A Mácha intermezzo

The personality and work of Karel Hynek Mácha has received extraordinary attention over the course of almost 200 years, which has brought a number of interpretative approaches not only in literature and visual arts, but also in other cultural fields. In particular, the lyric-epic composition Máj (May), considered the crowning work of Czech literary Romanticism, still serves as a source of inspiration for many poets, scientists and artists. However, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding the figure of the 'immortal bard'.

“... his poem is cinder that, thrown from an extinct volcano, falls among flowers. We may and do take delight in flowers, but not in the cold, dead meteor ejected from torn entrails. In this we find nothing beautiful, invigorating, nothing poetic in the strict sense of the world. This work might acquire some real value if the poet wished to tear away the black curtain that was draped by his imagery over every more cheery prospect...” Jan Slavomír Tomíček, Česká včela, 31 May 1836/

After an initially negative response, the lyrical epic Máj (May) by Karel Hynek Mácha gradually made a name for itself not only for its literary merits, but as a source of inspiration that still resonates for generations of historians, philosophers and above all artists. Whatever the clichés that surround Mácha’s work, literary scholars are revisiting it again and again and calling for new interpretations. And of course the researcher and the reader are provoked by the personality and appearance of the poet.

Hand-written sources of May

The hand-written draft of May represents the germ of what was to become the finished poem. It dates back to 1834–1836 and is a fragment of the Malý sešit (Little Notebook). The final version of May underwent considerable changes, including the renaming of the main female character from Milada to Jarmila. The draft of May is not the only surviving document of Mácha’s work on the poem. Excerpts of verses are also to be found in his Zápisník (Notebook) of 1833–1835. Mácha’s surviving

manuscripts are among the most valuable materials held by the Museum of Czech Literature Literary Archive. The manuscript of May is in a private collection.

First edition of May

Mácha published May at his own expense. The print run was 600 and was printed by Jan Spurný on 23 April 1836. In addition to two versions of ordinary copies printed on machine-made paper, Mácha also published a deluxe edition of the poem printed on vellum with his autograph; the typesetting was identical in all versions. Mácha oversaw the distribution of the poem himself, and offered only a small number of the cheapest edition on a sale-or-return basis to the bookseller Martin Neureutter. The first edition sold out quickly, not only thanks to Mácha’s efforts, but also thanks to the interest taken in it in the press.

The early publication history of Mácha’s work

Thanks to Mácha’s brother Michal, who took control of the poet’s literary legacy, an incomplete version of May with an introduction by Karel Sabina was published nine years after the Mácha’s death. The plan to continue publishing Mácha’s other works came to naught not only for financial reasons, but due to insufficient interest on the part of readers. A lack of funds saw Michal sell the manuscripts of his brother’s works, including that of May. Another edition, originally in instalments, was released in 1861 by the important Prague-based publisher I. L. Kober.

The two funerals of Karel Hynek Mácha

Karel Hynek Mácha died under tragic circumstances in Litoměřice on 5 November 1836. His grave, in the cemetery near the top of Radobýl (a basalt hill in the České středohoří mountains), remained unmarked for a long time. In 1846, at the instigation of Karel Havlíček Borovský and others, a gravestone was erected with the following inscription: “Far leads my journey, and vain ‘tis to call!”. On 1 October 1945, prior to the retaking of the Sudetenland, the original monument with all of its findings was moved to Prague. The poet’s remains were handed over for anthropological examination. Mácha’s second funeral, which took place in Vyšehrad on 7 May 1939, turned into a protest against the Nazi occupation.

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