But what does the harp conceal in the desolate depths?
Who will reveal to me its secret sorrows?
Who will speak out and who will tell
What the silent night hides in the pale shadows?
Karel Hynek Mácha, from the sonnet,
“I am silent as an unstrung harp…”_1
Karel Hynek Mácha’s literary corpus, all of which was written in the space of a mere seven years (1829–36), is remarkably unified. The imagery, tropes, and concerns that preoccupied him throughout his productive period culminate in his masterpiece May, begun toward the end of 1834_2 and published in late April 1836, shortly before his untimely demise. In his letters Mácha referred to May as “my Romantic poem” (III, 381/382). The epithet is apt: the poem exhibits a number of features often associated with Romanticism, such as mythopoesis, the topos of unfulfillable yearning, a sense of inexorable destiny, and a linking of love and beauty with death._3 At the same time, the devices of chiasmus, oxymoron, asyndeton, and chiaroscuro formally mirror and enrich the poem’s themes in a poetics strikingly reminiscent of the Baroque, which similarly highlights the ephemerality of earthly beauty._4 As I shall illustrate, in content Mácha’s poem foregrounds the eternal recurrence of love, which is always already doomed, and the essence of beauty, which is saturated with pain directly proportionate to its perfection. Moreover, in its very nature, as a poetic creation incarnating beauty in the always already corrupted material of language, the poem itself stands as an emblem of that same faded and fated beauty. The poignant drama of the poem’s eternal blossoming and withering is heightened by its circular form, with its final reprise of the poem’s opening lines, signaling its perpetual resounding. In its mythopoetics, devices, and very poeticity May is a meditation on beauty, fate, death, and eternity. In a word, the endless cyclical flowering of the ideal, followed always by its inexorable death, is the myth of May.
The Mythopoetics of May in the Context of Mácha’s Oeuvre
The chronotope of May is marked as mythic from the very first line, “Byl pozdní večer – první máj.” As Robert Pynsent has pointed out, the phrase “pozdní večer” is grammatically unusual if the time of day is meant – one would expect “pozdě večer.” “Pozdní večer,” he continues, suggests rather that the evening is, from the beginning, already too late. Similarly, he notes, “první máj” in lieu of “prvního máje” suggests that we are in the archetypal “first May.”_5 Love, grief, and death pervade the poem’s mythic opening, which is closely tied to the narrative by both imagery and poetics, thus integrating the protagonists and their story into its cosmic vision. Mácha’s description of the moon, for instance, directly parallels the ensuing story of the doomed heroine, Jarmila. The poet introduces the moon:
The beautiful face of the full moon –
So palely bright and brightly pale,
Like a lover seeking her belovèd –
Flushed in rosy radiance […] (I, 17)
Jarmila is similarly introduced as beautiful, pale, and in search of her loved one, Vilém. Like the moon, she too will blush – when she sees the messenger she at first takes to be Vilém. Formally the power of the love that draws Jarmila to the object of her desire is mirrored in the ABBA structure of the chiastic line: “So palely bright and brightly pale.” This structure, which may be illustrated graphically as > <, resonates throughout the poem in motifs of perspective, echo, and reflection, and it is associated with not only love, but also death.
Jarmila’s story is prefigured also by the opening metaphors of stars blazing in the heavens “like tears of love” (I, 17) and burning with love until they fall like “dying embers” (I, 17). These metaphors are inverted in the image of Jarmila’s tears as blazing sparks that “die like falling stars” (I, 19). Just as the tears of the Demon in Lermontov’s contemporaneous mythopoetic masterpiece sear stone, Jarmila’s burning tears of love and pain, as in folklore, cause flowers to wilt as they fall. Her love and longing bring death to all that is beautiful.
The poet intimates that Jarmila leaps to her death from a cliff into the lake below upon hearing that Vilém has been imprisoned and sentenced to death for killing her seducer, his own father. The implicitly evoked image of her body, draped in white, meeting the surface of the dark lake, upon which gleams the moon’s reflection, also recalls the poem’s opening, where the moon, catching a glimpse of its own light in the water, is dying of love for itself. Jarmila’s presumable fall from the heights and death by drowning becomes a cosmic image of the moon setting over water, where it meets its own reflection and disappears.
