István Fried

The Petőfi Image of the Slovaks

I do not know how much it concerns the (literary) nature of things that the Slovakian Petőfi-reception is to be found only in publications written by Hungarian authors in Hungarian. Slovakian authors only contributed through critiques, essays and anthologies based on these texts. This statement might be astounding since the Slovak acceptance of the other "canonized" poet of Hungarian "national classicism", János Arany, contrary to that of Petőfi, is known through the monographic treatment of the topic by a Slovak author. However, a substantial Hungarian dissertation in the same subject has not been written yet. On the other hand the Petőfi-reception in the treatment of Hungarian authors touches upon, although just partly elaborates those literary considerations that help to interpret the many variants of Petőfi-reception investigated in a fairly undifferentiated way by Slovak literary histories. This way the research gives too great publicity to those Slovak enouncements that can hardly be regarded literary, rather those are rooted in the ideological - political historical dictionary of national or minority self-identification.

All the same, it must be kept in mind that the ideological - political historical aspects and even those of people- and national characterology are included in the above mentioned monograph about the translations and evaluations of János Arany's works in Slovak literature. As a result, it seems that the Slovak reception (translation, adaptation) of Petőfi positioned as negative and that of Arany positioned as positive are commonly rooted, so the reception strategy of one literature is measured in a less aesthetic correlation. Also, the attitude of the Slovak literature (literary criticism is also included) in the question of integrability of the Petőfi- and Arany-oeuvre is much more evaluated in terms of the national-political situation.

It is evident that the language- and literature conceptions of national movements fighting for contradictory aims may show theoretical similarities, but the literary relations and connections are partly formed according to the "decisions" of "canonizing", legitimating communities, designating literary trends positive or negative. Namely the Slovak-Hungarian literary relations of the 19th century were intensively determined by: the kind of information the reading public, the critique, and the "elite" (and sometimes this was the most efficient force) defining the national-political trend needed. The Slovak literature speaks of the age of "national revival", and the opinions about the era between the1780s and 1849 are basically the same even today: that is why a politicized aesthetics, a literature and a literary consciousness subordinated to the organization of the national movement and a collection of works of art treating the (supposed) national-patriotic topic of literature have gained importance. A further consequence is that the Slovak literature (similarly to the Hungarian) created its national stereotypes and through the terminology of the Antique and Neo-Latin poetry translated to the national vernacular binary oppositions of a national perspective were conceived as the themes of literary works. Morally, the good and the bad, or in the language of the age: the patriot and the stranger (or rather the estranged, as it appears in the prologue of the epic work of Ján Kollár, the Slávy dcera, The Daughter of the Slavs (of Glory): "the degenerated sons"), became the frame of the themes; that had to be demonstrated in lyrics and epic works. It is generally true that the Slav - non-Slav, the patriot - the Magyarized (in a South Slavic relation: the Turkified; although among the Croats: the Magyarized) dichotomies can be found as a leitmotif in the Slovak literature (not only in that of the national revival) and its influence is exerted the new Slovak literature, and not only in the so-called historical novels. Such a simplifying conception of the Hungarian (figure) and of the member of a minority is also traceable in Hungarian literature, principally in the secondary works of Romanticism and Pseudo/Post-Romanticism.

