A nation’s heroes reflect its inspirations and aspirations. They are revered as the living embodiment of the nation’s character. All national heroes are not created equal though. Many have deeply flawed characters. Sometimes those who have the power to tug at a nation’s heart strings can also sink to levels of depravity more closely associated with the fringes of society. It was hard to believe such a thing about Slovenia’s most heroic and historical personage, a man who was immortalized right in the heart of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s jewel box of a capital city. The city center, so tidy and quaint, seemed an unlikely place to be standing face to face with the statue of a great man of dubious character. Yet it was this same man who has also become the most venerated person in Slovenian history. A man whose words awakened a firestorm of national feeling. His words achieved greatness, his deeds brought downfall. France Preseren was a complicated and deeply troubled man, a literary genius who left a legacy behind that made him a Slovenian national hero. This was despite, or perhaps because of the contradictions in his troubled character.
Unintentional Symbolism – A Hero & Scoundrel
I had never heard of France Preseren until I came upon him in the heart of Ljubljana. He occupied an exalted place in the Old Town. His large bronze statue, part of a rather frayed monument, stands in the cobbled square named after Slovenia’s most beloved bard. Presernov trg (Preseren square) is one of the most important public spaces in the Slovenian capital. The iconic Triple Bridge, laid across the Ljublanica River, leads to the square. The marvelous Baroque Church of the Annunciation dominates its north side, while several secessionist style buildings fill in the surrounding spaces, adding an eclectic touch to the scene. The statue of Preseren is part of a larger monument complex. On it, the poet stands straight backed on a pedestal while a naked muse sits on a rock above him. In one of her hands the muse holds a laurel wreath.
The monument in conjunction with its immediate surroundings is loaded with symbolism, much of it unintentional. For instance, off to Preseren’s right is the Church of the Annunciation. Though educated in Catholic schools during his formative years, the rebellious Preseren had a fraught relationship with the church throughout his life. The situation of Preseren’s statue is also fascinating. It faces in the direction where the unrequited love of his life, Julija Primic once lived. Finally, there is the naked muse above Preseren, serving as a reminder of his poetic prowess, seemingly gifted from the literary gods. To those who know about Preseren’s personal life, the muse could also be viewed as temptation or desire always near to his thoughts. Though Preseren’s love for Julija went unrequited, that did not stop him from an endless series of carnal trysts with numerous women. The truth about Preseren is just as complicated as the symbolism surrounding the monument. He was a world class poet and the man who did more than anyone to make Slovenian a literary language. Conversely, he was a drunk, a womanizer and deeply depressed. In other words, France Preseren was both hero and scoundrel.
On A Course Of Despair – Rejection, Rebellion & Remarkable Verse
France Preseren was born in Vrba, a tiny village in northern Slovenia not far from Lake Bled. He was one of seven children and the oldest son of a well to do farmer. His mother placed great value on education, making sure all her children were literate and educated. Young France displayed a preternatural intellect from an early age. He was sent to Catholic schools where he learned four different languages – including Latin and Ancient Greek – by the time he was a teenager. His mother pushed him to join the priesthood, but he was too much a rebel for a career in the church. Instead he went off to school in Vienna where he trained to be a lawyer. Moving back to Ljubljana in 1828, he worked for a local law firm. Time and again he applied to start a practice as an independent lawyer, but his applications were consistently denied. Only after the sixth application was he finally approved. Rejection seems to have been a constant theme throughout Preseren’s adult life.
During these years he was cultivating his true talent, poetry. In the early 1830’s his verse reached a new level, as did his love life, after he met the wealthy Julija Simic. A hopeless romantic, Preseren fell deeply in love with her, but could not bring himself to profess his true feelings, likely out of fear that she would not reciprocate. The failure of this relationship set Preseren on a course of despair that would follow him for the rest of his life. He also had numerous run-ins with the church and state. His unfulfilled romantic life, rebellious spirit and literary talent were a potent combination that led him to write remarkable verse. He identified his unrequited feelings with that of the Slovenes own thwarted nationalist aspirations. In the process his verse became the voice of a nation, but only after his life ended. Only a single volume of his poetry was published in his lifetime.
Speaking To Slovenians – A National Creation
The private life and behavior of Preseren casts a long shadow over his heroic reputation. To put it simply, he was a drunkard. To the point, that he destroyed himself with alcohol. He lacked self-control when it came to the bottle. The same was true of his relationships with women. He was the father of three children with Ana Jelovsek. They never married, but she became his common law wife. While they were together he had numerous affairs with other women. Their children ended up in foster care. And yet for a man who was not much of a father to his own, Preseren was known for his kindnesses to children. He often gave them sweets and invited them to dine with him at inns. The same inns that he frequented and drank himself to death. In 1849 he died from cirrhosis of the liver. His life was over, but his legacy has proven lasting.
It is difficult for me to square the life and character of Preseren with that of present day Slovenians. Slovenia has achieved independence and relative prosperity. The people are quiet and industriousness. Drama in Slovenia is more natural than human. Yet their national hero, Preseren, had a personal life no sane Slovenian would want. His sufferings were mostly self-inflicted. Peace, contentment and happiness eluded him. Yet there must be something in both Preseren’s verse and character that speaks to Slovenians. He was in the vanguard of promoting the Slovenian language and in the process creating a nation. All Slovenians owe him a debt of gratitude. They should never forget what Preseren did for Slovenia. At the same time, they should also never forget what he did to himself.