János Arany Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

János Arany’s criticism and studies in Hungarian literature are in the best tradition of scholarship and remain useful. His translations of several of William Shakespeare’s plays and of Aristophanes’ comedies are outstanding in the history of Hungarian translations.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

János Arany contributed to Hungarian literature a poetic style and language—in fact, a poetic tradition—that united the best elements of native Hungarian verse, based to a large degree on folk song and folk poetry, with the learned traditions of Western Europe, particularly the traditions of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism. The result was a poetry that, while retaining its distinctively Hungarian character, joined the larger conversation of European literature.

Poetry of the 1850’s

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Arany was deeply affected by the failure of the War of Independence, yet the early 1850’s was one of his richer periods, even though many of the poems of this time are expressions of despair and disappointment. He not only criticized the newly evolving political and social life, but also questioned his own poetic style and creativity. In the two “Voitina levelei öccséhez” (“Voitina’s Letters to His Brother”), he condemned the distortion of the folk style as well as the mere aping of foreign fashions, even as he himself sought the true possibilities of a popular national style. “Leteszem a lantot” (“I Lay Down the Lute”), an elegy for Petőfi, also expresses Arany’s feeling that “he is no longer what he was,/ The better part has left him.” No longer can he sing the hope of the future, nor can he even hope for the reward of immortality. The specter of the nation’s death also haunted him in “Rachel” and “Rachel siralma” (“Rachael’s Lament”). In “A nagyidai cigányok” (“The Gypsies of Nagyida”), he sought release from the disappointment and bitterness he felt at the failure of the revolution.

“Family Circle”

In his ballads and narrative poems, Arany continued to develop the folk style and to set his stories in a real time and place. He excelled in capturing the many moods of the life of the people, in painting intimate village scenes and establishing characterizations with a deft touch. A relatively short descriptive poem, “Családi kör” (“Family Circle”), illustrates this method in the compass of thirteen stanzas, but it was used no less effectively in the epics and the ballads. Arany describes a village evening, giving each element its due place while creating...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The ballad, a form that in Arany’s hands was to reach a height unsurpassed by anyone in world literature, interested him throughout his life. He believed that the ballad, while remaining within the lyric sphere, achieved objectivity; such a blending of lyric emotion and objective setting was not possible in any other form. In range, the ballad allowed him to explore both historical incidents and psychological tragedies and even to blend the two. He was familiar with German and Scottish ballads and borrowed judiciously from these as well as from the Hungarian ballads of Transylvania. In vocabulary and form, he explored the possibilities of the language and metrical variations. In theme, he gave his readers a feeling for their history. By portraying Hungarian history through words and actions with which his audience could easily identify, he reinforced the unity and continuity of the nation.

Arany’s earlier ballads, whether on historical themes or dealing with private tragedy, are less elaborate than the later ones. “Rákocziné” (“Rákoczi’s Wife”) is still in the direct folk-narrative style. “Rozgonyiné” (“Rozgonyi’s Wife”) also turns to a historical incident, the rescue of King Sigismund from battle by Cicelle Rozgonyi, but the emphasis is on the beauty and bravery of the lady who joins her husband in battle.

“Török Bálint” and “Szondi’s Two Pages”

The Turkish wars provided Arany with much material. In “Török Bálint,” he recounts the treachery of the Turks, who lure the champion of the widowed queen of Lajos II and her infant son into Turkish territory, then imprison the queen’s protector in Constantinople. The ballad focuses on the complicated political maneuverings of Bálint Török and the treachery of the monk György. The story is told through innuendo and dialogue: how the queen was beset by both the Habsburgs and the Turks; Török’s plan seemingly to unite with the Turks to gain victory; the suggestion that the monk betrayed him when he was invited to the Turkish camp after the victory; and how—while Török was ostensibly a guest of the Turks—the Turks took the city and drove out the queen and her infant son. Others are given honors by the sultan—Brother György is appointed governor—but the hero is imprisoned. Through this tale, Arany not only depicts the fall of Buda, but also suggests the fateful division of the country, beset by both the Turks and the Habsburgs and forced to choose one or the other, or, as Bálint Török did, to try to...

