19th Century

Hungarian Literature | G.W.M. Reynolds

[A reprint of a nineteenth-century essay on Hungarian literature].

The intellectual energies of the Hungarians were very tardy in developing themselves; at the same time the understanding of that people is acute and comprehensive, and their ideas are characterized by a peculiar quickness and vivacity.[1] The nature of the country— rude in aspect, and cold in climate amongst the mountainous regions, and serene and beautiful in its fertile parts—causes the inhabitants to participate in the varied qualities respectively peculiar to the denizens of the northern and temperate zones. There is moreover no physical reason, springing from a defective organization, to account for this backwardness in literature on the part of the Hungarians when compared with their neighbours. The obstacles that were opposed to the cultivation of the arts and sciences in Hungary, during several centuries, were therefore exterior.

Scarcely was Hungary conquered and reduced to peace by the Romans, than it was devastated by the barbarians. The Huns, under the command of Attila, the Heruli, the Goths, the Lombards, and the Bulgarians, attacked by turns the Roman colonies and burnt their towns. The primitive Hungarians were put to the sword; their religion, their manners, their customs, and their language were confused, perverted, and mingled with those of the invaders. Towards the end of the ninth century another and more rapacious horde of Huns than the former, called Magyars, overran Hungary and established a regular form of government in the country, At the same period the luminous rays of Christianity penetrated to those climes through the medium of missionaries sent thither by Saint Stephen I. Those missionaries introduced the Latin language, which in a few years became familiar to the various tribes occupying the Hungarian territories, A new language, however, gradually formed itself out of different Slavic dialects; but still, notwithstanding the gigantic efforts of the Christian clergy to encourage a progressive civilization and to attach the minds of the Hungarian youth to the cultivation of literature, the intellectual powers of the inhabitants were slow in developing themselves. A perpetual series of war- fare with the Germans, the Grecians, the Venetians, and the Bulgarians, changed the face of the country into a complete desert. Intestine and civil discords, chiefly in reference to the succession of some pretender to the throne, added to the universally prevalent misery, particularly as the hereditary rights of monarchs and their sons or hits were only established by statute in the fourteenth century. To remedy the effects of such numerous disasters, the kings of Hungary were necessitated to call to their aid the co-operation of foreign powers, and to admit into their dominions colonies of Russians, Kumans, and Jazygues. Thence originated another confused medley of manners, religious customs, and languages, which caused civilization to retrograde from its progress through the country. In addition to these miseries, the inhabitants became again plunged in a state of barbarism, the nobles of the land occupied themselves in civil warfare and pillage, and peaceful citizens were obliged to defend their property by force of arms. The peasants, or rather serfs, who, from having originally inhabited dens and caverns, had at length arrived at a knowledge of building wretched sheds or huts, necessarily existed in a savage predicament of slavery and ignorance. Laws were scarcely known eyen by name, and the few established statutes that were dignified by the nomenclature, were rather in favour of the transgressions of the rich than the rights of the poor.

Civilization, however, advanced a few steps under the dynasty of Anjou. The Hungarian language made a little progress, and even soon became general at court. Louis, called the Great, encouraged the arts and sciences, and founded the first university at Funkirchen in 1367. The various towns acquired a certain importance, private citizens obtained a certain rank in society, and the national wealth sensibly augmented. Mathias Corvin, despite of the perpetual contest he was obliged to sustain against the emperor, the Bohemians, the Poles, and the Turks, was a staunch protector of literary men. The arts and sciences, which he himself cultivated, flourished beneath the succour of his powerful hand, and obtained permanent dwellings with the Hungarians. Mathias was indisputably the greatest monarch that ever reigned over Hungary; but, alas! his successors did not manifest the same zeal for promoting the civilization of their subjects, In vain did Ferdinand the first, brother of Charles the fifth, assure the hereditary right of succession to the house of Hapsburg, and thus put an end to the disastrous wars resulting from an elective monarchy; the learned disputes of religious sectarians soon became changed into bloody contests; the despotic measures of the Catholic clergy and of the kings of Hungary, become emperors of Germany, to stop the progressive march of the Protestant innovations, and the invasions of the Turks, who, after repeated attempts, eventually succeeded in conquering half the country,—all these misfortunes continued till the reign of Joseph the first at the commencement of the eighteenth century, and threw a thousand self-evident obstacles in the way of civilization. But since this period Hungary has lifted up her drooping head. The victories achieved by Prince Eugéne over the Turks, re-established national security and social order in the territory; and the beneficent reigns of Maria Theresa and Joseph the second gave an additional moral strength to a people that now appears to acquire fresh vigour and energy from day to day.

