The Birth of Modern Literature


THE last quarter of the eighteenth century in Hungary was totally different from the rest of the century as far as political, social, and literary movements were concerned. Modern Hungarian literature is traditionally dated from the publication of the Tragedy of Agis by György Bessenyei in 1772. While the literary debut of Bessenyei and his fellow writers, the so-called testőr írók, definitely marks the beginning of a new era in Hungarian literature, their appearance represents only one particular facet of a vigorous revival, the suddenness and the complexity of which have perplexed many students of Hungarian literature. This facet was striking enough to arouse even foreign interest; a nearly contemporary traveller, Richard Bright, who was the first Englishman to get a glimpse of Hungarian literature, wrote: ‘When the Empress formed her Hungarian guard, a number of young men of birth were called to Vienna, both from Hungary and Transylvania. Here they found leisure, and had both sufficient opportunity of improvement, and sufficient excitement to emulation. It was from amongst these that the more celebrated writers in poetry and belles-lettres in the Hungarian language appeared.’

The Hungarian Guards of Maria Theresa was founded in 1760, and young noblemen in Vienna – then one of the most sophisticated cities of Europe – were soon ‘infected’ with the ideas of the French Enlightenment, and lost their native innocence about the slogan ‘Extra Hungariam’, for they realized that Hungary – to reverse Pangloss’s often quoted line in Voltaire’s Candide – is not the best of all possible worlds. Posterity is not so harsh in passing judgement on eighteenth-century Hungary: the very gradual recovery of the economy after the devastation of the Turkish wars was all that could be expected. The testőr*Guardsman. Writers in Maria Theresa’s Hungarian Guards are traditionally called testőr writers. writers were much more critical: they compared their country’s state with the material wealth, institutions, and intellectual achievements of the West European countries and found Hungary hopelessly backward, impoverished, and an intellectual desert. The realization of backwardness was one of the mainsprings that forced writers to work for the improvement of their country’s social structure and intellectual climate. The writer became the social and moral conscience of the country, a position which has been characteristic of East European intellectuals ever since those days.

The most prominent of the testőr writers was undoubtedly György Bessenyei, born probably in 1747, of noble parentage, in the county of Szabolcs. Having received his education in the ancient College of Sárospatak, he entered the Hungarian Guards in 1765. In Vienna he became familiar with the ideas of the French and English Enlightenment through the works of Voltaire, Rousseau, Holbach, and Pope and Locke. He also discovered many of the semi-forgotten earlier Hungarian authors in the Imperial Library. With an astonishing capacity and aptitude for work Bessenyei started on a career of translating and writing. His first works were published in 1772, representing entirely new ideas in Hungarian literature. The following year he left the Hungarian Guards and in 1782 returned home, retiring into a self-imposed exile, where he died in 1811. Bessenyei was not exclusively a writer of belles-lettres, though he achieved his first success with his tragedies, taking as their subjects events from Hungarian history, with the exception of The Tragedy of Agis (Vienna, 1772). Agis’s tragedy – a thin classical disguise – is that he sides with the people against the ruler, but he is unable or afraid to recognize their revolutionary spirit and has to die as a solitary rebel. Bessenyei himself was not sure whether enlightened despotism was unequivocally beneficial to the people, but he was convinced that to improve his country’s economy an easing of the burden on the peasantry was needed.

Of his comedies, The Philosopher (Vienna, 1777) is the most significant. Written in prose, the plot revolves around a young couple – Parmenio seeking true love, befitting his philosophical ideals, and Szidalisz, a young lady whose desire is to be loved for her spiritual qualities, not for her wealth and social position – and has a happy ending. The comic characters in the play include Pontyi, a provincial squire who, with his natural behaviour, his rejection of the sophisticated tastes of the worldly young, and his traditional education firmly based on the Bible and the Corpus Juris, is the archetype of the backward, narrow-minded Hungarian provincial gentry, very often criticized by poets and writers. Yet he is not without redeeming qualities: his rural common sense, his peculiar way of speech, and his preference for traditional values make him a lovable, amusing, and only occasionally a ridiculous creature, for it is his views on politics and affairs of the world which Bessenyei wants to criticize.

