János Arany Essay - Critical Essays


János Arany was not the only writer engaged in the literary development of Hungary, nor was he the first. He built on medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque traditions, and his goals were shared by many of his contemporaries. His individual contribution rests above all on his knowledgeable and sensitive use of folk elements, his ability to recognize and reject undue foreign influence while using foreign models to enrich his own work, and his unerring sense of the forms and rhythms best suited to the Hungarian language. His affinity with the folkloric tradition, as well as his recognition of its role in preserving Hungarian cultural traditions, enabled him to put into practice the theories and plans of the reform movement. As a teacher and critic, he was further able to explain and elucidate reformist goals. He not only used native words but also explained their appropriateness and traced their history. He used meters based on folk song and wrote a thesis on Hungarian versification. Arguing that native themes and forms could equal the best in classical literature, he demonstrated this in his critical essays. Ever sensitive to literary developments abroad, he emphasized the need for literature to be realistic yet to avoid the excesses of naturalism; in his view, the poet should show not so much what is but rather its “heavenly counterpart.”

“Az elveszett alkótmany”

In 1845, János Arany won the prize of the Kisfaludy Társaság with his mock-heroic epic, “Az elveszett alkótmany.” He had begun writing it spontaneously and with no thought of publication, learning of the competition only when the poem was well under way. Although he was later to regret the unevenness and coarseness of the work, it deserves attention, for it shows Arany’s use of supernatural machinery, which is rooted in Hungarian folklore and popular mythology—a device he borrowed from Mihály Vörösmarty and others but which Arany was to use effectively in later poems. His portrayal of the petty bickering between progressive and liberal political parties, no less than the high-handed and illegal actions of the party in power, indicates his political concerns. He suggests in the conclusion that only with a widening of the franchise, with the inclusion of all segments of the population in the political process can Hungarian institutions fulfill their proper role.


It was Toldi, however, that established Arany’s literary reputation. As the enthusiastic Petőfi wrote: “Others receive the laurel leaf by leaf,/ For you an entire wreath must be given immediately.” What Arany did was to create a folk-epic style that conveyed the life of the Hungarian Plain and the sense of history shared by the nation. Arany, who felt strongly that folk poetry should be the basis of the new national literary style, ennobled the genre by blending with it the qualities of the epic. Indebted to Petőfi’s János Vitéz (1845; János the Hero, 1920), also a folk epic, which had appeared a year earlier, Arany...

(The entire section is 1243 words.)