Mácha had created a similar mythic metaphor as early as 1830, in a poem entitled “The Little Moon.” Here the gender is different, as he uses the masculine měsíček rather than the feminine lůna, but the story is essentially the same. The moon rises nightly in search of his sweetheart, but gradually loses hope as the night goes on:
Always new hope
Gleams in his face
When he appears;
But the higher he rises,
Without finding her,
The more he pales […] (I, 60)
Not finding his beautiful belovèd, the moon kills himself in despair:
But when in the night
He does not find his love,
Early in the morning
Beyond the blue forest
Far, far away,
He drowns in the sea. (I, 61)
This tragic story repeats itself every night, for all of time – not only in our world, but throughout the entire universe and in every conceivable world:
And thus the pale moon
Must wander always
From the beginning of the world
Of every world,
To the end of the world
Of every world
But his beautiful belovèd
He will never find. (I, 62)
Mácha creates a similar myth in May. Part two opens with the image of Jarmila falling endlessly, like a falling star:
A star has dropped from heaven’s heights,
A dead star, azure light;
It falls into an infinite realm,
It falls eternally into eternal being. […]
“When will it reach the end of the fall?”
Never – nowhere – it has no goal. (I, 22)
The dramatic effect of this passage, with its celestial imagery evincing the Romantic drive to embrace the entire universe, is elevated by the typically Baroque devices of oxymoron and asyndeton (omission a conjunction) in the line, “A dead star, azure light.” Oxymoron, based on the logically contradictory union of opposites, creates a sense of insubstantiality and eerie unreality similar to that evoked by the images of starlight and moonlight. Moreover, like the poem “The Little Moon,” May’s opening also alludes to the existence of other worlds in the heavens, “glimmering as though risen in a temple of eternal love” (I, 17); presumably, the same story of love and tragedy plays itself out infinitely in those worlds as well as our own.
After the heroine’s death all of nature whispers her name repeatedly: “Jarmilo!” This repetition both introduces the echo motif and emphasizes the significance of Jarmila’s name, which is mythopoetically associated with spring (jaro) and love (through the root mil-_6). In addition, the vocative form of the heroine’s name is an anagram of máj and Lori._7 While May is associated with the lyrical persona’s youth (“The current time / Of my youth is, like this poem, May”: I, 49), Lori is the name of Mácha’s young fiancée, whose questionable reputation tormented him. Mácha thus integrates his own life experience into the universal myth of corrupted love and death with which May begins. It is notable, moreover, that he was soon to realize his own metaphors by being buried on his wedding day, at the youthful age of twenty-five.
Jarmila’s identification with the moon links her to another mythical character of Mácha’s poetry – Idůna. The eponymous poem of 1832 tells the tale of a page and poet who longs for the light of Idůna, “the bright Moon of the night” (I, 97), with whom he merges upon his death. According to Mácha’s editors, Idůna is the northern goddess of spring, identified with the Amaranth, the fabled flower that never fades, an emblem of immortality (I, 365). Jarmila too is compared to the Amaranth; paradoxically, however, she is “like the Amaranth faded in the spring” (I, 18). She may thus be said to embody “the fallen existence of eternity” mentioned later in the poem (I, 43/48). Like Lermontov’s Demon, she is “a fallen angel” (I, 18) whose original corruption precludes redemption through love and ultimately destroys the object of her love. Like Idůna, she is Spring, the time of youth and hope, in which, for Mácha, love and death are always inextricably merged. Just as Idůna’s lover “suns himself” in the moon’s light only after death (I, 98), Vilém is united with Jarmila only after both their deaths, when the moon with which she is identified illuminates the pale face of his decapitated head: “In the deep silence the moon’s brilliance rose, / Silvering the pale dead face of that head” (I, 42). In other poems Mácha associates the moon more generally with yearning for unrealizable dreams; the dreamer may eventually be united with the moon, symbol of his longing, but again, only after death. In “The Future Homeland” (1833), for instance, a page’s dream of regaining his homeland, which he dies seeking, is equated with “the cold light of the moon” (I, 100). Similarly, in “The Tomb of the Czech Kings and Princes,” the dead kings, who represent the past greatness of the Czech lands, look up at the pale moon in the sky “as though seeking their homeland there” (I, 80), and in the poem “In the Cathedral” the moonlight’s “dead brilliance” (I, 126) illuminates their faces in their tomb. These images of the homeland as an elusive dream, by the way, point to an ironic, even parodic reading of May’s dedicatory preface (“The Czechs are a good people…”).