The Slovak Petőfi-image mostly contained the characteristics of an originally Slovak, though later Magyarized poet who consequently did not understand (and accept) Slovak endeavours at all, but engaged in politics in an extreme way on the Hungarian side. On the other hand, the Hungarian research was characterized partly by a thorough philological exploration and the explored data were arranged - according to highly ideological presuppositions; and partly it was because of the general feature of the Hungarian relation-history research that the reception history could not be unravelled from the succession of data, since the researcher regarded the sequence of translations and critiques according to the aspect of Hungarian literature, instead of taking the point of view of a possible Slovak-Hungarian dialogue (accordance and aspiration for understanding are not necessarily its distinctive feature). For a long time only one Slovak essay has been known that, while emphasizing the opportunities of Slovak literature, sketchily outlined the chances of a Slovak-Hungarian comparison enriching the Petőfi-research. It was not the profession, but some motifs of the poetry of Sándor Petőfi and his Slovak contemporary, Janko Král', that formed the basis of comparison through which the Slovak literary scientist, Milan Pisut pointed out how the political and literary ideas of the 1840s emerged in the more differentiated Hungarian and the less differentiated Slovak literature, that prompted/inclined the Slovak professor to refer to the more complete and less complete nature of the genre system and the rhetoric in Petőfi's and Král''s poetry. Naturally, he did it without assuming value differences, the superiority of one of the literatures and the inferiority of the other. There is another aspect why Pisút's short paper can be considered exceptional in the history of the Petőfi-reception: although he used the terminology of the 1960s, in the simultaneous observation of the imagery of the cited parts of the poems he did not primarily undertake the emphasizing of national characteristics; rather, he suggested the investigation of such poetic careers of East Central European Romanticism that, after similar starts, diverged, though occasionally ran parallel. Pisút did not write a treatise on relation history, nor did he refer to ambivalent preliminary studies; instead, he gave an analysis of the typological analogies popularized by the Slovak comparative literature - tracing those motifs of Petőfi and Král' that are similar in many aspects.

The Slovak origin of our poet was almost a keynote in former Slovak literary publications, also mentioned by Koloman Banšell in his writing The Spirit of the Hungarian Revolutionary Poetry in 1874, after he had greeted Petőfi in 1869 in an enthusiastic poem. In 1873 Andrey Truchly-Sytniansky refers to Petőfi as a Slovak renegade, although he acknowledges the poet's genius. The still respected founding father of the Slovak literary history, Jozef Skultéty describes our poet a pomad'arčeny Slovak (a Magyarized Slovak) in 1893, while the poet Martin Rázus finishes his sonnet written to János Arany's centenary in 1917: "Hail, hail, you did not became your people's renegade". Contrary to these enouncements appreciative, praiseful sentences can also be found: for example the most acknowledged Slovak poet Hviezdoslav, who also excelled in translating Petőfi, wrote in a letter: "It gives me great pleasure to see them (ie.: the poems of Petőfi) in that Slovak the language in which they should have been written originally". Besides the perceptible joy of the translator's finding, this means a more refined further consideration of the Slovak Petőfi-conception. In 1893 in the writing of a critic under the pen-name Don Rodrigo recalls Slovak folk-tale elements while reading Petőfi's epic - lyric tale, "János vitéz". Additionally, the volume of Ján Smrek, an important Slovak poet of the 20th century, contained Petőfi's selected poems and was published three times between 1953 and 1973, in order that his Slovak Petőfi poem-variants may also be found in his volume of translations from 1978 that contained works of other Hungarian poets. According to the statement of the leader of the Slovak national movement, the writer-editor Svetozar Hurban-Vajansky from 1889: "Petőfi was read enough and was admired enough" (ie.: by the Slovak speaking readers).


Still sticking to philology, it can be stated that the poems of Petőfi in Slovak appeared relatively late in Slovak literature, in comparison to German or Serb (!) translations. It is true that the Slovak rewriting of the "Nemzeti dal" (National Song). that played a "leading role" on the 18th March of 1848 in Hungary, is known already from 1848, written by an important poet of Slovak Romanticism, Ján Botto - although this adaptation was published only in 1851, without naming the original author, of course and only a later philological research revealed the true relationship between them. And it is exceptionally surprising that a Petőfi-volume in Czech was published far more earlier than the Slovak one. However, it is worth adding that Slovak readers spoke Hungarian in the 19th century and since they had easy access to the works of the legendary Hungarian poet, they did not have a real need from Slovak translations. Nevertheless, this undoubtedly considerable objection is shaken by the fact that, although the Serbs in Hungary also spoke Hungarian well, a Serbian Petőfi-translation was already published by 1854, the author of which was the illustrious personality of Serb Romanticism, Jovan Jovanovič-Zmaj, who made the first published translation, "A csárda romjai" (The Ruins of the Inn) and who willingly interpreted Petőfi, besides other Hungarian poets, to the Serbs in all his life.

