Mihály Csokonai Vitéz

Kazinczy was readily accepted as the unquestioned leader of literary life by a young poet whose originality left a permanent mark on Hungarian literature. Mihály Csokonai Vitéz’s allegiance to the imprisoned Kazinczy was rather an act of defiance than of principle, for Csokonai, as true artists have always been, was a rebellious mind. Of lower middle class parentage, he was born on 17 November 1773 in the largest town of Hungary at the time, Debrecen. He was educated at the College of Debrecen, an educational establishment of controversial intellectual profile: while its professors included some of the best brains of the country, its administrators and not a few of its scholars were noted for their conservatism and not infrequently for a certain degree of academic bigotry. Csokonai revealed an early talent for poetry, and was at ease with all the classical metres both in Latin and Hungarian. A promising academic career awaited him; he was appointed an assistant professor of poetics, but the jealousy of his senior colleagues, (his informal classes drew large audiences) and his own limited respect for pedantry and authority, resulted in his summary dismissal in July 1795, at the time when the Jacobin conspirators were executed in Buda. It is not unlikely that his dismissal was an indirect result of the general intimidation of the intelligentsia subsequent to the infamous trials, although Csokonai was not involved in the conspiracy and abhorred the violence of the French Revolution.

Never again did Csokonai have a proper job. He wanted to study law at the College of Sárospatak, but he gave up his plans after a while and decided to make a living by writing poetry only. He roamed restlessly throughout the country, spent some time in Pest and later in Pozsony, where he published a ‘poetic’ newspaper (Diétai Magyar Múzsa). For some time he was employed as a relief-teacher in a small town in Transdanubia, but bitterly disappointed with life he went back to his native Debrecen and spent the remaining years of his life in utter poverty. He grew tired of begging from aristocratic patrons of the arts and in one of his plays summed up his experience: ‘He who wants to be a poet in Hungary is a fool.’ Equally unlucky in his love for the daughter of a rich merchant in Komárom, immortalized in his Lilla Songs (she was married off to a rich suitor), Csokonai, a desperate and sick man by now, died a fitting death for a poet – while delivering an obituary eulogy in verse for the deceased wife of an aristocrat, he caught pneumonia of which he died on 28 January 1805. He was thirty-one. Embittered he might have been but melancholy was despised by the poet, an optimist by temperament. Even on his deathbed he was said to have been making jokes with visitors.

While at the College of Debrecen, Csokonai acquired a sound knowledge of languages and poetic forms; Italian, French, German and Persian models can be traced in his poetry. He was able to unite the gracefulness of Rococo poetry with the simplicity of Hungarian folk-songs:

I am scorched by
The all-consuming fire of a mighty love.
Beautiful little tulip!
Only you can provide balm for my wound.
The lovely sparkle in your eyes
Is the lively fire of dawn;
The dew on your lips
Dispels a thousand worries.
Respond with angelic words
To your lover’s request:
I shall repay your response
With a thousand kisses of ambrosia.

(‘A Reticent Request’)

His early poetry reflected political idealism; the young poet was full of expectations. He envisaged brighter prospects for the peasantry with the assistance of education and the disappearance of religious bigotry; it is not difficult to see in his ideals the impact of the Enlightenment and of the fermenting ideas of the growing national consciousness. At the same time he poked fun at the naïve nationalism of the nobility: he felt that showing off the national dress whenever possible was not only in bad taste, but revealed a preference for appearance only, and little interest in the material and spiritual progress of the nation (‘The Owl and the Heron’, ‘Battle of the Frogs and Mice’ – the latter being an adaptation or, as Csokonai called it, a ‘travesty’, of an ancient parody of Homer).

His social criticism rests on solid Rousseauesque foundations. A nostalgia for ‘the golden age’ when the greed for private possessions did not corrupt mankind makes the poet turn in his desperation to the moon, which has an entirely different significance here from that given to it in the imagery of contemporary Sentimentalist poetry:

It is you only, golden moonlight,
where plots are not measured yet,
and it is you, invigorating air, which
is untouched by the instruments of the land-surveyors.

(‘The Evening’)

The poem ‘Constantinople’, for example, is a strong attack on what he thought to be the ‘dark forces’ of the Church, disguised as a description of the Muslim religion, but leaving little doubt as to what he was aiming at.

