Petar II Petrovic Njegos
to first English edition of The Mountain Wreath translated by James
W. Wiles, published in 1930 by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London.
The writer of this Introduction is the author of Shakespeare in Serbia,
the third volume in the "Shakespeare Survey" series, made under the general
direction of Sir I. Gollancz. Lit.D., F.B.A., and published for the Shakespeare
Association by the Oxford University Press, London, 1928.
What Shakespeare is to England, Njegos is to Serbia: her greatest and most nationally
representative poet. Njegos's finest work, The Mountain Wreath (Gorski Vijenac),
has had a success unparalleled by any other product of Serbo-Croatian literature, both
at home and abroad. English is the tenth language into which it has been translated, the others
being Russian, Bulgarian, Czech, Slovene, Italian, German, Hungarian, Swedish,
and French. In Serbo-Croatian lands it has had a better fate than classics
usually have: it is not admired from a respectable distance, but much and
widely read and loved. It has been frequently reprinted, the best critical
edition being that of Professor Milan Resetar. The subject of Njegos and
his work has attracted many distinguished Yugoslav writers, among them
three whose names are already known in England: Professor Pavle Popovic
deals with the literary aspect of The Mountain Wreath, Professor
Brana Petronijevic with its philosophy, and Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic
with the religion of Njegos. More than any other work The Mountain Wreath
reveals the essence and substance of a race that has had to go through
many tribulations and to fight against many difficulties.
The author of The Mountain Wreath was born in 1811 or 1813 in Njegusi
in Montenegro. The name he received at baptism was Rade. After the death
of his uncle, Petar I, Bishop of Montenegro, who had designated him as
his successor, Rade was made monk in 1831, changed his name to Petar, and
in 1833 went to Russia to be made bishop. He was the last of a succession
of bishops who, since the end of the XVIIth Century, had gradually gathered
into their hands the full power of a secular ruler over the Montenegrin
clans. He died of consumption in 1851. His full name and title was Petar
II Petrovic Njegos, Bishop of Montenegro, but he is generally known as
Njegos was a cultured man who had read much, meditated much, and experienced much.
He was for quite a long time the only educated man in his country. Most
of the priests were illiterate. They carried arms like other men and fought
with the Turks. A typical example of a pop or priest is that given
in a humorous scene in The Mountain Wreath. Pop Mico cannot read
a letter which he has himself written. He is laughed at by Bishop Danilo
and the chieftains, but he is not dismayed, and coolly remarks that if
he had had better teaching he would read better. For the church service
he needs no books: he learnt by ear as a boy all he needs, and he delivers
it from memory when occasion demands. Cases like that of Pop Mico were
quite usual not only in the XVIIIth Century, but also in the time of Njegos.
Njegos never went to school abroad, nor to a regular school at home, for
there was none in the whole of the country. His education was begun in
the monastery at Cetinje, and for a time continued at a monastery in Bocche
The first man with university education with whom Njegos came into contact
was Simo Milutinovic, the most romantic of Serbian poets. He came to Cetinje
in 1827 to be secretary to Bishop Petar I, and remained there three or
four years. His duty was also that of teacher to the young Njegos. Milutinovic
had studied for some time in Germany, where he made connections with Herder,
Grimm, Uhland, Goethe. He was by nature a romantic, a gifted poet, and
a heroic man, but extravagant in style, so that he never came near to perfection
in his literary work. He had attached himself to the pseudo-classical movement
in poetry, and had acquired some of its bad qualities. His work overflows
with the names of classical gods and goddesses. Nevertheless, his influence
on Njegos was for good. He showed him the greatness of Serbian folk-poetry,
which had attracted much attention even from such men as Goethe, and he
imparted to him a love of the great poetry of Europe, ancient and modern,
and gave him a taste for philosophy.
While at Cetinje, Milutinovic wrote two dramas. One of them was dedicated to
Sir John Bowring, the translator of Serbian folk-poetry into English. The
dedication is also interesting because it contains one of the earliest
references in Serbian literature to Shakespeare. This drama dealt with
a subject from Montenegrin history. Njegos later found in this a precedent
which he followed in his Mountain Wreath. Milutinovic's second drama
treated of Milos Obilic, the greatest hero of Serbian folk-poetry. This
play was written in eight days among the mountains, in a shepherd's hut
during which time Milutinovic abstained almost entirely from food, and
attained to mystic visions. The character of Milos Obilic left a powerful
impression on Njegos, and his name is frequently mentioned in The Mountain
Wreath. It may be of interest to mention that the first man to write
a drama about Obilic was an Englishman, Thomas Goffe, Master of Arts and
Student of Christ Church in Oxford. The play was acted by the students
of Christ Church on St. Matthew's Day, 1618. under the title of The
Tragedy of Amurath, Third Tyrant of the Turks. It was first published
in 1632, under the title of The Courageous Turk, or Amurath the
First. Although the play does not bear his name Obilic is really its
hero. In the conflict between the Turks and the Serbs on Kosovo Field in
1389 Goffe saw a situation which was for him symbolical of the conflict
between Mohammedanism and Christianity.