While the data collected so far in the interpretation of the Slovak Petőfi-reception are (quantitatively) more or less sufficient, the interpretation strategy commenting on this reception is not satisfactory, partly because it applied the perspective of a historical and literary approach more restricted than desirable. Furthermore, the obvious consideration remained unmentioned, that both the Hungarian and the Slovak public related Sándor Petőfi's poetry with the variously judged events of 1848/49. While Hungarian text-books positioned Petőfi, both the personality and his poetry as the lyricist-epicist of the War of Independence and consequently Petőfi was canonized primarily in the "national poet"-function, in 1848 and '49, the Slovak public (even the contemporaries) believed the "national" perspective of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence to be the main obstacle of national self-identification and emancipation, and the posterity regarded the Revolution and the War of Independence as an event hindering the prevailing of Slovak rights, and, as a result, many Slovaks failed to identify themselves with Petőfi's "revolutionary" poetry, even when he voiced the ideas of "world-freedom". Differences in the evaluation of the events of 1848/49 cast a shadow over the opinions about Petőfi: the one-sided Hungarian interpretation met a total Slovak refusal just as the Hungarian research refused the similarly one-sided Slovak interpretation. It is worth leafing through the documentaries of Lajos Steier and Daniel Rapant about the history of the events of 1848/49 and about the Slovak-Hungarian relationships. The absolutely non-surprising result of comparative reading could be that positivist historians drew totally opposite conclusions from the very same document (published faithfully) depending on which "case" they wanted to serve, the Slovak or the Hungarian. This concerns the Petőfi-reception only in that his multi-faceted poetry following the European Romantic tradition gained an aesthetic explanation ideologically, evaluating the national-minority conflict of 1848/49 according to the history's "national perspective" both in Hungarian and in Slovak literature. However, it is another question that in the Hungarian reception (similarly to the Slovak one) it was less the poet, than the "prophet" and the "popular leader", and among the Slovaks the "traitor" and the "renegade" were the symbolic roles through which Petőfi gained positive or negative "cult" positions. It is rather doubtless that it did not help Petőfi's literary evaluation, although the translations and the aesthetic trend of 20th century schools of literature would have required a thorough investigation of Petőfi and reception-history that could have helped in the rethinking of Slovak-Hungarian relations.

Critical-historical analyses have mostly uncovered the reasons and history of the "anti"-theoretical nature of Slovak and Hungarian literary history and partly presented the resistance the historical research of a more theoretical devotion had to put up against the representatives of national great-narration. A victim of this "battle" was Sándor Petőfi's oeuvre. In the first period of Hungarian reception-history all(?) of the poet's poem were allowed to be published only through self-censoring, thinning that revolutionary lyricism, against which Koloman Banšell raised various objections (just applying a non-aesthetic perspective) . This way a Hungarian period of the Peztőfi-cult paradoxically met a variant of the Slovak anti-Petőfi feeling; and that meeting was just made possible through the selective and ideological reading of the oeuvre. The self-censoring gestures of the Slovak also serve as an explanation of the phenomenon. Milan Pisut essentially referred to this in his cited paper:

"Král' has no love poetry, neither it is worth speaking about those folkloristically funny and drinking songs, that just made Petőfi so popular at the beginning. Stuv and his cirelés inner censor skip, the environment saturated with theologism, the growing oppression of minorities and other circumstances prevented Janko Král' (and other Slovak poets as well) from fully expressing his own identity."

