A poem of an ancient kind





The Life of Filip Višnjić

Filip Višnjić has been born in the Bosnian village of Trnova, 1767, in a well-off peasant family of Vilić's. His father had three brothers, the family residing there for some centuries.

The destiny has been unmerciful to the Filip from the very beginning. His father Đorđe died very early, and his widowed mother Višnja re-married in the neigbouring village of Medjaši, bringing her 4 years old son with her. Filip hasn't been 8 yet, as he fell ill from smallpox, which spared his life but took his sight.Young Filip became a burden of his new family as he couldn't help at work, someone always having to take care of him, too. The orphan had to learn swallowing his tears early.

As a young man, he learned to find the way to the village where he has been born, walking there without any help to visit his uncles. That brought him comfort.

Bosnia and Serbia were the neighbouring provinces on the outskirts of the the Osman empire at that time. Since the hosting of the Turkish travellers has been obligatory for the Christians, Turkish guests were no exception. Aside from not really being Turkish - the most of these Turks were Bosnians of slavic origin actually - these guests were not always easy ones, as one might suppose under such circumstances.

As Filip has been 20, two beys from the neighboring town of Zvornik made one such visit to his uncles in Trnova. The dinner opened their appetites further, and they tried to rape his aunt, the wife of his uncle Luka. Discovering this, his uncles killed both of the Turks.The Turkish revenge was not long in waiting, and they executed all men of the family, his three uncles and his cousin.

There was no reason for Filip to grope his way to Trnova anymore.

The son of a wealthy family now seemed to have only the option of burdening his stepfather's home for the rest of his days. But Filip had learned as a kid already to play gusle, that carved, dug-out one-string instrument. He could remember the poems sung by others on the first hearing, too, and his singing brought him attention and respect of the listeners.

From now on, it was going to bring him the daily bread, too, because the young man left his stepfather's home and started travelling the wide world he couldn't see, all by himself, singing and playing the gusle for his almsgiving listeners. These voyages have been short at first, to the neighboring vilage fairs and celebrations, but as he gathered confidence, he started traveling the wide areas of Bosnia, Herzegovina and Montenegro, covering thousands of kilometres on foot.

Filip has been tall and strongly built, but many of his paths are difficult to pass even today, and it is not easy to imagine from our times how it must have been for a blind man, sometimes fed, sometimes hungry, through snows and torrents, in unsecure, violent and plagued times, to endure and survive twenty years of such living. His friends of the later years report a scar on his face and ear, and two missing fingers on the right hand, probably a sabre wound. He wouldn't tell them about this, and there must have been many other smaller misfortunes of similar kind in his travelling years.

His listeners were not always Serbs; the 'Turks', sharing the language and many of the traditions had their own decasyllable poems, many of which Višnjić knew, too. He had very much interest for the people and the world he could not see and excellent memory, heard a lot from the Turks about their leading figures, and this knowledge is going to to be reflected on the characters in his own poems later.

Filip married as he was 31, and his wife Nasta was from a respected family. Not much is known about his family. It has been said he had 6 children, but only two were with him as he settled in then Austrian Srem after the uprising.

1804 was the year of the Serbian uprising this poem is telling about and after a chain of very heavy battles in that and the following years most of the Serbia has been liberated. In 1809 the Serbs in the Bosnian province of Semberia rose to join the uprising, but this move has been defeated soon, causing streams of refugees to cross over to Serbia. Filip and his family were among them. They have been met with a rather organized effort to acommodate them, and whole new villages have been built.

It is at this point that Filip comes into the direct contact with the Serb liberation war. Now he is not singing to the village fairs any more; he is following the troops and raising morale. Stojan Čupić, one of the Serb military leaders in the area neigboring with Bosnia recognizes the Filip's qualities, and likes him at once. They became friends, and Filip stayed close to Čupić in the years that follow, getting good information about the events which is so evident in the poem presented here. He has been present at several great battles.

Vuk Karadzič could write down 13 Filip's original poems, and another 4 old ones in his adaptation, all in all some 5000 lines of verse. These have been created in the period up to 1813 when the uprising has been crushed and Filip had to leave Serbia. He didn't create a single poem of his own before the uprising, or after it.

It is very impressive how the blind man refused to get swayed by the torrent of violence, lies, greed, intrigue and everything that accompanies such events, staying able to recognize the truth and follow it unswervingly.The composition of this poem is masterful, and it is staggering how the crescendo and the dramatic points of the events have been painted from a hand which never had any literary training in the today's sense.

The fortune turned it's back to the Serbs as 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia, enabling the Turkey to concentrate all its might against Serbia. Attacking from 3 sides, the Turks finally pinned the remains of the Serbian armies on the Sava river, Austrian frontier at the time.

This last terrible battle at Ravnje lasted for 17 days, and Filip was present there, too, fleeing with the few surviving Serbs to the Austrian side of the Sava afterwards.

Since that September 1813 Filip lived in Austrian Srem. Another state, but he was among his compatriots there, too, as these parts have been populated by Serbs mostly. He settled in the village of Grk, bringing there his wife and two small kids, too. The daughter Milica has just been born, and the son Ranko was ten. Filip would spend the winters there, mostly; the rest of time he spent on the blind singer's wandering voyages again.

It was in the nearby Serb monastery of Šišatovac that he met Vuk Karadzić, the Serb language reformer. Vuk wrote down a number of poems from Filip in 1815, his ones and those of older tradition, too. These have been met with a wider interest, scholarly circles in the west debating Homer and oral tradition literature at that time. As a poem always gets changed during it's transmission through centuries, some asserted Homer never even existed. An opportunity to observe a living example of such kind of poetry at its origin was invaluable.

After the translations reached his western friends, Vuk would have been glad to offer them more of the same; Višnjić created only 13 poems, and that was not much. But Filip found no reason to make the new ones there in Srem.

In 1815 there was the second uprising in Serbia, which finally set the Serbs on the road to liberation. There has not been much combat this time, as the new Serb leader directed his efforts to diplomacy and compromises with the Osmans mostly, which proved successful at the end. Vuk hoped Filip would create some new poems if he returned to Serbia, but he could not persuade Filip to return. He also tried to get a portrait of Filip, but it has never been made. The paintings we have today have been created long after his death, based on the descriptions of his figure.

Filip has been well received in his new surroundings and on his voyages, singing his poems about the uprising in distant places, sometimes as far as Timisoara. No easy life for an old man and the destiny was not getting more lenient on him in his old days, either.

He got widowed early, the wife Nasta died some years after his move to Srem. The burden of the wandering poet ended only with his death in 1834, in his 67-th year. He has been buried in the village of Grk. Sadly, his children did not survive him for very long and they are buried beside him.

This short account of Filip's life has been made mostly with the data from the monography of Milorad Panić-Surep 'Filip Visnjić – Život i delo'.




  Filip Višnjić, the monument in Kruševac  
    The monument dedicated to the Serbian Revolution in Kruševac; Filip Višnjić