PETŐFI SÁNDOR (1823-1849)


One of the greatest Hungarian poets, who became the voice of rebellious youth of his country. Like Byron, Petőfi believed in the Romantic idea of an artist as freedom fighter, and his death created a legend and mystery. Petőfi's prolific career ended at the age of 26. In the six years 1844-49 he published 10 volumes of poems.

Sándor Petõfi was born in Kiskõrös, 110 km south of Budapest. His father, István (Stephanus) Petrovics, was a village butcher, innkeeper, and a Serb, whose family had assimilated with the majority population. Mária Hrúz, Petõfi 's mother, was a Slovak, whose knowledge of the Hungarian language was not especially good. However, the family used Hungarian at home. Before marriage Mária Hrúz had worked as a servant. His early years Petõfi spent in Félegyháza. Due to his father's wanderlust and unlucky enterprises, Petõfi received his early education in different schools. At the age of twelve he started to write poetry, and after some success he started in the 1840s to use the Hungarian name Petõfi, which he had invented himself.

Before making his breakthrough as a poet, Petõfi led a wandering life, and did not later on show much inclination to adopt the petty-bourgeois life style. While studying in Selmecz he became seriously interested in theater, but his father, who had lost his property in a flood, did not support his son's new career plans. Against the wishes of his family, Petõfi joined a troop of strolling players. He worked at the National Theater in Pest, spent some time in the country, and served int the Austrian army, in Sopron, Graz, Zagreb, and other places. During this period he learned German and read the works of Heine, but he also taught himself Frenchin order to read Hugo, Béranger, and Lamartine. After falling ill, he was discharged in 1841. Petõfi tried to continue his studies at the Calvinist college of Pápa, but soon he quarrelled with his teachers. He then worked as an actor without much critical success, copied parliamentary documents in Pozsony, lived in poverty in Debrecen, and made some translations. From northern Hungary he returned on foot to Pest. In 1844 Petõfi became an assistant editor of the literary periodical Pesti Divatlap.

Petõfi's first published poem, 'A borozó' (1842), was a humorous drinking song. He did not hesitate to use colloquial language, which led to accusations of vulgarity, and to another misunderstanding - that he liked wine. In 'Apám mestersége s az enyém' he found similarities with his work as a poet and his father's work as a butcher - Petõfi's father hits with his axe, the poet with his pen. Versek (1844), Petõfi's first collection of poetry, was published with the help of Mihály Vörösmarty (1800-55), an older writer. The collection immediately made Petõfi famous. At the end of 1844 Petõfi wrote János vitéz, which consisted of 1480 lines divided into 27 cantos. It gained considerable success when it was published the following year.

Popularity earned Petõfi some financial security, and he also could support his parents. He lived in Pest, frequented Café Piövax, but contined his travels around the country as a celebrated figure. In 1847 he married Júlia Szendrey; they had one son. Júlia's father, who belonged to the nobility and worked as a civil servant, had resisted the marriage. In one of Petõfi's best-known love poems a young husband asks his wife: "Tell me, if I die first, will you shed tears / and cover up my body with a shroud?" In real life Júlia did not mourn her husband for too long. Less than a year after Petõfi's disappearance she married again.

Petõfi was a devoted advocate of freedom and self-determination of Hungary. He once wrote: "Liberty, love! These two I need. For my love I will sacrifice life, for liberty I will sacrifice my love." In the 1820s a national renaissance had begun in the country, under the leadership of Lajos Kossuth. The national importance of 'Talpra, magyar', which Petõfi wrote on the eve of the revolution of 1848, can be compared to 'La Marsellaise'. It inspired young revolutionaries, and was sung everywhere. Under the influence of the motto of the French Revolution - Egyenlõség, szabadság, testvériség! - Petõfi wrote in March 1848 with Pál Vasvár and others the celebrated 12 national requisitions, demanding among others freedom of the press and release of political prisoners. Kossuth proclaimed Hungary's independence from Habsburg rule.

Although Petõfi was a great agitator he had no experience in politics, and he was not elected to the new parliament. He quarrelled with Kossuth and had strained relationships with influential government members, which affected his military career. Eventually Austria suppressed the revolt with Russian help. During the 1848-49 War of Independence Petõfi served as the aide-de-camp of the famous Polish General, Jozef Bem. Petõfi disappeared during the Battle of Segesvár, on July 31, 1849 - Bem had told him not to join the battle. Petõfi's body was never found. According to a story, a white-shirted figure, thought to be the poet, stood against the charging Cossacks with a sword, and collapsed after having been pierced by a lance. In the late 1980s Soviet researchers claimed that he was taken as a prisoner of war to Siberia, where he died of tuberculosis in 1856.


Petõfi returned to the unpretentious style of folk poetry and folk songs. His poems were clear, realistic, vigorous, and had humor. Ordinary people - students, shepherds, poor musicians, vagabonds, tavern-keepers - were his characters. Petõfi's attacks on monarchism in such poems as 'A királyokhoz' and 'Akasszátok föl a királyokat' caused a scandal. In János vitéz the hero Kukoricza Jancsi is a foundling, who works as a shepherd and is mistreated by his foster father. His beloved, Iluska, is also an orphan. Janos loses half of his herd, and is chased away from the farm. He bids Iluska farewell, joins the hussars, experiences a number of adventures, and saves a princess. The king of France promises his daughter and crown to Janos, but the hero says he loves only Iluska. Janos returns to his home village and hears that Iluska has died of sorrow. From her grave he takes a rose, and broods over his fate. He travels into a fairy-tale land of giants and becomes their king. Finally Janos and Iluska are joined when she is reborn from the rose as a elf. Petõfi seems to say that a true hero is only faithful to his own heart, and he chooses poverty rather than the temptations of wealth and power. As often in fairy tales, life continues in János vitéz miraculously after death; this fantasy fulfills Janos's vision of Eden.

Petõfi's friendship with the novelist Mór Jokai (1825-1904) and the poet János Arany (1817-82) was important for his development as a writer. With Arany he discussed in letters the program of the new literary movement. In 'Egy gondolat bánt engement' (1846) Petõfi imagined himself falling in battle "for the Truth - the Freedom of the World!" instead of dying peacefully at home. "I'm troubled by one thought - to die / in bed, among pillows stacked high; / to wilt and wither, flower-like, beneath, / as if chewed by some secret vermin's teeth..." Az Apostol (1848) was about a radical teacher, who is imprisoned for his thoughts. Freedom was for Petõfi not only an uplifting subject but a highly personal matter. It meant the victory of the individual over his surroundings, and his political activism partly manifested his role as the interpreter of inner feelings of people, and his struggle for freedom of expression. However, Petõfi wrote more about love than battles and revolution. In Cipruslombok Etelke sírjáról (1845) he expressed his sorrow at the death of Etelka Csapó, his secret beloved. For Berta Mednyánszky he wrote 40 poems in Szerelem gyöngyei. During the revolution Petõfi also composed poems depicting family life - after marriage his love poems were devoted to his wife.