Sándor Petőfi

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Sándor Petőfi (January 1 1823, Kiskőrös–most likely on July 31 1849, in Segesvár, now Sighişoara, Romania) was a Hungarian national poet, and a key figure in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, born as Alexander Petrovics.


Early life

His father was Stephanus Petrovics (Hungarian: István Petrovics), whose first language was Hungarian (According to many sources, he was of Serb descent and his original name was Stevan Petrović, <ref>http://www.b92.net/info/vesti/index.php?yyyy=2006&mm=07&dd=31&nav_category=15&nav_id=206334&fs=1</ref> <ref>http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/petofi.htm]</ref> <ref>http://www.languagehat.com/mt/mt-comments.cgi?entry_id=1808</ref> while according to other sources, he was of Slovak descent <ref>http://www.es.hu/pd/display.asp?channel=PARATLAN0313&article=2003-0331-1238-12QKRS</ref> <ref>http://www.geographic.hu/index.php?act=napi&rov=6&id=5533</ref> <ref>http://mek.oszk.hu/00300/00355/html/ABC11587/12155.htm</ref>), and his mother was Mária Hrúzová who spoke only Slovak. However, he had a notably strong Hungarian self-awareness, becoming the spiritual leader of the radical groups of the Revolution (who wanted full independence from the Habsburg Monarchy and a free Hungary) and writing some of Hungary's greatest national poetry - from his poem, Nemzeti dal ("National Song"):

On the God of the Hungarians \ We vow, \ We vow, that we will be slaves \ No longer! - (literal translation).

Image:Petőfi anyak.jpg
Petőfi's entry in the parish register (kept at the Kiskőrös Petőfi Museum)

The family lived for a while in Szabadszállás, where his father owned a slaughterhouse. Within two years, the family moved to Kiskunfélegyháza, and Petőfi viewed the city as his true birthplace. His father tried to give his son the best education possible, but when Sándor was 15 they lost their money due to the flood of Danube of 1838 and the bankruptcy of a relative. Sándor had to leave the lyceum he attended in Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica). He did small works for theatres in Pest, was a teacher in Ostffyasszonyfa and a soldier in Sopron.

After a restless period of travelling Petőfi attended the college of Pápa, where he first met Mór Jókai, and after a year, in 1842 his poem A borozó ("The Pub") was first published in Athenaeum under the name Sándor Petrovics. On November 3 of the same year he published this poem under the name "Petőfi" for the first time.

However, Petőfi was more interested in theatre. In 1842 he joined a travelling theatre, but had to abandon it. He tried to keep himself financially afloat by writing copies of a newspaper, but that wasn't enough. Malnourished and sick, he arrived in Debrecen, where his friends helped him back on his feet.

In 1844 he walked from Debrecen to Pest to find a publisher for his poems, in which he succeeded this time, and the poems were becoming increasingly popular. He used folklore elements and popular, traditional song-like verses heavily.

Among his longer works is the epic János Vitéz (1845, "John the Valiant", ISBN 1843910845). On the other hand, he felt he was constrained to a folkish, wine-and-pubs, low-quality niche by his publisher, while in truth he also had extensive Western-oriented education and revolutionary passions to write about (which he would have had difficulty to publish anyway, as there was strong censorship at the time).

In 1846, he met Júlia Szendrey in Transylvania, and they married the next year, against the will of her father, spending their honeymoon in the castle of Count Sándor Teleki, the only aristocrat amongst the friends of Petőfi. Afterwards, he was ever more possessed by the thought of a global revolution. He moved to Pest, and joined a group of like-minded students and intellectuals who regularly met at Café Pilvax. They also worked at promoting Hungarian as a language of literature and theatre. (The first permanent theatre (the National Theatre) that performed in Hungarian was opened during this time.)

The Hungarian Revolution of 1848

March 15, 1848 was Petőfi's day. Among the various leaders of the revolution - called Márciusi Ifjak ("Youths of March") - Petőfi was the key actor in starting the revolution in Pest, co-author and, respectively, author of the two most important written (and recited) documents: the 12 Pont ("12 Points", demands to the Habsburg overlord) and the Nemzeti Dal.

When the news of the revolution of Vienna reached them on the 15th, Petőfi and his friends decided to change the date of the "National Assembly" they planned (as a rally where a petition to the Hungarian noblemen's assembly would have been approved by the people), from the original March 19th to the 15th. (Which was a lucky decision, given that the authorities knew about their plans, and planned to arrest the revolutionaries on the 18th.)

Sándor Petőfi on a Hungarian pengő banknote from 1932

On the morning of the 15th, the revolutionary youth around Petőfi began to march around the city of Pest, reading the poem and the 12 points to the gathered crowd (which swelled up to thousands). Thereafter, they toured printing presses, declaring an end to all forms of censorship, and printing Petőfi's poem together with the 12 Pont. The mayor was also pressed by the crowds to sign the 12 Pont. Later on, a mass demonstration was held in front of the newly-built National Museum, from which the group left for the other bank of the Danube: to Buda. When the crowd rallied in front of the Imperial governing council's seat, the representatives of Emperor Ferdinand felt they have no choice but to sign the 12 points. As one point was freedom for political prisoners, the crowd then moved on to greet newly freed revolutionary poet Mihály Táncsics.

