Bálint Balassi

Bálint Balassi was the first poet to create a school in his lifetime, but it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that his entire ouvre became generally appreciated. The reason for this was that his love-lyrics were not published in his lifetime, nor indeed until long after his death. For centuries his reputation rested solely on his religious verse (istenes ének). The discovery of a manuscript that contained his love-lyrics and its subsequent publication in 1879 changed the image of the poet. The Balássi we know today is perhaps more like the real person who lived in the sixteenth century than his image in nineteenth-century Hungarian literary essays.

Baron Bálint Balassi was born on 20 October 1554 in the fortress of Zólyom, Upper Hungary, into a Protestant aristocratic family. His home-tutor was Péter Bornemisza and at a very early age he was sent to Nuremberg to complete his education. He inherited from his father not only a reckless nature, but burdensome political affairs; his father became the victim of trumped-up charges brought against him by the Crown to dispossess the wealthy Balassi family of its estates, and the poet had to suffer the consequences. The story of Balassi’s adult life reads like an adventure story. His father, János, to prove his loyalty to the Crown, sent his son on an ill-fated military campaign against Prince István Báthori of Transylvania. Balassi was taken prisoner, but found a pleasant home at the court of Báthori. When the Prince left Transylvania to become King of Poland, Balassi was in his entourage. In Poland he enjoyed life in the sophisticated royal court until he returned to Hungary in 1577 on family business: meanwhile his father had died and the young Baron found himself dispossessed of his lawful inheritance. The next years he spent arguing, scheming, and intriguing in a resolute effort to regain the social position to which he felt he was entitled by his noble birth and upbringing. His plans to improve his circumstances by marriage were doomed to failure, partly on account of his impetuous, violent nature, partly by sheer lack of luck – with marriage, though as a lady-killer he was irresistible. Anna, daughter of István Losonczi, captain of Temesvár, a married woman of exquisite charm, left a permanent mark on his poetry – she is the heroine of the Anna Poems. His ambitions drove him to the frontierlands*Végek: a term traditionally denoting the defence lines of ‘Royal Hungary’ on the Turkish frontier which consisted of fortresses (végvárak).. He served as a lieutenant in the végvár of Eger, remembered for its heroic defence, and he was determined to obtain the captainship of a végvár for himself. Although he did not lack personal courage or other military virtues, the Royal Court did not approve the candidacy of Balassi, who was considered by his contemporaries an enfant terrible – not without reason; he had to leave the fortress of Eger on account of his recklessness, and in the following years he proved himself to be a plundering feudal Baron hated and feared by the honest, God-fearing middle-class citizens of Upper Hungary, but adored by their wives.

In a desperate last bid to create financial stability for his shaky existence he decided to marry his own cousin, Krisztina Dobó, the widowed daughter of Captain István Dobó, hero of the successful defence of the végvár Eger. She was young and wealthy. Balassi put an end to his relationship with Anna Losonczi who had forgiven him his minor amorous adventures – and with a remarkable manoeuvre that included the successful occupation of the fortress of Sárospatak with his own private army, he married Krisztina only to find himself defendant in a double legal suit. He was accused of incest for marriage with a first cousin and high treason for occupying a fortress belonging to the Crown. The marriage was a failure on all accounts. He fell into an entangled web of lawsuits, and in addition his wife left him. It is characteristic of the age that he eventually managed to clear himself more or less and was again appointed as a lieutenant of the végvár of Érsekújvár, meanwhile busily scheming for the hand of his former love Anna Losonczi, a lady of by no means negligible wealth. The scheming resulted in a new cycle of love poems (Júlia Poems) and nothing more, so once again he decided to serve Mars instead of Venus, and left for Poland in 1589 to take part in the impending Turkish-Polish war. He was seemingly indestructible and survived many military adventures. He died the death of a Christian hero – in a large-scale military operation at the beginning of the Fifteen Years War he was mortally wounded by a cannon-ball at the siege of Esztergom on 19 May 1594, and died after an unsuccessful operation on 30 May as a converted Roman Catholic, repenting his sins and crimes.

His poetry reflects the contradictions and extremes of his life only too well. What is surprising is that this intriguing and tormented aristocrat found the time and inclination to acquire a thoroughly Humanistic education, and when there arose a need he devoted time to acquire even a legal knowledge from Werbőczi’s Tripartitum, the handbook of Hungarian civil law. Besides his native Hungarian and classic Latin, he spoke seven languages including Italian, German, and Turkish. His biography epitomizes the fate of a type among Hungarian poets: in spite of all personal needs and feelings he ultimately placed above everything a strong commitment to his country, the crowning experience of which was his death at the siege of Esztergom. According to his first, contemporary biographer Rimay, he consciously prepared himself to be a repentant sinner ready to die as a defender of the faith and for his country.

