“I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from”.
Eddie Izzard, stand-up comedian.
French journalists often refer to the language of another European country with its most famous writer. Following this logic, English is 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 masters, who have built the basis for their national literature and cultures. Europe is not the harmonisation of our cultural patrimony, but the full recognition of its diversity! Most of the writers below are therefore not only important for their national audience, they are also the greatest contributors to Europe’s fame in the world. They all gave us their best thoughts and stories in written – so time to pay them tribute!
Luís de Camões
Os Lusíadas, translated in English as The Lusiads, is regarded as the best Portuguese piece of literature. It also contributed to give Portugal its famous nickname of Lusitania. His writer Luís Vaz de Camões 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
Miguel de Cervantes left to Spanish culture its most influential masterpiece, in the name of Don Quixote. Fully entitled as The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Cervantes’ emblematic work is often considered as the first modern novel. The plot revolves around the adventures of a noble named Alonso Quixano, who reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his mind and decides to become a knight-errant to revive chivalry and serve his nation.
Tartuffe – L’Avare – Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme – L’Ecole de Femmes
You won’t find in the theatre plays of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – known by his stage name Molière – a major play more famous than the others. Because they all are! The greatest master of comedy in Western literature wrote not less than 33 plays from comedies, farces to tragicomedies and comédie-ballets. Almost half of them bears a peculiar influence on French culture. His influence is such that the French language itself is often referred to as the “language of Molière“.
The most influential work of literature in Iceland is without doubt the Passíusálmar, translated in English as the Passion Hymns. Hallgrímur Pétursson, a famous poet, priest and minister in Hvalfjörður, wrote a collection of fifty poetic texts exploring the Passion narrative, from the point where Christ enters the Garden of Gethsemane to his death and burial. The fifty hymns are to be sung one for each working day during the seven weeks ahead of Easter.
Thomas Moore was closely attuned to the taste and artistic sensibility of his age, but he is remembered now primarily by the Irish, who still sing his songs and claim him as their own. The poet, singer and songwriter composed the Irish Melodies which include the prominent song The Minstrel Boy and the poem The Last Rose of Summer. Moore’s song is characteristically sentimental, but it testifies to the strength of his friendship and his hope for Ireland.
Hamlet – Othello – Macbeth – Romeo and Juliet
The world’s most famous dramatist William Shakespeare became England’s national poet after the success of his renowned tragedies Hamlet, Othllo, Macbeth and obviously Romeo and Juliet – all considered to be among the finest works in the English language. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Shakespeare’s works remained popular and are studied, performed, and reinterpreted through various cultural and political contexts around the world.
After “four Hundred Years of Darkness” during which Norway was a part of Denmark, the rebirth of Norwegian literature was to be found in the works of Henrik Wergeland – a poet known for his Magnum opus Mennesket (meaning “Man”). In this poem, Henrik Wergeland relates the history of Man and God’s plan for humanity. The works are clearly platonic-romantic, and are also based on ideals from the enlightenment and the French revolution.
Carl Michael Bellman
Fredmans epistlar – Fredmans sånger
Carl Michael Bellman is certainly the most influential poet and composer of Sweden – so essential that even children do jokes in his memory. His main work is 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 dimensions of the existence such as alcoholism, prostitution, illness or death.
Johan Ludvig Runeberg
Fänrik Ståls Sägner
You would expect that the national poet of Finland write in Finnish… Actually not! Johan Ludvig Runeberg wrote in Swedish – also an official language of the Land of a Thousand Lakes. His main literature work Fänrik Ståls Sägner (in English, “The Tales of Ensign Stål”) is regarded as the greatest Finnish epic tale about the Finnish War of 1808–09 against Russia. This conflict resulted in the incorporation of the Grand Duchy of Finland into the Russian Empire.
Hakon Jarl Død
Who is the King of Nordic poetry? Who is the Scandinavian King of Song? Adam Oehlenschläger obviously! He is a central figure of Danish literature and no Danish writer before 1870 has exercised so wide an influence as Oehlenschläger. His masterpiece is certainly his first tragedy entitled Hakon Jarl Død – the story about 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
Some called him “by far the greatest man that Holland ever produced”. That means even better than Rembrandt! Joost van den Vondel wrote many famous playwrights during his long life in the 17th century – Lucifer or Adam in Ballingschap to name a few. His plays are the ones from that period that are still most frequently performed. But his prominent work was the epic Joannes de Boetgezant which relates the tory of John the Baptist.
The Belgian playwright, poet and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck was a prominent figure of Belgian Symbolism. He was awarded in 1911 the Nobel Prize of Literature. His famous 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
The national poet, ethnographer, jurist and lyricist Edmond de la Fontaine was better known under his penname ‘Dicks’. He remains today one of the most important figure of Luxembourgish literature. His comedy De Scholtschäin, the first play to be performed in Luxembourgish, was followed by D’Mumm Sèiss, the operetta D’Kirmesgäscht and De Ramplassang. He also wrote several poems and a number of prose works about Luxembourg, its traditions and its people.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Faust is often considered as the greatest work of German literature, and his writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is regarded as the most prominent figure of the Weimar Classicism. His tragic play dives into 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. Goethe’s original draft of a Faust play, which probably dates from 1773–74, was published only after his death.
