Maksimovic, Desanka (1898–1993)

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Maksimovic, Desanka (1898–1993)

Serbian writer, regarded as the doyenne of Serbian poets, who glorified forgiveness and compassion in her 1964 volume Trazim pomilovanje (I Seek Clemency ), the work which brought her national fame . Name variations: Maksimovic´. Born in Rabrovica near Valjevo, Serbia, on May 16, 1898; died in Belgrade on February 12, 1993; daughter of Mihailo Maksimovic (a schoolteacher) and Draginja Petrovic Maksimovic; had seven brothers and sisters; educated at the University of Belgrade and the Sorbonne; married Sergej Nikiforovic Slastikov.

Desanka Maksimovic, a poet who became so popular with her readers in Serbia that almost all of them would refer to her only by her first name, had a writing career that spanned seven decades. During that time, she wrote verse, short stories and novels. When she was well into her 60s, Maksimovic created what is generally regarded as her best work, the 1964 collection Trazim pomilovanje (published in English as I Seek Clemency but also seen as "I Seek Mercy" or "I Plead for Mercy"), about the need for a moral renaissance. The book swept Serbia like a storm. While continuing to assimilate elements of South Slavic cultural heritage, her latter works express a heightened compassion for an unforgiving century's victims of war and violent intolerance.

Maksimovic was born in 1898 in the village of Rabrovica near Valjevo, but she would spend much of her childhood in the small town of Brankovina to which her father, a schoolteacher, was transferred when she was only two months old. Situated in the heart of Serbia, and home to little modern industry, Brankovina was steeped in Serbian cultural traditions. Maksimovic absorbed this heritage from the town, her parents, and also from her maternal grandfather, Svetozar Petrovic, a Serbian Orthodox priest who like her father owned a large library of which he was immensely proud. Although she and her family left the town to move to Valjevo when she was ten, Maksimovic would never forget the happy years she had experienced as a child in Brankovina where she had roamed in the nearby meadows and woods. For the rest of her long life, she would often return there both physically and through her poetry; the memories of the nature and people of a town that had changed little over the centuries served as a constant inspiration.

World War I, which devastated Serbia, dealt a hard blow to Maksimovic's large family: while serving in the Serbian Army, her father contracted typhoid fever and died. The family was emotionally and financially devastated by this loss, and for a time Maksimovic dropped out of school. In addition to helping run the household, she also learned French on her own by repeatedly reading the works of Hippolyte Taine and several novels she found in her father's library. In 1919, she finally was able to complete her high-school education. Maksimovic then moved to the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where she began her studies at the university, taking courses in art history and comparative literature. By this time, she had been writing verse for a number of years. She gave some of these works to one of her former teachers, who in turn gave them to Velimir Massuka, chief editor of one of Serbia's leading cultural journals, Misao (Thought). Not expecting much of literary value from the pen of a young woman from the provinces, Massuka was astonished by the quality and originality of Maksimovic's verse. Decades later, Massuka would note in an interview that as he read the poems, which were essentially of a confessional nature, he detected "a new content [which] was different from anything I knew; her verse had a completely different never before used cadence; there was music in it, it had an internal metric harmony but without a strict metric rhythm…. There was something elusive, soft, feminine, and sparkling in that verse created with confidence and only seemingly shy and anxious." All of the poems Maksimovic had brought with her when she moved to Belgrade appeared in print in issues of Misao (1920 and 1921). She received what was to be the first of many literary awards when readers of the journal, taking part in a contest, voted her poem "Strepnja" (Anxiety) to be the best. Her reputation in Serbian literary circles grew during the next few years when Belgrade's most respected and influential literary journal, Srpski knjizevni glasnik (Serbian Literary Herald), began to print her poems, and several of her works appeared in book form in an anthology of Yugoslav lyric poetry.

In 1924, she published her first collection of poems, simply entitled Pesme (Poems). The reviews were positive, with the Croatian critic Antun Barac maintaining that her poems "are the best ever written in our language by a woman and are, undoubtedly, among the best created in our country in the last several years." Maksimovic graduated from the University of Belgrade the same year (1924) and was granted a fellowship from the French government for a year's study at the Sorbonne in Paris. On her return to Belgrade in 1925, she received a Saint Sava medal from the government for her literary achievements and was appointed professor at the city's elite First High School for Girls. Except for the almost four years of German occupation during World War II, she would serve at this institution until her retirement from teaching in 1953. During the next years, Maksimovic was a highly respected teacher and remained a well-known author. But in a Yugoslav literary scene which in the 1920s was at least as turbulent as the political landscape of that multinational state, she was not without critics.

