Pavol Jozef Šafárik (Kobeliarovo 1795 – Prague 1861) was a poet, historian, literary theorist, philologist, ethnographer and Slavic scholar. Born to a Lutheran clergyman in what was then the Hungarian village of Kisfeketepatak, he studied at Jena during the years 1815-17. From 1819 he served as headmaster and from 1825 as a school professor in Voivodina, at the Neusatz/Novi Sad grammar school. From 1833 he worked in Prague. During the years 1834-35 he was the editor of the magazine Světozor, from 1836-47 he was a book censor, from 1838-42 he was the editor of Časopis Českého musea (“The Czech museum magazine”), and from 1841 he was a curator of the Prague University Library, of which he became director in 1848. At the same time he was Honorary Professor of Slavic philology at the Charles-Ferdinand University (now Charles University) in Prague.
He began his literary work while still at school, publishing a collection of poems Tatranská múza s lyrou slovanskou (“The muse from the Tatras with a Slavic lyre”, Levoča 1814), which betrays the influence of Schiller and a folk-literary inspiration. Some of Šafárik’s poems are the first manifestations of Romanticism in Slovak poetry; Šafárik deliberately imitated advanced literary works of prestigious foreign authors to demonstrate that literature written in Slovak could hold its own alongside other, long-established literatures. As a result, literary historians and critics have tended to see his poems as imitations of more prestigious examples or genres of foreign provenance.
During his Jena studies, Šafárik became interested in the works of Herder and Fichte. It was Herder’s influence that intensified his interest in popular culture.
After returning from Jena in 1817, he worked as a tutor in Bratislava, where he studied prosodic systems and in his critical writings grappled with the problems of home-grown poetic production. Šafárik and Palacký co-published reflections on prosodic issues in the book Počátkové českého básnictví, obzvláště prosodie (“The beginnings of Czech poetry, especially prosody”, 1818). They advocated the introduction of classical metre in national poetry, so as to raise its artistic and intellectual standards. In 1819 Šafárik moved to Novi Sad, in Voivodia, where he had been appointed head master of the (Orthodox) grammar school. Here he would settle down for the next 15 years.
Herder’s famous eulogy on the Slavs and their importance in the history of mankind prompted Šafárik to exhort Slovaks, Czechs and Moravians to collect their folk-songs. This resulted in the collection Písně světské lidu slovenského v Uhřích (“The secular songs of Slovak people in Hungary”, 1823, 1827). Later he also contributed to the collection of national songs compiled by Ján Kollár, Národnie spievanky (“The songs of a nation”, 1834-35).
As a result of several years of research and data collection on the Slavic literary traditions, he published an encyclopedic Geschichte der slawischen Sprache und Literatur nach allen Mundarten (1826). It was enthusiastically endorsed by both Slavic and non-Slavic scholars as the definitive work concerning Slavic languages and literatures, and as the first academic publication in the field of comparative Slavic linguistics with an abundance of literary material. Šafárik next turned to the ancient history of the Balkan Slavs; his work (only published after his death as Geschichte der südslawischen Literatur, 1864-65) dealt with the Slavic settlement of the Balkan Peninsula, focusing on the history of the Serbian language, by means of which he supported the efforts of the Serbian nationalists to codify grammar and spelling on the basis of living usage.
After returning to Prague, Šafárik continued his interest in the early history of the Slavic peoples. This resulted in his Slovanské starožitnosti (“Slavic antiquities”, 1837), which surveyed Slavic history after the fall of the Roman Empire and the Huns, with, in the second part, the history of the Slavic peoples after they became recognized under their name. His ideas on the characteristics of the Slavs still echoed Herder; he was at pains to assert their Indo-European origin. Slovanské starožitnosti was a pioneer work, receiving a favourable reception even from non-Slavic scholars, and was translated into several languages. Šafárik and Palacký next co-published Die ältesten Denkmäler der Böhmischen Sprache (1840). The book Slovanský národopis (“Slavic Folklore”, 1842), in addition to yielding information on the various Slavic peoples, their locations, languages, literatures and ethnic borders, also presented a detailed geographical map of the Slavs, an overview of the Slavic peoples and literary examples of individual Slavic languages.
Šafárik had intensive contacts with Czech and Slovak intellectuals, such as Ján Kollár or Ľudovít Štúr. He is considered a leading intellectual of the Slovak and Czech national revival, providing a sound scholarly basis for Slavic studies and endorsing a representative of the idea of “Slavic togetherness”.