Der Traum, ein Lebe
The Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer wrote the oration for Ludwig van Beethoven’s funeral as well as the famous drama The Dream, a Life. It dives into the aspirations of Rustan, an ambitious young peasant, that are shadowed forth in the hero’s dream, before awaking from his nightmare to realise the truth that all earthly ambitions are pure vanity – the only true happiness being contentment with one’s lot and inner peace.
Albrecht von Haller
As there is no dominant national language, there is no single Swiss literature, but four different literatures – in German, French, Italian and Romansh. Albrecht von Haller 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.
La divina commedia
Dante Alighieri remains to this day 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 travel through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven – but at a deeper level, it represents allegorically the soul’s journey towards God.
Dun Karm Psaila
He is the the ‘bard of Malta’ and many consider him the national poet of the Land of Honey. Dun Karm Psaila is best known for having written L-Innu Malti – which also happens to be the official 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 started being sung in December 1922, mostly in governmental schools.
The Czech journalist, writer and poet, Jan Neruda 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
Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav 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 Carpathian forest and follows a gamekeeper and his wife Hanka, who kills the son of their master when he attempts to rape her.
Adam Mickiewicz is one of Poland’s Three Bards, along with Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński. He is regarded as the greatest poet in all of Polish literature. His 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 at the time when Poland-Lithuania had already been divided and erased from the political map of Europe, in 1811.
The Lutheran pastor Kristijonas Donelaitis 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 literature. It portrays everyday life of Lithuanian peasants, their struggle with serfdom, their traditions and the annual cycle of life. And for the little story: Donelaitis was also known for constructing physical devices (in particular barometers) and musical instruments (harpsichords, pianos).
Uguns un nakts
Rainis is the pseudonym for the Latvian poet, playwright and politican Jānis Pliekšāns 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 for his translation of Goethe’s Faust.
Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald
The most famous representative of Estonian literature is undoubtedly Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald – regarded today as the national poet 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, or in Belarusian Яку́б Ко́лас was named the ‘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, Yakub Kolas was known for his sympathy towards the ordinary Belarusian peasantry. This was evident in his pen name ‘Kolas’, meaning ‘ear of grain’ in Belarusian.
Taras Shevchenko is regarded as the founder of Ukrainian literature and the greatest contributor to Ukrainian language. His works 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.”
Romania – Moldova
Luceafărul (‘The Morning Star’) is generally regarded as Mihai Eminescu’s greatest work of art and a major contribution to Romanian culture. Luceafăr is the name of the planet Venus which in folklore is associated with demons but is also linked to the Greek Titan Hyperion. Luceafărul enjoys fame not just as a poetic masterpiece, but also as one of the very last works completed and read publicly by Eminescu before his debilitating mental illness and hospitalization.
Sándor Petőfi’s poems inspired the revolution in the Kingdom of Hungary which eventually led to the independence war against the Austrian Empire. The famous writer 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.
Krst pri Savici
The Slovene national poet France Prešeren has been a very influential source of inspiration 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.
The Christian humanist Marko Marulić is regarded as the Croatian national poet, the ‘father of Croatian literature’ or the ‘crown of the Croatian medieval age’. He wrote in 1501 Judita (‘Judith’) which intended to show to the common people the exemplary model of Biblical Judith, for them to see what can yield the confidence to God and eternal justice. For the little story: he is said to have coined the term “psychology”.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Na Drini Ćuprija
The 1961 Nobel Prize of Literature Ivo Andrić 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. He had a particular focus on Muslims and Orthodox Christians living in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Serbia – Montenegro
Petar II Petrović-Njegoš
Горски вијенац (Gorski vijenac)
Petar II Petrović-Njegoš is the greatest poet of Serbian history, but he 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.
Бели мугри (Beli mugri)
Kosta Apostolov Solev wrote one of the most prominent works of literature of Macedonian culture, namely Бели мугри (‘White Dawns’) – a collection of 12 poems on the North Macedonian way of life. After the established communist practice, the title was printed in red. Since there lay a danger in discovering the author’s identity, Kosta Solev published his work under the pseudonym “K. Racin”.
Bagëti e Bujqësi
The national poet Naim Frashëri 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 focusing on agriculture and on the way of life of Albanian farmers.
Под игото (Pod igoto)
The Patriarch of Bulgarian literature Ivan Vazov was a poet, novelist and playwright. His works reveal two historical epochs – the Bulgarian Renaissance and the Post-Liberation (from Ottoman Empire rule) epoch. His most famous work of literature was the novel Под игото meaning Under the Yoke translated into more than 30 languages. It is set in a small town in Central Bulgaria during the months leading up to the April Uprising in 1876.
Ιλιάδα (Iliádha) – Ὀδύσσεια (Odýsseia)
Homer 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. The Iliad tells the quarrels between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles while the Odyssey mainly focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the fall of Troy.
The golden age of Ottoman literature lasted from the 15th century until the 18th century and included mostly divan poetry but also some prose works, most notably the 10 volume Seyahatnâme (Book of Travels) written by Evliya Çelebi. Seyâhatnâme appears as a work of 17th-century light literature, which was intelligible to a wide circle thanks to the mixed use of the colloquial Turkish of the 17th century with occasional borrowings of phrases and expressions from the ornate style.
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