On November 5, the Embassy of Slovakia in Dublin together with the Embassy of Slovakia in London and National Library of Ireland is organising a presentation of a new translation of The Bloody Sonnets by Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, Slovakia’s greatest poet. The event will mark the centenary of the ending of The Great War, as well as the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia and twenty-fifth anniversary of the foundation of Slovakia. Similar presentations of the book will take place in several cities in the UK, including London, Belfast, Cardiff and Stirling.
Hviezdoslav wrote this sequence of 32 sonnets during the first months of the war, in August to September, 1914. The Bloody Sonnets are highly distinctive war poems. While the poets – like the peoples – of Europe were predominantly and enthusiastically pro-war, Hviezdoslav went against the current. The translator John Minahane argues in his introduction that in all of the torrent of poetry that greeted the outbreak of the war; this may be the most powerful work from an anti-war perspective.
The series of sonnets is essentially in two movements. Hviezdoslav focuses first on describing the catastrophe; then, from Sonnet 17 onwards, he is thinking of how it may end and what may come after it. In his opening movement, the poet shows his sense of the scale of the war’s destructiveness.
The human slaughterhouse is everywhere:
On earth, upon the ocean, in the air! (Sonnet 3)
Hviezdoslav vividly describes the terror, chaos and devastation, and the grief of the fallen soldiers’ parents, wives, sisters, and fiancées. In several sonnets, he makes the case that the immense bloodbath is a denial of everything that Europe had boasted of being: Christian, enlightened, civilised, and rational. This 65-year-old poet had kept up his morale by drawing on the great poetic heritage of Europe, including Shakespeare, which he translated into his endangered Slovak language. Now, with poets and artists in huge numbers supporting the war, European culture seemed to be falling into chaos (Sonnet 10). Hviezdoslav felt this as a personal blow and an outrage.
Without forgetting the horrors of the war, in the second movement the poet begins to focus on another theme. Especially for someone who belonged to an oppressed small nation, it was impossible not to hope that the conflict, frightful though it was, would lead to something better.
Hviezdoslav considered two possibilities of what might come after the war’s end. The warring powers might learn something from grim experience. If so, then the postwar order might be a community of peaceful nations, each focused on constructive work and none oppressing another (Sonnets 19, 20). Alternatively, the winners might apply the ancient principle of Vae Victis (“Woe to the vanquished!”) – and soon that might also prove to mean “Woe to the victors!” (Sonnet 18).
Even the most inspired poet, writing in August 1914, could hardly be expected to voice all the themes, which would come to the fore years later, after three or four years of fighting. It is remarkable how many key themes Hviezdoslav does raise and how powerfully he expresses them. Here let us mention one:
Knight of the heart, where are you? Cavalier
Who will command these warring armies, “Halt?” (Sonnet 17)
The hope that some inspired leader could emerge, who would lead Europe onto a different path, away from war, that would indeed be a powerful theme in the years 1917 and 1918. We know now that there were cruel twists and complications. It is moving to find Hviezdoslav in his seventeenth sonnet expressing the hope so vividly, and then immediately being attacked by doubt.
John Minahane, who has made the new English translation of The Bloody Sonnets, was born and raised in Ireland. He has lived in Slovakia for more than 20 years and has translated work by major Slovak poets and novelists. During his school days, he was exposed to some of Ireland’s finest World War I-related poems, in particular Lament for Thomas McDonagh by Francis Ledwidge and An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by William Butler Yeats. Later he read more widely in the war poetry, but The Bloody Sonnets were like nothing he had encountered elsewhere. In 2012, he was asked to translate the first sonnet for a Slovak National Gallery exhibition on the theme of Blood, and that was the spur, which made him feel he should tackle the entire sequence.
All are warmly invited to the presentations of The Bloody Sonnets at the Irish National Library, 7/8 Kildare Street, Dublin 8 on November 5 from 5pm to 7pm (RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org).
To conclude, here are the opening lines of the penultimate sonnet (31), a hymn to peace well known to generations of Slovak schoolchildren:
Oh, come back soon to us, beloved peace!
Come with an olive branch: instead of harm
Bring health and all good things in mild increase,
Spurring our efforts, powering busy arms. …