First called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the nation was named Yugoslavia in 1929, but this move did not bring stability to a nation whose very survival was often threatened by deep-seated ethnic hatreds and resentments. Although less violent than the political turmoil that raged in the cafés and public forums of Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Zagreb, the theoretical controversies that convulsed the Yugoslav literary firmament in these years was also highly emotional in nature. The younger generation in literature, who were generally referred to as advocates of the New Modernism, were determined to make a clean break with all existing literary traditions. Their goal was to create a new literature—utilizing innovative, unconstrained forms—which would explain the modern era's contradictions and explore all facets of the human subconscious. Politically engaged (many were sympathetic to Communism and a Soviet Union that appeared to foster artistic innovations), many of the New Modernists were also drawn to several other "isms" by the 1930s, including Surrealism and Expressionism, as well as the more obscure, short-lived artistic movements known as "zenithism" and "hypnoism." Maksimovic, however, remained loyal to more traditional literary forms and traditions, and during these years she became the subject of bitter polemical articles which attacked her for a lack of interest in revolutionary literary forms or political goals. She stood her ground in a dignified manner, holding steadfast to her own artistic path, and would later note: "I would not have had as many friends as I have now if I had not been able to forget the biting jokes or critical remarks about my poetry or myself."

Throughout the 1930s—when Yugoslavia's always precarious economic situation deteriorated to an alarming degree and its unstable political landscape became bloodstained with the assassination of King Alexander I (October 1934)—Maksimovic concentrated her energies on verse. She also drew on the support of a large number of colleagues and friends, many of them prominent poets, novelists, artists, and actors, who regularly

gathered in the home of Smilja Djakovic, publisher of Misao. In 1933, Maksimovic married a Russian-born writer, Sergej Slastikov. Their union would be happy, and although they remained childless Maksimovic and her husband enjoyed the company of young people and children, often entertaining their friends' children at their home. They collaborated on a number of projects, including the translation of many classic Russian authors' works, such as those of folktales and literature, into Serbo-Croatian.

The German army began the occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941. When she was involuntarily retired from her teaching post by the puppet Serbian regime set up by the Germans, Maksimovic and her husband were quickly reduced to a state of poverty. To survive, she gave private lessons, made dolls to sell at the marketplace, and sewed children's clothes. These she exchanged for morsels of food in Brankovina and nearby villages where the peasants were still able to create a surplus from the soil. Maksimovic walked from Belgrade to nearby Mount Avala to find scraps of wood to heat her apartment in the bitterly cold Balkan winter; often, she returned with enough sticks and twigs to heat her home at least some degrees above freezing. In secret, she wrote defiantly patriotic poetry, but the only works she would be able to publish during these years were several children's books.

Published after the war's end, the 1946 collection Pesnik i zavicaj (The Poet and His Native Land) contains Maksimovic's wartime poetry. These patriotic poems give voice to pride about her nation's resistance against the German and Italian armies of occupation. Works like "Ustanici" (The Rebels) and "Srbija je velika bajka" (Serbia is a Deep Secret) celebrate the heroism of ordinary people, many of whom were slaughtered by the occupation forces. The best known of this collection remains "Krvava bajka" (A Legend of Blood), a poetic requiem for the scores of schoolboys in the town of Kragujevac who were massacred in 1941 by the Germans. Despite the brutal subject matter, Maksimovic chose to present the stories of war in a lyrical, gentle tone, their purpose being to reflect on, and commemorate, the patriotism that had motivated individuals to choose resistance over collaboration with the enemy.

In 1958, Maksimovic was the recipient of many awards from a grateful Yugoslavia which was now led by a relatively benign dictator, Marshal Josip Broz Tito. (Tito was a veteran Communist revolutionary and the wartime leader of the partisan movement, who in 1948 had embarked on a course that was free of the dictates of the Soviet Union while at the same time continuing to search for a more realistic way to achieve socialism.) Although she was a traditionalist and certainly not a Marxist, Maksimovic had gained the respect of both the political and literary leadership of postwar Yugoslavia. By the time she celebrated her 60th birthday in 1958, many felt that her major literary achievements were behind her and that the time had come to honor her for significant lifetime achievements. The most important of several awards she received that year was her nomination as a corresponding member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Early in the following year, she was elected to that prestigious body.

In 1964, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of her first verse collection, Maksimovic published the book that would make her a major figure on the national stage of Yugoslavia. In a volume of reflective poetry entitled Trazim pomilovanje (I Seek Clemency: Lyrical Discussions with Tsar Dushan's Code of Law) were a number of poems dealing with the 14th-century Serbian tsar Dushan the Powerful, who reigned during the last epoch of Serb national freedom before the Ottoman Turks destroyed their nation in battle. Presenting Tsar Dushan, who displays compassion, as the embodiment of justice and wisdom, Maksimovic glorified forgiveness and compassion for all human beings, "the same as we are or different from us." The groups for whom Maksimovic seeks Tsar Dushan's mercy include the lowliest serfs, both female and male; heretics and monks; soldiers who gave their lives in the nation's many wars; people who have, or have been stripped by fate of, power; and a vast tableaux of saints, sinners, fools, and others replete with human failings.

Almost immediately after its publication, Trazim pomilovanje was embraced by the nation. Its veiled critiques of the Tito regime—which became increasingly riddled with corruption and arbitrariness as Tito aged—made it a book to read, ponder over, and savor. A bestseller, it went through three large print runs in less than a year's time. Serbia's leading actors, actresses, and even choral groups put on shows in which the words Maksimovic had put in Tsar Dushan's mouth were presented to sold-out audiences in theaters throughout the Serbian Federated Republic of Yugoslavia. Now a veritable national superstar, Maksimovic became the recipient of many more honors over the next several years. In 1965, she was elected into a small elite group with full membership in the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. By this time, her verse had become known throughout Serbia, appearing in countless anthologies as well as in reprints and new editions of her major works. Internationally, too, she had become well known. Translations of her works appeared in Russian (translated by, among others, Anna Akhmatova and Elisaveta Bagryana ) and other Slavic languages, as well as in English, French, German, Hungarian/Magyar, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Spanish. In 1967, the high respect in which she was held in the Slavic world was formalized by a special Medal of Honor awarded her by the USSR Supreme Soviet.

In 1970, Maksimovic's husband died. In a collection she published in Belgrade (1973), she gave thanks to him for "embracing, even in death, our soil." After this loss, she wrote poetry which dealt with the issue of human mortality, and her verse reflected a serene, philosophical view of the inevitability of death as a basic fact of life. Death was related to the eternal processes of nature:

We are earth.
Every particle and thread of us
the earth will soak up slowly,
we are going to quench the thirst of the roots of oaks…

In 1975, Maksimovic received a Special Vuk Award for Lifetime Achievement, only the second artist so honored (the first was Ivo Andric, a Serb novelist who in 1961 became Yugoslavia's first and sole recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature). The next year, Maksimovic provided impressive evidence that she remained a creative force in Serbian letters by publishing Letopis Perunovih potomaka (A Chronicle of Perun's Descendants). Organized into two cycles of poetry, this 1976 verse collection is set in the 10th century and describes a war and religious conflict of that far-off age of Balkan history. The martial aspect of the book shows how the Croats and Serbs—rivals, even enemies, throughout most of their history because of their different religious allegiances (Croats are Roman Catholic, Serbs Orthodox)—were at one time allies in a struggle against Bulgarian invaders. The poet addresses religion by looking at the crucial period when the Croats began to turn to the Latin world of Rome, and the Serbs began to identify with Byzantium, and eventually with Moscow. Combining elements of medieval South Slav history, Maksimovic's poems mix reality with myth to create a universally valid portrait of human error, suffering, and lost opportunities for prosperity and unity. In light of the disintegration of Yugoslavia that began in the late 1980s and culminated in the bloodbath that devastated the region in the final decade of the 20th century, Maksimovic's poems can now be read as prophetic warnings.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Maksimovic enjoyed some of the fruits of fame and traveled widely. In addition to visiting many European nations, including the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, she accepted invitations from academic and literary hosts in Australia, Canada, the United States, and the People's Republic of China. In 1980, during a visit to America, she was warmly received by the North American Society for Serbian Studies. On at least two occasions, after having visited Norway and Switzerland, Maksimovic wrote volumes that reflected her experiences while in other lands (a book of verse, Poems from Norway [1976], and a travel book, Snimci iz Svajcarske [Snapshots from Switzerland, 1978]).

