Béla Pomogáts

 St. Stephen in Hungarian poetry

 The poetic evocation of a major historical figure is not necessarily linked to a specific occasion, even though an outstanding event-such as an anniversary, a ceremony or a national day of remembrance-offers an excellent opportunity for drawing of such a poetic portrait. Major historical figures are, at the same symbols-a symbol of a moral point or of a major element of national identity. This is also true of Hungarian poetry since the celebration of Árpád, leader of the Magyar tribes at the time of the Conquest, of King St. Stephen, founder of the Hungarian state in a Christian Europe, of St. Ladislas, defender of the country from all enemies, of János Hunyady, defeater of the Turks, of King Matthias, introducer of Humanist culture to Hungary, of Gábor Bethlen, Ferenc Rákóczi II and Lajos Kossuth in poetic works usually served as a reminder of an important demand of national existence. This demand could range from the protection or restoration of national independence to the kindling of the national spirit, the call for a just social order, a wise political strategy, a sacrifice for the nation or a self-sacrifice. The evocation of outstanding and exceptional kings, princes and statesmen was always placed in the service of important ideals and served as a source of spiritual strength and inspiration spurring to action or introspection. This is why Hungarian poetry set the outstanding individuals of Hungarian history as an example.

   The literary and poetic depiction of St. Stephen and his historical deeds was conceived in the spirit of these considerations; the poetic or dramatic evocation of the sainted king and his deeds was always vested with a topical and symbolic meaning, usually within the context of important historical events that determined Hungarian national identity during the past one thousand years. One of these events was the foundation of the Hungarian state and its integration into the Christian community of nations of Europe. Both of these lifted the Hungarians from the chaotic world of eastern lifeways and migrations and anchored them firmly among the western nations. The figure of St. Stephen assumed an important literary role whenever there was need to emphasize the continuity of the Hungarian state and the European commitment of the Hungarians.

   The figure of the sainted king has been preserved in the "major" and "minor" Legend of St. Stephen, as well as in the legend composed by Bishop Hartvik. The Officium S. Stephani Regis Hungariae [Versified chronicle of King St. Stephen], composed in the late 13th century, draws heavily from these legends and offers the portrait of a ruler who founded the state and organized the Church. The main emphasis is on the fact that King Stephen guided the Hungarians from paganism to Christianity: "While ruled by Attila / the Hungarian people / suffered the yoke of tyranny /mindless and faithless. / But Stephen's rule / brought a glorious change. [...] Our Creator had not delivered / Hungary, abandoned for / unfathomable years / for conversion. / With this saint / He offered the balsam of baptism, / opening to him and his people / His eternal heavenly home." The versified chronicle emphasizes that King Stephen led his people into Christian Europe with a strong will and royal discipline. "If our nation would have listened / to a gentler apostle / God would surely have sent us / a more lenient one. / How could a weak shepherd have coped / with a multitude of rebels? / The grace of God descended upon us / through a strong-willed man." The poem also exults the king's tenderness and benevolence with which he treated the poor and the suffering: "The greatest grace / of all the gifts of Heaven / that descended on the king / is miraculous patience.. / Paupers tugged at his beard / - ‘tis mentioned in a parable - / when he once benevolently / distributed alms among them / and he began to sing / a song of gratitude and awe / that he was worthy to suffer / this hideous humiliation."

   Zsolt Alszeghy noted that the Hungarian translation of two excerpts of the De Sancto Stephano rege, a medieval Latin hymn included in József Dankó's 19th century collection of old Hungarian hymns, could be found in Hungarian medieval codices. Although both are translations in prose, the poetry of the text can still be sensed. The first excerpt is found in the Keszthely Codex: "King St. Stephen / apostle of the Hungarians / graced daily with miracles / and gifts from Heaven, / we piously beg thee / to protect us from all evil." The other translation appears in the Érdy Codex, in a passage quoting a sermon about St. Stephen: "Hail blessed King St. Stephen / noble hope of thy people. / Hail thou mentor and apostle of our conversion. / Hail bright mirror of all sanctity and justice. "