His first poems known to us were written during his stay in the court of István Báthori in Transylvania around 1575-6. This early period in his poetic activity lasted until his marriage in 1584. We possess twenty-seven poems from this period, witnessing the fast development of his craftsmanship which originally included only Humanist devices of a typical ‘courting poetry’. The main theme was the amorous yearnings of the poet, addressed to various young ladies – the names of the beloved ones are not infrequently known from the initial letters of the lines of his poems (i.e. acrostics). The marked influence of Petrarch can be observed in the early poems, but folk-poetry also had its effect on him; we find a wide variety of themes and devices borrowed from Hungarian, Turkish, Romanian, and South Slav folk-poetry.

The first striking feature of Balassi’s poetry is the new use of rhymes. Poets before him and even his contemporaries used only either suffix rhymes (ragrím) i.e. using the same grammatical ending for both nouns and verbs, or simply repeating the very same noun or verb, very often through the whole four lines of the stanza, thus creating a monotonous effect. These types of rhymes were suitable for poems which were to be sung, as the melody greatly improved the effect. In fact, when the songs were performed the rhymes linked certain words and phrases in such a way that the audience would not lose the meaning of the text on account of the singing. Balassi successfully employed pure rhymes, sometimes with striking effect (e.g. Cupidó-Didó-szító, or színe egy-ért meggy-Aetna-hegy). His conscientious effort to improve the rhyme-schemes of his poetry resulted in the invention of what we today call the Balassi stanza, consisting of nine lines with the following rhyme-scheme: AADBBDCCD, i.e. three couplets interspersed with a fourth rhyme following each couplet. Earlier he had employed internal rhymes in longer lines (consisting of more than twelve syllables) with the rhyme falling at the end of each unit, and it was these early experiences with internal rhyme that led to the creation of the Balassi stanza.

Balassi’s love lyrics entered a new phase in 1587 when he turned again to Anna Losonczi and wrote a cycle of poems addressed to his former love: the Júlia Cycle (1588-9). The object of the poems was to gain the hand of the wealthy widow whom he had rejected as a lover when he had planned his marriage to Krisztina Dobó. Balassi very probably knew Petrarch’s Il Canzoniere, a widely-used model for cycles of love-poetry in the Renaissance era, but the twenty-five poems of the Júlia Cycle reveal more intense feelings than might have been expected from a cycle of poems with a definite aim in mind and with a borrowed model. Anna, the Júlia of the cycle, is far away, representing only memories and desires for the poet and thus he is able to express his feelings with an intense personal lyricism. His sentiments are transformed into a yearning for unattainable happiness. The best pieces of the cycle (‘To the Cranes’, ‘Invocation to Cupid’, ‘On Meeting Júlia Thus he Greeted her’, ‘On his Eternal and Imperishable Love’), bear the marks of his restless life: his love and devotion for Júlia is expressed by the imagery of the soldier and the embittered exile. He addresses the cranes with the following words:

I hide as an orphan
In foreign countries,
As a pilgrim who lost his way
I wear in my grief
Dark garments.
In my heart great pangs –
I have no wings like you
That I could fly with you
To the beloved one.

On another occasion he describes Júlia as the perfect ideal, the one who is above all human faults and represents ethereal love only:

Júlia is my two eyes,
My unextinguishable fire,
My infinite Love.
Júlia is my merriment,
Sometimes my great sorrow,
My happiness and torment.
Júlia is my life,
My only soul,
The one who possesses me alone.

(‘Júlia my Two Eyes’)

His love for Júlia remained unfulfilled. He went again to Poland, and the tone of his late love-lyrics changed from Petrarchian devotion to Mannerism. In his new cycle of love poems, addressed to the wife of Ferenc Wesselényi, he made use of the new technique. The Coelia Poems, if contrasted with the Júlia Poems, are the result of a transient carnal affair and have nothing of the idealism that radiates from the latter. Their relationship reflects an air of unreality, the poems lack the balance of Júlia cycle, but at the same time sensuousness lends the poems a sense of urgency not to be found in the subdued self-torture of the Júlia Poems. His last love poem, addressed to a certain Susanna, a girl in Crakow who played the cittern, represents his new style at its best.

Although Balassi wrote only a few pieces that could be termed soldiers’ songs, his imagery frequently reflects the circumstances of a soldier’s life. A ruby on the dress of his love reminds him, for example, of freshly dropped bloodstains on the ice of a frozen river, glittering in the sunshine. He himself confesses that very often his poems were not written at the table indoors, but in the countryside among his comrades, during lulls in the fighting. One of his poems was written ‘next to my good horse on the grass’, another ‘beside a cool spring when I awoke from my sleep’. It is his account of nature seen through the eyes of a soldier that makes his poetry unique in Renaissance and Mannerist poetry. Nature for Balassi is not only a liberation from the medieval Weltanschauung, or part of the Renaissance imagery, but a place where bloody fighting takes place, where cunning soldiers ambush the enemy, where tired horses graze, or beautiful peasant-girls appear barefoot out of nowhere, and which is first of all a symbol of freedom, of the basic human instinct: the freedom of movement, a source of ‘re-birth’ in the literal sense.

