Robert Elsie | AL Art | AL History | AL Language | AL Literature | AL Photography | Contact |





Robert Elsie

Albanian Literature | Classical







Naim Frashëri (1846-1900) is nowadays widely considered to be the national poet of Albania. He spent his childhood in the village of Frashër where he no doubt began learning Turkish, Persian and Arabic and where, at the Bektashi monastery, he was imbued with the spiritual traditions of the Orient. In Janina (Ioannina), Naim Frashëri attended the Zosimaia secondary school which provided him with the basics of a classical education along Western lines. Here he was to study Ancient and Modern Greek, French and Italian and, in addition, was to be tutored privately in oriental languages. As he grew in knowledge, so did his affinity for his pantheistic Bektashi religion, for the poets of classical Persia and for the Age of Enlightenment. His education in Janina made of him a prime example of a late nineteenth-century Ottoman intellectual equally at home in both cultures, the Western and the Oriental.

Naim Frashëri is the author of a total of twenty-two works: four in Turkish, one in Persian, two in Greek and fifteen in Albanian. In view of his sensitive position as director of the board of censorship of the Turkish Ministry of Education in which capacity he was occasionally able to circumvent the ban on Albanian-language books and publications imposed by the Sublime Porte, Naim Frashëri deemed it wise not to use his full name in many of his publications, and printed only a ‘by N.H.,’ ‘by N.H.F.’ or ‘by N.F.’

The poetry collections for which Naim Frashëri is primarily remembered were also published in Bucharest. Bagëti e bujqësija, Bucharest 1886 (Bucolics and Georgics), is a 450-line pastoral poem reminiscent of Vergil (70-19 B.C.) and laden with the imagery of his mountain homeland. It proved extremely popular among Frashëri’s compatriots and was smuggled into Albania in caravans. In it, the poet expresses his dissatisfaction with city life, no doubt from actual experience on the bustling banks of the Bosphorus, and idealizes the distant and longed-for Albanian countryside. It is a hymn to nature in the traditions of European romanticism and yet one of earthy substance in which, like Hesiod (8th cent. B.C.) in his ‘Work and Days,’ Vergil in his ‘Georgics’ or the great eighteenth-century Lithuanian poet Kristijonas Donelaitis (1714-1780) in his somewhat less idyllic ‘Seasons,’ Naim Frashëri sings of the herds and flocks, and of the joys and toil of agriculture and rural life. In the collection Luletë e verësë, Bucharest 1890 (The flowers of spring), he also paid tribute to the beauties of the Albanian countryside in twenty-three poems of rich sonority. Here the pantheistic philosophy of his Bektashi upbringing and the strong influence of the Persian classics are coupled harmoniously with patriotic idealism - literary creativity serving the goal of national identity. The verse collection Parajsa dhe fjala fluturake, Bucharest 1894 (Paradise and winged words), published together with the spiritual essays Mësime, Bucharest 1894 (Teachings), evinced his affinities for the heroes of the past and for the spiritual traditions of the Orient, in particular for the Persian mystics. Istori’ e Skenderbeut, Bucharest 1898 (History of Scanderbeg), is an historical epic of 11,500 verses which Frashëri must have written in about 1895 in his last creative years and one which the author himself regarded as his masterpiece. It also constituted the poet’s political legacy. Another work of similar proportions, published the same year as the ‘History of Scanderbeg,’ is Qerbelaja, Bucharest 1898 (Kerbela), a Shi’ite religious epic in twenty-five cantos, which deals with the Battle of Kerbela in Iraq in 680 A.D. in which Husein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, was killed. In contrast to the ‘History of Scanderbeg,’ Qerbelaja is a narrative epic devoid of a hero or principal character. Many elements of Naim Frashëri’s religiosity are also present in Naim Frashëri’s Fletore e Bektashinjet, Bucharest 1896 (Bektashi notebook), which is of major significance for our knowledge of the pantheistic but secretive Bektashi sect of dervishes. Frashëri hoped that liberal Bektashi beliefs to which he had been attached since his childhood in Frashër would one day take hold as the new religion of all Albania. Since they had their roots both in the Muslim Koran and in the Christian Bible, they could promote unity among his religiously divided people. The Notebook contains an introductory profession of Bektashi faith and ten spiritual poems which provide a rare view into the beliefs of the sect which in the nineteenth century played an important role in the survival of Albanian culture, in particular by the illegal distribution of Albanian books.

The significance of Naim Frashëri as a Rilindja poet and indeed as a ‘national poet’ rests not so much upon his talents of literary expression nor on the artistic quality of his verse, but rather upon the sociopolitical, philosophical and religious messages it transmitted, which were aimed above all at national awareness and, in the Bektashi tradition, at overcoming religious barriers within the country. His influence upon Albanian writers at the beginning of the twentieth century was enormous. Many of his poems were set to music during his lifetime and were sung as folk songs. If one compares the state of Albanian literature before and after the arrival of Naim Frashëri, one becomes aware of the major role he played in transforming Albanian into a literary language of substantial refinement.