Mihály Vörösmarty

Every age produces a poet who represents its main aspiration. When the twenty-five year-old Vörösmarty published his epic poem, The Flight of Zalán, in 1825 he fulfilled the literary expectations of a nation. Even a cursory glance at the state of literature at the turn of the eighteen and nineteen centuries would convince anyone that the main preoccupation of poets and writers alike was with the national past. It was to quote the opening words of the epic, the ‘ancient glory’ (régi dicsőség) of their forefathers that poets sang about, writers dwelled upon, and historians researched ceaselessly. Underlying the popular national pastime lay an all-pervading notion, nurtured by generations of intellectuals since the Turkish occupation, that Hungarians had received an unfair deal from fate. Taking refuge in past glories served a useful purpose: by compensating for the injuries done to the national pride, it strengthened self-respect, which in turn, encouraged faith in a better future. This artificial restoration of national consciousness produced undesirable side-effects. It was one of the cardinal aspects in shaping irodalmi tudat that Hungarians often compared themselves not, curiously enough, with their neighbours who fared no better in history – the Poles or the Czechs – but with the powerful nations of Western Europe. These comparisons were bound to inflict imaginary wounds on the national ego.

When attention was turned to the national past, the scanty evidence of that past offered only a few clues to the existence of a national epic which may or may not have been comparable to the great epics of the Germans, the Nibelungenlied, or to Beowulf. Since the Finnish epic Kalevala was discovered later, and published in 1835 only, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the unproven fear shared by many was that small nations probably never possessed an epic, that an epic of the warrior-forefathers seemed to be a prerogative of powerful nations. This unspoken assumption urged the Hungarians to produce a substitute which would make up for the possible deficiency in their national history. Most of the poets at one stage in their career planned a spectacular epic to commemorate in heroic hexameters how Árpád and his bold fellow-warriors conquered the land that became theirs, with the Aeneid in mind as their ultimate model.

The task seemed insurmountable. When minor poets produced epics (e.g. Sándor Aranyosrákosi Székely), their efforts did not even live up to the expectations of contemporary readers and critics, who were not particularly fastidious in this respect, for they all eagerly awaited the long overdue birth of a true national epic. This explains the tremendous acclaim that greeted The Flight of Zalán.

In spite of first winning fame by writing a classical epic, a somewhat paradoxical beginning to his career, Vörösmarty became the greatest Hungarian Romantic poet, whose mastery both of poetic form and of language remains unrivalled. As to the epic, the timeliness of its subject was accentuated by the date it appeared. 1825 was the year the Hungarian Diet reassembled after twelve long years’ adjournment; Hungary had been under absolute government ever since Emperor Francis had dissolved the Diet in 1812 for refusing to agree to his financial demands. The opening of the new Diet indicated the beginning of a new era. Those latent forces which had been responsible for the national revival in the last quarter of a century came into the open; this parliament and the subsequent ones, in spite of Viennese opposition, initiated large-scale political, social, and economic reforms, affecting the structure of Hungarian society. For this reason, it is customary to refer to the period between 1825 and 1848 as the Age of Reform (Reformkor).

The subject of The Flight of Zalán is the conquest of Hungary, based on the narrative of Anonymus. It centres on the battle of Alpár, in which Árpád defeats his most formidable enemy, Zalán, the ruler of the Bulgarians whose country lies between the Danube and Tisza. Three streams of epic action, all with their counterpart in the Aeneid, run parallel. Árpád, the great leader and father-figure of his people, fights Zalán and his general Viddin, a man of Herculean proportions. Ete, the young and idealistic Hungarian warrior, fights the diabolical Bulgarian hero Csorna ‘who cares nought for God or man’. In heaven Hadúr (The God of Hosts), the national God of the Hungarians, fights and conquers his arch-enemy, Ármány (probably modelled on the Zoroastrian deity Ahriman). A love-story is skilfully interwoven into the plot; Ete loves Hajna, the beautiful daughter of an old Hungarian warrior. Ete’s rival is the Fairy of the South, whose temptations Hajna resists, and the lovers are reunited at the end.

Vörösmarty’s epic contains descriptive passages of incomparable magic and Oriental splendour. It is forceful and charming, gentle and riotous, playful and majestic at the same time, and the masterly flow of the hexameters is effortlessly maintained throughout the epic. The main device in Vörösmarty’s imagery is the use of light and shadow which produces a strong visual effect. This constant use of light effects is consistent with the primaeval aspects of the epic, in which light is life, darkness is death, and it may be symbolic that Árpád has removed the visor on his helmet, so that when his last day comes, he ‘can see the fair fields of the earth and the sparkling skies for the last time’.

Critics pointed out, however, that the figures of the leading heroes in the epic do not stand out in portraiture from among the multitude of minor characters and mythological creatures. The enemy leaders are at least differentiated; the Hungarians, on the other hand, tend to be monotonously idealized warriors. Árpád, though he is invested with all the virtues of the perfect soldier and leader, remains a shadowy figure, of whom we see nothing for long periods. In the title Vörösmarty revealed a somewhat unconscious sympathy for the defeated enemy: the last lines portray the beaten Zalán who flees to Belgrade: ‘wrapped in grief, he looked only from afar on his own’. On the other hand, Ete and Hajna are infused with all the charm of youth, love, and heroism, perhaps on account of Vörösmarty’s autobiographical inspiration in the creation of the graceful Hajna (a memory of his youthful, undeclared love for Etelka Perczel in whose family he had been a tutor for some time).

