Comet of the Revolution: Petőfi

WHEN a Hungarian is asked who, in his opinion, is the greatest poet his country ever produced, he will most probably cite Sándor Petőfi. Petőfi is known and respected wherever Hungarian is spoken; his name is associated exclusively with poetry, and he enjoys a place like that usually reserved for Shakespeare in English-speaking countries. His appearance on the literary scene was sudden and brief, yet he radically changed the dominant trends and created a new school. No one would write poetry again without feeling his impact. To be sure, his followers, known as petőfieskedők, were often only crude imitators of his style and the external paraphernalia of his poetic attitude, pestering editors and publishers in the second half of the century. Yet his influence did not only affect his contemporaries; it can be felt even today – some modern Hungarian poets have found it difficult to escape. The heritage and message of Petőfi seem to be deeply imprinted on the national ego.

Petőfi created a new world of poetry which bore little resemblance to restrained Classicism or to the often monotonous patriotic elegies of his predecessors, many of whom wrote under the influence of German Classicism and Romanticism. The pre-existing potentialities from which Petőfi’s poetry in all its novelty was born were, on the one hand, the graceful and polished idiom of Vörösmarty, and, on the other, a tendency (present in many European literatures) to bring poetic diction closer to the natural idiom of the spoken language. The Lake Poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey – were the pioneers of this trend; but their objectives were perhaps best attained, curiously enough, by their arch-enemy, Lord Byron, and on the Continent by Heine.

The natural ease of the spoken language appears to have been something Petőfi was born with; he needed no foreign models. Instead, he turned instinctively to folk-songs, a treasure-trove of simple yet effective poetry. In this sense, he continued one of the most significant traditions in Hungarian literature, the népies trend, which had been developing ever since the Baroque poet Faludi experimented with the incorporation of features from folk-songs into his own poetic language. The népies trend reached its natural peak in Petőfi’s poetry, for he was able to raise every subject to the level of poetry as naturally as if poetry were already inherent in the phenomena of the world. Nevertheless, the experiments of his foreign predecessors and contemporaries were known in the Hungary of the 1840s, and Petőfi was conscious of their presence; yet he managed to add novelty to poetic self – expression on a scale that took him beyond the confines of Hungarian poetry. As one of his English critics observed, Petőfi ‘was alternately likened … to Burns, Byron, Heine, Körner, Béranger … though it cannot be said that he entirely resembled any of them. He was like every true genius, thoroughly original …’.

Besides his poetry, his larger-than-life personality also contributed to the making of his image, for he perished amid revolution, fighting for the freedom of his people and for the most cherished ideals of Romantic Europe, a truly romantic death in the context of the revolutions of 1848 when young Europe clashed with the last remnants of the ancien régime. Small wonder that the memory of this twenty-six-year-old youth became built into an image of the poet as the spiritual leader and prophet of his own people, in which part indeed he cast himself. He is a committed writer par excellence of essentially Romantic mould who leads his people like a ‘pillar of fire’ towards a social Canaan, or fights with them on the barricades for freedom and independence. This image of Petőfi is still predominant in Hungary, and the best poets of the country can aspire to nothing higher than to gain a place in the coveted ranks of his successors.

The emergence of the ‘National Poet’ as a basic model of poetic attitude took place around this time in the eastern part of Europe. Besides Petőfi, its chief embodiments are the Russian Pushkin, the Polish Mickiewicz, and to a lesser extent the Ukranian Shevchenko, the Slovak Kollár, and the Bulgarian Vazov, each representing most, if not all, of the facets of the model, which is a distinctly East European phenomenon. Patriotic poetry has existed ever since Tyrtaios; nevertheless, it has seldom happened in Western Europe that the best poets of a nation concerned themselves predominantly with the political and social problems of their community. In Eastern Europe the poet became the mouthpiece of his community, giving moral sustenance and political guidance in verse. Since poems are almost exclusively sustained by inspiration – for speculation and argumentation play a minor part in poetry – the national poet is able to achieve an appeal backed by an emotional tension hardly equalled by other spokesmen of the community. By the overwhelming force of his appeal he not only gains social prestige and importance, but he is automatically acknowledged as the most suitable spokesman of the nation. His counsel and prophecies carry more weight and are more carefully listened to than in societies where national or social problems concerning the majority of the population are present in a less acute form. Since in all East European countries literature has remained a battlefield of opposing ideas concerning vital issues, the poet’s role has been perpetuated in these countries, and his topics have remained valid after the passing of Romanticism, thereby setting the possible course of development of poetic attitudes for a long time to come.

The function of a ‘National Poet’ carries moral standing, so much so that other talented poets who aspire to nothing higher than the expression of their own world and problems are relegated to a second line of significance in domestic histories of literature there. It follows that foreigners who happen to profess an interest in those literatures are not necessarily employing the same terms of reference and/or system of values, and therefore arrive at entirely different conclusions as to the merit or significance of these poets. The result is a vicious circle: foreigners have hardly any access to literature which is relegated to second place in the eyes of the native experts, mostly on account of their inadequate knowledge of the language, nor do they often find the necessary incentive to learn the language, because the literary specimens available to them do not seem to warrant the effort.

Furthermore, the function of a particular poet as a spokesman of his community overshadows most other aspects of his creative activity to such an extent that both native and foreign readers easily bypass a substantial part of his poetic world, losing thereby the possibility of a better understanding of the richness of his human experience which evoked the poetry in the first place, and which is inconspicuous in his poetry. Therefore, a re-examination might often generously reward persistent foreign readers. The poetry of Petőfi could be an object-lesson in exploring other, neglected facets of a ‘national poet’.

