(29th March 1900 - 3rd April 1924)
(Institute of Czech Literature, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague)
Jiří Wolker belonged to the generation traumatised by the First World War but also dazzled by the creation of an independent Czechoslovak state in 1918. The young people of his generation sought a new vision of the world, new faith and a new means of expressing their belief in social revolution as the key to the solution of human problems. From the very beginning of the 1920s, Wolker's work contained features of the new literary style: naivety, primitivism, harmony among people and objects. Commonplace, everyday life and concrete, simple things became poetic. After he died at the age of twenty-four, Jiří Wolker became widely read and venerated. His premature death fixed his image in the public mind for a long time to come. Wolker himself saw his own death as part of the all important task of transforming himself in order to fit the dream of the revolution which he believed to be the only means of saving society and bringing about a new order of creativity.
The history of Wolker's family later became a cult, which was formed by fact and fiction in the family genealogy. There are references to a cloth making family Walcker of Litovel. One descendant, Gottfried Walcker went to Prostějov circa 1715 and changed his name to Wolker. The family became Czech in the nineteenth century and continued as clothmakers and later as furriers. The poet's father Ferdinand was the first to acquire higher education. He worked in a bank and in 1899, overcoming many obstacles, created by his bride's parents, he married Zdena Skládalová, the daughter of a wealthy owner of a distillery. The Skládal parents eventually left the house in Prostějov to the children and moved to Olomouc. In summer they would go to Svatý Kopeček nearby. During the First World War, they settled permanently there.
In 1919, Jiří Wolker left the secure surroundings of an upper middle-class house with a roof garden in the main square in Prostějov and a luxurious villa, Bellevue, in Svatý Kopeček, to go and study in Prague. A novice in poetry, he found himself among the left-wing intellectuals of the famous Prague coffee house, the Union. His simple middle-class ideas were shattered under pressure from this new environment. He rejected his previous attempts at poetry, which now seemed to him woefully immature. He discovered French unanimism and German expressionism. He was encouraged by the first efforts, written in the new style of his more experienced contemporaries, A.M.Píša, Miloš Jirko, František Němec, Zdeněk Kalista, Josef Suk. Their new style rejected the extravagant constructions of symbolism, one-sided technical civilism as well as the futurist's obsession with machines. In a letter to a friend, Antonín Dokoupil, in May 1920, Wolker described his feverish search for the new style in the metaphor,"I am growing a new pair of eyes". Soon he began to contemplate the publication of a small book of verse, which was to confirm him in his new vision.
Wolker's first published work Host do domu (Welcome, Guest) appeared in 1921. The poet is the least of the least, the humblest of the humble, "a child". This "poet child" was a highly personal concept with clear autobiographical elements - leaving Prostějov to study in Prague, homesickness - but Wolker also declares the general need for a different poetry, simple and unpretentious. The world seen through the eyes of a child is a friendly place. There is intimacy and poetry in ordinary words and everyday objects, ("Kamna", "The Stove", Poštovní schránka", "The Pillar-Box"). Wolker links the boy's departure for a strange town with a search for his place in the world and a new concept of social and personal relations. These are associated with naive religious symbols (God as an old man visiting people, the Virgin Mary comforting the heartsick boy). Love is a stylized Christion emotion, uncomplicated, touching on the sentimental and chaste in the extreme. All attempts to enter the real world are directly linked to the poet's all-encompassing love. For Wolker his collection consisting of the three sections "Chlapec" ("The Boy"), "Ukřižované srdce" ("The Crucified Heart") and "Host do domu" ("Welcome, Guest") was not a mere exercise in a certain literary style but a triad, almost in the Hegelian sense. The boyish vision of the world is the antithesis of the theme of the hero who suffers as he becomes aware of new conflicts. In the end, he has to come to terms with reality, no matter how tragic or contradictory it might be.
