Matija Čop ( 1797 – 1835), philologist, literary historian, critic, librarian, and teacher, known as a friend and mentor of the poet . Born in a peasant family, Čop attended school in Ljubljana and ; after two inconclusive years of theological study, he became a Gymnasium (grammar school) teacher in 1820, first in the port city of /Fiume, then in Galician, predominantly Polish (Lwów, 1822-27; he also worked as a teaching assistant at the philosophical faculty there), and finally in Ljubljana (1827-31), where he also served, for the rest of his life, as librarian of the Lyceum library.
Čop was a well-regarded teacher at each of his posts, but failed to obtain a university appointment and supplemented his income with private language classes. Over the years, he collected a personal library of around 2000 volumes in more than a dozen languages. After two unsuccessful marriage proposals, Čop remained single. Quiet, introverted, high-minded, and oversensitive in character, he suffered from depression, neurasthenia, and heart problems. In the summer of 1835 he drowned when bathing in the Sava river.
In his politics, Čop was close to liberal nationalism; in his aesthetic outlook, he was a Romantic. He took an interest in the philosophy of Hegel and Schelling and the criticism of the Schlegel brothers. One of the most erudite literati of his time (he knew nineteen languages), his reading and literary interests ranged far and wide. Besides a professed liking for , the troubadours, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese Renaissance and Baroque writers, , , , , , , and , he also took an interest in “Oriental” (especially Indian) literature. During his posting in Galicia, Čop began to occupy himself more thoroughly with Slavic philology and literatures.
In the course of his postings in three multilingual towns, Čop built up a considerable social network of acquaintances and correspondents which spanned various parts of the Austrian monarchy and beyond. He exchanged opinions and books with friends, colleagues, and students (Francesco , Karol Bołoz , Prešeren, etc.), and with prominent intellectuals such as , , , , , and . However, the extraordinary erudition with which Čop’s letters and personal contacts were imbued, and which made him an exemplary mediator between different European literatures, did not materialize into any significant scholarly or critical publications. This may be explained from the burden of his teaching duties and from his (overly self-critical, insufficiently ambitious or disciplined) character. Also, an invitation to write for the Wiener Jahrbücher der Literatur foundered when he quarrelled with its editor Kopitar.
After his 1827 return to Ljubljana, Čop began to take a more active part in public life and the literary scene, where he introduced his literary cosmopolitanism and his Polish experience with Slavic National Romanticism. In 1827 Kopitar connected him with Šafárik, who was then preparing a new edition of his Geschichte der slavischen Sprache und Literatur. Čop completed an extensive critical bio-bibliographical survey of Slovenian literature (later given the title Literatur der Winden) in 1831; in its periodization, and its historical outline of the language’s development and cultural context, this goes some way towards being a national literary history, but Čop’s cosmopolitan-aestheticist connoisseurship made him dissatisfied with the predominantly religious, utilitarian, and non-artistic nature of Slovenian letters. Čop himself planned to see the work into publication in Ljubljana; it was not printed until 1864, in Šafárik’s posthumous Geschichte der südslavischen Literatur, in revised form with comments by Kopitar.
More fruitful was the collaboration with the poetic almanac (“Carniolan bee”, 1830-34, 1848), into which Čop was drawn by his friend Prešeren. Čop was appointed censor of this publication by the Austrian authorities. With his sporadic and mild interventions, he tactically buffered the pressures that the almanac experienced from ecclesiastical and secular powers, which mistrusted Prešeren’s liberalism and his amorous and satirical verse.
Between 1828 and 1835 Čop figured as a vigorous mentor of Prešeren’s poetic creativity, offering him his library, erudition, and knowledge of European literature, broadening Prešeren’s already wide-ranging horizons even further. Čop reinforced Prešeren’s inclination towards Romantic universalism, stimulated his interest in Byron, Czech, and Polish Romantics, and above all directed him towards a concept of national revival that Čop himself had largely adapted from the ideas of and August Wilhelm .
Čop and Prešeren followed the Schlegels’ notion of with Romance poetic forms, and the Schlegels’ Romantic universalism as a literary synthesis of Antiquity, Middle Ages, and modernity. Adapting these concepts into their own programme of a Slovenian national awakening, they fostered an interest in Slovenian literature among the educated, mostly bilingual classes in order to prepare a written Slovenian language standard suitable for prestigious purposes. For Čop, it was in the sphere of poetic literature that the underdeveloped and peripheral local culture could best catch up with the achievements and standards of the more advanced metropolitan cultures of Europe. The Krajnska Čbelica was intended for that purpose; so was the Schlegelian “serious reflective poetry” that Prešeren wrote in the 1830s, which invoked ancient, medieval, and Renaissance-Baroque traditions onto which Prešeren then grafted his Romantic individualism, historicism, and nationalism.
In carrying out this programme, Čop and Prešeren increasingly clashed with the established cultural notions of Josephinist and late-Enlightenment vintage. Their adversaries, adepts of Kopitar, considered the peasantry the bedrock of nation-building (literacy among the rural population had indeed significantly improved since the Theresian school reform of 1774), rather than the educated classes. Their main goals were , , and the publication of useful and entertaining reading material (including religious instruction) for simple people. Based on Kopitar’s linguistic principles and his ideal of connecting the Slavic peoples through a , the grammarian Franc Metelko proposed a reformed Slovenian alphabet; this sparked the first Slovenian polemic between the rival ideas of national revival. The ensuing of 1833 unfolded in the Illyrisches Blatt; the main burden of argument in the polemic was on Čop, who published his collected contributions (including the replies of his adversaries, Kopitar among them) in an offprint booklet entitled Nuovo discacciamento di lettere inutili, dass ist: Slowenischer ABC-Krieg (1833). This polemic ruptured Čop’s friendship with Kopitar, but his orthographic views prevailed. The ABC War looked beyond its local setting and topic: Čop backed up his argument by invoking the favourable review which had given in of Prešeren’s poetry and the Krajnska Čbelica.
Čop’s engagement with literary life was interrupted by his sudden premature death, a severe blow to the emerging Romantic school in the Slovenian lands. The Romantics’ cosmopolitanism was overshadowed by a more pragmatic, post-Enlightenment cultural agenda which set the tone for Slovenian nation-building after 1848. Prešeren devoted elegies in Slovenian and German to his friend’s memory, as well as his magnum opus, the narrative poem (“Baptism by the Savica”). Without his most perceptive reader and mentor, Prešeren gradually gave up the high-classical Romantic style and turned towards the more popular and down-to-earth tones of Biedermeier.