Erben was born in the village of Miletín at the foot of the Giant Mountains, in the north of Bohemia. He attended secondary school in Hradec Králové and studied law in Prague. From his student years, he cooperated with the historian František Palacký, first he copied documents for him in various village archives, then he worked as a secretary of the Czech Museum in Prague and as an archivist of the city of Prague. He believed in the statement: "An independent nation can only exist as long as it preserves its memorials."
Erben published several volumes of selections from Old Czech Literature, for instance he published Jan Hus´s writings in three volumes.
For a time, he was a friend of the Czech radical Romanticists Karel Hynek Mácha and Karel Sabina (as a political radical, Sabina was sentenced to death after 1848, the sentence was commuted to a long prison term). Under Mácha´s influence, Erben recorded his own dreams, but he eventually developed into an ideological opponent of Mácha.
Erben was fascinated by the alleged mysteries hidden in folk lore. He looked for an impersonal order in folklore, something that governs all human beaviour. He was trying to piece together the original myth, allegedly hidden in folklore in fragmens. Personally, he was timid and shy, avoided the public eye, concentrated on his efforts to support his family and on his work. He died in Prague.
There is an ongoing debate about whether Erben´s work is a part of national classicism in the Jungmann sense or whether it belongs to biedermeier or to romanticism, which opposed Mácha.
Erben´s Kytice (The Garland) became an inspiration of a number of later works of art and cultural activities.
Unlike previous collectors (Čelakovský), Erben concentrated on narrative poems, legends and ballads. As a first scholar, he recorded different variants of the material (oral tradition) and its tunes.
He published Písně národní v Čechách (National Song in Bohemia, 1842-5), an extended edition of this, Prostonárodní české písně a říkadla (Folk Czech Songs and Rhymes) came out in 1864.
Like the German Romanticists, (brothers Grimm) Erben also collected fairy tales. He looked for elements of ancient myths in living folk narratives. He published a selection of Slavonic fairy tales and collected Czech fairy tales, which were only published by Václav Tille in 1905.
When editing fairytales, Erben tried to reconstruct their original supposed mythological content.
The mythological folk ballad centred on the conflict between Man and the natural world, between the aspirations and the behaviour of an individual on the one hand and between the order, defined by the course of life and by the cycle of nature. The ballad condemned human sins. The ballad looked critically at exceptional individuals, not with admiration like Mácha´s May. This is why the ballad attracted the attention of European Romanticists: it was interesting that the ballad contained a narrative, mixed with contemplations, and depictions; narratives were counterbalanced by direct speech of individual characters.
Such a mixture of the narrative, lyrical and dramatic elements in a small space was very pleasing for the Romanticists - there could be lots of lacunae and mysterious hints.
Several ballads were written by Czech poets before Erben (Šebestián Hněvkovský and Josef Jaroslav Kalina imitated broadside ballads). Although Čelakovský maintained that most Czech folksong was lyrical, he neverthelessincluded some narrative ballads in his imitations of Czech folksong poetry
From the 1830s onwards, Erben worked on a collection, which he later called Kytice z povětí národních (A Garland of national myths, 1853). By myth (pověst) Erben means a narrative in which historical memory appears only rarely. (Věštkyně, The Prophetess.)
With the exception of the poem Věštkyně, all the other narratives in The Garland are concerned with the fundamental relations between mother and child, man and woman.
The love of a mother for a child cannot be cancelled even by death, death only transforms its manifestations thyme´s aroma (in Czech "mateřidouška" , i.e. "mother´s breath) becomes the symbol of the dead mother´s breath; in another poem (Vrba, The Willow Tree) the dead mother´s song, whose soul resided in the willow tree which was cut down, resounds in the sound of a whistle made from the wood of the willow tree.
In Poklad (The Treasure) a mother realises that her child is more precious than a treasure, when in her greed, she leaves her child in an underground vault of treasures which magically opens only for a few minutes at Easter, for a whole year. A mother who kills a stepdaughter in order to secure the hapiness of her own daughter, must be punished (Zlatý kolovrat, The Golden Spinning Wheel).
The most difficult conflicts occur between the woman, her man, the child and the woman´s mother. In Polednice (The Noon Day Witch) the child is being naughty, the mother is worried that she might not be able to prepare lunch in time for her husband, she calls the noonday witch to frighten the child and when the witch does arrive, the mother in fear holds it so tightly that she chokes it to death. In Vodník (The Water Sprite) the mother of a baby water sprite cannot break the relationship to her own mother, escapes from the pond back to the dry land and the father of the baby kills it in revenge.
Záhořovo lože (Záhoř´s bed)deals with a father-son relationship. This poem originated in reaction to Mácha´s May. Erben was slowly freeing himself from dependence on Mácha until he created a poem about guilt, penitence and redemption.
Svatební košile, The Wedding Shirt, contains the message that you can save yourself before a catastrophy only if you repent in time. But individual predicaments are arbitrary: there are two equally nice and pleasant girls in Štědrý den (Christmas Eve), one of them gets happily married, the other dies within a year.
Most characters in The Garland have to come to terms with the fact that their aims and designs are frustrated. In The Wedding Shirts, a girl blasphemes, she asks Virgin Mary either to return her lover to her or to kill her. When she is submitted to an ordeal by a returning spectre of a lover, who takes her through a nightmarish journey in the night landscape to his graveyard where he and other dead individuals want to tear her to shreds, she realises the value of life as such and asks Virgin Mary for forgiveness.
In The Willow Tree, the husband does not want to accept the fact that his wife is frigid (her soul resides in a willow tree at night) and goes and cuts down the willow tree, by which he loses her completely.
In The Water Sprite, there is conflict between the relationship of the husband to the young girl (who is subjugated, anyway) and the relationship between the girl and the mother. Each side of the conflict seems to be entitled to act in their interests, but the mutilation of the baby at the end of the poem casts doubt on this right in the end.
The setting of these poems is very important. Certain times of the day or night have magic powers (midnight is the time of the spirits, on Friday one is threatened by the forces of evil more than on other days of the week, on Good Friday, hidden treasures open, and Man is allowed to catch a glimpse of his/her future fate, but the future may be positive or tragic, regardless of what a person does. People meet supernatural beings (the old man in The Golden Spinning Wheel), they communicate with trees and flowers, these can influence their live and cause their death.
The supernatural beings and the magic periods of time or objects imbued with magic powers are highlighted often in the titles of the poems.
The characters of the ballads usually act in strong emotions and thus they are driven to their own destruction. Even ordinary spaces of the countryside are imbued with magical powers: a humble room, a track between two fields, a crossroads, a landscape at night, the forest, the castle, the pond.
Erben was a master of the dialogue. He tells the story in very economical terms. The dialogues heighten the conflict of the participants of the story: they demand of the reader to assume a partisan position.The narrator´s language also demands (by means of rhetorical questions, unfinished sentences, juxtaposition of contradictory statements) that the narrator should make his or her own judgment. The individual ballads are made up of stanzas of variying structures.
The introductory poem of The Garland shows that the collection continues the tradition of dainty, popular poetry about the "language of the flowers". Rather, Erben assaults this tradition: he makes fun of its placidity and daintiness, he is a rebel and a sceptic. His poems are like cruel one-act plays.
In Erben´s view, it seems as though Man´s predicament is forever determined in advance and it is a sin to try to change it. At the same time, it is predetermined that Man will be trying to change it, so the terrible punishment ensues almost automatically. Is this a comment on a sadistic God? Which Erben probably did not intend?