His creative power was also manifested in his mythological figures. Jung once claimed that if the collective traditions of mankind were erased from its memory without trace the next generation would recreate the entire human mythology. This is precisely what one feels when reading about Hadúr, Ármány and the other deities and fairies in Vörösmarty’s epic; he recreated a lost mythical tradition for the Hungarians.

This poet whose epic gained the admiration of a grateful nation was born at Kápolnásnyék, a small village south-west of Budapest in Transdanubia on 1 December 1800, not long before Kazinczy was released from prison. The short quarter of a century that elapsed between Kazinczy’s early struggles for language reform and the publication of The Flight of Zalán in a poetic diction inconceivable by him indicates the remarkable growth of Hungarian literature.

Coming from an impoverished noble family, Vörösmarty was educated in Székesfehérvár and then in the famous Piarist gimnázium of Pest. The Piarist school might well be called the nursery of the Age of Reform; it had a long tradition of service to Hungarian literature and the patriotic cause. In addition to Vörösmarty, Bajza and Toldy also studied there, as did a number of leading politicians, including Count István Széchenyi, and General Mór Perczel of the revolutionary Hungarian Honvéd army, whose father employed Vörösmarty as a tutor to his children.

Ths success of The Flight of Zalán was followed up with a series of heroic epics. Cserhalom (1825) relates an episode of the Cumanian attack on Hungary in the eleventh century; Eger (1827) is a tribute to the heroic defence of that town against the Turks in 1552. In Cserhalom Vörösmarty shifts the emphasis to the love episode and the history remains in the background, with the result that the characters became more life-like. In The Valley of the Fairies (1826) and in the unfinished Island of the South (1826) Vörösmarty abandons the historical disguise, and in both narrative poems (The Valley, written in four-line alexandrines, and The Island, in hexameters) projects his unrequited love for Etelka Perczel into a timeless world created by his Romantic imagination. Although The Valley of the Fairies seems to have vague references to the prehistoric times of the Hungarians, these allusions are confined to a few personal and geographical names only, because the plot revolves around the rivalry of Csaba and Döngöre for the fair maiden Jeve. The Island of the South is, on the other hand, purely allegorical. The island itself embodies the most essential symbol of Romantic escapism. It is faraway, secluded, mysterious, and exciting at the same time, and it has different aspects (like Defoe’s island in Robinson Crusoe or Stevenson’s Treasure Island). Vörösmarty’s island perhaps contains an allegory of the prehistory of mankind, but as he never completed the poem, we cannot be sure of its interpretation. The existing fragment, rich in poetic images of an Oriental kind, had the promise of a masterpiece.

His other, shorter epics include Széplak (1828) which is set in the fifteenth century, and is a story of jealousy. It was followed by Rom (1830): Rom (Ruin), a deity invented by Vörösmarty, promises to fulfil three wishes of the first pilgrim who visits his desolate abode. A young man happens to pass by, and Rom grants him three wishes: the first is for solitude, the second for human company, and the third for happy love; but he is overcome by restlessness, and his craving for the pleasures of civilized life makes him abandon his pastoral happiness and drift on. He comes across a people ravaged by internal strife and enslaved by a foreign power, and longs to liberate them, but Rom does not grant his fourth wish. Vörösmarty shows how the young man’s restless longing, the insatiability of his wishes, have ruined his idyllic life; and he also makes it clear that individual happiness cannot be separated from the common welfare of the nation. The last of Vörösmarty’s epics, The Two Neighbouring Castles (1832), written in hexameters and divided into four cantos, is a knightly romance set against thirteenth-century historical background. It is a story of a family feud, told with intense ferocity: it is full of blood and horror, enough to jade the palate of any reader.

Some of these epics are on themes which are clearly unsuitable for heroic treatment (both Széplak and The Two Neighbouring Castles would make better ballads), and Vörösmarty himself grew tired of hexameters. Surveying his epics, one is struck, besides the Romantic features, by the abundance of Oriental colours in them. Superficially their presence may be explained by the influence of The Arabian Nights, which he had translated into Hungarian. On a deeper level, however, the brilliant colours of the Orient were a consequence of a preoccupation with the East present not only in Vörösmarty, but in other writers; it can be seen, for instance, in the highly Romantic novels of Jókai in the first period of his creative career. This preoccupation with the East is not simply the Romantic yearnings of an exalted spirit, as it was with many Western writers (e.g. Coleridge in Kubla Khan); it stems from a subconscious uncertainty, from the contradiction between the Eastern origins of the Hungarians and their place and aspirations in Western civilization. Certain aspects of Hungarian traditions show markedly Eastern features: Hungarian music, for example, with its characteristic pentatonic scale; or the language itself, with its Eastern overtones. What emerged in Vörösmarty’s epic simply as exotic features presented a real dilemma to most of his contemporaries and to later generations. The conflict between East and West manifested itself on many levels, not only in the vaguely traceable traits of the national character, but as a clear alternative springing from an inner uncertainty: where do the Hungarians belong? Progressive intellectuals have always stressed that, ever since the nation accepted Christianity, Hungary has belonged to the Western family of nations, while disappointed nationalists have found a refuge in the eastern traditions, filling out the meagre facts with fiction.

