Intense Literature 6: Death is young - Dimcho Debelyanov, Hristo Smirnenski, Geo Milev

Poet Dimcho Debelyanov
Photo: archive
In this episode of Intense Literature we touch upon the great talents and tragic early deaths of three outstanding Bulgarian poets, Dimcho Debelyanov, Hristo Smirnenski and Geo Milev. Their destinies confirm in a most saddening way a powerful trend in Bulgarian poetry: and it is that Death is Young.
* * *
Known as this country’s gentlest poet, Dimcho Debelyanov was born in 1887. His idols were Pencho Slaveykov and Peyo Yavorov. Dimcho studied law, history and literature and was a gifted translator from French and English.
Surprisingly, the poet recognized as a consummate master of the elegy, also wrote a handful of satirical and humorous works. Debelyanov’s crystal pure personality expressed in magnificent verses has made him the favorite lyrical interlocutor for many generations of readers. In his lyrical works he consistently explored the depths of his soul and emotions stepping on the bright path outlined by Peyo Yavorov. No wonder once Yavorov said meaning Debelyanov: “This young guy is going to surpass all of us!” Literary historian Svetlozar Igov defines Dimcho Debelyanov as the poet of love and points to how love in his poetry is presented as either a yearning and dream or as a memory. Debelyanov’s lovely piece Elegy that Igov rightfully grades as a masterpiece of world love poetry offers stunningly truthful psychological insights of an always special moment of love – parting. Here is a fragment:


I wish to think of you forever thus:
Without a home and without hope, despondent,
Your scorching palm into my own palm thrust
And on my breast your sad face resting fondly.

I’ll leave at dawn, you too must come at dawn
And bring to me your parting look of sorrow
So I recall that sad fond look tomorrow
In that triumphant hour when Death shall win!

And you release a palm that’s hot and flushed
And off you go, into the darkness peering,
Too weak to shed a tear, too weak and weary.
I wish to think of you forever thus.

In 1916, Debelyanov’s life took an ironic turn. This pure man, and a pronounced pacifist, volunteered to join the Bulgarian army in the First World War saying he couldn’t watch from a distance how his fellow Bulgarians were fighting for the national cause in Macedonia. In the intense existential situation of war, the gentle poet of love virtually transformed his style and suddenly found a new inner balance, humility and reconciliation with the fact of death. His poems now displayed a simple language and clear images released of excessive metaphors. From a champion of Bulgarian symbolism he moved to realism. In his remarkable poem A Dead Soldier the poet feels sorry for the dead enemy who is in fact no longer an enemy. The poem was inspired by a bunch of letters of a dead French soldier that Debelyanov incidentally found. Here is fragment from it:

He’s a foe of ours no more –
For a wave the storm was driving
Swept all enemy survivors
Over to the other shore.
Who is he? Where did he fight?
Whose call brought him in defiance
On a day of whirlwind triumphs
Without triumph here to die?
Was he coming here to show
Pity when the trumpet sounded?
It was death he sought – he found it.
Now he’s dead he’s not our foe!

On 2 October 1916, second lieutenant Dimcho Debelyanov died in combat with the British troops in Macedonia. He was 29. Today, a sea cape in Antarctica has been given the name of Dimcho Debelyanov to commemorate Bulgaria’s gentlest poet.

* * *

Poet Hristo SmirnenskiAnother sea cape in Antarctica has been awarded the name of Hristo Smirnenski, an extraordinarily talented man who at a green age emerged as a great virtuoso of the Bulgarian poetic language. Writer Anton Strashimirov has termed him “the sunny child” of Bulgarian poetry. And indeed, his poetry abounds in vibrant light, flames and fiery rays. This exuberance “concealed” a difficult life of migration. Hristo was born in a Bulgarian community in present-day Greece, and his parents moved to Sofia where they could not earn decent incomes. Still very young, their son had a myriad of jobs including a news-boy, reporter, salesman, printer, scrivener, tax inspector… And above all – a writer and poet. All too soon, Smirnenski unleashed his great mastery of language. Even his early works displayed a virtuoso brilliance. To quote writer Svetoslav Minkov, „He was a born poet and a unique improviser. Creative anguish was unknown to him: he joked in rhymes and even got the hump in rhymes”.

Hristo Smirnenski was a follower of the notorious Bulgarian symbolists, and, as Mr. Igov puts it “excelled in one particular aspect: the lightness and musicality of the verse. This is the music of the polyphonic street… the suburban slums, the shiny shop windows in town, the chime of streetcars, the cries of news-boys.” His poetry thrived in the heartbeat of the city, and he was the first great poet of urbanism. His creative attention dominated by humanism, was occupied by the hapless fate of social outcasts, of the poor, the victims of society. We bring you a fragment from his poem Little brothers of Gavroche:

City so loud and lewd,
Conceived in spite,
In vain your crowded streets
Blaze festive bright.
For through the violet dusk
Poor children go,
With outraged innocence
Thin faces glow.
Child victims of deceit,
Life crooks their backs,
They loiter in your streets
In cast-off caps.
At every dazzling pane
They form a ring,
But in their eyes what pain
And suffering!
They sigh and go their way,
Ragged and tired,
Past windows that display
What they desire…

Parallel to that line, Hristo Smirnenski also wrote ardent poems extolling the revolutionary turbulence that swept Europe. In his revolutionary works he mythologized the revolutionary spirit in a most optimistic way, mastering a whole poetic gallery of international rebels. He kept his eyes wide open waiting to see a world in which eternal love and eternal justice would win the upper hand. He couldn’t however see even a hint of this sunny utopia, because tuberculosis struck him ruthlessly. Hristo Smirnenski could not afford good food, let alone adequate treatment, and died in 1923, aged 25. His last wish was to have a sheet of paper to write. A large multitude bid farewell to the great poet at his funeral where poet Geo Milev gave an emotional speech.