Sándor Petőfi was born on 1 January 1823 at Kiskőrös, a small place in the heart of the Hungarian Lowland, of lower middle-class parents and of Slavonic extraction. The young boy felt an inborn irritation at the smallest sign that authority was attempting to subjugate him; he was a born rebel. His school career ended abruptly in 1839, by which time he had attended half a dozen schools in various parts of the country. Then he joined the army and, later, a theatre company. In other words, he was a social misfit, who yet wanted to achieve social respectability by winning fame as an actor or a soldier. He also experimented with writing poetry and, after a few unsuccessful attempts, his first poem ‘The Winebibber’ was accepted for publication by Bajza for Athenaeum in 1842. The poem aroused a certain interest; it was not the first drinking-song in Hungarian, but a certain flippancy, concealing an inner tension, made the tone of the poem quite effective, although Petőfi employed no unusual imagery.

Petőfi’s style, however, matured soon enough and by 1844 he had written enough poems to fill a volume. His life-style hardly changed in these years, which he spent roaming freely round the country and, after spending a severe winter in Debrecen in the direst poverty, in desperation he set out on foot to Pest with his manuscripts, which he intended to show to the foremost poet of the country, Vörösmarty. Vörösmarty was pleasantly surprised by the immediacy of the poems, and on his advice the first volume of Petőfi was published in 1844 with the simple title: Poems – it was simplicity that characterized these early poems. They relate common occurrences in everyday life, the earlier poems being written in the style of folk-songs. Their main characteristics are the effortless rhymes producing a natural effect (e.g. ‘The Hortobágy Innkeeper’s Wife’), and their atmosphere of lighthearted humour (‘I looked into the kitchen, I lit my pipe … that is to say, I should have lit it, had it not been already alight’. Followed by the confession that in fact he looked into the kitchen because he saw a pretty girl there). Another feature of these brief sketches of life is the readiness with which Petőfi is able to identify himself with the characters he portrays. He successfully employs the poetic device which introduces most of the folk-songs, a line describing or observing nature which is entirely unrelated to the subject-matter of the poem (természeti kezdő kép) – e.g. ‘Moonlight bathing in the sea of heaven, /The outlaw muses in the depth of the forest’ – and is linked to the rest of the poem only by the rhyme. The heroes of these unpretentious poems are highwaymen, shepherds, and other country folk who occasionally speak in the broad dialect of the Lowland (e.g. ‘Büngözsdi Bandi’, or ‘A Celebrated Town in the Lowland’).

The early poems reveal his attachment to the landscapes of the countryside; Petőfi had discovered the unique beauty of the Lowland. The scenery is always related to a lyric subjectiveness (‘You are beautiful, Lowland! at least to me you are beautiful. / Here my cradle was rocked, here I was born. / Here may the shroud cover me, here / may the grave rise over me.’ ‘The Lowland’). A strong attachment to his family, too, may be observed in a number of poems: an idyllic description of a visit to his family (‘An Evening at Home’), a letter written to his brother (‘To My Brother István’), the emotional ‘From Afar’ describing his homesickness, or his eager preparation to tell it all to his mother when visiting her (‘A Plan Which Came to Nothing’); the disarming spontaneity of these poems indicates a clean break with conventional poetic attitudes.

In 1844 Petőfi wrote his first longer piece, an epic in four cantos entitled The Hammer of the Village. It was not an epic in the ordinary sense. Ever since Vörösmarty’s Flight of Zalán the epic had been an essential feature in Hungarian Romanticism, and the efforts of lesser poets to revive the régi dicsőség resulted in many bombastic expositions of the glorious deeds of the forefathers. Petőfi’s mock-heroic poem made these outpourings ridiculous. He chose a subject which was certainly not of epic proportions: the confrontation of the village blacksmith Fejenagy, ‘the hammer of the village’, with another drunkard, the local cantor, over their ‘tender feelings’ for ‘chaste Erzsók’, the landlady of the village inn. The confrontation ends in a fight and the inn becomes a battlefield. Petőfi’s treatment of the possibilities arising out of the incongruity of style and subject-matter produces an excellent parody of epic; the similes and descriptive formulas employed contribute to this effect, while the halting hexameters imitate the poor workmanship of provincial bards: pedestrian description is mixed with pathetic grandeur; the action is endlessly retarded, and the whole is pervaded by an overwhelming sense of clumsiness, as the sweating bard attempts to cover up his inane conception in florid language. Petőfi’s satire in The Hammer of the Village revealed a new side of his creative talent, a side which effectively offended those of his contemporaries who became the unwilling subjects of his biting satire; and there were many, for Petőfi never spared personal or political ambitions, if he was convinced that these ambitions did not serve the whole community of which he was a relentless watch-dog.

At the end of 1844 Petőfi wrote a narrative poem, János vitéz, which startled critics; they could not interpret it in the conventional terms of contemporary taste, yet the poem, consisting of 1480 lines divided into 27 cantos, and written in the traditional narrative form, the alexandrine, achieved considerable success for its twenty-two-year-old author when it was published the following year. This success was probably due to the ease of versification: as if the rhymes occurred naturally in the narrator’s speech. The incomprehension of the critics was due to the seemingly incongrouos layers in an otherwise straightforward narrative.

For János vitéz clearly falls into three units. The first unit (Cantos I-VI) is characterized by intense realism.The hero Kukoricza Jancsi (Johnny Maize), a foundling shepherd boy (he was so named because he was discovered in a field of maize as a baby), is in love with Iluska, a beautiful, fair-haired orphan whose stepmother is as cruel to her as Jancsi’s foster father to him. The lovers usually meet at a brook where Iluska is washing clothes and Jancsi is grazing the sheep entrusted to him by his foster-father. In the sunny summer afternoon they forget about their respective duties and enjoy the secret meeting, but are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Iluska’s stepmother, anxious to find out why Iluska is late in returning with the linen. She wildly abuses the young lovers, and humiliates them; to make things worse, Jancsi discovers that his flock has gone. For his negligence his foster-father drives him out of the house and, after a pathetic farewell to his beloved, Jancsi sets forth into the world.

