Sándor Petőfi

Remembering Sándor Petőfi, Hungary’s National Poet

One of the best-known Hungarian poet (and revolutionary), Sándor Petőfi, was born 200 years ago on New Year’s Eve.

Considered Hungary’s national poet, he was one of the key figures of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the war for independence from the Austrian Empire. One of the greatest personalities of Hungarian literature, he is also acknowledged in the world literature.

Hungarians know him from their childhood days, and most of us can recite several of his poems throughout our lives.

Petőfi’s Poems Are Part Of Everyday Life For Hungarians

My first encounters with Petőfi’s poems was even before my school years. As young child, I listened to my grandma sing several of the his poems turned into songs. One of these was János Vitéz, (John the Valiant), an epic poem. Besides singing excerpts from the musical work, it, my grandma told us the fairy-tale story of its protagonist. Eventually, I watched the musical theater show of this poem set to music by Pongrác Kacsoh, in the Hungarian Opera in Koloszvár (Cluj).

Besides the story of John, I recited verses from the poem My Mother’s Hen (Vác, 1848) as a young child. The poem gave me words to talk to my grandmother’s chicken, “Hey, what’s going on! mama hen/ do you live inside, in the room here?”, and to our little dog named Morzsa “Morzsa dog, prick up your ears/let me speak now you today”

Petőfi wrote about everyday topics, for everyone. When traveling home after a long absence, his poem Füstmenent terv (Plan Goes Up In Smoke) rang in my ears. Every autumn, when I see falling leaves, the words from the poem Itt van az ősz, itt van újra (Autumn is here, autumn is here again) pop into my head. In spring, I imagine him saying “Go outside in spring, where a fresh stream whispers and runs” (In Miss E.R.’s Memory Book, Debrecen, 1849).

The simple structure and message of his poems resonates to this day in Hungarian-inhabited regions, on stage as well as in schools, homes and small gardens.

Who Was Petőfi?

Worldwide-known Hungarian poet, revolutionary and national hero, Sándor Petőfi was one of the significant and influential creators of Hungarian romanticism, an outstanding figure of Hungarian literature and of the 1848 revolution.

During his extremely short life, he made himself a name among the greatest personalities not only of Hungarian literature, but also among the poets of world literature.

New Poetic Voice In Hungarian Literature, Centered Around Folk Poetry

Petőfi’s poems mix realism, humor, and descriptive power, underlined by a rare intensity. He introduced a new voice in Hungarian literature, a direct, clear style with no embellishments, adapted from Hungarian folk songs. The first poet to imbed the simplicity of folklore into artistic poetry, he believed in the importance of folk poetry. He best expressed his thoughts on the subject in his letter to János Arany:

“No matter what, folk poetry is the true poetry. Let’s work towards making it dominant! If the people rule in poetry, they will be close to ruling in politics as well, and this is the task of the century, this is the goal of every noble heart”

Petőfi succeeded in doing that. He raised folk poetry to an artistic level and used it to express subtle emotions and political and philosophical ideas.

Many of his poems took the form of folk poetry. They were often set to music, and most Hungarians know them to this day either as poems or as songs. These poems almost act as if they were part of folklore, except we know who wrote them.

Although he placed folk poetry at the center of his literary work, Petőfi was an experimental poet, and introduced several new poetic forms in Hungarian literature. From rhyming short poems to longer epic works, we can find everything in his works.

However, he always focused on the idea within his poems instead of the form.

The most common themes of his poems are patriotism, love, family, landscapes and nature, revolution and the freedom struggle. He was also the first to introduce the phrase “world freedom” in Hungarian literature.


His role as a poet and revolutionary is inextricably linked in history, as one of the spiritual leaders of the 1848 war of independence. He strongly believed in the Hungarian national freedom, and fought for it, not only with his pen, but also by enlisting and fighting in battles.

Petőfi considered it a poet’s duty to lead the people. Evidence of this idea is his poem In The Name Of The People, among others. Through his revolutionary poems, he became one of the symbols of the Hungarian fight for freedom in 1848.

The National Song, perhaps Petőfi’s best-known poem, was the symbol and trigger of the revolution, the first revolutionary poem recited on March 15, 1848, encouraging the youth of Pest.

Not only did he encourage others, but he himself fought on the battlefield for Hungarian freedom. This is how death found him, as he fell at the battle near Segesvár, at the young age of 26.

His poetic career spans barely ten years, but has a huge place in Hungarian poetry and literature. And not only in Hungarian literature.

Petőfi In The World Literature

In this short time Sándor Petőfi also wrote his name into the world literature. His poems are known world-wide, in translation. They are available in German, English, French, Irish, Italian, Slovenian, Swedish, Norwegian, Russian, Romanian, and Greek, among other languages.

