Jan Neruda

The 24-year-old Jan Neruda was introduced to readers for the first time by his collection of poems "Cemetery Flowers," in which he described the shady sides of human life and the tragic feeling of life. The motif of the graveyard in his first works enabled him to consolidate entirely different poems - the dreary tone of the collections of poems gradually changed to anger over the pronounced inequality and injustice of poverty. Poverty appeared in all of Neruda's other work - in poems, stories and columns, where he described the nostalgia, dissatisfaction, and alienation in an oppressive atmosphere of "the time of being buried alive."

Jan Neruda's grave, click for close-up

Through his poetry, which the majority of his readers took to as enthusiastically as to his stories and columns, he won the admiration of non-conformist youth. They were also impressed by his chaotic, bohemian life and unconventional opinions, which exceeded the "dimensions of his times." When he was twenty-eight, he met the love of his life - the then already-married Karolina Svetla. The writer was also taken by his affection, but because she felt the obligations of marital fidelity very strongly, she had "only" friendship to offer Neruda. At the insistence of her husband, who found Neruda's letters, she had to give even this up, however, and completely end their friendship. The troubled poet fell in love several times after that, although he never married - he lived alone, which enabled him to live independantly, though from his work comes a strong feeling of human isolation in the world.

"Everything I was, I was happy to be," wrote Neruda in one of his poems. The opposite is true, however. In fact, Neruda doubted himself as a poet, writer and man for his entire life. By the time he was thirty-five, Neruda had behind him an unsuccessful relationship with Anna Holinova, who loved him but couldn't handle his intellectual world, his love for Karolina Svetla was still unrequited, and the hope he put into the amorous affair with Tereza Machackova was crushed by her death. In the same year, his mother died and as a poet he was in the shadow of Vitezslav Halek, criticized and denounced publically as lacking enough national spirit.

In that critical year of 1869, Neruda wrote a political study entitled "Pro strach zidovsky" (In Fear of Jews), an anti-semitic polemic. What sickened the poor poet the most was the "jewish" attitude towards money, which was what he primarily attacked in his study. The author's celebrated name was later put to use in their convictions by anti-semites, who rashly issued the study in their discriminatory propaganda. In the 20th century, this simple-minded treatise was returned to many times - and of course, during the period of fascism's rise. But Neruda's study was hardly the only display of anti-semitism by the Czech spiritual elite - newspapers columns about Jews in the 19th century were written by Havlicek, Palacky and even Nemcova.

What led Neruda to this outburst, however, after over one hundred years, we can only guess at. Perhaps it offered the author, in his amorous failures, artistic under-appreciation, and the poverty he knew so well, a chance to "please" the Czech public. Jan Neruda's work never was appreciated by his contemporaries, but by the generation to follow, as so often happens with great artists who come before their time.

In his life, Neruda was least happy in his later years, as an ageing, sickly man dependent on the help of others. In the final years of his life, he slipped on some ice and badly injured his knee. He was immobilized for a long time, and could never walk well after that - he always had to walk with someone he could lean on. These were the last walks of the sick poet, because from spring til August, when he died, he was victim to one illness after another. It didn't even help that he was meticulously careful about his health. He lit a fire in his study until June, he went on his spring walks dressed for winter, and he only touched door handles while wearing gloves so he wouldn't catch cold. In spite of the fact that he was sick for such a long time, his death was sudden and unexpected. He died at 57 on August 22, 1891.

On the eve of his funeral, Neruda's "eternal fiancee," Anna Holinova, who also never married, came to his house and threw through the open window of his room a bouquet of mourning violets. The body of te deceased was displayed at the palace of Count Lazansky, where crowds of people came to pay their last respects. The funeral was distinguished and Neruda's body was supposed to be put to rest at Slavin, but his housekeeper, Mrs. Haralikova, who was named as his principal beneficiary, moved his body to an individual grave in the graveyard - he did like grassy graves best.