Next day, about midnight, he arrives at what he thinks is an inn in a desolate forest, but the place turns out to be a robbers’ hideout. The robbers invite him to join them. Although the sight of the stolen wealth tempts Jancsi – he sees that he is being offered an opportunity of becoming rich, of making a new start with his sweetheart – he pulls himself up sharply and refuses; instead of joining the highwaymen, he sets fire to their house while they are in a drunken sleep, and continues on his journey. Events until this episode could have happened to any poor peasant lad and his lass. Petőfi’s simple village tragedy has, however, one difference. Fugitive peasant boys invariably became robbers or else perished; but Jancsi displayed a code of behaviour which was in strict conformity with the unwritten law of his native village. Having run away, he has to make good, but if he becomes rich by foul means he can no longer return to his community; he becomes a permanent outcast, as did Eötvös’s Viola, for different reasons. In folk-tales proper, adventures serve as obstacles in the way of the hero; Petőfi’s use of the same device as a temptation is both unexpected and effective, for Jancsi is established thereby as a hero of moral stature, not just another vagabond who is bound to fall prey to circumstances, irrespective of his original reason for setting out into the world. Jancsi’s love for Iluska emerges as a profound emotion that cannot be mixed with the base and bloodstained gold of the bandits. While driving home this point, Petőfi also surmounts his first hazard, that of avoiding the temptation to moralize. The realism of the first unit is accentuated by a strict account of time: between the illicit meeting by the brook and the dawn when Jancsi leaves the smouldering ruins of the hideout three days elapse, the time usually allotted to a hero in a folk-tale to prove himself.

In the second unit (Cantos VII-XVII) neither realism nor the time factor is any longer relevant. Jancsi becomes a hero in a world which is gradually changed into a timeless supernatural place. In folk-tales, the hero, usually the youngest of three brothers, goes out into the world (világgá megy) to try his luck, to make good, and to prove himself. In realistic terms, the only chance for a village boy to prove himself is to join the army – to become a soldier, especially a hussar, was the height of ambition for any able-bodied village youngster. The splendour of hussar life, the glittering uniform, the larger-than-life adventures filled the minds of young men; these images sank into the subconscious of village people, alongside timeless cravings and desires which only surfaced in folk-tales. The traditions and anecdotes of hussar life were kept alive by generations of veterans who returned after long service in faraway lands. Countless stories were told in village inns which mixed historical and geographical facts freely with the products of a rich fancy, for uneducated village boys could perceive the world only in the framework of their life in the village. Petőfi retained a touch of realism by keeping within this framework, adopting, perhaps unconsciously, the worldview of the common people.

When Jancsi meets a unit of hussars who are on their way to defend France against the Turkish invaders he joins them. After many incredible adventures (e.g. they travel through the land of the ‘dog-faced’ Tartars; India borders on France), Jancsi not only slays the Turkish General, but sets free the beautiful daughter of the King of France, kidnapped by the General’s son. In gratitude, her hand is offered to the brave hussar, an incident serving as the second major temptation to the hero. But Jancsi’s devotion to Iluska is unflagging: he declines the offer. Having listened to the singularly unlucky fate of Jancsi, neither the King nor his daughter is offended, and the French King knights him (that is how he becomes János vitéz i.e. Sir John), sending him on his way in a ship laden with treasure obtained in the most virtuous manner.

The poem could end here, but it does not; for if Jancsi were to return to his village to live with Iluska happily ever after, it might produce a gratifying conclusion; yet one with a lingering sense of falseness; but Iluska has meanwhile died, driven to her grave by her cruel stepmother, and János continues his wanderings. It is now, in the third unit (Cantos XVII-XXVII), that the narrative transports the reader into a supernatural world, peopled by giants, witches, and fairies. Here János, according to the rules set in the folk-tales, overcomes a series of obstacles and reaches Fairyland, having crossed the Óperenciás, the boundless main which separates us from the fulfilment of our dreams. Seeing the happiness of the fairies in the eternal spring of their country Sir John contemplates suicide; the bliss of others reminds him of his lost love. Luckily for János, he throws the rose plucked from her grave into a lake he finds in the middle of Fairyland, and the flower is suddenly transformed into Iluska – the lake turns out to be ‘the water of life’, and since the rose has grown out of the remains of Iluska the water can call her back to life. The fairies are enraptured by Iluska’s beauty, and the lovers – united after so many changes and chances – are hailed as King and Queen of Fairyland.

The poor village orphans find happiness only in a world where the rules of reality are no longer valid. In the third unit Sir John becomes an epic figure, endowed with exceptional strength, bravery, and cunning; furthermore, he is aided by giants – yet when he reaches Fairyland a miracle is still needed to bring about happiness. Petőfi’s Fairyland is an ultimate paradise of love, which, paradoxically, is within the reach of everybody; the reader is thus left with a solution which is neither surrealistic nor incredible.

The three parts, representing three layers of consciousness, are superbly united by the loyalty of young Johnny Maize which is still firmly there in the heart of Sir John after all those adventures and so many years later. He is still faithful to the memory of the dead Iluska in Fairyland, where fairies are friendly to the stranger; it is this unfaltering devotion to Iluska which lends artistic unity and epic dimensions to this peasant tale.

Petőfi did not use elements from Hungarian folk-tales only, yet he successfully created the masterpiece of the népies genre. By rendering poetic justice to János in the final Canto, Petőfi produced a timeless message for the reader to whom he invariably addressed himself – the ‘people’ – whose chances of prospering within the existing social order were small. Fulfilling the desire of the ‘people’ for a better life and for social improvements without leading them into a cheap escapist world was a difficult task to accomplish. By describing Fairyland in the way he did, Petőfi came to the conclusion that the only happiness which is available to mankind is love. By love he meant the embrace of two earthly beings, for it is in that embrace, he implied, that they can get ‘a glimpse of Fairyland’. This is a simple and democratic message, fitting for a poet who set out to make the ‘people’ predominant first in poetry and then in politics.

