The poetry of Xristo Botev

Three propositions about the poetry of Xristo Botev
8 minute read 1175 words

"No one who reads much contemporary poetry in English can fail to notice that there too the moral and ethical positions of the authors are sometimes taken as evidence of an artistic seriousness and accomplishment that the work may not in fact bear out. At times we seem to be reading virtue rather than poetry."
Sean O'Brien, in July 2016 reviewing Centres of Cataclysm

I have three propositions about the poetry of Xristo Botev. First, that Botev possessed the privilege and ability to move the Bulgarian language forward. Secondly, that in spite of presenting a poetic personality he achieved an impersonal expressiveness, because of his willingness to die for the principals expressed by, and the political change effected through, his art. Thirdly, that no writer in English has achieved anything comparable since before Botev was alive. Modern English poetry lacks the weight of political interaction and the ability to initiate change, either linguistic or political, in the people.

no writer in English has achieved anything comparable

Botev’s achievement depended on awareness of the weight of words. Words’ meanings don’t derive from subjective opinion or objective truth alone, but a combination of the two, built up by years of use, with several potential applications. No writer can produce poetry of interest without being aware of words’ weight – what words can and cannot do in certain situations, and the constraints placed upon them. What does Botev, who was aware of this weight, bring to English poetry?

1. "Privilege"

If you were to speak of a writer as being ‘privileged’ now, you would be challenged on grounds which are more to do with our perception of the writer’s place than our understanding of their art. In an age where it is the humble, vulnerable artistic personality that is marketable, to invoke privilege creates a discomforting distance between writer and audience. Privilege sounds too much like aloofness.

Botev began writing in a country where, as with the Catholic Church before vernacular translations of the Bible, authority held the potency of literacy and print. Botev had very little written tradition to use. The Bulgarian language where it was used officially was used by the Ottoman occupiers, not Bulgaria’s people. But it is the aural tradition that makes Botev's privilege. His awareness of words' weight comes from using the pre-existent folk rhythms in dissenting polemic poetry. In being radical, Botev stuck by the roots of his language, and used the spoken language to initiate Bulgaria’s written poetic tradition. In this understanding of how language could be harnessed and used in a political art, Botev had the privilege of shaping Bulgaria’s future direction.

2. "Impersonal expressiveness"

What Pushkin took from Byron, Botev used a slab of in forging his own poetic persona. Botev's persona is half Yunak and half Voltaire, fighting man and satirist supremo. It suited him to use the Romantic hero trope, but to make the poetry itself endure as more than 'mere polemic', to redeem the specific with a philosophical outlook common to many people in many ages, the hero's song had to be clear and memorable. Botev makes the colloquial resonant worldwide – ‘his heroic deed changes him from an ordinary human personality into and ethical and political model’. Poet and freedom fighter Sándor Petőfi in Hungary and tormented exile Taras Shevchenko in Ukraine are comparable founders of entire national literatures.

A famous stanza from ‘Xadzhi Dimitr’ says:

Тоз, който падне в бой за свобода,
той не умира: него жалеят
земя и небе, звяр и природа,
и певци песни за него пеят…

[He who falls in battle for the cause of freedom does not die: he is not mourned. Earth, heaven, beasts, landscape, singers make songs for him…]

Botev maintains wider resonance amid blatant hero-worship by having a solid image of the natural world (priroda in both Bulgarian and Russian). His landscape is benevolent, populated by animals and folklore spirits who attend upon the wounded yunak. ‘Xadzhi Dimitr’ is one example among many.

You, youthful, you, of the enchanting voice; can't you hear how the forest sings, and the cries of the dispossessed? Those voices make one spirit of desire, desire which calls wounded hearts. The woods and leaves sing of old years and the thunder is the past ventriloquizing. They also sing of struggles we must face ('To My First Love').

My song will soar and be carried over forests and valleys, they will re-echo what I sing (Xaiduti).

O forest, my mother forest, give shelter to these who now flee toward you and to this flag waving proud and free ('Eloped’).

Botev's priroda protects his heroes while they live, and cares for them when they die. When it turns evil, as in 'The Hanging of Vasil Levski', we know all hope is lost:

The raven's terrible call, dogs and wolves baying under lead skies, winter chanting all villainy and squalls hounding tumbleweeds across plains.

In 'The Hanging' and in 'My Prayer' the image of a desert is used. This empty land is significant and doom-laden for Botev, because no friendly spirits or animals, and most importantly no chetas (fighter groups) can hide in them.

Do not let my voice pass in silence as though through desert sands ('My Prayer');

Your voice, Bulgaria, is as one lost in the desert ('The Hanging’).

3. "Weight"

Botev’s priroda served a dual purpose: refuge for rebels, it is a political tool. As repository of mythical polemic it enforced his poetry’s rhetoric. Priroda implies safety; pustinya, the wilderness, danger. To make the structure of the image itself mirror the structure of military strategy, and to combine both to make a polemic myth, is what lifts Botev's work from the realm of the pamphlet to that of greatness.

O’Brien’s review of an anthology of foreign (largely Eastern European) poetry in translation points out something which cannot be ignored about English poetry today: often, we are sold virtue, not craftsmanship. The blurbs call it 'important' political thought, without considering what makes poetry different, which ought to continue giving us reasons to write poetry: the form. If image and melody are not made to work together to make a unified beauty which cannot be rendered as everyday speech or reduced to a 'message' or 'sense' then the time spent writing and reading the poem are wasted. Poetry has to read as poetry, not principle, though it can contain principles. English writers don’t fail because they are removed from events of political consequence, for nobody is removed in that way. They fail because they miss the fact that poetry and active public principle can be present simultaneously – something Botev saw. The fashion for self-expression over expressiveness blinds them. ‘Weight’ is not a by-product of calamity, but the awareness that writing poetry necessitates ability to speak of something other than personality alone. What Botev brings to our understanding of poetry is that rare mastery of melody and image with polemic, that elusive combination of lyric personality with impersonal wider reach. I hope I have managed to show some of that mastery here.

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