The dilemma of East versus West also appeared in the shorter lyrics of Vörösmarty: ‘The Hungarian looks West, and then looks back to the East with dismal eyes; he is an isolated, brotherless branch of his race’ (‘Zrínyi’, 1828). This sense of alienation, of not belonging wholly either to the Western family of nations or to the East, caused much gloom in the intellectual climate of the Romantic era. Surrounded by growing pan-Slavism and pan-Germanism, the Hungarians felt more acutely than ever before that Herder’s prophecy sounded a note of truth. This was bound to result in many intellectuals of mediocre stature being overcome by self-pity, while in the case of outstanding writers of Romantic vision like Kölcsey and Vörösmarty it inevitably led to the recurring nightmare of nemzethalál. Vörösmarty’s vision (in his ‘Appeal’, 1836) of an entire nation being engulfed in a gigantic communal grave, while other European nations simply stand by and look on, was perhaps even more suggestive than was the sombre picture Kölcsey presented in ‘Zrínyi’s Second Song’. In Vörösmarty’s ‘Appeal’ nemzethalál appeared as only one alternative, for he also envisaged ‘a better age’ which was bound to come. ‘Appeal’ became a sort of second national anthem for Hungarians on account of its basic premiss: its irresistible message demanded unconditional and unflinching loyalty from each member of the then emerging nation.

By 1830 Vörösmarty’s fame, won by The Flight of Zalán, was fully consolidated. He gave up his tutorship with the Perczel family in 1826 and moved to Buda. In the same year he was offered the editorship of the leading periodical of the day, Scholarly Miscellanea, and his financial difficulties were over. Thus he became a professional intellectual whose day-to-day existence was not endangered by insecurity. In 1826 he was also elected an ordinary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and his first collected works were published in 1833.

The first period of Vörösmarty’s creative career can be regarded as coming to a close in these years. Its main characteristic had been the use of classical metres, with the predominance of the hexameter. It was also in these years that the memory of his one-sided love affair with Etelka Perczel, though leaving a permanent scar, ceased to torture him. He continued to write narrative poems, but the fire and excessive colours seemed to have gone; the style of his compositions was coming to be marked by a brevity and economy more typical of the ballad form (e.g. ‘Student Gábor’, 1830). One of the best of Vörösmarty’s narrative poem is ‘Fair Ilonka’ (1833), the story of a romantic love-affair between a forester’s grand-daughter and the disguised King Matthias. The poem is full of moving and tender charm, and Vörösmarty excelled in the psychological observation of the three characters: the King, Ilonka, and her grandfather Peterdi. The King, hunting in the Vértes mountains and annoyed by his bad luck, is perplexed when, instead of the quarry he expected, he catches sight of a girl. The gentle stranger is invited by fair Ilonka to supper: her grandfather proposes a toast to the King, who sits there unrecognized, and has come perhaps with adventure in mind. But the honesty and honour of the old forester and childish innocence of Ilonka touch the disguised King; he invites them to Buda. It is in Buda that old Peterdi and Ilonka realize who their guest is; they recognize him by chance in a pageant they happen to witness. Saying little, they return home heartbroken.

The delicacy of these character-sketches reveals the preeminently lyrical quality of Vörösmarty’s genius. The hidden love of Ilonka, the embarrassment of the King faced with the awkward situation, and the gentle consolation offered by old Peterdi, who foresaw the inevitability of the tragedy which has stricken the innermost being of his lonely grandchild, reflect a deep understanding of human relations and an exceptional ability to depict their precarious equilibrium.

In the second period of Vörösmarty’s creative career, the place of the epic was taken over by the drama. He had experimented with plays ever since 1820 when he first became acquainted with Shakespeare, but his youthful efforts show only the author’s lack of experience. In 1831, however, he succeeded in creating a masterpiece, Csongor and Tünde, which surpasses all the dramas that he wrote before or after it. In fact, his reputation as a playwright rests solely on this light-hearted piece. Csongor and Tünde is regarded by many of his critics as the climax of his poetic achievement. Basing his plot on a sixteenth-century széphistória, the Árgirus romance, and probably influenced in his treatment of the subject by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Vörösmarty sets out to explore the possible answers to the questions: Are human beings capable of achieving happiness? Is there a kind of happiness that completely satisfies man? The answer Vörösmarty gives to the ageless question wrapped in the glittering fairy-tale is straightforward: the sole source of human happiness can only be reciprocated love. As a philosophy about the meaning of life, Vörösmarty’s answer is sincere and devoid of pretensions and, even more remarkable, it ignores the Christian tradition of ‘higher’ aims or of spiritual compensation in the other world; thus it is a worldly and pagan, if not hedonistic, philosophy.

The young hero Csongor*The summary and analysis of Csongor and Tünde is based largely on the essay by D. Mervyn Jones; all quotations are his translation. is loved by the fairy, Tünde. Csongor has just abandoned his search for the ideal of his dreams. In his own words: ‘I have travelled in every country, every distant land, and the one who lives in my dreams, the glorious heavenly beauty, I have found nowhere on earth.’ ‘The glorious heavenly beauty’ is merely an abstraction for the reader at this stage, since Vörösmarty does not reveal the object of Csongor’s romantic yearnings. Tünde, however, has planted a ‘fairy-tree’ in Csongor’s garden, which entices him to look for her. Having met Tünde Csongor’s love is aroused, but the evil power of the witch (Mirígy) separates them. It seems that he has lost what he was looking for, and the play is about how he regains the object of his love, Tünde, from Fairyland. For Tünde is forced to return to her heavenly abode, because of the spell Mirígy has cast over her by cutting off a lock of her hair. Csongor starts searching for her all over the world, and the only clue to the whereabouts of his beloved is the enigmatic remark made by Tünde’s companion that ‘the middle of three roads which meet on a plain will lead to his goal’.