Establishing himself as a népies poet earned Petőfi a reputation for being a Bohemian who wrote drinking songs and very probably led a life of extravagance. Nothing could be further from the true nature of Petőfi; his public image reflected only the degree of incomprehension surrounding his poetry. Some of the critics attacked him vehemently for being a coarse drunkard (his biographers all agree that this author of drinking-songs did not like wine), and for using in his poetry expletives borrowed, as one critic put it, from ‘the vocabulary of coachmen’. Yet popularity also earned him some financial security – he was employed by Imre Vahot as a sub-editor of the Pest Vogue (János vitéz was written in the course of his connection with Pest Vogue), which provided him with a literary platform. He struck back at his critics (‘The Wild Flower of Nature’), warning the ‘base curs’ who barked at him and bit him that the ‘wild flower of nature’ has thorns.

It was also in the Vahot family that he met his first love: Etelke Csapó, a young girl whose innocence and child-like behaviour attracted the poet. Etelke died early in 1845 and Petőfi remembered her in a volume of poetry: Cypress Leaves from the Grave of Etelke (1845). The poems in this volume revealed a new side of Petőfi’s nature: the gay, extrovert poet became moody; sorrow and pessimism were his main themes. His general misanthropy, however, soon gave way to his inborn optimism; Petőfi himself admitted the healing effect of the passing of time (‘Time is a Powerful Healer’).

Disgusted with the pretentious life of Pest, although he made many friends among the radical young intellectuals who frequented the Café Pilvax, Petőfi set out on a journey into the country. His prose, published in Notes on a Journey (1845), revealed his ability to produce the same fresh effect which characterized his poems. He sought no poetic inspiration in the sights and sounds of Upper Hungary, but he attempted to understand everyday life. The descriptions of his experience abound in humorous details, with numerous sarcastic references to the literary dandies of Pest pampered by conservative taste. At the same time, Notes on a Journey is a document of the Age of Reform, reflecting the mood of the young intellectuals who constantly sought change. His style is colloquial, direct, and vigorous.

The recovery from his pessimistic mood proved to have been a temporary interlude, for the years 1845 and 1846 witnessed an emotional crisis in his life caused by the lack of a solid, human attachment, and aggravated by the dubious honour of being a central figure in literary skirmishes. When he found another fair-haired sweetheart he had marriage in mind, but the girl’s father objected to the restless poet as a son-in-law, and instead of settling down to marital bliss he settled down to writing a new volume of poetry: The Pearls of Love (1845), followed by Clouds (1846). The first cycle, containing thirty-nine poems, is a lyrical account of the love affair, reflecting the ever-changing moods of the poet: he pleads, accuses, falls into despair, entertains hope, or declares his love. Some of these poems (e.g. ‘I’ll Be a Tree …’) are true gems of love-poetry, yet a certain tendency to polish these gems is also present; not all of them are as spontaneous as his népies verse. The novelty of the cycle is provided by Petőfi’s imagery. He links love of woman with love for his country; images of a war for freedom and his desire for love are entwined in the visions of his poems. (‘I Dreamt of War …’, ‘If God Wanted …’). The cycle Clouds contains sixty-six short, aphoristic poems, modelled very probably on Shelley’s Fragments. Most of them are permeated with a general sense of gloom, perhaps Romantic pessimism: ‘Grief? A great ocean. And joy? A small pearl at the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps by bringing it to the surface, I shall break it.’

His mood, verging on despondency, is best expressed, however, by ‘The Madman’, an incoherent monologue of a madman who is ‘plaiting the sun’s rays into a whip, a flame whip’, to ‘lash the world with’ and who will ‘burrow to the centre of the world / with gunpowder and blow it all to smithereens … ha, ha, ha!’ It is full of bitterness, he feels completely deceived by everybody, even his friends, and particularly women. There are also poems which reflect with utter candour Petőfi’s state of mind, and the nightmares which tortured him (‘I am Sleepy, yet I cannot Sleep …’, ‘My Dreams’, ‘There is Night in my Head’), which speak of his ‘room-mate’ who is despair and his ‘neighbour’ who is madness, or which show his thoughts giving birth to other thoughts which tear each other to pieces like wild beasts.

From these torturing nightmares the poet escaped into a world of ‘work-therapy’; he wrote a series of narrative poems (‘The Curse of Love’, ‘Fairy Dream’, ‘Wild Stephen’, ‘Salgó’), a historical tragedy (Tiger and Hyena), and a short novel (The Hangman’s Rope). His drama is an experiment only, and the novel also reveals that Petőfi’s creative talent is best suited to finding an outlet in lyrical poetry. Of the narrative poems, none of which achieves the perfection of János vitéz or his later Apostle, ‘Fairy Dream’ is largely autobiographical, full of Romantic escapism, like Byron’s or Shelley’s similar works, or Vörösmarty’s The Valley of the Fairies. They were all written in a relatively short time, showing a certain haste and confusion due to a lack of self-confidence, a result of his inner crisis. The disease causing his misanthropy was, however, not Byronian Weltschmerz, although he employed almost exclusively Romantic imagery. It is a tribute to his genius that some of his minor masterpieces were also written in this same period. His poem ‘The Four-Ox Cart’ creates an ethereal mood of an excursion into the countryside – a boy and a girl choose a star in the sky to remember their journey – while the four oxen plod on slowly through the night, producing at the end of each stanza a sharp contrast between poetic atmosphere and down-to-earth reality. Some of his most effective satires were also written in this period. ‘The Hungarian Nobleman’ accuses the nobility of being idle, uneducated, and uninterested in public causes. Artistically, both these poems rest on Petőfi’s skilful use of a refrain.

By the middle of 1846 Petőfi’s emotional crisis was over. He emerged from his inner torments apparently unscathed and was ready to enter public life as ‘the national poet’. His poetry also entered a new phase: in the first period his art had been dominated by the influence of the folk-song, creating a lasting fusion of folk-songs and poetry (1842-4); in his second, somewhat Romantic, period he was preoccupied with his internal struggle for emotional stability and with finding a new path in poetry (1844-6); now in the last phase of his life (1846-9) his works, although they included immortal pieces of love-poetry, were predominantly written to serve a cause, the cause of democratic revolution and later the war for national independence. The pattern of his poetic development marked the course of possibilities in the East European context. In order to overcome problems of the self, he had to project these problems on to the larger context of a community.