Milutinovic was not a man who could give Njegos systematic education, but he awakened
in him the latent qualities of a poet, a thinker, and a hero. We do not
know what books the master gave his pupil to study, but we know that they
spent much time in wandering through the mountains, in bitter cold, in
blazing sunshine, or through the driving rain. Evidently Milutinovic wished
to make of Njegos a man who could triumph over any physical difficulty.
This exercise seems to have been sometimes carried to excess. It is related
how master and pupil competed as to who could gaze longest at the blazing
sun without flinching. However, one thing is certain: in those walks Njegos
learnt to commune with Nature, and to listen in his own soul to what the
Black Mountains and the starry heavens whispered to him.
On the death of Bishop Petar I in 1830 Milutinovic left Cetinje. Njegos was
recognized by the chiefs of the people as the successor of his uncle. He
was made monk and then archimandrite, and changed his name, according to
the custom of the Eastern Church. Rade became Petar, in memory of his uncle.
His desire was to be made bishop by the Russian Church, but circumstances
were such that he had to postpone his journey to Russia for two or three
years. Meanwhile he came into a dangerous conflict with the Turks. The
Montenegrins made two unsuccessful attacks on a town within the Turkish
territory. The Turks then sent an army against Montenegro. The Montenegrins
were victorious, but the Turks prepared a more serious attack, which might
have been disastrous for the Montenegrins if Russian intervention in Constantinople
had not prevented it. The Russians had been the protectors of Montenegro
for a number of years, and with financial help sent by them Njegos began
to work for the unification of the clans into a State. He instituted the
first law-court at Cetinje, the chief function of which was to silence
the feuds that existed between the clans. Some slight taxation was also
imposed on the people. Then Njegos went to Russia, where he was made bishop
in the presence of the Emperor. He returned to his country as Petar II
Petrovic Njegos, Bishop of Montenegro. The Bishop, who was also the chief
secular authority in the country, was then only twenty-two years of age,
or, if we take 1813 to have been the date of his birth, perhaps only twenty.
The visit to Russia had a great influence on him. He saw the culture of Vienna
and Petrograd, brought back many books, and published his first book of
poems. He founded the first elementary school and the first printing-press,
and ten years later a second elementary school. Roads began to be constructed
in the country. Njegos's chief end was to preserve the independence of
Montenegro, to enlarge and fix its frontiers. The dream of his life was
to see all Serbian lands free from Turkish or Austrian oppression. The
transformation of his country from a clan State into a united, civilized
State was very slow and laborious. The Turks remained a grave danger to
the end of his life.
Njegos travelled twice to Russia and three times to Vienna. In 1850 he began to
spit blood, and went to Italy to seek a cure. He returned to Italy later,
to spend the winter in Naples. But there was no remedy for his illness,
and he died at Cetinje in 1851, at the age of forty or thirty-eight.
His favourite pastimes were hunting, billiards, and cards. He was a good rider
and an excellent shot. But his chief occupation besides government was
poetry: reading, meditating, and writing. His favourite poets were Lamartine,
Byron, Dante, and Petrarch. He knew Russian and French well. English he
did not know, although an English grammar in Italian and an English-German
dictionary were found among his books. He had Byron's works in a Leipzig
edition, and those of Shakespeare in a French translation;
Ossian in German. Scott's Life of Napoleon in Russian, and Ivanhoe
in a Leipzig edition, as well as Hume's History of England in French,
were also among his books. It is known that he possessed Milton's Paradise
Lost in Russian, full of his own marks and notes, but this has disappeared
from his library. Although Njegos's poem on the Fall of Man, The Light
of the Microcosm is an original creation, there are points of contact
between it and Paradise Lost, and the loss of his Russian copy of Milton
is regrettable. It might have revealed to us the exact way in which Milton
was his inspiration. It has teen reported that, besides other poets, he
had read all the Greek classics, probably in translation. Njegos was a
perfectly balanced nature, and it is not surprising to find from his works
that his spirit was as much romantic as classical. His emotional and intellectual
life had equal freedom of development.