The Equation of Love and Death Formally Reinforced
In May longing and death, merged in the images of the moon and its counterpart Jarmila, with her pale cheeks and white dress, are further linked throughout the poem through color symbolism. The color white, frequently highlighted against a black background in dramatic chiaroscuro contrast recalling Baroque aesthetics, is associated throughout the poem with beauty, hope, and life (in the images of light, stars, suns, doves, lilies, the boat’s sail, feeling – which is compared to the moon: I, 24, the chapel, the farmsteads, and clouds). Yet at the same time white is also closely associated with pallor and death (in the images of the white prison tower, will-o’-the-wisps like funeral candles, the skull and skeleton, and snow like a death shroud). Whiteness, like the moon itself, thus bears both positive and negative connotations.
Throughout the poem both love and death are evoked formally in motifs of merging, perspective, and reflection (variants of the chiastic crisscross structure). In the opening to part one all things in nature strive to come together, though this may lead to loss ofindividuality, cosmic instability, and obliteration. Celestial bodies, for instance, “ardent with love for one another,” become “dying embers,”“coming together like lost lovers” (I, 17). As we have seen, this potentially destructive magnetic power of attraction is reflected formally in chiasmus (as in the lines, “So palely bright and brightly pale” and “Birch to pine and pine to birch inclines”: I, 17). Sometimes, as objects come together, the first syllable of a word is echoed in the subsequent line as though shortened and transformed by an echo, the aural and temporal equivalent of spatial perspective: “Dál blyštil bledý dvorů stín, / Jenž k sobě šly vždy blíž a blíž” (I, 17); compare the later explicit echo: “časně i věčně hynu? – / časně i věčně – věčně – čas –” (I, 25). On the visual plane, shadows come together in the distance as though in a passionate embrace, merging eventually in the darkness:
In the distance gleamed the pale shadow of cottages,
Converging, always closer and closer,
As though in embrace, still lower and lower,
Twining into the depths of dusk,
Merging into one in the gloom. (I, 17)
Throughout the poem convergence into one is a metaphor not only for love, but also for death. In his nocturnal meditations Vilém ponders the conception of death as eternal darkness in which everything is merged into an indivisible whole:
There all is one, no parts –
All without end – no moments,
Night does not pass, day does not break,
There time does not pass at all. (I, 28)
Vilém reflects on this view of death as the dissipation of all distinct form. The loss of individuality in death he envisions recalls the metaphoric representation of love in the perspective motif repeated throughout the poem. As a strong and independent Byronic hero, the “terrible lord of the forest” (I, 21/24/46), the brigand leader fears this melting away of individuality above all else.
The echo of the sound of dripping water Vilém hears in his cell is another metaphor of death: the sound of each drop falling resounds through his cell and then fades into silence. The aural effect is formally conveyed by the repetition of similar sound strings: “Zní – hyne – zní a hyne – / Zní – hyne – zní a hyne zas” (“It resounds – dies – resounds and dies – / Resounds – dies – resounds and dies again”; I, 27). As Jakobson and Mukařovský have amply illustrated,_8 Mácha orchestrated his verse with the utmost care: in these lines the contrast between the sibilant [z] and the aspirate [h] heightens the sense of a regular alternation of sound and silence. Silence is associated with darkness and death. Sound, however, is not associated solely and unambiguously with death’s opposite, the sensuous richness of life; throughout the poem it is always in some way negatively marked. Nature whispers and sings of love, but that love is permeated with sorrow. The lake groans and resounds “darkly with secret pain” (I, 17); Jarmila weeps, moans, shrieks, and wails; the words of the messenger and Vilém are full of pain and anger; the wind moans “like murdered prisoners” (I, 22); Vilém’s chains rattle; nature resounds with funeral songs and laments; bells toll; Vilém’s skeleton rattles; owls moan; and dogs howl. Even the “sweet voice” of the forest bugle that makes Vilém forget his torments is “like gentle weeping” (I, 26). The only alternative to death is a life that may be beautiful, but is always full of pain. Hope will always be shattered, and love is always doomed. Is this preferable to nothingness? In the 1832 poem “Melancholy,” Mácha suggests that it is not:
“Wipe your eyes!” they tell me,
“You see graves? You think the dead sleep
Without dreams? – No! – Another world diverts them,
They dream their morning once again!”