   The figure of St. Stephen was never absent from medieval ecclesiastic poetry, as shown by both Latin hymns and Hungarian fragments. These texts are without exception based on the historical material contained in the legends of St. Stephen and on the portrait drawn by them: the missionary apostle and organizer of the Church, the pious king who adopted and promoted the Christian morals. The first extant St. Stephen hymn in Hungarian dates from 1651 and can be read in the Cantus Catholici. This hymn also commemorates the results of the apostolic service: "Grasping the royal staff / he began spreading the Christian faith, / banishing and expelling pagans from the country / founding in Hungary / churches and bishoprics / in which God was glorified and His name was extolled. / He filled them with riches / adorning the altars / with treasures of gold, well-crafted articles, gems / and brought true shepherds, / teachers from other lands. " The sainted king is portrayed in a similar vein in Lázár Szegedi's Cantus Catholici, published in 1674, in the Cantionale, a manuscript from the late 17th century, in the collection of songs compiled by János Kájoni of Transylvania in the 17th century and in György Náray's Lyra Coelestis from 1695. The ‘Song of St. Stephen' in the latter collection documents the first instance when the legend of the Holy Right is incorporated into a hymn, even though the legend itself is known from the Érdy Codex. A study by Zsolt Alszeghy, ‘St. Stephen in Hungarian ecclesiastic poetry' (published in 1938, in the St. Stephen memorial volume) offers an excellent overview and analysis of these poems.

   The figure of St. Stephen also appears in 16th century secular poetry, in works by both Catholic and Protestant poets. In his versified chronicle, ‘The Jewish and Hungarian nation' written in 1538, András Farkas, a Protestant preacher, draws a parallel between the Jews of the Old Testament and the Hungarians in the hope that the examples taken from Jewish history would reassure the Hungarian nation, then suffering the national tragedy of the post-Mohács period, that all was not lost. St. Stephen, St. Emerich and St. Ladislas are portrayed not as the embodiment of Catholic virtues, but as outstanding actors on the stage of Hungarian history. Some one hundred years later Count László Listius, a talented Baroque poet evoked the figure of King Stephen in his poem, ‘On Hungarian kings'. This poem also drew from the well-known traditions on the king's life: "The very first king of the Hungarian nation / received his crown from Rome / destined by  the Almighty / to restore the fear of God."

   The return of the Holy Right, the embalmed right hand of the king too contributed to the cult of the sainted king. This reliquary was taken to Bosnia after the Turkish despoilment of the royal tombs at Székesfehérvár. The reliquary was then acquired by Christian merchants and taken to Raguza (Dubrovnik) and left in the care of the Dominican monastery, whence it was taken to Vienna and, later, to Buda by the Empress Maria Theresa in 1771. The return of the reliquary to Hungary strengthened the cult of Saint Stephen as reflected, for example, in a song in the Egyházi Énekes Könyv [Church Song-Book] compiled by the erudite Jesuit poet Ferenc Faludi in 1797: "Thou hast been exiled, we have found thee, blessed be the Heavens, / Brought thee back to the country, our heart is joyful / dearest treasure we have found thee, Hungary rejoices / thou art here and bringest a thousand blessings." Two other songs in this songbook were also composed on the occasion of the return of the reliquary. The first, attributed for a long time to Ferenc Faludi, begins with the following verse: "Oh Holy Hand, oh Holy Hand / be our protection and eternal shield." The other song suggests that the miraculous survival of the Holy Right proves the sanctity of the first king of Hungary: "Thy zealousness and good deeds merited / thy holy right to overcome decay, / thou rejoicest with the Blessed Virgin / and the heavenly angels, / oh Holy King, thou seeest our need / bless us with all worldly goods."

