Kelemen Mikes of Zágon

The most significant literary work of the century, however, though also by a Transylvanian, was written in a different literary genre: in letters. The art of letter-writing has been a favourite form of self-expression since Roman times; the letters of Pliny and Cicero were addressed not only to a particular person but also to posterity. The epistolary art has flourished since the seventeenth century: it is enough to refer to Mme de Sévigné, Voltaire, or Horace Walpole.

Mikes’s letters came to be written in rather curious circumstances: he spent most of his adult life as an exile in Tekirdag, Turkey, and the letters were addressed to a fictitious aunt, a certain Countess P. They were discovered only many years after his death and published in 1794.

The reason for Mikes’s exile was his involvement in the War of Independence (1703-11) led by Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II (1676-1735). Rákóczi, the best-known member of the family both in Hungary and abroad, was educated by Jesuits who wished to suppress ‘the spirit of rebellion’ in the scion of a notoriously rebellious family. He did not even know the language of his forefathers, yet he gradually became involved in the movement of kuruc popular resistance against Austrian rule. He was imprisoned for seeking foreign aid and when he escaped he became the natural rallying-point for the sporadic and disorganized resistance. His pity for the sufferings of his people made him formally raise the banner of the insurrection. The successful military campaign of the kuruc malcontents led by him resulted in the dethronement of the House of Habsburgs by the Hungarian Diet in 1707, and, at the same time, he was elected Prince (fejedelem) of Hungary. Rákóczi’s war was supported by Louis XIV, but when he withdrew his assistance even the unprecedented national unity generated by the magnetic personality of Prince Rákóczi was not enough to save the cause of independent Hungary; he and a handful of his faithful followers left the country for ever in February 1711, not long before the final act, the Treaty of Szatmár, terminated the rebellion. The exiles went first to Poland and then to France to their former ally, but since Rákóczi realized that no political or military support could be obtained to start a new war against the Habsburgs, he accepted the invitation of the Sultan of Turkey, and in October 1717 the Hungarians arrived in the Port of Gallipoli, where Rákóczi was received in a manner befitting a prince. There was a young man of twenty-seven in his entourage who wrote the following letter on the day of their arrival:

Gallipoli, 10 October 1717.

My dear Aunt,
Thanks be to God, we arrived here safely today, having set out from France on 15 September. Our Prince, thank God, would be in good health, if only the gout were willing to take its leave of him; but let us hope that the Turkish air here will drive it away.

My dear Aunt, how good it is to walk on the earth. You see, even St. Peter was afraid, when his legs sank in the water; how should we sinners not be afraid, when our ship turned from one side to the other, in waves as great as the mighty mountains of Transylvania. Sometimes we sailed on their peaks, sometimes we fell into valleys so deep that we were waiting only for those mountains of water to descend on us; yet they were humane enough not to give us more to drink than was proper …

Our Prince had not yet disembarked, when a Tartar Khan, who is here in exile, sent him some presents; among other things a fine horse with its saddle. Here they have given the Prince good lodging, though we are housed like dogs; still I like being here better than on board ship.

… however fond of you I am, I can’t write any more; for I feel as if the house were going round, as if I were still on board ship.*Translated by D. Mervyn Jones. All other excerpts are his translations unless otherwise indicated.

Mikes never sent the letter to any ‘aunt’ but copied it into a ‘letter-book’. His last, the 207th, was written in 1758, more than forty years after he had landed at Gallipoli; he was by then an old man in his late sixties. Mikes was born in 1690 in a small Transylvanian village, Zágon (hence his epithet Zágoni i.e. of Zágon). His father had been tortured to death in the captivity of the Austrians when Mikes was a young child. His stepfather converted him to the Catholic religion. Having been educated in the Jesuit school of Kolozsvár, he was recommended to Rákóczi by an uncle and entered his service as a page-boy at the age of seventeen in 1707. After the defeat of his master he chose to follow the Prince into exile.

