Count Miklós Zrínyi

The wealthy Zrínyi family had lived in the south-western part of Hungary for generations; some members of the family considered themselves Hungarians, others retained the original national identity of the family, which was Croatian. The family tradition was one long, continuous struggle with the Turks, since their estates were situated around the Frontierlands, and were often raided by Turkish troops. One of the most prominent members of the family was Count Miklós Zrínyi, the great-grandfather of the poet, who resisted the invading army of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566 at the family fortress of Szigetvár for more than a month. When defence became no longer possible Zrínyi led his men in a final sortie and died a soldier’s death. The defence of Szigetvár was one of the most heroic actions fought during the sixteenth century, which came to symbolize Hungarian resistance against the Turks.

It was almost three-quarters of a century later that his namesake, the poet Miklós Zrínyi, was born at Csáktornya in 1620. Having lost his parents at an early age he was given a thorough Jesuit education in Austria and Italy, supervised by his guardian Cardinal Pázmány. He came into possession of the family estates with his brother in early 1637, and settled in Csáktornya. It was at a time when the Hungarian frontier outposts were weakened, many had fallen into Turkish hands, the morale of the troops was at its lowest; they very often went unpaid, their equipment was poor, and supplies were erratic. Vienna was not in favour of military campaigns, the Royal Court concentrated its power in the Thirty Years War. Zrínyi soon proved himself a worthy descendant of his great-grandfather. Although the Austrians frowned upon his military campaigns, he continued to raid the nearby Turkish garrisons. It was in these years that his main political conviction was formed – that the appropriate time had come to expel the Turks from Hungary. The changes on the European political scene made him believe that the might of the Ottoman Empire had weakened, and that if proper military preparations were made the outcome of the campaigns could not be in doubt.

As a writer, Zrínyi served the idea of liberating Hungary all his life. His most significant literary work, The Peril of Sziget (often called in Hungarian Zrínyiász) reflected this conviction. It was written in the winter of 1645-6, and was published (together with a few miscellaneous pieces of poetry) under the title of The Syren of the Adriatic Sea (Vienna, 1651). Composed in the manner of the classic epic poets and their sixteenth-century successor, Tasso, this relatively short work (6272 lines, about two-thirds the length of the Aeneid) is written in four-line Hungarian alexandrines. The subject is the heroic but unsuccessful defence of Szigetvár by the author’s great-grandfather. It was an excellent subject for an epic, for the defence of Szigetvár was remembered as a great feat. Although the fortress fell and Zrínyi and his soldiers died, the Turkish army suffered heavy losses and the mighty conquering Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, died during the siege. Zrínyi studied the contemporary descriptions carefully, but above all it is his family feud with the Turks and his extensive knowledge of and experience in military matters that impart to the epic authentic details of description and a convincing attitude of moral commitment to his hero and namesake, Miklós Zrínyi.

His work is singular among epics in so far as it is written from the point of view of the vanquished; as if an epic on the fall of Troy were presented from the Trojan point of view. Zrínyi’s task, to present the vanquished heroes as heroes of epic dimensions, seemed unsurmountable. In order to reverse roles, the victorious Turkish army had to be surpassed in moral stature by the handful of defenders who prepare for their final sortie at the conclusion of the epic. The problem was solved by Zrínyi’s Christian conception – it is God who holds sway over the events. God was benevolent to the Hungarians – He led them into their present beautiful and rich country, but they indulged in sin, so He decided to avenge himself; He let loose the forces of Hell, who in the form of the Turks became the instrument of Divine punishment. The Hungarians were to suffer under the yoke of the Turks until they realized that they had abandoned their God and that they should repent their sins. By this device Zrínyi achieved for the reader an external point of view of the epic, as when the camera recording a battle at close quarters shifts to a long shot, putting both parties in perspective; at the same time he employed the most popular contemporary argument adduced by the Protestant preacher-writers for the explanation of the moral, material, and military degradation of the country.