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Crime and the Supernatural

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Crime or sin upsets the balance of nature: It is this idea that lies at the heart of these ballads and dominates the series Arany wrote in 1877. In the late ballads, however, the scene is transferred to private life, and the crime itself becomes the focal point; the punishment often is more severe, and the role of the supernatural as a manifestation of spiritual disorder is more important. In “Éjfeli párbaj” (“Midnight Duel”), the Knight Bende’s bride has been won in an unfair fight, and he has to duel with the ghost of his slain rival on three successive nights of the wedding festivities. Arany develops the mood gradually, from carefree joy to the bride’s fear and the puzzling behavior of the host that forces the guests to leave. On the third night, Bende’s guards watch as he hews and slashes the air, even killing some of them, thus fulfilling the ghostly foe’s prediction that he will slay in the spirit, himself being a spirit. The interplay of the real and the imagined is at the core of the drama, as indeed it is in most of these ballads. Only the guilty see the supernatural forces, for these are projections of their own guilt and thus drive them mad.

In “Az ünneprontók” (“The Defilers of the Sabbath”) and “Hídavatas” (“Bridge Dedication”), supernatural punishment is meted out to groups rather than to sinful individuals: Sunday revelers are forced by a demoniac bagpiper to perform a dance of death, and a procession of suicides jumps again from a newly built bridge. It is interesting to contrast the concentration and technical skill achieved here with the style of certain earlier ballads of sin and retribution: “A Hamis tanú” (“The False Witness”), “Ágnes Asszony” (“The Woman Agnes”), and “Bor Vitéz.” In these earlier ballads, Arany tends to exploit the supernatural for its own sake, although in “The Woman Agnes,” the protagonist’s punishment takes place in her own unbalanced mind.

“Tengeri hántás” (“Corn Husking”) and “Vörös Rébék” (“Red Barbara”) rely on folklore and superstition to create an eerie world where human actions seem...

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Late Lyrics

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Arany’s late lyrics, written mostly in 1877, are characterized by introspection and a peaceful acceptance of life, particularly of his old age and its infirmities. Originally intended only for himself, they are intensely personal yet reveal the same values that inform his more public poems. Whatever their point of departure, these late poems are about his love for his homeland (particularly the scenes of his youth on the Alföld) and the changes he had experienced over the years. They capture the mood of quiet meditation in forms that are as rich as any he had used.

“A tölgyek alatt” (“Under the Oaks”) is a meditative lyric in which Arany recalls happy hours spent under oak trees in his childhood as he rests under the oaks at his retreat on St. Margit Island. The poem’s dominant mood is quiet and resigned, yet it gathers a variety of colors and scenes ranging from childhood games to the sunsets of old age. “Vásárban” (“At the Market”) also serves as a release for the poet’s homesickness for the Hungarian Plain: A wagon from this region with its load of wheat reminds him of the activities, the sights, and the sounds of the harvest, in which he, too, once participated. He also expresses the hope that after many sorrowful years, the region—and the country—will see better times. Personal comment and a concern for his country, both the “smaller one” and the larger nation, mingle naturally in these poems, as do the poet’s childhood memories and the concerns of his old age.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Drawn almost reluctantly into a literary career, Arany left a legacy rich in both creative and critical works. It has been said that if Hungary were suddenly to disappear, its history and life (at least through the nineteenth century) could be reconstructed from Arany’s works. In many ways, he is a national poet. One reason that he is not better known abroad is that, aside from the difficulty of translating his rich language, it is difficult to convey the Hungarian scenes, ideas, moods, and emotions of his verse without an overabundance of notes and commentary. Nevertheless, Arany was a poet who dealt with universal themes and general human problems. While the setting of his poetry reflects what he knew best, the ideas come from his wide reading and perceptive studies of the Western tradition. His critical works and his own practice showed how native Hungarian themes and concerns could be integrated into the body of Western literature. When he is approached from this comparative perspective, Arany can offer his wealth to the non-Hungarian reader as readily as he has been inspiring Hungarian readers for generations.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Adams, Bernard. “Janos Arany and ‘The Bards of Wales.’” The Slavonic and East European Review 77, no. 4 (October, 1999): 726-731. A critique of Janos Arany’s poem “The Bards of Wales,” concluding that the tale of the massacre of Welsh bards by Edward I of England is traditional rather than historically sound.

Balogh, László. Az ihlet perce: A lírikus Arany János. Budapest, Hungary: Tankönyvkiadó, 1983. One of the author’s many studies of Hungarian literature. Published only in Hungarian, it is an expert critical interpretation of Arany’s poetry with bibliographic references.

Reményi Jóseph. Hungarian Writers and Literature. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1964. A history and critical study of Hungarian literature including the works of Arany. Includes bibliographic references.