Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Yeah, me neither. I'd never heard of Petofi until there was an essay that referenced him and his inspirational role in the resistance to Victor Orban in Hungary, written by H. David Baer in The Bulwark. One line there reminded me of Thom Boswell's classic quip: "Marianne Moore loved Christy Mathewson. No woman of quality has ever preferred football to baseball." Mr. Baer writes about how Peter Magyar, a former member of Orban's party, has differentiated himself from the authoritarian:
Unlike Orbán, whose appreciation for Hungarian cultural achievements appears to end with Ferenc Puskás and the 1954 World Cup, Péter Magyar loves poetry.

And poetry, much more than soccer, plays an important role in Hungarian national identity. The language Hungarians speak is not Indo-European in origin, which separates it from every other European language but Finnish and Estonian. To cultivate Hungarian identity is to cultivate the Hungarian language, and poets are the best cultivators of all. Hungary’s great poets are national icons.

When Magyar first entered politics, he formed an organization named after a verse from a poem by Sándor Pet?fi, who died in battle fighting for Hungarian freedom in the Revolution of 1848. Magyar later linked his organization to the political party that abbreviates its name as TISZA. Tisza is also the name of a major river in eastern Hungary, about which Pet?fi wrote another poem. The Tisza river flows slowly along a low gradient, making it prone to flooding. In Pet?fi’s hands, the Tisza became a metaphor for the Hungarian people, who can be misunderstood as pliant and passive.

Watching the sun set over the still river, the poet notices the light’s amber rays striking the trees, as if they “were burning and flowing with blood.” Turning to the river, he asks, “Ah poor Tisza, why do they mistreat you / and speak of you harshly / you are the gentlest river on earth.” When he’s awakened by the pealing of alarm bells a few days later, the narrator exclaims: “Here comes the flood! / And wherever I looked I saw a sea / breaking its banks in a rage …. Ready to swallow the world.” The Hungarian people, Pet?fi suggests, are like the Tisza river, silent and long-suffering, until, mistreated enough, they rise up in rage like a flooding river.

That Magyar thought to link his party to Pet?fi’s poem was a communications masterstroke. It captures perfectly the mood in Hungary. Despite his electoral dominance, Orbán is not well-loved. He draws a sizable portion of support from the perception that his regime is inevitable. This has led to political apathy and a feeling of resignation, an attitude not all that different from what existed in the later decades of communism. If a viable political alternative ever emerged in Hungary, it could profoundly alter the feeling in the country. If people start to believe they really can be freed of Orbán, they might indeed rise up like a raging river.

At Tisza party rallies, alongside a sea of Hungarian flags and the sound of folk songs, the crowds chant, “The Tisza is flooding” (Árad a Tisza), which rings nicely in Hungarian. Indeed, “Árad a Tisza” could be well on the way to becoming a nationwide slogan of political resistance.
Okay, you've got our attention.

Helpfully, there's an English translation of The Tisza available on-line:
When in the dusk a summer day had died,
I stopped by winding Tisza's river-side,
just where the little Túr flows in to rest,
a weary child that seeks its mother's breast.
Most smooth of surface, with most gentle force,
the river wandered down its bankless course,
lest the faint sunset-rays, so close to home,
should stumble in its lacery of foam.
On its smooth mirror, sunbeams lingered yet,
dancing like fairies in a minuet;
one almost heard the tinkle of their feet,
like tiny spurs in music's ringing beat.
Low flats of yellow shingle spread away,
from where I stood, to meat the meadow hay
where the long shadows in the after-glow
like lines upon a page lay row on row.
Beyond the meadow in mute dignity
the forest towered o'er the darkening lea,
but sunset rested on its leafy spires
like embers red as blood and fierce with fires.
Elsewhere, along the Tisza's farther bank,
the motley broom and hazels, rank on rank,
crowded, but for one cleft, through which was shown
the distant steeple of the tiny town.
Small, rosy clouds lay floating in the sky
in memory-pictures of the hours gone by.
Far in the distance, lost in reverie,
the misty mountain-summits gazed at me.
The air was still. Across the solemn hush
fell but the fitful vespers of a thrush.
Even the murmur of the far-off mill
seemed faint as a mosquito humming shrill.
To the far bank before me, within hail,
a peasant-woman came to fill her pale;
she, as she brimmed it, wondered at my stay,
and with a glance went hastily away.
But I stood there in stillness absolute
as though my very feet had taken root.
My heart was dizzy with the rapturous sight
of Nature's deathless beauty in the night.
O Nature, glorious Nature, who would dare
with reckless tongue to match your wondrous fare?
How great you are! And the more still you grow,
the lovelier are the things you have to show!
Late, very late, I came back to the farm
and supped upon fresh fruit that made me warm,
and talked with comrades far into the night,
while brushwood flames beside us flickered bright.
Then, among other topics, I exclaimed:
"Why is the Tisza here so harshly blamed?
You wrong it greatly and belie its worth:
surely, it's the mildest river on the earth!"
Startled, a few days later in those dells
I heard the frantic pealing of the bells:
"The flood, the flood is coming!" they resound.
And gazing out, I saw a sea around.
There, like a maniac just freed from chains,
the Tisza rushed in rage across the plains;
roaring and howling through the dyke it swirled,
greedy to swallow up the whole wide world.
It's obviously difficult to know precisely what a poem means, nevermind what it means to a nation, but Mr. Baer's analysis seems spot on and Petofi does, elsewhere, refer to the rising of the people as a flood. The metaphor is particularly appealing personally because people bring their kids to New Hampshire/Vermont for Summer Camps or vacation at our lakes and rave about how beautiful everything is, then visit in Winter and are terrified by savage weather. Contrasting the usual placidity of a people with their potential for havoc is kind of genius.