* * *

Poet Geo MilevGeo Milev was born in 1895 to a family of a teacher and journalist. He was trained in the town of Stara Zagora, and at Sofia University. Later he continued his studies in Leipzig, Germany, reading philosophy. In London, he met with Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren. Meanwhile, Milev was busy translating from Russian and English. His translations included a brilliant piece: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Back to Bulgaria the young erudite indulged in literary criticism and encouraged the group of Bulgarian symbolists.

In 1916, Geo Milev joined the First World War. In combat, he suffered a severe head injury and lost his eye. With his wife, he went to Germany for treatment and doctors replaced his eye with an artificial one. In Berlin, he was fascinated with the powerful expressionist movement. Returning to Sofia, Geo Milev launched the journal Vezni (Scales) promoting symbolism and expressionism in Bulgaria. This extraordinary man worked with brilliance in a handful of areas. He was a poet of substance, but also an artist, journalist and critic, translator and even organized a theater company. Milev soon emerged as the consummate ideologist of the Bulgarian avant-garde, a foremost modernist and the leading figure of the third, expressionist stage of Bulgarian literature that logically followed individualism and symbolism. In his views and practice the new art was perceived as a strong opposition to both realism and symbolism. In a 1920 article, Geo Milev bulleted his summary of this new art, to quote the article:

Anti-real art, divine art, universal art, eternal art

In 1924 Geo Milev began publishing Plamak (Flame) Journal. It was there that he carried his masterpiece, the poem September. This avant-garde piece of poetry echoed some tragic events in Bulgaria linked to a rebellion organized by the Communist International back in 1923 when Bulgarian blood was shed for an unclear cause. Milev’s work, however, is much larger in dimensions, as it takes a course of rethinking obsolete values.

September tackles in a most spectacular way a few problems traditional for Bulgarian literature: slavery and oppression, rebellion and freedom. The key notions of nation, motherland, faith and god are reinvented in the light of expressionism. In a polemic and avant-garde way, Geo Milev reveals his ideas about the philosophy of history and the place of man in a polyphonic world. The unconventional presentation of the people sways from de-heroization to eulogy. By rethinking the notion of faith, Geo Milev points to the absurdity of widespread awe to divinity that counters humanistic principles. In a gesture of denial of outdated fake values the poet expresses a new, optimistic outlook about the future of mankind. With the remarkable poem September, Geo Milev joins a prominent trend in Bulgarian poetry, aptly captured by leading literary analyst Nikola Georgiev as “poetics in search of expression and meaning”. This line starts with Hristo Botev to later include Peyo Yavorov, Milev himself, and most notably, Nikola Vaptsarov.

Now the finale of the poem September:

From the smoke of the fires
Rise
Assailing the ears
The cries of the killed,
The roars
Of the numberless martyrs
On blazing wood pyres:
Who
Has betrayed our faith?
Reply!
You say nothing?
Don’t know?
We do!

Look:
Without one bound
We leap into Heaven:
Down with God!
Have a bomb at your heart
And take Heaven by storm:
Down with God!
From you throne
Send you dead
Down to the starless
Ironclad depths
Of the world’s great abyss –
Down with God!

From the boundlessly high
Bridge of the sky
With levers and ropes
We’ll bring down heaven,
The land of our hopes
Down
To the sorrowing
Blood-soaked
Earth!

All that the poets and philosophers wrote
Shall come true!
No god! No master!
The month of September shall turn into May!
The life that men lead
From that day shall proceed
Ever upward, upward!
Earth shall be Heaven
It shall!

Because of the poem September, perceived as pro-communist, issue 7-8 of Plamak was confiscated and later, the journal was banned. In the meantime, on Holy Thursday, 16 April 1925, the communist party organized a most hideous terrorist attack, causing a blast in a central Sofia church during divine service. It was meant to destroy the Bulgarian political elite. The blast resulted in 150 deaths, and 500 were injured. The government took a course of harsh repressions that targeted among others, intellectuals with left-wing views. In May Geo Milev was sentenced to a year in prison for his writings. One day he was called for a check at the police station and went missing, along with 400 other Bulgarians. Geo Milev aged 30 was killed brutally for his views and creative work. His remains were found in 1950s in a mass grave near Sofia. These remains could be recognized as his, by the artificial eye that doctors had implanted during surgery in Germany.

Anyone who has seen Geo Milev’s artificial eye at the National Museum of History in Sofia has spotted an angry tear inside, asking a question hard to answer:

Why? Why was death so desperately young for some of Bulgaria’s finest creative minds?

Verse translations by Peter Tempest


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