From this brief sketch of the misfortunes of Hungary during a long series of centuries, the reader may become acquainted with the causes of the slow development of intellect amongst its inhabitants. At the same time let us remark that even in the times of Attila, and ever since, poetry has been duly cultivated and honoured. The productions of early times have not been handed down to us; but we read in history, that the warlike songs and national airs, com- posed in the various dialects and idioms of the Hungarian tribes, were even sung at court and in the presence of those princes whose exploits they eulogised. The poets of those times were called Trouveres; but they were generally individuals of a character far from estimable ; insomuch that the synods or courts of law frequently for- bade the people to listen to their songs or to assist the vagrant bards with the alms of charity. The monarchs themselves, however, had their own poets attached to their household, and generally enriched them by grants of lands or other acts of regal munificence. The custom of singing during meals was preserved till the fifteenth century. The subjects of those songs seldom turned upon love: martial airs were preferred to amatory lyrics, To be brief, the most ancient relics now existing of Hungarian poetry, are a hymn to the Virgin, and a song in honour of King Ladislaus; both bear the date of the fifteenth century.

In the sixteenth century, Bilassa and Rimai distinguished themselves in lyric poetry and odes on sacred subjects; but the imperfection of their language and their metrical measures superseded the possibility of those two eminent bards attaining any very great perfection. It was the same with Bornemisa and Goénezi; and similar defects have characterized the Hungarian translation in verse of “Pierre de Provence et la Belle Maguelove.” Notwithstanding that poverty of language and metrical imperfection which threatened to ruin all attempts at eminent literary productions, the sixteenth century also witnessed the infancy of the Hungarian drama. Dramatic songs and dialogues in verse were the primal essays. We must, however, notice that in the thirteenth century, during the reign of Ladislaus the fourth, a troop of buffoons or jesters had appeared in Hungary, and were well received by the inhabitants of the principal towns where they performed.

To the martial airs of the Trouvéres succeeded the rhymed chronicles, which even at the present day serve as guides and means of elucidation to antiquarian researches. The reader has probably read or glanced his eye over blind Harry the minstrel’s “Life of Sir William Wallace,” Archdeacon Barbour’s “History of King Robert Bruce,” Drayton’s “Robin Hood,” &c. &c.; and, if so, he may form a correct idea of the Hungarian records in verse, the first of which was written by Szekely in 1559, and is preserved amongst the archives of the kingdom. The immediate followers and imitators of Szekely were Temesvari, Haltai, and Tinodi.

These poetical chronicles were not invariably circumscribed as to subject and theme to the history of Hungary; some of them were epics treating of the deeds of other nations and olden times, such as “The Adventures of Ajax,” “The Exploits of Ulysses,” “The History of Cyrus and the Persian Princes,” &c., which works are preserved in the same sanctuary that contains the productions of Szekely. But in those heroic poems, as in the lyrics to which we have before alluded, the language is devoid of beauty or charm, the verse is deficient in harmony, and the metre is apparently subject to no fixed nor conventional modifications and rules. It is only within the last century that a grammar of the Hungarian language has existed, and many vain trials have been made to establish its principles and syntax in a precise method; neither can the prosody be more easily arranged than the etymology and syntax.

The seventeenth century was an important epoch for Hungarian literature, which made considerable progress at that period, The dramatic art developed itself with rapidity and success. Stages were erected in the fields for warlike shows, and in the towns for tragi- comic representations. ‘The subjects were generally furnished by the heathen mythology or by the exploits of the ancient kings of Hungary. The actors became personages of rank and consideration, the authors of the plays were almost deified, and as long as the pieces contained nothing opposed to morality and virtue, the synods or tribunals not only tolerated but even protected the wearers of the buskin.

