Sándor Petőfi Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Sándor Petőfi wrote several short narrative pieces for the fashion magazines and periodicals of his day. “A szökevények” (the runaways) was published in the Pesti Divatlap in 1845. The following year, his melodramatic novella A hóhér kötele (The Hangman’s Rope, 1973) was published in the same magazine. In 1847, he published two tales in Életképek: “A nagyapa” (the grandfather) and “A fakó leány s a pej legény” (the pale girl and the ruddy boy). “Zöld Marci,” a drama written in 1845, was destroyed by the author when it was not picked up for theatrical production; the bombastic Tigris és hiéna (tiger and hyena) was withdrawn from production but published in 1847. The most valuable prose Petőfi wrote was the personal essay and brief diary entries relating to the events of March, 1848. “Úti jegyzetek” (journal notes) was serialized in Életképek in 1845; in 1847, Hazánk published his “Úti levelek Kerényi Frigyeshez” (travel notes to Frigyes Kerényi). Lapok Petőfi Sándor naplójából (pages from the diary of Sándor Petőfi) appeared in 1848. In addition, his letters, published in the 1960 Petőfi Sándor összes prózai muvei és levelezése (complete prose works and correspondence of Sándor Petőfi), provide good examples of his easy prose style. Early in his career Petőfi earned some money doing translations of works by such authors as Charles de Bernard, George James, and William Shakespeare. In 1848, Petőfi’s translation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (167-1608) appeared. He also began a translation of Romeo and Juliet but died before finishing it.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Sándor Petőfi has been called Hungary’s greatest lyric poet. He made the folk song a medium for the expression of much of the national feeling of the nineteenth century, establishing a new voice and introducing new themes into Hungarian poetry. Building on past traditions, he revitalized Hungarian poetry. Though a revolutionary, he did not break with all tradition, but rather sought a return to native values. Choosing folk poetry as his model, he endorsed its values of realism, immediacy, and simplicity. He also exploited to the fullest its ability to present psychological states through natural and concrete images, with an immediacy that had an impact beyond the poetic sphere.

Petőfi’s poetry is the “poetry of Hungarian life, of the Hungarian people,” according to Zsolt Beöty. Yet, although Petőfi drew on popular traditions, he did so with the conscious art of a cultivated poet. This combination of Romantic style and realistic roots gives his poetry a freshness and sincerity that has made him popular both in Hungary and abroad. More important, it has assured him a place in the development of Hungarian lyricism.

Petőfi’s impact, however, goes beyond Hungary. He appeals to the emotions yet maintains a distance: His themes seldom lose their universality. For Petőfi, the revolutionary ideal of the nineteenth century applied equally to politics and poetics. Folk orientation and nationalism were equally an organic part of his poetry, and his revolutionary ideals were unthinkable without a popular-national input. Thus, he...

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The Hungarian Tradition

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

In the early poems, written from 1842 to 1844, Petőfi had already established his distinctive style and some of his favorite themes. Although he was influenced both by classical poets (especially Horace) and by foreign poets of his own era—Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich Heine, the Hungarian-born Austrian poet Nikolas Lenau, and probably the English poets George Gordon, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley—Petőfi believed that Hungarian poetry must free itself of its dependence on foreign rules of prosody in order to reflect native meters and patterns.

In this, he was not the first: The tradition of medieval verse and song had survived and had been revived by previous generations of poets; the seventeenth century epic of Miklós Zrinyi had continued to inspire poets; the folk song, too, had been cultivated by earlier poets, notably Csokonai in the late eighteenth century and Kisfaludi in the early nineteenth century. What was new in Petőfi’s approach was his conscious effort to establish a poetic style that put native meters and current speech at the center of his art. Proof of his success is found not only in the immense and ongoing popularity of his poetry among all classes of the population, but also in the recognition accorded him by János Arany, who was later to define the “Hungarian national meter” chiefly on the basis of a study of Petőfi’s use of native rhythms.

Petőfi’s early poems were written primarily in the...

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The Family

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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...