The silent dead? – ! – They live again? –
Live again? – Of their own free will? –
Or are their veins forced to pulse? –
Do they enter new dreams against their will? –
Am I again to dream childhood beyond the grave? –
So that its shadow may vanish once again? –
Oh, may the grave shelter me forever! –
Eternal nothing! Into your depths I cast myself! (I, 116–17)
Vilém too imagines the possibility of another dream-life after death: “Perhaps this life too is sleep / That I am living now, and tomorrow / It will merely become another dream?” (I, 26–27).
The poem “Melancholy” suggests that childhood is beautiful, but the thought of its passing is unbearable. The greater a thing’s beauty, the more painful it is, for everything beautiful must die. “I love the flower because it will wither,” writes the poet in his diary(III, 195). This typically Baroque memento mori topos finds resonance in the poem “I entered the world…”:
The rose in its prime lures me to her realm
With enchanting power; yearning
Flashes through my heart; – but as I near,
I see, oh! from the grave it blooms. (I, 179)
At times, as in the poem “Good Night” (1834), the poet suggests that it is precisely his love that leads to beauty’s destruction, just as, in a sense, it is Vilém’s love that leads to Jarmila’s death (as well as his father’s and his own). Love, the poet writes, is “a golden goblet filled with deadly bliss” that kills stars as well as spring flowers: “Everything that brought me joy / Was soon destroyed by my love!” (I, 124). This necessary association of beauty, love, and death clarifies May’s famous passage:
The tones of a warped harp, the sound of broken strings,
The feats of a bygone century, the light of an extinguished star,
The trail of an extinct planet, the feelings of a dead lover,
[…] the song of a dead swan […] (I, 42–43/48–49)
These paradoxes, evocative of Baroque poetics, are metaphors of Vilém’s lost childhood. Beauty lives on in music and memory, mingled with grief for its long-departed source. In a reprise of the perspective motif, the long-past “dream” of childhood is further compared to “the reflection of white towns submerged in watery depths” (I, 42/48), a chiastic image that underscores the pertinence of the beauty/death motif to the elegiac theme of the “beautiful time” (I, 42/48) of childhood gone forever. Oxymoron further heightens the sense of the past’s ethereality and links these images to other hypostases of elusive beauty: the dying sound of sweet music and the spectral moonlight that is Jarmila, inaccessible love.
In Evening at Bezděz (1834), Mácha compares childhood to evening, when all is beautiful, but dim and incomprehensible; youth to the starry night of longing; and old age and death to morning and daytime. Reading May in the light of these metaphors, the narrative of Vilém’s last evening, night, and morning may be seen as a metaphor of human life. The beauty of evening and childhood, inseparable from the tragedy of its loss, lives on infinitely, as in the poet’s paradoxical images, arousing always “a futile yearning for a past world” (I, 23). The Romantic topos of lost childhood, however, applies not only to individuals, but to all of humanity; at the poem’s end lost childhood is equated with “humanity’s lost paradise” (I, 49). The past greatness of humanity is gone forever, and so too is the glorious Czech past in particular, as Mácha suggests in poems such as “The Tomb of the Czech Kings and Princes” and “In the Cathedral.” In Schillerian terms, naiveté will never be regained in the sentimental modern age. Mácha, however, lacked Schiller’s faith in the future progress of humanity.
Mácha, who published in the literary journal Czech Flowers, would have associated poetry with flowers, his preferred symbol of doomed beauty. This is particularly true of a poem about the month named in Czech after flowers, květen (although, of course, Mácha uses the equivalent máj). Like Jarmila, the poem itself is a faded amaranth, an immortal flower corrupted from its origin by its very material – impure language and time, which Mácha elsewhere dubs “the brother of death” and “son of a heinous sin” (“Immortal soul…”: I, 181). If the nightingale singing its love to the rose in May’s opening parallels the romance of Vilém and Jarmila (who is compared also to a rose), at the same time this image emblemizes, with a hint of narcissism, the poet’s love for the poem, in all of its fallen beauty. Like the narcissistic Moon, the poem is destined to rise and fall forever. Like the dripping water in Vilém’s cell, it will resound and die endlessly, for its structure is circular. It never reaches a conclusion, for its end reprises its opening lines. It shall repeat itself infinitely, like night and day, like the seasons. Just as Vilém is never laid to rest in the poem’s narrative, but remains a skeleton standing guard at the execution site, so will he never find peace in a resolution to his tragic story. At each reading of the poem his story will replay itself, but it will always begin at the same point, after the fatal act, when everything is already predetermined. Jarmila will always already be fallen, and both lovers will always already be doomed. At each telling of their story, each reading of the poem, they will live again in all the beauty and sorrow of poetry. Is this eternity of suffering and loss preferable to the peaceful oblivion of timelessness? Is the periodicity of reiterated poetry analogous to nature’s cycles, to the life and death of roses, or does it conceal some slight yet fundamental difference? Does poetry, in divulging its secret sorrows, ever approach something greater, if only for a fleeting instant? Although May’s interwoven imagery suggests a pessimistic response to these questions, the very act of creation itself implies the opposite. Mácha, for whom all ideals are moonlight, certainly did not share the optimism characteristic of most of the German Romanics. But then again – he was, after all, a poet, creating beauty that is magnificent while it lives, though it is always destined to perish.
