Sándor Petöfi (1823-1849) was the foremost 19th century Hungarian lyricist. He was a master of the Magyar language, the native language of Hungary. His poems celebrated nature, life's joys and sorrows, the Hungarian people, married love, and later in his life, political freedom. Petöfi was a leader in the 1848-1849 Hungarian War of Independence. He died in battle.
Sándor Petöfi was born on January 1, 1823, in the rural community of Kiskörös, Hungary. His father, István Petrovics, was an innkeeper and butcher and his mother Mária Hruz, was the daughter of artisans and peasants. Petöfi had a brother, István, who was two years younger. The family moved to Fâlegyháza when Petöfi was a child and he always considered that city to be his birthplace.
Petöfi was born during a time of renewed national pride in Hungary. By the early 19th century Hungary had endured nearly two centuries of warfare. Its native people, the Magyars, were oppressed and living in poverty under the control of the ruling family of Austria, the Hapsburgs. But a wave of national consciousness swept through the country during the first half of the century. This native pride brought a renewal of the Magyar language, in lieu of Latin and Germany. In the Lowlands where Petöfi grew up, he learned to love the Magyar language and the country's landscape. The poetry for which he became known vividly describes the landscape, villages, animals, birds, and people of the Hungarian Lowlands.
The Petöfi family was considered well-to-do, but when Petöfi was 15, his father's business failed following a flood and an attempt to expand the enterprise. Subsequent business ventures were never as successful as the inn had been.
Petöfi's talent for writing poetry emerged when he was a teenager and at the age of 15, he won first prize for a poem written in hexameters. From his earliest works, Petöfi's poems were noted for their honesty. In Hungarian Writers and Literature, Joseph Remânyi said, "While it is somewhat difficult to apply strict literary judgment to his first versifying attempts, the honesty of expression was apparent in his formative years. He knew that creative sincerity must be blended with human sincerity."
Despite his literary talent, Petöfi performed poorly in school, which frustrated his father. Petöfi attended eight schools by the time he was 16. At one point, he attempted to become an actor. Petöfi's father disowned him in 1839, when he was 16, because of his disinterest in school. The rift did not diminish Petöfi's lifelong love for his parents.
Out of frustration, Petöfi enlisted in the Army. He hoped to go to Italy but instead was sent to Graz, Austria, and then to Karlavoc, Croatia. While serving in the Army, Petöfi became ill and was hospitalized. When he was discharged from the Army, he was thin and frail. Petöfi moved to Pest (later a part of Budapest), where he took minor jobs in the National Theater and acted in provincial theaters. These were difficult years for Petöfi who traveled on foot and sometimes slept on park benches.
In 1842, Petöfi submitted four poems to a leading literary periodical Athenaeum. Three of the poems were rejected. A fourth, "Borozó" (The Wine Bibber), was published. This was a turning point in Petöfi's literary career since it was the first time his poetry earned serious recognition. He continued to struggle as a writer and actor for the next two years. In 1844, at the age of 21, Petöfi was destitute. He's quoted in Five Hungarian Writers, by Mervyn Jones: "After a week's painful wandering I reached Pest. I did not know to whom to turn… . A desperate courage seized me and I went to one of Hungary's greatest men, with the feeling of a card-player staking all he had left, for life or death. The great man read through my poems; on his enthusiastic recommendation the Circle published them, and I had money and a name."
The great man Petöfi visited was well-known romantic poet Mihály Vörösmarty. He recognized Petöfi's talent and helped him publish a book of poems in 1844. The same year, Vörösmarty helped Petöfi secure a job as assistant editor of a popular periodical, Pesti Divatlap, where he translated foreign fiction. He worked for editor Imre Vahot. The work was routine, but it provided a steady income. Shortly after taking this job, he met 15-year-old Csap Etelke. He was very attracted to her and therefore was deeply affected when she died two months later. Feeling depressed and restless, he resigned his assistant editorship, gave Vahot exclusive right to publish his poems, and traveled to northern Hungary. The poems written during the next 12 weeks indicate that the sojourn helped him overcome his despair.
He returned to Pest, where he fell in love with another young woman, Mednyanszky Berta, the daughter of an estate manager. She inspired Petöfi to write a new series of love poems. Petöfi asked Berta's father for her hand in marriage, but he refused. Berta, in fact was not in love with Petöfi. During the next year and a half, Petöfi traveled back and forth between northern Hungary and Pest.
This was one of Petöfi's most prolific periods. He produced a poem almost every other day and his writing matured. His early works included a large proportion of drinking songs. The next period reflected the bitterness he felt. In 1846, his poetry became political; freedom was a frequent theme. In December of 1846, he published a poem in which he associated a struggle for freedom with his own death.
