Sándor Petőfi was born on January 1, 1823, in Kiskörös—a town located on the Hungarian plain—to István Petrovics, innkeeper and butcher, and his wife, Mária Hruz. Petőfi’s father’s family, in spite of the Serbian name (which Petőfi was to change when he chose poetry as his vocation), had lived in Hungary for generations. His mother, Slovak by birth, came from the Hungarian highlands in the north. Such an ethnic mix was not unusual, and the young man grew up in what he himself considered the “most Magyar” area of all Hungary, the region called Kis Kúnság (Little Cumania) on the Great Plains. Much of his poetry celebrates the people and the landscape of this region: Though not the first to do so, he was more successful than earlier poets in capturing the moods of the region known as the Alföld (lowlands).
Petőfi’s father was wealthy and, desiring his sons to be successful, he determined to educate them. The young Petőfi was sent to a succession of schools that were designed to give him a good liberal education in both Hungarian and German, among them the lower gymnasium (high school) at Aszód, from which he was graduated valedictorian. He was active in various literary clubs and, through the zeal of several nationalistic teachers, became acquainted with the prominent authors of the eighteenth century: Dániel Berzsenyi, József Gvadányi, and Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, as well as the popular poets of the day, Mihály Vörösmarty and József Bajza.
The year spent at Selmec, in the upper division of the gymnasium, was marred by his father’s financial troubles and by Petőfi’s personal clashes with one of his teachers. As a result of these pressures, he yielded to his penchant for the theater and on February 15, 1839, when he was barely sixteen, ran away with a group of touring players.
Petőfi’s decision to become an actor was not made lightly, for he knew the value of an education, and he made every effort to complete his studies later. The years that followed were particularly hard ones. Petőfi roamed much of the country, traveling mostly on foot. He took advantage of the hospitality offered at the farms and manor houses and thus he came to know a wide spectrum of society. On these travels, he also developed his appreciation for nature, uniting his love for it with the objectivity of one who lives close to it. Since acting could not provide him a living, Petőfi decided to join the army, but he was soon discharged for reasons of ill health. In the months following, he became friends with Mór Jókai, later a prominent novelist but at that point a student at Pápa. Petőfi, determined to complete his studies, attended classes there. He joined the literary society and gained recognition as a poet: “A borozo” (the wine drinker), his first published poem, appeared in the prestigious Athenaeum in May, 1842, and he also won the society’s annual festival.
Petőfi, then nineteen, considered himself a poet; he was determined that this would be his vocation. He planned to finish his studies, to become a professional man able to support himself and to help his parents and also to pursue his chief love, poetry. When a promised position as tutor fell through, however, he was once more forced to leave school and to make his living as an actor, or doing whatever odd jobs (translating, copying) he found. In the winter of 1843-1844, ill and stranded in Debrecen, he copied 108 of his poems, determined to take them to Vörösmarty for an opinion. If the verdict was favorable, Petőfi would remain a poet and somehow earn his living by his pen; if not, he would give up poetry forever. The venture succeeded, and this volume, Poems, 1842-1844, firmly established his reputation.
A subscription by the nationalistic literary society Nemzeti Kör provided Petőfi with some funds, and on July 1, 1844, he accepted a position as assistant editor of the Pesti Divatlap . From this time on, he earned his living chiefly with his...
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