Ferenc Kölcsey

The only major poet to emerge within Kazinczy’s circle was Ferenc Kölcsey, born on 8 August 1790 at Sződemeter. It took time and effort for Kölcsey to channel his emotional tension into deeply felt poetry on patriotic themes, and he is chiefly remembered today as the author of the Hungarian national anthem (‘Hymn’, 1823). There was a great demand for verses written on these themes, and whereas for less talented writers they were merely obligatory exercises, for Kölcsey patriotic emotions became a way of life.

Having lost his parents at an early age, and handicapped by the loss of one eye, he completed his schooling in Debrecen in solitude and was known as a retiring youth with an intense, almost pathological, love of books. His imagination was fired by the classics, particularly by the Greek poets and the German classicists. He became known to Kazinczy’s triad and to Berzsenyi when he went to Pest to the law school in 1810, the traditional conclusion of education for the son of a country squire.

His early lyrics were noteworthy for his individual use of words: when he chose a word, it was less on account of its precise meaning, but rather for its power to suggest blurred images and evoke an atmosphere. Kölcsey was fond of expressing abstract notions of beauty, ornamented by colourful adjectives, and thus creating a sense of ethereal vibration. The tone of his early poems is sentimental and self-torturing. Kazinczy appreciated his poetry, as it met with his own ideal which had also been formed under the influence of the Greek and German classicist models.

Kölcsey’s inborn pessimism was aggravated by his solitude in the countryside. He lived in complete isolation on his family estates at Cseke with only books for company, reading and writing very often until the small hours. It is a fascinating picture that the pale, eccentric, ethereal youth might have presented to the occasional intellectual visitor, in contrast to his neighbours who were wealthy, red-cheeked country squires with a robust sense of humour and a grand appetite for enjoying life, types similar to the rowdy characters of Fielding’s novels. His early love lyrics reflect his solitude only too well – they are full of images of unfulfilled dreams, yearnings, and repression, and a general desire to escape from his surroundings. He seriously contemplated emigrating to America. On one occasion he wrote to a friend:

The country, where I live, is hidden from the human eye, the scenery is beautiful, yet singularly lonely. In one direction I am surrounded by large forests; in another direction there is an opening and the horizon is limited only by the snowy caps of the Máramaros Mountains. Is it not a poetic spot, my friend? The trouble is, however, that I lack company, and I am not content with lifeless beauty.

He frequently planned to move to Pest, but his plans came to nothing, except for the occasional visit to see his friends, first of all Szemere. In 1817 he wrote his first patriotic ode (‘Rákóczi, hajh’) in which he reproaches public opinion for its apparent lack of respect for the historical past, particularly for the memory of national tragedies, such as the disaster at Mohács, or the ill-fated uprisings against Habsburg rule. The poem’s rhyming iambics, heroic diction, increasing intensity of emotions, and sharp contrasts, and the noble vision in its conclusion point towards Kölcsey’s break with the classicist tradition and to the impact of the Romantic mood. His prose, particularly his philosophical and aesthetic writings, also revealed his contacts with Romantic ideas. History and human culture were for him the result of organic evolution, the prospects for progress seemed gloomy, and he had his doubts about the cherished ideas of the French Revolution. At the same time, Kölcsey revised his own views about the language reform, and became opposed to its being forced through at an unreasonable pace. In literature he protested against imitation, adaptation, and translation, and demanded original works. These views unintentionally estranged him from Kazinczy.

When looking for new ideals to achieve originality in poetry he turned to folk-poetry: ‘If my gloomy moods permit’, he wrote in 1818, ‘I experiment with the tone of the peasant-songs. I have never had a more difficult subject. To transfer the embittered spirit from the solemn tone of sentimental lyrics to the capriciously playful, yet warm and noble tone [of the folk-song] was a trying effort.’ This devotion to folk-poetry arose from his patriotic sentiments, and from the Romantic preoccupation with ‘the songs of the people’. A shift of interest and tone revealed itself not only in his lyrics but also in his ballads, an entirely new poetic form for Kölcsey (e.g. in the lively dialogue and lyric manner of ‘Lovely Lenka’, the anguish of a girl seeking her lover in the stormy waters, while he is waiting for her ashore). His ballads show his concern with historic topics (e.g. ‘Dobozi’), a distinct feature of the Hungarian Romantic movement.