Bessenyei’s cultural programme emerges from his numerous pamphlets published during his stay in Vienna. The programme devoted paramount attention to the cultivation of the native tongue, for ‘no nation has created its own culture in a foreign language’ he argued in Hungarianness (Vienna, 1778); he also demanded thorough modernization of education and the absorption of progressive views (A Hungarian Spectator, Vienna, 1777, and Miscellanea, Vienna, 1779). He proposed the establishment of an Academy (A Pious Wish Concerning a Hungarian Society, Vienna, 1790). His entire cultural programme was mainly characterized by a desire to reach all strata of society.

The term nation in eighteenth-century Hungarian thinking embraced only the nobility; it was Bessenyei who first wanted to extend the benefit of education to all sections of the population, including the peasantry. He argued that by virtue of the exclusive use of Hungarian it was the serfs who preserved and maintained the language. As the use of the national language was considered to be the basic premise for creating a national culture, it followed in Bessenyei’s argument that the ‘common people’ were the trustees of Hungarian culture. ‘While the serfs speak in Hungarian’, he claimed, ‘their overlords cannot dismiss that language.’ This argument was the basic tenet of the népies trend which became dominant in nineteenth-century Hungarian literature, supported by the literary discovery of folk-songs and by Herder’s theory of the Volksgeist. This trend proved to be so powerful that the upper classes, who were prone not only to adopt the culture of foreign nations, but very often to use foreign language only, especially German and French, as their medium of communication, felt obliged to re-learn their forgotten native language as a patriotic gesture in the course of the next half-century. The tenet, that it is ‘the people’ (i.e. nép, hence the adjective: népies) who are the trustees of the native culture, had a marked social content. The effort of the Hungarian upper classes to renounce the language of the uneducated peasants was based exclusively on their social superiorty; they imitated their social equals, that is, the educated upper classes of Austria, not only in their way of life and cultural needs, but also in their language. On the other hand, accepting and employing a common language with ‘the people’ involved a certain degree of identification with their values, beliefs, and way of thinking. In other words, the emergence of a national identity was accelerated by the educated upper classes’ discovery of their national language. Of course, it was a long and gradual process, and Bessenyei’s early writings on the subject constituted only the very first steps towards the creation of a specific national culture.

The bulk of his later works, written in his retirement in the county of Bihar, was never published in his lifetime, and therefore had little or no effect on the development of a trend which he had initiated. Bessenyei was in his late thirties when he retired to his estates in Bihar, perhaps to ‘cultivate his garden’ in Voltairean fashion, but more probably because his ideas did not meet with an immediate response. For a while he took an active part in the public life of his county, but his disappointment in enlightened despotism led him more and more to live the life of a recluse.

His works written in these years included: The World of Nature, or Common Sense, a philosophical poem with fine descriptive passages and rich in original ideas, though influenced by French materialist thinking. Censorship prevented its publication. He made no attempt to publish The Hermit of Bihar, a tract which summarized his lifelong experiences and most of his views. He wrote also a satirical novel entitled The Travels of Tarimenes (1804). Tarimenes is the traveller who arrives in a fictitious country – Totopos – with his tutor Kukomedonias, a late-begotten ‘noble savage’ who is full of good intentions and ideas, unhindered by contemporary social norms, but unaware of the etiquette of the Totoposian world. The novel consists of three parts: the first part describes the society of Menedia from where the young traveller sets out, the second part is devoted to the world of Kantakuci – probably an ironic portrait of the ageing Bessenyei himselfand the third deals with the discussion between the savage and Trezeni, a minister in Totopos. The savage, or, as Bessenyei calls him, the kirakades, looks with a keen eye at the class structure of ‘modern’ society. His naïvety is eventually lost in the world of Totopos – in order to marry he becomes converted to the Catholic religion. One of the characters summarizes the unexpected complications that befall the traveller with a seemingly commonplace statement, accentuating the satirical tone of the conclusion: ‘who would believe the story of his own manhood, if it were forecast in his youth?’

