János Arany

The poet who was enthusiastically received into the ‘Republic of Literature’ by Petőfi as his only worthy ‘brother-in-arms’ because of his masterpiece Toldi, published in 1847, was, in fact, senior to Petőfi; and his life and works represent a natural contrast to his admirer’s fate and poetry. Not only was he a survivor of the historical upheaval; his talent was also different from Petőfi’s. It showed at its best in epics; he never wrote love-poetry, although in his epics he proved himself a master of showing how love can destroy the human soul; and generally, his quiet, unassumingly reflective mood contrasted with the extrovert exuberance of Petőfi. While Petőfi’s poetry was an appendage to his biography, Arany had an uneventful life. Born on 2 March 1817 at Nagyszalonta, in the southern Lowlands, as the tenth child of an impoverished peasant, Arany left school early, like Petőfi, and sought recognition in the theatre, but suffered many humiliating experiences; these, and the pricks of his conscience, sent him back to his native village to support his elderly parents. He gave up all his theatrical and literary ambitions (he had written poetry while at the College of Debrecen) and married, after having found a modest position in the local administration. Having witnessed the excessive abuses in local politics which induced Eötvös and I. Nagy to satirize public life, Arany was prompted to write a satirical epic, Constitution Lost (1846), which was full of bitter humour. The Kisfaludy Society happened to be holding a competition for a comic epic in the same year, and Arany, having submitted his work, won the prize, although the poem was criticized by Vörösmarty for some minor deficiencies. Arany took the criticism as an encouragement, and for the next poetry competition wrote and submitted his Toldi, which won him immediate recognition and the friendship of Petőfi.

During the Revolution he edited a newspaper, The People’s Friend, which outlined and explained to the peasantry the views and actions of the revolutionary government of Kossuth. For this, and for his service in the National Guard (Nemzetőrség) he was harassed by the Austrian police, and it was with difficulty that he eventually found a job in the gimnázium of Nagykőrös, a dusty town in the heart of the Lowlands. From the late 1850s he became gradually more involved in literary life, and when he was elected Secretary-General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences he reluctantly moved to Pest. He held this position almost until his death, which occurred on 22 October 1882. His most traumatic experience was the death of his only daughter, an ordeal from which he never completely recovered. He turned his hypersensitivity to good advantage in the minutely-executed psychological details and observations in his narrative poems.

In a certain sense, Toldi is both a surprising work and a natural consequence of the prevailing literary trend: népiesség. It is surprising because it was written by an outsider whose previous works hardly presaged the creation of such a masterpiece, with its perfect construction and its carefully conceived plot, written in a language employing the vocabulary and imagery of the peasants yet remaining the refined product of a poet whose main concern seemed to be stylistic perfection and harmony. On the other hand, it was a natural product of the age: Arany read Petőfi’s János vitéz, which set him the example for ‘a people’s epic’, and the egalitarian tendency to choose peasant heroes was characteristic of the 1840s. The indebtedness of Arany to Petőfi is often stressed by critics, yet Toldi is different from János vitéz in both conception and execution.

Arany chose for his subject the semi-legendary medieval hero, Miklós Toldi, whose figure and deeds had been preserved in a historiás ének written by Ilosvai in the sixteenth century. Arany treated Ilosvai’s story only as a source; he rigorously adhered to the facts related by him, but in conceiving the plot he provided a detailed psychological background to the characters and also compressed the story within a strict time-limit, thereby creating a composition in which critics were unable to find unrelated episodes, redundancies in the narrative, or unjustified action. Toldi, according to Ilosvai, was a ruffian, a peasant lad of immense strength whose picaresque adventures, both amorous and martial, often lacked credibility, and who eventually by virtue of his bravery became a knight at the court of Louis the Great. Arany retained the essence of Ilosvai’s conception, for his Toldi is also basically a ‘success story’; it reaches the same conclusion, but the adventures which precede it develop logically one from the other; moreover, Arany does not approve indiscriminately of his hero – Miklós is guilty of manslaughter; yet he succeeds in the end in finding, if not happiness, at least social recognition.

Arany’s Toldi is the younger son of a deceased country squire. Strong, yet gentle and musing, his main fault is a violent temper – he quickly explodes if he feels he has been unjustly hurt. The elder brother, György, is in the entourage of the King, and when he visits his mother Miklós, who dreams of becoming a knight, is insulted by him and mocked by his soldiers. Miklós’s rage is as great as his strength, and he accidentally kills one of the taunting soldiers. He has to go into hiding for fear of his life; but feelings of guilt torture him. He wanders as far as Pest, where a foreign knight has just defeated the ablest knight of the Royal Court in tournament. Toldi, who while in hiding, has been secretly supported by his mother, is able to buy arms and armour, and defeats the boasting knight, winning not only the admiration of the court but also the King’s pardon. He reveals his true identity and confesses his unintentional misdeed to the King, who already knows about György’s scheming; György has kept Miklós as a farm-hand on their father’s estates, for he wants Miklós’s share of their inheritance, and also fears that if Miklós is given the opportunity his valour will overshadow György’s own fame as a knight.

The conclusion of his poem did not satisfy Arany, for two reasons. First, although the King has pardoned Toldi for his crime, he too can only hope that Toldi’s sin will be forgiven by the one who is the Judge of all. Secondly, Arany felt strongly that Toldi’s adjustment to the upper stratum of society could not have taken place while he remained a gentle, simple soul of exceptional strength and bravery for whom the sophisticated intrigues of the Royal Court were to remain an alien world. In other words, Arany did not believe that class barriers could be overcome by social mimicry alone.

The poem consists of 12 cantos, 1688 lines altogether, written in 8-line Alexandrine stanzas and employing the simplest rhyme scheme, the couplet. The simplicity of the versification is a tribute to Arany’s superb technique; because of his careful execution the epic is never felt to be monotonous, the metaphors are chosen with great care, and the imagery is varied. Arany introduces every now and then obsolete words, creating thereby an archaic atmosphere throughout the whole work. The success of his archaization may best be judged by its impact on Hungarian poetic language; many of the archaic dialect-words revived in Arany’s work found their way back into usage.

The same is true of Arany’s other works; his inspiration was always supported by sound research both of his subject-matter and of the philological background. The overwhelming success of Toldi made Arany aware of his special gifts. While Vörösmarty recreated a past in glowing Romantic images, Arany carefully reconstructed it like an artistic archaeologist from the surviving remains. In Toldi he made use of Ilosvai’s material relating only to Toldi’s youth, but later he decided to expand the Toldi legend into a trilogy. He wrote next the concluding part of the trilogy, Toldi’s Eve (1847-8), published with minor corrections in 1854. His interpretation of old Toldi reflects the misgivings he had had about the happy ending of Toldi. An old and embittered Toldi lives in retirement in his decaying house with its overgrown garden. He is out of favour because he feels resentment against the splendour and extravagance of the Royal Court. His only companion is the aged Bence, his faithful family servant who has accompanied him since his youth. (His mother had sent Bence with food and money to find the fugitive Miklós, cf. Toldi Canto III.) In the opening scene the two somewhat ridiculous old men are digging a grave for the master: Toldi is preparing for his death. A rare event occurs: a visitor comes, a herald of Louis the Great. The reputation of the Court is at stake again; a haughty Italian knight has defeated all the best knights and there is nobody to challenge him. Toldi feels rejuvenated as he goes to court; his services are indispensable. Although the quixotic figure of the knight, with his old horse and rusty armour, raises laughter among the pageboys, the way he deals with the Italian produces awe; they believe the curious apparition to be the ghost of Toldi. The King is ready for reconciliation with his old friend, but the champion is offended again: he overhears the pageboys singing a sarcastic song about his early adventures. Overcome by temperament he whirls round his mace, killing one of the pageboys. The King is outraged and sends his troops to capture Toldi. This last adventure, however, has been the final excitement for the old champion; the messengers find a dying man. The King rushes to his side, and Toldi warns him against the wasteful luxuries of the Court and reminds him of his duty: to govern wisely and to protect his people.

The atmosphere of Toldi’s Eve is different from that of Toldi. The great forward thrust of the rural Hercules seems to have gone; old Toldi feels that he has lost touch with the outside world. He is still an irreproachable knight; his loyalty to the King is unshaken in spite of their quarrels, which were due to his own fiery and impulsive nature. Arany depicts the ageing hero with much warm humour, and it is this quality in particular that makes his hero unforgettable.