In the early 1820s his poetry became increasingly concerned with patriotic themes, because of his own disposition, and his growing involvement in contemporary politics, which eventually led him to prominence in public life. The most representative piece of his poetry, epitomizing his views on Hungarian history, was the ‘Hymn’ (1823), evoking the glory of the early centuries – the Conquest and the reign of King Matthias – while presenting a morbid catalogue of national tragedies from the Tartar invasion and the Turkish occupation to anti-Habsburg rebellions which had been violently suppressed. Kölcsey’s biblical manner recalled the tone of the sixteenthcentury preacher-writers. At the conclusion of the poem he pleads with God for mercy, saying that the severe punishment received in past centuries should have served as a just atonement for the sins of both past and future. On the publication of the poem in Aurora (1829) Kölcsey’s pessimistic view of history and his solemn manner of delivery made an indelible effect on the nation, – and when it was set to music by Erkel (1844) it became the national anthem, surviving all political creeds ever since. Kölcsey’s interpretation of the past, although it was hurtful to the nation’s pride, coming as it did at a time when hitherto unsuspected strengths and energies were surging to the surface during the Age of Reform, nevertheless expressed a philosophy that was more suitable for a small nation – namely, that of an unfaltering hope in a better future, since if hope were given up no alternative would be left. Another motif in the reasoning of the poet (the idea that if the nation had already been punished for its crimes and sins, it deserved a fairer share of happiness) had a part in the formation of a political concept at the time of the Settlement of 1867. This was essentially a moral reaction to any real or imagined political grievance (sérelmi politika).*a policy based on grievances: gravaminal policy. It might strike the outsider as a singularly inefficient political concept, yet sérelmi politika was, and to a certain extent still is, the basic moral justification for any political aspiration of the average Hungarian.

Kölcsey’s other politically loaded poems written in these years include ‘Ode to Freedom’, where the genius of freedom is represented allegorically, as a glorious lady, and the poet awaits her arrival with a yearning befitting a love-stricken man, and with typical Romantic imagery, her speech is described as ‘a sparkling whirlwind’ and her ‘green ivy chaplet is bathed in blood’. He calls down curses on the head of the cowards whose fate is to be subjugation. The same motif returns in ‘Rebellious Song’. It is easy to see the moral lesson of the cursing: the sacrifice of the glorious ancestors was in vain, if the degenerate descendants are prevented by their own cowardice from gaining their freedom. It is an ever-recurring feature in Hungarian Romantic literature; Romantic literature all over Europe was heavily imbued with enthusiasm for freedom, but it was particularly topical in Hungary where the notion of freedom, or rather the lack of freedom in national and public life, was the touchstone of any national aspiration; hence the pressing urgency of the message of poets who deputized for political forces in the struggle for social transformation. Lord Byron’s fight for Greek freedom was the fulfilment of a distant, Romantic dream, whilst the Hungarian Romantics fought for a political cause directly related to them.

Kölcsey’s inborn disposition towards pessimism is to be found in all aspects of his writings: it is most strongly present in ‘Vanitatum Vanitas’, a poem devoted to the intrinsic value of mankind’s progress. Kölcsey broods over the specific human values produced in the course of centuries, and comes to the conclusion that our earth is an ant-hill, the events of history pass as a sigh, the greatest of battles is no more than a cock-fight, faith and hope are mere illusions, immortality evaporates like the scent of a flower. His nihilistic utterances spare neither ideals, nor events, nor personalities, yet they are not the manifestation of despair, but the sudden realization of the disparity of proportions between human affairs and the immenseness of the universe – an idea befitting the existentialist thinker rather than the Romantic poet. His conclusion deserves particular attention: ‘Nothing is good, nothing is bad / but everything is futile.’ (This abrupt rejection of moral values found an echo in Madách’s Tragedy of Man half a century later. The effectiveness of the poem derives from a tension between the message and the state of mind of its author; the self-enforced sarcasm and aloofness are contradicted by the muted pain, by an effort to repress an intense passion, the very source of inspiration.

In 1826 he again visited Pest, where he re-established his connections with his friends, and met personally the celebrated poet of the younger generation, Vörösmarty, and writers of the Aurora Circle. The collaboration of these writers produced a critical review, Life and Literature, which provided an outlet for Kölcsey’s critical acumen and in which he published essays on diverse subjects. Kölcsey may be regarded as the founder of serious criticism in Hungary. So far critics had been content to praise the patriotic spirit of their fellow-writers. Kölcsey set a high standard; praiseworthy intentions did not satisfy him. His critical remarks about Csokonai, the idol of his youth, and about Berzsenyi contained many valid points, and with the exception of his ill-founded enthusiasm for Kis, they have withstood the judgement of posterity as respectable pieces of criticism. His contemporaries, however, were outraged at the severity of his tone. Berzsenyi was gravely offended, and the only effect of Kölcsey’s criticism was to discourage him from writing.

