Hungarian Poetry Analysis

The Medieval Period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Along the well-worn path the Hungarians (Magyars) took westward during the centuries preceding their entry into the Carpathian Basin in 896 c.e., they shaped a peculiar folk culture and folk poetry. Ethnographers, linguists, and researchers of comparative literature have arrived at this conclusion, even though no written trace of ancient Hungarian literature has survived. The runic alphabet of the seminomadic Hungarians was not used for recording literary texts, but the wealth of ancient poetry is attested by later allusions, although after Christianization in about 1000, both the state and the Church made every effort to eradicate even the memory of the pagan period. The chant of the shaman, an improvised incantation for the purposes of sorcery, prophecy, necromancy, or healing, often combined with music, dance, and a primitive form of drama, thus survived primarily in children’s rhymes and other simple ritualistic expressions. The secular counterparts of the shamans, the minstrels (regsök), provided the first examples of epic poetry, recounting the origin of the Hungarians. Two of these epics are known (in their later reconstructed forms) as the Legend of the Miraculous Stag and the Lay of the White Steed. The versification is believed to have been similar to that of other ancient European poetry; it is thought, for example, that the Hungarian minstrels did not use rhyme, relying instead on alliteration.

The culture of medieval...

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The Renaissance and the Reformation

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

While indifference toward literacy and the written word continued to be the rule of the period, there arose in Hungary important centers of Renaissance culture during the reign of the Anjou kings (1308-1382) and especially during that of Mátyás (1458-1490). His efforts to establish a strong central authority were well served by the professional men in his employ, recruited from a variety of countries. Besides these learned foreigners, a new crop of Hungarian intellectuals appeared as a result of schooling in the universities of Western Europe.

Outstanding among these was Janus Pannonius (1434-1472), a Ferrara-educated bishop of Pécs, the creator of finely chiseled epigrams, elegies, and panegyrics and the first Hungarian man of letters whose fame transcended the borders of his homeland. His topics included affairs of state, the growing Ottoman peril, the love he felt for his homeland (while missing the culture of Italy), and his disenchantment with the policies of his sovereign. Renaissance luxury and the contemplative atmosphere of court literature were shattered during the stormy period following Mátyás’s death, but the tradition of Humanist poetry domesticated by Pannonius and his circle of followers has remained alive in Hungarian literature to this day. The large number of Hungarian poems surviving from the sixteenth century indicates that a considerable body of verse already existed in the Middle Ages, even if most of it is unknown today....

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The Counter-Reformation and Baroque

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Much of the seventeenth century was characterized by the militant spirit of the Counter-Reformation, resulting in an enormous output of religious poetry, mostly by Roman Catholic writers. The outstanding Hungarian poet of the century, Miklós Zrínyi (1620-1664), a thoroughly Baroque man of letters, bore one significant resemblance to Balassi: He also had a firsthand knowledge of combat, and his descriptions of battle scenes, especially in his epic carrying the Latin title Obsidio Szigetiana (wr. 1645-1646; The Peril of Sziget, 1955), are particularly graphic and authentic. In his narrative, as well as in his prose writings, Zrínyi displayed the explicit and fervent political commitment which was to become an integral part of much Hungarian poetry. Although the influence of Vergil, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquato Tasso is discernible in The Peril of Sziget, the presentation of details and the use of atmosphere make it a profoundly original Hungarian creation.

The cultivation of sentimental rococo poetry became a fashionable pastime during the seventeenth century. Even highborn ladies tried their skill at it, most of them producing religious or domestic verse. The epic tradition of Zrínyi was carried forward by an inventive, widely read courtier who stayed away from actual battles. The heroes of István Gyöngyösi (1629-1704) were genuine nobles and ladies; in his numerous epithalamia he revealed their love secrets to his\...

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Eighteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

From 1711, when the kuruc armies of Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II were defeated, to the 1770’s, Hungarian literature experienced a period of relative decline. Only the continuing flood of imitative, mannerist rococo verse indicated the survival of poetry. The poets of this period showed a remarkable command of form and diction, and some of them were important in the development of modern poetic techniques. Baron László Amade (1704-1764), a sophisticated cultivator of poésie galante, produced poems worthy of mention. Ferenc Faludi (1704-1779), a Jesuit abbot, also became interested in secular poetry. In spite of its rococo affectations and style, his verse was firmly grounded in reality and took much from Hungarian folk literature. With his earthy realism and his prosodic experimentation, Faludi became one of the early exponents of truly modern poetry.

TheEnlightenment reached Eastern Europe by the 1770’s and—even though the absolutist Habsburg authorities thwarted any political organization—its effect on the cultural life of Hungary was profound. Intellectual renewal was rapid and irresistible. One of its centers was Vienna, where Hungarian noblemen were educating their sons. French, German, and English-language treatises and literature filtered into Hungary, resulting in the founding of great private collections of books and art, the formation of literary societies, and the publication of periodicals. French (later German)...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

