The Hungarian Romantics: the Aurora Circle


IN 1821 a literary annual was published under the title of Aurora. The publication of the annual did indeed indicate the dawn of a new era; Pest became the centre of literary life once and for all. The new generation represented a new breed, that of the professional intellectuals, lacking the traditional outlook of earlier Hungarian writers who had been shaped by their background only, although most of those who unfurled the colours in Aurora came from the nobility, and revolted against or rather disregarded the authority of Kazinczy. The degree of transformation is made clear by the first glance at the pages of Aurora; the handsome volume with engravings depicting elegant ladies accompanied by young dandies was more sophisticated than anything produced before in Hungary. Its contributors, from the third issue onwards, were newcomers to the literary scene; their writings revealed an effort to present original belles lettres, signalling a theoretical disagreement with the ageing dictator who preached diligent imitation. The manner of the young authors was also controversial; they acknowledged politely the advice of Kazinczy and then completely disregarded it. They had little reverence for the older generation; articles submitted by well-established writers were often considered boring and old-fashioned. Kazinczy was defeated by his own weapons; the Aurora writers’ connections with contemporary European trends were more solid than those of the dictator, and were based on personal experience. Kazinczy rarely advanced beyond Vienna, either in the literal or in the figurative sense of the word; not so the young intellectuals. Toldy, for example, travelled around Europe and visited Goethe, who received him cordially; had a chance of meeting the respected philosopher Hegel; and from London could claim in his letters home that at a literary soirée his English hosts had proposed a toast in honour of his master, the founder of Aurora, Károly Kisfaludy. For a moment it seemed that the sense of isolation experienced by the Hungarian intelligentsia had been overcome and the brotherhood established of all those engaged in literary pursuits.

The echo from abroad, however faint it may have been, seemed to reward their efforts, they felt that Hungarian literature was no longer locked up in the language; but that Hungarian writers could now address not only their compatriots, but other Europeans as well. This feeling was strengthened by an ambitious anthology of Hungarian poetry published in German translation and prepared by Ferenc Toldy (Handbuch der ungrischen Poesie, 2 vols., Pest, 1828) and by a subsequent collection translated and edited by a versatile English literary gentleman, John Bowring (Poetry of the Magyars, 1830). The publication of the English anthology took place at a particularly felicitous moment; in England, under the spell of Romanticism, faraway and exotic tales and the simple charm of folk-songs were much in demand, therefore Bowring’s anthology suited the prevailing mood and was enthusiastically received by critics and public alike. In Hungary poets were flattered – they had been published in the language of Shakespeare.

The founder of the annual Aurora, and the oldest of the new authors, was Sándor Kisfaludy’s younger brother Károly (1788-1830). The literary success of his brother made a lasting impression on Károly, who became a celebrated playwright following the success of his first play, The Tartars in Hungary (1809, premiére 1819). Károly Kisfaludy was a bohemian, light-hearted and witty. His early years were spent in aimless roaming – a failure at school, in turn a reckless officer in the army, a vagabond in Italy, and an unsuccessful painter, he eventually tried his hand at writing dramas, relieving the boredom of garrison life in Southern Hungary.

As a play, The Tartars in Hungary, although it was also acclaimed when performed in Vienna, is excessively Romantic and melodramatic for the taste of the modern reader or theatre-goer. The plot revolves around the loftiest principles – patriotism, self-sacrifice, and magnanimity. All the fashionable paraphernalia of Romantic plays are skilfully incorporated, including a blood-curdling scene in the obligatory cave. Its historical significance, and that of his other plays (Ilka, the Captive Maiden, 1819; Voivode Stibor, 1819; Irene, 1820), lies in its subject-matter which clearly showed that Hungarian theatre-goers demanded patriotic themes. (All his plays were bursting with patriotism, inevitably set in a historical setting.) Before the début of Kisfaludy the Hungarian public had been entertained mainly by German melodramas; when this déclassé nobleman provided them with bold Hungarian knights and self-sacrificing maidens, speaking in perfect iambics, instead of German Ritters, the public went wild with enthusiasm. Popularity did not corrupt Kisfaludy; the comedies he wrote after his initial success do not lack social criticism (e.g. The Suitors, 1817, premiére: 1819). Plots revolve around well-utilized comic situations and impersonations; representatives of the younger generation, all progress-loving educated liberals, are confronted with the older, less sophisticated traditional characters. Some of the character-sketches in his comedies are well observed and show his undoubted talent for the theatre.

Within two years (1819-21) Kisfaludy rose from obscurity to fame; he became the editor of Aurora and the most celebrated author of his day. When editing the annual, his attention turned to new forms, the short story and poetry. His stories, apart from his early love for Romantic excesses in historical guise, revolve mostly around jealousy. The best stories, however, are those with satirical elements. Simon Sulyosdi, a short character-sketch, is perhaps the prototype of the inactive, indifferent, and indolent East European nobleman (immortalized later in Goncharov’s Oblomov) who is unwilling and unable to care about his affairs or his fellow-men. (The various subjects learnt at school by Simon were successfully forgotten; if he had money he spent it, if he did not, he could not care less. His only achievement in life was that as he did nothing, he harmed no one.)