In historical essays like Mohács (1826) and National Traditions (1826) Kölcsey summarized the reasons why he attached importance to preserving the national heritage.

Every stone erected to commemorate the deeds of our forefathers, every bush planted at the grave of the illustrious dead, every song sung about former heroes, every investigation devoted to the study of former centuries, each of these is one step by which our present generation mounts higher. National character can be preserved only by bestowing care on monuments of the past, or where lack of these monuments prevents their care, it is the poet’s duty to erect poetic monuments to the past deeds of the nation.

The link established by Kölcsey between the national past and the duty of the poets is a prominent feature of the Romantic age and at the same time, it is a definition of the task of writers in Hungary. It provided an additional reason for the cultivation of didactic literature, and rejected literature’s function as a medium of entertainment, of aesthetic experience or of experiment; the existence of non-committed literature was claimed to be detrimental to the nation’s very existence. The doctrine of literature’s particular function became imprinted, like a genetic message, on the minds of generations of Hungarian writers to come, but at the same time it became the shackles of convention for writers less interested in preserving the national spirit, particularly in the present century. Such justification for the existence of literature is characteristic to a certain extent of all East European, including Russian, literature, and it is one reason why foreigners are frequently unable to enjoy the literary products of those countries.

In the late 1820s Kölcsey became more and more involved in public affairs. First he joined the civil service of his county, and in 1832 he became his county’s delegate to the Parliament of 1832-6 as a Liberal Member. His public life left little time for writing poetry, although some of his most effective poems were produced during these years. ‘Huszt’, a poem of epigrammatic brevity advocating action, expresses the spirit of the times best: its fervent patriotism is the source of a desire for urgent political and social improvements. As a leading spokesman of the opposition, Kölcsey commanded the respect of all parties, not only because of the humanitarian approach of his speeches, or the paramount importance of the subjects he touched upon (e.g. the case for Hungarian as the official language), but because of his ability to present his case with clarity and precision and at the same time with effective emotion, springing from the inner conviction which permeated all his activity in public life.

The county of Szatmár recalled him in 1835; thus he was forced into semi-retirement on his estates at Cseke. This second ‘exile’ was not inactive, for he devoted himself to the same issues of national importance and also found time to write belles-lettres. When Kölcsey tried his hand at writing short stories he displayed a psychological insight into the motives of human action (e.g. Treasure in the Carpathians, The Hunter’s Lodge). He also found time to summarize his political testimony, in a work addressed to his nephew (Parainesis).

Among the poems written in the last period of his life, ‘The Second Song of Zrínyi’ deserves special attention. Kölcsey’s grave concern for his country is the subject of the poem. Whilst the gloomy pictures presented in the earlier ‘Hymn’ were relieved by a firm belief that the course of events would eventually turn in the nation’s favour, this time the conclusion of his tormented imaginings left little doubt that Kölcsey had lost all hope. The conclusion, a foreboding picture of the extinction of the nation (nemzethalál), was again an overtly Romantic vision, an echo of Herder’s prophesy. Together with Vörösmarty’s ‘Appeal’, it made an unparalleled impact on his contemporaries.

One of the mainsprings of the national awakening was to overcome the fear of the total extinction of the Hungarian people as a separate entity in the Carpathian basin, where not a few peoples had disappeared, leaving no record of their existence but their name. The image of the Carpathian basin peopled by other nations, speaking different languages and having different ways of life, evoked considerable terror and self-pity, yet the fear was not entirely without foundation. The Hungarians had existed without independent statehood ever since the Turks had overrun the country in the early sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century they had lost the absolute majority in their own country because of large-scale immigration and the high birth-rate of the other nationalities. If the same demographical trend continued, they might well find themselves in a situation parallel to the various Celtic peoples in Britain or France. The emerging nationalism, however, had averted this danger; Hungarians, whose national interest clashed violently with the growing nationalist aspirations of the Pan-Germanic and Pan-Slav groups, found in this vision of nemzethalál a strong stimulus to their determination to survive.

When Kölcsey died in 1838 the basic issues of achieving a self-reliant, independent statehood were far from being settled. It was his merit that he directed his considerable poetic talent to presenting the perils that threatened the nation in a suitable Romantic dressing for his contemporaries; his was a self-assumed role adopted by many a Hungarian poet with a conscience assuming responsibility for the destinies of his community.