While the Enlightenment gave rise to philosophical and didactic verse, disposed to abstraction and aridity, lyric poetry found another impetus. The reformers and experimenters encouraged originality and aesthetic individuality, in sharp contrast to both neoclassicism and the earlier Baroque orientation. The campaign for national independence revealed a set of common feelings shared by all Hungarians and resulted in anxious efforts to preserve the native tongue and indigenous customs. The intensive exploration of traditional literature, the growing awareness of literary history, and the Romantic influence of Ossianic poetry combined to open the way for unrestrained experimentation. In the area of versification, for example, Western European patterns were adopted by Hungarian poets as if based on stress alone. Consequently, the French Alexandrine was assimilated as a twelve-syllable accented line of two beats, each having six syllables. Four of these lines were arranged into a stanza, at first all lines rhyming, later following the Western example of rhyming couplets. Even more significant was the introduction of a metrical principle that could be based on the length of syllables. Since the Hungarian language makes a clear distinction between long and short syllables, this practice is perfectly suited to it. Some of the poets introduced the purely metrical, nonrhyming forms of Greek and Roman poetry, while others adapted rhyming verse forms from the West. The flexibility and smoothness resulting from these experiments was unprecedented in Hungarian poetry.

The typical attitudes of Romantic literature—the glorification of history, the preference for a noble and often affected “sublimity,” which went hand in hand with a healthy respect for reason—were made more complex in Hungary by an exaggerated emphasis on folk poetry and a contradictory predilection for new techniques of versification. The resulting torrent of poetry during the early decades of the nineteenth century presented a sharp contrast to that of the previous epoch. Lyric ballads, elegies, and epic romances prevailed, in accordance with the requisite extremes of desolation and melancholy on one hand and exhortation and pride on the other. As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Romantic literature in Hungary contributed to the birth or...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In Hungarian literary history, the decade preceding the 1848 Revolution is referred to as the “era of the people and of the nation.” Romanticism was very much alive, but by this time some of the best poets found even Romanticism too narrow and infused it with plebeian-democratic ideals expressed in an increasingly realistic manner. The stylistic trend best suited for the purposes of this period was the populist (népies) approach. It fused Romantic and realistic elements, steadily (although cautiously) increasing stress on the latter. During the 1840’s, a courageous, involved commitment to critical realism became dominant, especially among members of the younger generation. The immediate aims of literature were to...

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Legacy and change

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The success of Petfi and Arany resulted in a veritable cult of populist poetry. Petfi’s numerous imitators, not all of them without talent, copied his style and themes with genuine fervor but seldom achieved his level of consistency and brilliance. Thus, the Petfi cult soon degenerated into absurd virtuosity and buffoonery. Arany’s followers were somewhat more successful. Their writings are characterized by literary skill, an effective use of common speech, and a scrupulous concern for details of versification. These poets led long and blameless lives and filled many of the leading positions in the nation’s cultural affairs during the late nineteenth century. It was largely as a result of their efforts that the poetic...

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Modern poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The turn of the century witnessed the rise of a wealthy liberal middle class in the cities of Hungary. Their desire to gain recognition for their tastes and values alongside traditional Christian-national ones contributed to a spirit of literary secession. Passive and late-blooming as this “secession” was, it achieved a grudging acceptance of relative (as opposed to absolute) values, and by introducing free association into the practice of poetry, it loosened the structure of Hungarian verse. At the same time, a “great generation” of writers and poets appeared on the scene. Their artistic power was too elemental and their appeal too overwhelming to be stopped. Not all of them wanted to change Hungarian society, but most of...

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Other Nyugat poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

If Ady represents an energetic and open commitment to social action and Babits represents a bourgeois humanism, passive until forced by desperation into action, then the other Nyugat poets may be described as taking positions between these two extremes. Early twentieth century Hungarian poetry was divided between an emphasis on self-expression and a subservience to the eternal demands of art, between the desire to change and the recognition of supreme permanence. The ambience of Nyugat, however, was such that the writers of its circle never became sharply polarized.

Gyula Juhász (1883-1937), probably the most “autobiographical” Hungarian poet of the twentieth century, voiced powerfully the...

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New populists

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Quite distinct from this group, a large heterogeneous body of writers and poets began to appear during the 1930’s, whose special emphasis on rural themes marked them as the new populists. They believed that it was the peasantry who, after a meaningful land reform, would provide the ideology and the energy for a national revival, and that they would also produce a new, dedicated intellectual leadership. They visualized Hungary as forming a bridge between East and West, although most of them had no sympathy for the Soviet system. The rift developing between the new populists and the urbanists proved to be one of the great misfortunes of modern Hungary. Neither group was able to prepare the nation for the changes that were obviously...

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Post-Cold War poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In post-Cold War Hungary, in which literature and poetry of the prior several decades had functioned as a moral opposition to the Communist government, there was great expectation of a flowering of literature once the political obstacles were removed and the writer finally could freely explore his or her imagination. However, critics have found this has not happened, for several reasons. After the fall of the previous system, the dissident writer lost the poetic mission, a point of reference. Many writers also became politicians and had no time to write. Economics played a large role as well, with the cessation of government subsidies, the disintegration of state book-distributing giants, and steep increases in prices of new books....

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Gömöri, George. A History of Hungarian Poetry, 1945 to 1956. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1966. Provides a thorough history. Bibliographical footnotes.

Gömöri, George, and George Szirtes, eds. The Colonnade of Teeth: Modern Hungarian Poetry. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1996. A collection of the works of thirty-five major Hungarian poets, all born between 1900 and 1954. Members of Hungarian minorities living in other countries are included. Useful notes on the poems and biographical notes.

Hawkesworth, Celia, ed. A History of Central European Women’s Writing. New York: Palgrave,...

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