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Patriotic poetry and verse : Romanian

  • Literature (poetry/verse)Romanian
  • Cultural Field
    Texts and stories
    Both, Ioana

    19th-century Romanian patriotic poetry exemplifies an anomaly at the heart of Romanian Romanticism, with its characteristic hypertrophy of national commitment: Romanian Romanticism did not arise from the rejection of a previous poetical paradigm such as classicism, but rather represented opposition to the Ottoman Empire and its culture, and a turn towards Europe. The historicism of Romanian Romanticism is that of the nation’s idealized, non-Ottoman past; and in that respect it continues the attitude of the Romanian Enlightenment, which had already invoked and cultivated the Roman roots of the Romanian nation, as distinct from the other cultural presences in the region: Ottoman, Hungarian, Slavic and German. That Enlightenment invocation of Latin roots continued unaltered into the Romantic climate.

    Descent and motherland were potent myths in the construction of a Romanian sense of national identity, and their dissemination in patriotic verse secured an impact for them that could challenge and overrule the factual findings of scholarly history-writing.

    Although Romanian literary history has tended to trace the emergence of politically activist poetry back to a folk tradition of resistance verse, this is to some extent a post-1848 interpretation, in nationalist terms, of the themes and concerns of folk poetry. The poetic emphasis on the nation and the fatherland (as opposed to kin and community) is a modern development emerging in literate circles, with its earliest antecedents in the corpus known as stihuri la stemă (“verses in praise of the coat of arms”), occasional, emblematic-didactic poetry. Such verses in praise of armorial-heraldic bearings invoke biblical tropes such as that of the “chosen people” and anticipate patriotic, homeland-related themes in later poetry. As a result of the erratic development of Romanian culture towards modernity, the genre of armorial-heraldic verse outlasted its context of origin of writing and underwent a revival in the early decades of the 19th century, when it was reconfigured in the light of the political nationalism inspiring the 1821 revolt.

    Early-19th-century poetry accordingly abandons the arcadianism of the previous generation and begins to negotiate the demands of, on the one hand, immediate politics and, on the other, the ingrained tradition of literary genre conventions; we see this pattern from Iancu Văcărescu’s activist poetry (Glasul poporului subt despotism, “The people’s voice under despotism”, 1821) to the conventionally classical Amor de patrie (“Love of the fatherland”, by Gheorghe Asachi). Both poets also engaged in didacticism: Văcărescu in his Sfătuiri patriotice (“Patriotic counsels”), Asachi in Prolog. La Patrie (“Prologue to the fatherland”). The continuing importance of such didactic patriotism is illustrated by educational textbooks (both originals and translations) aimed at a wide readership, such as Aaron Florian’s Patria, patriotul şi patriotismul (“Fatherland, patriots and patriotism”), published in Bucharest in 1843. A more Romantic mode was indicated by Costache Conachi, who merged the lofty register of patriotism into his more lyrical effusions, e.g. in Dintr-a dulcii patriei sânuri (“From the fatherland’s sweet bosom”). After 1821, the “nation” becomes a powerful trope personifying generalized idealism.

    Romanian patriotic poetry reached its apogee in the climate and aftermath of 1848. Spearheaded by the journal Dacia literară (“Literary Dacia”, founded in 1840), mythical and historicist tropes were marshalled into politically propagandistic verse. The unsurpassed master of the genre is Vasile Alecsandri, whose poetry consecrates recent history and transforms it into legend and myth. A pragmatic spirit (unusually so among his fellow-poets), and a scholar and statesman as well as an inspired poet, Alecsandri used literature (particularly poetry) as an ideological propaganda instrument, in particular for the unitary Romanian state which he helped to create. Thematically, two modes can be distinguished.