A foreign visitor, Dr. Biasoletto, describes Njegos as "tall, of good stature, of
magnificent appearance, kind and courteous, cultured". His appearance also
made a very favourable impression on an English traveller, G. Wilkinson,
who recorded it in his book on Dalmatia and Montenegro.
The body of Njegos reposes on the topmost peak of Lovcen, the highest mountain
in the region, more than 5,500 feet above sea-level. There he had built
a little church and a tomb for himself. From that place can be seen the
whole of Montenegro and parts of those other Serbian lands whose freedom
was the dream of Njegos.
A hundred times I've gazed at floating clouds,
Sailing as, phantom ships high off the sea,
And casting anchor on this mountain range!
Now here, now there I've watched them break away,
With darts of lightning and with rumblings dread,
And sudden roar of all the sky's artillery!
A hundred times have I watched from these heights,
And quietly basked beneath the genial sun,
While lightnings flash'd and thunders peal'd below:
I saw and heard how they did rend the skies;
Downpours from heaven of most hostile hail
Robbed Mother Earth of her fertility.
These words of Bishop Danilo in The Mountain Wreath must represent an
actual experience of Njegos, but they are charged with deeper, symbolic
meaning: at the time of Bishop Danilo, Montenegro was the only Serbian
land on which the sun of freedom shone; all the others were overhung by
heavy clouds of servitude.
The part of Montenegro comprising Lovcen rises like a tremendous fortress from
the Gulf of Cattaro at the southern extremity of the Dalmatian coast. The
contrast between the enchanting, smiling beauty of the Adriatic waters
and the frowning barrenness of Montenegro is awe-inspiring. On the one
side the blue waters of the loveliest gulf in Europe, the green of fertile
land, and the gleam of small white towns bordering the coast; on the other,
a sea of dark and jagged mountains, their barren greyness relieved only
by tiny cultivated patches of earth. Here and there a lonely church or
a small stone house: the gloom and desolation of a rocky desert, with a
magnificence not of our planet but of the dead moon. Here the Montenegrin
clans, with their cattle, eked out a sparse existence, perpetually fighting
among themselves and with the Turks all through the XVIth, XVIIth, and
XVIIIth Centuries. When Njegos became chief of the country the rising sun
of freedom shone brighter than it ever had done during the last two or three centuries,
but the horizon was still dark with the menace of the Mohammedan power. In such surroundings
and such circumstances a man with a poetic soul and a philosophic mind could
not but plunge into the mystery of existence. Why was earth created? Why
was man set upon it? Why is the life of man a constant misery and happiness
only a dream? Njegos was a pessimist, but he found the way that led out
of the dungeon of life to bliss. All these experiences found powerful expression
in his first great poem, The Light of the Microcosm.
The Light of the Microcosm was published in 1845, a year or two before
The Mountain Wreath. From a purely literary point of view it is
not equal to The Mountain Wreath, but it cannot be disputed that
it is so far the most profound poem in the Serbo-Croatian language. It
consists of a dedication to Simo Milutinovic and six cantos - 2,210 lines
in all. The first reading is not an easy one, but like Paradise Lost and
every other great poem, each repeated reading reveals new depths of thought
and powers of imagination.
Full many a time with flaming soul have I besought
The blue vault of the sacred heavens, sown with starry seed,
To reveal to me the holy secret.
But neither nature nor the wise men of earth revealed to Njegos the secret
of the fate of man. Finally, he is led by the divine spark in his own soul
into the world of eternity. There his guardian angel bids him drink from
a source of heavenly waters, which discover to him the cause of the fall
of man. He sees the beginnings of time, the abode of the Almighty, and
His faithful servants, archangels and angels, who live in perpetual bliss.
He sees the rebellion of Satan and his overthrow. One of the adherents
of Satan repents in time, for which reason God softens the punishment which
he had merited. The penitent was a mighty spirit called Adam. He and his
followers were thrown into the prison of the flash on the planet-earth.
But God sent His Son to bring the light of eternal life into the darkness
of earth. Since then man may of his free choice partake of the life of
bliss which he lost through Adam's treason to God.
Milton's Paradise Lost was no doubt a source of inspiration to Njegos, but
not an object of imitation. The theme is the same - the fall of Adam -
but the treatment is quite different. The Light of the Microcosm
is an original creation. Every line of it is the result of personal experience.