The bitter satire of The Travels of Tarimenes epitomized the state of Bessenyei’s mind; he considered himself partly a failure, a kirakades for whom the world of Totopos with its strange mentality remained foreign territory. Bessenyei never wrote again, and died in 1811 as ‘the hermit of Bihar’, embittered by his failure and with strong feelings against religion.

Among the testőr writers Ábrahám Barcsay (1742-1806) was the most significant poet; he came from an ancient Transylvanian family and, having joined the Hungarian Guards, he became a close friend of Bessenyei. Most of his poems were written in epistolary form, addressed to his friends. He was deeply influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and, caught in the conflict between his chosen military career and what he saw to be the result of wars and colonization, he was particularly critical of contemporary wars, the process of colonization, and the slave trade. An example of his attitude to social injustice is seen in the following short poem:

A Cup of Coffee

A bloody fruit perspired by Saracens
Sent by tight British to far continents,
To all the nations for their treasured gold
That you, cane sugar, send back manifold.
And you, small beans, that Mocha grows the best,
You make slaves suffer also in the west –
The sage feels horror from their origin
In which he shares when gulping British sin.*Translated by 3. Grosz and W. A. Boggs.

The other testőr writers included educated men of letters and translators, all influenced by the French enlightened authors. While the role they played on the contemporary cultural scene was important, their works did not survive the critical appreciation of posterity.

The testőr writers were also responsible for a phenomenon hitherto unknown in Hungary – the birth of irodalmi tudat. Before the début of Bessenyei and his circle, creative writers in Hungary led isolated lives, writing in response to an inner compulsion, but for a small audience only, usually friends; often they had no desire to publish their works, and were ignorant of the literary past of their own country. Bessenyei was the first writer to show a marked interest in the earlier writers of the country, thus establishing a sense of continuity. Writers before him were acquainted with the authors of classical antiquity and perhaps some contemporary foreign authors, but as far as Hungarian literature was concerned they behaved as though they had no past, since they were simply unaware of their predecessors, or frequently even of their contemporaries. Of course, Bessenyei’s efforts were only the first steps taken towards forming an irodalmi tudat, just as he was the first writer to demand a national culture. The full creation of irodalmi tudat came after the début of Kazinczy, who not only had definite literary policies, but seemed to know personally all writers, including the ageing Bessenyei. As the main arbiter of literary taste in his day he had a unique influence over other writers. By the 1820s the growth of readership, increased publishing activity and theatrical life, and the mushrooming periodicals and magazines had achieved a fully developed irodalmi tudat, the prerequisite of a healthy literary life. The last step in the process was that Pest became the capital of the country and also its literary centre. Most of the writers moved there, and most publications – magazines, books – were issued there.

Yet the magnetism of Bessenyei and his testőr friends was already to be felt in Vienna at the end of the eighteenth century. Several writers – older than the testőr writers and of a completely different mould – were drawn into their circle.

One of them, Lőrinc Orczy (1718-89), a retired cavalry general, was a főrangú poet who wrote for his own amusement until drawn into Bessenyei’s circle. Although his readings included authors of the Enlightenment, he did not share Bessenyei’s enthusiasm for progress, for he was a lover of the traditional way of life, praising the simple, rustic life of the country squires. It was his staunch opposition to German intellectual trends and his appreciation of specifically Hungarian values that gave him the impetus to write. His natural liking for rural tranquillity, flavoured with Rousseauesque yearnings (‘back to nature’) riveted his attention on the life of the peasants. His colourful description of the csárda of Bugac (‘In Praise of the Csárda of Bugac’) is typical of his poetry and its background. The csárda, a lonely inn in the middle of nowhere, not particularly comfortable, the meeting-place of outlaws and peasants, a refuge of tired travellers, stands for a peaceful, secluded world, where the bread tastes good, the wine is enjoyable, and the night is restful. It has more appeal to Orczy than the ‘modern’ hotels of Pest. His work praises the simple way of life and its values long before ‘ecology’ or ‘organic’ food were invented.