From my part "the growing oppression of minorities", inasmuch as it can be summed up this way, can hardly be considered such a factor that would have hindered Slovak Romanticism in the formation of the genre-system; rather it is L'udovit Stúr, the Slovak language-creating leader who is responsible for that, who subordinated his aesthetic, literary views to the daily, or at least short-range, interests of the political movement led by himself and who consequently essentially determined the Slovak tendency of the later Petőfi-reception. On the other hand, the young Hviezdoslav rebelled against the "prohibition" of writing love poems or drinking songs, making the theologizing lyricism and moralizing epics of the Slovak epigone/pseudo-Romanticism not less doubtful. He did it partly in consequence of the fact that having been a student of a Hungarian high-school, he got acquainted with the poetry of Petőfi more thoroughly, and later, already as a Slovak lyric-poet, he made use of the prosodical poetical knowledge he had acquired while studying the poems of Sándor Petőfi (and János Arany). The Slovak reception under the name of Hviezdoslav basically filled out the empty spaces of the contemporary Slovak literature, that of the second half of the 19th century, and helped to break the thematic-genre-modality restrictions imposed by self-censoring, and partly helped Hviezdoslav to create a poetry more modern than that of his predecessors, and to react to the challenges of European literatures. That raises the question how the Slovak Petőfi-reception is related to the Hungarian canonization of Petőfi and the history of events of his growing cult. It is worth noting, that the second half of the 19th century witnessed the gradual institutionalization of Hungarian Petőfi-reception, a literary society was formed under the poet's name, and he became a par excellence national poet in the Hungarian literary common knowledge. Furthermore, the official Hungary tended to - not without any ideological purpose - monopolize, and assimilate the Petőfi-poem into its own regime-speech and the different strata of the Petőfi-oeuvre were evaluated accordingly. The Slovak national movement firmly opposed the official Hungary and it was clearly observable in their attitude towards Hungarian culture. The Slovak elite "staying" in Turócszentmárton announced the abandonment of Hungarian culture and of literature as well. On the other hand, those Slovak intellectuals supported by the official Hungary willingly or unwillingly put the Slovak translation of Hungarian literature in the service of the cultural popularization of the Hungarian state-ideology (that was the opinion of the Slovak national movement). Although the Petőfi-translations were introduced by the Slovak literary press, yet the Slovak literary reaction was not considerable. I would mention two reasons as explanation:

  1. The compilers of the Slovak Petőfi-volumes proceeded according to the considerations of Hungarian literary criticism, in other words, they presented a Slovak variant of the Hungarian Petőfi-image. It both meant an advantage because the Petőfi-oeuvre coming through the translations appeared as familiar for the Slovak intellectuals, who mostly graduated in Hungarian high-schools; and a disadvantage, since this kind of Petőfi-reading could not have the subversive power that usually characterizes the attempt of incorporating a literarily unusual phenomenon in the national literature. And although the selection was made in accordance with the official Petőfi-interpretation accepted by literary history, Slovak readers did not encounter anything surprising; the non-aesthetically purposed and angled literary interpretation characterized the Slovak-Hungarian literary relations, as well as the self-identification of Slovak literature. Although the legendary connected to Petőfi was observable in the secularization of the poet-ness, the de-sacralizing gestures (the recurring mentioning of Magyarization) of the Slovak "elite"'s anti-Petőfi also "demonized" the poet-figure named Petőfi.
  2. Translations were not made by the illustrious persons of Slovak literature, but by the representatives of the epigone-Romanticism. Translators mainly spoke in a voice, similar of which (of a higher quality) were often heard by the Slovak readers a long time ago. Although the Petőfi-oeuvre offered the Slovak literature unfinished, untested opportunities, the secondary, "epigone" nature of the translations' modality and tone hindered wider reception, since the otherwise controversial Petőfi-poems also appeared less interestingly comparing to the usual literary standard, so the Slovak Petőfi poems were assembled into volumes rather in terms of low-spirited imitating than in the spirit of "beautiful unfaithfulness" or creative reproduction.

Considering all these facts, one cannot appreciate enough the translations made by Hviezdoslav who published them in the periodical Slovenské Pohl'ady that announced the abandonment of the Hungarian culture as programme. From the aspect of relation-history it is Hviezdoslav's undisputed merit that he broke through the "Chinese Great Wall" of Slovak-Hungarian lack of understanding, but the significance of his adaptations lies not primarily and not exclusively in (relation) history. Although by the beginning of the 20th century Hviezdoslav aesthetically did not belong to the reformers of literature and practically committed himself to a poesy-conception that was popular a few decades earlier, still the Slovak poet's Petőfi-translations can undoubtedly be judged modern from the aspect that these took their effect towards a Romanticism restrained by objectivity. Petőfi was not presented as one-sidedly romantic, let alone as being (only) the poet of folkish genre-pieces, and the least as being simply a rebel, instead, the variedness of translations, the thematic stratifiedness drew the attention to the European embeddedness of the Petőfi-poems. Petőfi can be worded in Slovak in a way that the translated poems become organic and furthermore hardly dispensable parts (not only of the Hviezdoslav-oeuvre, but also) of the Slovak literature. This all happened contrary to contemporary Hungarian literary history, which reckoned with Petőfi's reception in non-Hungarian literatures, however it classified translations and foreign critiques in a way how they corresponded to the expectations presumed actual of Hungarian literary history.

