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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

National traditions, Hymn

Ferenc Kölcsey
Traduction de Dávid Oláh et George Szirtes

Texte intégral

1Title: Nemzeti hagyományok (National traditions); Hymnus (Hymn)

2Originally published: The Hymnus was written in 1823, and published in 1829 in the magazine Aurora; Nemzeti hagyományok first appeared in the magazine Élet és Literatúra, in 1826

3Language: Hungarian

4The newest critical edition of the Hymnus is Ferenc Kölcsey, Versek és vers-fordítások, ed. by Zoltán G. Szabó (Budapest: Universitas, 2000), pp. 103–105. The most modern edition of Nemzeti hagyományok is Ferenc Kulin, ed., Nemzet és sokaság. Kölcsey Ferenc válogatott tanulmányai (Budapest: Múzsák, 1988), pp. 35–66; the excerpts are from pp. 50–52, 57, 60–62, 65.

About the author

5Ferenc Kölcsey [1790, Sződemeter (Rom. Săuca; in Transylvania, present-day Romania) – 1838, Cseke (north-east Hungary)]: poet, literary critic, and editor. He was the offspring of a Calvinist gentry family. In 1796 he entered the Reformed College of Debrecen. He had broad cultural horizons and was well-versed in Greek, Latin, French, and German. In 1809 he completed his law studies in Debrecen. In 1812 he settled on his family estate to practice farming. From the mid-1810s, he began to participate in the cultural debates of the day. Most importantly, in collaboration with Pál Szemere (1785–1861), he joined the controversy over the use of neologisms in the Hungarian language, defending the main ideologist of the modernists, Ferenc Kazinczy, against the traditionalist camp. Beginning in 1826, Kölcsey and Szemere edited the leading cultural periodical, Élet és Literatúra (Life and Literature). Between 1833–1835 he acquired a reputation as an outstanding orator in the Hungarian Diet and was an important figure in the liberal opposition, one of his causes being to alleviate the situation of the serfs. However, after the conservative backlash prompted his electors to withdraw their support from his liberal program, he resigned from Parliament. At the end of his life he acted as advocate in the treason trial against Miklós Wesselényi. Kölcsey’s poetry fused classic references with a new sensitivity to folk culture, while his prose writings and parliamentary speeches, influenced by Cicero and Plutarch, sought to turn the rhetoric of patriotism to support radical social and political reforms. He is considered one of the most influential cultural figures of the Reform Age, and a pioneer in Hungarian literary criticism.

6Main works: Felelet a mondalatra néhai Bohógyi (Somogyi) Gedeon úrnak [Answer to the pamphlet “Mondolat” to the late Mr. Gedeon Bohógyi (Somogyi)] (with Pál Szemere, 1815); A szatmári adózó nép állapotáról [On the state of the tax-paying population of Szatmár county] (1830); Országgyűlési napló [Parliamentary diary] (1832–33, published only in 1848); Munkái [Works] Vol. I, Versek [Poems] (Edited by Pál Szemere, only this volume was published, 1832); Parainesis (1837).


7After the boom of the 1780–90s, the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century were characterized by cultural inertia due to the unfavorable political conditions in the Habsburg Empire. The reactivation of the Hungarian national movement became noticeable in the mid-1810s, when the project of creating a ‘national literature’ received new inspiration from romantic aesthetic ideas, though it also integrated a plethora of elements from the Enlightenment and the classicist literary tradition. The transformation of Kölcsey’s poetic style and aesthetic views document the complex transition from Classicism to Romanticism. In his ‘Letters from Lasztóc’ (1817), in which he drew on the romantic reinterpretation of Greek culture, especially that of Friedrich Schlegel, he formulated a program of poetic originality linking the problem of the organicity of culture with the process of creation.