In this first period of poetic activity Csokonai also attempted to write plays. The Dreamy Tempefői (1793) was never completed. It contains social criticism directed against class distinction with ample opportunity for satiric comment. The hero is a dreamy poet who, because of a debt incurred by the printing of his verse, lands in trouble. When it is revealed that he is of aristocratic origin his position immediately improves; he is treated as a different person with due respect for his rank. The dialogue is sparkling and the characterization of the minor figures is remarkable.

Csokonai’s second period, after his dismissal from the College of Debrecen in 1795, is dominated by a strong personal lyricism as opposed to the political message of his earlier works. The chronology of his poetry is uncertain, and a number of poems in the collection Lilla Songs (Nagyvárad,1805) may have been written prior to 1795, before his unhappy romance with the daughter of a rich merchant in Komárom. The Lilla Songs, though not exclusively addressed to Lilla, are however a complete cycle of love-poetry, expressing as many poetical moods as there are poems in the cycle. The variety of the moods includes restrained emotions expressed by graceful Rococo lines, boundless ebullience, or playful flirtation, bitter complaints of a deserted lover, utter despondency, or the serenity of fulfilled love:

Now in the jasmine arbour
On this cool summer eve
I sit close to my Lille
And play the game of kisses
While her brown pretty tresses
Zephyr’s whisper caresses.*Excerpt from ‘Happiness’. Translated by Paul Tábori.

There are poems which are conceived in the traditional Rococo galanterie; nature, flowers, or fruits remind the poet of his Lilla, as in ‘The Strawberry’ where beauty of the colours, fragrances, and shapes of fruits are all claimed to be worthy of the table of the gods, but all fall short of comparison to Lilla, because:

I will see thee,
lovely strawberry,
On the table of the Gods;
If thy tongue could find a language
Or a kiss, thou would resemble
Lilla’s ever beauteous lips.*Excerpt, translated by John Bowring.

The poem that concludes the cycle, ‘To Hope’, is noteworthy for its perfect construction and virtuoso technique. Its four stanzas evoke a range of moods: starting with an ironic invocation, then cherishing nostalgic memories when favoured by Hope, changing the mood to a reflective account of the cause of grief, ending on a rising tone of universal despair, a farewell cry for the loss of Lilla:

Depart from me, O cruel Hope!
     Depart and come no more;
For blinded by your power I grope
     Along a bitter shore.
My strength has fail’d, for I am riven
     By all thy doubt and dearth;
My tired spirit longs for heaven
     My body yearns for earth
I see the meadows overcome
     With dark consuming blight;
The vocal grove today is dumb,
     The sun gives place to night.
I cannot tune this trill o’mine!
     My thoughts are all at sea!
Ah, heart! Ah, hope! Ah, Lilla mine!
     May God remember thee!*Excerpt, translated by Watson Kirkconnell.

The imagery of the poem is derived from nature and the rhyming is effortless. While in Transdanubia Csokonai wrote a comic epic Dorottya (Nagyvárad, 1804) which he subtitled ‘The Triumph of the Ladies at the Carnival. A Strange Heroic Poem in four parts.’ The ‘strange heroines’ are old maids led by the indefatigable Dorothy against Prince Carnival, angry that the time allotted by him is too short to get married. The register of births is an object they desperately want to get hold of, so that they can erase the record of their ages (Dorothy is sixty years old!) and pass themselves off as still eligible for marriage. In the ensuing, hilarious ‘battle of the sexes’ the younger women also join in eventually. When Venus arrives unexpectedly and rejuvenates the old maids, their reconciliation with the opposite sex is instant, bringing about the happy relief of marriage. Csokonai made use of the classical epic tradition (e.g. the guests of the ball are induced to quarrel by the goddess of strife, Eris). He may have been influenced by Pope’s Rape of the Lock, though he is not consciously satirical, but rather depicts Transdanubian society with effects near to the burlesque. The construction of the epic rests on the classical unities of time, place, and action. Descriptions of the mock-battle scenes between the ladies and the gentlemen (Part III) are full of robust humour; but behind the overdrawn characters, as behind the masks in a fancy-dress ball, we find the sad faces of the country nobility with their provincial solitude, lack of refinement, and earthy jokes.

