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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Harvey Genung

By Sándor Petőfi (1823–1849)

LIKE most of the Continental poets who rose to fame during the first half of the nineteenth century, Petőfi brought to the work of poetic creation the glow of a passionate patriotism. As Leopardi put into song the dreams of a united Italy, as Mickiewicz strengthened the proud heart of vanquished Poland, and as Körner sang and died for the liberation of his fatherland, so Petőfi fired the patriotism of Hungary, and found an unmarked grave upon the battlefield of her liberties. No other singer of any land has ever become in so intimate a sense the universal poet of his people as this greatest of Hungarian bards. Burns holds in the hearts of Scotchmen approximately the place that Petőfi has won in the affections of his ardent countrymen. But Petőfi means more to Hungary than Burns to Scotland. He was not the poet only, but the popular hero as well. His brilliant successes, his romantic career, his fascinating character, and his mysterious disappearance on the field of battle, before he had completed his twenty-seventh year, have thrown a mystic glamour over his name. His career was meteoric though his glory is permanent. He himself vanished like a wandering star, and the spot where he fell no man knows. For years it was believed that he still went up and down the land in disguise, and many false Petőfis put forth poems under that charmed name. The report that he had been captured by the Russians and exiled to Siberia caused intense excitement, not in Hungary alone, but throughout Germany and Austria. There can be little doubt, however, that he was buried in the general trench with fellow patriots unnumbered and unknown.

Sándor Petőfi was born in the small village of Kis-Körös in the early New Year’s morning of 1823. In the veins of this intensely national poet of Hungary there flowed not a drop of Hungarian blood. His father, a well-to-do butcher, was a Serbian named Petrovics; his mother was a Slovenian. His temperament and character, however, were entirely Hungarian. He was ashamed of the Slavic sound of his family name, and both as actor and as poet he assumed various appellations. His growing fame decided him to adopt the name which he has immortalized, of Petőfi. His nature was wild and wayward. He led a wanderer’s life, and played many rôles. He was student, actor, soldier, vagabond. It was the persistent mistake of his life that, like Wilhelm Meister, he believed himself to be an actor, and through the most humiliating experiences he clung to this error. In the midst, however, of his most sordid trials, his efforts to attain self-culture were put forth with an unremitting energy almost pathetic. In his knapsack he carried Shakespeare, Schiller, and Homer. At the age of nineteen he had mastered the most difficult metres of the ancients, and acquired a good knowledge of the chief modern languages. In Paza, he formed with Jókai the statesman and novelist, and Orlai the artist, an interesting circle. Jókai gives an amusing account of the hallucinations which blinded each of the three as to his special capability. Orlai, who has won fame as a painter, believed himself a poet; the actor Petőfi declaimed his lines; while Jókai, believing himself an artist, furnished the illustrations.

It was Vörösmarty, the senior poet of Hungary, who first recognized Petőfi’s genius and set it right. He was one of the editors of the chief Hungarian magazine, the Athenæum, and here in 1842 appeared Petőfi’s first poem. In 1844 a collection of the poems was brought out in book form, and their instant and widespread success justified Vörösmarty’s judgment. The new poet was received with universal acclaim, and developed a lyric productivity little less than marvelous. He wrote several excellent village tales, a novel called ‘The Hangman’s Rope,’ and two dramas which were failures. His studies in foreign literatures bore fruit in numerous translations. His version of Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’ has become a part of the regular repertoire of the Hungarian stage. But it was in the 1775 lyric poems that Petőfi’s true genius appeared. He was a poet in the simplest purest sense, and thousands to whom his name was yet unknown sang his songs at fair and festival. They seemed like the spontaneous expression of the people themselves, who had waited for their appointed mouthpiece. Faithfulness and naturalness distinguish his poetry. He was the first to free himself from the scholastic formalism which had theretofore dominated Hungarian literature, and so incurred at the hands of conservative criticism the charge of vulgarity. What he did was to show that the simple, the childlike, and the natural were compatible with the genuinely poetical. A shadow of the spirit of Heine and Byron fell upon Petőfi’s verse, but does not characterize it; and to his personality attached the same fascinating charm that they excited. His love adventures were manifold, and many a fair maiden has been celebrated by exquisite poems, in which no impure note is ever struck. Every poem bears the stamp of actual experience and genuine feeling. In the simple language of everyday life Petőfi has sung of the sorrows, the aspirations, the loves, and the gayety of the Hungarian people; in his verse is the passionate glow, the melancholy, and the humor of the race; it is the purest expression of the national temperament and character. Herman Grimm has not hesitated to declare that Petőfi ranks “among the very greatest poets of all times and tongues.” It is a singular fact that with all his superb lyric quality and musical lilt, Petőfi had no ear or taste for music.

The year 1847 marked the culmination of the poet’s happiness and success. A richly printed edition of his collected poems appeared, and their beauty in the mass silenced forever the voice of adverse criticism. In that year he married, and in that year he found the best friend of his life,—the epic poet Arany. About the laurel crown of the national poet were soon to be twined the oak wreaths also of a national hero. The ideas which inspired the revolution of 1849 were dimly foreshadowed in some of Petőfi’s earlier poems. To his efforts and to those of Jókai it was chiefly due that the celebrated reform programme, with the twelve demands of the Hungarian nation, was drawn up and adopted. On March 15th, 1848, was published the first work that appeared under the new laws establishing the freedom of the press. This was Petőfi’s famous song ‘Talpra Magyar’ (Up, Magyar), the Hungarian Marseillaise. It was the beginning of a series of impassioned revolutionary lyrics. The articles which Petőfi contributed to the newspapers at that time are valuable historical documents of the revolution. In September 1848 he entered the army, and served under General Bern, whose adjutant he became. He had no qualifications for a soldier’s career except a passionate patriotism and unshrinking courage. His erratic nature would not conform to the strictness of military discipline; but to the poet whom the nation idolized, large liberties were accorded, and in hours of peril he displayed heroic qualities. He fought at the great battle of Szegesvár on July 31st, 1849, in which the Hungarians were defeated; and he has never been seen since. His grave is with the unknown; and the wish which he uttered in song, that flowers should be scattered where he rests, must remain forever unfulfilled. A fairer and more enduring tribute is the love his people bear him. His poetry is a national treasure, which Hungary cherishes as a sacred possession.