So we find Csongor vainly attempting to identify the ‘middle’ of the three roads at the beginning of Act II. Three travellers are approaching: a Merchant, a Prince, and a Scholar. Their values are quite different from those of Csongor: ‘Fairyland is here in my pocket’ claims the Merchant: ‘Fairyland is where I am: come, be my knight’ replies the Prince to Csongor’s inquiry; and the Scholar shows his contempt for the childish dream of the poets and his pity for Csongor’s effort to find the land of his dreams, Fairyland. Csongor finds the cold rationalism of the Scholar particularly repulsive: ‘as if death were walking on living feet bearing a barren grave in place of a warm heart’.

He sums up their pretentious claims when they have resumed their journey:

‘And is this all for which man lives? Dark, empty, boundless breast, O terrible must be thy loneliness! So my travellers will not set me on the path. One embraces base dust as an idol, the second would lay the world in ruins, just that he might be its master. And the third is the most horrible of all …O Love, light a star for me, and be my guide to reach Fairyland.’

Just as Csongor concludes his monologue, he hears a cry from another, unexpected character, Balga, who has just fallen from the branch of a tree, his appearance strikes a note of comic relief. Balga calls himself the ‘tailor of the barren earth’ who ‘clothes it with ears of corn’. His vision of life is earthbound – his path takes him in and out of taverns. His story is that he was about to hang himself, because he too was separated from his beloved, who immediately after their betrothal grew wings and left him. Csongor realizes that Balga’s sweetheart has been transformed into none other than Tünde’s fairy attendant, Ilma. Balga is accepted then by Csongor as his somewhat Sancho Panzaesque companion in his search, primarily because he thinks that ‘Fortune favours the foolish’.*Balga means foolish in Hungarian. The down-to-earth character of Csongor’s companion lends the drama the same contrasting robustness which the mechanicals impart to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the same time Balga’s sane common sense is also a source of balance between lofty idealism and pedestrian realism.

They discover the footprints of their beloved ones, but they are dogged by three goblins, whose presence gives Vörösmarty a chance to introduce new fairytale devices (the invisible mantle, the running sandal, and the whip which starts the sandal running) to assist or rather to hinder Csongor on his way, for only the goblins know the magic words by which the running sandals can be stopped, and Csongor who tricked the goblins out of their inheritance meets Balga again in the Land of Dawn. Their trials are far from being over: they are bewitched by Mirígy and her magic well; tempted by visions of sensual love; overcome, first Balga by fatigue (which the goblins are quick to exploit), then Csongor by sleep; in the meantime Tünde and Ilma come to the Land of Night, where the Queen condemns them to perpetual banishment from Fairyland to the transient earth – ’because earthly love possessed your heart’, and so ‘live hours only instead of centuries, brief years of fleeting pleasure!’.

After their misadventures Csongor and Balga find themselves back at the crossroads again. Csongor’s despair is ‘relieved by seeing companions in misery’. The Merchant approaches on crutches, a beggar who lost his riches by a series of misfortunes on land and sea, and then the Prince, deposed, for the people who had at first been child-like, meek subjects had grown into a powerful nation and overthrown him; finally the Scholar, driven to madness by his inability to gain control over his own fate: ‘I did not want to be, yet I am, now I do not wish to cease to be, yet I am bound to die.’

Csongor might have found some relief in the sorry fate of the three travellers, but his relief does not last for long, because he is captured by the goblins. But the goblins are now Tünde’s servants, and when their mistress arrives, they release him from his bonds. The place where he has been taken prisoner is near the ‘Fairy-tree’, and when he is awakened from his weary sleep the Fairy-tree has been transformed into a beautiful palace. Both pairs of lovers are finally united: first Balga to Ilma, whom Tünde tells: ‘rule your husband with power, and as a punishment fatten him until he cannot move and eat’. Tünde, by removing her veil, reveals herself to Csongor and the banished fairy is now ready to consummate the short spell of pleasure promised by the Queen of Night. A song can be heard from afar which ends with the words: ‘only love alone is awake’.

The mainspring of the action is Mirígy’s initial hostility to Csongor: it does not lack plausibility; for malevolence is characteristic of her kind. The fact that the particular causes of her intrigues lie outside the action of the play is unimportant. Yet critics often accused Vörösmarty of lacking dramatic suspense in his play. There are some grounds for this, but the reader is compensated for the absence of suspense by the lyrical beauty of his exquisite language. (The play is written in trochaic lines, with the exception of the philosophical monologues, which are in iambics.)

In spite of numerous elements drawn from fairy-tales, Csongor and Tünde is not intended and cannot be regarded merely as a tale; its symbolic quality, although often unobtrusive, is always present. Csongor himself is a symbolic character; his search for happiness is universal in its significance. He is a star-gazer, a dreamer, or a poet who is frustrated to see that the world at large is against personal happiness. The structure of society, as represented by the symbolic travellers, sets the individual to aim at wealth, power, and knowledge, none of which necessarily bring about happiness. Vörösmarty’s disillusioned view verges on nihilism, for Csongor’s search is complemented by Balga’s, and Balga is often ridiculous. His prosaic reactions provide Vörösmarty with an opportunity to ridicule his own and Csongor’s ethereal sublimity. While in the epics he let loose his uncontrolled escapist desires, in Csongor and Tünde he is not unequivocally convinced about the justification of opting out of society. His disillusion with human society is put into cosmic perspective by the Night’s monologue, when Vörösmarty is unable to prevent an outburst of nihilism:

‘…but where will be the stone, the sign and the columns, when there will be no longer Earth and when seas disappear. The tired suns, colliding on their paths, collapse; the universe perishes and on its last ruins the fine world peters out in gloom. The end will come there where it all started; there will be darkness and void only; I will be there: the bleak, soundless, desolate night.’