His comedy The Widow of Mr Karnyó and the Two Rascals (1799) is an occasional play. The amorous inclinations of an ageing shopkeeper are made use of by two suitors who are after her wealth. Their intrigues against each other are the source of comic situations. Eventually the husband, who had been believed dead, returns; he has been a prisoner of war in France. Mrs Karnyó poisons herself, the scoundrels and the husband also drop dead, but a good fairy brings them to life – they cannot escape the ridiculous situation. The play is concluded with a ‘serious’ epilogue advocating national unity and action against the French (it is the time of the Napoleonic wars); hence the occasional character of the play, which, in spite of its improvized plot, provides an outlet for Csokonai’s comic talent.

His last years, spent in poverty in his home town, Debrecen, and in a constant struggle against his failing health, saw a last outburst of the desire to celebrate life. The result was a collection of Anacreontic songs. The concluding poem of the series, ‘The Grave of Hafiz’, commemorates the ‘sweet songster of the Orient’: it is a celebration of the pleasures of life, sung by a solo female voice and answered by a chorus. Csokonai’s last poems reveal his resignation to the transience of human existence (‘Over the Grave of Dr Földi’, ‘On my Pneumonia’). He was perplexed by the eternal question of ‘to be or not to be’, and feverishly sought an answer in the study of nature in the botanical garden of the College (‘To Lieutenant Fazekas’); in another poem he pondered on the immortality of the soul (‘Funeral Songs’). The funeral song, an ancient and popular Hungarian genre, was usually written by occasional verse-writers; Csokonai, however, was able to charge the unassuming occasional verse with poetry which at times assumes a sublimity indicating the greatness Csokonai might have achieved had he lived.

Csokonai succeeded in publishing only a few of his works during his lifetime. His Lilla Songs were published after his death; unfortunately they were overshadowed by the enormous success of Himfy by Sándor Kisfaludy. Refined critics often declared him coarse, sometimes even vulgar; what they really resented was that Csokonai did not accept contemporary tastes, but stuck to his own. His life and his poetry are difficult to reconcile: behind the playful, light Rococo poetry lay the reality of his insecure day-to-day existence.

Among his intellectual friends at Debrecen was Mihály Fazekas (1766-1828), a retired, educated Hussar officer who spent most of his days studying the natural sciences in a manner befitting a gentleman-officer, and also wrote poetry expressing his enlightened disgust with warfare and violence. His Lúdas Matyi, written in 1804 (Vienna, 1817), is very probably based on a folk-tale, whose exact origin has provoked much scholarly discussion.

Matyi, the hero, suffers a gross injustice at the hands of the servants of the local squire when he attempts to sell his geese at the market (hence his name: ‘Lúdas’). The plot revolves around Matyi’s cunning scheme to avenge himself, for he decides to ‘repay the haughty squire three times’. The episodes abound in humorous and unexpected turns. Fazekas develops his story with economy and skill, the plot is realistic in detail with sound observations of characters. The single-mindedness with which Matyi learns various trades in order to approach Döbrögi, the squire, without arousing suspicion, does much credit to its author, while Döbrögi is a well-observed, typical Hungarian squire, no better and no worse than others of his type.

The popularity of this short peasant narrative was due to the authentic way Matyi succeeded in acting out his revenge-fantasies. Matyi is the first hero in Hungarian literature in whom the have-nots are victorious over the haves. This is a new aspect of the népies literature; it has a definite social message – the have-nots, at the bottom of the social ladder; can expect to rise and have their say only if they have the will and persistence to improve their social standing by learning a trade or profession as Matyi did. The népies literature that culminated in the poetry of Petőfi explicitly catered for the need of ‘the people’, rendering them social justice at least in literature; at the same time, by producing an awareness of social inequalities, it hoped to serve social progress.

We have no reason to suspect that Fazekas wrote Lúdas Matyi on the basis of a consciously népies ideology; more likely the memories of his early experiences (he served in the army as a private for seven years before being commissioned) and the philanthropic ideas of the Enlightenment accounted for his sensitivity to social injustice.

Debrecen never became in the strict sense a centre for Hungarian letters, although its College definitely had a place in the intellectual life of the country in the eighteenth century. From the beginning of the nineteenth century Pest achieved prominence and in a short time became the capital not only of Hungary, but of Hungarian letters as well. The greatest unifying force responsible for its status was the language reform, perhaps the most important single factor in the realization of irodalmi tudat.