It was his unflagging devotion and loyalty to Rákóczi that made him a writer in an alien land, writing for posterity while leading a seemingly empty and frustrated life. His devotion to his master and his deep and sincere religious belief lent a redeeming quality to his life as it emerges from the Letters from Turkey. Mikes was a singular writer; very few, if any, talented young men of any nation matured into major creative writers in their own language in complete isolation (Joseph Conrad became a writer in English, Nabokov eventually switched languages); others were established writers before being exiled, or returned home.

The tone of the Letters from Turkey is set by the very first letter; describing the fate of the exiles, but focusing on the feelings, impressions, and experiences of its author, who succeeds in creating an often sad, sometimes nostalgic atmosphere, but never loses the tone of self-preserving mockery as he belittles his own distress. Yet in the first three years spent in various places Rákóczi entertained high hopes for the Porte’s support of his case, hopes which are reflected in Mikes’s letters; however, when the exiles were transferred to Tekirdag*In the Letters: Rodostó (in Hungarian) from the Greek name Rhaidestos. on the Sea of Marmara all hopes faded.

Rákóczi and his followers settled to a simple life and a strict daily routine was observed. There was not much to do; life became still, varied only by petty quarrels, jealousies, self-torment, and soul-searching. But above all it was the general boredom due to the lack of activity that harmed the ego. A lively mind, like Mikes’s, experienced all these sufferings, but he found an escape in reading and translating (he translated about 2000 pages, mainly from French educational works, while in Rodostó), and above all in writing his letters to his beloved Aunt, who supposedly lived in Constantinople and seemed to show a marked interest in the petty affairs of the exiles, and who received the secret emotions of Mikes’s soul sometimes with sympathy, sometimes slightly frowning upon them. The Prince had an excellent library, and Mikes was an avid reader; Mikes himself was also in touch with the French Ambassador in Constantinople, thus having access to the latest French books. While he was in France the French culture of the Court of the Roi Soleil had made a lasting impression on his mind; he was addicted to the sophisticated world of eighteenth-century French literature till the end of his days.

The French influence may be traced in his Letters from Turkey. His ambitions as a writer were modelled on Parisian taste: a preference for light, refined prose, imitating the free flow of the spoken word, yet witty, humorous, and sarcastic, often overflowing with sentiment, but never melodramatic – his Letters were always carefully composed. The Transylvanian nobleman was as gallant to his aunt as a French Marquis could ever be, with an additional measure of sincerity ensuring the authenticity of his letters as human documents.

In the first years Mikes wrote between ten and fifteen letters yearly, in 1721-2 only three or four, followed again by a spell of greater productivity. In the 1730s his energies seemed to have been sapped. A period of the darkest gloom characterized his letters when the Prince died in 1735. ‘What we feared is now upon us. God has made orphans of us, and today has taken from our midst our dear Lord and father, some time after three o’clock in the morning’ – Mikes begins Letter 112, and in the next passage he reveals the feelings of the terrified exiles:

Let us shed copious tears, for truly has the mist of grief descended on us. But let us weep not for our good father, because God has taken him after so much suffering into the heavenly abode where He gives him drink from the glass of bliss and joy, but let us weep for ourselves, that we have been made utter orphans. It is impossible to describe what great weeping and grief there is among us today, even among the humblest of us. Judge, if you can, in what condition I am writing this letter.

Mikes became the executor of the deceased Prince’s will, and when the Prince’s son, Prince József Rákóczi, who had been called to Rodostó to be the figure-head of the exiles, died three years later Mikes’s duties as steward of the exiles carried more responsibility. He was in no way a politician; he just managed the Hungarians’ affairs, and fate destined him to watch them die one after another. In the last years there were fewer and fewer of them: in October 1758 he was left the sole survivor of the exiles. Mikes closed his correspondence with his aunt:

When I wrote my first letter to you, dear Aunt, I was twenty-seven; this one I am writing in my sixty-ninth year. Deducting seventeen years from this, I have spent the remainder in fruitless exile. I ought not to have said ‘fruitless’, because there is nothing fruitless in God’s ordinances, for he orders all things to his own glory. Therefore we must be very careful so to use them, and then every ordinance of His affecting us will be our salvation. Then let us desire nothing other than God’s will. Let us ask for a life sanctified, a good death, and salvation. And then we cease from asking, and from sin, from exile, and from unfulfilled wishes. Amen.