Now, Hungarian literary history delayed in creating a modern Petőfi-image up until 1922. János Horváth's monograph broke with the biographically motivated Petőfi-presentations, and he rethought the Petőfi-oeuvre from a perspective of poetic history that was new in Hungarian literary history. An almost dictionary-like treatment of the Hungarian and foreign literary motif-relationship of the Petőfi-poems can be read in the Appendix of the monograph. But neither the Hungarian, nor the Slovak literary criticism reacted to the Petőfi-oeuvre revaluated by János Horváth. It was rather Endre Ady's oeuvre than that of Petőfi that really interested Slovak critics and poets in Hungarian literature, although the centenary of Petőfi and Imre Madách gave Štefan Krčméry an exceptional opportunity to schematically redraw the Slovak Petőfi-image. But as the official-academic Hungarian literary history further propagated the schematism of the textbook-Petőfi (contrary to the more modern Petőfi-image of János Horváth), the incorporation of Hungarian connections and references into Slovak literary thinking, or their confronted interpretation and evaluation also failed to take place in self-defining endeavours of the official Slovak literary history. On the other hand Petőfi's "poet of the people - leader of the people" attitude and his revolutionism were both ranked high in the press of the left and ultra-left; and that meant the referential source of the Petőfi-image of the Slovak officialdom altered after 1948. Although the Slovak Ady-devotees (many of whom later became the translator of Petőfi) adopted mostly the Petőfi-references of Endre Ady's self-canonizing gestures, they also made the Slovak Petőfi-image significantly subtle. The above-mentioned monograph of Pavol Bujnák have had an important effect on Slovak literary critics for a long time Another reason for the unfulfilment of the Slovak Petőfi-interpretation is that not only the Hungarian, but also the Slovak firstlings of Hviezdoslav were left unrevealed for long by the research. This way the question requiring a more theoretical approach could not be asked: in the second half of the 19th century which mutually inferred version of continuity and discontinuity did the Slovak poet represent who started his career while being aware of both literary traditions; and how does the Petőfi-fullness of these firstlings affect the reading of tradition?


The official Czechoslovakia was interested in deleting the Hungarian references out of its cultural tradition: the Petőfi-statue of Bratislava was disassembled in the spirit of this pursuit and its pieces were guarded in a cattle-shed. Additionally it is worth noting that this Petőfi-statue has never been returned to its original place; when, after the end of World War II they finally set it up again on the other side of the Danube, "persons unknown" have kept mutilating and besmearing it almost on every possible occasion as an indication of the opinion of the wider public that the "renegadeness" of Mária Hrúz's son is still remained unforgiven.

