January 17, 2023

Edvard Kocbek (Austria-Hungary / Yugoslavia / now Slovenia) 1904-1981

Edvard Kocbek (Austria-Hungary / Yugoslavia / now Slovenia)



Born the son of a church organist in 1904, Edvard Kocbek grew up in the section of present-day Slovenia that was then Austria-Hungary. He studied classics and foreign languages in high school, but by the time he had finished his studies Slovenia had lost much of its independence and had become part of the new country of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. He entered a Catholic seminary in Maribor with the intention of becoming a priest. After two years, however, he left in, protesting the rigid rules of the community.

     In Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, Kocbek studied Romance languages and literature at the university and edited the Catholic magazine, Cross, while also contributing to the Catholic Socialist Fire. Writing poetry, he began find a space between the provincialism of much of Slovene literature at the time and the avant-gardism of poet Srečko Kosovel.


     Two trips of western Europe to Berlin and France, where he discovered German expressionism and French surrealism, highly influenced his writing, and upon his return to Slovenia, he began writing a cycle of “Autumn Poems,” which, with other such poetic cycles, would make up his first published book, Zemlija (Earth, 1934).

     By the mid-1930s, as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes changed its name to Yugoslavia and became a monarchist dictatorship, Kocbek began speaking out against the Slovene support of Franco, as he moved closer to socialism. By the beginning of World War II, the poet called for a new political order: [The intellectual] must opt for a new order as soon as possible, without supporting any particular ideological group in its entirety.” Throughout the war Kocbek was active in anti-Fascist groups, and he had attained the rank of general, serving, briefly, as a minister in Belgrade by the end of the war. Returning to Slovenia he became Vice President of the Presidium of the National Assembly of Slovenia.

     Throughout World War II, Kocbek had continued to write, but he was not eager to publish. The rise of Yugoslavian Communism, coinciding with the new wave of Stalinism in Russia, meant that there was a high level of censorship throughout this period; and it was only when Tito broke with the Comintern in 1948 that Kocbek ventured to publish excerpts from his war time diary, Comradeship. But his next book, the collection of stories Fear and Courage, resulted his public disgrace and his being outcast as an official. For the next ten years he became a nonperson, his watched, his phone tapped, and quarantined to his neighborhood. He earned a living only through translation. Only in 1963 was he allowed to publish a new collection of poetry, Groza (Dread). In 1967 he published a second volume of war-time diaries, Document, and, in 1969 another volume of poetry, Poročilo (Report). His collected poems, Zbrane pesmi, appeared in 1971, containing three new volumes of work, Pentagram, Embers, and Bride in Black.

     Late in his life, Kocbek received the acclaim that had been previously denied him, and he was welcomed to literary circles in Slovenia and traveled to several countries, including England, France, Germany, Austria and Italy, becoming a particularly close friend with Nobel Prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll. Upon his death in 1981, he was granted a state funeral.




Zemlja (Ljubljana, 1934); Groza (Ljubljana: Slovenska matica, 1963); Poročilo (Maribor: Zalozba Obzorja, 1969); Zbrane pesmi (Ljubljana: Cankarjeva zalozba, 1977).




At the Door of Evening, trans. by Tom Lozar (Ljubljana: Aleph, 1990); Edvard Kocbek, trans. by Michael Biggins (Ljubljana: Slovene Writers’ Association, 1995); Embers in the House of Night, trans. by Sonja Kravanja (Sante Fe: Lumen Books, 1999); Nothing Is Lost, trans. by Michael Scammel and Veno Taufer (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004).



The Lippizaners


A newspaper reports:

the Lippizaners collaborated

on a historical film.

A radio explains:

a millionaire had bought the Lippizaners,

the noble animals were quiet

throughout the journey over the Atlantic.

And a text book teaches:

The Lippizaners are graceful riding horses,

Their origin is in the Karst, they are of supple hoof,

conceited trot, intelligent nature,

and obstinate fidelity.


But I have to add, my son,

that it isn’t possible to fit these

restless animals into any set pattern:

it is good, when the day shines,

the Lippizaners are black foals.

And it is good, when the night reigns,

the Lippizaners are white mares,

but the best is,

when the day comes out of the night,

then the Lippizaners are the white and black buffoons,

the court fools of its Majesty,

Slovenian history.


Others have worshipped holy cows and dragons,

thousand-year-old turtles and winged lions,

unicorns, double-headed eagles and phoenixes,

but we’ve chosen the most beautiful animal,

which proved to be excellent on battlefields, in circuses,

harnessed to princesses and the Golden Monstrance,

therefore the emperors of Vienna spoke

French with skillful diplomats,

Italian with charming actresses,

Spanish with the infinite God,

and German with uneducated servants:

but with the horses they talked Slovene.


Remember, my child, how mysteriously

nature and history are bound together,

and how different are the driving forces of the spirit

of each of the world’s peoples.

You know well that ours is the land of contests and races.

You, thus, understand why the white horses

from Noah’s ark found a refuge on our pure ground,

why they became our holy animal,

why they entered into the legend of history,

and why they bring the life pulse to our future.

They incessantly search for our promised land

and are becoming our spirit’s passionate saddle.


I endlessly sit on a black and white horse,

my beloved son,

like a Bedouin chief

I blend with my animal,

I’ve been traveling on it all my life,

I sleep on it, and I dream on it,

and I’ll die on it.

I learned all our prophesies

on the mysterious animal,

and this poem, too, I experienced

on its trembling back.


Nothing is darker than

clear speech,

and nothing more true than a poem

the intellect cannot seize,

heroes limp in the bright sun,

and sages stammer in the dark,

the buffoons, though, are changing into poets,

the winged Pegasi run faster and faster

above the caves of our old earth

jumping and pounding—

the impatient Slovenian animals

are still trying to awaken the legendary King Matjaz.


Those who don’t know how to ride a horse,

should learn quickly

how to tame the fiery animal,

how to ride freely in a light saddle,

how to catch the harmony of the trot,

and above all to persist in the premonition,

for our horses came galloping from far away,

and they still have far to go:

motors tend to break down,

elephants each too much,

our road is a long one,

and it is too far to walk.


Translated from the Slovene by Sonja Kravanja


(from Poročilo, 1969)





“The Lippizaners” and “Who Am I?”

Reprinted from Embers in the House of Night, trans. by Sonja Kravanja (Santa Fe: Lumen Books, 1999). Copyright ©1997 by Sonja Kravanja. Reprinted by permission of Lumen Books.


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