(Letter 207)

It is this simple yet heart-rendering statement which closes the account of a frustrated life spent in constant training to reject the natural human desires of the soul. It shows that Mikes was not embittered, but was preparing himself for the ‘good death’ which was of overriding importance in his life. In 1761, three years after putting the finishing touches to his Letters from Turkey, he died of plague. In the last years of his life Mikes was granted permission to correspond with his relatives in Transylvania. It considerably brightened the last years of the aged exile; but the sober tone of his real letters – letters to a living person and not addressed to the fictitious Countess – reveal that exile as a way of life had reached a point of no return: ‘the long years of exile, the life in a foreign land, I will not say have become a second nature to me, but I have grown accustomed to them.’ Mikes knew that adjustment was no longer possible; the last time he set his mind on returning to his country of birth was at the time of the accession of Maria Theresa in 1741, but the unforgiving Queen rejected the petition of the former enemies of the House of Habsburgs with the sentence: ‘Ex Turcia nulla redemptio.’*No redemption is possible from Turkey.

Mikes, the exiled writer par excellence, avoided the perpetual scheming of the expatriates that is so characteristic of exiles of every nation. He was first and foremost a writer who set out to immortalize the state of exile as a human condition in order to save his own sanity. He wrote without the slightest hope of ever being published, without encouragement or criticism. Even if his prose had lacked artistic qualities, this single-mindedness and strength of will would have made him into a unique character. He saw the futility of being an exile very clearly:

May God grant that nobody follow our example, and that the story of our long exile be heard with horror. But my dear Aunt, were we the first exiles? Certainly not. Did we learn from others? No. Why not? Because at all times a certain reason had led, is leading and will lead men into the situation in which we are now. He alone will be more fortunate whom the Lord takes as it were captive into His own domain. I never had any reason for leaving my country other than my great affection for the old Prince: though to my heavenly Father there were also other reasons for my leaving.

(Letter 145)

Mikes is very probably the first to record that state of mind which modern psychologists term as ‘mixed loyalties’: ‘We possess a real hearth and home here at last; but the more I like Rodostó, the less I am able to forget Zágon.’ (Letter 37).

As a record of his life or the lives of the other exiles, Mikes’s Letters are incomplete. They should not, however, be regarded as a continuous narrative; besides describing the main events of the exile, Mikes dwells mainly on his own state of mind, but he often fills his letters with a wealth of information regarding local Turkish customs. Every now and then he draws on his reading in order to illustrate his efforts to amuse or edify his aunt retailing anecdotes, or describing and commenting on events.

His most acute personal problem, which his shyness made him reluctant to enlarge on, was that he suffered terribly from the lack of female company. Socially the Hungarians had to be self-contained, and as for ladies, the local Turks and Armenians kept their wives and daughters virtually under lock and key; moreover, there was the obvious language barrier. Among the Hungarians there was only one girl of marriageable age, a certain Susy, but she married Count Bercsényi after the death of his first wife. It is clear from the Letters that Susy’s marriage to Bercsényi was a cruel blow to Mikes. He affects detachment when he refers casually to the event:

… for a whole month our Prince has been ill and has been unable to stand on his feet, because of the gout. To this you could reply that my fingers were not suffering from the gout, and I might have written; my answer is that both my heart and my mind have been laid low by the gout. I should not even have seen the newly married wife, had I not been obliged to go there with the Prince; nevertheless I must confess that the obligation gave pleasure to the gouty heart, and when I was there a few reproaches for not having been to see them for so long, cured me.

(Letter 51)

Another time he makes light-hearted resolutions: ‘In the New Year let’s be merry, and if we can, let’s get married’ (Letter 59). After long suffering, Bercsényi died leaving behind the young widow. Mikes confessed to his aunt:

I know of someone who would wish to make Susy discard her weeds, but she is unwilling. I do not know the reason, though I do know that they loved each other when she was only a girl. Is it because she does not want to relinquish the title of Countess, or because he has not much gold glittering in his box?

(Letter 68)

Another time his feelings overwhelm him:

What put it into your head to ask me who the Templars were? … I’d rather laugh with Susy for half an hour than spend ten hours writing about that.

