Friday, 8 February 2008

The Plague Column

The many tourists that throng the Town Square in Cesky Krumlov often ignore the large column set to one side and surrounded by statues. They may sit on its steps and take photos of each other, some may even photograph the column, but most have no idea what it is and what it commemorates.

It is a plague column set up to remember a plague epidemic that hit the town in the early 1680's. At the top of the column stands the Virgin Mary and around it there are saints who traditionally offer protection against the plague. This was not the first time the town had devastated by the plague, the town had also experienced the terrible impact of the bubonic plague in 1585.

It reminds me of an early introduction to Czech culture I had back in 1982 before I met my Czech puppeteer friend. I picked up a book of poetry in a second-hand shop and started to read. It was Ewald Osers' translation of Jaroslav Seifert's book The Plague Column. I was enchanted and bought the book. At the time it was not officially published in communist Czechoslovakia and was only available in covert samizdat versions. The poem is a personal journey by an old man through Prague. What I love about it is the way it moves from the present to the past, from the general to the personal. The plague of the title is not simply the bubonic kind, but a comment on the political plague that Seifert's beloved country was enduring at the time. But this is far from a political commentary, but a personal love poem to that most beautiful of cities.

Seifert received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985, he died a year later. He did not live to see the crowds filling Wenceslas Square first call for and then celebrate the end of the pestilence that was communism.

Seifert was a brave man and a true poet. The last lines of The Plague Column read:

But I make no excuse
I believe that seeking beautiful words
is better
than killing and murdering.

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