In the spring of 1846 young radical writers organized a society, The Society of the Ten*The Society of the Ten included, besides Petőfi, Mór Jókai, Mihály Tompa, Alajos Degré (1820-96) a minor playwright and novelist, Károly Obernyik, Albert Pálffy (1820-97) novelist, Károly Berczy (1821-67) translator and writer of short stories, Albert Pákh (1823-67) humorist, Kálmán Lisznyai (1823-63) a petőfieskedő poet, and Frigyes Kerényi.. Later referred to as Young Hungary, these writers were all intoxicated with the spirit of the French Revolution, and decided to establish a literary magazine as their exclusive forum. Petőfi was one of their chief spokesman, and although their projected magazine, the Pest Series, was prevented by the censor from being published, the Society attracted wide attention for its uncompromisingly radical views. The Café Pilvax where they used to meet had a magnetic appeal for university students even after the short-lived Society had ceased to function.

Petőfi himself grew more and more directly concerned with politics, but he also found his greatest love, Júlia Szendrey, at a country ball late in 1846. He could write a poem beginning: ‘All my feelings before now were a poet’s dream and not love.’ His ‘love at first sight’ for Júlia was followed by marriage within a year. The poet was happy, and his happiness gave inspiration to a series of love-poems in which his feelings and the form of expression chosen were in complete harmony. He successfully united the stylistic elements of folk-song, a straightforward approach to the subject-matter, and an emotional intensity which seldom radiates such elemental force even in the best lyrical poetry. He employed a masterly természeti kezdő kép (‘The bush trembles, because a little bird has alighted on it. My soul trembles, because I have thought of you …). ‘The Sad Autumn Wind Talks to the Trees’ written during his honeymoon, registers a somewhat nostalgic mood and conjures up foreboding pictures, contrasting his happiness and tranquillity with bloody images of war, the reality of which was not quite two years away. The stanzas are linked with a refrain, presenting his peacefully sleeping wife as a contrast to the images of war chasing each other in his mind. His ecstasy was often overshadowed by a dramatic premonition of his early death in the turmoil of the revolution, best expressed perhaps in his immortal ‘At the End of September’ in which he freezes the fleeting moment of happiness into a bucolic landscape, yet senses in the wider implications of that same landscape the passing of time. The third and final stanza of the poem ends with a haunting vision of his wife throwing away the widow’s veil*Julia indeed remarried in the summer of 1850, less than a year after Petőfi’s disappearance. after his death, and a declaration of his unconditional love to her: ‘for ever, even there, even then.’

The two dominant passions in his poetry are now liberty and love (themes that ever since T. W. Adorno and Erich Fromm have been called candidly politics and sex). In a short aphoristic poem that may be regarded as his ars poetica Petőfi expressed this concept concisely and effortlessly: ‘Liberty, love! These two I need. For my love I will sacrifice life, for liberty I will sacrifice my love.’ The idea of allowing the cause of the community to take precedence over his personal happiness was not a rhetorical device with Petőfi, and not only because he was shortly to put his resolve into practice; rather, it was the frequency and the passionate intensity with which he declared his belief which took it far beyond any rhetoric. The most eloquent expression of his wish to sacrifice himself for the cause of World Liberty (világszabadság) – for Petőfi felt he was a spokesman of not only the havenots of Hungary, but of all the oppressed people of the world – is the poem ‘One thought torments me …’:

Wait till the slave generations are uncharmed
and tired of chains take to arms,
their faces flushed, their banners red
and on their banners the slogan spelled
and the words are called
loudly, they call them from East to West
till tyrants think battle is best*Translated by Edwin Morgan.

Here the final struggle for világszabadság is identified with the destiny of its writer who is willing to die for this cause and lie in the unmarked common grave of the fallen soldiers. The poem is divided into uneven lines, with periodic exclamations, and the description of the final battle scene, in which Petőfi uses anapaests to give a galloping rhythm, conjures up an image of irresistible energy and unsurpassed drive.

In ‘The Poets of the Nineteenth Century’, written early in 1847, Petőfi formulated his concept of the poet whose task in society was to lead his people to Canaan – ’In our days God has ordered poets / to be the fiery pillars and / so to lead the wandering people / into Canaan’s promised land’ – in other words, to an ideal society with no social oppression or inequalities,

When all men lift the horn of plenty
in one happy equality,
when all men have an equal station
at the table of justice, and see
the spiritual light break shining
through the window of every house:
then we can say, no more wandering,
Canaan is here, let us rejoice!*Translated by Edwin Morgan.

Freedom is the subject of many of his poems: it may be introduced in the form of a parable, as in ‘The Song of the Dogs’ and ‘The Song of the Wolves’, or his poems themselves may become ragged soldiers fighting in the battle for his cherished ideas (‘Ragged Soldiers’).

Although the themes of love and politics dominated his poetry from 1847 onwards, it was his descriptive poetry (of which earlier examples are also minor masterpieces) which now reached a high degree of perfection. Among his best descriptive poems are ‘The Tisza’, ‘Winter Nights’, and The Puszta in Winter’. The scenery depicted around the River Tisza is a personal landscape; everything is related to the poet, unlike the remote figures moving around in his earlier poems. Petőfi again employs sharp contrasts; the gentle river flowing through the serene landscape is transformed, in the last two stanzas of the poem, into a ravaging giant, and the torrents of its rushing waters devastate the surrounding countryside. It is possible to see a hidden warning in the tale of the river, though Petőfi does not hint at any allegory. The panorama of the vast, barren plains in winter, however, is explicity menacing: after the carefree summer decay follows, and at the end of the last stanza the setting sun bids farewell to the landscape like a king expelled from his country.