Life was like a terrible dream to Njegos:
Man has been thrown into a heavy sleep,
And terrible visions come to him,
And he can scarce discern
Whether he is of them or apart.
Njegos was a bishop, but he was not conventional in matters of religious belief.
He spoke the truth which he found in his own soul, not what was imposed
on him by the dogmas of the Church. When he speaks of the immortality of
the soul he is not repeating an idea which he has taken on faith without
being fully conscious of its truth. His ideas on immortality spring from
his own consciousness: he was not accepting a dogma that the soul is immortal:
he knew that it is immortal.
The appearance of The Light of the Microcosm marked the beginning of
a new phase in the work of Njegos as a poet. It was followed by his masterpiece,
The Mountain Wreath, in 1847, by Stephen The Pretender,
finished the same year but published in 1850, and by two poems about Montenegrin
warriors. About ten years before The Light of the Microcosm Njegos
had published two collections of poems: one was inspired by his visit to
St. Petersburg, the other by Montenegrin fights with the Turks. A third
volume, also about the struggle with the Turks, was finished about that
time, but was published after the poet's death. All these poems are in
the blank verse of Serbian folk-poetry, mostly in the trochaic pentameter.
Two main subjects run through all of them: the fight for freedom and man's
relation to God. Stephen the Pretender resembles The Mountain Wreath
in form, each of them being a series of scenes called by Njegos "historical
happening", with the difference that the former is divided into five acts
while the latter is not divided into acts at all. Stephen the Pretender
is inferior not only to The Mountain Wreath but also to The Light
of the Microcosm; nevertheless it is interesting to read. The central
figure is an adventurer who came to Montenegro in the second half of the
XVIIIth Century, and succeeded in convincing the people that he was the
banished Emperor of Russia, Peter III. Njegos clung too closely lo the
facts of history, with the result that the freedom of his poetic creation
The words "the mountain wreath" signify: the glory of the mountains - the glory
of Montenegro as exemplified by scenes from her struggles with the Turks
for the preservation of freedom and Christianity. The Turkish power had
swept over the Balkans like a tidal wave. Montenegro was the last to be
submerged of the Serbian lands, in the beginning of the XVIth Century.
By the end of the XVIIth it began to reemerge into freedom - the first
of Serbian lands to do so. But what the Turks could not do by military
power, thanks to the inaccessibility of the Montenegrin land, their religion
began to do. The spread of Mohammedanism among the Montenegrin tribes became
a serious danger. Christianity and nationality with more or less primitive
people were the same thing. If Christianity went, national customs went
with it. Language would remain, but the people would be cut away from the
bulk of the Serbian nation, and would feel like men a fog. This is what
may he seen today in Bosnia: the Mohammedans speak Serbian and consider
themselves as Serbs, but the stream of their energy has been blocked, and,
not mingling with the current of Christian Serbia, it is flowing nowhere
and is stagnating. The racial instinct of the Montenegrins was in mortal
opposition to Mohammedanism. According to folk-tradition, Bishop Danilo,
at the end of the XVIIth or beginning of the XVIIIth Century, instigated
the eradication of Mohammedanism from Montenegro. Historians are not of
one opinion as to the date of the consequent massacre; some of them think
that it never really took place; but it is the subject Njegos chose as
the main theme of his best poem.
The Mountain Wreath is a series of scenes in the form of dialogues and
monologues. The poem opens with a monologue by Bishop Danilo. He sees,
as in a vision, the spread of Turkish power in Europe, and sees himself
impotent to oppose it. Mohammedanism is spreading in the country: the Christians,
the people as well as their chiefs, are ready to start a decisive fight
with their faithless countrymen, but the Bishop is torn by an inner conflict.
He sees that the struggle is inevitable, but he dreads the issue. If the
opponents are equally matched, brothers of two different creeds will exterminate
each other, and the only Serbs who have kept the spirit of the race free
will vanish from the earth. For this reason the Bishop hesitates, in spite
of his desire, to take action. Like Hamlet, he always finds some reason
for postponing the action until the end of the poem, when he is hurled
into it. Bishop Danilo, as created by Njegos, is quite different from the
bishop of the folk-tradition. In The Mountain Wreath Bishop Danilo
has partaken much of the nature of his creator: a man of intellect, not
only of will, a man who thinks long before plunging into the abyss of uncertainty.