The perspective of cosmic beginning and end is bound to produce an effect of meaninglessness in the miniature human world, yet it is precisely this little world of earthlings for which Tünde gives up her fairy world, and it is the bond between Csongor and Tünde which provides Vörösmarty with his escapist solution and his last refuge in an irrational world: love. Love provides ‘that fleeting moment of happiness’ which all mankind pursues vainly. It is interesting to note that in an earlier draft of the drama, Vörösmarty included a lover and a sweetheart with roles similar to those assigned to the travellers: they grow old, thus representing the same futility and transitoriness in their love as the travellers do in their greed for riches, power, and knowledge. It also indicates a deep pessimism in Vörösmarty, which had disappeared from the final version of Csongor and Tünde.

His nihilism, like Kölcsey’s in ‘Vanitatum Vanitas’, inhibits him from drawing conclusions; he seems to believe that escapism (a recurrent feature in Hungarian literature) allows man to postpone indefinitely the task of facing up to eschatological questions. A complete disregard for any meaning in the universe (a meaning which must prevail if God is taken for granted, since God invariably gives a purpose to all) will appear in Madách’s Tragedy of Man, whose message is that the business of living has to be taken for what it is even if it is unrelated to a ‘higher’ purpose.

In the 1830s Vörösmarty continued to produce dramas; these, however, appear to lack both inspiration and suspense. In spite of the splendour of their language they can be considered failures. Contemporary critics showed very little appreciation for his plays, and even the masterpiece Csongor and Tünde failed to win their admiration; Kölcsey alone recognized its merits. His early dramas were influenced by the German Ritterdrama, but later his attraction to the French Romantics (particularly Victor Hugo) became dominant. His lifelong interest in Shakespeare not only resulted in spirited translations (Julius Caesar, 1840; King Lear, 1853; and parts of Romeo and Juliet), but also influenced him as playwright. His translations, however, were more significant than his original dramas: he was one of the founders (together with Petőfi and Arany) of the Shakespeare cult in Hungary, the intensity and the enthusiasm of which have never since declined. Translated quotations from Shakespeare became common figures of speech in Hungarian; Julius Caesar is still staged in Vörösmarty’s version. The discovery of Shakespeare in Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary and Poland, even if prompted by the German cult in the Romantic era, has led to the Bard’s popularity equalling, if not surpassing, that of any native geniuses there.

The reason for Vörösmarty’s persistence in writing dramas lies in his deliberately-chosen role in the literary life of the country. With the founding of the new National Theatre, voices were raised among the literary and theatre – going public demanding original plays by Hungarian playwrights. Vörösmarty set out to supply what was felt to be badly lacking from the literary scene. If he failed it was not entirely his fault; the excessive pressure of public opinion was also responsible. His self-imposed task in public life was defined with epigrammatic brevity in his lyrics: ‘What is our business in the world? To struggle, to the best of our ability, for the noblest ideals. The fate of a nation is before us …’ (‘Thoughts in a Library’, 1884).

The terrifying pictures of cosmic meaninglessness seem to have vanished from Vörösmarty’s poetry; the more he became involved in public affairs, the less his poetry expressed nihilism, yet it was by no means devoid of pessimistic outbursts. It is enough to refer to the foreboding picture of nemzethalál in ‘Appeal’ (1836), the poem that had established Vörösmarty as the foremost poet of the nation. When addressing his countrymen on matters of public concern he frequently slipped into tones of uncontrolled anger, releasing a series of powerful invectives against the object of his admonishment: in ‘To a Lady of Rank’ (1841), for instance, his subject was the unpatriotic, cosmopolitan attitude of a certain lady in fashionable Pest society; in ‘Parliament’ (1846) he reproached his countrymen for their shameful wrangling over the construction of a permanent building for Parliament in Pest.

Vörösmarty employs a dignified tone when he appeals to his celebrated compatriot, the ‘renowned musician of the world’ (‘To Ferenc Liszt’, 1842). The poet and the musician had at least one thing in common: the richness and power of their self-expression in their chosen medium. In his ode to Liszt Vörösmarty appeals with suggestive rhetoric that Liszt should encourage his countrymen with his ‘mighty strings’ in the struggle for national progress. The patriotic theme again pervades an occasional poem, ‘The Song of Fót’, written for a party given to celebrate the vintage by his friend the novelist Fáy in October 1842. This popular drinking song (bordal) starts as a toast, producing an effect of improvisation by the irregularity of its rhythmic structure; Vörösmarty can avoid excessive solemnity. Here he holds the balance well between the serious subject-matter and the merriment of the occasion. But he sometimes uses satire in his treatment of patriotic themes. In ‘Fate and the Hungarian’ (1845) the nobility’s anachronistic life ideal is depicted – idleness, and unfitness for anything more energy-consuming than smoking a pipe characterize the torpor of the nobility. In ‘Boredom’ (1841) the subject of his satire is indolence, which he declares is a national characteristic.

