Born Mihail Eminovici in Botosani (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1850, Mihai Eminescu is widely regarded as Romania’s finest romantic writer, and is recognized as both Romania and Moldova’s national poet. Most Romanians can recite line after line of his work, the legacy of years of forced rote learning. His status as one of Romania’s most notorious anti-Semites (he once wrote that “the Jew does not deserve rights anywhere in Europe”) has not overtly affected his popularity.
The seventh of eleven children born to a lower-middle class family, Eminescu was schooled at a German-language gymnasium in Cernauti, in present-day Ukraine, yet despite clearly having talent for a number of subjects, he left formal education at the age of 16, in 1866. His first poem, Lăcrămioarele învăţăceilor gimnaziaşti, an ode to a dead teacher, was published shortly afterwards. Eminescu then spent a year on the road, traveling first with a circus as a clerk, and then with a theatre company as prompter. He arrived in Bucharest in 1867, and took a job as a clerk at the National Theatre. He supplanted his income by translating German novels into Romanian.
A founding member of the Orient literary movement – which wanted to gather together a library of Romanian folklore and which believed that Romanian culture should be less western and more indigenous – Eminescu nevertheless took the road west himself, to Vienna, in 1869, to study Philosophy. It was while in Vienna that Eminescu adopted his trademark long flowing hairstyle, and became a journalist of some renown.
After three years in Vienna he followed two years of post-graduate study in Berlin, before returning to Romania in 1874. For the next decade, while serving as the editor of Timpul, a conservative Romanian newspaper, he enjoyed his most prolific spell of writing. His most famous poem, the rather sugary Luceafarul, famous for its delightfully simple, childlike couplets, was published in this period.
Eminescu fell ill of syphilis in 1883. Short periods of recovery and then violent attacks of mental illness followed. He was eventually found dead on a hospital bed on the morning of 15, June 1889, at the tragically early age of 39. He is buried in the Cimitirul Bellu.