“I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from”.
French writers and journalists sometimes use a metaphor to designate the language of other European countries. English is then the language of Shakespeare, German, the language of Goethe, Italian the language of Dante or Dutch the language of Vondel. All these expressions refer to national literature heroes, which have built the basis for national cultures and histories. Europe is not the harmonization of all those cultural inheritance, but the full recognition of this diversity into a common and rich patrimony. Most of the writers below are thus not only of national importance, but also of European meaning to express what humankind has done best on this continent.
Luís de Camões – Os Lusíadas
Os Lusíadas, translated in English as The Lusiads, is regarded as the best Portuguese piece of literature. His writer Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524 – 1580) became the major figure of Portuguese culture all over the world. Os Lusíadas is an epic and lyrical poetry in the vein of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey interpreting the Portuguese voyages of discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616) left to Spanish culture its most prominent masterpiece, in the name of Don Quixote. Fully entitled as The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Cervantes’ emblematic work of Western literature is considered as the first modern novel. The story depicts an idealist dreamer who feels himself as a modern knight.
Molière – Tartuffe – L’Avare –Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme – L’école de femmes
Actually, there is not in the theater plays of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière (x – 1673), a major play more famous than another. The greatest master of comedy in Western literature wrote 33 plays from which almost the half bears a peculiar influence on French culture.
Hallgrímur Pétursson – Passíusálmar
The most influential work of literature in Iceland is without doubt the Passíusálmar, translated in English as the Passion Hymns. Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614 – 1674), a famous poet, priest and minister in Hvalfjörður, wrote a collection of 50 poetic texts exploring the Passion narrative, from the point where Christ enters the Garden of Gethsemane to his death and burial.
Thomas Moore – Irish Melodies
The poet, singer and songwriter Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852) is an Irish literature hero. He composed the Irish Melodies containing the prominent song The Minstrel Boy and poem The Last Rose of Summer. The song in particular became famous in Ireland, as it was sung during the United States Civil War and the World War I
William Shakespeare – Hamlet – Othello – Macbeth – Romeo and Juliet
World’s most renowned dramatist William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) became England’s national poet after the success of his renowned tragedies Hamlet, Othllo, Macbeth or even more Romeo and Juliet. There are still a lot of controversies on his life and on the possibility that some of his works were written by others.
Henrik Wergeland – Mennesket
After “Four Hundred Years of Darkness” according to Ibsen’s sentence, during which Norway was a part of Denmark, the rebirth of Norwegian Literature was to be found in the works of Henrik Wergeland (1808 – 1845), a poet known for his Magnum opus Mennesket (meaning “Man”),who was remodeled from his previous work Skabelsen, Mennesket og Messias (“Creation, Man and the Messiah”). This poem depicts the history of Man and God’s plan for humanity, through the character of Stella, the embodiment of the writer’s ideal love.
Carl Michael Bellman – Fredmans epistlar – Fredmans sånger
Carl Michael Bellman (1740 – 1795) is certainly the most influential poet and composer of Sweden. His main work is undoubtedly the Fredmans sånger (“Songs of Fredman”), a collection of 65 poems and songs, and the Fredmans epistler (“Epistles of Fredman”). His texts, often comical in their description of Stockholm, were always tackling the tragic dimension of human being with topics such as drunkenness, prostitution, illness and death.
Johan Ludvig Runeberg – Fänrik Ståls sägner
The national poet of Finland Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804 -1877) wrote in Swedish. His main literature work Fänrik Ståls sägner (in English, “The Tales of Ensign Stål”) is regarded as the greatest Finnish epic poem dealing with the Finnish War of 1808–09 with Russia. This conflict resulted in the incorporation of the Grand Duchy of Finland into the Russian Empire.
Adam Oehlenschläger – Hakon Jarl Død
Adam Oehlenschläger (1779 – 1850) is a central figure of Danish literature and was crowned in 1829 as the “King of Nordic poetry”. His masterpiece is certainly his first tragedy entitled Hakon Jarl Død, who was the de facto ruler of Norway from about 975 to 995 . He is also the writer of the Danish national anthem Der er et yndigt land.
Joost van den Vondel – Joannes de Boetgezant
The greatest Dutch poet and literature hero is to be found in the 17th century. Joost van den Vondel (1587 – 1679) wrote many famous playwrights, such as Lucifer or Adam in Ballingschap but his prominent writing was the epicJoannes de Boetgezant which tells the history of John the Baptist. This play is still frequently performed.
Maurice Maeterlinck – L’Oiseau bleu
The Belgian playwright, poet and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862 – 1949) was a prominent figure of Belgian Symbolism. He was awarded in 1911 the Nobel Prize of Literature. His renowned drama L’Oiseau bleu (‘The Blue Bird’) was first performed in 1909 and has been turned since into several films and a TV series. It tells the story of Mytyl and her brother Tyltyl seeking happiness, represented by The Blue Bird of Happiness, aided by the good fairy Bérylune.
