Guest Blog: Miloš Crnjanski, the Serbian Modernist Poet

By Luna Gradinšćak

There is one fact that I gladly used to mention in my notes, works and conversations. The first time I ever read that fact was in a phenomenal book by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. The book speaks about something that one day will be clear to all of us. That is why in this abyss it is important to talk about things which can morally and spiritually raise us up, things like our heroes.

I come from a small country. But not a small culture. If culture can find people like St. Sava, Ivo Andric, Nikola Tesla or Mihajlo Pupin, you can be proud of it. But I intend to speak about less known Serbian figure of hero, Miloš Crnjanski.

One of the biggest writers we can find in the twentieth century is this man, born one autumn day in 1893., at a place called Čongrad in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many Serbian families were settling in the south part of the Empire by migrations at the very end of the seventeenth century. It was convenient for the big Empire to settle these families in the borders of its land because these families serve them as military personnel. They were kind of protection from the Ottoman Empire. The father of Miloš Crnjanski, Toma Crnjanski, was the first in the familly of Crnjanskis who broke with the ‘military tradition’ and became a ‘notar of the village’. This man had the biggest role in the upbringing of Miloš, because he used to say how his father gave him a lot of information and knowledge about the history of Vojvodina (north province of today Serbia), bylaws and privileges of the nation. Miloš never lost his interest in, and love for, his nation. He felt it intensively till his last breath.

Unfortunately, his life also witnessed one of the most shocking event for humanity in the modern world – World War I. News about the assassination of Franc Ferdinant[1] he received in Vienna in ‘caffé Meinl’. In his poetic work ‘Ithaca and Comments’, he gives us a description of the situation: ‘News about killing the Austrian Crown Princ in Sarajevo came to me one sunny day in Vienna after lunch, during the game of billiards. The waiter told us the news he had received over the phone. Contrary to what is thought of today, the news did not cause any consternation, neither amongst us nor the Viennese, and music was played until the evening. It was only late in that day someone remembered to silence it. The epoch of the waltz was finished.’

‘There was consternation among the Viennese as they saw the coffins of the Austrian prince and his wife, the countess Chotek (whom Princip had killed unintentionally, while aiming for the governor of Bosnia, general Poćorek).

‘All the station was wrapped in black.

‘And the locomitve was arrived with red eyes.

‘The coffin of the Erchercog was much bigger and with more wreaths than the coffin of his wife, who was only a countess. In Austria there was no equality either amongst the court (palace) nor among the deaths: everything is, in a coffin, measured with the Spanish ceremony of the Habsburgs. In ears, sometimes, in dreams, I can still hear the sound of Austrian generals’ footsteps from the exequies. They marched down, swinging to the rhythm of a funeral march by Chopin, with their two-pointed hats on their heads, and hats were ornamented with green feathers from the tales of roosters. The sound of horses’ thuds was heard. Such was the silence we created’ (Crnjanski 2010: 143-144).

The assassination in Sarajevo meant a big change in the history of our nation and for the individuals who belonged to it. With this act, Princip placed the killer mark ‘on our foreheads’. But Crnjanski said that this treatment was also a reason for unification of Slovenian people in the Balkans. He describes also what was the atmosphere immediately after these events:

‘It was such a carefree mood in Europe at the end of it all, at that time, that for example, the supreme commander of the Serbian troops (Duke Putnik) came for treatment at an Austrian spa resort.

‘Austria, however, prepared an ultimatum for Serbia, secretly, like a crime. When it suddenly announced the mobilization, Europe start to panic. Fathers and children, husbands and wives, began to seek each other over the phone’ (Crnjanski 2010: 146).

Crnjanski was conscripted in Vienna. He was determined to serve the city’s artillery fortress of Przemysl. He was in the barracks K und K. It was a regiment of twenty-nine, Becskerek. After he fell ill with cholera, he was sent to the hospital and spared, directed to go as an Austrian corporal in Serbia. He said, ‘I do not think I would have survived it’ (Crnjanski 2010: 148).

The author also gave us a short description of Vienna in the early period of war, and he is still brisk, straightway and close:

‘In Galicia I have seen war.

‘In Vienna a breakdown of empire and a capital.

‘[…] There were two types of Vienna. One: a healthy, young type who went to the battlefield, and returned to the hospital, with no arms, legs or head. And another one: rich, toothless, reject, slacker, who remained at home with abandoned women. One went to their deaths – the best ones of the population and the others – who became rich at the expense of them – they were rolling yet in the music of a waltz’ (Crnjanski 2010: 158).