If you type the name Petőfi into the Internet search engine, you’ll find articles and writings about him in English (and in several other languages besides Hungarian).

You can still find his poems in English today in the volume Selections from the Poems of Alexander Petofi in several different editions, including on Amazon, but you can also read them on various websites.

Petőfi’s short, eventful life is almost as well known as his works. Films, novels, plays were made about him over the years. His memory and name are preserved by many public institutions both in his home country and beyond. Statues of him stand in many cities of Hungary, but also outside of his country’s border, in Bratislava, Marosvásárhely, Ungvár, even in Beijing and Shanghai.

Petőfi’s Eventful Life

The birth date of Petőfi is somewhat contradictory. His birthday is considered January 1st, 1823, and the town of his birth of Kiskőrös, Kingdom of Hungary. However, according to most accounts (including his own) his true birth date was December 31st, New Year’s Eve, of 1822.

His parents lived in Kiskőrös, a town with a population predominantly of Slovak origin. On his birth certificate, written in Latin, his name was Alexander Petrovics. (Alexander is the Latin equivalent of the Hungarian Sándor). His mother was of Slovak origin, but his father considered himself Hungarian.

Petőfi studied in eight different schools, and was even enrolled in a lyceum, a secondary school his family paid for. However, he had to leave at the age of 15, because of his family’s financial difficulties.

From traveling theater to published poet

He was always drawn to the stage, and this gave him the opportunity to join a traveling theater group. After the group dissolved, he tried others, but eventually enlisted as a private soldier. He didn’t last long in the army, dismissed because of health problems.

Eventually, Petőfi returned to school and attended college at Pápa, where he started writing. During this time he sent his first poem “A borozó” (The Wine Drinker) to the literary magazine Athenaeum. It was published it under the name of Sándor Petrovics, in 1842. About a month later, the same magazine published his next poem, signed as Petőfi, a name he kept for the rest of his writing career.

Publishing poems in the prestigious magazine gave him recognition as a poet. However, the payments were not enough to make a living. Besides, he was still drawn to the stage, so once again, he joined traveling theater companies. During the next year, he traveled again, mostly on foot, barely scraping a living. However, he kept writing and he eventually put together a volume of poetry.

The volume got published thanks to the recommendation of Mihály Vörösmarty, the most celebrated Hungarian poet at the time. He also helped Petőfi get a job as the assistant editor of the literary periodical Pesti divatlap (Fashion of Pest).

In 1847 he married Julia Szendrey, who inspired his best love poems.

Petőfi, the revolutionary

Petőfi was one of the leaders of the 1848 revolution, part of a group called Márciusi ifjak(Youths of March). He co-authored of the12 Pont(12 Points, demands to the Habsburg Governor-General). Besides these demands, his revolutionary poem“Nemzeti dal”, was the most important piece of writing of the Revolution.

Petőfi also joined the Revolutionary Army and fought in Transylvania, where he disappeared, presumed dead, in a battle near Sighisoara.

The Importance of Petőfi’s Poetry – In Hungary and Worldwide

Along the other European Romantic poets of his era – Shelley, Keats, and Byron in England, Pushkin in Russia, Mickiewicz in Poland – Petőfi laid the foundation of modern poetry and modern literary language. What all these poets had in common, was their revolutionary spirit, their passion for love and social justice.

It might seem a bit exaggerated to compare a Hungarian poet few heard about to the above great names, but they all did the same for their respective nations. The difference is only the size of their nations.

They were all important national figures, they played similar roles in the history of their own nations. All of them championed freedom, love, independence, equal opportunity and respect for all people regardless of social status.

One of these great artists is Petőfi, who created world-class poetry in a language not widely known, and spoken by very few, but who was included in Victor Hugo’s famous poem “Carte d’Europe”.

He is one of those who changed the way Europe thinks.

He is the man who was translated into countless languages during his lifetime, and continues to be translated to this day. It is thanks to him that the freedom-loving Hungarians became fashionable, as did – to some extent – their language. He was the favorite poet of Nietzsche, who set six of his poems to music, after all, the philosopher who articulated modern disillusionment wanted precisely what Petőfi wanted: to radically transform the world, to do away with mediocrity in favor of genius and the affirmation of life.

János Háy, A Character in World Poetry Called Petőfi)

Besides the ideas, Petőfi, like the greatest 19th century poets in other European countries, also revolutionized the poetic language. It was the era when poets saw the classicized language as obsolete, not enough to reach the masses. They introduced every-day language in poetry, moving the common, everyday language from the periphery to the center of literary works.

Petőfi did this for the Hungarian literature, by creating a poetry based on simple meter and rhymes, closer to everyday speech, similar to folk poetry. With these innovations, he created works that stood the test of time, that are still read, recited, sung, and translated to this day.

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