Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Poet and the Ruler - JCS 21


Here lies Ianus, who first brought poetry to his native Danube from Mount Helicon
When Ianus Pannonius (Ivan Česmički, 1434-72) was thirty years old, he wrote an elegy about his sickness in a camp ("De se aegrotante in castris"). While accompanying King Matthias Corvinus on his military expeditions, Ianus had contracted tuberculosis and malaria. Afraid that he would die soon, at the end of the poem he added the epitaph quoted above and begged passers-by not to desecrate it.
Ianus was a shining meteor, which appeared and vanished. His poems have been seldom published and studied. Since the fifties, however, when his Poems and Epigramsappeared, with the translation into Croatian by Nikola Šop,[1] he has been the subject of several erudite interpretations.[2]
While the Croatians rightly consider him their native son, the Hungarians too claim him as their countryman; as a rule they omit to mention the real place of birth of Ianus and his uncle, Ivan Vitez of Sredna, a famous Latin orator and archbishop of Estergoan.
Ivan Supek's play entitled Pjesnik i vladar (The Poet and the Ruler) was recently published in the Zagreb periodical Forum (1980, nos. 1-2); in it Supek proved not only his historical knowledge but also a keen psychological intuition, skillfully sketching the gradual but inevitable parting and final quarrel between Ianus and the King, who started as good friends. As in his other plays, so in this one Supek often alludes to a contemporary situation in which Ianus' spiritual descendants oppose another ruler in whom they too had initially believed.
In order to understand the rebellion of Ianus Pannonius, I will briefly describe his youth, education in Italy, his service at the court of Corvinus, his painful disappointment with the arbitrary and cruel warrior, the rebellion of the magnates and its failure, Ianus' desperate flight to Medvedgad (near Zagreb) and his early death.
In his famous panegyric to his teacher Guarino, Ianus says that he comes from that region where the Drava river flows into Danube ("qua mox Danubio mixturus nomen et undas"). Since Česmica is located near Čazma, not far away from Zagreb, the specialists conclude that Ivan (who only later was nicknamed Ianus[3]), though by his ancestry from Česmica, was born in the eastern of Slavonia.
His father died when Ivan was very young. He was the youngest child and the darling of his mother Barbara, who perhaps was the first to realize his exceptional intellectual gift. Whatever "she earned with weaving and spinning, she spent on his education".[4]
Ianus repayed his debt to her by a moving elegy about her death ("De morte Barbarae"). Though the Croatian poets have written plenty in honor of their mothers, it seems to me that this poem by Pannonius is among the best. While in his other elegies and epigrams the mythological element is overpresent, in this one pulsates the son's afflicted heart; he had visited her on her sick-bed, but was away, in the company of King Matthias, when his mother left this world. Even today, more than five centuries after the poem was written, the reader is enchanted by Ianus' superb portrayal of his unforgettable parent:
Once conceived, you carried me in your womb
until the time of nine months had passed by.
Then me, an infant, you swung in your arms;
I sucked your breast with my lips.
You embraced me, you spoiled and cared for me
as if I were the only son. You warmed me in your lap.
Maybe the mother guesses the fate of the child
or loves more tenderly the youngest one.
As soon as I began to walk with a steady step
and my tongue had mastered the basic vocabulary,
you attracted me at once to the elements of learning
and did not allow me to remain idle at home.
Just as I, still green, began to read and write
and gave definite proofs of a promising future,
then your brother sent me to the shores of Italy
so chat I learn poetry in that distant land...

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