Between the first gathering of the chiefs to deliberate as to venturing upon the
ordeal of the sword concerning Islam and the execution of their decision
a number of scenes illustrating the life and culture of the Montenegrins
are introduced, loosely connected with the main theme and interwoven with
"kolos" sung by the people, recalling the choruses of Greek tragedy: their
themes range from the Kosovo disaster of 1389 to the extermination of the
Mohammedans in Montenegro. The Kosovo disaster is regarded as a punishment
from God, in His anger against the Serbian chiefs, who were striving against
each other for supremacy instead of uniting against the enemy.
The state of culture as shown in the episodic scenes is primitive, but permeated
with the love of freedom and justice. Vojvoda Drasko relates his impressions
of Venice. Most of the people there, according to him, were ugly; riches
had turned their heads. The poor were so devoid of spirit that they did
not shrink from carrying fat, rich women through the streets in chairs!
The houses were beautiful, but overcrowded, and the air polluted. The people
were devoid of heroism: the law-courts were unjust; every man lived in
constant fear of spies and false accusations: the prisons were like Hell:
One would not tie a dog there,
Much less a wretched human being.
Drasko rebuked the prison-keepers, but his Dalmatian friend told him:
Speak not such words here;
Just words may not be spoken here;
Lucky art thou that none has understood thee!
The theatre seemed a ludicrous institution to Vojvoda Drasko. No entertainment
pleased him there, for he could not see a gusle anywhere. Now, to a foreigner
the gusle is a most primitive one-stringed instrument with a very monotonous
moaning sound: bill to a Serb it was sacred, for it was
used as an accompaniment to the chanting of heroic folk-poetry. The best
"guslars" (i.e. gusle-players) were blind. Their songs were full of grief
for the loss of Serbian freedom, but also full of hope, relating the deeds
of great heroes. Some of those songs when heard even today by Serbs of
western education and culture bring tears to the eyes. It only in such
moments that one realizes the meaning and power of the gusle: the guslar
sings like one in a trance: the sound of the gusle, with something of hypnotic
power, puts the hearer too into a sort of trance; and the words of the
song evoke in him the feeling that he too can die willingly for the freedom
of his country. And tears? They are for those innumerable heroes who for
centuries have given their lives, and for those innumerable ones who will
in the future give their lives, for the freedom of their country.
But the atmosphere of The Mountain Wreath is not charged only with thoughts
of blood. There is much serenity in it, and there is humour in such scenes
as that already referred lo with Pop Mico, or that in which an old woman
tells of her own exploits as a witch, and is made to confess that she is
only a poor wretch whom the Turks had forced to spread evil among the Montenegrin
clans by her lies.
There are omens and earthquakes and a blood-red moon, portent of the approach
of the terrible event: the extermination of the Mohammedan Montenegrins.
There are dreams pointing to future events. All this recalls the atmosphere
of King Lear or Julius Caesar, but it is quite original.
Folk-lore is alive in any country before it becomes perfectly civilized.
The most interesting incident of this kind is the dream of some forty Montenegrins
on the eve of the attack of the Mohammedans. They all saw the same person
in their dreams: the great hero of Kosovo, Milos Obilic, had passed on
a milk-white steed down the valley of Cetinje. The meaning is very simple:
the Christians are to be victorious over the Moslems. Obilic has become
the symbol of a desire dating from the end of the XIVth Century: to kill
the Turks. That desire was deeply rooted in the subconscious mind of the
people, and appears in the figure of the hero who killed the Turkish Emperor.
Deep thoughts about the nature of life are not wanting in The Mountain Wreath.
The speeches of the blind abbot Stephen are considered by a distinguished
Serbian philosopher. Dr. Petronijevic, to anticipate the theories of Darwin.
The Mountain Wreath abounds also in passages of exquisite lyrical
beauty, such as that where Vuk Mandusic relates, while half-a-sleep. how
he was conquered by the charms of a maiden, and the mountains and the sea
cast a reflection of their beauty over the poem.
The translator of The Mountain Wreath into English, Mr. J. W. Wiles,
came to Serbia in 1913. First as Reader in English in the University of
Belgrade, then as head of the British and Foreign Bible Society for South-Eastern
Europe, he has linked a large part of his life with the fate of Serbia.
He has mastered the language and entered with true insight and understanding
into the soul of the people. His translation of Njegos - which was preceded
by that of Mazuranic's Death of Smail-Aga, Lazarevic's First
Morning Service with Father, and a collection of Serbian folk-songs
- is the result of long and patient work. Not least among its merits is
its entire faithfulness to the meaning and spirit of the finest production
of the greatest Serbian poet.