Sándor Petöfi is Hungary’s most famous poet, yet I had not heard of him until my friend Jacob recommended him to me. It is unfortunate that the literary culture in the U.S. is so narrowly focused. I try to compensate by reading review periodicals from England and by attending Toronto’s International Festival of Authors as often as possible. Even though not being able to read the poems in the original language limits me to hearing them through the sensibility of the translator, I found this collection both interesting and moving.
Petöfi was born in 1823 in Kiskoros, a community on the Hungarian plains. His early life—his mother was a peasant and his father an innkeeper and butcher—gave him an identification with the common people that he never lost. His early lyrics and epic poems included elements of folklore, and many later became folk songs. He read widely in several languages (English, French and German) and translated Shakespeare's Coriolanus into Hungarian.
In 1847, he married Julia Szendry against the wishes of her father, a member of the landed gentry. Expressions of his love for her fill many of the poems in this collection:
You praise me, dearest one, for being good!
Perhaps I am, who knows, it may be true,
But thank me not . . . the source of every good
That’s in me rises from your heart and you.
. . . . . from "You Praise Me"
While some of his poems seem sentimental, I think they need to be read in the context of both his youth and the Romantic Movement which swept Europe from about 1770 through Petofi’s lifetime. Another common theme in Petöfi’s work is nature, not an Emersonian all-encompassing Nature, but specifically the plains where he grew up. His love for his homeland is tied up with his love for his mother—several of the poems here are addressed to her—and his concern for the common people.
How long will you sleep, my land?
Till your house is burning?
Even till the tocsin rings,
Are you never turning?
How long will you sleep, my land,
Lovely Magyar homeland?
Maybe in another world
You may wake, my own land!
. . . . . from "How Long Will You Sleep, My Land?"
Caught up in the revolutionary fervor of 1848, he became one of the leaders of the youth movement to free Hungary from Austria’s rule. He co-authored the Twelve Pont, which were the demands presented to the Hapsburg Governor-General, and wrote the Nemzeti Dal, the National Song. Anyone who has heard Les Miz will recognise the echoes of Petöfi’s song:
On your feet, Magyar, the homeland calls!
The time is here, now or never!
Shall we be slaves or free?
This is the question, choose your answer!
. . . . . from "The National Song"
In 1849, he joined General Bem’s army in Transylvania: "I drop my lute to take a sword in hand,/The poet is a warrior today;" (from "Farewell"). While the army had some successes against the Hapsburg troops, they were unable to match the strength of the Russian troops sent by the Tsar in support of Austria. Petöfi died in July of 1849. His body was never found, and rumors persisted, as with so many folk heroes, that he would return in Hungary’s hour of need. But he himself knew the likelihood that he would not survive and left several poems about how fleeting life may be.
So near the dawn and now the night has come.
So near the spring and wintertime is here.
So near the day, my Julia, when we met.
You are my wife . . . as long ago you were.
So near the hours we played at father’s knee,
So soon beside grandfathers we are lain . . .
No more is life than swiftly racing cloud’s
Shadow on the river, breath on windowpane.
. . . . . "So Near the Dawn . . ."
I wrote last week about the difficulty of coming home from war. My readings about World War I have brought home to me the futility of war. I stood once on a bridge in Belgium. At one end was a plaque marking the spot where the first shot of the war was fired. At the other end, a few yards away, was a plaque marking the spot where the last shot was fired. I cannot understand the folly of choosing to go to war, but when I read some of these poems of Petöfi’s, I catch an echo of the clarion thrill of youth when you think that it just might be possible to change the world.