8The most important issue of the ‘revivalist’ movement was the construction of a framework of cultural institutions and the creation of a ‘national canon.’ In the romantic vision mediated by such works as Joseph Görres’ Mythengeschichte der Asiatischen Welt, Friedrich Schlegel’s Geschichte der alten und neuen Literatur and the writings of Jakob Grimm, every nation was encouraged to recover its mythical pre-history in order to develop its own peculiar (“eigentümlich”) literature and national culture. In the programmatic ‘National traditions,’ Kölcsey set out to identify the ‘usable’ elements from the Hungarian collective cultural memory and ‘national’ history which might possibly be turned to use for building such a canon. Writers seeking to shape the national discourse had to face the fact that Hungarians evidently had no epic traditions comparable to Homer, the recently ‘discovered’ Ossian, or even the South-Slav epic poems which attracted attention from the 1790s onwards. The lack of ancient poetry prompted poets like Mihály Vörösmarty (1800–1855) to write literary epics on subjects of Hungarian prehistory, while others went so far as to try to counterfeit such an epic tradition, with limited success.

9Kölcsey’s response to this challenge was to propose identifying a literary ‘canon’ that should serve to educate the ‘national public.’ Drawing on Herderian inspiration, his ‘National traditions’ reiterated the organic theory of national development, comparing ancient peoples to children and the more civilized ones to adult persons. The young nations are more open to irrational inspirations, and this ‘animistic’ mindset, deeply affected by every extraordinary event, produces national mythologies. Successful national cultures, like classical Greek, evolved organically from these archaic roots, assimilating the foreign influences step by step, so that they could retain the essence of their own tradition. Gradually they became more rational, and their reaching towards a mythical past became a conscious self-reflection. Other cultures, however, like that of ancient Rome, assimilated an excess of sophisticated foreign influences and never managed to establish their own autonomous cultural tradition.

10Measured by this vision of organic development, Hungarian culture suffered from serious inadequacies because the public memory has almost completely erased references to the heroic age. This does not mean that of past glories were completely missing, as there are indirect proofs of the ancient virtue of Hungarians, but the historical hurricanes sweeping the country in the past thousand years and the fateful rejection of the pre-Christian cultural heritage in the Middle Ages erased their memory. In order to create a replacement for a national mythology, Kölcsey revisited the Hungarian literary tradition, inquiring whether it could serve as a symbolic framework for the envisaged national awakening. He pays special attention to folksongs, though he also notes the erosion of historical memory contained in them. In the last section of the essay, he turns to Hungarian literature from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, deploring the inorganic dominance of Latin over the vernacular, and finishes with a plea for a yet to be written dramatic work which would fulfill the role of a ‘truly national’ creation. In sum, by elaborating a new vision of the national functions of art, ‘National traditions’ was probably the most important romantic statement of cultural nation-building in Hungary, and in many ways it shaped ensuing discussions of the ‘national character.’

11Kölcsey’s cultural-political discourse is one of the most important examples of the revived ‘classical republicanism’ that served as a master-narrative for the Hungarian reform movement. The ‘Hymn’ was also meant to be a patriotic invective, fusing the myth of ‘elect nationhood’ with the secular project of nation-building. Kölcsey evokes Hungarian history in a parable, contrasting the heroic past to the corrupted present. The discourse of ‘elect nationhood’ had a strong impact in the sixteenth century, when especially the Protestant preachers depicted the vicissitudes of national history in terms of the alternation of divine grace and punishment, symbolically identifying the nation with the Jews of the Old Testament. The Reform Age often turned for inspiration to the ‘national’ discourse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Kölcsey, in the ‘National traditions’ also refers to the poetry of Bálint Balassi (1554–1594) and Miklós Zrínyi (Cro. Nikola Zrinski; 1620–1664) as the most important precursors of national literature, and especially the poetpolitician Zrínyi, author of a Baroque epic with patriotic overtones, became a stock reference in romantic poetry. Textually, there are a number of close similarities between the ‘Hymn’ and the psalm-translations by the Calvinist Albert Molnár Szenczi (1574–1634), as well as a number of other Protestant writers, for example, the Lutheran pamphleteer István Magyari (?–1605). Nevertheless, in the ‘Hymn’ this discourse, although originating in the Protestant cultural background of its author, loses its denominational references and becomes a master-narrative for the entire Hungarian nation. Significantly, the adjective ‘Hungarian’ is used in a vocative case, referring to all members of the nation without social or legal differences.