Based on the above premises, the simple plot unfolds in fifteen cantos. Having created the framework for the epic in describing God’s intention with the Hungarians (a reference in Canto I indicates that God intended to punish the Hungarians for ‘three or four generations’ – i.e. the term of His punishment was just about to end at the time Zrínyi wrote The Peril of Sziget), Zrínyi presents the opponents, his ancestor Zrínyi and Suleiman, together with their armies. The Sultan is clever and brave but also an unmerciful tyrant, while Zrínyi is patriotic and religious, hence his moral strength. In his accounts of various skirmishes and military raids the poet achieves a balance between the small Hungarian army and the enormous Turkish forces, a balance which is essential to the structure of the epic and which could not be maintained in full-scale battles. A council of war in the Turkish camp (Canto VIII) serves to depict their war aims, which are not much more than the seeking of personal glory. In contrast Zrínyi has a moral purpose: he and his heroes are fighting for Christendom. The battle-scenes lead to the final siege, when supernatural powers assist the Turkish army (Canto XIV-XV). The victory for the Turks is counterbalanced by the very last scene; the fallen heroes are taken to heaven by angels.

Besides the main story, the epic is given variety by a number of episodes. In the Turkish camp a youth is singing about Fortune (Canto III), reflecting Zrínyi’s preoccupation with fate; there is a love-story skilfully interwoven into the main plot (Deliman the Tartar’s love for Cumilla the Sultan’s daughter, Canto XII). Zrínyi also stresses that the heroes of Sziget can expect assistance from no one: his two messengers (Juranics and Radivoj) who were to have taken word about the hopeless situation to the King, are captured (Canto IX), and so are Zrínyi’s carrier-pigeons (Canto XII), the last desperate attempt to obtain help. The young poet’s concept is echoed in his later political tracts – the Hungarians must rely on their own resources in fighting their adversaries.

The epic was written in the Göcsej*A small district in SW. Transdanubia. dialect, employing a certain number of Croatian, Turkish, and Latin words. (Zrínyi was bilingual and, in addition to Hungarian and Croat, he knew Turkish, Italian, and Latin.) Because of his indiscriminate use of foreign words and seemingly careless metres, the work was much criticized. Scholars pointed out that in about one-fifth of the lines the caesura is not correctly halving the lines, as later poets argued it should, but makes 7/5 and 5/7 lines. If Zrínyi’s alexandrines are compared to the smooth and polished versification of his contemporaries (e.g. Gyöngyösi), it becomes clear that the perfect caesuras produce a monotonous effect, which shows how right Zrínyi had been to relieve his epic with a variety of caesuras. Many scholars consider Zrínyi’s lines to be a Hungarian variation of the alexandrine, whose exact rules are still debated.

The structure of the epic stresses that it is a portrayal of the clash of two different worlds, Muslim and Christian. The figures are well delineated; in spite of their epic dimensions they are still human beings. Repetitions are carefully avoided – death occurs very frequently, but Zrínyi never describes it twice in the same way: all death scenes have their individuality. Because of his first-hand knowledge of the Frontierlands Zrínyi is able to draw minutely realistic battle scenes, and represents the Turkish heroes as real people, at a time when Turks were often depicted in contemporary European literature as soap-opera figures, including Tasso’s Turks.

The message of the epic was clear. The death of the heroes of Szigetvár was accepted by the Almighty as a sacrifice for the salvation of their country, and consequently the Hungarians’ term of punishment expired – the country was no longer in disgrace – so it was time to liberate her from the Turkish yoke. The timely message was lost however, as Zrínyi’s epic was not known and appreciated by contemporaries to the extent that it could exercise any influence. It was rediscovered and republished at the end of the eighteenth century, when growing national consciousness resulted in a universal search for relics of the nation’s past, and The Peril of Sziget has been considered ever since a national classic.

