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Statement by the
Czech Surrealists

The Mácha Cult

A conversation with
the translator here



by Karel Hynek Mácha

translated from Czech and introduced
by Marcela Malek Sulak

drawings by Jindřich Štyrský

Often compared to Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Poe, called Lautreamont's "elder brother" by the Czech Surrealists, Karel Hynek Mácha (1810-1836) was the greatest Czech Romantic poet, and arguably the most influential of any poet in the language. May, his epic masterpiece, was published in April 1836, just seven months before his death. Considered the "pearl" of Czech poetry, it is a tale of seduction, revenge, and patricide. A paean as well to nature, the beauty of its music and its innovative use of language, expertly captured in this new translation by Marcela Sulak, has ensured the poem's lasting popularity. Scorned at first by the national revivalists of the 19th century for being "un-Czech," Mácha was held up as a "national" poet by later generations, a fate which the interwar Czech avant-garde, who considered him a precursor, took it upon themselves to reverse.

Unlike the other seminal 19th-century European poets, Mácha's work has been largely ignored in English translation. The present volume, the only available in English, provides the original Czech text in parallel and includes a series of illustrations by Jindřich Štyrský specifically created for the poem.


There are many literary works that risk being ruined for readers simply because they are prescribed study in school, often presented in a rote manner that leaves its victims, er students, with few fond memories. No doubt, for generations of Czech students, Karel Hynek Mácha’s epic poem May might be remembered primarily as something they were required to read in school, old fashioned and difficult. But to come to this poem well into adulthood, without school-deadened experience and as someone whose first poetic passion was English Romantic poetry, this tale of romance, betrayal, patricide and brutal punishment is fascinating, as is the short, tragic life of its author.

— Joseph Schreiber, roughghosts

This seems to be the first English version in more than 50 years of the greatest poem by the premier romantic poet of the Czech language. Macha (1810-36) published his masterpiece at his own expense shortly before he died, probably of cholera. Mostly in tetrameters, with expansive sections in longer lines, the poem pioneered iambs in Czech, in which dactyls and trochees work more easily, and is famously melodious. It is prefaced by a rather crude patriotic paean that is Macha's acknowledgment of his era's call for patriotism in Czech literature, which he otherwise ignores in favor of international romanticism. The poem portrays a young woman pining for her lover condemned to death, his last hours and execution, nature's lament for him, and the poet's recollection of the lovers' legend. Byron, or Keats, well could have written it, and if translator Sulak declines to slavishly render its rhymes (observable on left-hand pages in this bilingual edition), she convincingly echoes its meters and movingly conveys its various beauties.

— Ray Olson, Booklist

Many works of art and literature are beloved because they are linked inextricably to the culture and age from which they sprang. Consider Norman Rockwell. But truly great works often seem to appear from nowhere, as if they've had no predecessor. Mácha's "May" seems to fit both categories: Stylistically, it has no real precedent in Czech literature, and yet over the past two centuries it has taken a central place in the hearts and minds of [Czechs] as the crowning achievement of Czech Romanticism. That fact is reason enough to read the poem. Marcela Sulak's skillful, sensitive translation of Mácha's groundbreaking language is another.

— Stephan Delbos, The Prague Post

To my mind the most modern Czech poem is K.H. Macha's May.

— Jindrich Styrsky

Marcela Sulak has beautifully maintained the same style of poetic language as Macha, with the use of the dash to represent silence and time lapse. Sulak's Introduction is also informative for the non-reader of Czech and fairly explains the difficulties in maintaining a true English parallel to the original.

Slavic and East European Journal


ISBN 9788086264226
121 pp., 14.5 x 19 cm, hardcover
4 pen-and-ink drawings
single poem, bilingual

release date:
November 2005

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