Wanderers in Prague’s Petřín Hill park can discover the striking statue of Karel Hynek Mácha, poet of the Czech epic Maj. Mácha’s dreamy, unusual pose catches the eye: this is no warrior with a boldly flourished sword, no classical figure crowned with laurels. So why are couples snapping pictures at his feet?
The statue depicts the handsome figure of a young man in a 19th century vest and swirling long coat, his hair given a rakish curl. He leans at an angle, one hand ready with the tools of his trade — pen and paper — while the other hand holds a clutch of flowers. Mácha gazes upon the flowers, cast forever in the act of recording their beauty. He appears serene, confident and quite dashing. But the flesh-and-blood man could hardly have imagined such a monument.
A native of Lesser Prague, Mácha was born into a poor family in 1810. He studied law and reveled in the city’s theatrical scene. He composed poetry, drama, and prose and was an enthusiastic traveler who detailed his adventures in diaries, inspired by Romantics like Byron and Shelley. His life would prove as tragic as any verse: he died at just 26, the day before he was due to be married to the woman with whom he had already fathered a son.
Mácha’s complex masterwork of poetry, Maj (May in English), was published at his own expense shortly before his death and received scathing reviews. With a dark narrative concerning scandalous love, heroic bandits, villainous fathers, and violent crimes, Maj was a tough sell. Buried in a pauper’s grave in 1836, Karel Hynek Mácha was never wed, never a lawyer, and by all contemporary accounts considered a failed artist.
In the years after his death, Mácha’s work was rediscovered and rehabilitated by Czech nationalists and academics. Where his ideas were once misunderstood, later generations saw genius in his words. His posthumous reputation grew such that in 1939 his body was exhumed from Litoměřice and given a state funeral at Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, the final resting place of Czech luminaries. The park’s bronze statue, by sculptor Josef Václav Myslbek, dates from 1910. Maj is now required reading for Czech schoolchildren, many of whom can recite its opening lines: “It was late evening – first of May – / was evening May – the time for love.”
It is a tradition on May 1st for couples to gather and lay flowers at Mácha’s statue in Petřín Park, honoring the man who is now regarded by his countrymen as “the poet of love.” The statue is equally exciting to stumble upon throughout the rest of the year, with Mácha’s contemplative stance and fistful of blossoms a welcome sight to both lovers and lovers of poetry.
Know Before You Go
Petrin Hill park