Rebirth was a basic theme in Wolker's Host do domu, although most of his readers and some of his reviewers were aware only of the childlike melodious quality of the poems. This is why, paradoxically, Wolker himself welcomed the criticism that in the future it would be necessary to progress beyond this stage of childlike simplicity. By the time this book was published, Wolker's long poem Svatý Kopeček had appeared in the prestigious journal Červen (June). The young poet clearly regarded this poem as opening up a whole new range of issues. The poem is a lyrical record of a day's visit to the family's summer residence in Svatý Kopeček. The young man comes "from distant Prague and homely Prostějov" to the bedside of his sick grandmother. He spends the day talking with her and with friends and so strengthening his bonds with mankind as a whole. The poem was a direct challenge to Apollinaire's Le Zone, which typified modern poetry for Wolker, (Červen had published Karel Čapek's excellent Czech translation some years previously). Wolker accepted many of Apollinaire's concepts in Svatý Kopeček , but instead of aimless wandering through the world, he offers a concentric movement towards a safe familiar place, the home of his loved ones whom Wolker even names in the poem. Unlike Apollinaire, who saw reality as a constant fluctuation of disparate and chaotic perceptions, Wolker portrays the world as stable, wholly intelligible through the emotions but at the same time governed by reason. The key to understanding the world lies in the socialist tenet,"give us all strength through justice, childlike eyes and fiery tongues, that today's beliefs become tomorrow's deeds".
After the publication of Host do domu and Svatý Kopeček, Wolker, recently an insecure newcomer among the young writers, became the most celebrated poet of his generation. In 1921, he was invited to join the Brno Literární skupina (Literary Group), which chose for its planned journal the name Host (The Guest), echoing the title of Wolker's collection of poems. Before the end of the year he had become a member of the artist's club Devětsil. Of course Wolker's theory of his own rebirth was never going to be bound by the programme of any group. After Literární skupina published its manifesto, which Wolker found utopian, he left the group in September 1922. Soon afterwards he also left Devětsil, which was now turning away from proletarian art to pure non-ideological poetry. Wolker, disagreeing with the excessive lyricism of the day, began to experiment with drama and prose. The last book published in his lifetime was a collection of his one-act plays, Tři hry (Three plays) and prose. In writing "O knihaři a básníkovi"(The bookbinder and the poet), "O milionáři, který ukradl slunce" (The millionaire who stole the sun), "O kominíkovi" (The chimneysweep), "Pohádka o listonoši" (The postman's tale), "Pohádka o Jonym z cirkusu", (The tale of Jony from the circus), Wolker was trying a new kind of socialist folktale. However his main source of inspiration was the ballad. "I am trying to write narrative verse. It seems to me that that is what is wanted. There is too much lyricism today. There are too many people who do nothing but talk about themselves. I know the poet will always be the strongest element in his own work but I maintain that the poet who can leave his own ego behind and take the narrative of his poem beyond himself proves his strength and courage. Lyricism is a state and narrative writing is action," wrote Wolker in a letter to A.M. Píša, dated 1st July, 1921. Wolker even announced his intention of publishing his ballads separately in a book entitled Kniha balad, (Ballads) but in the end he included them in the collection Těžká hodina, (A Difficult Hour, 1922).
In the new collection, Wolker' rejects his original "philosophy of boyhood" even more empahtically. The poet contrasts "the heart of a boy", which is "a song beginning", with "a man's heart", which is "hands and calluses", unremitting toil. The boy's new eyes, the recurrent theme in Host do domu, are contrasted with eyes disillusioned by suffering and injustice. Wolker centres attention on the downtrodden, the suffering, beggars, prostitutes, servants, the poor. Increasingly influenced by marxism and communist ideology, Wolker now classes them as the "proletariat", the workers, a force capable of shaping the future world as he sees it.