It has often been rightly suggested that Petőfi’s poetry gives a day-to-day account of his life. This is particularly true in his last years, when experiences were effortlessly and immediately transformed into poems; for example, he describes his first journey on the new railway (‘By Railway’) and besides seeing the great possibilities of this new means of transport his conclusion again contains a political message:

Why did you never make them
till now? … shortage of iron?
Break every chain,
and you’ll have iron enough

1847 was the year when János Arany published his Toldi. Petőfi immediately recognized the outstanding qualities of Arany’s work, and offered his friendship to this newcomer on the literary scene. This friendship produced a lively correspondence in verse and prose (e.g. Petőfi’s poem to Arany’s son ‘To Laci Arany’ displays his spontaneous humour). In this correspondence they clear up many aspects of their ideas about progress, democracy, and social improvements. In February 1847 Petőfi wrote to Arany:

After all, the poetry of the people is the only genuine poetry. Lets make this poetry predominant in the realm of literature. When the people are prominent in poetry, they are very near to power in politics. This is the task in our century, this is the aim set for every noble soul who is tired of seeing how a few thousands idle life away in enjoyment benefiting from the martyrdom of millions. To heaven with the people, to hell with aristocracy!

In politics Petőfi relentlessly fought against social inequalities: his poems became more and more radical. When the ‘God of Freedom’ seemed to descend on earth in the year 1848, he was happy and exuberant. Revolution swept the Continent: Paris, Italy, Germany, and Vienna. On 15 March the situation in Hungary also reached breaking point: student demonstrations took place and demanded radical political changes, including freedom of the press, the administrative union of Hungary and Transylvania, and the abolition of class privileges. It befitted the occasion that the first product of the uncensored Hungarian press – seized ‘in the name of the people’ – was a poem by Petőfi: ‘The National Song’. This stirring poem played a part in the Hungarian revolution similar to that of the Marseillaise in France. It demands a clear-cut choice in black and white alternatives between freedom and slavery. The effect of the poem again rests on Petőfi’s masterly use of the refrain. No other poem has ever had such political significance in Hungarian history. The events of 15 March at once placed Petőfi at the centre of public interest; he became not only ‘the National Poet’ incarnate, but a national hero. His voice now seemed to represent all ‘the people’. He could write: ‘The sea is risen, the sea of the peoples; terrifying heaven and earth, its dread might casts up wild waves’ (‘The Sea is Risen’).

What happened on the literary scene in the eventful days of 1848 and 1849 was no longer literature only; literature finally and irrevocably intermingled with politics and history, not only in Petőfi’s poetry, but in everything that was written and published. Petőfi, as always, was in the vanguard of the opinion-forming forces, and he now attacked monarchy as an institution. He had already referred to kings as puppets, as toys given to please ‘the people’ during the latter’s childhood, but which are to be discarded when political maturity has been reached (‘Against Kings’, 1844); now he declared: ‘No longer is there any beloved King’ (‘To the Kings’). Petőfi’s radicalism, and his attacks on the newly-elected national government, isolated him and the rest of the radical ‘youth of March’ (márciusi ifjak), and when he offered himself as a candidate for the Diet in his native constituency he was rejected. His failure caused him much soul-searching and bitterness. His pessimism was aggravated in the autumn when the social revolution was suddenly transformed into a war of defence; the Austrian armed forces began their campaign against Hungary to restore ‘law and order’.

Petőfi retired from public life for a short period, and it was during this retirement that he wrote The Apostle. He put all his bitterness into this narrative poem. The apostle, Szilveszter, is a foundling brought up by drunken thieves – a certain influence of Oliver Twist is undeniable – who grows up into a radical thinker and revolutionary hardened by his humiliating childhood experiences with foster-parents. His consciousness of social injustice is soon awakemed: ‘Did God create one man another’s superior? … . I will endure it no more.’ The tutor of the house where he is brought up perceives the outstanding ability of the youth and implores him to continue his studies, for ‘you were not born for yourself, but for the country, for the world’. Still, Szilveszter leaves the place of his humiliation and rejoices in his newly-found freedom. He has many offers as tutor but rejects them all, and becomes a village notary in a godforsaken village, where he is poor but very happy, and where he is as much loved by the common folk as he is hated by the local squire and the vicar, who manage to turn public sentiment against him so that he has to leave. His only companion is the daughter of the squire who admires his staunchness and follows him to the capital, where they live as man and wife. Szilveszter is not offended by the villagers: ‘The people is still a child, easily deluded, but it will grow to maturity.’ Szilveszter writes a book, full of ‘subversive’ ideas, (priests are devils, kings are only too human, all men should be free and equal, for it is not only their birthright, but their duty to the Creator). The manuscript is rejected by editors, and is finally printed by a clandestine press while Szilveszter endures hardship (one of his children dies of starvation). He is arrested because of the book and imprisoned for ten years. When he is released he finds his family has been dispersed and his wife is dead, and that ten years has been enough for human dignity to reach its lowest ebb all over the world. The desperate and broken man, as a last act of defiance, attempts unsuccessfully to assassinate the King and ends his life on the gallows.

Szilveszter is a prototype of the modern solitary revolutionary whose lofty ideas (springing from his conviction of moral righteousness) and unpractical approach to their realization cause his downfall. While it is easy to discover Petőfi’s own disillusionment projected into the somewhat morbid figure of Szilveszter, whose life has many aspects similar to the poet’s, the work is not autobiographical. It is, rather, an emotional plea for the world to understand the motivations of the socially outcast rebel who becomes a revolutionary. Petőfi spared no effort in squeezing out all the emotional appeal inherent in the individual episodes, and the poem in its overall effects shows signs of acute Romantic idolization of the ‘anti-hero’. The lyrical elements overrule the epic structure of the narrative, and the message of the work seems to be a conviction that the time for revolution is yet to come; ‘the people’ are not sufficiently mature to participate in improving their lot.

Yet certain events in the revolution gave rise to optimism: the Honvéd army successfully defended the country. General Jellačić was routed, and his army was put into retreat. Petőfi was annoyed that military success was not followed up by appropriate political measures, and in the autumn he himself enlisted in the army, partly in consequence of vulgar attacks in the press accusing him of sabre-rattling in his poetry but staying at home when all able-bodied men were needed to defend the country. Petőfi answered in a poem ‘Bullets Whistle, Swords Rattle’ and enlisted immediately. He left behind his young wife, who was expecting their child in three months.

