“Who Am I? I Will Not Say…” – Petőfi’s Choices

Permanent exhibition

The Permanent Sándor Petőfi Exhibition of the Petőfi Literary Museum


1.Who am I? I shall not say . . .

Sándor Petőfi is much more to Hungary than an important poet – rather he is seen as poetry incarnate.

He became the symbol of the Reform Age, when widespread social unrest led to the Freedom War of 1848-49, and lost his life in battle against the Austrians' Russian allies. Even today the legends about him have a life of their own, his face has become an icon, and his verse has inspired political thought on both sides of centre.

In this exhibition we attempt to reveal Petőfi's brief but crowded life and the dilemmas which he faced. Instead of the personality simplified by posterity, we show the complexity of his roles as man and poet.


2. Land of my birth

The Alföld towns were Petőfi's boyhood milieu. He was born in Kiskőrös in late 1822 – only the date of his baptism, 1 January 1823, is known – but moved in infancy to Kiskunfélegyháza, which he later gave as his place of birth as its Magyar name fitted his persona better than the Slovak Kiskőrös.

His mother, Mária Hrúz, and father, István Petrovics, were Magyar-speaking Lutherans, probably of Slovak origin – contemporary memoirs tell of a foreign accent – and were not noble. István was a successful butcher and owned land, which entitled him to certain civil rights. Sándor was therefore brought up in a prosperous home.


3. My student days . . .

His father saw to it that Sándor received an education, and did his best to make him feel Magyar in both language and nationality. His aim was to enable him to enter a profession despite his lowly birth.

There was no Lutheran school in Kiskunfélegyháza, and so, at the age of five and a half,  Sándor was sent to school in Kecskemét. There followed schools in Sárszentlőrinc and Budapest, where he did poorly at the Catholic Piarist grammar school; he moved to Aszód, where he did well and finished grammar school.

At that time, his father's business failed, his house was destroyed in a flood, and the promising student fell upon hard times.


4. I stand at a cross-roads . . .

Sándor enrolled at the Lutheran college in Selmec (now Banská Stiavnica, Slovakia). His good report from Aszód won him free meals, but henceforth he was to be a poor student. Now, however, he had to study mainly in Latin, which made the going too hard – he even failed in Hungarian history –  and he left Selmec.

He went to Budapest to become an actor. He had a few walk-on parts at the Pest Magyar Theatre, but was soon living with relations in western Hungary, tutoring the children in return for his keep.

In the verse which he wrote at this time we see him youthfully torn between finishing college and striking out on his own.


5. A soldier pale . . .

Contrary to his mental and physical nature he joined the army. He had to lie about his age, and from then on considered himself an adult.

He made an odd soldier. He continued to study, which his superiors took for insubordination. Posted to Austria, then to Zagreb, he ironically never went farther afield despite his wish to travel. The soldier's life eventually proved too hard and he was discharged as medically unfit.

He later saw this painful episode as a turning-point: it reinforced his defiance of any restraint and confirmed his vocation. But he was not not making a living – and still did not know which way to turn.


6. The memory of a lovely lady

Who his lovers were is no secret, whether named or unnamed in the verse which they swiftly inspired. Petőfi's feelings surfaced readily, a fact of which he made conscious use in his work.

It would be unsafe, however, to read too much into his early love-poetry. His acquaintance with some of the girls for whom he fell was at best slight. There was no question of deep relationships or marriage.

In this respect there is a strange contrast between his real life and his verse. Love is often portrayed as a destroying passion, with an erotic content unusual for the time. In fact, his ideal of a relationship with a woman was socially conventional: marriage.


7. Farewell to acting

After the army he resumed his studies, and in 1841 entered the Calvinist college at Pápa. He had by now had some success as a poet, and from April 1842 began to magyarise Petrovics into Petőfi. At the end of the year, however, he left Pápa without a diploma.

In the years that followed he was both writer and actor, touring Hungary with a company and taking minor parts – his lack of looks kept him from major roles. The life of a strolling player did not help him develop as an actor, and despite his determination the winter of 1843-44 made him admit failure.

