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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Lucy Catlin Bull Robinson (1861–1903)

By Ivan Vazov (1850–1921)

TO the world at large Bulgarian literature is represented by Vazov alone, an author in whom Bulgarian ethos finds fittest expression. Nothing could be racier of the soil than the poems and romances of Ivan Vazov, born in 1850 in the little town of Sopot, under the shadow of the Great Balkan. No book was ever more thoroughly and lovingly steeped in local color than his most widely read novel, ‘Under the Yoke.’ From the outset his patriotism, poured out year after year in a cause that seemed utterly hopeless, takes a form so exalted as to raise him above the mere delineator of character and gatherer of specimens. As the political aspirations of his nation gradually realized themselves, the writer kept widening the sphere of his sympathy until his patriotism became subservient to his love of humanity. Besides, an irresistible affinity felt in boyhood for writers like Pushkin, Nekrasov, Lamartine, and Victor Hugo could but have a happy effect on a kindred spirit; and when the erstwhile pupil became in turn a master, he summed up his creed in the universal triad, Nature, Love, and God. On a naturally nervous and impetuous style the example set by those masters could but exert a beneficial influence. Who shall say how far a scrupulous choice of words, and a keen ear for the harmonies of verse and prose, may not have tended to rescue the young revolutionist from becoming the ephemeral organ of a political insurrection?

Although it was from Victor Hugo that Vazov drew the motto, “De verre pour gémir; d’airain pour résister” (Glass for sorrow, brass for courage), prefixing it to a volume of his poems, still the foreign influence only took the form of a wholesome infusion. Even in the seventies, when a few brave hearts were pushing the cause of emancipation in spite of their cautious countrymen, and when only the very rich could aspire to an education, Bulgaria had preachers of revolution whose eloquence was of no mean order, and the beginnings of a literature. For the men in exile and active warfare against Turkish oppression, who turned so readily from the sword to the pen, looking upon both merely as a means to an end, were nevertheless genuine poets, natural orators, and belonged to a race who in spite of the narrowing of their horizon through four centuries of suffering, could not forget that in past ages, under rulers distinguished for courage or learning, their realm had held a high place among the nations. As young Vazov’s fancy pictured this Golden Age, he could not help contrasting it with the squalid present. His mother had once shown him a picture of Tsar Nicholas I., with the words, “This is the Tsar of Bulgaria,” and our poet learned to look upon the Sovereign of Russia as the liberator of his nation in bondage. Fortunately for Vazov, his teacher had seen Russia in his student days, and delighted in telling his pupil stories of that country and in reading from Russian classics. Vazov easily mastered a language so similar to Bulgarian as Russian.

That Bulgarian comes very close to Russian is not always appreciated in Russia itself. At Moscow, in the summer of 1895, a young writer remarked to Vazov, who had come with the deputation from Bulgaria that laid a wreath on the tomb of Alexander III., “What a pity that the inscription on the wreath is in Russian instead of Bulgarian!”

“But it is from beginning to end a Bulgarian inscription that you see there,” returned the poet, compressing into one quick movement the mingled pride and chagrin of centuries.

The study of Russian romanticists paved the way to their French prototypes, and the young student at the Gymnasium of Philippopolis turned away in loathing from Greek and Turkish, the languages of commercial intercourse in the Balkans, to the tongue of Lamartine and Hugo. As it happened, Vazov’s first poetic attempt was a translation of ‘La Mère Aveugle’ of Béranger.

The attar-yielding Valley of Roses, lying between the Stara Planina and the parallel range of the Sredna-Gora, contributed a certain aroma to the new era that ended in complete emancipation from Turkish rule. It was there in 1848, in the free town of Kalofer, clinging to the mountain-side, that the truly inspired poet and revolutionist Botev was born; and as it happened, his fellow-poet Vazov, born in the Valley of the Strema, attended school for a short time in the same place, studying Greek under Botev’s father. A boy like Christo Botev, ardent and high-strung,—destined to lay down his life for his country before reaching his thirtieth year,—could not have been brought up in surroundings more stimulating to the imagination. It was in a veritable garden of roses that his life began; and he can scarcely write without some mention of the mighty forest that lay so near. His birthplace, founded by the brigand Kalofer and named after him, was one of the few places that by virtue of their remoteness had preserved a measure of independence. Unlike most Bulgarian towns and villages, it had at the center no Turkish habitation; so that the poet’s love of freedom, which was far from being local and national,—recognizing the effects of misrule not only in his own country, but in Russia, in Africa, indeed throughout the world,—was taken in with the mountain air he breathed. The founder, Kalofer, belonged to a distinct class called haïdouti or brigands (otherwise it is impossible to translate a word half-way between hero and highwayman), whose open hostility to the Turkish government compelled them to take refuge, oftentimes in Rumania, but in mild weather in the stupendous gorges and caverns of the Stara Planina. Botev was neither one of the earliest nor one of the latest martyrs to the cause. He did not live to shudder at the massacres of the Sredna-Gora, which moved the Emperor of Russia, Alexander II., to come to the relief of Bulgaria, and his son, afterwards Alexander III., to take an active part in the campaign which in 1878 exacted her independence. Botev’s poem on the death of his friend Hadjy-Dimitre is remarkable for its unconscious foreshadowing of his own death, similar in all respects to that of the hero he brooded over with such intense affection:—

