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Hungarian rhapsody: 19th century politician-poets continue to be hailed as national heroes

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Homage to Sándor Petőfi, at Hortobágy on Hungary’s Great Plain.

Homage to Sándor Petőfi, at Hortobágy on Hungary’s Great Plain.

Hungarian rhapsody: 19th century politician-poets continue to be hailed as national heroes

By James Brewer

Easily the most popular Hungarian poet, despite or because of his brief life, is Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849). He was a man of letters and man of action, and drew on the idioms of folk-poetry and everyday speech. He remains the classic hero-poet.

The passionate poetry of Petőfi is introduced to students from many nations by Dr István Rácz of the Department of British Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, at Debrecen University,  during classes of the university’s summer school. In summer 2015, the class included students from the United States, Chile, Italy, Turkey, and the UK.

Petőfi and many other great Hungarian poets took an intense interest in English, French and German literature, which helped them take untrammeled routes across cultures and produce some of their finest writings.

An outstanding romanticist, Sándor Petőfi is remembered as a hero because he was a soldier in the Independence War of 1848-49 and perished in battle. He died at the age of only 26, but his life’s work is still enormous, said Dr Rácz, whose discourses trace the interwoven history of Hungarian poetry.

János Arany commemorated by plaque at Debrecen Reformed College.

Throughout Hungary and neighbouring states where there are Hungarian-speaking populations, many streets and squares are named after Petőfi. Although his father was Serbian and his mother Slovakian, Petőfi was Hungarian by birth. He was so confident of his writings that in 1844 he walked from Debrecen to Pest (a constituent part of what was to be known as Budapest) in his quest to find a publisher.

Petőfi became leader of the radical organisation named Youths of Pest. He was co-author of The 12 Points, a series of demands addressed to the Habsburg Governor-General of Hungary, and author of the Nemzeti Dal, the National Song, his revolutionary poem. In 1847 he married Júlia Szendrey, who inspired his best love poems.

While he was influenced by folk poetry, Petőfi looked west to the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Pierre-Jean de Béranger and Heinrich Heine.

He is believed to have been killed in action during the battle of Segesvár by soldiers of the Imperial Russian Army, but there has been speculation that with other Hungarian prisoners he was force-marched to Siberia where he died.

Mihály Fazekas, sculpture by Edit Rácz.

Mihály Fazekas, sculpture by Edit Rácz.

Dr Rácz offered an analysis of Petőfi’s poem At the End of September, in which the poet imagines what happens once he dies. Dr Rácz noted that the anapaestic meter from the beginning anticipates that the elegy will become rhapsody. Elegy is about remembering, a contemplation of human mortality. Rhapsody is a very popular form of Hungarian Romantic literature, an effusive utterance in verse, sometimes even ecstatic.

Rhapsody was a form also in music. Liszt transgresses the borderline between types of art: the composer wanted to imitate poetry. Liszt composed only two symphonies, and even they were inspired by literature: Dante and Faust. He had borrowed rhapsody from literature.

In Petőfi’s poem, written when he was already celebrated as the greatest poet of his time, the rhythm is different in the first and second stanzas: he is “troubled by one thought, ” how he will die in battle. He had a premonition that he would die young. He asks whether his wife whom he met in 1846, will find a new lover when he is gone, and vows to love her eternally.

Petőfi often uses landscape themes as metaphor about the political struggle for Hungarian independence. In The Tisza, about Hungary’s second largest river, the metaphor is very accessible. In the original Hungarian, some parts read like everyday language. He follows in the path of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, determined to be a politician or a social activist.

János Arany commemorated by plaque at Debrecen Reformed College.

Experiencing the delights of the scene by the Tisza one summer’s day, the poet says “surely, it’s the mildest river on the earth!” Later he is startled by flood warning sounded by bells, as the calm is shattered, and “gazing out, I saw a sea around.” Dr Rácz said that one can read into this transformation a metaphor for rebellion against social injustice – the ability of the river to represent the revolutionary power of the people and which could “swallow up the whole wide world.”

Petőfi maintained a lifelong friendship with János Arany (1817-82), another significant poet of the time.They were two contrasting personalities, but appreciated each other. Arany was a modest personality, while Petőfi was extrovert. Arany was the godfather of Petőfi’s son Zoltán.

While Petőfi ‘lives on’ as an energetic young person, Arany is remembered as a dear old man, a kind of grandfather figure, said Dr Rácz. Arany’s Family Circle is a village idyll about an evening with the peasant family. It includes references to the lost Independence War, after which it seems the only thing to do is to retreat into one’s private life.

The Bards of Wales was written by Arany more than 10 years after the Hungarian War of Independence. He found the story in a history book for children – the author was Charles Dickens. This tells of King Edward I’s triumphal visit in 1277 to Wales, then a province of Britain, where he summoned 500 bards whom he expected to praise him. Instead the bards, who feared their culture was about to be destroyed, spoke against the king, and as a result, the story goes, he had the poets executed in a bid to stifle potential rebellion.