Dílo Karla Hynka Máchy (Praha; Fr. Borový, 1948–50), vol. I, p. 160. Hereinafter all references in parentheses refer to this edition by volume and page number. I will also indicate the dates of cited works according to the editor’s commentary, unless no date is given in this edition. All translations are my own.
See the editor’s comments in ibid., I, 354–55. For more details on the origins of May, see Karel Janský a Vojtěch Jirát, “Kdy vznikal Máj?,” Tajemství Křivokladu a jiné máchovské studie (Praha; Václav Petr, 1941), pp. 15–19.
On the Romantic fascination with the conjunction of love and death, see the classic study by Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony (London; Oxford University Press, 1970). Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, for instance, is representative of this Romantic obsession. Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s poetic masterpiece The Demon is another work that exhibits all of these features and, in general, has much in common with May.
On Baroque poetics, see Harold B. Segel, The Baroque Poem: A Comparative Survey (New York; E. P. Dutton & Co., 1974). A number of commentators have discussed the relation of Mácha’s poetry to the Baroque, including Jan Mukařovský in his well-known book, Kapitoly z české poetiky III: Máchovské studie (Praha; Svoboda, 1948), pp. 208-15. Although Mácha may or may not have been familiar with Baroque poetry in Czech, it is likely that he knew the work of such German Baroque poets as Andreas Gryphius, Angelus Silesius, and the Jesuit Friedrich von Spee. Given his marked interest in Polish language and literature, it is probable that he had also sampled of Poland’s voluminous Baroquecorpus. In addition, Mácha was certainly well acquainted with the style in the visual arts, which illustrate many of the same topoi and some of the same devices as Baroque poetry.
R. B. Pynsent, “Characterization in Mácha’s Máj,” Czech Studies: Literature, Language, Culture, ed. Mojmír Grygar (Amsterdam; Rodopi, 1990), p. 237. On the other hand, it may be argued that the entire first line of the Czechs’ favorite poem is a Germanism (cf. “Es war später Abend, erster Mai”), as my colleague Karin Beck has pointed out (personal communication), although this possibility does not invalidate Pynsent’s observations on its connotations in Czech.
Vilém’s name also contains these sounds, as do the names of many of Mácha’s protagonists – e.g., Milvoj, Mílka, Milina, and Milada.
Though he does not discuss the name Jarmila, Roman Jakobson points out similar anagrams in the poem, such as láska–skála and sklamánat’–láska má, in his classic article, “Máchův verš o hrdliččině hlasu,” Studies in Verbal Art: Texts in Czech and Slovak (Ann Arbor; The University of Michigan, 1971), pp. 245–65.
Jakobson, ibid.; Mukařovský, ibid.
Jakobson, Roman: Máchův verš o hrdliččině hlasu. Studies in Verbal Art: Texts in Czech and Slovak. Ann Arbor; The University of Michigan 1971.
Janský, Karel–Jirát, Vojtěch: Kdy vznikal Máj? Tajemství Křivokladu a jiné máchovské studie. Václav Petr, Praha 1941.
Mácha, Karel: Dílo Karla Hynka Máchy. Fr. Borový, Praha 1948–50.
Mukařovský, Jan: Kapitoly z české poetiky III: Máchovské studie. Svoboda, Praha 1948.
Praz, Mario: The Romantic Agony. Oxford University Press, London 1970.
Pynsent, R. B.: Characterization in Mácha’s Máj. Czech Studies: Literature, Language, Culture. Ed. Mojmír Grygar. Rodopi, Amsterdam 1990.
Segel, Harold B.: The Baroque Poem: A Comparative Survey. E. P. Dutton & Co., New York 1974.