Sandor-Alexander Petofi (1823-1849)

Sandor-Alexander Petofi was an Hungarian national poet and a key figure in the Hungarian revolution of 1848.

He had a very strong self-awareness of being Hungarian and became the spiritual leader of the revolutionary radicals who wanted independence and a free Hungary.

Sandor Petofi (his proper name was Petrovics) was born on January 1st 1823 in Kiskoros, Hungary.

His father, Istvan Petrovics, was a village butcher, innkeeper, and a Serb, whose family had assimilated with the majority population. Maria Hruz, Petofi’s mother, was a Slovak.

His father tried to give his son the best possible education, but due to money troubles Sándor had to leave the lyceum he attended in Selmecbánya. He had small jobs in various theatres in Pest, worked as a teacher in Ostffyasszonyfa and was a soldier in Sopron.

After a restless period of travelling Petofi attended college at Papa, where his poetry began to flourish.

Petofi was interested in the theatre. In 1842 he joined a travelling theatre, but then had to leave it. He tried to keep himself financially afloat by writing for a newspaper, but that was not enough. Malnourished and sick, he arrived in Debrecen, where his friends helped him get back on his feet.

In 1844 he walked from Debrecen to Pest to find a publisher for his poems, in which he succeeded, and the poems were becoming increasingly popular. He relied on folkloric elements and popular, traditional song-like verses.

In 1846, he met Julia Szendrey, fell in love, and they married the following year. She became the inspiration of his lyrical verse.

By the age of 25 Petofi was recognised as the leading lyrical poet of Hungary, his influence was great, especially with the younger generation. After they had married, Petofi was even more possessed by thoughts of a global revolution.

He moved to Pest and joined a group of like-minded students and intellectuals who regularly met. They worked at promoting Hungarian as a language of literature and theatre. (The first permanent theatre (the National Theatre) performing in Hungarian opened at this time.)

The demand for popular freedom was passing from country to country and Hungary was one of the most flammable of the oppressive lands. Petofi began to write powerfully in favour of national freedom and emerged as an acclaimed popular leader.

March 15th, 1848 was Petofi's day. Among the various leaders of the revolution - called Márciusi Ifjak ("Youths of March") - Petofi was the key in starting the revolution in Pest, co-author and, respectively, author of the two most important written documents: the 12 Pont (demands to the Habsburg Governor-General) and the Nemzeti Dal (“National Song”). His poetry also served as an inspiration to the patriots of the Hungarian revolution When the news of the revolution in Vienna reached them on the 15th, Petofi and his friends decided to change the date of the "National Assembly" from March 19th to the 15th. (This was a lucky decision, given that the authorities knew their plans, and intended to arrest the revolutionaries on the 18th.)

On the morning of the 15th, the revolutionaries with Petofi began to march around the city of Pest, reading the poem and the 12 points to the crowd (which swelled to thousands). The mayor was forced by the crowds to sign the 12 Pont. Later, a mass demonstration was held in front of the newly-built National Museum, after which the group left for Buda on the other bank of the Danube. When the crowd rallied in front of the Imperial governing council, the representatives of Emperor Ferdinand felt they have no choice but to sign the 12 points.

Petofi's popularity waned as the memory of the glorious day faded, and the revolution went the way of high politics: to the leadership of the nobles. Petofi disagreed with the Assembly, and criticised the way they saw the goals and methods of the Revolution. In the general election, he ran in his native area, but did not get the seat. At this time, he wrote his most serious poem, the epic Az Apostol ("The Apostle", an epic about a fictional revolutionary who, after much suffering, attempts, but fails to assassinate a fictitious king.)

Petofi joined Polish revolutionary general Jozef Bem’s Transylvanian army, fighting a successful campaign against Habsburg troops, Romanian and Transylvanain Saxon Militias. However, it was defeated repeatedly when Imperial Russia intervened to aid the Austrians. He was last seen in the battle of Segesvar (Sighisoara) on July 31st 1849. The circumstances of his death are mysterious.

The main opinion is that he died in the battle seeking danger and was buried in an unrecognised common grave. However some Hungarians believe Petofi was captured and taken to Russia, where he died some years later of natural causes.

After the Revolution was crushed, Petofi's writing became immensely popular, while his bravery served as a role model ever since for Hungarian revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries of every political colour against tyranny and injustice.

The Apostle

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