Karel Hynek Mácha's 'May' in English
A new edition of the quintessential Czech poem
Posted: April 27, 2011
"It was late evening - first of May - / was evening May - the time for love."
So begins the quintessential Czech poem, Karel Hynek Mácha's "May," published originally in 1836 and recently released in a new edition in translator Marcela Sulak's lithe, lively English. Other Czech poets like Nobel laureate Jaroslav Seifert may be more famous, but no poet has captured the Czech imagination and the romance of spring quite like Mácha.
"May" was reviled by 19th-century critics as "not Czech enough," as it privileged aesthetics over nationalism - a mortal sin in the Czech revivalist era in which Mácha lived. Yet today, nearly every Czech can recite the poem's opening lines. And, of course, the crowds of lovers flocking to Petřín Hill each May 1 to kiss beneath the cherry trees and to leave lilacs at the Mácha statue prove just how deeply embedded the poem is in Czech culture.
Indeed, Mácha has become something of a cottage industry, with new editions of his work being released nearly every year. And so it is a relief to read this handsome yet tasteful bilingual hardcover edition of "May," complete with illustrations from Czech surrealist Jindřich Štyrský; the illustrations complement the poem without seeming gaudy, while Sulak provides a clear-eyed, critical introduction to the poem and an accomplished translation.
By Karel Hynek Mácha
Translated by Marcela Sulak
Twisted Spoon Press
First-time readers of "May" familiar with Mácha's reputation as the Czech Romantic poet par excellence may be slightly taken aback by the poem, as there is very little romance contained therein, unless your idea of romance is patricide, imprisonment and decapitation.
Briefly, "May" follows the story of Vilém, a "forest lord" who is awaiting execution in prison on the first of May. The poem opens as Jarmila is awaiting Vilém, her lover, for an evening rendezvous. Instead, a boatman arrives to tell Jarmila that Vilém has been imprisoned and will be executed for killing his own father, Jarmila's "seducer." In the second canto, the poem shifts to Vilém's point of view as he spends a restless night imprisoned in a tower. The remainder of the poem stays with Vilém, excepting a lovely intermezzo, in which ghosts make an appearance, and the final canto, which switches to the first person as Mácha intrudes to give his own opinion.
Make no mistake, "May" is decidedly Gothic. This is not exactly material for sweet nothing-whispering. Nor is it a particularly good story. In fact, the story of the poem is relegated to subtext, as we never actually see Vilém murder his father, nor do we see Vilém and Jarmila together. Instead, the majority of the poem is taken up with descriptions of Vilém's agony awaiting execution. In the process he becomes a Christ-like figure undergoing his own Gethsemane.
" 'My spirit - my spirit - and my soul!'/ that's how his words, each one distinct, / escape from his clenched lips. / [...] The captive's face - an awful sight - / his motionless eyes are fixed / as if into eternity, / and on his face, tears - sweat and blood;"
But there's more to "May" than a (melo)dramatic story. In her introduction, Sulak cites Czech Romanticism scholar Milada Součková, who writes that, in Mácha's day, "for the Czechs there was no living tradition of poetics," that is, Czech poetry relied on syllabics - an equal number of syllables in each line - rather than the complex meters being employed and manipulated by British Romantic poets such as Shelley, Byron and Keats, all contemporaries of Mácha.
Mácha is credited with introducing the iamb (a meter of unstressed, then stressed syllables) into Czech poetry, a rhythm he picked up from his reading of the British Romantic poets, just as he picked up their sense of style; apparently Mácha strolled the streets of Prague wearing a cape lined with red velvet and a feather in his hat. Thankfully, this edition of "May" is bilingual, allowing readers to compare Mácha's use of meter and rhyme with Sulak's.
"Vzhůru po skále lehký krok," for example, becomes "He climbs the rock with agile steps."
Sulak often departs from Mácha's rhyme scheme, yet does a fine job of bringing the poet's rhythms into English. As a whole, "May" is enjoyable and very readable, the lines trickling down one to the next as the story unfolds.
"May" is also notable in its use of voice. The poem's four cantos and two intermezzos are largely written from the point of view of a detached narrator, who in the final canto is revealed to be Mácha himself, writing from the "present time" of his youth, which "is, like this poem, like May." Yet the point of focus shifts throughout the poem, from Jarmila to Vilém to a chorus of ghosts.
Perhaps the most enjoyable section of "May" is the first intermezzo, a section Sulak deftly renders in language whose playful tone and rhythms contrast the rather morbid subject matter. A chorus of ghosts gathers at midnight on the hill where Vilém will be executed. They conspire and prepare for his spirit to join them. In the following passage, different voices from nature are heard:
"FROGS IN THE MARSH / 'We will sing the funeral song.'/ GALE OVER THE LAKE / 'Funeral music from the gale!' / THE MOON AT ZENITH / 'I'll contribute the white shroud.' / MOUNTAIN FOG / 'I'll provide the mourning veils.'"
It is a charming and playful moment in an otherwise dark poetic landscape.
Many works of art and literature are beloved because they are linked inextricably to the culture and age from which they sprang. Consider Norman Rockwell. But truly great works often seem to appear from nowhere, as if they've had no predecessor. Mácha's "May" seems to fit both categories: Stylistically, it has no real precedent in Czech literature, and yet over the past two centuries it has taken a central place in the hearts and minds of [Czechs] as the crowning achievement of Czech Romanticism. That fact is reason enough to read the poem. Marcela Sulak's skillful, sensitive translation of Mácha's groundbreaking language is another.
Stephan Delbos can be reached at
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