This pervaded their thinking so much that Slovak authors writing and thinking about Petőfi also mentioned it in their short, often protocol-like, essays published mostly in Hungarian periodicals they sent to the 150th centenary of the poet and they considered this problem at least importunate and determined. But, while referring to the adequate Petőfi-translations of volumes, most of the essayists could not surpass the commonplaces, which have their counterparts in Hungarian enouncements. According to Laco Novomesky our poet "originated in the family of the fervent singers of the love of freedom, among whom Pushkin in Russia, Miczkiewicz in Poland, Krá'l in Slovakia belongs". In an introductory discourse of a Madách-Petőfi conference (typically the volume was not published in print, only in a manifold, stitched version of a poor quality appeared) the Slovak hungarologist, Rudolf Chmel claimed in an otherwise thorough survey that Petőfi "synthetized the artistic and social revolution in his life and in his oeuvre". He referred to Ján Poničán's poem Divny Janko (Oddish Janko) from 1940: "Petőfi is a shadow-figure appearing in the poem and Janko Krá'l has a conversation with him on that day of March". The outstanding translator and poet, Ján Smrek would contrast Petőfi's naturalness and genuineness with modernity and Chmel, in his above-mentioned essay, also praises the poet for finding the common language of popularity (l'udovost') and humanism. He mentions Heine, Hugo, Manzoni and Béranger, with whom Petőfi can be mentioned together. Emil Boleslav Lukač not only publishes the translation of "Egy gondolat bánt engemet" (~One thought disturbs me), but, in one of his essays, he both emphasizes the characteristics of the Petőfi-oeuvre that approaches to Victor Hugo and Dickens, and also draws away from them as being authors already surpassed. Lukač belongs to those who qualify the Petőfi-oeuvre modern as Ady-readers. In Milan Pišút's essay-volume presenting the Slovak Romanticism and its context Petőfi becomes the example of the Slovak literature's embeddedness into European literatures and the "typological" analogy of Slovak poets. This way in their literary orientation in European literature Petőfi becomes part of the company of Byron, Shelley, Miczkiewicz, Pushkin and Lermontov and Sevcsenko. Pišút also emphasizes the importance of Petőfi's poems in Hviezdoslav's becoming a poet.

One statement of the Russian I. A. Bogdanova's discourse might be taken as a talking warning. The Russian Slovakist investigated the possible relations of Petőfi and the Slovak literature, putting the contrasting analysis of Petőfi and Janko Krá'l in the centre, however she also mentioned the Petőfi-Botto connection. Basically she reconsidered the Slovak research and Petőfi-image available for her and she believed to find the relationship between Petőfi and Krá'l in that they both attempted to unite poetry and revolution in practice. Important though is the fact that according to Bogdanova the relationship between Petőfi and the Slovak literature has not yet been treated appropriately in history and literature.

The philological, ideological, form-historical and the contextual investigations, not to mention the biographical and career-analyzing investigations started enthusiastically, though stopped after a while, have not appeared in the Slovak literary science. It was only the poet, Emil Boleslav Lukáč who made use of the Petőfi-research carried out in Hungarian literature. The stagnation of Slovak Hungarology more evident by the 1980s can also be justified with the failure of presenting a new Slovak Petőfi-image. The "paradigm-shift" and "change of system" of Hungarian literature preceded that of the Slovak one, but the Slovak-Hungarian literary conferences getting rarer and the Hungarian Slovakistics and the Slovak Hungarology getting marginal partly made collective thinking difficult and partly caused missing the opportunity of reconsidering the abundantly revealed, though never appropriately evaluated, data about the connections between Petőfi and Slovak literature and about the dialogue (sometimes a dialogue that meaningfully did not occur) between Petőfi and Slovak poetry from more modern literary aspect. This would especially be necessary as both the Slovak and the Hungarian history have taken new approaches in evaluating the events of 1848/49, new, more sober trends have emerged in nationalism-research from both parts and so chances of a fruitful conversation have been improving. Such a conversation would have a surprising success in literature if only because positions of national "great-narrations" stiffening in a more and more autotelic way have weakened, while chances of plurality and multicultural self-knowledge have strengthened in both literatures. Now (without denying the modernity of the national poet-function or even the popularity of the prophet-poet attitude in the 1840s and so the importance of the observation of Petőfi and Štúr together typified from this aspect) one would know more about the role of East Central European Romanticism and of Central European Romanticism played in national and European literary history, about the interrelations of Romanticism and Modernity interpreting each other, if one had a clearer insight into the question of Petőfi and the contemporary Slovak literature and into the question of the Slovak Petőfi-reception and was not provided with occasional sketches, poetic "confessions" and translation-analyses only, but the topic of research was approached with means of a dialogically conceived comparative literature and not with means of a relation-history proven outdated. This would also mean the observation of the parallel and/or differing development of literatures, while leaving the analysis of ideologized Slovak-Hungarian literary connections.