MilosHe participated at the front in Galicia. He didn’t have the habit of giving a lengthy description the battle, for two reasons: one is that all those who saw the bloody picture have a shyness when they need to talk about it. The other is a known fact that the veterans of the war (World War II) for these from before last (World War I) didn’t want to hear of them.[2] What helped him mentally to bear suffering was the nature of the terrain on which they died. He said ‘that part of Galicia somehow reminds me of Serbia, with its hills, with their forests. Fall is hot there.’

That was the reason for the creation of a new direction in the avant-garde literature known as sumatraizam (sumatraism). It was based on a vision of cosmic harmony. Everything in this world is connected. There are no coincidences. His manifesto of sumatraism is based on his poem named ‘Sumatra’. This is a translation:

Now we are carefree, light and tender.
We just think: how quiet are the snowy
peaks of the Urals.
If a pale figure makes us sad,
the one we lost to an evening,
we also know that somewhere, instead of it a rivulet
flows and is all red.
Each love, each morning in a foreign land
envelops our soul closer by its hand
in an endless tranquility of blue seas,
in which red corals glitter
like the cherries of my homeland.
We wake at night and sweetly smile
at the Moon with its bent bow
and we caress those distant hills
and the icy mountains with our tender hand.

One day after war, Crnjanski was in a cold, broken train, going through his country when everyone was asked to step out of the train because of the broken bridge and wait for another one, that will come for them behind the broken bridge. He describes it:


‘It was cold. I was in a bunch of strangers passengers. The grass was wet and we slid slowly, and some were falling. When we crawled up the hill, below us in the dawn, was pointed out the Danube, gray, misty. All this fog, behind which you could see the sky was immense and endless! Green hills, like islands above the earth, disappearing as early as dawn. I was lagging behind the others.

‘And my thoughts yet followed my friend to his fine journey which he talked about to me, carefree, with a bitter humour. Blue sea and distant islands that I do not know, ruddy plants and corals, which I remembered I guess from geography just as it emerges in my mind.

Finally, peace, a dawn’s peace, slowly entered me. All that my friend was talking about, and he himself, hunched, in the shabby, military overcoat, remained forever in my brain. I suddenly remembered cities and people that I saw, on my return from the war. It is the first time I noticed a huge change in the world’ (Crnjanski 2010: 197-198).

Crnjanski sees these omnipresent connections as a kind of salvation and atonement for what has befallen humanity of the twentieth century. He felt that the changes that have befallen the world carry with them a deep mark that will heal when he is deported to London in 1941. As an immigrant in London, he will spend nearly twenty five years as a paperboy and shoeworker, unwilling to accept the socialism and communism milestones that have occurred in his country. Because of his explicitly anti-communist orientations, he won’t be able to stay in Serbia (then Yugoslavia). At the end of his life he will get the attention which every great man deserves, and will spend his last days with his wife in Belgrade. His literary work has great importance because he felt global changes that were still unintelligible. He made a poetic masterpiece named ‘Lament over Belgrade’. Even the translation can’t be as effective as it is in his native laguage, but I’ll share it with you. I owe it to this hero.