The scope of his political poetry was not confined to the narrow field of national tasks; his ideas often held an universal appeal, permeated with Romantic gloom. He wrote an epigram ‘For the Gutenberg Album’ (1840) to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing. Mankind would have sufficient reason to celebrate Gutenberg only ‘when night tires and the priests of false dreams desist and the sunlight bursting forth produces no more a counterfeit of knowledge’.

The sufferings of the Polish people, struggling for national independence, had aroused much sympathy in Hungary since 1830. Vörösmarty followed their fight with compassion; he made their tragedy the subject of one of his great odes: ‘The Living Statue’ (1841), where his vision of nemzethalál is extended in its significance to include all people who are fighting oppression:

…Before my eyes pass visions of the days when the people were consumed by their struggles: they sacrificed their blood for holy, eternal justice …And I see my children, who fell in the last battle, and the name of my savage persecutors written in blood on the walls of Warsaw and the burning villages …

In 1846 when the peasant revolt in Galicia demonstrated again the perverted course of Polish national aspirations, Vörösmarty wrote perhaps his most pessimistic poem: ‘Mankind’. The poem opens with an unusual image: ‘Man pains the earth’, and is concluded with the refrain recurring at the end of each stanza: ‘The race of mankind is a crop sprung from dragon’s teeth: there is no hope! there is no hope!’

The first image of the poem (‘man pains the earth’) draws attention to Vörösmarty’s imagery, which is frequently anthropomorphic. ‘Night tires out’, ‘when the sun sets, half of the earth is its bed’, ‘love alone is awake’, ‘the earth grew grey hair’. This imagery is well adapted to his poetic world, which is devoid of abstractions, or rather in which abstract notions patriotism, country – are translated into terms of human emotions. Hungary is always beloved, sad, abandoned, scorned, and prostrate – then hopeful, glorious, or triumphant. Vörösmarty’s politics is a burning love-affair, an immortal passion subject only to the natural oscillation of his innermost self.

His preoccupation with human relationships made him realize the striking contrast between the lofty ideas deposited in books and the very material from which these depositories of ideas are made:

A book has been made from the garments of people enslaved and of cowards, and now freedom and the heroic age relate their great history in it. Loyalty, friendship tell their tale on a page made from the clothes of base, treacherous perjurers. Hideous falsehood everywhere! The deathly picture of the pale leaf condemns the written letters. Rags of countries! your name is a library. But where is the book which leads to the goal? Where is the happiness of the majority? Has the world advanced because of books?

These questions in ‘Thoughts in a Library’ (1844) stand for the disturbing contradictions between human aspirations and their implementation in an innocent age when the world ‘progress’ was still sacrosanct, yet the ‘horrifying lesson’ that Vörösmarty has taken to heart was as valid then as ever before or after: ‘While millions are born to poverty, salvation is the share of only thousands on earth.’ The faint hope Vörösmarty entertains for the New World is marred by the institution of slavery: ‘The earth already has a corner, a little flower in the desert, where the name most in demand is: man, where the ancient rights of the creation are given as birth-rights with the name: man, except if you were born black, for those are kept like cattle …’. In spite of his misgivings, Vörösmarty’s conclusion is not pessimistic; ‘and yet …yet we must strive on’.

His active participation in public life was not limited to political poetry (and pronouncing his views on topical issues in epigrams): besides his editorship of Scholarly Miscellanea he was also a key figure in the Academy – Széchenyi put him in charge of the revision of the house rules, he sat on the editorial board of the Complete Dictionary of the Hungarian Language, and of the Dictionary of Hungarian Dialects, was the co-author of a Hungarian-German dictionary, and wrote a Hungarian grammar for Germans. In the 1840s his political forum was the National (later: Opposition) Circle, which backed Kossuth’s radical policies. He supported talented writers of limited means; Petőfi’s poems were published on his advice.

His youthful love no longer haunted him, yet his personal lyrics reflected a yearning for happy love ‘Beyond my youth, beyond my burning desires’ (‘Late Desire’, 1839). The elegiac conclusion of this poem speaks of the mind that denies itself even the hope of finding love: ‘Youth and hope are lost for ever on the sea of years; to hope is so hard in the twilight of life, and the mind forbids love after hopes have vanished’. In 1841 he met Laura Csajághy in the house of his friend Bajza. She was Bajza’s sister-in-law, and almost twenty-five years younger than Vörösmarty, who fell in love with her; they married two years later in 1843.

This belated love – affair was the source of inspiration for passionate love poems of overwhelming force. Vörösmarty had his doubts, shared by his friends, about the success of a marriage to a young and inexperienced girl less than half his age. The intensity of his feelings may well have frightened the poet himself: ‘I am thirsty, but it is not for wine that I thirst, and no water can slake my thirst …For flame am I athirst, for flame, for fire ...’ he confessed in ‘Thirst’ (1842). ‘Reverie’ (1843) is a passionate, if not rhetorical, bid for Laura’s love, attesting the infinity of his ardour: ‘For your love I would ravage my mind and its every thought, and the sweet lands of my imagination; I would tear my soul to shreds for your love.’