One word of warning: many of the links below should be distrusted because of the nature of the current Hungarian regime. Historically, both those in power and those seeking reform (or revolution) in Hungary have sought to co-opt the poet for their cause. Because of the damage Orban has done to his nation's media any writing that is allowed to be published must be read through the lens of serving the regime. Hopefully, Magyar--with Petofi's help--can change that.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Sándor Pet?fi Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Sándor Pet?fi
    -INDEX: Sándor Pet?fi (YouTube)
    -INDEX: The page of Pet?fi Sándor, Hungarian Works (Visegrad Magic Cube))
    -INDEX: Sándor Pet?fi (Internet Archives)
    -ENTRY: Sándor Pet?fi Hungarian poet (Encyclopedia Britannica)
    -ENTRY: Pet?fi, Sándor (Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe)
    -ENTRY: Sándor Pet?fi, the revolutionary poet was born 200 years ago (Study in Hungary)
    -ENTRY: Sándor Petöfi (
    -ENTRY: Sándor Pet?fi (Enik? Basa, Literary Encyclopedia)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Sándor Pet?fi (eNotes)
    -PORTRAIT: Sándor Pet?fi (1823 - 1849) (Online Portrait Gallery)
    -INDEX: Sandor Petofi (All Poetry)
    -POEM: Pet?fi Sándor: The Tisza (A Tisza in English)
    -ETEXT: An Anthology of Sándor Pet?fi Poems by Miklós Nádasdi (Listed below are 22 poems written by Sándor Pet?fi and translated by Miklós Nádasdi from the original Hungarian into English)
    -POEM: I Would Be a Branch BY SÁNDOR PETÖFI TRANSLATED BY GABI REIGH (Modern Poetry in Translation)
    -POEM: National Song (Sándor Pet?fi)
    -POEM: The End of September - a Love Poem (Translated from Hungarian) (RJSADOWSKI, OCT 23, 2012, Hub Pages)
    -ETEXT: Selections from poems; by Petofi, Sándor, 1823-1849; Phillips, Henry, 1838-1895
    -ESSAY: Is This the Man Who Could Topple Viktor Orbán?: European elections have dramatically changed the political situation in Hungary. (H. DAVID BAER, JUN 20, 2024, The Bulwark)
    -ESSAY: Love and revolution: Sándor Pet?fi and Heinrich Heine (Laszlo Solymar, 11/24/21, The Article)
    -ESSAY: Sándor Pet?fi: The building of a Hungarian legend (Louise Ostermann Twardowski, 20 NOV 2020, Kafka Desk)
    -ESSAY: Remembering Sándor Pet?fi, Hungary’s National Poet (Emese-Réka Fromm, March 4, 2024, Wanderer Writes)
    -ESSAY: The Poetic Voice of a Freedom Loving People (Hungarian Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Sandor Petofi, as you have not known him before (Daniel Turner, Hungarian Hub)
    -ESSAY: Sándor Pet?fi, Hungary’s National Poet, Born 200 Years Ago (Mariann ?ry, 2023.01.03, Hungary Today)
    -INTERVIEW: Insightful Interview: Relevance of Revolutionary Hungarian Poet Sándor Pet?fi to Foreign Readers (The poets Ádám Nádasdy, George Gömöri, and Katalin Szlukovényi answered our questions, 19 Jun 2023, XpatLoop)
    -ESSAY: Sándor Pet?fi, (1823–1849) (MSW, JUNE 26, 2009, weapons and Warfare)
    -CHAPTER: CHAPTER XI: Comet of the Revolution: Pet?fi (LÓRÁNT CZIGÁNY< A HISTORY OF HUNGARIAN LITERATURE: From the Earliest Times to the mid-1970's)
WHEN a Hungarian is asked who, in his opinion, is the greatest poet his country ever produced, he will most probably cite Sándor Pet?fi. Pet?fi is known and respected wherever Hungarian is spoken; his name is associated exclusively with poetry, and he enjoys a place like that usually reserved for Shakespeare in English-speaking countries. His appearance on the literary scene was sudden and brief, yet he radically changed the dominant trends and created a new school. No one would write poetry again without feeling his impact. To be sure, his followers, known as pet?fiesked?k, were often only crude imitators of his style and the external paraphernalia of his poetic attitude, pestering editors and publishers in the second half of the century. Yet his influence did not only affect his contemporaries; it can be felt even today – some modern Hungarian poets have found it difficult to escape. The heritage and message of Pet?fi seem to be deeply imprinted on the national ego.