Of the few poems that are explicitly written about the soldier’s life, ‘The Wine-Drinkers’, was composed in 1583 when he was in the végvár of Eger. It is a hymn to the rebirth of nature after the long winter, a praise addressed to Whitsuntide, which awakens nature and rekindles the bravery needed by the soldiers for their day-to-day existence. It is a celebration of life by a soldier who, perhaps, knows the value of life better than other mortals not living in constant peril. Balassi’s best-known soldier’s song, ‘In Praise of Frontierlands’, is considered by many critics his greatest single achievement. This poem, written in 1589, using the Balassi stanza, was a tribute to the heroic spirit of his fellow-soldiers who fought the Turks daily on the borderlands of Christendom and Islam. Each stanza contains a brief description of the plight of the soldiers in realistic terms, not glossing over the hardship of their life.

The huge, wide fields, pleasant groves and woods
Are their realm if they want a stroll,
The ambushes by the roads, the place of hard fights
Are their school for training,
Hunger, thirst, heavy sweating,
And tiredness provide their entertainment.

The last stanza, however, is an outburst of praise to the heroic resilience and moral stature of the soldiers:

Oh praiseworthy army
Of young brave soldiers of the frontiers!
Who have all over the wide world
A reputation before all,
As God blesses trees with an abundance of fruit
So He should bless you with good fortune on the fields!

God frequently comes into his poetry, and in fact is the sole subject of about half of his whole poetic output. It would be difficult to arrange the chronology of his istenes poetry; Balassi wrote religious poems all the time, not only in one particular period of his life. Balassi’s God is a very personal deity; although the tone of his poetry reveals certain similarities with those of the preacher-writers, Balassi turns to God not only with the humility of a repentant sinner, but also argues with Him, demanding His assistance or wishing Him to take vengeance on his foes.

In one of his early istenes poems he pleads:

Forgive Lord the sins of my youth
Many disbeliefs, ugly loathsomeness,
Erase its hideousness, all its perfidy
Relieve my soul’s burden.

But after giving a catalogue of his sins, he suddenly gives his opinion on sins, as if his salvation were subject to his bargaining power:

The more my sins are forgiven,
The more your mercy is only a gesture
And what could you forgive, if your flock did not sin against you?

Too many ‘whys’ are emerging; why is it good for God if his flock is condemned? For sinning is natural to men and God’s mercy has meaning only if he has the chance to practise it! No doubt, it is a theology based on ‘legal’ cunning, but realistic again – Balassi saw it only too well – for human nature cannot resist temptation successfully all the time.

The imagery of his istenes poetry is very often linked to his way of seeing Nature and his military surroundings. God is like ‘a sharp sabre’, or ‘the swiftness of steeds’. God’s epithet is very often kegyelmes, which means both ‘merciful’ and ‘full of grace’. His relationship with God is everchanging: first, the bargaining lawyer defends himself, next the prodigal son surrenders himself unconditionally:

Merciful God in whose hands I have laid down my life
Look after me, show my way for I can rely only on you.

In his last poems the idea of death enters his mind. It is not only a Baroque preoccupation with the ars moriendi, the wish for a ‘good death’, but rather the sincere resolution of a lonely human being, a preparation for the last journey. It is not that Balassi was aged or infirm – he was around forty years old when he prepared the final lyric balance of his life. He realized that he ‘had not made good’, that his personal life was in a mess, and that his friends had left him; worst of all, it is clear that the occasional love-affairs did not radiate sufficient warmth for the aimless expatriate. ‘I have nowhere to go, merciful Lord’ he cries out in one poem, and in another:

Give me tranquility, peace of soul, heavenly Lord,
Protect my fugitive mind and my heart from sorrow;
It is pierced by much pain.

His last poem is a paraphrase of Psalm 50, from Theodore Beza’s version. Balassi’s own version, made by the mortally wounded soldier literally on his deathbed, is an account of his agony:

Revive my mind by sending your joy.
Don’t let the marrow dry up in my bones because of my grief,
Don’t look at me in anger
But cleanse me of my sins.

His last words were, according to a contemporary account: ‘Lord, I was your soldier, I followed your camp.’ – fitting last words for a repentant great sinner, whose life, even without the redeeming quality of his poetry, belongs to literature. His self-tormenting soul has much more in common with the heroes of Dostoevsky than with the unscrupulous condottiere that his biography makes him out to be.

Besides writing poetry Balassi translated, or rather adapted, an Italian pastoral play. It is Castelletti’s Amarilli (Szép magyar comoedia), and was used by the poet in his attempt to win Júlia’s hand. It was dedicated to her, and the plot, in his version, well fitted their relationship. Only a fragment of the published version survived, and it was in 1958 that a manuscript copy of the whole text was discovered.

Balassi’s poetry influenced to a certain extent all poets of the next century. Some of them, like János Rimay (c.1570-1631), regarded themselves as disciples of Balassi. Rimay paid homage to Balassi in a most carefully-composed epicedium. He also decided to publish the collected poems of his late master. We have the introduction of his projected volume, the first critical appreciation of Balassi’s poetry. Around 1600 Rimay found his own, independent way of expression – a poetic language rich in bizarre novelty, startling imagery and rhyme schemes.