The People’s Poet and the Wife of Wives: Sándor Petőfi and Júlia Szendrey

As I write this on the 15th day of March, 2017, Hungary is commemorating one of the most significant events in the history of the nation: the Revolution and Freedom Fight of 1848-1849. On this day, meetings and processions are organized throughout the country, patriotic citizens gather around memorials to listen to speeches and sing Hungary’s national anthem (Himnusz) and the nation’s revered and inspiring poem set to music, the ‘Szózat’. People young and old wear cockades in the national colours of red, white and green. It is a national holiday, not so much a celebration as a time to remember our heroes of the past, and to reflect on how in all societies there will always be aims and ideals to strive for. Hungarian rosette
On this special occasion one of the central figures we remember is Sándor Petőfi, known as the People’s Poet, who came from an ordinary background, but with his genius as a poet and keen insight regarding the political scene, was able to champion his nation during the turbulent years of the mid-19th century. The Hungarians were fighting for independence from the Habsburg monarchy, for as part of Austria-Hungary they were oppressed, and Austria did not consider Hungary to be an equal in the partnership. Unrest led to revolution and a fight for freedom that lasted from 1848-1849. Sándor Petőfi rallied the Hungarians with his famous poem ‘Nemzeti dal’ (National Song), which he wrote on March 15th and recited that very day at the Pilvax Coffeehouse in Pest. Petőfi continued to write pamphlets and rousing poems, which led to the Austrian authorities accusing him of incitement, and he became a wanted man. He served as aide-de-camp to General Bem during the battles that took place throughout that year of revolution. He was lost on the battlefield, and although his body was never officially identified, reports heard at the time and research during subsequent years have resulted in it being generally accepted that Sándor Petőfi died during the war, most likely at the Battle of Segesvár near Fehéregyháza on July 31st, 1849. He was 26 years old.
Petőfi Sándor by Barabás Miklós
Sándor Petőfi had been married for only two years when he died. His wife was Júlia Szendrey, and no novelist could have come up with a plot more dramatic or romantic than the true story of their relationship. Often it is the case that immediate accounts re-colour and transform events in a way that can be misleading, and it is only years after, thanks to historical research, that a clearer and truer understanding of events can be gained. So it is with Júlia Szendrey, who, as the widow of Hungary’s great national hero, was greatly criticised when she married again, barely a year after her beloved Sándor’s death. Today we understand her reasons, one of which was that she was left on her own to care for and protect their little son Zoltán, who had been born on December 15th, 1848.
Júlia Szendrey was as remarkable as her husband. Her life after meeting Petőfi was troubled and turbulent, but she would not have called it tragic, for it was illuminated by the two years she spent in matrimony with Sándor. Szendrey Júlia by Barabás Miklós
Júlia Szendrey is one of Hungary’s most inspiring women, being herself a fervent champion of social and political justice, a woman who stood by her husband through all the threatening and dangerous events of the Freedom Fight, who has become known as ‘the Wife of Wives’. Despite the hardships she bore during the years following her husband’s death, Júlia went on to produce several literary works; among her publications are her poems and diaries, short stories, and a diary that was discovered after her death. In 1856 the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen were published for the first time in Hungary, translated by Júlia Szendrey.
A contemporary of Júlia’s was George Sand, whom she greatly admired for her literary prowess and her unconcern for social conventions. Júlia herself – even while her husband was alive – was one of the first Hungarian women to wear a trouser – which was considered to be quite scandalous behaviour at the time! – and she had her hair cut short. This side of Júlia’s character was not approved of by society at that time, and illustrations and statues of Júlia from that era usually present her as a demure, modest little woman.
Sándor Petőfi and Júlia Szendrey were the perfect couple, in the sense that they both were passionate and strong-willed, that they complemented each other, and seem to have been what today we would define as the perfect Yin and Yang.

RESZKET A BOKOR, MERT…                                                                                                                                       By Sándor Petőfi

Reszket a bokor, mert
Madárka szállott rá.
Reszket a lelkem, mert
Eszembe jutottál,
Eszembe jutottál,
Kicsiny kis leányka,
Te a nagy világnak
Legnagyobb gyémántja!

Teli van a Duna,
Tán még ki is szalad.
Szívemben is alig
Fér meg az indulat.
Szeretsz, rózsaszálam?
Én ugyan szeretlek,
Apád-anyád nálam
Jobban nem szerethet.

Mikor együtt voltunk,
Tudom, hogy szerettél.
Akkor meleg nyár volt,
Most tél van, hideg tél.
Hogyha már nem szeretsz,
Az isten áldjon meg,
De ha még szeretsz, úgy
Ezerszer áldjon meg!

(Written in Pest, after November 20th, 1846)


The rosebush shakes because
A bird on its twig flew,
My own soul shakes because
I think, my dear, of you!
I think, my dear, of you,
My darling, charming maid,
Thou art the richest gem
My God has ever made.

Swollen the Danube is
So that it may o’erflow,
My heart, with love replete,
Is now for thee even so.
Tell me, my fairest rose,
Art thou to me still true?
Not even thy parents dear
Can love thee as I do.

I know thy love was mine
In last year’s summer weather;
But winter came since then
When we sojourned together.
And should’st thou love no more,
I pray God bless thee still, –
But, if thou lov’st me yet,
A thousandfold he will!

(Translated by WM. N. LOEW)

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