Mihály Vörösmarty Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Although best known for his lyric and epic poetry, which comprises six of the eighteen volumes of the critical edition of his works published in 1979, Mihály Vörösmarty was also an important dramatist during the formative years of the Hungarian theater. His Romantic historical dramas are seldom performed today, but they still present enjoyable reading for students of the period. On the other hand, his Csongor és Tünde (pr. 1830; Csongor and Tünde), a fairy play having strong philosophical overtones and bearing the influence of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-1596), is regularly staged and has been translated into several languages. In order to nurture the fledgling Hungarian National Theater, Vörösmarty ably translated the classics: His Hungarian renderings of Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605) in 1856 and Julius Caesar (1599-1600) in 1848 are unsurpassed to this day.

Through his theoretical and critical writings, Vörösmarty was influential in defining the aesthetic issues of his times and in encouraging the emerging trends of Romanticism and populism. As an editor or associate of several of the period’s most important journals, he introduced and encouraged the talents of young artists, including the twenty-one-year-old Sándor Petőfi, thus greatly enriching the literature of Hungary. He also authored and compiled a number of dictionaries, grammars, and handbooks for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His extensive correspondence provides invaluable documentation of the period’s political and cultural life.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Born into what is considered one of the most exciting and eventful periods in the political and cultural development of Hungary, Mihály Vörösmarty made a significant contribution to nearly every aspect of his nation’s intellectual life. Vörösmarty began his literary career fully committed to classical ideals, and he never lost his admiration for the craftsmanship of the Greek and Latin poets, but he soon fell under the influence of the prevailing literary trend, Romanticism. Calls for national revival were sounding all over the Continent, and in Hungary such calls were perhaps louder and more impatient than elsewhere. Vörösmarty became one of the most enthusiastic and effective of the reformers, and he served their cause with his literary as well as his political activities.

Two specific characteristics of his œuvre distinguish him from his contemporaries: As a descendant of the nobility, he remained bewildered and somewhat repulsed by the idea of mass movements. This background made him a reluctant and pessimistic advocate of radical democratic transformation and somewhat colored the sincerity of his social proclamations. On the other hand, he was able to progress beyond the limitations of his nationalistic contemporaries at a surprisingly young age, and by the 1830’s, he was able to view the fate of Hungary in a more inclusive context. In his best philosophical poems (few of which have been translated into English), he speaks with total conviction and determination about the future of humankind. Vörösmarty’s mature poetry is remarkably free of the feelings of inferiority and ethnocentricity which had often characterized the works of earlier Hungarian poets.

Use of Folk Traditions

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Around the end of the 1820’s, the liberal intelligentsia of Hungary began to turn toward the commoners in their search for allies against Habsburg oppression. The clearest thinkers among them also realized that the cultural regeneration of the country could not be accomplished without the adoption and utilization of folk traditions, especially folk literature. The wave of literary populism, so eloquently promoted by Johann G. Herder and the Grimm brothers in Germany, made rapid gains in Hungary. From the first decades of the nineteenth century, the poets made it one of their goals to be able to write in the manner of folk songs or, indeed, to write “folk songs.” Vörösmarty’s works in this genre resembled the genuine article more closely than did those of his contemporaries. He was intimately familiar with life in rural Hungary and was able to use the expressions of the villagers with ease. His folk songs include didactic lyrics placed in the mouths of his Populist heroes, as well as lyrical passages that express his own feelings. An excellent example of the latter is “Haj, száj, szem” (“Hair, Lips, Eyes”), a flirty outpouring of infatuation that imaginatively mirrors the sentiments expressed in one of the popular songs of the time. In adapting the direct and unaffected voice of the Hungarian people to formal literature, Vörösmarty was the direct forerunner of the most brilliant Hungarian Populist poet, Sándor Peto``fi.

Csongor és...

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Somber Outlook

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Crises and disillusionments were not infrequent in Vörösmarty’s life. For more than ten years, he carried the memory of a youthful love doomed to failure by the values of a society based on titles and wealth. The poet never became a revolutionary, but his belief in rational, deliberate progress under the leadership of his class, the liberal nobility, was severely shaken. Much of his pessimism and sense of inferiority resulted from this early failure. Although he later successfully courted and married a woman twenty-four years his junior, dark thoughts and doubts continued to surface in his poems. Vörösmarty was also sensitive to the events of public life, which are reflected in the violently alternating emotions of his poems. He glowed with energy and optimism when the dynamism of the political scene and the liberalization of public discussions seemed to justify his faith in progress. At other times, such as when the assembly of Hungarian noblemen had disbanded without solving the problems entrusted to their care or when the cause of Polish independence was dealt a serious blow by the Austrian-inspired Galician peasant rebellion, his outlook became somber, and he wrote dark poems about the hopelessness of the human condition. “Az emberek” (“Mankind”) posits malevolent intellect and the misguided anger of the masses as the two greatest obstacles to the fulfillment of humanity’s dreams.

