Dániel Berzsenyi

It was János Kis, Kazinczy’s disciple in Sopron, who discovered Berzsenyi’s literary talent. Nothing could be further from the urbane, sophisticated ideals of Kazinczy’s circle than the parochial straightforwardness of this robust, solemn nobleman. Berzsenyi, an archetype of the ideals of the Hungarian nobility, was born in a small Transdanubian village in 1776 and educated in the grammar school of Sopron. Most of his life he spent farming at his family estates at Nikla, occasionally visiting his literary friends, and quietly suppressing his wish to move to Pest, the centre of literary activity. After Kölcsey’s stern criticism he wrote less and less poetry, and by the time he died in 1836 he was taking very little part in the thriving literary life.

Berzsenyi’s poetry – the chronology of which has not been satisfactorily established – was based on his deep respect for traditions, and on an almost fanatical devotion to the classical Latin poetry, particularly to Horace. The former characteristic of his poetry marks him as the last representative of the traditional trend (magyaros iskola), the latter as a successor of the classicist triad and Virág. At the same time his subjective moods often break the restrained classical forms, and his love for tradition represents a higher order of values than simply the extolling of the external features of the traditional way of life. The fashionable ideas of the Enlightenment, or the outburst of Romantic excesses in his contemporaries both at home and abroad in the latter part of his life, left him untouched. Like all genuine poets, he was preoccupied with his own sensibilities; he longed for harmony, tranquillity, and a balance of the inner self. By forcing himself to accept and praise the envied golden mean of his idol, Horace, Berzsenyi achieved contentment with his fate, yet his poetry reveals a nervous vibration, a tension accentuated by the extremity of his images, notions of monumentality and robustness interchanged with suddenly subdued tones. The effect conveyed, curiously enough, is not Romantic, although excesses and extremes do characterise the Romantic mood, but rather one of a pulsating radiation of power.

For it is this power that first strikes the reader of Berzsenyi’s poetry, whose themes are limited to his concern with the decay of the individual, which is projected either on the community (the nation) or on the world surrounding him (nature). This notion of decay springs from an inner uncertainty: Berzsenyi perceives the world in motion, and this creates an uneasiness in him, a constant awareness of the beginning and the end. No other aspect of existence is important for Berzsenyi, because everything moves unceasingly, without resisting, towards an end, hence his everrecurring sense of decay. The struggle against this dominant sensation produces boundless energies, and these energies erupt like volcanoes.

The theme of the decay of the nation takes the form of a comparison between its former glory and its present pitiful state, and it is dressed in classical imagery and allusions: ‘The iron hand of the long centuries causes upheavals. / The noble Ilion is in ruin. / The power of proud Carthage is gone. / Rome and mighty Babylon have fallen.’ Historic upheavals are contrasted to activity in the microcosm: ‘It is slow poison and slow death that now consumes everything. / Look: the proud oak, not felled by the northern / gale, has its firm roots ground by worms growing inside.’*‘Ode to the Hungarians’ (final version, 1810). The same theme appears repeatedly (e.g. ‘Ode to Prince Esterházy’, ‘To the Eighteenth Century’, ‘The Battle of Ulm’), and Berzsenyi always maintains his thundering voice and cosmic dimensions. His concept of decay bears no relation to the Romantic notion of nemzethalál – the classical tone and the overwhelming force of his lines make his vision incompatible with that of the Romantics.

Decay, when it appears in nature, is presented in a subdued voice and elegiac manner, no havoc brought about by the forces of nature, but an almost unnoticeable evanescence bringing on the withering of the foilage and the mood of the poet. In ‘Winter Approaching’ Berzsenyi evokes the bygone beauties of the summer, whose absence now conjures up a vision of the approaching winter, the oppressive images of which confront the memory of more pleasant seasons. The elegiac mood makes way for a personal confession: ‘winged time’ flies by, ‘my beautiful spring leaves me, yet I hardly tasted its nectar, I hardly touched its fragile flowers’. On another occasion a landscape receives exclusively personal treatment. The elegiac lines of ‘Farewell to Kemenesalja’, the birthplace of Berzsenyi, evoke memories of his childhood and youth, and the occasion of his parting with the well-known landscape takes on a profound significance; the departure appears to be final and irrevocable, like death.

Berzsenyi occasionally succeeds in assuming a contented mood, as in ‘My Lot’. The poetic stock-taking of his commodities raises the question: ‘Should I ask for more from the gracious gods?’ The answer is no, if the Muse stays with him even when ‘I tumble on the eternal snow of Greenland, or on the burning hot sand of the Saracens’.

Berzsenyi, like Kölcsey, wrote little – his life’s work amounts to a couple of hundred poems. He used almost exclusively the classical forms, among which he preferred the ode, the elegy, and the poetic epistle. His poetic images were original, frequently giving the effect of free association, (e.g. ‘to paint the moss on the ash-urn purple’, or ‘to groan under the colourful leash of glittering tide’). When Kölcsey accused him of mixing metaphors, he proudly rejected the accusation, and at the same time defended the principle on which modern poetry rests:

Expressions like ‘the circular flames of a dithyramb’, ‘the Alps of steam-barricades’ displease me too, if I look at them coldly. But are we supposed to look at them coldly? Let us assume the exalted spirit in which they are written, then we shall immediately realize that these images are nothing else but the natural dress of the exalted spirit, i.e. the exalted images of an exalted imagination.

The realization of this principle is the reason why Berzsenyi’s classicism is not classicism in the ordinary sense, but rather a revolt of words, the liberation of the imagination within the frame of classical forms.

At the same time, it indicates the special place occupied by Berzsenyi in the development of poetry; his revolt against classicism was instinctive, he employed the forms, but his energies burst out of the classical restraint. He never became a Romantic, unlike his contemporaries who followed the inevitable road from Classicism to Romanticism; Berzsenyi stands alone and aloof, a solitary figure of heroic proportions.