Early Modernist Croatian Poetry in French: Antun Gustav Matoš (1873 – 1914)

Hello language lovers,

It's time to revisit some poetry and this time we will travel back in time to Croatia and visit Antun Gustav Matoš (1873 –  1914), a poet, short story writer, journalist and essayist. Željko Ivanek wrote for the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List that Matoš's poetry described life in the "Austro-Hungarian periphery" referring to the imperial Vienna and Budapest being the centers of colonial power while their Balkan colonies remained in their periphery. It has been said that he has failed his grade 7 Croatian class, so nobody expected that he would be one of the greatest Croatian writers. He spent his time between Zagreb, Paris and Belgrade, and some of his poetry is clearly influenced by Baudelaire and de Maupassant. His poetry features estheticism, symbolism, impressionism and neoromanticism, among others. Politically, he was a pravaš, a name used for supporters of Ante Starčević's party Croatian Party of Rights (Hrvatska stranka prava). He is considered the greatest poet of Croatian Modernism.

The Relic 

This poem was  written in 1910 and translated later to French by Jugoslav Gospodnetić for the anthology Antun Gustav Matoš - La rose mysterieuse - Tajanstvena ruža. In the poem, we see the speaker lamenting the absence of a beloved woman. Some of the language he uses is religious in nature - as if the lover worships the beloved and uses religious language to express his longing. The title of the poem is "The Relic", an object of great interest and veneration in Catholicism. He also compares the glimmer in her eye to the "divine sun". Furthermore, odoše u pepeo literally means "went to ashes", another  Christian reference to the final form we take as the creation, as referred to in Genesis 3:19:

By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return. (NRSVCE)

In the last stanza, he speaks of the crushed rose of Sharon, a reference to the Song of Solomon 2:1, which is beautiful biblical poetry full of references to love. 

The last verse is my favourite image in this poem which reminds me of prayer as incense. In Psalm 141:2, we see the following verse:

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (NRSVCE)

The "thyme of the soul/dušin tamjan"  reminds me of the thyme used as liturgical incense and it is yet another spiritual connection to the love for this woman.


Gdje su, recite mi, oj vi duge noći,
Usne, što su rujni život pjevale?
Gdje su blage, tople, nasmijane oči,
Što su kao Božje sunce sijevale?

Odoše u pepeo, kao svete moći,
Grudi što su našu sreću snijevale,
Krenuše za jekom, kud će i uzdah doći,
Riječi što su nas ko duh ogrijevale.

Samo pregršt písmā draga ova žena
Ostavi nam, punu slatkoga parfena,
No i taj će miris skoro prestati,

A za pregaženom ružicom Sarona
Plakati će pjesnik suzom miliona,
Pa će ko taj dušin tamjan nestati.

La Relique

Où sont-elles, dites-moi, ô vous longues nuits,
Ces lèvres qui chantaient une vie vermeille?
Où sont ces yeux chauds, doux, rieurs ravis
Qui brillaient comme le divin soleil ?

Ils s'en allèrent en cendres, comme les reliques vieillies,
Ces seins qui étaient de notre bonheur l'éveil,
Ils suivirent l'écho, où le soupir les rejoindra aussi,
Les mots qui nous chauffaient, à un esprit pareils.

Une poignée de lettres cette chère femme seulement
Nous laissa, pleines d'un doux parfum d'encens,
Mais cette senteur aussi bientôt cessera.

Et pour cette rose de Saron écrasée
Le Poète versera des larmes par milliers.
Et comme cet encens de l'âme à la fin disparaîtra.

Here are some more of this poems, recited in original Croatian:

Djevojčici umjesto igračke - To a girl instead of a toy

Jesenje veče - Autumn evening



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