Staking all on his last card, he set off for Budapest to try his luck as a poet.


8. What is fame? . .

On the way Petőfi called for help from school friends and others, including the poet Mihály Vörösmarty, who recommended his first volume for publication.

The advance made him solvent, and he realised that he had many supporters. He obtained a post on a Budapest paper and his career as a poet made a good start, as he rapidly grew in popularity. The signs of this were already visible both in Budapest and in his home town. However, he was also criticised: the speed with which his work was written and printed was both praised and derided.

In early 1845 he left his editorial post and set out for North Hungary, hoping for new experiences and contacts.


9.  Fleeting youth, undying love

In 1846 the wish to see more of Hungary took him eastward, and in Szatmár he met Júlia Szendrey. An educated woman with literary ambitions, she was undeterred by Petőfi's gaucheness and love soon blossomed.

Literature bridged the gap when they parted, as Petőfi sent Júlia the poems that he published, so declaring his love. That they married was largely thanks to her overcoming her father's objections: their social status was unequal, and she was a Catholic.

The love poems that Petőfi wrote to Júlia after their marriage showed the world the link between his verse and his true feelings. The illusion grew that he could be fully understood from his poetry.


10. Will there be fruit on a tree that has no blossom? Or are you that blossom, youth of my fatherland? . .

In Budapest Petőfi depended entirely on income from his poetry, which he hoped would keep a family.

His importance as a writer grew, and he became leader of the Society of Ten. Their aim was to launch an independent organ rather than to publish in the papers as had been the custom.

Petőfi sold the rights to all his verse to date, and his Collected Verse appeared in March 1847. He was the best-known poet of the day, and exerted much influence on public opinion.

He and his associates called the first public rally in Hungary on 15 March 1848. This made an impact on the Parliament, and Petőfi became the leading figure of the revolution in Budapest.


11. Why block my way? . .

That day was his triumph, but disappointment was to come. Events did not adhere to his republican script.

Signs of his isolation and loss of popularity soon appeared: neither Petőfi nor any of the 'Youth of March' were elected to the Budapest press jury. In May he publicly suspended his republican activity.

The real disillusionment came in June with electoral defeat in his home region. He misread the political maturity of the voters and gave offence in a brash election speech.

This latest change of life-style had failed, and he had been unable to join the political élite. The readership on which he had relied fell away, and Júlia was pregnant.


12. A song of black and red

Petőfi had now only the press by which to influence opinion. The war sparked by Jellačič intensified the dilemma between principle and opportunity, and he was maliciously accused of cowardice for not fighting.

He had to consider his position. To take a commission in the National Guard would be a moral response, and would bring financial security to the family.

His experience of soldiering, however, was wholly negative. He had clashed with his officers, and had not lost his republican beliefs. He therefore asked to be assigned to General Bem, a known admirer of his work.

That proved disastrous, as he vanished in action at Segesvár on 31 July 1849.


13. There, where rise our grave-mounds . . .

Petőfi's body was not found, so no funeral could be held; to this day some believe that he died in Siberian captivity. The bereavement of Júlia and her son Zoltán was thus not proven, and no national fund for their relief could be set up.

Nor did he leave an estate – his poetry had already been sold. At the age of 21, with a year-old son, Júlia married Árpád Horvát, and although they had four children the marriage was not happy and they parted. She died at 40 after a long illness.

Zoltán tried to follow his father as poet and actor, but died at the age of 20. Sándor's brother István died childless, and the family was extinct.


14. My dying swan, sweet memory . . .

Petőfi's mighty oeuvre – lyric, epic and dramatic – became one of the most influential achievements of the century in Hungarian literature. The laudatory verse of posterity shows this, as do, to this day, the many imitations of his real and imagined qualities as man and poet.

His popularity was increased even in his lifetime by many settings of his poems to music – songs which are still sung today.

Of all Hungarian poets he is the most translated, and into most languages. These translations have made his significance in world literature clear to all, making him a leading representative of European Romanticism.