On account of his views Orczy has often been labelled a poet of the ‘traditionalist trend’ (magyaros iskola). It was, however, József Gvadányi (1725-1801), another aristocrat and general who happened to be of Italian extraction, who epitomized this trend. He was against all innovations and reforms, including Bessenyei’s literary ideas and the reforms of Joseph II who succeeded Maria Theresa. Joseph II, an enlightened despot, had a great vision of thoroughly reforming the administration and the economic and social life of his empire. His efforts were fiercely opposed by the Hungarian nobility. Gvadányi’s poetry, written in the traditional narrative form, the alexandrine (he considered Gyöngyösi his master), included humorous and often satirical poems. His main message – that the country was going to the dogs because of the alien customs acquired lately by the nobility – was received with enthusiasm by that very same nobility. He succeeded in creating lively characters (e.g. Pá1 Rontó).

The best of his very popular narrative poems is A Village Notary’s Journey to Buda (Pozsony, 1790). The notary sets out from his village to study the new law at Pest. Gvadányi makes his hero the victim of amusing misadventures on his long journey, and at the same time introduces the reader to local colour; the notary is rescued from his troubles by ‘genuinely typical’ provincial characters e.g. a gulyás (cowboy), a juhász (shepherd), or a csikós, (horseherd), who personify for Gvadányi ‘Hungarianness’ at its purest. At the same time Gvadányi is delighted to take any opportunity to describe the eating habits of the notary with gusto and realism.’ While in the first, shorter part of the poem the notary is depicted as a faintly ridiculous figure, the second part, describing his stay at Pest, shows a change in the author’s intentions; now the notary goes over to the offensive, finding the fashionable dandies and ladies of Pest ridiculous; their fancy dresses are described with deadly satire.

Besides being delightful reading, the work was important in that it illustrated what Gvadányi and his contemporaries understood by the peculiarities that characterized the Hungarians. ‘Hungarianness’ at this stage was the glorification of certain features which were thought to be the essence of the ‘Hungarian way of life’: good food was what ‘the people’ ate, proper dress was the traditional garments of the nobility. True Hungarians rejected everything that came from abroad. It was a salient feature of the emerging nationalism, yet it was not political opposition to foreign influences – political nationalism came a good many years later.

The other major writer who was a self-professed guardian of Hungarian values also came from an immigrant family. The ancestors of András Dugonics (1740-1818) were Dalmatian merchants who settled in Szeged. Dugonics joined the Piarist Order and became a professor of mathematics. He was a prolific writer and the author of the first best-seller in Hungary: Etelka (Pozsony, 1788). Nothing he wrote ever surpassed the success of Etelka, a pseudo-historical romance of loose construction and of partial originality only. The tremendous success of the novel was due to the subject-matter; Etelka takes place at the time of the Conquest of Hungary. Dugonics made use of the contemporary publication of the chronicle of Anonymus and the then hotly-debated Finno-Ugrian origin of the Hungarians. The novel also attempted to criticize the enlightened despotism of Joseph II, and the exotic tale satisfied a deep-seated craving in his readers for a ‘glorious past’, hence its tremendous success.

Alongside an increasing attention to the language, and a sense of excitement about the ‘true’ Hungarian dress, dwelling on the heroic past became the third and most important facet of the emerging national consciousness. The heroic past became all-important with the rise of the Romantic movement in Hungary, and as a source of escapism it was to remain a permanent feature of Hungarian literature until the twentieth century. Etelka is hardly readable today, because of its author’s indiscriminate use of dialect-words and generous seasoning with proverbs and popular sayings. Dugonics’s use of fanciful language was deliberate; he believed his experiments would create a splendid literary language eagerly awaited by writers and public alike. His efforts as a novelist of the népies style are of little interest today; but the wealth of ethnographical information, obscure dialect-words, and idioms amassed in his books, are nevertheless, of considerable value for scholars. The same fate befell Ádám Pálóczi Horváth (1760-1820), whose versatile activity included the writing of epics and the first book in Hungarian on psychology, and who is remembered today mainly on account of his folk-song collection, containing numerous authentic pieces.

