12 July 2010

Why Read Njegoš?


I have mentioned Petar II Petrović-Njegoš a number of times at Logismoi already, primarily in connection with the paper I was preparing to present at the Mythopoeic Society conference in Dallas on Saturday (a presentation which was poorly attended but nevertheless received positive comments from those who did attend). As Michael Petrovitch has observed, at first glance Njegoš seems ‘suited to one of those dull dissertations about obscure figures whom some apprentice scholar is always grateful to dig up for the price of a doctorate’, but he was an ‘extraordinary ruler and poet of an extraordinary country’. [1] Just to dispel any lingering suspicions among fellow Orthodox, however, that Njegoš’s work is merely an obscure academic subject, I thought I would post a few comments on him from Serbian theologians. It was they, after all, who convinced me actually to read his work in the first place. First, here in full is the brief foreword to Clarence Manning’s translation of The Rays of Microcosm by St Nicholas (Velimirović):

The Prince Bishop of Montenegro Petar II Petrovich Negosh (1813-1851) is the greatest Serbian poet. His drama ‘The Mountain Wreath’ has been translated into many European languages. There are three German translations. The best English translation is by Dr James Wiles. Negosh’s deepest and most spiritual creation ‘The Rays of Microcosm’ (Lucha Mikrokosma), however, appears now for the first time in English thanks to Professor Dr Clarence Manning of Columbia University in New York.

The theme of this poem is the same as that of Dante’s ‘Divina Comedia’, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, and Klopstock’s ‘Messias’. All these three great poets are Westerners, whereas Negosh with a similar work stands alone for the Eastern Europe [sic]. We do not think that all his thoughts in this poem are dogmatically in harmony with the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, as for instance the pre-existence of Adam as the one [sic] of the great and leading angels, but poetry is poetry. The privilege of a poet consists in the freedom to add to the common reasoning his imagination which gives more life and color to the accepted facts. Negosh’s vision of the enormity of the created Universe in height, depth, width, and length; of many suns and galaxies of stars, ruled by various angelic hosts, is very striking. It reminds the reader of the Mount Palomar’s giant telescope, and the quite modern astronomic discoveries. There is no telescope which can beat the spirit and imagination of a great poet.

The spiritual value of this work, as the reader will see for himself, is beyond doubt great and unusual. It is all spirit, religion, and dramatic victory of God over Satan.

The language of Negosh is lapidary and charged with ideas and arcanas. Yet, Professor Manning succeeded to translate it well; not in each case literally though, but on the whole clear and well done in a choice English. [2] We hope that ‘The Rays of Microcosm’ will help the English speaking people toward a deeper insight into the soul and heart of the Serbian people, always suffering for Christ and never feeling defeated. [3]

Second, and following in the spirit of St Nicholas’s comments, Fr Daniel Rogich has included Njegoš alongside St Nicholas himself under the category of ‘soul-profiting reading’, that is, ‘works that do not directly deal with the spiritual life but that “enlarge” the heart and refine the soul”’. [4]

Finally, in a lecture in which he treats at length Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bishop Athanasius (Jevtić) writes:

Our Serbian poet, Bishop Njegosh, in his poem Rays of the Microcosm, which is to some extent similar to John Milton’s poem mentioned earlier, partially succumbed to the influence of Milton and other philosophers and poets who similarly viewed and interpreted the fate of man and mankind predominantly in a theological-cosmological manner. However, in the last part of Rays of the Microcosm, Njegosh, an Orthodox bishop and a man with Church experience through which he observed both the Bible and its pronouncements about man, made a radical turn toward the eschatological Messiah, Christ Incarnate and Resurrected, Who in terms of Milton’s logic regarding justice, unexpectedly enters into human history and saves man personally through Himself, thus changing man’s established fate, which until then was harsh and inescapable because of sin. [5]


[1] Michael B. Petrovitch, ‘Introduction’, Njegoš: Poet, Prince, Bishop, by Milovan Djilas, tr. Michael B. Petrovitch (NY: Harcourt, 1966), p. xiii.

[2] Although St Nicholas commends Manning’s translation, a double review by Ante Kadić convinced me to read the Savić-Rebac translation of The Ray instead. See Ante Kadić, rev. of The Rays of Microcosm, tr. Clarence A. Manning, & The Ray of the Microcosm, tr. Anica Savić-Rebac, American Slavic & East European Review 18.1 (Feb. 1959), pp. 129-33.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirović), ‘Foreword’, The Rays of the Microcosm, by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, tr. Clarence A. Manning (Munich 1953), pp. 7-8.