(Letter 71)

The end of the one-sided affair draws near: ‘I often go to see the widow Susy, who is preparing to go to Poland…’ (Letter 73). There was an outbreak of plague which perhaps hastened the departure of Susy:

What I have to say is no joyful thing, for the little widow Susy is just making her preparations, and every one of her belongings I see her pack into her trunk is like so many knives driven into my heart … I try often enough to persuade her to stay. I think perhaps her heart advises her to do so; but I cannot win her mind … she sees that all my fortune, all my assets, are built on ice. So she seeks advice, not from her heart, but from her mind; how can I argue against that? It is certain that intelligence gives us better advice than our hearts; for the heart only sighs over the present, but the intelligence thinks about the future … . Why should I wish anyone to bear my misfortune as well as their own?

(Letter 75)

After the. departure of Susy, Mikes fell very ill with malaria; but he survived both his emotional crisis and the illness. His deeply religious attitude to life, which sought to see the hand of Providence in everything that befell him, helped him no less than his indestructible vitality and common sense. Next to the failure of his plans to marry Susy, and the death of the Prince, the third greatest tragedy in his life was when the Queen refused their petition to return home, thus changing the uncertainty of their temporary stay in Rodostó into a state of permanent doom. This last blow was received by Mikes with wry humour:

We must be grateful to the Queen for excluding us from our country, where many things conspire to wear away one’s life … We have no worries over the acquisition or loss of estate. We do not envy another’s lot, his honours, his advancement or his country seat.

And he adds hesitantly: ‘I imagine that others do not envy our lot either …’ (Letter 165). He writes three short letters in the next two years and then there is a gap of almost three years in the correspondence, a sure sign of crisis in Mikes’s life.

When Mikes is not occupied with the exiles’ fate or with his personal problems he is an amusing raconteur; he has a flair for putting his anecdotes into context. When he learns that war has broken out between England and France (Letter 199) he tells (to illustrate the ‘hard-heartedness’ of the English) the story of the young English businessman who sold as a slave the beautiful savage girl who had saved his life from her own tribesmen, in spite of her revelation that she was bearing his child. This is the story of Inkle and Yarico, originally published in The Spectator by Richard Steele, which became popular on the Continent; the anecdote in Mikes, based on a French version, is vivid and well-constructed. At other times he relates a story because it just ‘occurred to him’. Then there are various other topics in the Letters: short historical essays, digressions on the education of women reflecting progressive views, or observations on local marriage customs.

Mikes never saw in print a word he wrote. The Letters were regarded by Hungarian critics for a long time only as source for the history of the exiles. Much futile research was made in an attempt to find traces of the mysterious Transylvanian Countess P., who eventually proved to be only the elusive Muse of a writer immortalizing the lives of a handful of exiles, not only by what he told, but by what he suppressed about them, or replaced with seemingly irrelevant incidents, anecdotes, or digressions. His achievement is remarkable: Mikes wrote perhaps the best Hungarian prose in the eighteenth century, in a colloquial style previously unimaginable, preserving the Transylvanian peculiarities of his language and describing pathetic lives without sentimental overtones or self-pity, blending humorous incidents and tragedies with neutral material in a proper mixture to give the reader a sense of the full life of those who were condemned to lead a limited existence only.

