Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Revolutionist

Yesterday was the day when you can see Hungarians wearing their cockades. March 15 is the national holiday when we remember the revolution of 1848. Apart from being an important event in the country’s history, the revolution is strongly connected to poetry.

The manuscript of the National Song
What happened on that day is an important but long story, so I will only talk about the most essential part: Alexander Petőfi (Petőfi Sándor) met with other young revolutionists in a cafe and according to the legend, later marched to the National Museum where he read his infamous poem to the crowd. Some say that he read it at Vörösmarty Square. The National Song (Nemzeti Dal) later became a symbol of the revolution along with the Twelve Points. Both were printed out and disseminated in the city that day. There is another translation to this poem, but I think the former is closer to the atmosphere of the Hungarian version and the rhymes sound smoother.

Petőfi did not only write the poem to please the crowd: he believed that the poets’ role was to lead the people. If you think about, it is really not that rare the literary figures actively participated in politics or vice versa. Before the revolution, Petőfi wrote a poem called The Poets of the Nineteenth Century(A XIX. század költői) in which he expressed his opinion about the poetry of his age. I was surprised to see how accurate the translation by Edwin Morgan is, both in meaning and rhyme. It is so good that I decided to overlook the run-on lines.

A portrait of the poet
While many of Petőfi’s poems discuss political and patriotic questions, his love poetry and his poems about the homeland make up other large sections of his works. My long-time favorite is The Tisza (A Tisza), which is a beautiful description of the second biggest Hungarian river. Especially if one visits the river of the Great Plain for the first time, he can fully understand everything written in the poem.

Among several other love poems, What Shall I Call You (Minek nevezzelek) became a famous piece about the poet’s love towards his wife, Júlia Szendrey. As Petőfi said in The Poets of the Nineteenth Century, a poet should do much more than groan and weep or yell with joy in his poems. I think all his poems are great and worth reading, but indeed, he might be one of the many poets without his role in the revolution.

Petőfi's statue in Budapest
Although Petőfi liked the homeland, the Great Plain and love, he was most passionate about defending the country and leading the people.  As a part of his revolutionary poetry, he wrote his infamous poem, One thought (Egy gondolat bánt engemet). In this one, he does not call anyone to action, but he tells how much he wants to fight for the nation and die on the battlefield if necessary instead of growing old at home. Eventually, his wish came true: although his body has never been found, he disappeared at the Battle of Segesvár in 1849. Some sources claim that he died in the fight, while others say that he was taken to Siberia. Whatever the truth is, he surely did not die in his bed.

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