While the writers of the magyaros trend were busy preserving the traditions of the nation, others felt the heavy burden of traditional Hungarian prosody, which more often than not included only the Hungarian type of alexandrine with its monotonous rhyme-scheme, either AAAA or ABAB. The intricacies of classical prosody were successfully explored in the sixteenth century by János Sylvester, but because of the lack of irodalmi tudat in that and subsequent ages, they were equally successfully forgotten. The first modern poet to experiment with the introduction of classical prosody was Gedeon Ráday (1713-92) in the 1730s. His diligence was remarkable for an aristocratic dilettante. He directed his contemporaries’ attention once more to the possibilities of classical versification. Next, three country priests, working independently of one another, began to experiment with the classical metres. Called now ‘the classicist triad’, they were middle-of-the-road writers: they sided with the traditionalists in opposing foreign (i.e. German) influences (their effort to introduce classical metres sprang from a love of Greek and Roman authors, and a desire to surpass the German translations of the classics); on the other hand, their reverence for scholarship and cultural progress made them followers of Bessenyei.

József Rájnis (1741-1812), a Jesuit, was an enthusiastic translator of the classics, particularly of Virgil. His original poetry reflected his religious feelings and a sense of patriotic duty, the latter finding expression in his praise of the Hungarian language and way of life. The most talented member of the classicist triad was Dávid Baróti Szabó (1739-1819). A Székely by origin and a schoolmaster by profession, Baróti Szabó took part in editing the earliest literary periodical, Magyar Museum, with Kazinczy and Batsányi. The subject-matter of his poetry had much in common with the themes of Rájnis – in other words, the triad’s poetry subsisted on the same ideas that were cherished by the traditionalists. It was due to Szabó’s poetic craftsmanship that the first excellent specimens of classical metres were written in Hungarian. (e.g. ‘Ode to a Fallen Walnut-Tree’). The third member of the classicist triad, Miklós Révai (1750-1807), was a scholar rather than a poet. His restless intellect found satisfaction in research; he was the first linguist to apply the historical principle to grammar, and one of the first scholars to investigate the possibilities of comparative linguistics. As a professor of Hungarian language and literature at the University of Pest he wrote a handbook of stylistics (Good Hungarian Style, 1805) which remained in manuscript. His poetry is characterized by a refined style and a relatively narrow sphere of interest, limited to patriotic themes.

The poetic achievement of the classicist triad paved the way for the extensive use of classical metres which enlarged the scope of Hungarian poetry. It was a near-contemporary poet, Benedek Virág (1754-1830), who first profited by the classical experiment. Of peasant stock, and a former Pauline monk, Virág made ample use of the classical forms in his poetry. He successfully overcame the monotony of patriotic themes, almost obligatory with his contemporaries, and somewhat boring for modern readers. He was a lifelong devotee of Horace, all of whose poetry he translated into Hungarian. In his own poetry he successfully united the Horatian view of life with the ideals of the Hungarian nobility. In his old age – respected as a ‘holy old man’ – Virág lived in almost Diogenes-like poverty in Buda. He rejected the new trend of Romanticism and upheld the traditional values, and the middle-class virtue of hard work. Writers from Pest and the provinces often paid visits to the ‘holy old man’ to listen to his ideas and to admire his serenity. His circle of admirers became the nucleus of Pest literary life, which eventually became the centre of Hungarian literature.

The third major literary movement in Hungary in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, less significant than the other two trends, was Sentimentalism. It was a distinct revolt against the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment upheld by Bessenyei. Writers of the Sentimentalist trend – previously called the German School (németes iskola) by scholarship – were fascinated by the emotions, the inner life of the individual, unlike the traditionalists, who were eager to perpetuate the national consciousness in their poetry. The external paraphernalia of Sentimentalism in Hungary were more or less the same as anywhere else in Europe: poets contemplating the futility of life by pale moonlight, a preoccupation with the ephemeral nature of life, the cult of graveyards, and the undeserved sufferings of separated lovers over whose fate the reader was supposed to shed gratifying tears. The majority of Hungarian Sentimentalist writers were of humble origin, coming from peasant families, while the guardians of the traditions usually belonged to the nobles, who set their way of life as an example to be followed by the entire nation, so equating the nobility with the nation.