“The Summons”

In 1836, Vörösmarty...

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Sociopolitical Content

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Throughout the 1830’s, the voice of Vörösmarty’s lyricism steadily grew stronger though at the expense of his epic output. In more than a hundred epigrams, he demonstrated that there was no aspect of national life which escaped his attention. After 1835, he turned to the women of Hungary, a hitherto largely ignored segment of the population, and encouraged them to become active participants in the nation’s cultural life. In the 1840’s, the course of political events accelerated, adding new depth to the social content of Vörösmarty’s poems. Inexperienced Hungarian leaders were thwarted by indecisiveness and internal squabbles. Vörösmarty seldom participated in these destructive recriminations, but his poems reveal the acute struggle raging within him.

“Gutenberg Albumba” (“For the Gutenberg Album”) greets the decade on an accusatory note; according to Vörösmarty, the world is not deserving of the great heritage of Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. In “Liszt Ferenchez” (“To Ferenc Liszt”), he continues to broaden his concept of progress, striking the tones of a proud citizen of the world. His 1843 poem “Honszeretet” (“Patriotism”) proposes the elimination of noble privileges and the cultivation of a strong bourgeoisie, with special stress on the full political and social equality of the common people.

“Gondolatok a könyvtárban” (“Thoughts in the Library”) recapitulates Vörösmarty’s ideas and states his political creed. It may also be considered the greatest document of the struggle with conscience experienced by nearly all nineteenth century Hungarian liberals. The poem starts with a passionate accusation aimed at humanity, pointing to a “horrible lesson”: While millions are born into misery, only a few thousand enjoy the good life. Vörösmarty asks: “Where is the happiness of the majority?” In answer, the poet advocates the universal solidarity of humankind and continuous striving for a better future.

Poet of National Tragedy

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The bloodless and relatively nonviolent revolution of 1848 filled Vörösmarty with hope for the future; he greeted the freedom of the press, the institution of an accountable national government, and the abolition of serfdom with joyous and inspiring poems. As the reactionary circles of Austria planned to take stern measures against the Hungarian reformers, the poet began to have forebodings of tragedy and advised against rash, immoderate action. The counsel of confident Hungarian radicals, however, prevailed; there was a desperate armed struggle between the imperial forces and the small army of independent Hungary. By the autumn of 1849, the Hungarians were defeated, with the help of sizable Russian forces, and the worst forebodings of Vörösmarty were realized.

Because he had actively supported the cause of “rebels,” Vörösmarty was forced into hiding to avoid the vengeance of the imperial military authorities. By 1850, he thought it advisable to turn himself in to the authorities, who dismissed his case after a brief investigation. The man was free, but the poet was fatally wounded, not only by the military defeat and the subsequent humiliation of his nation, but also by the loss of his friends (some of whom died on the battlefield, some of whom were imprisoned, and some of whom chose exile) and by the shattering of his hopes and beliefs. In the sterile atmosphere of absolutist control, there was hardly a trace left of Hungarian cultural life:...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Basa, Eniko Molnár, ed. Hungarian Literature. New York: Griffon House, 1993. A historical and critical analysis of Hungarian literature. Includes bibliographic references.

De George, Iby. Mihály Vörösmarty: A Historical Study of the Poet’s Life in Relation to Hungarian Theatre and Drama. New York: City College of New York, 1982. Introduces critical interpretation of some of Vörösmarty’s work, including his dramas. Includes bibliographical references.

Jones, David Mervyn. Five Hungarian Writers. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1966. Jones looks extensively at five prominent writers, including Vörösmarty, and their works’ significance both within and outside Hungarian literature.

Mark, Thomas R. “The First Hungarian Translation of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16, no. 1 (Winter, 1965): 105-115. To fill what they saw as a void in Hungarian literature, Hungarian writers, including Vörösmarty, began translating William Shakespeare’s plays into the Hungarian language. Mark discusses a variety of results, such as the thirteen plays somewhat unsuccessfully translated by an eighteen-year-old girl, and Vörösmarty’s eloquent translation of Julius Caesar and King Lear.