The literature of the Serbs must be among the least known in Europe, standing somewhere between the Albanians, whose most famous cultural contribution is John Belushi, and the Scandinavians, who—if they pooled their resources—could field at least a basket ball team of literary celebrities. In modern times, the literary Serb best known to the West has been Milovan Djilas, although most readers are more familiar with his political career than with his powerful evocations of his homeland in Montenegro, Njegos, and Land With out Justice

One aspect of Serbian literature that has received serious scholarly attention is the tradition of oral heroic poetry. Unfortunately, Serbian national epic has been scrutinized not so much for its intrinsic merit as for the light it is presumed to shed on the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The work of Millman Parry and his student Albert Lord introduced many a lover of Homer to the exotic world of medieval Serbian heroes still being celebrated by 20th-century guslars or “singers of tales.” But much of this epic material shows all too well the signs of the late and decadent age in which it was recreated. It is another story with the songs assembled in Marko the Prince, an intelligently arranged volume of clear and effective translations of heroic poe try collected in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The songs are provided with sufficient annotation to allow a reader to thread his way through the maze of half-remembered history that is the strongest testimonial to the spiritual character of this unhappy people. 

Much of Serbian epic poetry is centered around the Battle of Kosovo (1389) in which the feuding lords were soundly defeated by the Turks, only a generation after their empire had reached the height of its glory under Tsar Stepan Dushan. One of the strongest and most revealing poems was recorded from a blind woman. A swallow flies from Jerusalem, bringing a message from the Mother of God to Prince Lazar, the Serbian commander. He is offered a choice between the empire of heaven and the empire of earth. If he chooses earth, he will annihilate the Turks, 

But if the empire of heaven
weave a church on Kosovo,
build its foundation with marble stones, 
build it with pure silk and with crimson cloth,
take the sacrament, marshal the men, 
they shall all die, 


and you shall die among them as they die. 

The Prince chooses heaven and,

The Turks dragged down Lazar,
Lazar, Prince of Serbia, was killed 
and all his men were killed,
seven and seventy thousand men: 
with holiness and honor 
good in the sight of God. 

By 1400 the Serbian people existed, outside Montenegro, as a church; like the Greeks, they were held together only by the Orthodox Church. It was not until the 19th century that Serbs began to enter the European world to a significant degree. The poets represented in Prof. Dordevic’s Anthology all belong to the Golden Age—1880-1914—a period of transition from Romantic nationalism to symbolism, intellectual forces which continue to influence the literature of Yugoslavia.

What first strikes an outsider most, perhaps, about these poets is their eye for landscape and a passionate intensity we are tempted to regard as melodramatic. Vojislav Ilic’s poem to the Vardar is a good Romantic example: 

with a terrifying rumble
Vardar foams and runs
And falls through narrow ravines
into the blue Agean Sea.
Oh waves, Oh Serbian river! 
Centuries vanish so, 
And sink like waves into the sea 
of somber eternity. 
But your drops like pearls 
forever kiss the foothills 
On which stand memorials of the glorious national past. 

And yet, Ilic was known as a sort of neoclassical model of restraint! Despite their best efforts to ape the deracinated and cosmopolitan poetry of the West, Serbian poets were never quite able to rid themselves of their passionate affection for their land and its traditions. At the outbreak of World War I the young sensualist Milutin Bojic was still doing landscape, while the Herzegovinian, Aleksa Santic, never attempted to disguise his loyalty to Mostar, his hometown. 

Dordevic’s bilingual edition will help to give students some idea of the rich tradition of Serbian poetry that is still alive in contemporaries like Vasko Popa.


[Anthology of Serbian Poetry: The Golden Age; Edited by Mihailo Dordevic; New York: Philosophical Library] 

[Marko the Prince; Translated by Anne Pennington and Peter Levi; London: Duckworth]