Pet?fi created a new world of poetry which bore little resemblance to restrained Classicism or to the often monotonous patriotic elegies of his predecessors, many of whom wrote under the influence of German Classicism and Romanticism. The pre-existing potentialities from which Pet?fi’s poetry in all its novelty was born were, on the one hand, the graceful and polished idiom of Vörösmarty, and, on the other, a tendency (present in many European literatures) to bring poetic diction closer to the natural idiom of the spoken language. The Lake Poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey – were the pioneers of this trend; but their objectives were perhaps best attained, curiously enough, by their arch-enemy, Lord Byron, and on the Continent by Heine.

The natural ease of the spoken language appears to have been something Pet?fi was born with; he needed no foreign models. Instead, he turned instinctively to folk-songs, a treasure-trove of simple yet effective poetry. In this sense, he continued one of the most significant traditions in Hungarian literature, the népies trend, which had been developing ever since the Baroque poet Faludi experimented with the incorporation of features from folk-songs into his own poetic language. The népies trend reached its natural peak in Pet?fi’s poetry, for he was able to raise every subject to the level of poetry as naturally as if poetry were already inherent in the phenomena of the world. Nevertheless, the experiments of his foreign predecessors and contemporaries were known in the Hungary of the 1840s, and Pet?fi was conscious of their presence; yet he managed to add novelty to poetic self – expression on a scale that took him beyond the confines of Hungarian poetry. As one of his English critics observed, Pet?fi ‘was alternately likened … to Burns, Byron, Heine, Körner, Béranger … though it cannot be said that he entirely resembled any of them. He was like every true genius, thoroughly original …’.

Besides his poetry, his larger-than-life personality also contributed to the making of his image, for he perished amid revolution, fighting for the freedom of his people and for the most cherished ideals of Romantic Europe, a truly romantic death in the context of the revolutions of 1848 when young Europe clashed with the last remnants of the ancien régime. Small wonder that the memory of this twenty-six-year-old youth became built into an image of the poet as the spiritual leader and prophet of his own people, in which part indeed he cast himself. He is a committed writer par excellence of essentially Romantic mould who leads his people like a ‘pillar of fire’ towards a social Canaan, or fights with them on the barricades for freedom and independence. This image of Pet?fi is still predominant in Hungary, and the best poets of the country can aspire to nothing higher than to gain a place in the coveted ranks of his successors.

    -ESSAY: Celebrating Pet?fi Sándor at the “Museum Cafe” (Andy Meszaros, May 17, 2023, Cleveland Hungarian Museum)
    -ESSAY: Sándor Petöfi: Poet, Imagination, Nation (Illyés, Gyula, Summer 1973, Mosaic)
    -ESSAY: Rocking the Cradle: Making Pet?fi a National Poet (Sándor Hites, 2017, arcadia)
    -ESSAY: The “Giant Role Model”: the “Serbian” Pet?fi (Katalin Hász-Fehér, Hungarian Studies Yearbook)
    -ARTICLE: Celebrating Sándor Pet?fi in the Partium — New Statue Erected to the Great Hungarian Poet in Szatmárnémeti (Ádám Bráder, Hungarian Conservative)
    -ARTICLE: Marking the Bicentenary of Hungary’s National Poet, Sándor Pet?fi (Lili Zemplényi, Hungarian Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Manifestations of Hungarian Identity in Literature (Janos Kenyeres, 2019, Hungarian Cultural Studies)
    -ARCHIVES: Sándor Pet?fi (Hungarian Conservative)
    -AUDIO ARCHIVES: Sándor Pet?fi (1823 - 1849) (LibriVox)


    -FILMOGRAPHY: Sándor Petöfi(1823-1849) (IMDB)
    -">-FILMOGRAPHY: Now or Never! (IMDB)
    -ESSAY: Filmmakers Fight Back Against Deepening Chill in Viktor Orban’s Hungary: ‘People Have Nothing to Lose’ (Christopher Vourlias, 9/2/22, Variety)
    -FILM REVIEW: Sándor Pet?fi Overseas — A Review of the Movie Now or Never! Screened in New York (Ildikó Antal-Ferencz, Hungarian Conservative)
    -FILM REVIEW: Now or Never! *Hungarian Conservative)
    -FILM REVIEW: Now or Never! (Peter Schulz, Budapest Reporter)

Book-related and General Links: