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The Servian alphabet was first fixed and the language reduced to certain general rules only within the present century. The language extends, with some slight variations of dialect, and various systems of writing, over the Turkish and Austrian provinces of Servia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Dalmatia, and the eastern part of Croatia. The southern sky, and the beauties of natural scenery that abound in all these regions, so favorable to the development of poetical genius, appear also to have exerted a happy influence on the language. While it yields to none of the other Slavic dialects in richness, clearness, and precision, it far surpasses them all in euphony.

The most interesting feature of the literature of these countries is their popular poetry. This branch of literature still survives among the Slavic race, particularly the Servians and Dalmatians, in its beauty and luxuriance, while it is almost extinct in other nations. Much of this poetry is of unknown antiquity, and has been handed down by tradition from generation to generation. From the gray ages of paganism it reaches us like the chimes of distant bells, unconnected, and half lost in the air. It often manifests the strong, deep-rooted superstitions of the Slavic race, and is full of dreams, omens, and forebodings; witchcraft, and a certain Oriental fatalism, seeming to direct will and destiny. Love and heroism form the subject of all Slavic poetry, which is distinguished for the purity of manners it evinces. Wild passions or complicated actions are seldom represented, but rather the quiet scenes of domestic grief and joy. The peculiar relation of brother and sister, particularly among the Servians, often forms an interesting feature of the popular songs. To have no brother is a misfortune, almost a disgrace, and the cuckoo, the constant image of a mourning woman in Servian poetry, was, according to the legend, a sister who had lost her brother.

This poetry was first collected by Vuk Stephanovitch Karadshitch (b. 1786), a Turkish Servian, the author of the first Oriental Servian grammar and dictionary, who gathered the songs from the lips of the peasantry. His work, published at Vienna in 1815, has been made known to the world through a translation into German by the distinguished authoress of the “Languages and Literature of the Slavic Nations,” from which this brief sketch has been made. Nearly one third of these songs consist of epic tales several hundred verses in length. The lyric songs compare favorably with those of other nations, but the long epic extemporized compositions, by which the peasant bard, in the circle of other peasants, in unpremeditated but regular and harmonious verse, celebrates the heroic deeds of their ancestors or contemporaries, have no parallel in the whole history of literature since the days of Homer.

The poetry of the Servians is intimately interwoven with their daily life. The hall where the women sit spinning around the fireside, the mountain on which the boys pasture their flocks, the square where the village youth assemble to dance, the plains where the harvest is reaped, and the forests through which the lonely traveler journeys, all resound with song. Short compositions, sung without accompaniment, are mostly composed by women, and are called female songs; they relate to domestic life, and are distinguished by cheerfulness, and often by a spirit of graceful roguery. The feeling expressed in the Servian love-songs is gentle, often playful, indicating more of tenderness than of passion. In their heroic poems the Servians stand quite isolated; no modern nation can be compared to them in epic productiveness, and the recent publication of these poems throws new light on the grand compositions of the ancients. The general character of these Servian tales is objective and plastic; the poet is, in most cases, in a remarkable degree above his subject; he paints his pictures, not in glowing colors, but in prominent features, and no explanation is necessary to interpret what the reader thinks he sees with his own eyes. The number and variety of the Servian heroic poems is immense, and many of them, until recently preserved only by tradition, cannot be supposed to have retained their original form; they are frequently interwoven with a belief in certain fanciful creatures of pagan superstition, which exercise a constant influence on human affairs. The poems are often recited, but most frequently sung to the music of a rude kind of guitar. The bard chants two lines, then he pauses and gives a few plaintive strokes on his instrument; then he chants again, and so on. While in Slavic poetry generally the musical element is prominent, in the Servian it is completely subordinate. Even the lyric poetry is in a high degree monotonous, and is chanted rather than sung.

Goethe, Grimm, and “Talvi” drew attention to these songs, many translations of which were published in Germany, and Bowring, Lytton, and others have made them known in England.

At present there is much intellectual activity among the Servians in various departments of literature, tragedy, comedy, satire, and fiction, but the names of the writers are new to Europeans, and not easily remembered.