montenegrins are introduced, loosely connected with the main theme and interwoven with “kolos” sung by the people, recalling the choruses of Greek tragedy: their themes range from the Kosovo disaster of 1389 to the extermination of the Mohammedans in Montenegro. The Kosovo disaster is regarded as a punishment from God, in His anger against the Serbian chiefs, who were striving against each other for supremacy instead of uniting against the enemy.
The state of culture as shown in the episodic scenes is primitive, but permeated with the love of freedom and justice. Vojvoda Drashko relates his impressions of Venice. Most of the people there, according to him, were ugly; riches had turned their heads. The poor were so devoid of spirit that they did not shrink from carrying fat, rich women through the streets in chairs! The houses were beautiful, but overcrowded, and the air polluted. The people were devoid of heroism: the law-courts were unjust; every man lived in constant fear of spies and false accusations: the prisons were like Hell:
One would not tie a dog there,
Much less a wretched human being.
Drashko rebuked the prison-keepers, but his Dalmatian friend told him:
Speak not such words here;
Just words may not be spoken here;
Lucky art thou that none has understood thee!
The theatre seemed a ludicrous institution to Vojvoda Drashko. No entertainment pleased him there, for he could not see a gusle anywhere. Now, to a foreigner the gusle is a most primitive one-stringed instrument with a very monotonous moaning sound: but to a Serb it was sacred, for it was used as an accompaniment to the chanting of heroic folk-poetry. The best “guslars” (i.e. gusle-players) were blind. Their songs were full of grief for the loss of Serbian freedom, but also full of hope, relating the deeds of great heroes. Some of those songs when heard even today by Serbs of western education and culture bring tears to the eyes. It only in such moments that one realizes the meaning and power of the gusle: the guslar sings like one in a trance: the sound of the gusle, with something of hypnotic power, puts the hearer too into a sort of trance; and the words of the song evoke in him the feeling that he too can die willingly for the freedom of his country. And tears? They are for those innumerable heroes who for centuries have given their lives, and for those innumerable ones who will in the future give their lives, for the freedom of their country.
But the atmosphere of The Mountain Wreath is not charged only with thoughts of blood. There is much serenity in it, and there is humour in such scenes as that already referred to with Pop Micjo, or that in which an old woman tells of her own exploits as a witch, and is made to confess that she is only a poor wretch whom the Turks had forced to spread evil among the Montenegrin clans by her lies.
There are omens and earthquakes and a blood-red moon, portent of the approach of the terrible event: the extermination of the Mohammedan Montenegrins. There are dreams pointing to future events. All this recalls the atmosphere of King Lear or Julius Caesar, but it is quite original. Folk-lore is alive in any country before it becomes perfectly civilized. The most interesting incident of this kind is the dream of some forty Montenegrins on the eve of the attack of the Mohammedans. They all saw the same person in their dreams: the great hero of Kosovo, Milos Obilich, had passed on a milk-white steed down the valley of Cetinje. The meaning is very simple: the Christians are to be victorious over the Moslems. Obilich has become the symbol of a desire dating from the end of the XIVth Century: to kill the Turks. That desire was deeply rooted in the subconscious mind of the people, and appears in the figure of the hero who killed the Turkish Emperor.
Deep thoughts about the nature of life are not wanting in The Mountain Wreath. The speeches of the blind abbot Stephen are considered by a distinguished Serbian philosopher. Dr. Petronijevich, to anticipate the theories of Darwin. The Mountain Wreath abounds also in passages of exquisite lyrical beauty, such as that where Vuk Mandusic relates, while half-a-sleep. how he was conquered by the charms of a maiden, and the mountains and the sea cast a reflection of their beauty over the poem.
The translator of The Mountain Wreath into English, Mr. J. W. Wiles, came to Serbia in 1913. First as Reader in English in the University of Belgrade, then as head of the British and Foreign Bible Society for South-Eastern Europe, he has linked a large part of his life with the fate of Serbia. He has mastered the language and entered with true insight and understanding into the soul of the people. His translation of Njegosh — which was preceded by that of Mazhuranich's Death of Smail-Aga, Lazarevich's First Morning Service with Father, and a collection of Serbian folk-songs — is the result of long and patient work. Not least among its merits is its entire faithfulness to the meaning and spirit of the finest production of the greatest Serbian poet.
Introduction to The Mountain Wreath, 1930.