Karel Hynek Mácha: the poet of lovers

Karel Hynek Mácha

This month we are celebrating a major Czech literary anniversary. Two hundred years ago the great Czech romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha, was born in Prague. To mark the anniversary a new English edition of his most famous poem “Máj” (May) has been published and in this week’s Czech Books, David Vaughan talks to the translator, Marcela Sulak.

Karel Hynek Mácha | Photo: Kramerius/National Library,  public domain
Every Czech child, by the time he or she is nine or ten, can quote the opening lines of May, “Byl pozdní večer – první máj –“ (It was late evening – first of May – / was evening May – the time for love). May is the greatest of all Czech romantic poems, and its author, Karel Hynek Mácha, was born in Prague’s Lesser Quarter on 16 November 1810. His father was a shopkeeper and his mother came from a family of musicians. At school Mácha learned Latin and he then went on to study law. But poetry was his passion, combined with a romantic patriotism, inspired by the Polish revolution of 1830 and the early stirrings of the Czech national revival. As befits the young romantic poet, Mácha also had a turbulent love life, and he died at the tragically early age of 26. His work includes poetry, prose and drama, but the epic poem May is his masterpiece, placing him right at the heart of the European romantic movement. Marcela Sulak’s translation of the poem has just been published by Twisted Spoon Press, and when we met to talk about May, Marcela began by summarizing the dramatic and sometimes gruesome plot.

“The poem opens with a description of nature. The hero is named Vilém. Jarmila is his love and she is waiting for him to come to her. She’s been waiting for twenty days. She doesn’t know what has happened to Vilém, and at this point there comes a beautiful line:”

The starlight preens itself in tears
that flow across her cheeks like sparks;
the sparks are hot, her cheeks are cold.
They die, like falling stars,
and where they fall, the flowers fold.

And where does it go from there?

“The hero Vilém is known for his cape, his hat, the feather in his hat and his flowers. Someone who is dressed like this appears. She’s very excited and thinks that it’s Vilém. And when she leaps onto him and embraces him, she realizes that it’s not Vilém. It’s an unnamed man, who tells her that her love is about to be executed the next day. And he curses her. The reason he is to be executed is because he killed the person who seduced or betrayed Jarmila before she met him. Vilém had been abandoned as a child and left to grow up in the forest, and he eventually became this Robin Hood like figure, the head of a band of thieves. When he is captured and comes into prison, it turns out that Jarmila’s seducer was his own father. She then leaps into the lake and drowns.

“Section II of the poem begins with the speaker Vilém in prison, wondering what’s going to happen to him when he dies, what eternity is like, if Jarmila will remember him, if the countryside will remember him. And he is despairing until he hears the beautiful sound of a horn, a French horn, blowing in the evening, and then his spirit is calmed.

“Section III is the execution. It contains the most beautiful execution scene I’ve ever seen – really quite graphic as well, with the head bouncing! The village has come to see the execution and so there is a lot of posturing as we climb up the mountain. We can see all the beauty of the landscape. It really is one of the loveliest sections. There are clouds that are wandering by and Vilém grabs them and asks them to be his messengers, to tell the world his story and to greet the earth wherever they go:”

You, who in your distant courses
embrace the earth with secret arms,
you melted stars, blue shades of sky,
you mourners, saddening yourselves,
dissolving into silent tears,
I choose you now as messengers.
Where in your distant course, you drift,
and there, wherever you find a shore,
in wandering, greet the land for me.
Oh, lovely earth, beloved earth,
my cradle and my grave, my mother,
my only homeland, my given inheritance,
this vast earth, this one and only!

That is a wonderful extract, because you have the two core features of romanticism – the relationship to nature and also the tragic, misunderstood young man, going to his execution.

Marcela Sulak
“The nature imagery is particularly interesting in this section, because the earth is called ‘země’ in Czech, which means ‘my homeland’ as well. One of the features of the Czech romantic movement was this association with the earth, the land and the country, the patriotic movement. And so, to decide how to translate this one word, I had to decide whether to go with the natural, more romantic ‘earth’ or the more patriotic ‘country’ or ‘homeland’. I had to choose ‘earth’, because it doesn’t make sense to say, ‘His head fell on the country,’ while you can say that it fell on the earth!