In 1846, Petöfi met Julia Szendrey, the daughter of a member of the landed gentry. They were married a year later, when he was 24 and she was 18. Szendrey's family's opposed the marriage and her father did not attend the wedding. Petöfi's love for his wife inspired many poems about married happiness and love.
A complete edition of Petöfi's poems appeared in 1847. The book sold out almost immediately and his fame grew. He read his poems on stage at the National Theater, where he had once run errands.
For the next year and a half, Petöfi wrote some of his best poems. He also wrote newspaper articles on timely topics, unsuccessfully ran for the National Assembly, and became involved in the Hungarian revolutionary movement. The Hungarian people had been dominated politically, economically, socially, culturally, and demographically in their own country for many years. Encouraged by nationalist revolutions sweeping Europe, Hungarians demanded control of their homeland.
Petöfi became the intellectual leader of the revolutionaries who wanted Hungary to be free from imperialist Austria. In March 1848, Petöfi wrote "National Song," in which he implored Hungarians to rise up for freedom. The poem began:
"Up, Hungarian, your country is calling! Here is the time, now or never! Shall we be slaves or free? This is the question, answer! By the God of the Hungarians we swear, we swear to be slaves no more!"
On March 15, Petöfi read a list of demands of behalf of the revolutionaries and recited "National Song," also known as "Talpra Magyar" or "Rise, Magyar" at a Pest cafâ. Participants seized a printing press and duplicated and distributed the list of demands and the poem. One of the demands was for a free press and "National Song" was the first document printed in Hungary without censorship. Surrounded by a swelling crowd of students, artisans, and peasants, Petöfi stood on the steps of the National Museum and recited his poem, which helped awaken Hungarians to their rights. Initially, it appeared that the revolution would be peaceful, but the Austrians urged the minority groups in Hungary to take up arms against the Magyars. "Rise, Magyar" became the Hungarian's rallying cry during the War of Independence that followed.
With the free press, Petöfi published many previously censored poems in which he lashed out at the monarchy. Petöfi witnessed much of the misery and social injustice that Hungarians endured and the poems he wrote during the revolution are filled with anger. Although his political poems were inspired by the Hungarian fight for independence, they have a universal perspective and are appreciated by all people fighting for freedom. When the war advanced, Petöfi volunteered for the military. Shortly after he enlisted, Julia gave birth to a son, Zoltán.
Petöfi served as a major in the National Army in Debrecen and later in Transylvania. In Transylvania, he was an aide-de-camp to General Ben, who tried to keep Petöfi away from danger zones. Ben also attempted to buffer the clashes Petöfi had with the higher military authorities. At one point, Petöfi resigned after being punished for insubordination. In 1849, a typhus epidemic killed Petöfi's parents.
Petöfi fought in several battles against the Russians, who allied with the Austrians. In July 1849, General Bem attempted a surprise attack on the much larger Russian forces near Segesvár. Petöfi died in this unsuccessful battle. He was last seen alive on July 31, 1849. It's believed that he is buried in a mass grave along with other Hungarian soldiers who died in the battle. He was 26 years old.
Russian intervention helped the Austrians defeat the Hungarians. They continued to struggle for liberty and in 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise granted them limited self-rule. The continued conflicts between ethnic groups in Hungary eventually contributed to World War I, after which Hungary became a part of the Soviet bloc.
Petöfi's poetry continued to gain popularity after his death. By the turn of the century, a million copies of his poems had been sold. No Hungarian poet had ever gained such a following. His lyric poems celebrated nature, everyday life, married love, family life, and patriotism. Petöfi also published narrative and epic poems.
Statues of Petöfi were built throughout Hungary. He was recognized internationally as well. A bust of Petöfi appears in the Cleveland (Ohio) Public Library and in a public garden in Buffalo, New York. In Rimini, Italy, there is a Petöfi street.
Petöfi's poems have been translated into countless languages. He is the subject of numerous books and critical essays by Hungarian writers and scholars. Thirty booklets about Petöfi's life and work were published and titled Petöfi Könyvtár (Petöfi Library). In 1896 a complete edition of his works in six volumes was published. Many of his poems have been put to music, resulting in some 510 compositions by 184 composers, including Franz Liszt.
His role in the War of Independence is remembered in Hungary. The events of March 15 are a source of pride and are celebrated every year as a national holiday.
Jones, D. Mervyn, Five Hungarian Writers, Clarendon Press, 1966.
Reményi, Joseph, Hungarian Writers and Literature, Rutgers University Press, 1964.