I HAVE planned the following volumes both for myself and for any other students of South Slavic oral literature as the full record of the way in which I gathered South Slavic oral prose and song. These volumes are in no way meant to be a finished work, but first a source of material for the author for a finished work of a very certain sort, and then a source for other students who may either wish to use the material for their own ends or to better the conclusions which I myself have drawn.

Those who consult these volumes should fully understand with what end in mind I gathered my material. It was least of all for the material itself that I planned the study. What I wished to learn was in general what an oral poetry was, and in particular what the South Slavic poetry was. The brief tale of how I was led to this poetry will make this clearer.

My first studies were on the style of the Homeric poems and led me to understand that so highly formulaic a style could be only traditional. I failed, however, at the time to understand as fully as I should have that a style such as that of Homer must not only be traditional but also must be oral. It was largely due to the remarks of my teacher M. Antoine Meillet that I came to see, dimly at first, that a true understanding of the Homeric poems could only come with a full understanding of the nature of oral poetry. It happened that a week or so before I defended my theses for the doctorate at the Sorbonne Professor Mathias Murko of the University of Prague delivered in Paris the series of conférences which later appeared as his book La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début de XXe siècle. I had seen the poster for these lectures, but at the time I saw in them no great meaning for myself. However, Professor Murko, doubtless due to some remark of M. Meillet, was present at my soutenance and at that time M. Meillet as a member of my jury pointed out with his usual ease and clarity this failing in my two books. It was the writings of Professor Murko more than those of any other which in the following years led me to the study of oral poetry in itself and to the heroic poems of the South Slavs.

I did not at once give myself up to the study of oral poetries -- I was still too absorbed in following the method which I had worked out in the writing of my theses, and of which I shall shortly say something -- but I gradually found myself obliged, in order to to clear up certain points, to seek what I could find in the works of students of the different oral poetries. Finally, when my study of the Homeric language led me to see that such a language could be created only by a long tradition of oral poetry, I found myself in the position of speaking about the nature of oral style almost purely on the basis of a logical reasoning from the characteristics of Homeric style, whereas what information I had about oral style as it could be seen in actual practice was due to what I had been able to gather here and there from the remarks of different authors who, save in a few cases (that of Murko and Gesemann for the South Slavic poetries, and of Radloff for the Kirgiz-Tartar poetry) were apt to be haphazard and fragmentary -- and I could well fear, misleading. Of the various oral poetries for which I could obtain enough information, the South Slavic seemed to be the most suitable for a study which I had in mind, to give that knowledge of a still living oral poetry which I saw to be needed if I were to go on with any sureness in my study of Homer.

The present collection of oral texts has then been made not with the thought of adding to the already vast collections of that poetry, but of obtaining evidence on the basis of which could be drawn a series of generalities applicable to all oral poetries; which would allow me, in the case of a poetry for which there was not enough evidence outside the poems themselves of the way in which they were made, to say whether that poetry was oral or was not, and how it should be understood if it was oral. In other words, the study of the South Slavic poetry was meant to provide me an exact knowledge of the characteristics of oral style, in the hope that when such characteristics were known exactly their presence or absence could definitely be ascertained in other poetries, and those many large and small ways in which the one oral poetry differed from written poetry for its understanding could be carried over to the Homeric poems.

A method is here involved, which consists in defining the characteristics of oral style. I believe this method to be the essence of whatever I may have been able to add to our understanding of early poetries, and while my earlier studies gave too little place to the nature of oral poetry as such, nevertheless, they gave me the method which I have followed in my study of South Slavic oral poetry. There is nothing especially new in the method itself, only in the measure to which it has been used and the purity of its use. Thus my first work on the formulas of Homer thoroughly developed a familiar enough theme, since it was generally said that the Homeric style was formulaic, but no one had yet tried to see to just what extent the style was formulaic, nor to show how the technique of the formulas functioned for the composition of poetry, nor to show how such a technique of formulas by its complexity must be the work not of one man, but many, and of many years. The method of the present investigation is essentially the same -- that of obtaining the necessary knowledge which allows as exact and sound a description as possible of the style of the South Slavic poetry. Here, however, we can go much farther than is possible in the case of the Iliad and the Odyssey, or of any of the other early poetries of Europe: the actual practice of the poetry itself suggest the hypothesis, and that hypothesis can be verified by observation of the actual practice of the poetry. We can learn not only how the singer puts together his words, and then his phrases, and then his verses, but also his passage and themes, and we can see how the whole poem lives from one man to another, from one age to another, and passes over plains and mountains and the barriers of speech -- more, we can see how a whole oral poetry lives and dies.

And this stylized method, unless I am altogether mistaken, is at the same time the most rigorous and the most living of the methods of literary study. Style, as I understand the word and use it, is the form of thought: and thought is shaped by the life of men.

That particular form of thought which is sung or told -- and in our own time written -- and which we call literature, is only a more finished kind of thought, and is equally shaped by the character of the man and his times. Then to fully seize the style of a piece of literature would be to know everything about the author and the world in which he lived. For the South Slavic oral literature we can see how the form of life is mirrored in the form of style. For Homer, we have only the form of style, and the working backward to the form of thought -- for so many elements enter into the problem -- can only be partly done. The South Slavic poetry, however, can show us in many ways -- just how many remains to be seen -- how points of style in the Homeric poetry can be grouped together in a pattern which can be followed back to that moment which criticism must seek to create -- the instant when the thought of the poet expressed itself in song.1

It is obvious that as a student's knowledge of a poetry increases his power of observation is also greater. Many of the observations in the following pages I myself will doubtless in time come to regard as erroneous. It is only to be hoped that the degree of error will be less as observation corrects my opinions and my knowledge of the poetry increases.


  • next page
  • back to:
  • main menu