Karel Hynek Mácha: the poet of lovers
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.
“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?
“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.
“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.
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?
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?
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!”