‘YAN MAYEN and my Srem
Paris, my dead friends, cherries in China,
visit me as apparitions, while here I am silent, sleepless and dying.
Only, we are not these, anymore, life, or the stars either,
but some monsters, polyps, and dolphins,
tumbling over us, floating and riding,
screaming: “Dust, ashes, and death it is”
while shouting Russian “nyitchevo”
and Spanish “nada.”
Meanwhile, you grow, with the bright morning star,
and the blue Avala, in the distance, like a hill.
You sparkle, even as the stars are fading here,
melting like the Sun ice of tears and last-winter’s snow.
There is no absurdity in you, no death.
You shine like an old unearthed sword.
In you all resurrects, dances, and keeps swirling,
repeating like the day and a child’s cry.
And when my voice, my eyes, and my breath lose life’s sap
you will, I know, hold me in your lap.
‘ESPANA and our Hvar
Dobrović deceased, a white sheik in the Sahara Desert,
still visit me as ghosts, phantoms and flames.
My Sibe gone mad, agape like a dead fish.
Only, that is not us, anymore, neither in youth or in power,
but some parrots, melancholic chimpanzees
laughing at me and screaming in my solitude.
One “Leiche! Leiche! Leiche!” hollers
another “cadaver” mutters
the third “Corpse, corpse, corpse.”
Meanwhile, you spread oblivion, like a swan its wings,
over the rivers Danube and Sava, in their dream.
You awaken glee, that once was mine,
a giggle, here, in my cry, wail, and scream.
No worm is in you, even from a grave
You glimmer, as human laughter, through the tears.
In you a plowman sings, even in winter, brave,
pouring the blood, into a new vat, like the wine,
And when my head drops marking my years’ end,
you will, I know, kiss and touch me with the mother’s hand.
‘YOU, THE PAST and my world,
youth, loves, gondolas, and Venice in the skies,
a vivid vision, like a wave, or a beautiful bloom,
in the company of masks that came to claim me.
But it is not I, or Venice azure,
but ruins, ghosts, and tombstones that stay
behind us on the ground or in grass.
They say: “Here lies a pasha! A beggar! A dog!”
and shout in French “Tout passé,”
And our “gone.”
Meanwhile, you stand above the wide river,
over fertile plains, like a shield, raised and hard.
Blissfully resonating with a distant thunder,
weaving through ages, with lightning, your own line.
There is none, in you, my human sadness.
Like an archer’s, your look is mute and straight.
Like rain, you turn tears to colorful rainbows
and, inhaled, cool me, like a distant pine.
And when the hour comes to still my old heart,
your acacias will fall on me like the rain.
‘LISBOA, and my voyage
into the world, castles in the air, and the ocean-foam
appear to me still, while my candlewick shakes like a twig
and I move the land and all into the dream, the dream, the dream.
Only, these are neither women nor men alive,
just shadows, helpless, weak and sad,
telling me they are no beasts nor at fault
that life has given them naught
They murmur now “nao, nao, nao”
and our “no. no.”
Meanwhile, in the still of the night
breathing to the height of the stars, leading the Sun to your dream,
You hark to the hum of your heart, hitting the depths
like a rock against the dark Kalemegdan.
As tiny ants, to you are all our miseries.
You cast down in the dust those precious pearls, your tears.
But then, above them, does your azure dawn arise,
Which I had gazed in my young and happy years.
And when my failing heart falls silent in my bed
At last, on your soft pillow shall I rest my head.
‘FINISTÈRE and her form,
Marriage, kisses, a storm that was so violent,
Appear to me as visions still, like butterflies, poppies, ears of corn,
While, out of the past, I hear her footstep light.
Only, it is no longer she; it is not her smiling voice
But that of a cormorant, with wild black wings,
That cries out that all happiness must drown beneath the sea,
And murmurs to me their words «tombe» and «sombre»,
And shrieks their words «ombre, ombre!» –
And our words «grave» and «darkness».
But, gliding, you set forth, like an eternal swan,
Away from death, and blood, upon your way to light.
For me the day sinks in the river’s depths, is gone,
But you arise with dawn, all shimmering and bright.
Somewhere in the Sahara I shall stand, alone –
That desert where the ghostly caravans pass by.
But, as a mother kneels by her dead Tuareg son,
So you shall give me consolation till I die.
And though they break my soul, my lance, my leg, my arm,
I know that you they cannot, cannot break or harm.
‘ALL human life, a hound,
A withered leaf, a seagull, roe deer, the moon upon the sea,
Appear to me as visions in the end, of sleep, of death,
That comes to all the actors on our stage, all, one by one.
Only, those things, and I, were never anything
But seadrift, transient, whisperings in China,
Which murmur like a heartbeat, ever colder, ever quieter,
That there remain no Ming, no yang, no yin,
No Tao, no cherry trees, no mandarin,
Nothing, and no one.
But you shine still, through all my troubled sleep and pain,
Unceasingly, through gloom, and dust, and countless tears.
Your blood, like dew, has fallen on the plains again,
To cool the breath of all those whose quietus nears.
Now I embrace you and your steep stone crags once more,
And Sava, and broad Danube, flowing slowly by.
The sun is rising in my dreams. Now shine! Flash! Roar!
Your name rings out, like lightning from a clear blue sky.
And when your ancient clock strikes finally for me,
Upon my dying lips your whispered name shall be.
Crnjanski, Miloš (2010). Miloš Crnjanski, ed. by Milivoj Nenin. Novi Sad: Matica srpska.



Luna Gradinšćak is a Master’s student of Serbian Literature & Language and South Slavic Literatures in the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad, Serbia and has published numerous articles in scholarly periodicals. She can be followed on Twitter here: @baobaobab



Image: Miloš Crnjanski, poet, novelist, storyteller and playwright, one of the foremost representatives of modern Serbian literary movement in the post-World War II, by Ἐπαμεινώνδας, public domain.

[1] The story about Gavrilo Princip was also one of many interesting topics in his work, but I will not elaborate on that here.

[2] In my opinion, Crnjanski here try to say that ‘everyone thinks he is worse off.’ So, the veterans in WWII forgot about the torments of previous ones.


  1. Pingback: Guest Blog: Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazards – Keeping a Remembrance Alive | Interesting Literature

  2. “Coincidences are excuses for spiritual laziness.” Thanks for the comment!

  3. Reblogged this on Sonmi's Cloud and commented:
    A fascinating article, written with passion.

  4. Yes, everything is connected. Thank you for this, an intense and incredibly passionate post which I found most interesting, and shall re-post upon my own blog. – sonmicloud.