Budapest, Hungary – Despite being a relatively small country with a scarcely spoken language, Hungarians have a notably large number of noteworthy poets among them.
But when you speak about poetry with a Hungarian, a name often comes to mind before all others, the name of the national poet: Sándor Petőfi. As often for revered poets, his fame does not come only from the quality and excellence of his own writing, but also from the legend that was built around him, by his contemporaries and by posterity.
Petőfi is not, as Attila József, perhaps the other best-known Hungarian poet, famous as an outcast poet; in Petőfi’s case, his importance is historical as well as literary. Petőfi, who died at only 26 on the battlefield in 1849, is the symbol of the Hungarian nation’s struggle for freedom and independence.
His own life unfolded at the crossroads of those of several other great men who were to become mythical figures in the Hungarian historical landscape, like Józef Bem or fellow writers János Arany, Mór Jókai or Mihály Vörösmarty.
Sándor Petőfi, building his own magyarness
Petőfi was born in 1823 in Kiskőrös, a small city of the Alföld, the Great Hungarian Plain, under the name Alexander Petrovics. But throughout his life Petőfi named the city of Kiskunfélegyhaza, where his family moved not long after his birth, as his native place.
This choice is significant: in Kiskőrös the inhabitants were predominantly of Slovak origin – as his own parents, Stefan Petrovics and Mária Hrúz.
By claiming Kiskunfélegyhaza as his birthplace, Sándor Petőfi builds his own magyarness and makes the first move towards his Magyar icon status. He considered himself all his life as a Hungarian poet, even if his own parents themselves spoke Hungarian with a strong foreign accent.
Changing schools and moving from one city to the next quite often, Petőfi’s school years were turbulent: as there were no Lutheran schools in Kiskunfélegyhaza, he moved to Kecskémet, and also studied in two different schools in Budapest.
His last years of studies were spent in Aszód where, as he recalls himself in his Úti jegyzetek, he lived “three eventful years”. As he summarizes them: “1. Here, I began to write poems. 2. Here, I was in love for the first time. 3. Here, for the first time, I wanted to become an actor.”
Aspirations as an actor
His acting dream was soon to be fulfilled, but in unfortunate circumstances. When Sándor Petőfi was fifteen, his father’s house was destroyed in the Danube flood and their financial situation became scarce. He had to leave the Aszód college, and returned to a Lutheran school in Selmec, located in modern-day Slovakia.
As the courses were given in Latin, Petőfi failed and dropped out. He first began to work as an actor, though in minor roles, in Budapest, especially in the Nemzeti Színház, the National Theater. But these were only small roles, and Petőfi eventually decided to enlist in the military in Sopron by lying, presenting himself as one year older than he actually was.
His military career was however cut short after being discharged on account of his fragile health. He recalls this event in his poem “Pale soldier”: “There was a young man in the army,/and his colour was pale”.
He then returned to acting and to his studies, in Pápa. At this point in his life, he also began to gain recognition for his poems, published with the support of other celebrities in the Hungarian literary landscape, such as Mór Jókai or Mihály Vörösmarty.
In 1844, Petőfi definitely abandoned theatre to pursue a career as a poet in Budapest. His first collection of poems, Versek (“Poems”) was published that same year with Vörösmarty’s recommendations, immediately acquiring readers’ recognition.
Symbolically, it’s also around that time that Sándor Petőfi started to use this name instead of his native Petrovics. He magyarized Petrovics, which means “Son of Peter”, using an old form of the name Péter in Hungarian – Pető – with the ending fi, which comes from the Hungarian word fiú, “son, boy”.
Like for his native city, this conscious change was instrumental in building the myth of Petőfi, the embodiment of Hungarian poetry and literature, he who was born from parents who could not even speak Hungarian fluently.
Love and revolution
His poetry was particularly influenced by folk tales and stories, as for example János Vitéz, “John the Valiant”, written in 1845 and one of his most famous works. János Vitéz is a twenty-seven-chapter long poem, written as a fairy tale and telling the story of Kukorica Jancsi and his love for Iluska.
But two other tendencies prevail in Petőfi’s poetry: love, often involving erotic aspects quite bold for that era, and revolutionary poetry, the basis for the legend that surrounds Petőfi.
His love poetry is strongly linked with his meeting with Júlia Szendrey in 1846, a poet and translator herself. They fell in love and got married one year later, despite the opposition of her family. They had one son, Zoltán.
But as Petőfi himself wrote in his well-known poem “Freedom, love!”: “Freedom, love!/I need both of them/For my love I’d sacrifice/My life/And for freedom I’d sacrifice/Even my love”. The words were prophetic: it is to his ideal of liberty that Júlia Szendrey loses her husband, who died in the aftermath of the 1848 Hungarian revolution.
Petőfi was indeed one of the leaders of the 1848 revolution, an insurrection against the domination of the Habsburgs in Hungary. On March 15, 1848, Petőfi and the other Márciusi Ifjak, the Young People of March, demonstrated in Budapest reading the “12 Points”, their demands to the Habsburg governor—also reciting one of Petőfi’s poems, Nemzeti dal, “National song”, in front of a crowd on the stairs of the Hungarian National Museum.
Lost on the battlefield
This famous poem became a rallying cry for Hungarians, and was even sung during the insurrection of 1956, more than one century later. The beginning is especially well-known, and is, along the Himnusz, the Hungarian national anthem, one of the most important symbols of Hungary:
“Talpra magyar, hí a haza!/Itt az idő, most vagy soha!/Rabok legyünk vagy szabadok?/Ez a kérdés, válasszatok! –/A magyarok istenére/Esküszünk,/Esküszünk, hogy rabok tovább/Nem leszünk!”, “On your feet, Hungarian, the homeland is calling!/This is the time, now or never!/Will we be slaves or freemen?/It is the question, now answer!—/On the god of the Hungarian/We swear/We swear that we won’t be slaves/Anymore!”
The popularity of Sándor Petőfi decreased as time passed, and he lost, that same year, an election in his native region. Disillusioned, now with his son and wife to provide for, Petőfi enlisted again in the revolutionary army under the command of Józef Bem.
He disappeared on the battlefield in Segesvár (Sighișoara, in modern-day Romania) in July 1849. He was only 26.
A living legend of Hungarian poetry
Sándor Petőfi is the living legend of Hungarian poetry. Even after his death, his poetry and own eventful tragic life inspired many fellow poets.
His lifelong friend János Arany described their friendship in his poem “Answer to Petőfi”; Babits Mihály, the famous 20th-century poet and member of the literary journal Nyugat, wrote Petőfi Koszorúi. Gyula Reviczky, another poet, wrote the poem “Petőfi is living!”. And so on.
Some even claim that since Petőfi’s body was never found, we cannot be sure of his death in Segesvár, and that he may have been imprisoned in Siberia by the Russians. His life and death are surrounded by countless other myths and legends.
His vivid poetry and tragic life, caught in the whirlwind of historical events, made a legend out of him. For Hungarians, Petőfi is the poet – during this time of revolutions and struggle for freedom, he helped give birth to the Hungarian nation itself. He chose his own magyarness, despite his name and his parents’ language.
As Liszt, who is certainly the ultimate musician for Hungarians, as much as Petőfi is the ultimate poet, he chose to be Hungarian. Liszt, despite badly speaking Hungarian throughout his entire life, claimed himself as Hungarian, and is today one of the country’s most renowned historical figures; Petőfi, who was born with the Slavic name Petrovics, is also one of them.
By Louise Ostermann Twardowski
A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg and Budapest, and is passionate about Central European history, culture and literature.