[4] Fr Daniel Rogich, ‘Introduction’, Serbian Patericon: Saints of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Vol. 1, illust. Lillian Tintor (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), p. 23. This is a widely varied category. It is worth noting that Fr Rogich also includes—

ecclesiastical writers such as St Ignatius Brianchaninov, St Theophan the Recluse, St John of Kronstadt, the epistology of the Optina Elders, Theophan of Poltava, and writers of Mt Athos such as the Russian Seraphim the Hagiorite (his letters), or secular writers of world literature who contributed to the formation of the Orthodox way of life as opposed to the anti-Christian growth of secular values of the modern man of the post-French Revolution: Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, Leskov and Gogol. (p. 23)

[5] Bishop Athanasius (Yevtich), ‘The Holy Fathers & the Holy Scriptures’, tr. Sr Michaela, Christ: The Alpha & Omega, ed. St Herman of Alaska Monastery (Alhambra, CA: Western American Diocese, 2007), pp. 28-9.

9 comments:

Fr. Mark said...

These observations are fascinating for all sorts of reasons. I'm still pondering these words from St. Nikolai:

"We do not think that all his thoughts in this poem are dogmatically in harmony with the doctrine of the Orthodox Church... but poetry is poetry. The privilege of a poet consists in the freedom to add to the common reasoning of his imagination which gives more life and color to the accepted facts."

And what to make of Fr Daniel's consideration of Njegos' work as "soul profiting" and work that "enlarges the heart and refines the soul," while discounting Dostoyevsky as a contributor to "the anti-Christian growth of secular values of the modern man of the post-French Revolution..."

Most curious!

Jason Fisher said...

I’m sorry your presentation was not attended by very many, though we talked about this beforehand, and I think it’s more or less what you expected to happen. Well, at least you introduced a completely new subject to Mythcon — for the courage to do that, I congratulate you. Perhaps interest in Njegoš will grow and you may have a future presentation with standing-room only. Well, maybe not. ;)

Thanks for coming to Mythcon. It was great to see you again! And I look forward to CSLIS 14 next year in Tulsa.

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr Mark> Yes, I agree that the first comment is interesting (not at all what you'd expect, huh?), but I think you may have misunderstood the other one. Fr Rogich is not including Dostoevsky et al. among the 'anti-Christians', but among the 'secular writers...who contributed to the formation of the Orthodox way of life as opposed' to the anti-Christian secular values.

Jason> I doubt I'll ever have standing-room only for a presentation solely on Njegoš, but maybe I could sell it better next time, with a title & abstract that refer to something more popular or at least more sensational!

I was certainly glad I could come--I had a great time. I too look forward to CSLIS 14!

Fr. Mark said...

Ah - I was misconstruing the modifier... or something like that. Lord have mercy!

Garrett said...

I think the key to success is including the phrase "...and Tolkien" in your title. Anyways, as you forewarned, I've been unable to find an English translation of the poem, even through ILL; still, the search continues.

On another note, before I forget to ask you, what was...
the picture-based Latin textbook you recommended?
the name of the Orthodox Church in Chicago?
the best translation of the sayings of the desert fathers?

I sincerely hope to make it out to CSLIS, but since school will have began, I may not be able to. When exactly does it take place? I can't seem to find the information (or any information, frankly) on the website.

The Peace be with you.

aaronandbrighid said...

Garrett> I think you're quite right about the title!

My copy of Njegoš appears to have originated at the Queens Borough Public Library. Maybe you could suggest your ILL buddy check there.

The Latin book I mentioned was Hans Orberg's Lingua Latina per se Illustrata: Pars I, Familia Romana, from Focus Pub.

The name of the church where my friends attend is Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral in Des Plaines. The one that I recommended you see is New Gračanica in Third Lake.

The most important Desert Fathers translation is Benedicta Ward's The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection from Cistercian. But I also recommend you get Hellen Waddell's The Desert Fathers, which was reprinted in the Vintage Spiritual Classics series. For secondary works, I recommend Derwas Chitty's The Desert a City, William Harmless's Desert Christians, Douglas Burton-Christie's Word in the Desert, & Stelios Ramfos's Like a Pelican in the Wilderness.

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh yeah, you'll have to wait to find out about the CSLIS dates. I'm not even sure it's been decided yet, but I'll ask around for you.

Ryan said...

I believe the notion that Adam pre-existed as an angel may derive from Origen- at least this idea is condemned in St. Justinian's "anathemas against Origen" at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

aaronandbrighid said...

It's true that Origen taught this, but very little can be said with any certainty about Njegoš's sources. Most seem to agree that he was drawing on Origen, but there's no clear evidence.