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Petar II Petrović Njegoš was both bard and prince, ruler and bishop of Crna Gora (Montenegro) for twenty one years. He devoted his rule to uniting the loosely linked Montenegrin tribes and resisting Turkish invasion throughout his reign, when Bosnia and Hercegovina succumbed. His poetic opus is to the Serbian language like that of Pushkin to Russian. His most famous work is Gorski Vijenac (The Mountain Wreath).

He saw the poet as the “surveyor of the universe,” and himself as a “white crow.” Njegoš wrote poetry in the Billiard, the state palace, as he looked north through his chamber window at Tablja Tower over the monastery on which sharpened stakes held Turkish heads. Beyond the tower he could see Mount Lovcen, where he would be buried, and where his ghoulish people would defile his cadaver many times before he was allowed the final rest. The walls of his chamber bore portraits of Pushkin and Byron.

In this era of ceaseless warfare, Mostar, my grandmother's hometown, was decked out by the Turks with the heads of nine fallen Serbian warriors of the Petrovic clan, traditional chieftain family of Crna Gora (Montenegro). Crna Gora was the last stronghold of Serbian independence against the powerful Ottoman Turks, whom they had resisted for centuries with fierce warrior clans, although greatly out-numbered. During twenty years of this succesful resistance Crna Gora was ruled by the warrior-bishop-prince-bard Petar II Petrović Njegoš. The Mountain Wreath emanates his anguish over this state of ceaseless warfare, and the unhappy destiny of the Montenegrin Serbs. Such was the destiny of Njegoš’ fifteen-year-old brother Joko, killed in battle along with eight other kinsmen and thirty more Serbs, by Turks fighting under the renowned Smaďl Aga Cengic, lord of Gacko. The severed heads of the Serbs were displayed in Mostar, and back in Crna Gora a popular song was heard:

On Grahovo’s wide and spacious plain
Of Petrović men full nine were slain
By Cengić Aga’s gleaming sword,
To the shame of Crna Gora’s lord.

But Prince Njegoš received his vengeance. In an attack led by Novica Cerovic, Smaďl Aga and his troops were surprised and the Turkish chieftain was killed along with forty of his men. The first Serbian warrior to reach the corpse of the great Turk, as if “counting coup”, was Mirko Aleksic, who cut off his head. They returned to Crna Gora with the head, which, after being washed and combed as was the custom, was given to the Prince. He tossed the head into the air like an apple. Catching it, the poet said,
– So you too have come my way, poor Smaďl! It was a handsome head with the thick graying moustache of a man of fifty, which was to adorn the ramparts of the Tablja Tower over Crna Gora’s capital. In Mostar, Ali Pasha rejoiced secretly over the death of his rival. The Croatian poet Ivan Mažuranic (1814 -1890) immortalized this story in the epic poem The Death of Smaďl Aga Cengić. (Milovan Djilas, Njegoš tr. Michael Boro Petrovich, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York, 1966.)

Note: Milovan Djilas fought as a partisan with Tito’s forces during World War II, later becoming vice president of Yugoslavia and Tito’s heir apparent, until he became disillusioned with the communist system he helped build. He was convicted of anti-Yugoslav activities and sentenced to eight years in Sremska Mitrovica prison, where he wrote his Njegoš

Photo gallery of poets
cited in The Whetting Stone

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