But the glory of Hungary in the seventeenth century was the great poet Zriny. With his imagination fired by the epics of Homer, of Virgil, and of Tasso, he sought a wider scope for his poetic range than the circumscribed field offered by the poetic chroniclers or the incipient drama, and penned the grand national poem entitled the “Zrinyad,” which would have been a masterpiece of perfection, had not the poverty of his native tongue thrown an insurmountable obstacle in the path of the daring bard. Like Milton, Zriny was neglected during his lifetime; and it was only when his ear was deaf to the bland whisperings of flattery and to the voice of fame, that his merits as an author were appreciated, and the wretched jingles of his rivals were laid aside to make way for his grand production. Listzi, the most successful and jealous of Zriny’s contemporaries, wrote a poem called “The Battle of Mohacz;” but he spoilt his work by pursuing the didactic style, so much at variance with the subject. With regard to the other literary enemies of Zriny, one word will suffice,—that they invariably plagiarised from the ancients, or permitted themselves to be led into the most servile imitations of contemporary men of genius in other nations, and that their speculations were as superficial as their language was inharmonious. Besides his epic poem, to which posterity has done ample though tardy justice, Zriny has left behind him some fugitive lyrical pieces, sonnets, and idylls, that exhibit a peculiar naïveté, charm, and warmth.

The religious dissensions that distracted the country in the seventeenth century contributed materially to the progress of literature and learning, inasmuch as the attention of every one was turned to the study of history and to the discussion of the controversy. The Protestants, who were desirous of engaging the affections of the people, wrote in the common tongue, and the Catholics in Eatin. The eloquence of the pulpit in those times produced many admirable works, and amongst the number are those of Pazmany, Kaldi, and Alvinzki. In 1653 and 1656, Tséré wrote an excellent treatise on logic and an encyclopedia of the sciences, two very remarkable books, and incomparably superior to any contemporary scientific work of the same kind.

Despite of this auspicious beginning, the progress of Hungarian literature experienced a severe check in the eighteenth century. The despotism of the Catholic priests, who had overcome their sectarian enemies and were intoxicated with their sudden importance and power, restricted the march of literature to a certain limit, and opposed themselves to the propagation of those opinions that a true philosophy acknowledges correct. Hence books became scarce, and long intervals ensued between the publication of works. The reigning dynasty of the house of Transylvania encouraged the vulgar tongue, and used it in all state affairs. The Transylvanian dynasty became extinct; the Austrian princes and the Jesuits, who conducted the affairs of government for them in the Hungarian territories, re-established the usage of the Latin language in the plenitude of all its glory, and even introduced into the country the German and French tongues; then Hungary began to possess a literature peculiar to itself and ceased to plagiarize from the ancients and its neighbours. Amongst the most celebrated authors of that period we may quote Amadus, who was the first to quit the field of battle in his verse, and sing the praises of Cupid and Venus’ court instead of the exploits of Mars. But through his influence the public theatres were closed, and the drama alone found votaries in schools and private dwellings. In the colleges the Jesuits made their pupils enact characters in pieces written expressly for the purpose, and the audience consisted only of the parents, guardians, or friends of the young scholars.