Edmond de la Fontaine – Mumm Séiss
The national poet, ethnographer, jurist and lyricist Edmond de la Fontaine (1823 – 1891) was better known under his penname ‘Dicks’. He remains today one of the very important figure of Luxembourgian literature. He wrote in particular the comedy entitled Mumm Séiss.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Faust
Faust is considered as the supreme genius of modern German literature, and his writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is regarded as the most prominent figure of the Weimar Classicism. The tragic play of Faust depicts the soul of a young scholar trapped by Mephistopheles, an embodiment of the devil, who made a bet with God that he could defect his favourite human being.
Albrecht von Haller – Die Alpen
As there is no dominant national language, there is no single Swiss literature, but four different literatures, in German, French, Italian and Romansh. As the German literature was the first to be developed, the most emblematic writers and poets are to be found in the German speaking community.Albrecht von Haller (1708 – 1777) published his poem of 490 hexameters Die Alpen (‘The Alps’) in 1729 and was the first author to consider the natural and idyllic life in the mountains with pure inhabitants, in contrast with the corrupt and decadent existence of the dwellers in the plains.
Dante Alighieri – La divina commedia
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) remains the essential reference of Italian literature. In Italy the prose writer has been given the name of il Sommo Poeta (‘the Supreme Poet’) or just il Poeta. In the epic poem “The Divine Comedy”, Dante describes on the surface his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; but at a deeper level, it represents allegorically the soul’s journey towards God.
Dun Karm Psaila – L-Innu Malti
The ‘bard of Malta’Dun Karm Psaila (1871 – 1961) is regarder as the national poeat of the isle. He is known for having written L-Innu Malti(‘the Maltese Hymn’). The poems of Dun Karm Psaila are well known for their religious and patriotic currents, and so are the verses written for the anthem. The hymn was already being sung in December 1922, mostly in governmental schools
Franz Grillparzer – Der Traum, ein Lebe
The Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer (1791 – 1872) who also wrote the oration for Ludwig van Beethoven’s funeral wrote the famous drama The Dream, a Life. It tells the aspirations of Rustan, an ambitious young peasant, that are shadowed forth in the hero’s dream, before awaking from his nightmare to realize the truth that all earthly ambitions and aspirations are vanity; the only true happiness is contentment with one’s lot and inner peace.
Jan Neruda – Povídky malostranské
The Czech journalist, writer and poet, Jan Neruda (1834 – 1891) was one of the most prominent representatives of Czech Realism and a member of “the May school”. His masterpiece Povídky malostranské (‘Tales of the Little Side’) is a collection of short stories, which take the reader to the Lesser Quarter, with its several streets and yards, shops, churches, houses, and restaurants.
Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav – Hájnikova žena
Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1849 – 1921) was chiefly known for his epic poems and lyrist works of literature. His novel Hájnikova žena (‘The Gamekeeper’s Wife’) has been described by his fellows as a “living picture of the forest”. The story takes place in the Carpathians and tells de story of a gamekeeper and his wife Hanka, who kills the son of their master when he attempts to rape her.
Adam Mickiewicz – Pan Tadeusz
Adam Mickiewicz (1789 – 1855) is one of Poland’s Three Bards, along with Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849) and Zygmunt Krasiński (1812–1859) and regarded as the greatest poet in all of Polish literature. The epic poem Pan Tadeusz (‘Sir Thaddeus’) is a compulsory reading in Polish schools as it depicts the national epic of Poland. The story takes place over at the time when Poland-Lithuania had already been divided and erased from the political map of Europe, in 1811.
Kristijonas Donelaitis – Metai
The Lutheran pastor Kristijonas Donelaitis (1714 – 1780) was the first poet to write a poem in Lithuanian. Metai (‘The Seasons’) became one of the principal works of Lithuanian poetry and a classic work of Lithuanian literature. It portrays everyday life of Lithuanian peasants, their struggle with serfdom, and the annual cycle of life.
Rainis – Uguns un nakts
Rainis is the pseudonym for the Latvian poet, playwright and politicanJānis Pliekšāns (1865 – 1929) who became a leading representative of Latvian ethnic symbolism and literature. Uguns un nakts (‘Fire and Night’) and Indulis un Ārija (‘Indulis und Arija’) are his most famous playwright. Rainis also gained fame with his translation of Goethe’s Faust.
Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald – Kalevipoeg
The most famous representative of Estonian literature is undoubtedly Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803 – 1882), regarded today as the national literature of Estonia. His poem in alliterative verse Kalevipoeg (‘Kalev’s Son’) is considered as the Estonian national epic. It tells the story of Kalevipoeg a giant hero of old Estonian folklore who travels to Finland in search of his kidnapped mother.
