Petőfi’s early poems about his family reveal the emotional depth of his best work. They are full of intense yet controlled feeling, but the setting, the style, and the diction remain simple; a realistic note is never lacking. Contemplating a reunion with the mother he has not seen for some time, he rehearses various greetings, only to find that in the moment of reunion he “hangs on her lips—wordlessly,/ Like the fruit on the tree.”
The felicitous choice of image and metaphor is one of the greatest attractions of Petőfi’s poetry. “Egy estém otthon” (one evening at home) and “István öcsémhez” (to my younger brother, István) reflect the same love and tender concern for his parents. The emotions are deep, yet their expression is restrained: He sees his father’s love manifest in the grudging approval bestowed on his “profession” and his mother’s love manifest in her incessant questions. Objective in his assessment of his father’s inability to understand him, he knows that the bond between them is no less strong. His own emotions are described in a minor key, coming as a comment in the last line of the quatrain, a line that has the effect of a “tag,” because it has fewer stresses than the other three.
The Hammer of the Village
Petőfi’s two heroic poems use the same devices to comment on society—albeit in a light and entertaining manner. The Hammer of the Village, written in mock-heroic style, satirizes both society and the Romantic epic tradition, which by this time had become degraded and commonplace. Using a mixture of colloquialism and slang, the parody is peopled with simple villagers who are presented in epic terms. The characters themselves behave unaffectedly and naturally; it is the narrator who assumes the epic pose and invests their jealousies and Sunday-afternoon amusements with a mock grandeur. Thus, Petőfi shows his ability to use the heroic style, though he debunks certain excesses in the heroic mode then fashionable, presenting the life he knows best; he does this not by ridiculing simple folk but by debunking pretentiousness. Though popular, the poem understandably failed to gain the critical approval of the journal editors, whose main offerings were often in the very vein satirized by Petőfi.
János the Hero
In contrast, János the Hero received both critical and popular support. It has served as the basis of an operetta and has often been printed as a children’s book—especially in foreign translations. Yet much more than a fairy tale cast in folk-epic style, the work has several levels of meaning and explores many topics of deep concern for the poet and his society.
The hero and his lover, his adventures, his values, and his way of thinking are all part of the folktale tradition. The epic is augmented by more recent historical material: the Turkish wars and Austrian campaigns, events that mingle in the imagination of the villagers who have fought Austria’s wars for generations and who fought the Turks for generations before that. The characterization, however, remains realistically rooted in the village. The French king, the Turkish pasha, even the giant are recognizable types. The hero, János, remains unaffected and unspoiled, but he is never unsophisticated. His naïveté is not stupidity; he is one to whom worldly glory has less appeal than do his love for Iluska and his desire to be reunited with her.
The style of the poem reinforces this “obvious” level: It is written in the Hungarian Alexandrine, a ten- to eleven-syllable line divided by a caesura into two and two, or two and three, measures. The language is simple and natural, but, as in the folk song, the actual scene is merged with the psychological world of the tale. The similes and metaphors of the poem reflect the method of the folk song and thus extend the richness of meaning found in each statement. The use of the devices goes beyond their traditional application in folk song. Through the pairing of natural phenomena and the protagonist’s state of mind, a higher level of meaning is suggested: The adventures of János become symbolic of the struggle between good and evil. Iluska becomes the ideal for which he strives as well as the force that keeps him from straying from the moral path; he does not take the robbers’ wealth to enrich himself, nor does he accept the French throne and the hand of the princess. Helping the weak and unfortunate, he continues to battle oppression, whether in the form of an unjust master or the Turks or giants and witches who rule over the forces of darkness.
The images used by the lovers upon their parting illustrate these principles quite well: János asks Iluska to remember him in these words: “If you see a dry stalk driven by the wind/ Let your exiled lover come to your mind.” His words are echoed by Iluska’s answer: “If you see a broken flower flung on the highway/ Let your fading lover come to your mind.” The cosmic connections are suggested, yet nothing inappropriate on the literal level is said. Furthermore, the dry stalk is an appropriate symbol for the grief-stricken and aimlessly wandering János. The faded flower as a symbol of the grieving girl becomes a mystical metaphor for her; in the concluding scenes, János regains Iluska when he throws the rose he had plucked from her grave into the Waters of Life.