Fortunately for an oppressed people, this state of affairs changed towards the end of the eighteenth century. Maria Theresa, who was indebted for every thing to the aid and fidelity of the Hungarians, evinced a more sincere interest in their behalf than her predecessors had done; and although her son, Joseph the second, could not altogether fulfil the wishes of his parent and accomplish his own philanthropic views, still his exertions in favour of the Hungarians tended really to polish their manners and contribute to their civilization. he German diets, which at first rejected many popular measures proposed by Joseph for the amelioration of the condition both social and literary of the Hungarians, at length yielded to the force of his excellent example, and published several decrees, by which the popular idiom and dialect were ordered to be taught in schools, theatres were re-opened in the principal towns, newspapers were allowed to be circulated, and prizes were distributed to the best authors, Thus an impetus was given to intellectual energy, and the pen became a powerful advocate in the cause of civilization and rational liberty. In process of time three schools disputed the pre-eminence; and although they were not as celebrated as those of the transcendental Pythagoras, the sceptical Pyrrho, and the atheist Anaximander, still they were not without their merits and their renown. The French school, presided by Messieurs Barocksi and Baracksay, was unfortunate from its beginning, and, like an exotic plant, it lost its stamina and fell. The Latin school, at the head of which were Virag and Kazinski, has acquired the reputation of having established or nationalisé (the English language is less rich in synonyms than the French), the ancient metre which had been introduced by Ardosi and had since the fourteenth century fallen into disuse; and, thirdly, the modern school has made itself a name by the fact of its pupils having been the first Hungarians who wrote poetry in alternate measure and in rhymes rendered legitimate by a system The nineteenth century is the one in which Hungarian literature has shone the most. The language has become enriched by the victory obtained on the part of the neologists over the advocates for non-innovation, and has lately acquired a purity, a precision, and a harmony which it never before possessed. Charles Kisfaludy was the most active and enthusiastic of the neologists. The epic poetry of Hungary has also experienced considerable improvements, although it cannot compete with that of Italy, France, and England. Still due praise must be given to Czuczor and Vorosmarty; the former is the author of “The Battle of Augsburg,” and “ The Diet of Arad;” the latter has written “The Conquest of Hungary by Arpad, Chief of the Magyar in 907,” “The Defeat of the Kumans at Czerhalom;” “The Siege of Erlaus;” and the ‘Enchanted Valley.” The sagas and ancient traditions, the substance of which is chiefly remembered by old soldiers and peasants, have been collected and published by eee Gael, and Maylath. At the present moment Alexander Kisfaludy is the first Hungarian lyric poet. Having surpassed his predecessors, Dayka, Szentjoby, Annyoss, and Csokonai, he has established a reputation “ere perennius” by his admirable poem entitled the “Loves of Himfy.” Nothing is superior to that poem, either in English, French, or German, for richness of imagination, pathos, and sentiment. After Kisfaludy we may reckon Kazinski, whose odes are more than simple imitations of those of Horace, and whose songs are replete with simplicity, elegance, and feeling ; then comes Szentmilossky, after him the noble-minded Berzseny; Horvat, so celebrated for his didactic productions; Szatz, Telcki, Charles Kisfaludy, Szemer, and Bartfay.

The drama is still little advanced. The plays that are constantly produced and represented are numerous, but they are worse than mediocre as to style, incident, and interest. The tragedies of Alexander Kisfaludy are rather epic dialogues than dramas. Charles Kisfaludy is indisputably the first dramatic author in Hungary, especially for comedy. After him come Vorosmarty, Tolteny, and Szenrcy. As to prose writings they are not very remarkable. That most essential and important branch of literature has been more than neglected by the Hungarians, it has been altogether abandoned. Apparently the talent and inclinations of the Hungarians are more adapted to poetry than prose; but their political organization is perhaps a more powerful reason still for that preference which does not exist with the French and the English. The infinite discrepancies and divisions in society existing ‘among them are the cause that the circle of profound study and deep scientific research is considerably circumscribed, and the analysis of ideas becomes like the analysis of things. Few poets are like Lucretius capable of embodying physics and metaphysics in a volume of verses:—Montaigne, Descartes, Newton, Hooker, and Herschel, would perhaps never a written, if they had been condemned to put their ideas into verse.

Still everything is now rapidly progressive in Hungary, and a smiling future seems to await a nation, that long lingered in darkness, barbarism, and obscurity. Scarcely was Hungary delivered from the oppression of galling chains than her literary men became giants in their undertakings. Only thirty years ago, Smandeli devoted himself body and soul to the study of science, and would receive in return for his laborious undertakings neither honours, rewards, remuneration, nor distinguishing title. Of this fact France is a competent witness.

George W M Reynolds

[1] G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The Literature of Hungary’, The Monthly Magazine, July 1837, pp. 33–39.