Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889) is hailed as Romania’s most important poet, his works are said to have revolutionised Romanian verse. Famous in his day firstly and fore mostly for being a journalist, he spent his life working as a substitute teacher, school inspector and newspaper editor in Iaşi, and later Bucharest. He belonged to Junimea, the literary society that counted many of the celebrated writers of the time as its members. Aside from being the epicentre of cultural life for about a decade, it is considered to have been the most influential intellectual and political association of the 19th century in Romania.
Eminescu’s political and cultural engagement made its way into his poetry, much of it being social commentary, and re-telling of historical events in verse. His years in Vienna were also hugely influential for his work: he attended Philosophy and Law classes at the University of Vienna for three years, and his interest in German philosophy, that of Schopenhauer in particular, can be noted in his verse. As an Orthodox Christian, his religion also proved to be a source of inspiration; nonetheless, much of his poetry plays with Buddhist, agnostic and even atheist themes.
Western Romanticism served as a huge influence in Eminescu’s poetry and the particular impact of his works could be compared to that of Keats, Shelley or Byron in England. Unfortunately, much like these celebrated poets, Eminescu also died young, at 39, due to mercury poisoning, while being treated for what doctors claimed to be syphilis. His death is shrouded by controversy, and various theories circulate about the potential causes for his premature death. He published only one collection of poems in his lifetime, with the rest (some 14,000 pages) being offered as a gift to the Romanian Academy in 1902 by the president of Junimea. The poem Dormi (Sleep) is representative of his poems about a beloved: a sensual mix of observing, longing and desire.
What is it that you fear? Are you not here with me?
Let the rain beat helplessly against the windows
Let the hopeless wind sigh in amongst the trees,
You rest, be still. You are with me here.
Why are you up and staring at the floorboards?
Startled and seemingly awaiting,
Your stare cannot pierce through them.
Or is there something you’re trying to remember?
Lean back against the pillows—I will give you peace.
You sleep- and let me stay awake.
When I am reading, I always like
To cast my eyes straight toward you from time to time,
To see you sleep…
I love to watch you
Breathing… so silent, your mouth scarcely open:
Abandoning my pen, I pull my hand away
And sad thoughts yield to stillness.
Beautiful you are, and all too beautiful.
The paleness of your face is marble.
I want to run straight to you
And as you sleep, contain you in my arms.
But then you’d wake… I do not have the heart.
Sleep peacefully, your head upon your arm.
From time to time I steal a glance toward you,
From time to time the book drops from my hands.
And I am content… Time pulses by
In clocks with rhythmic steps…
What is it that you fear? With me there is no fear.
If you won’t fall, I’ll have to make you… Sleep!