After the publication of The Peril of Sziget Zrínyi no longer wrote poetry. He devoted all his energy and literary activity to what he considered his main task: the fight for the liberation of his country. At about the same time as he completed his epic, he was made a general. He realized that the time had come for a decisive onslaught on the Turkish army, whose grip on the country had slackened. Zrínyi knew that to unite forces for the expulsion of the Turks before the termination of the Thirty Years War was not a practical proposition, and in any case the Hungarian army needed a thorough reform.

To gain experience Zrínyi carried out well-planned local raids and studied the best contemporary military theories. Influenced by Machiavelli, he embarked on the writing of a series of military essays. His Short Treatise on Camp Organization was not devoted entirely to the technique of warfare and administrative reform – he echoed convictions he had put forward in his epic: the paramount importance of unflagging loyalty as a unifying bond between troops and leader, and of personal courage on the part of the leaders. The Gallant General, written in 1650-3, contained his further observations on military science, in the form of short essays and aphorisms, which were a popular form of discourse in the seventeenth century. While Zrínyi revealed his expertise in military science, he also created a work of literary merit. He justly claimed that he had ‘taken pains to write in good Hungarian’, for The Gallant General displayed his mastery of prose. Notwithstanding his great respect for military studies, he refuted the infallibility of theory as the exclusive source of success with his notion that in addition to all the skills and material resources the general still needed support by Fortune who was an instrument of God’s will. In fact, this preoccupation with Fate became his motto: Sors bona nihil aliud*Good fortune, nothing else (i.e. is needed).

His political ideas were put forward in the Reflections on the Life of King Matthias, in which he advocated a strong, centralized, national monarchy. For the purpose of illustration the resolute Matthias, the powerful Renaissance king, was the natural choice. Zrínyi’s analysis of Matthias’s policy revealed the importance he attached to Matthias’s campaigns against the Austrian Emperor. He believed that the gulf between Hungarian and Austrian interests was difficult to bridge; in his own day he attributed the gulf mainly to scheming counsellors. His own life illustrates that his belief was not unfounded. Although he had already been appointed Bán*Bán: introduced by the Avars in the early Middle Ages, the Báns were the governors of military districts (bánáts) in S. Hungary. In Zrínyi’s time and later the title, primarily, referred to the governors of Croatia and Slavonia. of Croatia by 1647, he was unable to persuade Vienna to embark on a general campaign against the Turks; in fact, he was hindered even in his own efforts. Vienna’s interest seemed to be in the outcome of the Thirty Years War, while the mared interest of Hungary was the expulsion of the Turks.

Zrínyi’s wish for a potential ruler of Matthias’s stature remained unfulfilled: he had hoped that Prince György Rákóczi of Transylvania would be able to bring about at least a partial fulfilment of his designs. His plans, however, came to nothing, and Zrínyi, embittered by this failure and by family tragedies, wrote his highly emotional Remedy against Turkish Opium (1660-1). It was a desperate outcry at a time when Prince Rákóczi’s inept policies resulted in the ruin of several important Transylvanian strongholds, and a devastation of Transylvania by the Turks.

Fortune seemed to desert the gallant general, and the political situation in Hungary also deteriorated. Frustrated in his own campaigns, Zrínyi made a bitter stocktaking in the Remedy. His painful analysis left him no alternative; Hungary had no potential allies. The powerful kingdoms of Europe had other interests than the liberation of Hungary. He could suggest only one remedy; the nation must rely on its own resources and once more become unified to get rid of Turkish rule. In spite of the emotional charge of the Remedy, it is a masterpiece of construction, each section following logically from the previous one. The urgency of his plea, his irresistible rhetoric, lends the essay a dignified power rarely met in political literature. There can be little doubt that the Remedy represents the peak of Zrínyi’s achievement as a prose-writer.

Yet his last years were spent in untiring negotiations with Vienna to bring about the much-desired Turkish campaign. It hardly met with success – Zrínyi himself, as far as his private resources permitted, waged several campaigns against the Turks, the most successful of these military expeditions being the capture of the Eszék bridge on the Drava in the winter of 1663-4. He died in an accident on 18 November 1664, killed by a wild boar when hunting. It is characteristic of the times and the strained relations between the Hungarians and Vienna that contemporary gossip made Zrínyi out to be a victim of a Viennese plot. A war of liberation did start however, almost twenty years after his death: Buda was recaptured in 1686 by the Duke of Lorraine, and by the end of the century the weakened Turkish forces were expelled from most of the Hungarian territories.

