In November, 1956, preparing our escape from Hungary to the West, I had to decide what irreplaceable belongings I must take along. Besides a change of underwear, I packed family photographs and letters, as well as my tiny teddy-bear, Dorka, for good luck. Taking a final look around my room, I grabbed two small books from the table and slid them into my coat pocket: a volume of József Attila poems and a pocket-size version of ballads by Arany János.
As different as those two poets can be, both were my favorites.
This year, on March 2nd, we are celebrating the 200th birthday of Arany János. Imagine 200 candles on an enormous cake, size of a dining table… No, the Fire Department would object that! Perhaps we can just light two 100-Watt light bulbs and sparklers, fly balloons, hoping the “Birthday Boy” would not mind the modernization…
Well, he needs no candles…Immortals don’t…
The biography of Arany is far from being as spectacular as that of his friend, Petőfi. He was born on March 2, 1817, at Nagyszalonta, Hungary, the part of Bihar County that was annexed to Romania by the Trianon pact almost a hundred years ago. His father, Arany György, came from a family that received nobility from Bocskai, during the settling of the Hajdus. Yet, at the time of János’ birth, his father and mother (Megyeri Sára), were a simple peasant couple of modest means, and were quite advanced in years. Their oldest daughter was married and all their eight other children, victims of the family’s nemesis: TB, were dead. Thus, the parents tried to provide everything in their power to their late-born child who, partly due to his nature, partly as a result of very protective care became overly sensitive and introverted.
János learned to read and write from his parents, at age three or four. The boy learned to write by tracing the letters of the alphabet in the ashes of the hearth. The Bible was his first schoolbook. He first learned the legends of the Hajdus from his father, and that awoke his interest in historic epics. He read a lot and, in his hometown of Nagyszalonta, he was considered a child prodigy.
Due to their advanced age and poverty, his parents soon needed their son’s support. Thus, at age 14, János took a job as a teacher’s aide, to spare his aging parents the expense of his education. After two years, having saved up enough money, he enrolled in the Collegium at Debrecen, but the expense and the very demanding curriculum made him leave after the first semester. He returned at age 18, following work/study in a smaller town where, at the vast library of the rector, he became acquainted with the classics and the era’s modern literature. This time he quickly rose to the top of his class at the Collegium, started to study French and, besides the Latin classics, he also read German poetry.
János played the guitar well and his excellent voice was a welcome addition to the school’s choir. He had a hard time sorting out his many talents: one day he wanted to become a painter, then a sculptor, then again, a musician.
To everyone’s great surprise, at 19 he ventured into acting, first at the Debrecen theater, then, failing to get serious roles, he joined an actors’ troupe. His thespian ambitions waned when he found himself not fitting in among his drunkard companions. After two months of the stage, the turning-point came in an ominous dream: he saw his mother dead. The “prodigal son” walked for seven days to see his dreadful dream coming true: his mother was dying, his father had gone blind.
For a while, János lived with his father while he taught Hungarian and Latin at the local school, then he became a conscientious assistant clerk with the Town, enjoying the benefit of an official residence. In 1840, at age 23, he married his long-time sweetheart, the orphaned Ercsey Julianna. Their first child, Juliska was born a year later, followed by a son, László in 1844.
At the urging of a friend, Arany János took up writing, started to translate Greek classics and learned English. In 1845, the Kisfaludy Társaság literary society sponsored a contest. As a result of a lot of friendly prodding as well as the lure of the prize money, he applied with his first work, under a pseudonym, a satire titled “The Lost Constitution” (“Az elveszett alkotmány”). Even though one member of the jury (his older fellow poet and later friend) Vörösmarty Mihály found the work’s language and verse antiquated, Arany won first place. A year later, he was the winner of the Kisfaludy Prize again with his most famous folk epic, Toldi. This time the recognition was unanimous and the jury raised the prize from 15 gold coins to 20!
The success of Toldi became a sensation in literary circles, and earned Arany the friendship of the volcanic Petőfi Sándor. Different as they were in temperament and poetic approach, their mutual admiration and friendship became legendary. Both considered themselves folk poets.
During the Revolution of 1848, Arany was still living at Nagyszalonta with his family, while Petőfi fought his memorable freedom fight at Pest. Thus, Arany’s role was limited to writing patriotic poetry, and editing a popular newspaper. When Petőfi went to join General Bem’s forces, he left his wife and young son first with Vörösmarty, then with Arany. With the crushing of the Revolution by Austria and Russia in 1849, Arany, who was also a militiaman for a while, lost his job as a junior civil servant, his property, and his best friend, Petőfi.
Being a Hungarian patriot, Arany János was devastated by the events. He had been in hiding for a few months before he obtained work as tutor for the Tisza family at their Geszt castle until 1851, when he was invited to teach at the Calvinist high school at Nagykőrös. He moved there with his family. His pupils liked him dearly. His inherent conscientiousness was just as present in his teaching as it had been in public office. During this time, he published “Toldi’s Evening” and many ballads. But after nine years, his isolation and his poor health left him feeling abandoned. In 1860, he finally moved to Pest when he was made Director of the Kisfaludy Society. There he cherished his long daily walks along the Danube and at Margitsziget.
In 1863, his daughter Juliska married the Calvinist pastor, Széll Kálmán who was related to (but not the same as) the politician of the same name. In 1864, Arany’s epic “Death of Buda” (“Buda halála”,) part of an intended trilogy, was published and soon he was named Secretary of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the promoter of science and arts and the supreme arbiter of grammar. At long last, János now enjoyed a secure financial life that came with the office.
In July, 1865, Juliska gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Piroska. Tragically, she could not enjoy motherhood for long. In December, she became ill and before year’s end she died of TB, at age 24. Her grief-stricken parents inherited the task of raising their charming granddaughter; however, Juliska’s death left a never-healing wound in her father’s heart. For about a decade he published nothing and was constantly in ill health.
After this long hiatus came a fervent period of writing activity. In 1877, Arany resigned from the Academy. He finally finished “Toldi‘s Love” (“Toldi szerelme”) which became the second part of the trilogy. His profuse poetry now focused more on old age and passing.
Arany János died on October 22nd, 1882, at age 65. Fortunately, he pre-deceased his adored granddaughter, Piroska who, true to the family’s awful tradition, fell victim to TB at age 20, in 1885.
Arany’s life’s work included 40 ballads, translations of Aristophanes, Pushkin, Lermontov, Molière; of three Shakespearean dramas (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Hamlet” and “King John”); and numerous pieces of lyric and narrative poetry. His own works, on the other hand, were translated into 50 languages, including English!
Dear Arany János, all of us who have been inspired and entertained by your wit, your patriotism, your ethics and your humor, wish you a very happy 200th birthday!
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.