“Section IV is the section in which the poet is riding his horse and then comes upon the body of Vilém, as it is woven onto a wheel, on a pole. He becomes very nervous and his horse almost throws him, so he goes to the inn and asks what happened. He comes back after seven years and revisits the site. The poet is looking at the skeleton and the skull of Vilém. He sees that the sunset has turned the white bone into a blush colour, so that it looks like sunset. The sunset is being mirrored onto his skull. He sees the fireflies playing through the eyes and he sees the dew like tears. So he is reflecting the feelings that he sees in his own visage:”

In my sad eyes two hot tears well,
likes sparkles on the lake they play on my face,
because that lovely age, my childhood
was stolen far by time’s wild rage.
And far away its dream is like a shadow, dead,
far as the image of white cities drowned beneath the lake,
far as the last thoughts of the dead,
their names, the noise of ancient wars,
the faded northern lights, extinguished fire therein,
the tone of a broken harp, the sound of a snapped string,
the deeds of days gone by, the light of a dead star,
the lost path of a will-o’-the-wisp, the passion of a dead lover,
forgotten grave, eternity’s sunken home,
the smoke of an extinguished fire, the voice of smelted bells,
the song of a dead swan, humanity’s lost paradise,
this is my lovely childhood.

A painting of Bezděz by K. H. Mácha
“When Mácha was writing, the trend was to write very patriotic literature that sounded a little clunky, because the message was more important than the medium. But what Mácha wanted to do was to use Czech in a beautiful manner, so that it would be more of an international poem, rather than just national, with very limited interest. So, by writing about this particular topic, he was letting Czech soar, he was using Czech in a most beautiful manner possible, and he was really expanding the language and increasing its range. But his contemporaries did not understand that and actually shunned him for writing about such horrible and decadent themes as a captive, a criminal and individual love, which violates social codes.”

And so, where did he find inspiration?

“He was inspired by Byron, who was just starting to be translated into Czech, although he could also read Byron in the German translation. He was inspired by Shelley as well. He was also, like Shelley and Byron, a wanderer. And so he walked down to Italy, through the Alps and all over what is now the Czech Republic as well.”

That helps to explain the beauty of the language, where he is describing the natural world….

“Nature was used almost as another kind of language, so that his nature descriptions contain within them codes to his psychological state. In some of the descriptions, contradictory emotions are at play – you’ll notice the way that he’s moving through the use of colour, through the use of the sky and the forest, and the time of day as well.”

I’d like to ask you about the process of translating the poem. It’s very unusual as a Czech poem in that it’s written in what is a rather more typically English metre of iambic pentameters, a rhythm typical for Shakespeare. I should imagine that this made the translating a little bit easier…

“It made it easier and more difficult at the same time. Until this period Czech didn’t really have an established system of metres. In English, as you’ve mentioned, most poetry is written in what are calls iambs – that is, the second syllable is stressed. Shakespeare is a perfect example. Czech stresses naturally the first syllable of each word, but also you have quantities – you’ve got long and short syllables in Czech that you don’t have in English. So, at this time, a lot of poetry was written with long and short syllables instead of stress, or it was written in the trochee or dactyl – that’s where the first syllable is stressed. In fact, the metre was so important that it was one of the reasons why Mácha’s Czech colleagues shunned him or scorned him, and the poem was not at all popular in his time – because the metre was decadent, it was foreign, and if you’re creating a national literature, you’d better not use a foreign metre, right?!

“So, in order to translate it into iambic metres, what I did was that decided not to follow the rhyme scheme slavishly, and this allows the musicality and the rhythms of the poem to shine through. In order to keep the rhyme, I would have had to invert the sentence structure and it would have sounded very formal, very artificial.”

And what made you want to translate this particular poem?

The house in Litoměřice where Mácha lived today serves as the Museum of K. H. Mácha
“When I first arrived in the Czech Republic, I had just finished university, and I really liked romantic poetry. Students and friends asked me, ‘You’ve never read Mácha?’ And I looked through and realized that he hadn’t been translated into English, or he had been but quite a long time ago, and the editions were no longer available. So I decided to read it in Czech. Now, at the time, I had been there for six months and reading it in Czech meant that I was basically translating it as I read it. So, once I got finished I thought, ‘Well, why not continue?’ I had very supportive friends, colleagues and students, who helped me out, because some of the language that Mácha used is no longer in use today. And I also had a wonderful Czech boyfriend, who took me round to all of the sites that occur in the book on his motorcycle. It was very romantic and we got to see the sites.”

It is all set in the very romantic landscape – the little spiky hills – of northern Bohemia, isn’t it?

“Absolutely. So I saw all the places, including Litoměřice, where Mácha lived and died.”

And, like so many romantic poets, he died at a very early age….

“He was 26 years old.”

What comes next – after Mácha?

Máchovo jezero  (Mácha's lake)
“I have also translated Karel Jaromír Erben’s ‘Kytice’, and this is a collection of folk ballads that was written in 1853, so a little bit later. It’s coming out with Twisted Spoon Press this coming summer, in 2011.”

And your name, Marcela Sulak, is very much a typical Czech name. You have roots in this part of the world…

“Yes. All four of my grandparents are from here and we grew up hearing my grandparents speak Czech and talk about how wonderful the old country was, my entire childhood!”