The death of Zrínyi was mourned all over Europe: poetry was published in his honour, and Italian, French, and English biographies were written about him. Contemporary public opinion abroad knew little about his achievements as a writer – he was known and celebrated as a successful general, defending Christendom against the Ottoman Empire.

His ideas were not forgotten by his countrymen. His essays circulated in manuscript and were known and utilized by Ferenc Rákóczi and his followers at the beginning of the next century.

The poet who enjoyed an undisputed popularity with contemporary Hungarian readers up to the eighteenth century was István Gyöngyösi. Although his family belonged to the lesser nobility with no pretensions to aristocracy, he is nevertheless associated with the főrangú poets. Born in 1629 and educated in the College of Sárospatak, where he acquired a thorough knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics, he served as a lawyer with various aristocratic families. From political considerations he became a Catholic, although his family background was entirely Protestant. His whole career was characterized by political opportunism; he loyally served whoever was in power in the part of Hungary where he lived. By the time of his death in 1704 he was in possession of large estates, and with a poetic fame unparalleled in Hungary.

Gyöngyösi’s first longer poem, entitled The Venus of Murány United to Mars, appeared in the year of Zrínyi’s death, in 1664. The plot of the poem, based on a true historical episode, concerns the romantic marriage of the Palatine, Ferenc Wesselényi, and the Countess Mária Széchy. Wesselényi is besieging the fortress of Murány whose Captain is Countess Maria Széchy of the National Party. The General of the Imperial Army and the legendary beauty are each captivated by the other’s fame and gallantry and they fall in love. By virtue of the treachery of the Countess the Imperialists gain the stronghold, while the General obtains the hand of the ravishing beauty. The poem appears to be an epic, having all the necessary allusions to classical mythology, as the title already reveals. Events are influenced by the gods of Olympus, but the subject is unheroic and of ephemeral interest; classical technique is introduced only to elevate it. Nevertheless Gyöngyösi’s success with his readers was not entirely due to his allusions to the classics, although they contributed to his popularity to a great extent, since the Hungarian nobility had a classical education and they were pleased by Gyöngyösi’s efforts to involve the Roman gods in the contemporary affairs of Hungary. The chief attraction of The Venus of Murány lay in the fact that Gyöngyösi wrote in polished, pleasing, impeccable verse. He served contemporary taste with his florid descriptions, wealth of detail, and minute elaboration. His language is full of poetic invention, marred only by his tendency to overdraw his figures and, in general, to overstate in description. His readiness to exaggerate was derived from his poetic conception, or rather from the contemporary view that poetry was purely a technique, that effect, and hence success, was achieved by the poet’s craftsmanship, and that poetic craftsmanship could be successfully mastered by studying the classic poets, since poetry is merely imitation.

His other long narrative poems can also be characterized by the above description. The subject-matter is usually a ‘true story’, as in the case of The Phoenix that Sprang to New Life from his Ashes, or the Memory of János Kemény (1693). This is about a historical incident – János Kemény, a Transylvanian magnate, is assisting Charles X, King of Sweden, in his struggle against Poland, but is eventually captured by the Tartars, the allies of Poland. The first part of the poem tells about the sufferings of the hero; the second part narrates how he has returned to Transylvania, where he has become Prince, and how he has married his love Anna Lónyay. The subject gave Gyöngyösi ample opportunity to describe the longing of the separated lovers, and to employ his superior technique in the unexpected turns of the plot, and in pure rhymes.