Yakub Kolas – Рыбакова хата
Yakub Kolas, or in Belarusian Яку́б Ко́лас (1882 – 1956) was designated as ‘People’s Poet of the Byelorussian SSR’ in 1926. His poem Рыбакова хата(‘The Fisherman’s Hut’) is about the fight after unification of Belarus with the Soviet state. In his works of art, he often portrayed peasant life style in Byelorussia.
Taras Shevchenko – Zapovit
Taras Shevchenko’s (1814 – 1861) is regarded as the founder of Ukrainian literature and, the greatest contributor to Ukrainian language. His works of art contributed significantly to the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness. His poem Zapovit (‘Testament’) has been translated into more than 60 languages. It starts with the famous verse “When I am dead, bury me/In my beloved Ukraine.”
Moldova & Romania
Mihai Eminescu – Luceafărul
Luceafărul (‘The Morning Star’) is generally regarded as Mihai Eminescu’s (1850 – 1889) greatest work of art and a major contribution to Moldovan culture. Luceafăr in Romanian is the name of the planet Venus which in folklore is associated with demons but is also linked to the Greek Titan Hyperion.
Sándor Petőfi – Nemzeti dal
Sándor Petőfi’s poems inspired the revolution in the Kingdom of Hungary which eventually led to the independence war against the Austrian Empire. Sándor Petőfi (1823 – 1849) was himself involved in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and is supposed to have died in the battlefields. His Nemzeti dal(‘National Poem’) was first read on March 15 in Vörösmarty Square in Budapest to a gathering crowd, which by the end was chanting the refrain while marching around the city.
France Prešeren – Krst pri Savici
The Slovene national poet France Prešeren (1800 – 1849) is a very inspiring source for the Slovene literature. Krst pri Savici translated as ‘The Baptism at Savica Falls’ is an epic poem dedicated in a first part to Prešeren’s recently deceased friend, then describing the battle between Christians and pagan Slavs and finally portraying the romantic relationship between Črtomir and Bogomila.
Marko Marulić – Judita
The Christian humanist Marko Marulić (1450 – 1524) is regarded as the Croatian national poet or the ‘father of Croatian literature’. He wrote in 1501 Judita (‘Judith’) which intends to show to the common people the exemplary model of Biblical Judith, for it to see what can the yield the confidence to God and eternal justice.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Ivo Andrić – Na Drini Ćuprija
The 1961 Nobel Price of Literature Ivo Andrić (1892 – 1975) was a novelist and one of the most influential Bosnian writer. He published in 1961 Na Drini Ćuprija (‘The Bridge on the Drina’), a novel depicting four centuries of Ottoman and subsequently Austro-Hungarian power in the region and the lives of local inhabitants, with a particular focus on Muslims and Orthodox Christians living in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Serbia & Montenegro
Petar II Petrović-Njegoš – Горски вијенац
Petar II Petrović-Njegoš (1813 – 1851) is the greatest Serbian poet who was also the ruler of Montenegro who turned his state from a theocracy into a secular state. He notably wrote the modern epic poem and play Горски вијенац meaning in English ‘The Mountain Wreath’. Set in eighteenth-century Montenegro, the poem deals with attempts of Njegoš’s ancestor Danilo to regulate relations among the region’s warring tribes.
Kočo Racin – Бели мугри
Kosta Apostolov Solev, nicknamed Kočo Racin (1908 – 1943) is regarded as one of the founder of Macedonian Literature. Besides being a revolutionary, he wrote one of the most prominent works of literature of Macedonian culture, namely Бели мугри (‘White Dawns’). White Dawns is a collection of 12 poems dealing with Macedonian way of life.
Naim Frashëri – Bagëti e Bujqësi
The national poet Naim Frashëri (1846 – 1900) is regarded as one of the most prominent figures of the Albanian national awakening. He wrote in particular the masterpiece Bagëti e Bujqësi (‘Herds and Tillage’) in two acts, the first one presenting the pastoral life, the beauties of the sheep flock, and the second focused on agriculture on the way of life of farmers.
Ivan Vazov – Под игото
The Patriarch of Bulgarian literature Ivan Vazov (1850 – 1921) was a poet, novelist and playwright whose most famous work of literature was the novel Под игото meaning Under the Yoke translated into more than 30 languages. It deals with the history of the Ottoman oppression of Bulgaria.
Homer – Ιλιάς– Ὀδύσσεια
Homer (ca. 8th century BC) is without doubt the founder of the Western classical tradition and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. His influence on the history of literature is enormous as his Iliad and Odyssey are considered as the Western canon of literature.
Fuzûlî – Dîvân-ı Fuzûlî
Fużūlī (1483 – 1556) was the pen name of the Ottoman poet, writer and thinker Muhammad bin Suleyman. He is considered as the greatest contributor to the Dîvân tradition, notably by compiling poems in his Dîvân-ı Fuzûlî, mainly dealing with love.