  • Hadjy Dimitre
  • HE lives, he lives! There on the Balkan’s crest,
  • Low-lying in his blood, he maketh moan—
  • The hero with a deep wound in his breast,
  • The hero in his youth and might o’erthrown.
  • He hath laid down his gun, in bitter woe
  • Laid down the two halves of his broken sword;
  • His eyes more dim and head more restless grow,
  • While maledictions from his mouth are poured.
  • Helpless he lies; and at her harvesting—
  • Beneath the blazing sky, the startled sun—
  • A maiden somewhere in the field doth sing,
  • And swifter than before the blood doth run.
  • ’Tis harvest-time,—sing then your mournful staves,
  • Ye melancholy folk that toil apart!
  • Burn fiercely, sun, across a land of slaves!
  • One hero more must die—but hush, my heart!
  • Who falls in fight for liberty’s dear sake
  • Can never die;—heaven weeps for him, and earth;
  • Nature herself—the woodland creatures wake
  • Hymns in his honor; poets sing his worth.
  • By day the eagle lends a hovering shade;
  • The wolf steals softly up to lick his wound;
  • The falcon, bird of battle, droops dismayed
  • To see his brother stretched upon the ground.
  • Night falls: uncounted stars are in the sky;
  • The moon looks forth; the woods and winds erelong
  • Begin an ever-waxing melody,—
  • The Balkan chants the brigand’s battle-song.
  • At last the nymphs, half hid in filmy white,—
  • Enchantresses that tender lays repeat,—
  • Downsliding, on the emerald turf alight,
  • And gently near the sufferer take their seat.
  • One binds his wounds with herbs and healing strips;
  • One sprinkles him with water from the brook;
  • A third has kissed him lightly on the lips,
  • And wistfully he meets her winning look:—
  • “Tell me, my sister, tell me only this:
  • Where is Karadjata, my comrade dear?
  • Where too the faithful company I miss?
  • Then take my soul, for I would perish here.”
  • They clap their hands, that done they interlace.
  • Singing they soar into the first faint streak
  • Of morning, soar and sing through boundless space:
  • Karadjata, it is thy soul they seek.
  • Day breaks, and ever on the Balkan’s brow
  • The hero maketh moan, his blood still flows,
  • And the wolf licks his yawning wound. Lo, now,
  • The sun bursts forth and still more fiercely glows!
  • Dimitre perished, and his army were scattered and slain in 1868. The poem is dated 1873. In 1876 Botev, with less than three hundred followers, arrived in the same wilderness, and fell in battle near the town of Vratza; where his head, which had been remarkable for its beauty, was displayed by the Turks on a pole.

    The enthusiasm and personal magnetism of Botev were for a long time a distinct influence in the life of Vazov. Of the two, Botev was the more creative, original, and impassioned singer; yet the exquisitely finished verse of Vazov is not without spontaneity. One of his most fervent lyrics was sung at the insurrection of Klissura; and his range, embracing not only several volumes of verse, but an astonishing variety of works in prose, is much wider.

    The year 1870 was a memorable one for Bulgaria. It was marked by her first step toward freedom; the Turkish government at last recognizing the constitution of the Bulgarian Church, and thus reluctantly paving the way for intellectual progress and political self-assertion. The year was further marked by Vazov’s first original poem, ‘The Pine-Tree,’ contributed to the Perioditchesko Spisanie, or Review of the Bulgarian Literary Association, conducted by exiles in Rumania. The poet’s father, a merchant in comfortable circumstances, had done his utmost to fit the boy for a business life, but in vain: he had shown his energy chiefly in the verses he scribbled on the margin of the books of the establishment. At last the practical businessman bethought himself of sending his son to Rumania, at that time a haven of refuge to Bulgarian patriots, and a promising field of commercial enterprise. On his way Vazov met “the apostle of Bulgarian freedom,” Vasil Levsky, who, three years later (1873), was to forfeit his life in the service of his country; and in Rumania he made the acquaintance of Liuben Karaveloff, Christo Botev, and other prominent Bulgarian authors and patriots. Vazov’s drama ‘Vagabonds’ presents a rather gloomy picture of the life of Bulgarian exiles, most of whom were reduced to miserable circumstances. Altogether, Rumania did not befriend these immigrants to whom, in the words of our poet, it offered the cold hospitality which the desert seashore offers the flotsam and jetsam cast on it by the storm. Though in all likelihood not so intended by its author, ‘The Pine-Tree’ may be regarded as an allegory of the development and downfall of that ancient kingdom of Bulgaria to which a stunted nation looked wistfully back, closing with a vivid picture of the victorious Turk bending in compassion over his fallen enemy.