While the only major writer who could be associated with the War of Independence led by Rákóczi was Mikes, it was the same political movement that gave rise to an upsurge of anonymous poetry, written by kuruc*kuruc was the contemporary name of those Hungarians who opposed the Habsburgs. Their opposites were the labanc who sided with the Austrians. The etymology of the word kuruc (first recorded: 1679) is not known. The popular misconception that it is derived from the Latin ‘crux’ (cross) persistently crops up in both Hungarian and English reference books, ever since Mátyás Bél committed it to writing in the eighteenth century. soldiers, outlaws, and other socially discontended elements, labelled collectively as Kuruc Songs. The kuruc movement started in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, and the songs, as far as they can be dated, are contemporary products. Some of them are of striking lyrical beauty (e.g. ‘The Song of Jakab Buga’), others reflect the atmosphere of the kuruc soldiers’ optimistic spirit (‘Csinom Palkó’, or ‘Heyduck Dance’) and others express their sorrow over their own destitution, or over lost battles, or give an account of historical incidents (‘Thököly’s Council of War’). The central hero of a significant part of these songs – most of them had been actually sung – was Rákóczi himself. Even after the failure of the War of Independence Rákóczi remained the legendary ‘father-figure’ of the kuruc soldiers in hiding; they put their hopes in the exiled leader who would one day return to his homeland, when the labanc and their Austrian supporters would be expelled from the country. The kuruc heritage of songs became the chief kindler of national resistance in the eighteenth century. The best known of these kuruc songs was the ‘Rákóczi Song’, secretly sung in numerous variations all over the country. The Austrians banned it, but it became known all over Europe when Berlioz and Liszt popularized their versions (The Rákóczi March) and used its motifs in various compositions in the 1840s and later.

None of the kuruc songs was published in the contemporary period; most of them survived in manuscript collections of songs, or copied on to the blank pages of various books. They became extremely popular in the nineteenth century, and even modern poets, like Endre Ady, profited from the kuruc tradition by writing several poems ‘in the kuruc fashion’.

It is only possible to indicate a few of the topics of the kuruc songs here; social discontent was another theme that was important in these poems. Their versification was traditional, employing simple rhyme schemes, metaphors were rarely used; the social function of the poems was to give vent to the accumulated grievances of the ordinary people. Their significance was, however, great; it was the tone of defiance in these poems that became imprinted on the collective subconscious of the Hungarian people as a basic attitude of resistance to foreign rule for centuries to come.

As far as poetry proper was concerned, in the eighteenth century no major poet emerged in Hungary. Poetry was either the bearer of social and national grievances, as kuruc poetry showed, or else it became an over-sophisticated vehicle for playful ideas far removed from personal experience or feelings; most contemporary poets busied themselves with the Rococo-type gallant poetry very much in fashion all over Europe.

One of the gallant poets was the last representative of the főrangú lyrics, Baron László Amade (1703-64). Educated by the Jesuits, he lived a life which was a series of unsuccessful marriages and amorous adventures, befitting a professional soldier. He wrote mostly amatory poetry and also some istenes poems. The outstanding feature of these poems was their polished form; Amade was able to use the most complicated metres gracefully and with ease. The poems were carefully composed to achieve the desired effect – to win the heart of the adored one. His best known poem, however, is a recruiting song (toborzó ének) with an impressive catalogue of selected facts about the glittering life of soldiers. Some of his love poetry has lost very little of its original appeal, thanks to the playfulness of his rhymes, his humorous use of diminutives and his lively rhythms.

The same skill characterized the poetry of his school-mate, Ferenc Faludi (1704-79), a versatile Jesuit writer. A quiet, humble man, he travelled widely and had a superior education even by Jesuit standards. He was fully conversant with the culture of Catholic Europe, spoke a number of languages, and as a diligent worker of the Jesuit order was bent upon the moral and cultural improvement of his countrymen. To achieve his aims he translated moralizing works of his fellow Jesuits into Hungarian, but later he translated, or rather adapted freely, works purely for the entertainment of his readers (Winter Nights, 1778). He also edited works, wrote moralizing plays, and was a professor and the director of the University Press. Useful as these latter works were, they would secure only a modest place for him in the history of Hungarian literature. It is his poetry upon which his well-deserved reputation rests.

Faludi showed an interest in poetry from his school days. When the Order of Jesuits was disbanded in Hungary in 1773 he went into semi-retirement and lived under the patronage of the Battyhány family at Rohonc. The learned abbé, no longer inconvenienced by the strictures of his Order, gradually lost his adherence to the non-secular viewpoint, as a result of which his literary activity, particularly his poetry, greatly profited. Faludi had always been a conscious stylist; he studied the various dialects of his native language, compiled long lists of effective constructions, and coined new words (mostly compounds). He was also the first poet to experiment with the sonnet in Hungarian (‘On the Pipe’). Influenced by foreign models, he introduced new rhythmic patterns.