The vision he had so often and so vividly described in his poems was coming true, his prolific years were about to come to an untimely end. Translations (he was working on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which fitted his character best), and other plans were put aside, and Petőfi was ready to die in that final battle for World Freedom, for he was as good as his word. The victories of the autumn were followed by a series of defeats in the winter. But in the spring of 1849 the Honvéd army carried out a victorious campaign, and in addition recaptured the fortress of Buda. When the Emperor Francis Joseph summoned the assistance of Russia, the fate of the young Hungarian Republic was sealed. Petőfi was serving then as a personal aide-de-camp to the Polish General Bem, a fine soldier and commander-in-chief of the army in Transylvania. Bem’s army went into action at Segesvár, for the General clearly saw that their only chance was a surprise attack against the Tsarist Cavalry which was six times superior in numbers to his own troops. The poet, who idolized his commander, as was revealed by their correspondence and by poems addressed to Bem, was last seen alive in the afternoon of 31 July. The Russians realized how small the opposing Honvéd army was and the battle ended in a massacre. Petőfi’s body was never recovered; witnesses claimed to have seen a white-shirted figure standing up against the charging Cossacks with a sword, and collapsing after having been pierced by a lance. The slender figure in an open-necked shirt was thought to be the poet, for Petőfi’s disregard for the minor details of army regulations was well known. The exact details of his death may never be known, although circumstancial evidence has been scrutinized over and over again.

His last poems include poetic reportage from battles (‘In Battle’, ‘Guns Roared for Four Days’), an intimate sketch of his father who had also enlisted (‘The Aged Standard-Bearer’), fierce battle songs which boosted the morale of the Honvéd army (‘Battle-song’), poems which praised the soldiers’ virtues (‘Respect the Common Soldiers!’); some of the later poems gave voice to his despair (‘Europe is Quiet Again’, ‘Lost Battles, Shameful Flights’); the last poem he wrote was ‘Dread Times’. During these eventful months he found time, inspiration, and the mood for the writing of tender love-poems addressed to his wife (‘I Love You’), quiet descriptions of historic places he visited (‘At Vajdahunyad’), poems celebrating the birth of his son, or violent attacks on royalty (‘Hang the Kings!’). In a poem bidding farewell to his wife after a brief visit there is the last allusion to his fate: ‘It hardly dawned, and it is already dusk / I have hardly arrived and already I have to depart’ (‘Farewell’).

It has never been possible to analyse the last poems of Petőfi strictly in literary terms. The facts are there: his output is not as voluminous as it had been in the preceding years, but his workmanship has not declined, neither has the range of his topics become narrower. Yet the image of the poet perishing on the battlefield in the cause of freedom has suppressed all the other aspects of his poetry, at least as far as his countrymen are concerned. The foreign reader may lack the Hungarian’s emotional approach to his last poems, but one point is sure not to go unnoticed: although Petőfi’s poetry is marked by lyrical realism, his attitude to life and to actual events take the Romantic view of life to its natural conclusion. For no Romantic poet could grow old; the image of Byron, Shelley, Pushkin, or Petőfi would not be the same had they lived on. Literature has always needed the image of poets who died young if only to preserve a sense of youthful vigour, enthusiasm and rapture. Petőfi was twenty-six years old when he died, yet his auvre has never been felt to be incomplete. In seven years (1842-9) he wrote about 900 poems, including at least seven longer narrative pieces; he tried his hand at being both a playwright and a novelist; he translated contemporary French, English, and German novelists; he made a classic translation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and he also published a masterpiece in prose: his Letters of a Traveller (1847).

Petőfi’s Letters of a Traveller was addressed to another young poet, Frigyes Kerényi (1822-52). Of German middle-class origin, Kerényi quickly assimilated the spirit of the Age of Reform. He became a fervent patriot; his early poems show the influence of his revered friend Petőfi, who visited him in Upper Hungary. Kerényi’s name has survived in the histories of Hungarian literature because of a playful poetry ‘competition’ which took place during Petőfi’s visit (1845). The two of them, together with Mihály Tompa, sketched in a poem a romantic cottage in an idyllic forest near Eperjes. Kerényi’s poetry is marked by a somewhat sentimental tone, and by reflective moods and progressive ideas. He found his own voice only when he became an expatriate; in 1850 he emigrated to America and settled in a tiny Hungarian colony, New Buda (now Davis City, Iowa), founded by refugee Honvéd officers. Suffering from homesickness in the wilderness, Kerényi wrote his best verse there. Desperate, without money or congenial intellectual company, the delicate young man set out for San Antonio, Texas, where he was invited by friends, but died on the way. His body was found by charcoal burners, with remnants of manuscripts in his pocket. He was the first Hungarian poet to publish in the United States, for his poems written at New Buda in 1851 were printed there, although no copy of the little booklet appears to have survived. The poem addressed to his friend Albert Pákh reveals his suffering from isolation: ‘Here, where one should be busy / I idle without money. / Nobody brings news from my country / My treasure is buried there.’

