Poet, Mechanique: Petôfi Sándor

Tonight I would like to inaugurate a soon to be irregular feature of the Robotic Librarian: Poet, Mechanique.


Tonight’s featured poet, Petôfi Sándor, will need little introduction to my Hungarian readers. He was born in Kiskőrös on the very cusp of a new year, 1823. By the age of 15, his family was bankrupted by force of nature and of kin. Petôfi tried his hand at teaching, theater and newspaper writing, but he never abandoned his love of poetry even as he embraced the life of a revolutionary. Petôfi was a leading figure in the doomed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, and fellow revolutionaries chanted his poems as they sowed dissent throughout Buda and Pest.

This is the war flag Hungary briefly adopted (and abandoned) in 1848:


Petôfi’s body was never recovered, believed to be interred in a mass grave. Others believe that he was captured by the Russians and lived for several more years, though a skeleton from a Barguzin grave, supposedly proving this theory, turned out to be that of a Jewish woman. His poems captured the hearts of many Hungarians through their increasingly dark circumstances — especially the hearts of young women (such as my mother’s, who can quote bits of his poetry to this day). He wrote heartfelt romantic and nationalist poems summoning up imagery of Hungary’s Great Plains, which are difficult to translate (I am told by my parents) for the non-Magyars of the world.

This poem is particularly meaningful to me, and I would like to share it with you.

Fa leszek, ha fának vagy virága.
Ha harmat vagy: én virág leszek.
Harmat leszek, ha te napsugár vagy…
Csak, hogy lényink egyesüljenek.


Ha, leányka, te vagy a mennyország:
Akkor én csillagá változom.
Ha, leányka, te vagy a pokol: (hogy
Egyesüljünk) én elkárhozom.

Szalkszentmárton, 1845. aug. 20. – szept. 8. között


I’ll be a tree

I’ll be a tree, if you are its flower,
Or a flower, if you are the dew –
I’ll be the dew, if you are the sunbeam,
Only to be united with you.


My lovely girl, if you are the Heaven,
I shall be a star above on high;
My darling, if you are hell-fire,
To unite us, damned I shall die.

Tr: Egon F. Kunz

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