The most famous Hungarian would have been 200 years old today.
Sandor Petofi would have celebrated his 200th birthday this year. Countless programs and opportunities bring attention to this celebration. If you ask a Hungarian to name a poet, he will be the first one who comes to mind.
For many, his name is connected with the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, or his famous poem, “My mother’s hen”, however, he was much more than that. At this time, we will put aside the biographical and historical trivia and try to present him to you from a much more personal perspective.
How did he bring a fateful turn to the Hungarian literature and to our country? What inspired his poetry during the 7 short years, while he created and brought sacrifices? Why do we hold him in such a high esteem? In brief: what makes Sándor Petőfi so “petőfi”?
Revolutionary Petőfi before the War of Independence
What kind of new was this famous poet given to the Hungarians? While most people think of him as a revolutionary, because of his role in the 1848 War of Independence, his rebellious personality was much more. Long before the revolution, his poetry already reflected how he, as a literary pauper, was completely against the norms, which was created by the noble Hungarians at the time.
Until that time, it was mainly the privileged, the nobles and the lords, who had the advantage of admiring the arts. The simple peasantry had no interest in poetry. Nor did the style of literature fit into their world at all.
Petőfi consciously opposed to this. In this way he stirred up the peaceful waters. Many criticked him for this. He pushed aside noble refinement, hypocritical elegance and rejected the rigid rules of verse.
Instead, the authentic communication of his inner, emotional world came to fore, unvarnished. He was always true to himself, and he wrote this way: in accordance with reality, which is why his career can be traced precisely almost exclusively through his poems.
He enveloped Hungarian poetry with a sense of everydayness and clarity. He was driving home in his carriage, thinking of how to greet his mother. Today, it is quite possible that, sitting on the bus on the way home, someone might be typing a few lines on their phone about a similar homecoming and their feelings. Probably even sharing it online.
Back then? It was not common for someone to expose their inner thoughts so nakedly with such simplicity, conveying everything that was stirring inside. It is true that with the advent of Romanticism, people began to deal with their emotions, but not nearly in the way Petőfi did – apparently in a puritanical way, was writing his poems from his own experience.
And what was his secret? He wrote the lines, almost without regard to rhyme and breaking rules, freely, as I am writing this article, and then with a single line he was able to declare his entire work, a work of art.
He was the first person to put into verse the landscape of the Great Plain or the Tisza. Before him, nobody cared about what was in the wilderness, at least not in literature. The nobles traveling in carriages found the plains bleak and boring. Petőfi, however, was captivated by the experience. He presented landscapes with a feeling that no one had ever done before.
Petőfi, behind the role of the poet
Have you ever thought of Sándor Petőfi as a simple, ordinary man who was born and then died? If you haven’t, try it! Forget all the clichés you have been fed about Petőfi and try to see the real person behind him! What does it mean?
Petőfi accomplished great things, but if we look closer, he had the same human qualities and traits as anyone else. He did get nervous, he did get drunk in pubs, he did fell in love, worked, then got tired and went to bed.
In today’s psychological terms, what was a huge skill he exploited was sublimation. Things happened to him, feelings arose in him and he turned them into poetry. He expressed his emotions in some kind of artistic way. However, nowadays we could call him an extrovert, since his focus was mainly on the outside world. He absorbed even the smallest details of the view.
Why did I say to see him as a man? Because every human being can express their emotions in some artistic way, just has to find its own way. Some are more extroverted, like Petőfi, and some are more introverted, focusing on emotions and inner thoughts.
Photo source: The life of Sándor Petőfi
Sándor Petőfi’s spiritual world could best be compared to a running cloud driven by the wind. It was always changing, always evolving. Sometimes it was darker, sometimes lighter and paler. In today’s terms, one could even assume that Petőfi spent a lot of time in a state of flow. He took the experience with him, and he lived it and let it out.
Patriotism, folklore, Hungarian-ism
The folk poetry style was by no means a new invention at the time, yet Petőfi is considered to be the most outstanding Hungarian folk poet. He blended a sense of nationalism with the liberalism of the West, which is an interesting mixture by itself.
He clearly considered the role of the poet of the people to be his vocation. He wrote not only as an artist, but also as a politician and as an educator. As a result, with his folk-ethnic sense of freedom, he completely bent the world, overwhelmed by romantic sentiment – he showed reality to the people through fantasy.
His most epic work, John the Valiant, is a striking example. He deliberately avoided abstraction in order to make it comprehensible to all. He reached down to the peasantry, which made up the majority of the people, and gave them poetry as a gift. He introduced the reader through natural imagery, and in the end reality becomes a fable that remains Hungarian.
This is one of the most outstanding points of Hungarian literature: it presented the peasantry with a rich emotional world and showed the nobles that they were human too. In the pastoral play, the shepherds are actually secretly princes, and the queen is the spectator.
Petőfi is the embodiment of freedom
Sándor Petőfi saw freedom as the core of his soul, as God. Not only did he sing it as an ideal, sonorously, as a symbol in his poems, but he also completely identified with it. One might reasonably assume that he was a religious man, but not at all. Although he followed the Christian religion less, he followed his own religion even more.
This religion of liberty was not entirely unique, as others were moving in a similar direction (e.g. Lajos Kossuth), but Petőfi was the only mystical believer in liberty of the time. This means, he did not envision freedom in some system of ideas, say in a religion or political system, but as a specific part of man.
Despite the great Western libertarianism and liberalism, he was not international. He considered himself Hungarian to the core, and in perhaps the most essential way of the Hungarian character he wrote:
I’m Hungarian. And my face burns in shame,
I should be ashamed that I am Hungarian!
It’s not even dawning here yet,
Elsewhere, the sun shines like that.
But for no treasure and fame in the world
I would not leave my native land,
Because I love it, I love it, I love it
Even In disgrace my nation!
I think many Hungarians live the same way, as the first half of the quotation shows, and fewer and fewer in the way the last lines say. It would be difficult to link Petőfi to America, but the universal message of his actions is free patriotism. Unlike Petőfi, Hungarians living in the USA may have left their homeland, yet they can still love their nation and their new home at the same time.
Today, Sándor Petőfi is a legend to most of us: a freedom-fighting poet, an incredible motivator and driving force for the people, who finally got rid of that one frightening thought that always bothered him: to die in bed, among pillows. He was last seen at the battle of Sighisoara, but his legacy has left an everlasting mark on the world.
Written by: Daniel Turner
Translated by: EMBA (email@example.com).
Szerb, Antal. (1978). History of Hungarian Literature. Budapest: Magveto Konyvkiado.