Yet this highly ideological poetry is at the same time highly personal and surprisingly dynamic. In his poetry, Wolker was obsessed with transformation and rebirth, and this was not an automatic process. Everything, "love", "spring", even life has to be fought for, chiefly by means of self-restraint. The poems, "Pohřeb" (The Funeral) and "Smrt" (Death), which were inspired by the death of Wolker's grandparents, have an important place in this collection and are reminders of Wolker's middle-class origins. They raise the question, at variance with orthodox communism, whether a life lived entirely within the family circle can be courageous.
In his ballads Wolker used as inspiration the traditional Czech blend of Karel Jaromír Erben's (1811 - 1870) classical style and language and the social ballads by Jan Neruda (1834 - 1891) and Petr Bezruč (1867 - 1958). The heroes of Wolker's ballads differ from traditional types. In his "Balada o nenarozeném dítěti" (Ballad of the Unborn Child), the main character is a young lover so poor she is forced to have an abortion. In "Balada o snu" (The Ballad of the Dream) the hero is a young workman who can rid himself of a recurrent dream of a better world only by realizing that he has to act. By using the ballad form to express his ideas of movement from dream to deed, from the theme of emotion and vision to the theme of toil, from boy to man, from the notion of harmony to that of revolt, Wolker took the ballad beyond its previously accepted limits.
In April 1923 Wolker became seriously ill and X-rays showed he had tuberculosis. On the 19th of June on doctor's orders Wolker and his mother went to Tatranská Polianka in the Tatra mountains. Although suffering from a fever, he kept on writing and even considered another collection of poems. He did not give up his theme of struggle and projected it as a moral imperative into his own fight against illness. "Disease forces a man to think only of himself, to fear only for himself and to pay attention only to himself. This is its greatest anguish and corrupting power. The whole universe is narrowed down to his feeble body and to what might happen in this poor suffering cosmos before misery and pain return!... If I was ever bothered by suffering or joy (any strongly felt joy causes suffering in the end), I would try to find release from its torture by transferring it from my inner being and placing it outside myself so that it could lead its own life without me. In literary terms, I transformed my subjective torments into poetry..." (Poznámky z nemoci [Observations from a Sick-bed]).
After seeing the film Tuberculosis , Wolker began to gather together texts for a kind of "filmed sequence of poems from this terrible environment" as he called it in a letter to his friend and critic A.M. Píša on October 21st, 1923. At the end of November, having a premonition that the end was near, he wrote his own epitaph which is now inscribed on his grave. In the second half of December, tuberculosis led to meningitis and he went into a coma. The Minister of Education offered to pay for further treatment but it was too late. At this critical juncture Wolker's mother decided to make the difficult journey back to Prostějov, where he died shortly afterwards.
His death made the young poet into a cult figure for everyone. The extreme political left took up Wolker's revolutionary challenge, but the touching, sensitive simplicity of his work became known to readers from widely different social backgrounds. Soon everything he had ever written, juvenilia, diaries, notes and rough drafts included, was being published. His collected works came out in edition after edition, his poems were included in anthologies and published separately, to such an extent that in 1925 Wolker's contemporaries Artuš Černík, František Halas and Bedřich Václavek wrote an article which appeared in the journal Pásmo (The Zone) entitled "Dosti Wolkera!" (Enough of Wolker!). The authors of the article protested against the appropriation of Wolker by official culture. The aesthetic of these avant-garde poets, supporters of the playful movement of "poetism", which rejected any connection between lyrical poetry and the portrayal of social realism and political programmes, dismissed Wolker as "the last great, bad ideological poet". In the ensuing controversy the Literární skupina and Julius Fučík, spokesman for the young communist intellectuals, supported Wolker. The arguments continued into the 1930s when an article written by Bedřich Fučík, František Halas, Pavel Levit and Vilém Závada and signed with the initials F.Hlz became the subject of further controversy. After the communist coup of 1948 Wolker's works were interpreted as the embodiment of the classic values of socialist poetry and were revered as the pinnacle of "socialist realism", which finally brought to an end the controversy about Wolker's legacy.