There were, however, no accentuated class differences in the works of writers belonging to different trends. In any case, some writers underwent considerable changes in the course of their career. A case history of the changes produced by several consecutive influences is furnished by the poetry of Pál Ányos (1756-84). This Pauline monk who came from a noble family, first joined the circle of the testőr writers out of sympathy with their ideas. His vocation and a secret, unfulfilled love clashed, and he experienced a sense of alienation, futility, and meaninglessness. In addition, the deterioration of his health contributed to his depression and he died at the age of twenty-eight. Not all his poetic works survived. His poetry reflected overreaction to his emotional problems, at first in the more common terms of Sentimentalism; later it revealed more of his personal experiences, seasoned with overtones of the rovings of his fancy and a restless desire to revolt (e.g. ‘On a Sleepless Burdensome Night’, ‘The Complaints of an Unhappy Youth beneath the Pale Moon’). Ányos, like his traditionalist contemporaries, eventually discovered Gyöngyösi for himself, and paid tribute to the cult of patriotism in some of his poetic epistles. An unusually radical political view characterized the poem ‘The Hatted King’,*i.e. kalapos király. Joseph II was never crowned King of Hungary, he wanted to postpone the responsibilities of a crowned king by renouncing this symbolic act, hence the adjective: kalapos. in which he declared Joseph II to be a merciless despot. In his last years his loneliness drove him back to religion, where he found both inspiration for his work and a last refuge.

It is not without irony that the biographies of the Sentimentalist writers live up to expectation; their lives were short, full of wounds self-inflicted, yet not without their external causes. Suffering and self-torture are the key words to the understanding of their works. The life and poetry of Gábor Dayka (1769-96), not unlike Ányos’s, seem to be an appropriate illustration of the interaction of life and literature. Dayka, the son of an untitled family, had the chance of a better life and higher education only if he chose the one profession open for commoners to avoid social discrimination incurred by low birth, the church. Dayka had a particularly rough time; hardship characterized his childhood, trials his adult life. His enlightened views on religious tolerance invited the wrath of his superiors in the Church. Thoroughly disappointed, he left his chosen vocation to become a schoolteacher. His marriage proved to be a failure and he died at the age of twenty-eight, poverty-stricken, of an incurable disease. His poetry is not devoid of classical reminiscences, yet his best poems always radiate a mellow, elegiac atmosphere enhanced by carefully chosen imagery and meticulous execution; Dayka is a master of restraint. The reader is both puzzled and fascinated by the gloomy moods, blurred images, and esoteric sorrow of his succinct lines. The fascination is largely due to the impenetrable envelopment of his inner self: no one has access to the core of his ‘Secret Sorrow’:

I fain would weep, yet can find no tears –
Nought but the broken sigh and stifled groan:
These are the tenants of my heart alone,
And their deep underminings steal my years.*Translated by J. Bowring.

Dayka’s poetry was very highly appreciated by the literary ‘dictator’ of the early nineteenth century, Kazinczy; ever since, he has been grossly underestimated and largely neglected, due, very probably, to his lack of social conscience.

There was one significant prose-writer in the late eighteenth century whose main work, The Memoirs of Fanny (1794), bears definite marks of Sentimentalism. This writer, József Kármán (1769-95), made only a very brief appearance on the literary scene. After studying law at the university of Pest, he spent some time in Vienna. In the glittering Imperial capital the young man had a truly sentimental romance; his love for an older, married woman was a source of disappointment. Back in Pest he was received in the best circles, he frequented the salons of wealthy patrons of the arts, the drawing-rooms of the aristocrats, and Masonic lodges. Some influential friends supported his ambitious plan for establishing a literary quarterly. This periodical, Uránia, was of high quality. Kármán aimed at female readers, for he was convinced that the ‘gentler’ sex was instinctively more sensitive to the arts. He wrote most of the articles himself; occasional contributors included the poet Csokonai. Kármán revealed brilliant intellectual gifts; he proved to be an accomplished essayist and a sensitive writer of fiction. In one of his essays, The Adornment of the Nation (1794), he outlined a bold cultural programme. If Hungarian literature was to assert itself, Kármán argued, it needed more original works – a bold statement indeed, at a time when most writers made little distinction between translation or adaptation and original works. Bessenyei demanded translations to popularize the literary ideas of the culturally advanced nations, and Kazinczy was preaching the desirability of imitating the German spirit. Kármán demanded critical evaluation, and frank self-examination, for he felt that writers and the nation alike were infected with self-righteousness and conceit to a degree which prevented progress either in literature or in social conditions.