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Patriotic Poems

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Nationalism, a sense of commitment to and concern for the Hungarian people, and patriotism, a commitment to the political institutions of a free and independent Hungarian nation, are themes found throughout Petőfi’s poetry. Often, these concerns appear in an oblique way. Increasingly, after March 15, 1848, however, they became open topics of his poetry while continuing to influence the other genres in the same indirect fashion as earlier. As early as 1846, in “Egy gondolat bánt engement” (one thought troubles me), Petőfi had expressed a desire to die on the battlefield in defense of liberty. The next year, he stated the obligation of the poet to sacrifice personal feelings in the interests of patriotic and human duty in...

(The entire section is 925 words.)

War Poems

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Petőfi was not sanguine, however, and hopeful poems such as “1848” alternate with ones that express bitter disappointment, such as “Európa csendes, ujra csendes” (“Europe is quiet, is quiet again”). He saw that Europe had given up its democratic ideals, and no hope of support was left. Yet, he did not speak of Hungary’s cause as a hopeless if glorious one. Even the combined forces of Austria and Russia were no match for his poetic belief in victory, expressed in “Bizony mondom, hogy gyoz most a magyar” (“truly I say, now the Hungarians will win”).

Though they constitute a relatively small percentage of his poetic work, Petőfi’s war poems deserve attention. For the most part, they are spirited, upbeat marches or a lively mixture of narrative and lyric moods, emphasizing the dedication and heroism of the soldiers. They do not glorify war for its own sake, but rather emphasize the patriotic reason for the combat. “Bordal” (wine song) returns to a traditional genre to urge all men to defend their homeland, “draining blood and life” from anyone who seeks to destroy it just as they “empty the glass of wine.”

Petőfi’s confidence in the ultimate triumph of his cause, if not on the battlefield or in the treaty rooms then at least in the judgment of history, can be sensed in one of the last battle songs he wrote, “Csatában” (in battle). This poem is also notable for the personal involvement of the poet. He begins the poem by re-creating a battle in vivid natural images and giving it a cosmic frame:

Wrath on the earth,
Wrath in the sky!
The red of spilt blood and
The red rays of the sun!
The setting sun glows
In such a wild purple!
Forward, soldiers,
Forward, Magyars!

Through such images and a wonderfully effective onomatopoeia, the whole universe seems to become involved in the strife. The poet’s own involvement, symbolic of the involvement of the nation, is signaled in the change in the refrain from “Forward” to “Follow me.”

Shortly after composing this poem, Petőfi died on the fateful battlefield of Segesvár. Within weeks, the Hungarian Resistance was also over, but Petőfi lives on in legend and in his poetry.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Petőfi’s short poetic career established him as a poet of the first rank. The variety of themes and styles he handled with success is amazing; even the less powerful lyrics of his early years have enriched Hungarian literature and music, many of them having been set to music and passing into the modern “folk-song” repertory. His early fame and his fame abroad rested on both his republican sentiments and his romantic early death. Early translations into German were followed by English versions based on the German. His popularity grew with the worldwide interest in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and its brutal suppression; it also waned as political realities changed. The Petőfi behind the legend was neglected even in Hungary for a long time; abroad, he is still mostly known as a revolutionary hero, not as a poet. Translations, prepared with enthusiasm but lack of knowledge or skill, seldom do him justice. In Hungary, the most talented of his contemporaries recognized his talents independent of his political views. Today, there is general agreement about his position as a central figure in Hungarian literature and in the development of the Hungarian lyric. His republican, nationalistic, and patriotic ideas are also recognized; they are an essential part of the poet who spoke from the heart of his generation, who spoke for his people, and who spoke for the masses and indeed to give all classes of society a voice. He was truly a poet of national consciousness.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Basa, Enikő Molnár. Sándor Petőfi. Boston: Twayne, 1980. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Petőfi. Includes bibliographic references.

Curwen, Henry. Sorrow and Song: Studies of Literary Struggle. London: H. S. King, 1875. Volume 1 includes a biography of Petőfi. Invaluable for its near-contemporary insights.

Illyés, Gyula. Petőfi. Translated by G. F. Cushing. Budapest, Hungary: Corvina, 1973. An exhaustive biography and critical examination of the life and works of Petőfi.

Jones, David Mervyn. Five Hungarian Writers. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1966. A collection of biographical studies of influential Hungarian...

(The entire section is 99 words.)