Laura may also have had her own doubts about marriage to the foremost poet of the country; she may well have realized the responsibility she was taking on in such a marriage, and the risk to her own personal chance of happiness. When she finally agreed to the marriage Vörösmarty presented her with a poem for their engagement. ‘To the Pensive One’ (1843) is one of the great love-poems of the world; yet it is strikingly simple, for it is not written in passionate dithyrambs, contains no burning desire; it does not demand, beseech, or threaten: it is only a sober admonition of modesty. He tells Laura that she who aspires too high, desiring to conquer the whole world, is bound to suffer disappointment, so she should ‘restore the brightness on the face of your friend; if you have been his daylight, take not his fair noon away, give not in its place grief and tears’. The implication is clear. Their marriage, though a happy one, was not entirely free from worries; fame did not always mean a steady income. ‘Are you not tired of smiling at me, if I despair, and if worries bewilder me, of enduring my whims? Great is your duty, to make your young life’s virtue into a sun over the wreck of my broken life.’ (‘For Laura’, 1845.)

Vörösmarty lived under constant emotional stress; it is hardly surprising that he wrote so little that is humorous. One of the few examples is ‘Master Peter’ (1841), a light sketch, written in lively rhymes and rhythms, of a young boy whose complete despondency (he does not eat, drink, or want to read) is relieved only when his worried mother suggests that she should call over the girl from next door. His brief sketches included one, drawn with compassion, about his own mother (‘The Poor Woman’s Book,’ 1847). Countless tears have been shed by compassionate readers over the generosity of the elderly woman who shared her only worldly possession – a ragged prayer book – with her neighbour by tearing it in two.

In the late 1840s, when revolution was imminent, pessimism overwhelmed Vörösmarty; he was afraid of revolution for he believed that the nation was heading for nemzethalál. The recurring nightmare of ‘a tomb that engulfs an entire nation’ did not loosen its grip on his mind, as is shown in ‘Prophecy’ (1847). The fact of his not being a revolutionary, however, did not mean that Vörösmarty failed to support the revolutionary cause and the War of Independence. He became a member of the new Parliament, elected by unanimous vote in recognition of his literary merits. He supported Kossuth and the radicals with his vote, although he was on the side of the moderates. He also accepted public office and faithfully followed the Kossuth Government until the very end. His loyalty was never shaken, and he lived up to his written world, to serve the nation with deeds. No one knows what went on in his mind, his inherent pessimism may have helped him to guess what was in store for the nation. He wrote very little poetry during the revolution. In a short poem he acclaimed the newly-born freedom of the press (‘Free Press’, 1848), and wrote a ‘Battle Song’ (1848) modelled on the Marseillaise. After the capitulation of the commander-in-chief of the Honvéd army, General Görgey, Vörösmarty too had to flee. For a time he lived the life of a fugitive, hiding in north-eastern Hungary, and late in 1849 he returned to his family in the capital, broken in health and spirit and prematurely aged.

While a fugitive he wrote only two poems. The first was an occasional poem, written in the Album of one of his hostesses; it represents the state of mind of an embittered man: ‘Dark thoughts cloud my mind, blasphemy lives in my heart, my wish is: may the world perish and all peoples on earth down to the last of all races ...’. In the other poem he accuses the last commander-in-chief, General Görgey, of treacherously surrendering to the enemy (‘Curse’, 1849).

Early in 1850 Vörösmarty was cleared by a military court, although not without the assistance of influential friends, and ‘the wreck of his broken life’ was again at his own disposal. He could not support his family in the capital; Hungarian literature had been silenced, the writers dispersed, and the once-thriving literary life of the Age of Reform had given way to a deathly silence in the first years of the reign of terror. Vörösmarty spent his remaining years at and near his birthplace, eking out a meagre livelihood from a small farm. In 1855 when literary life gradually began to revive, he returned to Pest, if only to die there, for he died on 19 November in the same year. His funeral was the most impressive Pest had ever seen. It was not only a farewell to a great poet; the 20,000 people who followed the hearse were there to demonstrate the end of their political apathy.

In these last years Vörösmarty wrote very little, yet it is possible to see them as a distinct period of his creative life. Apart from completing the translation of King Lear, his works included two monumental poems, ‘Prelude’ and ‘The Old Gipsy’. ‘Prelude’ (1850) is a lyrical summary of the national tragedy. It starts with a nostalgic description of an era which had gone for ever (‘Man lived in his work, ant-like; the hand struggled, the spirit moved, careful reason burned, the heart hoped’). Then the storm broke with all its horrors, and now:

There is winter and quiet and snow and death. The earth grew grey, not hair by hair, like a happy man, but it grew grey suddenly as God did, who, having created the world, man: the demi-god and half-animal, abhorred the grimness of his creation – and in his sorrow grew grey and old.

The reader is taken aback by the overall effect of the poem; the cosmic dimensions of his vision, the destruction visualized, is hardly short of man’s best effort to think of the unthinkable – the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, written by the only survivor, who happened to be a poet.

It is a popular myth that Vörösmarty’s sanity was destroyed by the events which forced him to live in rural seclusion. His days may well have been spent in permanent depression, but his mind could not have been deranged; the few poems he wrote prove otherwise. He seemed to have abandoned the self-imposed restriction of his middle age, when the larger part of his poetry had been channelled into dutiful service of his country; now once more he let loose his creative imagination, characterized by the same abundance of poetic images and metaphors as in his youthful days.

