The Battle of Kosovo cycle of heroic ballads is generally considered the finest work of Serbian folk poetry. Commemorating the Serbian Empire’s defeat at the hands of the Turks in the late fourteenth century, these poems and fragments have been known for centuries in Eastern Europe. With the appearance of the collections of Serbian folk poems by Vuk Stefanovic Karasdzic, the brilliance of the poetry in the Kosovo and related cycles of ballads was affirmed by poets and critics as deeply influential as Goethe, Jacob Brimm, Adam Mickiewicz, and Alexander Pushkin. Although translations into English have been attempted before, few of them, as Charles Simic notes in his preface, have been persuasive until now. Simic compares the movement of the verse in these translations to the “variable foot” effect of William Carlos Williams’s later poetry, and argues that John Matthias “grasps the poetic strategies of the anonymous Serbian poet as well as Pound did those of Chinese poetry.”
First published in 1987, the translation of the Battle of Kosovo is now reprinted both because of its intrinsic merits and because the recent crisis in Kosovo itself compels the entire world to understand the nature of the ancient conflicts and passions that fuel it. Although Matthias and Simic have elected to retain their original preface and introduction, Christopher Merrill, a scholar of the region and author of Only the Nails Remain, has contributed a brief afterword explaining the importance of this poetry in the context of NATO’s first military action ever against a sovereign nation.