János Arany the Hungarian Shakespeare
János Arany is one of the most well-known Hungarian poets of all time. He was born in 1817, thus we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year. 2017 has been declared as the János Arany Memorial Year. Magyarorszagom.hu compiled a brief summary of the poet’s life and most famous works.
What is the better way to honour the 200th anniversary of his birth than revisiting the oeuvre of this incredible Hungarian author? If you know nothing about Arany, this is the perfect opportunity to get to know a famous poet. If you do know Arany, this is the perfect chance to revise your knowledge and you might even learn something new.
A prodigy was born
János Arany was born in the town of Nagyszalonta, which used to belong to Hungary, but today it is part of Romania.
Arany was a late child, his parents were 60 and 44 years old when he was born.
He was born into a poor family and lost eight of his siblings to tuberculosis. Only two of the Arany children reached adulthood. Even though he came from a poor family, Arany received quality education. He attended the Reformed College of Debrecen where he studied, among other things, German and French.
By the time he was an adult, he knew Latin, Greek and English, besides German and French.
He had to work as a child in order to support his family. Since he was interested in teaching, Arany started working as a teacher’s assistant.
His literary career launched in 1845, when he won the literary competition of the literary society called Kisfaludy Társaság. He won first place with his work titled: Az elveszett alkotmány (The lost constitution). His most famous work Toldi was published a year after (1846).
Toldi is an epic poem trilogy about the life of Miklós Toldi. It was inspired by the legendary hero called Miklós Toldi of Hungarian folklore. The trilogy’s constituting parts are: Toldi, Toldi szerelme (Toldi’s love) and Toldi estéje (Toldi’s night).
Arany received immensely positive feedback for Toldi, and thanks to this epic poem, he became the centre of attention in Hungarian literary circles.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship
Toldi was also what started the legendary friendship between Arany and Sándor Petőfi, another world famous Hungarian poet. Today, we can “peek into” the relationship of the two poets through the letters they wrote to each other, as these letters were left to posterity. The letters reveal how much love and respect they had for each other.
Revolution of 1848
After the Hungarian revolution in 1848, Arany became editor of the Hungarian paper: Nép Barátja (Friend of the People) which was under the rebel government’s management.
His close friend, Petőfi died during the revolution, however the details of his death are still unknown. The death of a close friend, and the horrors of the defeat of the Hungarian revolution both had a huge impact on Arany’s literary works.
The Hungarian Shakespeare
János Arany wrote more than 40 ballads in his lifetime. His contemporaries called him the Shakespeare of ballads.
He translated three of Shakespeare’s most famous works to Hungarian: Hamlet, King John and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Many of Arany’s works have been translated to English. The most famous one is the translation of the ballad titled: A walesi bárdok (The Bards of Wales) by Watson Kirkconnell. Arany was asked to write a poem honouring the visit of Franz Joseph I, but instead, he wrote about the tale of the 500 Welsh bards who were executed by Edward I of England because they refused to sing his praises. Here is a stanza from Kirkconnell’s translation:
“Edward the king, the English king,
Bestrides his tawny steed;
A silence deep his subjects keep
And Wales is mute indeed.”
The Bards of Wales (written in 1857) is one the most valuable pieces of art in Hungarian literature.
In 1865, Arany became secretary general of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His daughter died in the same year. The losses of a good friend (Petőfi) and a child had a huge impact on his work. For decades, he could barely write or not at all. He had his last (and brief) writing period in which a cycle of poems (Őszikék) were written.
He died at the age of 65 in 1882.