    In 1872 Vazov returned to his native village, the richer for a bundle of his poems, to the great disappointment of his father, who had expected riches of a more tangible sort. Soon Bulgaria began to stir in preparation of the struggle for her freedom, and young Vazov took part in the revolutionary movement. Compelled to leave his native land, he went to Bucharest, where his first volume of poems, ‘Sorrows of Bulgaria,’ appeared in 1877, and thence to the country of his hopes, Russia. Now appeared his ‘Banner and Lyre,’ and ‘Deliverance,’ volumes of odes in commemoration of his country’s steps in the progress toward freedom.

    Hardly returned to Shvistov in 1877, word came to Vazov that his birthplace had been destroyed, his father put to death by the Turks, and his mother and brothers imprisoned in a monastery “in the heart of the Rhodope” (a region afterwards described in one of his principal works, bearing that title). His afflictions, far from diminishing his powers, seem only to have stimulated them; and were followed by the period of rapid production to which his best work belongs. It was at this time that he composed after the manner of Hugo’s ‘Légende des Siècles’ ‘The Epic’—not strictly an epic—‘of the Forgotten.’ He also conducted several periodicals, and undertook, in collaboration with Velitchkoff, a complete anthology of Bulgarian literature, besides beginning with him the task of translating into Bulgarian the literature of ancient and modern times. ‘Italy’ (1884) was the first book in which a Bulgarian poet revealed the inmost recesses of his heart. The next year Vazov took part in the Serbian War, and on the battlefields composed most of the poems of the volume named ‘Slivnitza’ in memory of his country’s victory at that place. After the independence of Bulgaria had been established, he became deputy to the national assembly, but the friendship he always showed to Russia resulted in his banishment by her archenemy Stambuloff, in 1886. It was at Odessa that he wrote his masterpiece, whose title, ‘Pod Igoto,’ is the exact equivalent for the phrase ‘Under the Yoke.’ It appeared in the ‘Sbornik’ of the Ministry of Public Instruction of Sofia in 1889.

    Recalled to Sofia in 1889, Vazov has made it his home ever since; and has poured out poems, novels, idyls, historical sketches, comedies, and dramas, several of which were performed with signal success. An English critic, while hailing the advent of ‘Under the Yoke,’ predicted that it was not likely its author would “ever recapture this first fine careless rapture.” The two novels of modern Bulgarian life, ‘New Ground’ (1896) and ‘The Queen of Kazalar’ (1902) bear out that prediction. Their chief shortcoming is want of a great theme and of powerful characters. Ancient Bulgarian history has furnished Vazov the setting of his dramas, ‘Over the Abyss’ (1907) and ‘Ivailo’ (1913), rich in effective situations, but inadequate in the psychological delineation of the characters, which fail to impress us as beings of flesh and blood.

    Vazov’s talent is mainly lyrical. Two volumes of poems, ‘Songs of a Wanderer’ (1899) and ‘Under Our Sky’ (1900), which constitute the poetic commentary to his novels, are in the author’s best vein and fulfill the promise of ‘Echoes,’ that revealed Vazov, the thinker. He found favor with Bulgarian youth with his ‘Legends’ (1910). All these poems bear witness to the consummate mastery of language, the fire and freshness of style that distinguish the writer, and the simplicity of feeling and enthusiastic optimism that mark the man, and endear him to his people.

    After visiting the ancient monastery of the Rilo, far up in the Balkans, and hemmed in by the forest, Vazov wrote an admirable work in prose called ‘The Vast Solitude of the Rilo.’ This monastery, a home of Slavic culture in the past, is replete with historic memories. Its site is significant, for on the borderland between Thrace and Macedonia, and in the center of the Balkanic peninsula, it reminds the visitor that at one period the province of Macedonia formed half of the realm of Bulgaria, to which it still belongs in the dream of Bulgarian irredentists.

    On the second day of October, 1895,—exactly a quarter of a century having elapsed since the boy of twenty published his poem ‘The Pine-Tree,’—a jubilee was held at Sofia: the poet receiving in the building of the National Assembly the thanks and acclamations of his fellow-countrymen, as well as letters and greetings in verse from authors in other parts of Europe. Vazov has been made the object of a brilliant essay by Professor Radoslav A. Tsanoff, in ‘Poet Lore’ of 1908, where are also translated several of his poems.