Petőfi's popularity waned as the memory of the glorious day started to fade, and the revolution went on by the ways of high politics: with the leadership of the nobles. Those in the noblemen's Assembly (seated in Pozsony/Bratislava) had in fact been pushing for slow reforms at the same time - delivering a list of demands to the Emperor on the 13th - but events had overtaken them briefly. Petőfi disagreed with the decisions of the Assembly, and criticised the way they imagined the goals and ways of the Revolution. (An elloquent development was that his colleague Táncsics was imprisoned yet again by the new government.) In the general elections, he nominated himself in his native area, but did not get the seat. At this time, he wrote his most serious poem, the epic Az Apostol ("The Apostle", an epic about a fictional revolutionary who, after much suffering, attempts, and fails, to assassinate a fictitious king.)

Petőfi joined Polish revolutionary general Józef Bem's Transylvanian army, fighting in the successful campaign against Habsburg troops, Romanian and Transylvanian Saxon militias, but was defeated repeatedly when Imperial Russia intervened to aid the Austrians. He was seen last time in the battle of Segesvár (Sighişoara), July 31, 1849. The circumstances of his death are mysterious and debated.

Mainstream opinion is that he died in the battle, based on next day diary account of a Russian military doctor. He saw an unusual-looking corpse dead of stomach lance wound, having characteristic yellowish face and clotching matching that of Petőfi, who had the habit of wearing civilian jacket with the trousers of his uniform. Recently an ethnic Hungarian Romanian claimed to have located fragments of a stone eagle which local Hungarians are known to have erected in 1855 on the site of the mass grave where Petőfi was allegedly buried. Considering the number of fallen Hungarians in the battle of Segesvár, an excavation would not offer much hope, even if genetical counter-samples could be obtained from the grave of his parents.

Some Hungarians, notably Ferenc Morvai, believe Petőfi was captured and brought to Russia, where he died several years later of natural causes. A skeleton unearthed in the Barguzin region, Siberia, proved to be one belonging to a woman. A collection of poems has been presented, but those are of too poor artistic quality to be works of a post-Segesvár Petőfi.

After the Revolution was crushed, Petőfi's writing reached immense popularity, while his rebelliousness served as role model ever since - for Hungarian revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries of every political colour. Today, hundreds of streets are named after him throughout Hungary (perhaps one in every village) and the Hungarian-inhabited areas of Transylvania, beside a national radio station and a bridge in Budapest.


Petőfi started his career as a poet with so-called "popular situation songs", to which category his first published poem, A borozó ("The Pub", 1842), belongs: it is the song of a drinker praising the healing power of wine which drives away all troubles. This kind of pseudo-folk song was not unusual in Hungarian poetry of the 1840s, but Petőfi soon developed an original and fresh voice which made him stand out in the crowd. He wrote many folk song-like poems on the subjects of wine, love, romantic robbers etc. Many of these early poems have become classics, for example the love poem A virágnak megtiltani nem lehet ("You Cannot Forbid the Flower", 1843), or Befordultam a konyhára ("I Turned into the Kitchen", 1843) which uses the ancient metaphor of love and fire in a playful and somewhat provocative way.

The influence of folk poetry and 19th-century populism is very important in Petőfi's work, but other influences are also very much present: Petőfi also drew on sources such as topoi of contemporary almanac-poetry in an inventive way, and was also familiar with the works of major literary figures of his day, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Pierre-Jean de Béranger and Heinrich Heine.

Petőfi's early poetry was often interpreted as some kind of role-playing, due to the broad range of situations and voices he created and used. Recent interpretations however call attention to the fact that in some sense all lyrical poetry can be understood as role-playing, which makes the category of "role-poems" (coined especially for Petőfi) superfluous. While using a variety of voices, Petőfi indisputably created a well-formed persona for himself: a jaunty, stubborn loner, who loves wine, hates all kinds of limits and boundaries and is passionate in all he feels. In poems like Jövendölés ("Prophecy", 1843) he constructs himself as someone who will die young after doing great things. This motif recurs in the revolutionary poetry of his later years.

The influence of contemporary almanac-poetry can be best seen in the poem cycle Cipruslombok Etelke sírjára ("Branches of Cypress for Etelke's Tomb", 1845). These sentimental poems, which are about death, grief, love, memory and loneliness were written after a love interest of Petőfi's, Etelke Csapó, died.

In the years 1844-45 Petőfi's poetry became more and more subtle and mature. New subjects appeared, like that of landscape. His most influential landscape poem is Az Alföld ("The Plains"), in which he states that to him his homeland, the Hungarian plains are more beautiful and much dearer then the Carpathian mountains; it was to become one of the initiators of a long-lived fashion: that of the plains as the typical Hungarian landscape.

Petőfi's poetic skills also solidified and broadened. He became a master of using different kinds of voices, for example his poem A régi, jó Gvadányi ("The Good Old Gvadányi") imitates the style of József Gvadányi, a Hungarian poet who lived at the end of the 18th century.


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