   Secular and ecclesiastic poetry of the 18th century often evoked the figure and the deeds of the sainted king. The Church Song-Book quoted above includes several hymns and songs to Saint Stephen, as does the Katolikus karbéli kótás énekeskönyv [Catholic song-book] compiled Mihály Bozóky in 1797 and the Énekek könyve a szükséges litániákkal és imádságokkal [Book of songs with the necessary litanies and prayers] published in Pest in 1785. Pál Ányos, one of the outstanding poets of this period published his Énekek könyve [Book of songs] in the same year; this collection includes the Hymn to St. Stephen that stands out from among the average church songs of the period by virtue of its poetic excellence. "The time has come for zealousness, / Our hearts are inflamed, / A day of joy for Hungarians / The morning to which we awake, / The day of King St. Stephen / ‘Tis enough to say the word / for his people to rejoice / and never cease to be joyful." The two song-books published in 1797, one by Mihály Szentmihályi, the other by Mihály Bozóki, both contain the song that has retained its popularity to this very day. "Oh, where art thou, radiant star of Hungarians, / Protector of our country, / Where art thou, King Stephen / Desired by all Hungarians / crying unto thee in mourning. "

   Secular poetry of the 19th century rarely turned to the figure of the sainted king, in spite of the fact that the outstanding figures of Hungarian history, such as Saint Ladislas, János Hunyady, King Matthias, Miklós Zrínyi and Ferenc Rákóczi II, were often evoked in the poetry of this period-after the Age of Reform, the 1848 War of Independence and the repression following the quelling of the War of Independence the allegorical evocation of outstanding kings and brilliant military leaders was consciously used for stirring national pride and self-esteem. János Garay's collection of poems, Az Árpádok [The Árpáds], commemorated the glorious deeds of the rulers from the House of Árpád; three poems in this cycle are dedicated to the life of King Stephen (‘The Holy Crown', ‘The Apostle' and the ‘The Dying King'). The second poem is perhaps the most instructive since by evoking the caritas of the king, it calls attention to the desired qualities of the ideal monarch who not only governs, but also serves his people-an ideal reflecting the general beliefs of the Age of Reform.

   King St. Stephen also appears in János Arany's unfinished epic poem, Csanád, begun in the 1850s, but never finished. The poem narrates the victory over the pagan Petchenegs who raided the southern parts of the kingdom, and the rivalry between the Csanád and Gyula, the two victorious military leaders. The first verse presents the king, reigning in all his glory and dignity. "King St. Stephen sits in Esztergom, / Priests and peasants surround him, / On his head  the ornate new crown, / On his shoulder the beaded velvet mantle, / In his hand a staff, a golden bough, / His majestic dazzle, as the rising sun / Reflected on the faces of his dignitaries.

     Two poems, one by János Vajda, the other by Gyula Reviczky must also be mentioned in this respect. Vajda's poem, ‘Székesfehérvár', evokes the memory of the rulers of the House of Árpád who had been buried in the one-time royal town, whose ornate tombs were plundered at the time of the Turkish invasion. "On these quiet streets / roam grandiose spirits; / the bells toll out the name / of King Saint Stephen. / The trees / sway in sorrow, / dream a dream / that all passes away. / The one-time seat of majestic kings / ancient Alba Regia / is no more than a pious memory / a smouldering mummy. " Gyula Revicky's poem, ‘King Stephen's day', recounts the legends and traditions associated with the king and closes with an appeal for rallying Hungarian forces: "There will come the time, there will come the day / When, oh glorious king, /The might of the Hungarians / Will not be weakened by internal strife, / When in the whirlwind of the nations / Thy crown will stand steadfast, / And the anointed king of all Hungarians / Will be Hungarian king again!"

   The figure, the memory and the legacy of King St. Stephen appeared often, mainly in poems written for some festive occasion; a good overview of these poems can be found in Jenő Pintér's study, ‘Saint Stephen in Hungarian secular poetry', published in the Saint Stephen memorial volume of 1938. These include Gyula Vargha's two poems, ‘Queen Gizella' and ‘The first bell peal', Géza Gyóni's ‘To the glorious Holy Right', Imre Gáspár's ‘Saint Stephen's feast', Győző Dalmady's ‘Saint Stephen's day', Aladár Bán's ‘Song of the Holy Right' and Lajos Harsányi's ‘Saint Stephen', although countless similar poems could be quoted since the Holy Right processions, traditionally held on August 20, always inspired religious and patriotic poetry.