In 1988, at age 90, she delighted readers by publishing a new collection of poems, Pamtic´u sve (I Shall Remember Everything). Although the national mood was often gloomy and Yugoslavia was in extremis, for a few days the literary world forgot these woes to honor her. By this time, Maksimovic's many friends and admirers noted that not only was she a Serbian national treasure, but also that for many decades she had served as an important link to the rest of world. A sensitive translator, Maksimovic had produced versions of works by major world writers which would remain among the best known in Serbia, including her translations of writings by Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin, as well as modern writers like Anna Akhmatova and non-Slavic classic writers such as Balzac. Her works for children and young readers also remain an important part of her legacy; these books were meant not only to entertain but also to develop in the next generation those ethical values that Maksimovic always cherished, namely ideals of love and respect for all individuals and nations. By the time she died in Belgrade on February 11, 1993, the Balkans were aflame with the spirit of war and vengeful hatred against which Maksimovic had so often, and eloquently, warned. On May 7, 1996, Yugoslavia (the name retained by Serbia-Montenegro) issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor.


Delavan, Joanne. "Desanka Maksimovic," in Review [Belgrade]. Vol. 1–2, 1985, pp. 33–34.

"Desanka Maksimovic—Six Poems, Translated by Celia Hawkesworth and Marie Schulte," in Scottish Slavonic Review. No. 12–13. Spring–Autumn, 1989, pp. 142–153.

Egeric, Miroslav. "Verses of Love and Nature," in Relations [Belgrade]. Vol. 1, 1985, pp. 45–48.

Holton, Milne, and Vasa D. Mihailovich, eds. Serbian Poetry from the Beginnings to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for International Area Studies, 1988.

Lukic, Sveta. Contemporary Yugoslav Literature: A Sociopolitical Approach. Edited by Gertrude Joch Robinson. Translated by Pola Triandis. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

Maksimovic, Desanka. Greetings from the Old Country: A Collection of Poems Old and New. Edited by Milan Surducki. Toronto: Yugo-Slavica Publishers, 1976.

——. I Seek Clemency. Translated by Celia Hawkes-worth, with examples from Dushan's Law Code. Belgrade: Association of Serbian Writers, 1988 (Off-print from Serbian Literary Quarterly. No. 2. Summer 1988, pp. 5–38).

——. Poems from Norway. Translated by Robert De Bray. Belgrade: Idea, 1984.

——. The Shaggy Little Dog. Pictures by Jozef Wilkon. Winchester, MA, and Mönchaltorf, Switzerland: Faber and Faber/Nord-Sud, 1983.

Mihailovich, Vasa D., ed. Contemporary Yugoslav Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1977.

——, ed. Cuj, reci cu ti svoju tajnu: Pesnicka antologija udruzenja knjizevnih stvaralaca "Desanka Maksimovic," Toronto. Belgrade and Toronto: Serbian National Academy/Center for Emigrants from Serbia, 1998.

Schulte, Marie. "Images of Women in the Works of Desanka Maksimovic." M.A. thesis, Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, 1991.

Sljivic-Simsic, Biljana. "The Collective Hero-Victim in Desanka Maksimovic's Letopis Perunovih potomaka (1976)," in Southeastern Europe. Vol. 9, no. 1–2, 1982, pp. 70–83.

——. "Desanka Maksimovic (May 16, 1898–February 11, 1993)," in Vasa D. Mihailovich, ed., South Slavic Writers Before World War II. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 147. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995, pp. 127–133.

——. "Flowers Have Been My Friends: An Interview with Desanka Maksimovic," in Serbian Studies. Vol. 1, no. 2, 1981, pp. 85–92.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia