Janus Pannonius

Janus Pannonius (János Csezmicei or Kesencei), the only truly significant poet of the Hungarian Renaissance, and one of the better-known figures of Humanist poetry in Europe, was born on 29 August 1434 in a small village near the Drava in a corner of Slavonia that belonged to the Hungarian kingdom. Janus’s father was probably a Croatian nobleman, but little is known about his family background. His mother, Borbála Vitéz, was the sister of Archbishop Vitéz. Pannonius was brought up by his mother; then in 1447 his uncle sent him to Italy for a Humanist schooling. He attended the School of Guarino da Verona at Ferrara where the pupils were educated in Latin and Greek authors under the guidance of a noted teacher of the Italian Renaissance. The young boy was considered the brightest pupil of his generation by both his teachers and fellow-students. He soon revealed his ability to write poetry according to the rules of classical prosody; he was around thirteen when he wrote his first epigrams. His higher education was completed at the University of Padua in canon law, and after making an educational tour of Rome, he returned to Hungary in 1458, the year of Matthias’s accession to the throne. For a time, he worked at the Royal Chancery, and soon became the Bishop of Pécs and later Vice-Chancellor of the country. Janus Pannonius was thus an influential intellectual in the country, and one who never severed his connections with the leading Italian Humanists.

In spite of his delicate health, he took an active part in the country’s political life, at first as a supporter of Matthias’s policies; but when Matthias, having defeated the Turks, turned against Bohemia and Austria, Janus, together with his uncle, Vitéz, became involved in a conspiracy against the King. Matthias discovered the plot and most of the conspirators were captured. Janus was about to flee to Italy but he died on the way on 27 March 1472 in the small town of Medvevár. He was 38 years old. The qualities of Janus’s poetry were recognized by his contemporaries in both Hungary and abroad. In the eyes of posterity he was the best Latin poet Hungary had every produced, for he wrote exclusively in Latin, as most of the Humanist authors did; his age favoured classical tradition and Latin was an international language understood wherever some education was claimed.

His poetry is best characterized by his own lines: ‘Look around and don’t forget to be a true son of the present.’ The main theme of the poetry was not God or Heaven, but man and his natural surroundings. In medieval poetry the cult of Mary was almost universal; but Janus no longer expressed his emotions in religious images; he wrote, for example, poems addressed to his mother. Poetry was no longer an indulgence in religious piety, but was prompted by the worldly desire to preserve one’s own fame. Janus Pannonius was first of all a discoverer; he explored and described the beauties of landscape and the problems of the emotional life for the first time in Hungarian literature.

In the early part of his career in Italy, Janus cultivated the epigram with extraordinary dexterity. His idol was the greatest writer of epigrams in classical antiquity: Martial. The subject of his epigrams were his enemies, his fellow-students, casual lovers, or the hypocrisy of the clergy. He was particularly bitter about the latter; enlightened Humanists frowned upon the commercial undertakings of the Holy See. In 1450, when the Holy Year was in full swing, Janus wrote a series of epigrams in which he pointed out what good business a Holy Year was for the Papacy (‘Ridicules the Pilgrims’), and was deeply surprised to find his friend Galeotto among the pilgrims (‘Ridicules Galeotto’s Pilgrimage’), for in his view religion was not meant for Humanists like Galeotto but for ‘old wives’, and moral standards ought to have been taken from Epicurus, who taught that the greatest evil was suffering. He was no less critical about the Papacy itself, and took every occasion to sneer at it:

Why aren’t the testicles of the Popes
     examined nowadays as they used to be?
A woman, Peter, once dared to sit on your throne,
     becoming the centre of faith to all the world,
A fact which time could easily have kept hidden
     if she had not overplayed her hand, in childbirth.
After this Rome was not to be taken in,
     a pope’s robes were explored for what lay under them.
No one was trusted with the keys of heaven
     unless his testicles were found present and correct.
My query is, why was this custom given up?
     Anyone should prove he is a man beforehand.*Translated by Edwin Morgan.

The epigrams addressed to mistresses and written about his carnal desire are sometimes characterized by a blunt straightforwardness, minutely detailed descriptions, ambiguous allusions, pretended hypocrisy, and grotesque excesses. When his friends make him visit a brothel he uses the occasion to describe what he has seen there with apparent delight, then complains that his friends had promised him a quiet stroll in the city, so he will report the affair to Guarino (‘Complaining that his Friends Misled him’). The quick pace of the rhythm illustrates the excitement of the adventure. On another occasion he rejects ‘an unfounded accusation’:

You’ve got a child, you say, and I’m the father.
Come off it, Sylvia, how can that be true?
Why, walking through the thistles, you might rather
Say, ‘That’s the one that pricked me through the shoe!’*Translated by G. F. Cushing.

(‘To Sylvia’)

Janus also wrote eulogistic epigrams addressed to his benefactors, all respected citizens, but these poems were less vivid than his satirical epigrams and reflect more the fashion of the times; also they were much more padded with classical allusions.

The epigrams were written mostly during his stay at Ferrara. After his return to Hungary he preferred other poetic forms; though he never completely abandoned writing epigrams. In spite of being a bishop, Janus attacked Pope Paul II in a series of vitriolic epigrams. The change of his tone in Hungary, however, is best characterized by an epigram written in March 1466 which is elegiac in inspiration; it is addressed to an almond tree that suddenly blossomed out in the middle of the winter (‘To an Almond Tree in Pannonia’).

Janus had little interest in epic poetry, but did write longer panegyric poems in the Humanist manner. Poets wrote long and elaborate eulogies to their patrons or to eminent personages from whom they expected assistance, usually protection or simply gifts. The best of Janus’s panegyrics was addressed to his master Guarino da Verona. The poem was not written out of expectation of any remuneration, but indicated Janus’s desire to preserve his master’s fame for posterity. It is a labour of love, a poetic biography of Guarino. It became his most often published piece, and hence his best known poem.

His elegies express more personal feelings and are more lyrical in subject-matter, partly because the elegy is more suitable for self-expression than the sarcastic epigram or the panegyric, but rather more on account of Janus’s poetic maturity which he reached after his return to Hungary. In the winter of 1451 he visited Várad, a major city on the Lowland and the burial place of King Ladislas I, the saint, a hero of medieval legends. Before setting off for Buda by sledge he wrote a poem: ‘Takes Farewell of the Holy Kings of Várad upon Leaving the City’ (known by the shorter title: ‘Farewell to Várad’). The poem consists of seven stanzas linked by the refrain:

On then, friends, let us eat up the road.

The first three stanzas are a poetic description of the winter scenery around Várad admired by the travellers ready to depart:

Rivers and marshes can’t keep us back,
All the low ground is rigid with ice.
The man who cautiously rowed these waters
Now gives hard-frozen waves a kick
With his uncaring, flaunting feet.
          On then, friends, let us eat up the road.*Translated by Edwin Morgan.

In the next three stanzas he describes the sights of the city: the hot springs, the library of Archbishop Vitéz, and the golden statues of kings. In the last stanza Janus implores the Holy King, Ladislas I, for protection on their journey. The poem is written in hendecasyllables, and the swift rhythm lends the descriptions a sense of urgency appropriately terminated by the imploration of the last stanza. The winter scenery of Várad is the first poetic portrayal of the Hungarian countryside.

One of the main themes of his poetry was the constant warfare against the Turks. While the decisive victory of Matthias’s father, János Hunyadi, halted the Turkish expansion at the southern frontier of Hungary, his son still had to face renewed attacks from the Ottoman Empire. Janus, struggling with ill-health, is enthusiastic about the virtues of military life and, according to the rules of Humanist rhetoric, contrasts his bedridden existence to the healthy life of his friend Balázs, who is a soldier seeking glory in the campaigns (‘Janus Struck by Fever to Balázs in the Camp’).

Suffering preoccupies him and pervades his poetry more and more. In another poem (‘When he became ill in Camp’) he again uses Humanist imagery, contrasting Mars and Minerva, but personal suffering lends to his poem an authenticity rarely found in the Humanist tradition. His illness is depicted in its physiological reality when he describes his symptoms with precision. Janus revolts against his fate – life is beautiful, he is still full of expectations and plans – but then he realizes his efforts are in vain; death is coming to carry him off. After a touching farewell to life he makes his testament: his last will is that malice should avoid him at least in his grave. The grief over the death of his mother (‘Lamenting the Death of his Mother Barbara’) is expressed in a similarly personal poem.

In his last years, inner experiences dominated his poetry (e.g. ‘To his Own Soul’), culminating in a long poem (‘Of the Great Flood’) in which his personal fears are projected on to the outside world: a great, almost cosmic deluge comes to destroy the nations and culture of Europe. The subject draws on his memories of the great floods of 1468; a comet was seen before that natural disaster, and the omen was interpreted by contemporaries as indicating a catastrophic ending to the world. Janus, worried by the Bohemian war of Matthias, and submerged in his own anxieties which were augmented by his astrological studies, depicted all these horrors in one long and awesome vision of devastation. The poet flees to Parnassus because there the tide is stemmed by the sacred mountain of poetry, and the poet – a personification of optimism – becomes the symbol of universal rebirth upheld and protected not by Christianity but by the Humanist creed alone.

Janus’s poetry transplanted the Humanist tradition to Hungary, a tradition which, in turn, influenced Hungarian literature written in the vernacular in the next century – for the use of Latin in the writing of poetry declined in the sixteenth century, although scholarly treatises were written in Latin for a very long time, almost until the end of the eighteenth century.

The Renaissance proper in Hungary did not end with the deaths of its chief benefactor, King Matthias, and its foremost poet, Janus Pannonius. The Humanist spirit survived in the court of the Jagiello kings, but the whole Renaissance culture was doomed when the Ottoman Empire, sensing the weakened power of the Hungarian kings who followed Matthias on the throne, began its successful expansion into Hungary at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The crowning success for the Turkish Sultan came in 1526 on a battlefield near Mohács in Southern Hungary, when the army of Louis II was crushed. In Hungarian history the Battle of Mohács is called the ‘Disaster of Mohács’ (mohácsi vész), and not without reason: the independent Hungarian kingdom, which had existed for over five centuries, came to an end. The Turks eventually occupied and held Buda, the capital, and more than half the country for a long period. The north-western strip of the country became easy prey for the expansionist policy of the growing Habsburg Empire. It was used as a buffer between the lands of the Habsburgs and the Turkish Empire. Hungarian intellectuals fled to Western Hungary and abroad from the devastated areas. Another refuge for the intelligentsia was the semi-independent principality of Transylvania, where the Transylvanian princes continued a Humanist tradition, and attempted to preserve the Hungarian way of life and the flickering light of Hungarian culture.

Of those numerous Humanists who were active abroad in the sixteenth century, special attention is due to Stephen Parmenius of Buda, who became the first of his countrymen to venture beyond the Atlantic to the New World which he had acclaimed in verse. He left Hungary around 1579 as a young scholar to improve himself abroad, as many of his contemporaries did, and came to Oxford. There he befriended Richard Hakluyt and set out on a journey westwards with the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert. It was his ill-fortune eventually to drown in what are now Canadian waters on 29 August 1583. The eloquent comment of a contemporary is Parmenius’ best epitaph:

… Amongst whom was drowned a learned man, an Hungarian, borne in the Citie of Buda, called thereof Budaeus, who of pietie and zeale to good attempts, adventured in this action, minding to record in the Latine tongue, the gests and things worthy of remembrance, happening in this discoverie, to the honour of our nation, the same being adorned with the eloquent stile of this Orator, and rare Poet of our time.

Parmenius left behind, however, two poems written in Latin hexameters (Thanksgiving Hymn, London, 1582, and An Embarkation Poem, London, 1582). The first celebrated his safe journey from Hungary to England, the second was a fine eulogy of Elizabethan England and the achievements of her explorers. It is a sad loss that this great epic planned about America was never written.