His poetry, on the whole, was inspired by the Rococo ideal, characterized by careful composition, perfect rhythm, and the use of polysyllabic strict rhymes. A good example of the meticulous execution of his poetic ideals is ‘The False Maid’:

She has wit, and song, and sense –
Mirth and sport and eloquence;
She has smiles of ecstasy –
Grace and beauty’s treasury.
          What avails it all to me?
          She is false as false can be!*Translated by Sir John Bowring, 1830.

The poem, consisting of six stanzas, enumerates in detail the desirable characteristics of the ‘false maid’ – connected by the common refrain by which all these characteristics are refuted: ‘She is false!’. The twin piece of the poem, ‘The Answer’, describes in equally eulogistic terms the suitor as seen by the false maid:

Wisdom all his forehead arches,
He is tall as mountain larches;
Waving locks of chestnut hair,
Lips as twilight dawning fair:
          Yet I love him not – and I
          Know full well the reason why!

The six stanzas are again linked together by the common refrain, and the very last, altered line of the refrain retorts to the young gentleman’s mocking accusations:

Yet I love him not – for I
Heard him call me false – that’s why!

The poem, or rather the two poems, are built around a change in the structure – a playful invention supported by a vigorous rhyme-scheme.

Another structural model, no less effective, is found in ‘The Gay-plumed Bird’. Here the alternating refrain of the six short stanzas lures the reader into riding an apparently innocent, emotional see-saw between the two opinions. First the gay-plumed bird is happily flying about in an orchard (1). The refrain is:

Were I a gay-plumed bird
I would happily fly with you,
Gay-plumed bird!

But when the bird is caught by a fowler’s trap (2) the refrain changes:

Were I a gay-plumed bird
I would never fly with you,
Gay-plumed bird!

The bird is then set free (3), and put in a cage in turn (4). Although well fed and cared for (5), the unlucky prisoner is eventually plucked and prepared for a dish (6). By changing playfully the refrains, which follow the ups and downs of the little bird until its inevitable end, Faludi is able to comment on the folly of placing too much trust in one’s good fortune. This Baroque preoccupation with fortune is the subject of another poem, which has equally lively rhythm and graceful rhymes (‘Changing Fortune’).

Some of his pastoral idylls are noteworthy for a distinct feature: Faludi observed contemporary real-life shepherds, and the classical allusions of the Rococo pastoral were to be replaced by features of contemporary Hungarian shepherds in his verse. This application of local colour is a novelty in Hungarian literature; these are the earliest signs of the népies*For a discussion of népies ideology cf. Chapter VI. trend that became dominant by the middle of the nineteenth century. For the time being it is rather the external appearance of népies figures that are depicted: Faludi’s shepherds have csákó instead of cap, they wear long shirts, often hold hatchets in their hands, and play popular tunes on their bagpipes. Although they speak in impeccably correct sentences, every now and then they employ a popular idiom (e.g. ‘Pastoral Poems’).

Faludi also wrote hymns and at least one of these is still sung in Catholic churches in Hungary, but he is best remembered today for his experimenting intellect. His approach to the language anticipated the language reformers responsible for the literary renewal at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His observations of ‘the people’, their language and folklore – before Herder directed general attention to ‘the people’ in Central and Eastern Europe – resulted in a particular blend of refined Rococo and népies elements. All in all, his experiment, the first of its kind, with the rhythmic structure of the folk-songs makes him a bridge between old and modern Hungarian literature. The development of the latter was rooted in principles which Faludi, with his inquiring mind, was the first to observe and to put into practice.

Finally, far from the mainstream of contemporary literature towers the enigmatic figure of an eccentric, Oxford-trained linguist, György Kalmár (1726-?1795), who was completely forgotten until recently. His Summa (Pozsony, 1770), consisting of 5624 lines in hexameter, is only a fragment from a monumental work, which he may never have finished, and which has no antecendents or parallels. It is a strange, uneven piece, in which Kalmár gives free rein to his rich fancy and amasses interesting material on widely differing subjects, including his travels. Some of the passages are first-rate poetry, and its author, who was a misanthrope with a brilliant mind, deserves more attention.