The realism of the folk song and the quality of Hungarian village life are not restricted to the description of character or to the imagery. The setting, particularly when János is within the boundaries of Hungary, is that of the Hungarian plain. He walks across the level, almost barren land, stops by a sweep well, and encounters shepherds, bandits, and peddlers, as might any wanderer crossing these regions. These touches and János’s realistic actions—such as eating the last of the bacon that he had carried with him for the journey, using the brim of his felt hat for a cup and a mole’s mound for a pillow, and turning his sheepskin cloak inside out to ward off the rain—reaffirm the hero’s basic humanity. He is not the passive Romantic traveler in the mold of Heine or of Byron. He never becomes a mere observer; instead, he naturally assumes an active role and instinctively takes charge of his own life and of events around him. Even in the more mythical setting of the second half of the poem, his sense of purpose does not waver.
The years 1845 and 1846 were intensely emotional ones for Petőfi, and many of his works of this period suffer from a lack of objectivity and of emotional distancing. Love, revenge, and patriotism, a struggle between national priorities, the gulf between the rich and the poor—all sought a voice. The simple lyric of the traditional folk song was not yet strong enough to carry the message, and Petőfi sought a suitable medium of expression. In this time of experimentation, he found in the drama of the Hungarian people an objective correlative for his own emotions.
The collection Clouds contains occasional poems in the world-weary mood of the previous year, but new forms and a new language show that to a great extent Petőfi had mastered the conflicting impulses of the earlier works. The best poems lash out against injustice, or they are patriotic poems that become increasingly militant in tone. In “A Csárda romjai” (the ruins of the Csárda), Petőfi takes a familiar landmark of the arid, deserted lowlands and makes it a metaphor for the decline of the country. The poem opens as a paean to these plains, the poet’s favorite landscape because they remind him of freedom; in succeeding stanzas, he seems to digress from the objective scene into sentimentality. He stops himself, however, before this train of thought goes too far; inasmuch as it is the ruin before him that has inspired these thoughts, the poem is also returned to the concrete scene. The ruin is of stone—a rarity here—so he seeks an explanation, which is soon given: A village or city once stood here, but the Turks destroyed it and left only a half-ruined church. A parenthetical expression brings the poem back to the idea of lost liberty (“Poor Hungary, my poor homeland,/ How many different chains you have already worn”), and the narrative is then resumed.
In time, an inn was built from the church, but those who once lodged there are now long dead. The inn has lost its roof, and its door and window are indistinguishable; all that remains is the sweep of the well, on top of which a lone eagle sits, meditating on mutability. In the final four lines, the scene is expanded to encompass the entire horizon, which serves to give it an optimistic and magical tone. The melancholy scene is bathed in sunshine and surrounded by natural beauty. The parallelism between the decline of the nation and the slow ruin of the church-inn has been established, and a note of optimism for the nation’s future has been introduced, but precise development of this idea is only suggested. The point is not belabored.
“A négy-ökrös szekér”
The poems of these years showed great variety; not all are in the meditative-patriotic vein. In “A négy-ökrös szekér” (the ox cart), for example, Petőfi returned to a more personal theme: a nighttime ride in an oxcart. The poem is set in the country; the speaker is on a visit home. With a group of young friends, he returns to the next village in an oxcart to prolong the party. The magic of the evening is suggested in the second stanza—“The merchant breeze moved over the nearby leas/ And brought sweet scents from the grasses”—but the refrain anchors the scene in reality: “Down the highway, pulling the cart,/ The four oxen plodded slowly.” The poem remains a retelling of the evening, although a pensive note is introduced when the poet turns to his companion, urging that they choose a star “which will lead us back/ To the happy memories of former times.” The poem then closes with the calm notes...