Pencho Slaveykov (1866-1912)
The knight of the moral ideal

He was a poet and a member of the Bulgarian Scientific Society (today's Bulgarian Acedemy of Sciences). He had a tremendous impact on several generations of Bulgarians writers, and on the development of literary criticism and drama theory. In 1908-1909 he was the director of the National Theatre, and in 1909-1911 of the National Library. Together with the critic Dr. Krustev and the poets Peyo Yavorov and Petko Todorov, he set up a literary circle publishing the magazine Misal ("Thought"). The circle aspired to carry out an aesthetic revolution by introducing the principles and criteria of modern Western art and philosophy. Slaveykov was born in Triavna and died in Italy. His sudden death prevented him from being considered for a Nobel Prize nomination.

Petko Rachev Slaveykov, the veteran of the National Revival struggle for spiritual and national independence and one of the first builders of new Bulgaria, died in 1895, in Sofia. The other survivor of that epoch, Ivan Vazov, had already become a classic, "somewhat insufficient and boring" to the new generation. At that time old Slaveykov's son Pencho was a student in Leipzig where he attended the lectures of the Neo-Kantianist Volkelt and the opening nights of Hauptmann and Sudermann plays, and was introduced to the works of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ibsen. It was then that we wrote the work of his life, the Bloody Song poem, and sent poems and articles to Bulgaria.

Upon his return, the intellectual elite of Sofia welcomed him like a prophet, and he was recognised and needed by the intelligentsia. For, in Slaveykov's own words, "newly liberated people have a much stronger need for freedom than slaves". However, in his days people were "as petty as their time". Lame from an early age but proud, daring and somewhat lacking in modesty, he was fervid in style and vehement in his ideas. He was convinced, and was striving to convince the others, that the intelligentsia was "the traditional heroine of the nation's feat". According to him, that feat ought to be transformed into a spiritual and moral act.

Pencho Slaveykov stirred up the intelligentsia and the whole society. His lectures and articles revived the old conflict between traditionalists and modern thinkers. His poems, half of which were labelled "Tolstoyan", and the other half "socialist", became popular at students' performances and parties. "It was no coincidence that the youngest generation of intellectuals went to war as volunteers with Slaveykov's Bloody Song in their haversacks," a contemporary wrote. "The free in spirit die free." In newer times, this was Slaveykov's version of Botev's conviction that sacrifice in the name of freedom was something invincible and immortal. To him and the new generation of Bulgarian intellectuals it meant first and foremost, spiritual freedom.

Young people who were born after the liberation but were raised with the slave mentality and morals of their once oppressed parents, were faced with the example of the intelligentsia of the National Revival period who had succeeded in accomplishing a tremendous mission. However, they lived in a country where they felt useless, with little chance of a similar feat. With his views and his own conduct Pencho Slaveykov, whom Lyudmil Stoyanov described as "a sower rising before dawn", set a new example for the moral self-assertion of the intellectual as a strong personality. He rose "above today's life which is but a minor station in our history".

A great poet, both open and charismatic, he was the champion of individual moral struggle against "the ruling scum", and of the high ideal of freedom, "the ascetic retreat into spirituality and contemplation". These appeals, reflecting the thinking of his time, actually represented a programme for the attitude and conduct of the Bulgarian intelligentsia, and were imposed by the historical, political and social reality. The intellectuals were forced to lead the life of petty clerks or teachers. The life of Pencho Slaveykov himself was a classical bureaucratic drama: he was discharged from his office as director of the National Library, which was a heavy moral and emotional blow.

To identify the life with the spirituality of the intelligentsia would mean to depersonalise it. Thus, Pencho Slaveykov's moral ideal was much more than as aesthetic attitude. It was the means to preserve an individual's integrity and spiritual world. That ideal was also a prerequisite for the ability to flourish and to reach the heights of perfection required by Pencho Slaveykov's supreme criteria.

He forged a new type of intellectual with his poems. His lectures and translations ranged from classical to modern petry, raised him to the level of "great" nations and "high" culture, created in him a new aesthetic perception and mentality, and instilled him with self-confidence. For to Slaveykov that new type of intellectual was the only way to "civilise Bulgarians", one of Slaveykov's major goals, shared by the members of the Misal ("Thought") circle. That goal was to endure for many decades.

Pencho Slaveykov marked the beginning of the unique amalgamation fo talent with idealism, high moral standards, social awareness and personal dignity, that became characteristic of several generations of Bulgarian writers. After Pencho Slaveykov's death, Dimcho Debelianov, Teodor Trayanov, Nikolay Liliev and many other writers would learn from him, no matter if they openly adored, ignored or denounced him.

{Spiritual Leaders of Bulgaria}