    One mode of patriotic verse is the hortatory activist battle call, urging readers on towards a golden future. Andrei Mureşanu’s Un răsunet – Deşteaptă-te, române (“An echo – Arise, O Romanians”), remarkable also for its publishing history, provideds a good example. It was published in the June 1848 issue of the Transylvanian journal Foaie pentru minte, inimă şi literatură (“Gazette for mind, heart and literature”) that also carried the text of the revolutionary Islaz Proclamation. It was written as a reply (literally, an echo) to Alecsandri’s poem Către români (“To all Romanians”, later known as Deşteptarea României, “The awakening of Romania”), which had been published in the same journal one month previously. Later, it was included by the author in the volume Din poesiele lui Andreiu Murăşianu (“From the poetry of Andreiu Murăşianu”, published in Braşov, 1862). Set to a tune attributed to Anton Pann, it immediately became the march of the Transylvanian revolutionaries of 1848. Nicolae Bălcescu, leader of the revolution in Wallachia, was the first to dub it “the Romanian Marseillaise”.

    Un răsunet is ideologically rooted in the political discourse and oratory of Simion Bărnuţiu, a Transylvanian revolutionary, and became a doctrinal master-text for that movement, with its characteristic emphasis on the threefold theme of national unity, historically-rooted culture and the messianic right to rise in revolt. Its continuing importance is demonstrated by the fact that it was banned under the communist dictatorship and subsequently declared Romania’s national anthem. It builds up in a crescendo of proclamation, from the direct apostrophe in the first stanza through the standard invocations (heroic Latin origin, the shades of past heroes, the lament of the motherland for her fallen sons, the curse on potential traitors), and culminates in scathing execrations of contemporary enemies and a call to arms (invoking unity and the sacred nature of the national cause).

    The other mode of 1848-style patriotic poetry is that of the heroic panegyric, evoking (and imagining) scenes from an idealized past. Grigore Alexandrescu’s Umbra lui Mircea. La Cozia (“Prince Mircea’s shade at the Cozia monastery”) is an example, as are Dimitrie Bolintineanu’s Legendele istorice (“Historical legends”) and the poetic meditations upon ruins by Vasile Cârlova and Ion Heliade Rădulescu. A national golden age is invoked in such terms as to mythically prefigure the future Romania, in its full united extent; that golden age and mythical proto-Romania is often linked to the name of Dacia, the Danubian region of classical antiquity. The verse of the 1848 generation – with continuations to Eminescu and beyond – is concerned with a “recovery of Dacia” and a rehabilitation of Dacian spirituality, replacing a classicist invocation of Latin roots with the Romantic theme of a lost, paradisiacal golden age. The literary manifesto of 1848-ism, Alecu Russo’s Cântarea României (“In praise of Romania”), exemplifies the trend: the primordial Eden of pre-Roman Dacia lapses when, with the Roman conquest, it enters into recorded history.

    The reading public was highly responsive to these Romantic myths, and as a result activist literature and the Romanian national cause became tightly conjoined partners. The figure of Mihai Eminescu marks, in his poetry as in other respects, a watershed between the 1848 Romantics and 20th-century modernism, addressing, as it does, self-questionings about the power of poetry and the meaning of patriotism, and merging the registers of eros and thanatos, even while he continues to see the motherland as the ultimate locus of moral and literary significance.

    In isolation from Eminescu’s modernism, Transylvanian poets like George Coşbuc and Octavian Goga maintained, under pre-1918 Habsburg rule, the patriotic Romanticism of the 1848-ists. Their work is noteworthy for re-framing folkloric motifs in a patriotic mode: the harmony between man and nature (Goga’s Plugarii, “Ploughmen”), the vengeful power of nature (Oltul, “The river Olt”) or the figure of the rustic bard (Coşbuc’s Poetul, “The poet”; În şanţuri, “In the trenches”; and Patria noastră, “Our motherland”). Thus, the Romantic Nationalist poetic register, already complex in its terminus a quo, survives into the modernism of the post-1918 century.

    Word Count: 1287

    Article version
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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Both, Ioana, 2022. "Patriotic poetry and verse : Romanian", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 26-04-2022, consulted 15-07-2024.