The third participant in the poetry competition, Mihály Tompa (1817-68), whose popularity at one time came close to Petőfi’s and Arany’s as an exponent of the népies trend, was a Calvinist pastor in Upper Hungary. His humble origin and a childhood illness caused the hypersensitivity which marked his poetry; the effectiveness of his work was often marred by a strong inclination to moralize. His early poems were permeated by the Romantic cult of nature and had a slightly sentimental tone, not entirely unlike much of the poetry published in contemporary literary annuals (the so-called almanachlíra) and despised by the népies poets. His language is refined and his images are carefully chosen, to such a degree that the verses give the effect of being overpolished. His vocabulary contains numerous expressions which are now regarded as affected. His initial success was due to his Popular Tales (1846), in which he adapted old legends and folk-tales. Under the influence of Petőfi (he sympathized with the movement of Young Hungary) his interest in social problems grew, but unlike Petőfi, who wanted radical changes, Tompa searched for the root of social problems, and frequently found them in declining standards of morality (e.g. ‘Cheapness’ about the corruptibility of people). By 1848 he had adopted radical views, and looked for an ideal society in the New World (‘To an American Girl’). The failure of the War of Independence depressed him too, but unlike many of his contemporaries (including Vörösmarty), he found spiritual relief in passive resistance to the Austrian administration. His poetry now became a moral stronghold for the idea of national independence. The poem ‘To the Stork’ (1850) is a bitter stock-taking in the aftermath of the War of Independence. (‘Fate has given two countries to you / we had one only it is lost!’ – he says to the stork.) ‘The Bird to its Nestlings’ is a thinly veiled allegory: the bird is exhorting its young to sing again here after the storm, for ‘in other groves the song is also different’. The obvious implication of the poem was to dissuade fellow-intellectuals who were thinking about emigration as a measure of protest against the reign of terror. His long satire The Happy Island (1857) is full of irony: society is vehemently criticized; it is, in fact, one of his best works.

Tompa’s later lyrics in which he depicts his own restricted world, reach a high level of artistry. From his poems written in the 1850s he emerges as a lonely figure who finds happiness only in a narrow circle of family and friends, in complete isolation from the outside world. This viewpoint offers no great perspectives, no great experiences serve as the subject-matter, but the tiny vibrations of life in this miniature world provide much of the atmosphere in these poems. One of his main themes is autumn, the decay of nature, expressed in delicate poems, full of elegiac moods, broodings; life seems to come to a complete standstill, his mood not infrequently verges on a death-wish. In a sense, these poems are the forerunners of fin de siécle decadence. In the last years of his life he wrote mostly epic poetry quite unsuited to his particular talents, which are better displayed in his lyrics. In these narrative poems, there is a tendency, as in his allegories, to moralize, the Protestant pastor finally overrules the poet.

The influence of Petőfi was apparent in the poetry of most of his lesser contemporaries. József Lévay (1825-1918) never completely recovered from the irresistible influence of Petőfi throughout his long poetic career. Yet his simplicity, lacking the fire of Petőfi’s spirit and imagination, did not match his master’s. Lévay’s character was well-balanced; bewildering experiences were distilled into elegiac lines. His world, like Tompa’s, was the microcosm of family and friends. In his work the problems life presented were answered by the simple teachings of religion. His poetry before and during the revolution also contained patriotic outbursts (he wrote battle-songs), but his withdrawal into a secluded world is a characteristic reaction of a generation of writers to the overpowering experience of 1849. Lévay’s main desire was to arrive at a balanced view of the world. He found the song the most adequate literary form of self-expression, and he employed it in the form developed by Petőfi from folk-songs. He had a definite talent for rhythm and rhymes, and his songs show a wide variety. The most often quoted example of his verse is ‘Mikes’ (1848), a lyrical sketch of the last exile in Turkey. The poem is executed with warmth, and was popular in the 1850s when the fate of the exiles of the Honvéd army evoked general sympathy.

Although epic poetry was no longer in fashion, Gyula Sárosi (1816-61) made an attempt to revive it; his subject-matter was the heroic struggle in the War of Independence. The Golden Trumpet (1849), written in the Hungarian alexandrine, is a népies narrative of these events. Some of the cantos contain fine sketches (e.g. Canto VIII, on the Hussars). While the construction of the narrative suffers from the fiery passion of the poet, this passion is also responsible for his best lines. Sárosi initially disliked the type of poetry Petőfi represented, but later subscribed wholeheartedly to the népies ideals. For The Golden Trumpet the Austrian authorities imprisoned him. His later poems reflected his fury, hate, and bitterness (e.g. ‘Carnival 1850’), and were circulated in manuscript. After his release he wrote an allegorical summary of his life (‘Ingeborg on her Birthday’, 1856) with a lyricism which was still effective but the power of the broken man quickly declined. He died an alcoholic.

The népies poets in Transylvania rallied round the Kolozsvár periodical Prospect. As poets, they were all influenced by folk-songs. The leading member of the Prospect circle was János Kriza (1811-75), a Unitarian minister of Székely birth. While studying in Germany he became acquainted with the works of Herder, and with the German mythology of the Grimm brothers. He began the systematic collection of Székely folk-songs, folktales, and ballads, and his Wild Roses (Kolozsvár, 1863) is the most authentic early collection of these folk-songs, preserving the peculiarities of various dialects. The crowning achievement of Kriza’s activity as a collector of folk-poetry was his discovery of Székely ballads. These occupy a unique place in European balladry, alongside the English, Scottish, Scandinavian, and Serb ballads. Perfect construction, dramatic intensity, and simple yet effective versification are their chief characteristics, and the reason that they became widely known. Of Kriza’s own poems, his imitations of Székely soldiers’ songs are worth mentioning.

Népies ideology found its chief exponent in János Erdélyi (1814-68) who, appropriately enough, was ‘the son of the people’, his father being a serf. A disciple of the German philosopher Hegel, Erdélyi was the first to appreciate the new taste in literature represented by Petőfi. Folk-poetry, in Erdélyi’s conception, appears best suited to express the common human experience as opposed to the particular experiences revealed in national literatures, which are therefore bearers of timely, and hence political, messages. Folk-poetry is the purest expression of the consciousness of ‘the people’, of their way of life and spiritual values. His collection of Folk-poetry and Folk-tales (3 vols., 1846-8) was significant in creating an awareness of folk-poetry as the repository of the national heritage. From 1851 until his death Erdélyi was professor of philosophy in the College of Sárospatak.

In the 1850s the many minor and now completely forgotten poets who imitated the external features of Petőfi’s poetry became known as petőfieskedők. Erdélyi was one of the first critics to protest against the emergence of these crude pseudo-Petőfis who imposed their cheap wares on the public. They lived off the increasing Petőfi cult, for anything resembling Petőfi was bound to be in demand. This was one of the reasons that lyric poetry could not renew itself until the last quarter of the century.