Kisfaludy also wrote lyric poetry, using classic forms with ease. His poem commemorating the battle of Mohács (‘Mohács’, 1824), written in elegiac couplets, was a characteristic product of the Hungarian Romantic movement without those excesses which marred his plays. The construction of the poem is rhapsodic; idyllic and elegiac parts are blended, yet its passionate tone grows in intensity as Kisfaludy employs powerful language to conjure up heroic images; and he ends the poem on an optimistic note – the past should serve as a lesson for. the future. Kisfaludy also experimented with folk-song imitations and ballads, using simple language and carefully avoiding newly-coined words and Romantic images.

In his last years he wrote more comedies. Of these Disappointments (1826) is enjoyable to modern readers, thanks to the lively dialogue, skilful use of humorous situations, and well-drawn characters (e.g. Mokány – a robust country squire, half-educated, but a sincere and warm person whose outspoken comments dissolve many complicated misunderstandings caused by other characters).

Kisfaludy was only a figurehead of the Aurora Circle; unlike Kazinczy, he required no theoretical conformity from his fellow-writers. His work as editor of the annual was continued by József Bajza. After Kisfaludy’s death friends and admirers founded a literary society to commemorate his activity.*The Kisfaludy Society (1836-1952) became a leading organ of Hungarian literati for over a century. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, it was gradually transformed into an ageing body of respectable academic conservatism. The new editor of Aurora, József Bajza (1804-58), was himself a discovery of the less autocratic literary dictator, Kisfaludy. As a poet Bajza lacked originality and poetic genius, and the bulk of his poetry reflects his deftness at imitating the German Sentimentalist trend. His metres, however, were varied and precise. He employed the classical elegiacs and alcaics with ease, and was equally at home with trochaic and iambic lines. The subjects of his poems frequently were the usual topics of the Sentimental era – the moon, the sea, romantically dark forests, or storms. No doubt his natural inclination towards melancholy played an important part in his choice of subjects. True Romantic inspiration came from outside events, all of them firing his love for his country and his concern for her future.

It was not, however, the poet in Bajza who played a significant role in the newly-created literary life of Pest, but his critical acumen. Bajza may have been a dreamy poet, but he was a relentless warrior as a critic. When he began to write criticism, not much had been achieved, apart from Kölcsey’s attempts, although it was criticism that gave the final mould to irodalmi tudat; writers need not only the admiration of their readers, but also criticism by their fellow-writers in the form of both encouragement and admonition; also the detailed critical remarks help them to see their image as reflected in their contemporaries’ evaluation. Bajza seemed to possess what makes a good critic; he was observant, and took pains to school himself in the theoretical writings of the German aestheticians. His detached critical judgements were appreciated by the Aurora Circle. It was in shaping literary policies that Bajza showed his full armour, and was able to drive home a number of basic concepts about literature. In the so-called Conversations-Lexicon dispute (the original issue was about possible contributors to an encyclopedia), Bajza successfully upheld the principle that the realm of literature is a republic, where the religion, social position, or rank and age of the participants should give them no advantage. It was a revolutionary idea proposing full rights for the talented, and the talented only. It was revolutionary, since the newly-born Hungarian literary life reflected the class structure of society, and authority was derived from age and standing.

His other, equally successful campaign led to the clarification of the vexed question of authors’ rights. This was the by-product of his dispute with the printing firm which published Aurora and which, when Bajza withdrew his commission, produced a rival Aurora with a different editor in 1834. Establishing the rights of authors was again a cardinal issue, since authors translated and adapted works rather freely and consequently plagiarism was not frowned upon. As the growing demand for original works made writers aware of the significance of the protection of their intellectual products, Bajza’s campaign was welcome.

Aurora ceased publication in 1837; the Viennese authorities had always considered its increasingly liberal tendency dangerous, and although it had never been suspended, the harassment of censorship definitely contributed to numbering its days. Its successor, Athenaeum, edited by Bajza and Vörösmarty, appeared twice weekly and provided a forum for the Aurora group. Athenaeum paved the way for political journalism, the public was given the opportunity to become accustomed to violent clashes of different views on both literary and public matters. It became a tradition in Hungarian literature that literature and public issues were inextricably entangled, and self-respecting writers have usually served public causes with their pens ever since.

When Athenaeum ceased publication in 1843 Bajza’s critical activity also came to an end; he occupied himself with historical studies, journalism, and managing the National Theatre. After the political struggles of the 1840s, the failure of the War of Independence in 1849 left Bajza broken in body and mind, and his death seven years later came as a relief.

Bajza’s friend and brother-in-arms, who earned the respect of posterity as the ‘father of the historians of Hungarian literature’, Ferenc Toldy (1805-75), was a good example of the assimilating power of the Age of Reform. Coming from a family of middle-class Germans living in Pest, and trained as a physician, Toldy’s enthusiasm for literature made him an ardent propagator of Hungarian letters. With Bajza he was the chief critic in the Aurora Circle; he was the first to analyse Vörösmarty’s epic poetry, and his sound scholarship, trained mainly on Romantic critics, laid the foundation of our notion of the salient features of Hungarian literature. From 1861 he held the chair of Hungarian literature at Budapest University. His various histories of Hungarian literature can still be used with profit because his approach, his analytic mind, and his sound knowledge of related subjects (philosophy, aesthetics, linguistics, and history) produced not only a wealth of detail but a systematic and well-delineated framework for them.