May Day - the day of love

Socha Karla Hynka Máchy na Petřině

These days, May 1st is a time of love. In smaller towns and villages people will put up a Maypole, in the evening they'll light bonfires and young couples will dance and flirt and jump over the flames in a sort of spring love ritual. Here in Prague couples of all ages will stroll through Petrin Hill - a place where lovers have walked for centuries. People who seek love - or those who are lucky enough to have found it - often lay a spring flower at the statue of the 19th century poet Karel Hynek Macha, who has become a patron of lovers and whose famous love poem every Czech can recite by heart.

Late evening, on the first of May-

The twilit May-the time of love.

Meltingly called the turtledove,

Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.

Whispered of love the mosses frail,

The flowering tree as sweetly lied,

The rose's fragrant sigh replied

To love-songs of the nightingale.

Those are the first verses of probably the best-known Czech poem, May, written by the 19th century poet Karel Hynek Macha. The four-canto poem is based on a real story. It is about a young man called Vilem, whose lover is unfaithful to him. He kills his rival, unaware it is his own father. The desperate Vilem becomes a highwayman and later is arrested, jailed and executed.

This tragic and exceptionally musical poem, set in the romantic landscape around a lake which now bears Macha's name, has become a symbol of love for Czechs, although at first it was rejected by many Macha's contemporaries and literary critics. Macha, who was a legal clerk in the north Bohemian town of Litomerice, published the poem in 1836 at his own expense, only a few months before his sudden and untimely death. Macha died at the age of 26, on the 5th of November, 1836 of a mystery illness.

Prague's Petrin Hill - statue dedicated to Karel Hynek Macha | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International
Another mystery is the appearance of this romantic poet, since not even one portrait of him survives. To the following generations, he was only described by words, as a dark, tall, thin man with a full beard and dark, bewitching eyes, exotically dressed in a dark cloak and hat - a figure very much alike the main character of his poem. Macha's May was not fully accepted until 1858 when a generation of writers around the author and journalist Jan Neruda first hailed this poem as a work of genius.

Although nobody knows exactly what Karel Hynek Macha looked like, there is a statue dedicated to him on Prague's Petrin Hill, one of the most romantic corners of Prague and a traditional meeting place of lovers. On the 1st of May lovers stroll around Petrin Hill and lay flowers under Macha's statue to pay tribute to the talented poet and pioneer of romanticism in the Czech lands.