It was in Uránia that Kármán published The Memoirs of Fanny. The touching story of Fanny is related in a selection of entries in her fictitious diary and in letters, addressed to a certain Baroness L. The story of Fanny, a delicate young girl, and the lack of love that surrounds her in the family, culminates in a tragic end when her father, a harsh country squire, discovers her secret longing for a certain young man of not particularly promising future or exceptional social standing. She has met him at a country ball, they have fallen in love, but her father’s apprehensiveness and her stepmother’s nagging drive her to an early death. It is a plain story, Kármán’s creative power is manifested in the wealth of psychological detail with which he characterizes his heroine. The psychological insight may or may not have been due to a sublimation of Kármán’s own romance in Vienna; scholars have argued about this for a long time. (The correspondence between Kármán and the Viennese lady has come down to us by a curious chance. It proves only that he was an excellent stylist. ) Kármán is very fond of employing descriptions of nature, but his scenery is always subjective – the beauty or aloofness of nature is always there to contribute a nuance, a shade to the characterization of his heroine. ‘The inhabitant of a narrow, solitary valley, when climbing the peaks surrounding his dwelling-place for the first time, and viewing the open space lying beneath his feet, beholds the region and the objects in the haze of distance only as shadows. An immense and chaotic infinity is opened up for him; he looks, he sees, but is unable to perceivethat is how I feel now’, writes the bewildered Fanny when she discovers her feelings.

Goethe’s Werther has often been suggested as Kármán’s source of inspiration, but apart from the obvious similarity of the theme (unhappy love) there is very little to be said for the parallel. Kármán’s work possesses the hallmark of genuine experience, the originality of the psychological and social background validated by the local colour of Hungarian country life. His style is modern; it is hardly possible to consider him a contemporary of Dugonics, for example. The overflowing sentiments are restrained by the strict economy of his style; he often achieves effects with carefully chosen adjectives. The greatest merit of his style is the scarcity of obsolete words, even though his short literary career took place before nyelvújítás (language reform).

Uránia proved a short-lived periodical; only three numbers were ever published. In the summer of 1795 Kármán went to a small town to attend the funeral of his father, and nobody ever heard of him again; he was forgotten by his contemporaries. When Toldy published Kármán’s works about fifty years later no conclusive evidence could be found about the way he had died. Family rumour professed to know that he had been in some way involved in the Martinovics conspiracy that had aimed at overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a republic in Hungary.

Ignác Martinovics, the controversial leader of the conspiracy, was a restless but brilliant intellect. An unfrocked monk, a philosopher, and a free-mason by turns, perhaps a former agent provocateur of the Austrian secret police, Martinovics organized the discontented radical intelligentsia, including many writers, into a secret society fashioned after the radical ideas of the French Jacobins. The Austrian police uncovered the plot in the summer of 1794 and the ensuing trials sent the leaders of the movement to the scaffold in the summer of 1795; many writers, lawyers, and other learned conspirators perished in Austrian prisons. The secrecy of the trials and the harshness of the sentences (Kazinczy, for example was sentenced to death for copying one of the pamphlets of the movement, although his death sentence was commuted to imprisonment at the King’s pleasure) and the ensuing political terror and persecution gave more than a sufficient taste of the professional hazards awaiting Hungarian intellectuals in modern times. The republican movement was an isolated incident – the conspirators received support neither from the nobility nor from the peasantry. Its consequences can be gauged mainly by its impact on the literary scene.