Clearly, historical events are only a pretext for Gyöngyösi, who can hardly be accused of being a committed writer in any sense. In The Deceitful Cupid (1695), another of his narrative poems of lasting success, Gyöngyösi is using a different pretext ‘to protect the innocent from the dangers of love’. His deterrent examples include the descriptions of the victims of sinful love, usually cases of adultery, but, as often happens in Baroque literature, the moralizing tendency is lost in the erotic details. The Deceitful Cupid was published posthumously, and eighteenth-century readers enjoyed it in many editions.

Religious ecstasy also formed part of Gyöngyösi’s poetic world. His Rosary (1690) is a meditation on the life of Jesus Christ, or rather ‘an explanation’ of the ‘secrets’ of the rosary. Gyöngyösi’s brilliance glitters in the various moods of the narrative poem; he is equally at home describing the torments of Christ in vivid detail, or in simply showing a fervent devotion, devoid of any pretence.

Gyöngyösi wrote for pleasure. He served no causes; even when he had touched on subjects with a potential case for commitment, the underlying motive had always been entertainment, and this feature made him unique in Hungarian literature. The other poets of the főrangú trend lacked Gyöngyösi’s technical virtuosity or the profundity of Zrínyi’s ideas. There were many who chose themes with great potential, and it was either their inability to grasp the concept, or their indifferent creative talent, that prevented them from writing something more than mediocre verse.

True Baroque literature was produced only in ‘Royal Hungary’ – literature in Transylvania developed on different lines. While in ‘Royal Hungary’ the Counter-Reformation successfully regained the lost flock of the Catholic Church, in Transylvania Puritanism took root. The emergence of Puritanism was largely due to Transylvanian connections with the original home of the movement, England and the Low Countries. Beneficial though it might have been to the intellectual development of Transylvania, Puritanism frowned upon belles-lettres, and particularly on the ornate, Baroque type of poetry. This may account for the apparent neglect of poetry in Transylvania. It is prose, particularly non-fiction and memoirs, that is the dominant literary form in the second half of the seventeenth and in the eighteenth centuries.

The Puritans were responsible for the educational reform of various schools and colleges, including the College of Sárospatak. It was their leader, János Tolnai Dali, who invited the renowned educationalist Comenius to the College. The leading figure of the movement was János Apáczai Csere (1625-59), a disciple of Descartes, who compiled the first Hungarian Encyclopaedia (Utrecht, 1653). Csere made conscientious efforts to create a Hungarian terminology of scientific terms. As a professor first in the College of Gyulafehérvár, and then in Kolozsvár, he advocated Cartesian educational principles.

The power of Puritanism seemed to be spent by the 1660s, but it was still the Protestant intellectuals who dominated the literary scene. Ferenc Pápai Páriz (1649-1716), for example, published in several fields: as a physician he was responsible for the first medical books in Hungarian; he earned posterity’s gratitude, however, by his lexicographical works. His Latin dictionaries were still in use in the early nineteenth century, important educational tools in a country where scholarly investigations and scientific treatises were presented in Latin.

One of the most colourful personalities of the age was Miklós Tótfalusi Kis (1650-1702). He was already thirty when he visited the Low Countries to study typography. Having been an apprentice of Blaeu in Amsterdam, he soon proved himself to be an able type designer: the modernized version of his types is still in use.*Often incorrectly called the ‘Janson type’. He also designed and cut typefaces for the first book printed in Georgian, a language using non-Latin script. Having returned to Transylvania in 1689, he had many plans, and set up his own well-equipped press in Kolozsvár. His publishing policies included the standardization of Hungarian spelling and the increase of book-production at a lower price. His aims were only partially achieved; both the turbulent times and the lack of goodwill from the Church authorities contributed to his failure.

By the time of his death he was completely disappointed, and as a final gesture he put all his bitterness into writing: An Apology of Himself, of his Life, and of his Strange Activities (Kolozsvár, 1698). The book is a mixture of personal reminiscences, refutations of allegations made by his enemies, and a survey of the intellectual life of Transylvania. The unifying features in his book are his passionate exposition and relentless criticism, and the highly emotional tone. To add insult to injury the authorities successfully forced him to withdraw his ‘wicked views’, and this humiliation ultimately caused his death.