   Outstanding among the memorable poems about St. Stephen written by the classical poets of 20th century poetry are the ones written by Mihály Babits. His poems on St. Stephen were in part inspired by the fact that during the interwar years he spent the summers in Esztergom, near the historical places associated with the sainted king. His poem, ‘The sainted king's town', written in the early 1920s, laments the sufferings brought on to the Hungarians by World War 1, the two revolutions and the Peace Treaty of Trianon. "‘Tis a dark age / friends! Awakening from a terrible slavery / we are weary to fight for freedom. / Destroying churches, we lacked the time / to build; and ‘tis a mercy if we can erect our own / crumbled walls, to hide behind them in shame! / To fight? Other ages fought for the book, the cross, / for the wafer and the flag: these are all nothing / to us. We fought for / Nothingness, as empty machines, a more terrible fight / than the fights of barbaric centuries. We drew each other / before the cannons. Oh, King Saint Stephen! Your / battles were better. Sword / against drawn sword! That the Hungarian hawk should rest as a dove / on the saints' shoulder and carry from them / God's own messages!-Where is God? And where is the fight / sweet with the promise of peace?" Another of Babits' renowned poems, ‘Prince Emerich', also evokes the sainted king and his royal dignity.

   The memory of St. Stephen can also be traced in the poetry of Sándor Sík, the renowned Catholic poet, Piarist priest and literary historian. His festive poem, ‘Summoning the Sainted King' was written for the 1938 anniversary. He read out his poem at the ceremony held at the Vác cathedral; another speaker at this ceremony, representing the then government, was Bálint Hóman, Minister of Culture. Evoking King St. Stephen, the poet called on the Hungarians to hold a collective penance according to Catholic morals. "Treading on the mound of my aching grave, / kneeling before other gods, / to sundown, to sunrise. / Faithless people of mine, rising against me / How oft have you raised the toppled idols / as pagan heretics. / All who call themselves Hungarian, all who call / and love me / should thrice beat their breasts. "

   And thus we come to contemporary Hungarian poetry. Interest in the figure of St. Stephen peaked in 1938, when the Eucharistic World Congress was held in Budapest, and this interest has not waned since. After World War 2 the figure of St. Stephen became a symbol of national independence, national dignity and national identity against the destructive forces unleashed by the Communist tyranny. József Tornai's poem, ‘Saint Stephen's sarcophagus'-that echoes the above quoted song, ‘Where art thou, King Stephen?-evoked the figure of the sainted in this sense. Another of Tornai's poems, ‘King Stephen', recounts the ordeals of the Hungarian nation during the past one thousand years: from the men killed by the arrows of the Mongolians to the anti-kulak policy of the 1950s, finishing on a note of hope, on the historical experience sustaining national existence: "We are the ones who always breathe, / King Stephen."

   István Ágh's poem, ‘Catalogue of the House of Árpád' reflects the image of the sainted king in contemporary Hungarian poetry: he evokes both St. Stephen and St. Ladislas, both kings being the sacred symbol of national survival: "The ruling right survives in the / cut-off fist of a Negro child, / fumes from the parched mind / gild the herm, / engraved and coloured by strong mores, / a double spirit in stone / without heart, or flesh, or bone / a cyanotic design from the otherworld-/ they guard us, we guard ourselves." Finally, we must mention that the recently celebrated millennium of St. Stephen has also enriched Hungarian poetry: ‘St. Stephen's Psalm', written by Péter Vasadi, the talented Catholic poet, has firmly placed the figure and the spiritual legacy of the sainted king among the major historic symbols of national existence and national identity: "Before thee, golden flutter / blazed  a homeland / behind thee, in dazzle and dust / our rich land, resting; / thy times still drawn by oxen / thy fist still marching among us." The memory of St. Stephen still lives on as a moral example, as a historic legacy shared by all Hungarians and as a national-spiritual source of strength.