In ‘The Old Gipsy’ (1854), a monologue addressed to a gipsy fiddler who is the indisputable alter ego of the poet, the torrent of images evokes a primeval fear of human hatred: ‘As if we heard anew the wild grief of the rebel in the wilderness, the blow of the murderous brother’s cudgel, the funeral speach of the first orphans, the flapping of the vulture’s wing, the undying torment of Prometheus.’ The tortured mind is stretched to its limits, and for the first time since the disaster pessimism is suppressed, and the mind is seized by a desire to hope against hope and to restore inner peace: ‘Let the blind star, this unhappy earth, roll on in its bitter juice, and let it be purged in the fire of storm from the wrath of so much crime and filth, of so many fancies: and let Noah’s ark come, enclosing in itself a new world.’ The first six stanzas are linked together by a four-line refrain instructing the fiddler to play; then, in the last stanza, a blind, inexplicable hope surges forth, suddenly changing the mood of the poem, opening up new vistas of ‘a festive day on earth, when the wrath of the storm tires, and strife bleeds to death in battle’. The effect of the poem rests on the masterful shift of emotions from the gloomy pictures of uncontrolled despondency to a triumphant hope, releasing a sudden rapture of relief, which breaks the grip of the monsters of hallucinations. This inexplicable and unreasonable hope that life will renew itself at all costs could never have survived in a diseased mind: hope not only saved Vörösmarty’s sanity, but enabled him to leave behind a true swan-song.

Vörösmarty was not a revolutionary poet in the accepted sense of the word, yet because of the boldness of his imagination his effect on poetic language was shattering; no other poet, with the exception of Endre Ady, has brought about such a revolutionary change in his contemporaries’ ideals of what poetry is meant to be.

Among Vörösmarty contemporaries, Gergely Czuczor (1800-66) deserves special attention. Son of a well-to-do farmer, who became a Benedictine schoolmaster, Czuczor was in a sense a forerunner of Vörösmarty, for his epic The Battle of Augsburg preceded The Flight of Zalán by a year: it was published in Aurora for 1824. Its four cantos, written in hexameters, narrate an episode of the Age of the Raids, and the whole composition is permeated by a strong anti-German sentiment. Czuczor was the first to employ patriotic rhetoric in Romantic epics. Unlike Vörösmarty, he did not contrast ‘the ancient glory’ of the forefathers with the indolence of the descendants; he celebrated an illustrious military campaign without any recourse to myths, without constructing any subplot as a means of introducing a love-story. Of his other epics, Botond (1833) shows signs of craftsmanship. Based again on an incident of the Age of the Raids found in the medieval chronicles, it is about the Byzantine adventure of the semi-legendary chieftain who returned from a successful raid with a graceful girl, Polydora. Another Hungarian hero, the fictitious Bödölény, falls in love with Polydora and takes her secretly back to Constantinople. The simple plot, exposed in rolling hexameters, revolves around how the burly and brave Botond regains the refined Greek beauty whose character is entirely opposite to his own.

In the 1830s, when the vogue for epics seemed to have declined in Hungarian literature, Czuczor turned to another narrative genre, the ballad: his subjects were again taken from the national past (‘Szondi’, 1831, ‘Hunyadi’, 1832). His lyrics do not reflect the misfortunes of his personal life as a monk, he could reproduce his feelings only in pale colours; his political epigrams are, however, always sharp and to the point. It was perhaps on account of his peasant origin that he felt a special attraction to folk-song. The manner of his composition reveals the influence of K. Kisfaludy rather than that of a genuine népies inspiration. Certain superficial elements from the imagery of the folk-songs (e.g. cifra suba, pörge kalap, patyolating, hét vármegye, etc.) – which later became obligatory in the folk-song imitations that proliferated in the second half of the century – were used in his poems for the first time. In a narrative, written in the népies fashion (‘A Country Girl in Pest’, 1837) he succeeded in grasping with warm humour the mood of the conflict between the rural innocence and naivety of a country girl and the atmosphere of the big city.

He had a vigorous, systematic, and discerning mind, and spent most of his energies on one of the monumental undertakings of the Academy: The Complete Dictionary of the Hungarian Language (1862-74). During the revolution, although ill-health prevented his active participation, he wrote a fiery battle-song (‘Alarm’, 1848), which not only became widely popular, but after the ill-fated War of Independence provided sufficient reason for his imprisonment by the Austrian authorities for a term of six years, of which he served almost two.

János Garay (1812-53) followed in the footsteps of Vörösmarty by writing epics under the influence of The Flight of Zalán. Of middle-class origin, Garay, who lived by his pen as a journalist, came to realize that epics were no longer in fashion. He turned to writing ballads and narrative poetry in which the attractiveness of the story compensated the readers for his limited poetic genius. His easy-flowing popular style was perhaps at its best in the historical ballad ‘Kont’ (1838).

Garay’s lyrics show a natural simplicity; he never soared high, his mood was faintly nostalgic and Romantic, and his subjects were taken from the minor incidents of everyday life, like those of his German Biedermeier contemporaries who over-indulged in restraint and sobriety.

It vas his sense of humour that enabled him, in a narrative poem, to create an immortal character in János Háry a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars; this was set to music by the twentieth century composer Kodály (1926), and became familiar to music lovers all over the world. The discharged old hussar Háry is an inveterate liar, who in the village inn is likely to invent any tall story to earn a few drinks from his not always credulous but ever grateful audience. These boisterous stories, narrated skilfully and with well-balanced humour and irony, were the subject of ‘The Veteran and Napoleon’ (1843) and ‘The Veteran’s Visit to Emperor Francis’, the first part written in the Nibelungen stanza, unusual in Hungarian poetry, and the second part in Hungarian alexandrines.

Garay was also a victim of the turbulent times; in 1848 he was appointed professor of Hungarian literature at the University of Pest but was dismissed after the collapse of the Kossuth government. He spent the rest of his life in dire poverty and died with an unbalanced mind.