Among the imprisoned poets was János Batsányi (1763-1845), arrested on grounds of suspicion only. Nothing was ever proved against him, yet he spent one year in the fortress of Kufstein. The son of an artisan who claimed to be of noble origin, Batsányi represented a new poetic attitude, that of a seer prophesying radical changes in the country. He expected the revolutionary transformation of the social and political structure of Hungary in consequence of the fertilizing impact of the ideas of the French Revolution:

Nations still trapped within the snare of servitude!
Peoples who groan in pain, by iron bonds subdued,
Who have not shaken off the collar of the slave,
The yoke that drags you down into a wretched grave!
You also, sacred kings who, consecrated kill
– Since earth cries out for blood – the subjects of your will
To Paris turn your eyes, let France elucidate,
For king and shackled slave, a future and a fate!*Translated by Matthew Mead.

This poem, entitled ‘On the Changes in France’, voiced a revolutionary conviction new in Hungarian poetry. It is this relentless voice demanding social change that characterizes Batsányi’s poetry in the first period of his career. In another poem, entitled ‘The Seer’, Batsányi envisages social justice ruling in the world, based on rationalism:

Let us endow schools of morality
For studious nations, where philosophy
Shall teach no harm or falsehood to slip past us,
Justice and liberty our only masters.*Translated by John Fuller.

His anti-royalist sentiments, expressed in no uncertain terms in his poetry, resulted in the loss of his office job as early as 1793. He was one of the co-founders of the periodical Magyar Museum which he edited with Kazinczy and Baróti Szabó. After his release from prison he remained in Vienna, married the celebrated Austrian poetess Gabriella Baumberg, and managed to find a modest position. His poetry, including the powerful Elegies from Kufstein, remained unpublished, and when in 1809 he translated Napoleon’s proclamation to the Hungarians, he had to flee to France. Batsanyi, like most of his East European contemporaries, entertained high hopes for Napoleon’s East European campaign: Napoleon was awaited as the liberator from Habsburg rule.

When the Allies occupied Paris, Batsányi was handed over to the Austrian authorities and was exiled to Linz, where he spent the rest of his life in obscurity until his death in 1845. He lost contact with contemporary literary life, and although a collection of his poetry was published in Pest in 1827, many of his works written in exile are lost or unpublished.

Batsányi’s close friend, suffering in the cell next to his in Kufstein, was neither a revolutionary poet, nor a radical thinker. László Szentjóbi Szabó (1767-95) was sentenced to death for being a member of the secret society of conspirators, but later royal clemency commuted his sentence to indefinite imprisonment. Noble by birth and a teacher by profession, Szentjóbi’s early poetry reveals the influence of Faludi; his idylls show the lightness, but not always the grace, of Rococo. His best poems reflect vividly his childhood memories, an entirely novel subject for Hungarian poetry. He also described the everyday life of peasants with humour often concealing compassion (e. g. ‘The Simpleton’). He published a volume in 1791, but his later works were most probably destroyed by himself before his arrest. He died in prison.

Ferenc Verseghy (1757-1822), who spent almost nine years in prison, was, unlike Batsányi, not a writer of radical revolutionary thoughts. His most radical act was the translation of the Marseillaise, the popular song of the French Revolution, yet he was sentenced to death in the first, overzealous moments of the Jacobin trials. Of humble origin, he chose, like many of his contemporaries, the only opportunity for higher education – he became a Pauline monk. His poetry revealed the influence of Faludi, his attitude as a priest showed him to be a passionate believer in the ideas of the Enlightenment. In prison, he worked with undaunted spirit; his main inspiration came from Sterne and Herder. After his return to the literary scene he became involved in the fierce controversies around the spelling reform, a cardinal issue of the renewal of the language. A prolific writer, besides writing poetry he tried his hand at writing novels and aesthetic studies.

It is certain that the Martinovics conspiracy changed the prospect of many Hungarian writers; careers were cut short or ended in futile exile. Among the survivors, only Ferenc Kazinczy emerged from prison with undiminished energy to become the sole arbiter of literary taste in the first decades of the nineteenth century.