Růžena Jesenská

Published by Katja Mihurko Poniz on

Author of dramatic, wild and erotic poetry

Written by Julija Ovsec, PhD student at the Charles University Prague.

Růžena Jesenská (1863-1940) was an extremely prolific writer and poet. She wrote poems, short stories, stories for children, plays and novels. She also worked as a journalist and published in newspapers for women (Ženské listy, Ženský obzor, Ženský svět and Časopis učitelek).

Jesenská’s life and writings

In 1878, she began training to become a teacher, which was the only possible profession for women seeking education at the time. She taught at the St. Thomas Girls’ school in Prague, which she also attended in her youth. During that time, female teachers were not allowed to marry, so she remained single, but had some clandestine relationships. Because of her free-thinking views and her desire for more progressive teaching for girls, she gave up teaching early in 1907 and established herself as a journalist. Her journalistic work also dealt with women’s issues and social issues.At the beginning of her writing career, she published under various pseudonyms, including Eva z Hluboké and Martin Věžník. She wrote for children and young people as well as for adults. The main characters of most of her works are women and girls, and her works mainly reflect the feelings and moods and life fates of women. Despite the fact that she mainly dealt with women’s themes in her works, we cannot count her among the ardent advocates of women’s emancipation.In the circle of symbolists and decadents, her writing was described as sentimental and not overly interesting. In her works she focused mainly on women’s feelings and wrote about taboo subjects such as incestuous love, lesbian love and sexuality before marriage. She was considered a passionate, dramatic and erotic writer, which can be inferred not only from her poems but also from her personal correspondence with the painter and photographer Alfons Mucha. Critics speculate that their secret relationship is described in her collection Rudé západy (1904), which contains poems full of eroticism and melancholy.She was considered a controversial poet, not only because of the themes she addressed in her poetry and prose, but also because of her writing style, which is considered extremely stylistic, full of ornaments she used to articulate the intimate state of women. In her later works she returned to free verse, which she used to communicate that she was a mature woman reconciled to her fate. She died in Prague on 14 July 1940 at the age of 77.

Růžena Jesenská in her own words


Here I stand beneath the mountains gloom-oppressed, 
And hushed to rest,In whom a thousand years on high
And mutely eke a thousand years arose.
And birds, who to these shadows fly,
Resignedly and wistfully repose,
Like a grey trunk, 
like a deserted stone,
Its form into the heavens wildly flinging.
The mid-day sun has flown,
And like a wondrous lamp has sped away. . . .
Our ballad with its gold and cloud array
Somewhere with waning tones in timid wise is singing—
And mightily aglow,
Like to a Dream and a heart-beat into space doth flow.
The tepid gulls of lakes grow blue far down,
And ice and snow the highest summits crown,
Nowhere of man or voice a sign—
How the ice and the snow and eternal peace are drawing near,
In which the beating of a heart I hear!
Beauty's wondrous calm I take as mine,
In humbleness as it before the highest rite
Of lofty truth!—The stars of reconciliation in my bosom beat,
And trustfully and solemnly concealed in this grey night,
My soul thy soul doth meet.

Translated by Paul Selver in An Anthology of Modern Bohemian Poetry (2018)

Read more about Růžena Jesenská

Unfortunately, not much is written in English about Růžena Jesenská. More about the era in which she was creating and her contemporaries you can read on the Project Plume website, where author Melvyn Clark writes about avant-garde writers during and just after the Belle Époque. By the same author you can find also an online article entitled Some half-forgotten treasures from the Czech literary corpus, where the same topic is even more elaborated and detailed.

If you read Czech, you can read more about the author in the thesis by KOTILOVÁ, Kateřina. Růžena Jesenská – life and work. Czech writer at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Diploma thesis. Ved. prof. PhDr. Milena Lenderová, CSc. Pardubice: Univerzita Pardubice, Fakulta filozofická, Ústav historických věd, 2014., where all aspects of the author’s life are elaborated in detail (Jesenská as a teacher, as a poet and writer, as a journalist and her biography), and also a detailed analysis of her works.

Image above: The original cover with design by Alphonse Mucha for Ballady & Pisne by Ruzena Jesenska published by J. Otto and Company.