Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Alexander Kohut (1874–1933)

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 George Alexander Kohut (1874–1933)

By Imre Madách (1823–1864)

HUNGARY is a favorite land of the Muses. Romance, ardent sentiment, and a certain mystic fervor give to her poetry an exquisite charm. A thrill of fire and passion vibrates in her songs and melodies. Her folk-lore and ancient traditions teem with rich Oriental imagery and beautiful conceptions. These ancient gems have in the present century received a fresh setting at the hands of the literary artists, who have borne witness to the unabated vigor of this people “barbarously grand.” Of the modern school, Petőfi the lyric poet and Madách the dramatic are the most popular poets of Hungary.

Madách Imre (for the family name comes first in Hungarian) was born in Alsó Sztregova, Hungary, January 21st, 1823; and died in his native town October 5th, 1864. Of his life little need be told. He was notary, orator, and journalist; at an early age he wrote a number of essays on natural science, archæology, and æsthetics. He wrote lyric as well as dramatic poetry; but it is chiefly through his two dramatic poems, ‘Moses’ and ‘The Tragedy of Man,’ written almost simultaneously in 1860, that he is best known. An edition of his collected writings, in three volumes, was issued by Paul Gyulai in Budapest, 1880. His masterpiece, ‘The Tragedy of Man,’ has been rendered into German no less than five times; the latest version, by Julius Lechner von der Lech (Leipzig, 1888, with a preface by Maurice Jókai), being the most felicitous. Alexander Fischer gave a splendid résumé of this powerful drama in Sacher-Masoch’s periodical, Auf der Höhe (Vol. xvi., 1885),—the only analysis of it in any language except Hungarian. Though it is too philosophical and contemplative in character, and not intended for the stage, its first production, which took place in September 1883, created an immense sensation both in Austria and Hungary.

To English readers, Madách is a total stranger. His name is scarcely ever found in any encyclopædia or biographical dictionary; and strangely enough, no attempt has been thus far made to give even a selection from this latter-day Milton of Hungary.

It is not here intended to explain the origin and inner development of this fascinating drama, nor to draw elaborate parallels between its author and his predecessors in other lands. Such a comparative critical study would be interesting as showing the spiritual kinship between master minds, centuries distant from one another, whose sympathies are in direct touch with our own ideals and life problems.

Madách will plead his own cause effectively enough. To him, however, who in reading the ‘Tragedy of Man’ involuntarily makes such comparisons, and might be led unjustly to question the author’s originality, the graceful adage Grosse Geister treffen sich (Great minds meet) will serve as an answer. He should rather say, with true artistic estimate, that the shading in the one landscape of a higher life helps to set off the vivid and brilliant coloring in the other; so that the whole, viewed side by side, presents a series of wondrous harmonies. Madách imbibed, no doubt, from foreign sources. He was familiar with ‘Paradise Lost,’ and with the now obsolete but once much-lauded epic, ‘La Semaine’ (The Week), of Milton’s French predecessor Du Bartas; Alfieri’s tramelogedia, ‘Abele,’ and Gesner’s ‘Death of Abel,’ as well as Byron’s ‘Mystery of Cain,’ may also have come to his notice; Goethe’s ‘Faust’ appears more than once, and may be recognized in any incognito. Yet we cannot say with certainty that any one of these masterpieces influenced his own work, any more than Milton inspired the great German bard. We might as justly tax him with drawing upon Hebrew tradition for the entire plot of his drama, beginning with the fourth scene; for strangely enough, Adam’s experiences with his mentor and Nemesis, Lucifer, are foreshadowed in the very same manner in a quaint legend of the Jewish Rabbis, told nearly twenty centuries ago. The comparative study of literature will reveal other facts equally amazing. It is of course self-evident that the morbid pessimism which rings its vague alarms throughout the book is that of Ecclesiastes, whose vanitas vanitatum is the key to his doleful plaint.

  • “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven: it is a sore travail that God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind…. And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” (Eccl. i. 12–18.)
  • This is the leading theme, and Lessing’s soulful simile of the ideal, the grand morale:—“If God held truth in his right hand,” says he, “and in his left the mere striving after truth, bidding me choose between the two, I would reverently bow to his left and say, ‘Give but the impulse; truth is for thee alone!’”

    Thus, after traversing many lands the world over; after plunging into every pleasure and being steeped in every vice; after passions human and divine have had their sway over his spirit,—Adam concedes to Lucifer that the world of ideals is illusory, existing only in fancy, thriving but in our own souls, nourished by sentiment, and supersensitive to the touch of grosser things. And yet the echo which answers his sad pleadings, as he cries out disheartened—

  • “O sacred poetry, hast thou then
  • Quite forsaken this prosy world of ours?”
  • is a wholly unexpected one in the grand finale. It teaches the doctrine of eternal hope, as the great Hebrew pessimist Koheleth summed it up, when only the Hellenic intellect reigned supreme and the Hellenic heart was cold:—
  • “I have decreed, O man—strive ye and trust!”
  • The ideal conquers in the end, should life and love not fail. Poetry and sentiment transform even this valley of the shadow of death into a Paradise regained. It is a song of the ideals in which salvation lies; and the words of the Lord with which the poem closes are, “Struggle and trust.”