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Robert Elsie

Anthology of Sorbian Poetry

ISBN 0-948259-72-8
Forest Books, London & Boston 1990
84 pp.

Original URL:


    The very existence of the Sorbs, a Slavic minority in Germany, may be a surprise to many. After coping bravely with the difference between Slovakia, Slovenia and Slavonia, the English-speaking reader might be forgiven initially for thinking, or hoping, that Sorbian is simply a misspelling for Serbian.

    The Sorbs, also known as Lusatian Sorbs or Wends, are descendants of Western Slavic tribes which took possession of the territory known as Lusatia by the end of the 5th century A.D., now in the southeastern part of the German Democratic Republic. Although soon separated from other Slavic speakers, the Poles and Czechs, by successive waves of Germanic conquerors during the Middle Ages, the Sorbs managed to resist assimilation and retain their cultural identity. They have clung tenaciously to their language and culture over the centuries in spite of long periods of oppression, not least during the Third Reich. Since 1948, the Sorbs have enjoyed official status as a national minority in the GDR and can use their language freely in all walks of life where numbers warrant.

    No reliable statistics are available as to the number of Sorbian speakers today and their distribution. The traditional figure is 100,000. It is estimated, however, that only about 30,000 people are able to use the language, virtually all of whom speak German too. Indeed, one of the results of long years of bilingualism among the Sorbs has been that Sorbian no longer serves as an essential language of communication in the region. As in Ireland, Wales and Brittany, where a language is no longer needed as a means of practical communication, it begins to die out, irrespective of the strong cultural and emotional attachment speakers may have and despite official backing.

    Sorbian is spoken in a number of regional variants, having crystallized into two related literary languages: Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian, which are, given a bit of effort and good will, quite mutually intelligible. Upper Sorbian (hornjoserbscina) is spoken by large sections of the rural population of Upper Lusatia northeast of Dresden between the towns of Bautzen (Budysin), Hoyerswerda (Wojerecy) and Kamenz (Kamjenc). Although towns such as Bautzen are officially bilingual, very little Sorbian is to be heard there nowadays. The language is best preserved in the countryside, in particular in the so-called Catholic villages west of Bautzen which, perhaps due to their traditional isolation within a predominantly Protestant region, have held more faithfully to their traditions.

    Lower Sorbian (dolnoserbski) is spoken in the marshy Spree Forest of Lower Lusatia around the town of Cottbus (Chosebuz), about one hundred kilometres southeast of Berlin. It is used by far fewer people than Upper Sorbian and seems to be well on the road to extinction.

    Together with Czech, Slovak, Polish, Kashubian and the now extinct Polabian language, Sorbian constitutes part of the Western group of Slavic languages. Upper and Lower Sorbian form an indisputable linguistic entity, although whether this entity comprises one language or two is a matter of contention. Some authors refer to one Sorbian language with two standardized variants while others prefer to speak of two Sorbian languages. Upper Sorbian, with stress on the initial syllable and with h for Common Slavic g, appears to be closer to Czech, as one might expect from its geographical position, whereas Lower Sorbian has several features in common with Polish. Cut off as it is from the other Slavic languages by areas of German settlement to the east and south of Lusatia, Sorbian has not gone without a strong German influence, not only in vocabulary but also in phonology and syntax. On the other hand, it has retained a number of archaic features which have long since disappeared in most other Slavic languages, e.g. the presence, in addition to singular and plural, of a dual number for nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs, a feature found otherwise only in Slovenian, and preservation of the aorist and imperfect tenses of the verb.

    The earliest substantial records of the Sorbian language date from the 16th century. Among them are the so-called Bautzen burgher's oath of 1532 and a translation of the New Testament into Lower Sorbian by Mikawus Jakubica in 1548. The first Sorbian book to be printed was a Lower Sorbian translation of a catechism and book of hymns by Albin Moller in 1574. Most early Sorbian literature consists indeed of religious works inspired by the Reformation which created a need for church texts in the vernacular.

A landmark in the history of Sorbian literature was the founding in 1706 of the Catholic Serbski seminar or Sorbian Seminary in Prague, and in 1716 of the Protestant Serbske Predarske Towarstwo or Sorbian Preachers' Society in Leipzig. The latter in particular, in addition to training Sorbian students for the ministry, played a major role in the teaching of Sorbian and the advancement of Sorbian letters.