The same cannot be said of the middle part of the trilogy, The Love of Toldi, completed only after a long interval and many unsuccessful attempts in 1879. This is the longest part of the trilogy, describing the Italian campaign of Louis the Great and Toldi’s part in it. It has no epic qualities, unlike the first part; it is, rather, a novel in verse, somewhat reminiscent of the Russian novel in verse (e.g. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin). While the love-story of Toldi and Piroska is approached with modern psychological insight, the plot contains too many Romantic turns, and Arany can be accused of anachronism. His anachronism, however, is not of the crude kind; it is rather the interpretation of his heroes’ characters which makes them look slightly out of place in medieval armour. Louis the Great is more of a liberal constitutional monarch than a medieval king, just as Tennyson involuntarily made his Knights of the Round Table into proper Victorian gentlemen.

Completing the Toldi trilogy was a tour de force; Arany did not succeed in completing his other projected trilogy, a composition based on the cycle of sagas, the fragments or outlines of which had been preserved in medieval chronicles relating the deeds of the legendary ancestors of the Hungarians, the Huns. The lack of an ancient epic like the English Beowulf, the German Nibelungenlied, or the Finnish Kalevala (published as late as 1835) was crucial for the literature of a nation obsessed with its past. While there is no reason to suppose that the Hungarians had no ancient saga relating their origin, the fact remains that no epic has survived. Arany decided to present the public with an epic to make up for the loss of the original. His early concept of the epic was that of the chronicles: after the fall of the Hunnish Empire, the Hungarians, the descendants of the Huns, re-established the might and power of their predecessors in the Danube valley. (This idea contained a spirit of optimism which was badly needed in the dark days of Austrian oppression in the 1850s. ) Later, his study of the sources turned his attention to the rivalry between the two ruling brothers, King Attila and Buda of the Huns. Arany’s profound interest in psychological motives moulded the story of these two leaders into a study of divided political leadership, accentuating the personal rivalry between the brothers, and indicating how foreigners of the Germanic race utilized this rivalry to undermine the strength of the Hun Empire; the Hun-Germanic struggle had an obvious parallel with modern Hungarian-Austrian relations. Arany concentrated on the conflict of characters, and stressed the tragic aspects.

The first part of the trilogy, The Death of Buda (1863), revolves around the crime Attila committed: fratricide. Its consequences provide Arany with an opportunity to assert a moral view of his subject. Arany had many problems in the execution of his epic; he realized that in an age when the leading literary form was the novel, the concept of the epic, if epic was to survive, had also to be thoroughly revised. Thus, the four protagonists – Buda, who shared his power with the younger, energetic Attila, and their respective wives, Gyöngyvér and Ildikó – emerged as well-delineated figures standing out from the historical background, and it was their rivalry and intrigues that provided the plot for The Death of Buda, with the additional machinations of a sinister figure: Detre, the cunning foreigner. It was a plot that would have eminently suited a psychological novel. In portraying the background Arany utilized all Hungarian and foreign sources, including the Nibelungenlied (in which Buda, under the name Bloedelin, also plays a part). In addition, motives of Hungarian popular beliefs and customs were skilfully introduced into the narrative, the overall effect of which was to provide a carefully-blended version of a Hunnish-Hungarian past. Yet the resulting epic is not entirely satisfactory, for the two layers of the narrative, events in the historical background and the actions of the psychologically valid, and therefore somewhat modern, main characters do not mix readily, and the reader, in the final analysis, may have reservations about the plausibility of the epic as a whole.

Arany himself might have felt a vague sense of uneasiness about the insurmountable difficulties of his enterprise; it may have accounted for his long struggle with the subject and his ultimate failure to conclude the trilogy. What Arany failed to achieve through his epic – the successful combination of historical background and valid psychological reality – he attained in another literary form, the ballad, with a degree of artistry that must satisfy the most rigorous critic. His preoccupation with crime and punishment was able to find an excellent outlet in these shorter pieces. For it was the ballad that best suited Arany’s particular talent. His ability to construct a flawless plot, his love for dramatic action, and his sensitivity to the tragic aspects of human life all contributed to his successful handling of the material for his ballads. Both Scottish and Transylvanian ballads served as his models; he employed the traditional devices of balladry. The swiftly unfolding action is presented in the form of dialogue, and the full story remains in the background, either penetrated by an occasional strong light only, or, more often, dimly-lit and thereby wrapping the whole story in mystery, not unlike an old, foxed photograph where the details of the background cannot be established with certainty, only the figures in the foreground being clearly visible. This technique is based on the same principle which was contrived for modern cinematic effects, that of employing underexposure or blurred double-exposure with swiftly changing images. The gaps in the dialogue contribute to the growing tension, and readers are invited to use their imagination to fill in details which have been omitted.

Arany was thirty-one when he wrote his first ballad. The early pieces do not show the intensity of dramatic tension so characteristic of his later ballads, although the little tragedy in ‘Fair Panni’ (1847) for example – the story of a fallen peasant girl discreetly observed – is brought home admirably. Later Arany used historical incidents with dramatic potential, and he always constructed his plots with economy. Among his historical ballads the most significant were ‘Ladislas V’ (1853), ‘Bor the Hero’ (1855), ‘Clara Zách’ 1855), ‘The Two Pageboys of Szondi’ (1856), and ‘The Bards of Wales’ (1857). While ‘The Bards of Wales’ definitely contained a political message – relating the medieval massacre of the Welsh bards, whose defiance of King Edward I implied resistance to foreign rule – most of the ballads, particularly those written at the end of Arany’s life, had as their subject the mental torments caused by grave crimes. King Edward is no exception; he loses his sanity because the burden of the massacred bards lies too heavy on his conscience. It is the same with Bor the hero, and with Ágnes who has murdered her husband and constantly washes the bloodstain from the linen (‘Mistress Ágnes’, 1853); it is the cause of mass suicide in ‘Inauguration of the Margaret Bridge’ (1877). Crime is punished by a judge against whose sentence there is no appeal. Abigail is a willing accomplice in the suicide of her lover; a young nobleman, whom she loves, tries to force her to say ‘yes’ to him by threatening suicide if she does not; she says ‘no’, and half-jokingly hands him a dagger. When she is confronted with his corpse the wound bleeds. (This was accepted in medieval times as proof of a murderer’s guilt. ‘Confrontation with the Corpse’, 1877.) Perhaps the most virtuoso treatment of a popular belief is that in ‘Red Rébék (1877); a witch is transformed into a raven, but when the raven is shot dead she is forced to regain her human form. The ballad is built around one couplet in the refrain: ‘. . . kár / hess madár’; this causes immense technical difficulties, yet Arany brings the piece to a brilliant conclusion: the story is developed along two parallel lines, the popular belief being superimposed on a story of infidelity with an ambiguous ending, creating a strange, surrealistic effect.

In Arany’s ballads crime is punished by insanity, and madness always has a psychological explanation: as the obsession of Mistress Ágnes, the delusion of King Edward, or the shock of Abigail at the sight of her dead lover convincingly prove. Arany was able to present dark passions in his ballads, a nightmarish world strangely missing from the rest of his poetry, for his lyrics treated conventional themes with restrained emotion. True, even in his lyrics the most tranquil scene may contain some disquieting element. In ‘Family Circle’ (1851), an idyllic description of a rural summer evening of a peasant family, a disabled ex-serviceman appears and is invited to the family evening meal. Only then does it occur to the reader that the grown-up daughter of the family is still expecting her fiancé who, in all probability, was a Honvéd and went missing.

The grief over the failure of the War of Independence was most often sublimated into similarly subtle references, except for one bitter outburst: The Gipsies of Nagyida (1852), a satirical narrative poem about the ‘heroic’ defence of the fortress Ida. Readers familiar with Hungarian history would recognize Kossuth in the leader of the gipsies, for the poem is a desperate indictment of Kossuth and his followers over the failure of the War of Independence. Arany felt he could not express his grief over the national disaster in any other way but satire. Together with the loss of his friend Petőfi, and the death of his daughter, it caused him so much pessimism in the middle of his career that he felt himself to be a broken man for the rest of his life.

Arany might have considered himself a broken old man, yet, having retired from the wearisome secretarial duties of the Academy, he produced a remarkable cycle of lyric poetry. The Autumn Bouquet, written around 1877-80, contains miscellaneous pieces reflecting the wise resignation and ironic introspection of a self-effacing old man (e.g. ‘Under the Oaks’, ‘The Old Waiter’, and ‘An Old Gentleman with Tambura’). Hungarian society had undergone a thorough transformation since the author of Toldi had begun to write, and he felt lonely and isolated in the great metropolis that Budapest had became by the 1880s.The ideals of Hungarian poets had also changed; problems of the individual gained in significance, the cult of a national poetry began to decline, but Arany heroically defended the ideal of the national poet (‘Cosmopolitan Poetry’, 1877). Arany’s poetic profile would be incomplete without mentioning his Shakespeare translations. Like other great poets of the nineteenth century – Vörösmarty and Petőfi – he also made translations, and his versions became national classics. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1864), Hamlet (1867), and King John (1867) bear witness to his scholarship and profound understanding of the Bard.

The epics of Arany have been accepted – together with Petőfi’s lyrics – as the culmination of the népies ideal. In a certain sense the life-work of either of them represents a peak of achievement in their respective genres, from where no further progress has been possible. Hungarian poets had to seek new paths, new forms, and new poetic attitudes to achieve the literary revival necessary to express the changing way of life in the post-1867 society.

While these signs of innovation manifested themselves in a new generation of poets from about the 1870s, Arany still exercised a decisive influence on literary life. The arbiter of literary taste was his friend Pá1 Gyulai (1826-1909) whose long presence on the literary scene was a sign – so it seemed then – of permanent values, and consequently of a certain conservatism. A descendant of a Transylvanian noble family, Gyulai made his début as a poet and was one of the leaders of the liberal movement in the Age of Reform. He rose slowly to pre-eminence, and from 1876 he held the Chair of Hungarian Literature at Budapest University and followed Arany as Secretary-General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In addition he was the editor of the leading periodical of his times, The Budapest Review. From these strongholds of academic conservatism he defended the ideal of ‘national classicism’ whose chief representatives were, according to him, Petőfi, Arany, and the novelist Kemény. National classicism in his interpretation denoted népies subject-matter depicted in a realistic manner. The revolutionary élan of Petőfi found no place in this framework, as Gyulai was a staunch supporter of the Settlement of 1867, a leader of those moderates headed by Ferenc Deák who believed that Hungarians had obtained the best possible deal under the Settlement; the group was known as the ‘Literary Deák Party’ (irodalmi Deák párt). The ‘Literary Deák Party’ provided unconditional support for the political establishment. This support was exercised through criticism, and by holding the key positions of literary life.

As a critic Gyulai held strong convictions and was ready to defend them, even at the price of the unpopularity which followed his often merciless critical remarks in the early period of his career. His lucidity and analytical approach – particularly when analysing the structure of poems, psychological validity in tragedies, or realism in the portraits of principal characters in novels – reserved for him a distinguished place in the history of Hungarian criticism. Gyulai was no mean creative writer; his poetry was characterized by a recurring element of reflection which tended to subdue or entirely suppress his sentiments. His restrained feelings, however, served to reveal his strength. His style was always simple and concise, and in the tone of his poems a certain amount of bitterness, characteristic of the ‘post-Világos’ generation, can be detected. This bitterness lends a peculiar atmosphere to his poems, a result of his ironic and at the same time emotional approach. In his short stories his main virtues include the power of characterization and an ability to create a realistic yet somewhat nostalgic atmosphere.

The short novel The Last Master of an Old Manor House (1857), a sketch of the decline of the provincial nobility, is undoubtedly his best literary effort. Radnóthy, an active liberal in the Age of Reform, finds himself a complete outsider in the new social order following the War of Independence. His day-dreaming isolates him from reality. Gyulai proves himself a fine observer of character and social conditions, and his portrait of Radnóthy is drawn with much human understanding. Sympathy, however, does not deter Gyulai from adding a somewhat ironic touch to the portrait of the elderly, tragicomic nobleman who represents a survival from a bygone age. Radnóthy’s intentions and actions are all too often contradictory, verging on the ludicrous, yet the conclusion of the story – his death, and the final scene of the desolate family seat, a prey to the claims of various disinherited parties – leaves the reader with a sense of irreparable loss, a final act that cannot be undone. Gyulai’s delicate portrait of Radnóthy is a forerunner of Mikszáth’s descriptions of the decline and fall of the gentry in the second half of the nineteenth century, an indisputable sign of changing social conditions. By the end of his long life Gyulai was completely out of touch with the modern literature that emerged around the turn of the century, and in 1902 he relinquished his professorship and retired completely. He had shaped literary policy in Hungary for well over a quarter of a century.