Arany wrote The Bards of Wales in the late 1860s as Hungary was agreeing a compromise with Austria which established the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungary gained a measure of independence but had to accept Emperor Franz Joseph as King of Hungary. Arany was asked to write a poem welcoming the Emperor, but instead produced The Bards of Wales and pretended it was a translation, the censors of the time missing the veiled reference to Austria’s treatment of Hungary.

Arany wrote the work in the form of a ballad, not a traditional form in Hungarian literature.  He had earlier translated the 17th century Scottish ballad Sir Patrick Spens (“The king sits in Dunfermline town/ Drinking the blude-red wine/ ‘O whare will I get a skeely skipper/ To sail this new ship o’ mine?’”), and had an eye toThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Debrecen Reformed College: the library.

Debrecen Reformed College: the library.

In Arany’s ballad, as the bards are executed, they keep singing, driving the king to believe he was going mad: madness caused by remorse, as in King Lear and Macbeth.

In all, Arany wrote more than 40 ballads which have since been translated into over 50 languages.  He was one of the best translators of Shakespeare into Hungarian. He translated Hamlet,  A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King John; these are seen as classics of literary translation, still widely read in Hungary. Acclaimed too as are his translations of Aristophanes, Mikhail Lermontov, Alexander Pushkin, and Molière. So good was Arany’s knowledge of the English language that he,  Petőfi and a third writer,  Mihály Vörösmarty,  had an ambition to translate every one of Shakespeare’s plays. He and Petőfi even wrote to each other sometimes in English.

Arany came from a village family, of which he was the 16th child. The family managed to send him to the top educational facility in Debrecen, the Reformed College, where he studied German and French.

Next, Dr Rácz turned to Mihály Csokonai, who kept alive the flame of the Hungarian Enlightenment and has been likened to Voltaire, in his ridicule of the lower nobility and other Hungarian characters. Csokonai (1773-1805) adopted the rhymed meter common in Western European verse, as seen in his poem Love Song to the Foal-Hide Flask which is a serenade to the comforts of wine.

Born in Debrecen, Csokonai like almost all the leading Hungarian poets, died young, and his life was full of frustrations. He was a sympathiser at the wrong time with revolutionary notions, he lost his teaching job at the Reformed College, the woman he wooed married another man, and his apartment burned down. Csokonai ended his days in Debrecen choking with tuberculosis.

Dr Rácz.

More successful in life was Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838) whose Hymnusz of 1823, became the national anthem of Hungary, with its appeal to God to save Hungarians “from our sea of woes.”

Kölcsey when young read the works of Greek poets and German classicists and took up the reform of the Hungarian language. Like other leading poets, he was determined to pursue change in society and the cause of Hungarian independence: from 1832 to 1835 he was a stirring parliamentary orator.

Debrecen poet Mihály Fazekas (1766-1828) was a businessman whose mentality embraced the ‘payback’ principle, as exemplified in his epic Lúdas Matyi (Matt the gooseherd). Matyi becomes the first common man in Hungarian literature to put one over his “superior” and his story enabled Fazekas to highlight injustices.

Written in 1804, the poem was based on a folk-tale. When he tries to sell his geese at the local market, Matyi is cheated by the local lord and beaten. Three years later, Matyi lures the lord into a forest and thrashes him – the first of three revenge punishments he has in store.

There are many abridged versions of Lúdas Matyi for young readers, and there have been film adaptations, notably one in 1949. The poem is written in Greek hexameters, and, said Dr Rácz, the English translator did a good job – because while it is easy to compose Greek hexameters in Hungarian, it is more difficult in English.

One of 22 instructors at the 2015 summer school, Dr István Rácz conveys his enthusiasm for the towering figures of literature and music in a most engaging way.

Parallel to his devotion to the Hungarian tradition, his fields of interest include British poetry in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in the age of Romanticism and after 1945. He has published studies, essays and book reviews about near-contemporary poets, such as Philip Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy; edited a volume on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; and written perspectives on among others William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Dr Rácz contributed to the book The Reception of PB Shelley in Europe (published by Continuum, 2008). His chapter was entitled A marvellously mild-tempered, gentle person [a quotation from a brilliant novelist, Antal Szerb, who died in a World War II labour camp]: Shelley in Hungarian Culture.

Dr Rácz wrote: “In the mid-19th century Shelley was a cult figure in Hungary – notions of Shelley have always been present in Hungarian literature and culture… The striking similarities between Petőfi and Shelley both helped and hindered the understanding of Shelley’s texts in Hungarian.”

Among close to 100 publications,  Dr Rácz has analysed the challenges of poetry translation.

In Hungary: A Traveller’s Guide (published by Christopher Helm in 1990), the Vienna-based author Nicholas T Parsons wrote: “Hungarian verse became capable of expressing the great feelings and emotions both of individuals and of the nation as a whole, in direct, vivid and moving words and images.

“At the same time as men like Vörösmarty,  Petőfi and Arany created Hungarian literature to the highest European standards, they helped to set those standards by making available in translation the classic works of English, French and German literature.”

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