    The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century brought to the Sorbs, as to many other smaller peoples of Europe, a national awakening and an awareness of their own particular culture. The Sorbs discovered themselves as a small Slavic island in a Germanic sea. Popular verse and traditions were studied and recorded, fostering literary verse and, to a lesser extent, prose. Poets such as Handrij Zejler, Jan Radyserb-Wjela and Jakub Bart-Cisinski and scholars such as Jan Arnost Smoler, Jan Petr Jordan and Michal Hornik laid the foundations of intellectual life for a largely uneducated, conservative peasantry and stimulated the advancement of a national culture which in the 20th century was then able to survive the decimation of the First World War and the stifling oppression of the 'Aryan' dictatorship during the Third Reich.

    Sorbian literature flourished in its modest way and has made a substantial contribution to the mosaic of European culture, a tiny and unique voice in a great choir. It has maintained its momentum to the present day and will no doubt accompany the Sorbian language to its inevitable end.

    The present anthology , the first of its kind in English, is designed as an introductory survey of Sorbian verse from its beginnings in the 16th century to the present day. The translations are interlinear as far as possible. The Hebrew poet Chaim Nachmann Bialik (1873-1934), an anthologist and translator himself, once observed that reading poetry in translation is like kissing the bride through a veil. Two examples of the original Sorbian texts have been included in this volume for those who want and can handle the real thing, not only for the negligible number of Sorabists and Sorbian emigrants, but also for students and speakers of other Slavic languages who should be able to approach the original directly. A bibliography has also been included at the end of the work as a guide for those wishing to pursue the study of Sorbian language and literature further. Gerald Stone's book, The Smallest Slavonic Nation, constitutes an excellent introduction to the Sorbs in English. Otherwise, a knowledge of German at least is essential. I should like in conclusion to thank all those who assisted me in various and sundry ways with this project and to hope that the present volume will contribute to an awakening of interest in this field.

   Robert Elsie
    Olzheim/Eifel, West Germany, 1988


  • Introduction
    The Bautzen burgher's oath
    (Der Burger Eydt Wendisch)
    Panegyric for Michal Frencel
    (Panegyric za Michal Frencel)
  • T.K.
    The peasant lad from the Sorbian countryside
    (Burski golc z tego serbskeg landu)
    Power and praise of the Sorbian language in a noble hymn
    (Serbskeje rece zamorenje a chwalba we recerskim kerlisu)
    Longing for immortality
    (Zedzenje za njesmjertnoscu)
    The fables of Phaedrus exalt their virtues
    (Fedrusowe fable se psigranjaju)
    Beautiful Lusatia
    (Rjana Luzica)
    The faithless lover
    (Njeswerny luby)
    A neck for a neck
    (Siju za siju)
    The imprisoned songbird
    (Popajzony spewarik)
    My Sorbian confession (excerpt)
    (Moje serbske wuznace)
    Keep up with the times!
    (Lecce z casom!)
    Charlemagne preaches to the Sorbs
    (Karla Serbam preduje)
    Gyrinus natator (Whirligig beetle)
    (Gyrinus natator)
    Help me
    (Po pomocy)
    In vain
    Night passes... day fades...
    (Noc hasa... dzen hinje...)
    Song of the Sorbian people (excerpt)
    (Pesen serbskeje narodnosci)
    The butterfly
    Promise made in 1948
    (Lubjenje z leta 1948)
    How I found my fatherland
    (Kak wotcinu namakach)
    My little plan
    (Moj maly plan)
    Green Z
    (Zelene Zet)
    Sorbian song
    (Serbowske hrono)
    My aim
    (Moj zamer)
    What the tiled stove is
    (Stoz su te kachle)
    Thoughts under a wooden roof
    (Mysle pod drjewajanej treche)
    Painting Easter eggs
    (Woskowac jutrowne jejka)
    Homage to Handrij Zejler
    (Holdowanje za Handrija Zejlerja)
    Epitaph for Johannes Bobrowski
    (Epitaf za Johannesa Bobrowskeho)
  • Bibliography



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