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Jovan Jovanović Zmaj

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Jovan Jovanović Zmaj (Serbian Cyrillic: Јован Јовановић Змај) (November 24, 1833 - June 3, 1904) is one of the best-known Serbian poets.

Zmaj (dragon) was born in Novi Sad. He finished elementary school in Novi Sad, and secondary school in Bratislava, later studying in Budapest, Prague and Vienna. In 1870, he returned to Novi Sad to work as a doctor, motivated by the fact that his wife and children were suffering from and eventually died from tuberculosis.

He wrote in many of the genres of poetry, including love, lyric, patriotic, political, youth's, and educational poetry. But he is best known for his children's poetry. His nursery rhymes have entered the Serbian national consciousness and people sing them to their children even without knowing who wrote them.

His nickname (Zmaj) derives from May Assembly date, 3. maj 1848, in Serbian Cyrillic 3.maj/Змај/Zmaj. That is also the word that represent dragon.


Zmaj was born in Novi Sad, then a city at the southern border of Hungary, on November 24, 1833. His family was an old and noble family. In his earliest childhood he showed a great desire to learn by heart the Serbian national songs which were recited to him, and even as a child he began to compose poems.

His father, who was a highly cultivated and wealthy man, gave him his first education in his native city. After this he went to Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, and in these cities he finished his studies in law. This was the wish of his father, but his own inclinations prompted him to take up the study of medicine. He then returned to his native city, where a prominent official position was offered him, which he accepted; but so strong were his poetical instincts that a year later he abandoned the post to devote himself entirely to literary work.

His literary career began in 1849, his first poem being printed in 1852, in a journal called Srbski Letopis ("Servian Annual Review"); to this and to other journals, notably Neven and Sedmica, he contributed his early productions. From that period until 1870, besides his original poems, he made many translations from Sándor Petőfi and János Arany, the two greatest of the Hungarian poets, and from the Russian of Lermontov, as well as from German and other poets. In 1861 he edited the comic journal, Komarac ("The Mosquito"), and in the same year he started the literary journal, Javor, and to these papers he contributed many poems.

In 1861, he married, and during the happy years that followed he produced his admirable series of lyrical poems called Đulići, which probably remain his masterpiece. In 1862, greatly to his regret, he discontinued his beloved journal, Javor, a sacrifice which was asked of him by Svetozar Miletić, who was then active on a political journal, in order to insure the success of the latter.

In 1863, he was elected director of the Tekelianum, at Budapest. He now renewed the study of medicine at the university, and took the degree of doctor of medicine. Meanwhile he did not relax his literary labors. He also devoted himself greatly to education of Serbian youth. During his stay in Budapest he founded the literary society, Preodnica, of which he was president, and to which he devoted a large portion of his energies. In 1864 he started his famous satirical journal, "Zmaj" ("The Dragon"), which was so popular that the name became a part of his own. In 1866, his comic play "Šaran" was given with great success.

Since 1870, Zmaj has pursued his profession as a physician. He was an earnest advocate of cremation, and has devoted much time to the furtherance of that cause.

In 1872, he had the great pain of losing his wife, and, shortly after, his only child. How much these misfortunes affected him is plainly perceptible from the deeply sad tone of the poems which immediately followed. In 1873 he started another comic journal, the Žiža. During the year 1877 he began an illustrated chronicle of the Russo-Turkish War, and in 1878 appeared his popular comic journal, Starmali. During all this period he wrote not only poems, but much prose, including short novels, often under an assumed name. The best of these is probably Vidosava Brankovićeva. In that period he published a great many charming little poems for children.

He died on June 3 1904 in his Sremska Kamenica.

You will note that several of the translations are by Nikola Tesla. Below is an interesting anecdote about Tesla, the translator:

"Another anecdote about the inventor is told by the Reverend Stijacic. On his first trip to America as a young writer for the Serbian Federation, Stijacic had been surprised to find in the Chicago Public Library, a book of poems, the author of which was the popular Serbian poet, Zmaj-Jovan. The translator was Nikola Tesla. Later, when Stijacic was taken by Dr. Rado to meet the inventor in his offices on the twentieth floor of the Metropolitan Tower, he said, "Mr. Tesla, I did not know that you were interested in poetry."

A look of wry amusement shone in the inventor's eyes. "There are many of us Serbs who sing," he said, "but there is nobody to listen to us."''

Adopted from "Tesla: man out of time", by Margaret Cheney, 1981.

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