Sándor Kisfaludy

At the same time as the forty-two year-old would-be literary dictator Kazinczy emerged from prison, a hitherto unknown young nobleman published a volume of love poetry which immediately won him recognition and popular acclaim previously unknown in Hungary. A near-contemporary testimony given by an English traveller provides a glimpse of the literary significance of the event: ‘I can only say that Hungarians, with whom I have spoken, men conversant with French, German, Italian, and some even with English literature, speak with a rapture of the late poems of Kisfaludy, which, after all fair allowances for national feeling, obliges me to believe that their merit is of the first order.’ The poems referred to were The Loves of Himfy (Bitter Love, 1801; Happy Love, 1807), published originally without disclosing the name of their author, whose poetry owed much to the traditions of the főrangú lyric, unlike the writers of Kazinczy’s circle who considered themselves innovators.

Born in 1772 into one of the most ancient Hungarian noble families in Transdanubia, young Kisfaludy received the traditional education of the nobility – gimnázium and law school – after which he entered the Hungarian bodyguard in Vienna. His licentious life in the Imperial capital earned him a dishonourable discharge, and the dashing young officer was transferred to an ordinary regiment stationed in Northern Italy. The changing fortunes of the Napoleonic wars then made him a French prisoner of war in Provence.

While he had been trying his hand at poetry from an early age, it was in Provence, partly under the influence of French Rococo and Classicism and partly inspired by Petrarch, whose spell he fell under while in Italy, that Kisfaludy composed most of Bitter Love. As the title suggests, it is elegiac in tone. The real-life hero of many amorous adventures, in the guise of Himfy, sings about ‘the haughty beauty’ whose favours are denied him. The loosely composed story has few turns. The rejected lover in his desperation seeks death in the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. After his return Himfy entertains new hopes which are crushed by the merciless Lisa’s second rejection. Bitter Love is presented in a cycle of poems consisting of a sequence of cantos and songs. There are twenty cantos,*Canto 21 remained a fragment. making up the narrative, each followed by ten songs. The songs provide a lyrical accompaniment to the theme presented in the cantos, contrasting the happy moments of the past with the gloomy present, musing about the contradictory desires of the heart and the mind. His success was due largely to the idyllic cravings of his readers for the traditional way of life of the nobility (the majority of them were nobleman), and his strong appeal to the emotions of both sexes.

The cycle is written in what became known as the Kisfaludy stanza, containing 12 lines presenting the theme in the first 8 lines (exposition) and concluding it in the last 4. Its rhyme and beat scheme is rather simple, it was developed alongside the technique employed by Amade and Gyöngyösi, with slight improvements. There are three four-line units composed of lines consisting of 8 and 7 syllables. In the first two units of four lines the syllables alternate: 8-7-8-7, with matching rhyme scheme ABAB and CDCD The last four lines are, however, without alternation, i.e. 8-8-7-7, and the rhymes are couplets: EEFF. The execution of the stanzas is flawless, producing, however, a somewhat artificial effect. The language of the poems bears witness to the indiscriminate use of dialect words, obsolete and newly-coined words. Kisfaludy cannot be regarded as a conscious innovator in matters relating to the language; he used words from all sources as they suited him.

The second part of the The Loves of Himfy was written after he had married the young lady whom he had earlier courted unsuccessfully in Bitter Love. The thematic variations are less numerous in Happy Love than in the first part, although Kisfaludy succeeded in painting the landscapes of his native Transdanubia with genuine inspiration. The versification of Happy Love is inferior to Bitter Love and the cycle remained unfinished, yet his idyllic sketches of provincial life captivated his readers, though not all of his critics. Kazinczy strongly criticized his provincialism, which he termed a lack of ‘elevated style’. This criticism contributed to Kisfaludy’s hostility to Kazinczy’s circle – he was one of the chief enemies of the reformers.

His interest in the local history of the Balaton area made him write a series of narrative poems (rege) using local legends as points of departure for romantic love stories (e.g. Csobánc, Tátika, Somló). The economy of their constructions and a peculiar lyric atmosphere account for their success. After the 1820s his inspiration seemed to decline, and his later works reveal very little of the power of the Himfy and rege period. Kisfaludy and the ageing Kazinczy came to terms over their ideas about literature, mostly in reaction to the debut of the young Romantic authors of the Aurora Circle, whose new voices gradually suppressed and surpassed both Kazinczy’s authoritative sentences and the faltering voice of Kisfaludy whose last years were spent in almost complete isolation; and he died, forgotten, in 1844.