12The poem is central to the Hungarian literary canon. In the 1830s the Hungarian cultural movement called for the creation of a national anthem which could stand beside the Austrian ‘Gotterhalte.’ Following a public competition in 1844 the tune by the prominent composer Ferenc Erkel was chosen, and it soon became widely popular. Although its legal status as the ‘official’ anthem was only secured in 1989 (a Parliamentary move for securing this status failed in 1903), it has been considered the anthem of the country ever since the 1840s.


National traditions

14Behold! Our scholars can trace the Greek tradition from Chaos and Chronos through Prometheus and Hercules and through all the times right down to the historic centuries, while our own national tradition is founded on such minute fragments scattered so remotely from each other. Yet the national tradition is in many respects an invaluable treasure. Not only because it offers, if not memories, at least traces for the science of historiography; but much more because it is a lodestar of national enthusiasm and, thus, of patriotism. The Roman state constitution, patriotism and the greatness springing from them had all been built upon myths and cherished by myths; and even those who were lucky enough to be contemporaries of a Scipio, an Aemilius or other great men, looked with emotions glowing with reverence back from a present rich in deeds to the hallowed images of the past; for the present stands in an all too clear, all too human light, whereas the days of yore may appear fabulous, yet its phenomena radiate a slightly superhuman light.

  • 1 Álmos (819–895), tribal chief of the Hungarians at the time the Hungarians appeared in the Carpath (...)

15What can have been the cause of the impairment of the traditions of a nation such as ours beyond Álmos?1 Nations boasting of their long past tend to reach back right to the creation of the world with their traditions, and they recount their stories, albeit in a fabulous form, from the times of their origin. Should we then conclude that a nation that is unable to do so is a quite recent branch of some more ancient tribe from which it separated, so slight in number as to be unworthy of attention, and then, growing ignorant, came to remember nothing about its separation? Or that a nation without tradition has wasted away its time in a spiritless fashion, without any great feats, and thus had no memories to pass on to its descendants? But the language of the Hungarians proves their originality, and its kinship to several extinct languages shows its antiquity; and the fact that Álmos and his son Árpád traced their descent from beyond the Carpathians, and led a nation dazzling in its fear-inspiring greatness and its youth full of vigor, leaves no doubt that this nation must have been trained for such a bloody destiny by long periods of struggle.

  • 2 “Magister P.,” traditionally referred to as Anonymus, author of the Gesta Hungarorum (c. 1200), wh (...)
  • 3 Matthias Corvinus, son of János Hunyadi, king of Hungary (1458–1490), distinguished for his Renais (...)

16Can it be that the nation had no regard for its own deeds? But we read that bards sang at Attila’s table; and Anonymus2 mentions the songs of the common folk praising ancient feats. Should there not have existed in subsequent ages what had existed during the reign of Attila, in the times of Árpád’s descendants and even under King Matthias?3 Surely, it was thanks to the passage of time and to state-ravaging tempests that the traces of the heroic age sank into oblivion; and perhaps thanks, too, to their descendants’ deplorable indifference toward the memories of antiquity, the nation and patriotism. I would not venture to declare whether the same had been true centuries ago, but we certainly have no excuse now for the derelictions committed for such a long time. […]

17Tradition gains a more poetic form when it is divided into more and more stories: such stories that, bearing novelistic characteristics, may lend an animating lustre to the whole. Greek tradition is full of such stories, and these have all the more poetic loftiness in that they have either been turned into myths or have intermingled with myths. In the Hungarian tradition we can discern no mythological traces at all; and after the adoption of Christianity these would have been seen as alien anyway. […]

18Christianity, politics and science have brought our Hungarians closer to their European neighbors in diverse ways; on the other hand, their own state constitution, language, customs and mutual animosities have held them back in diverse ways. It is thus that they have adapted many European features, while at the same time they preserved many non-European ones. But the latter were much more conspicuous only fifty years ago than they are now; and the more they incline towards decay, the more painfully conscious we become of the absence of a writer who could have portrayed our ancestors in their simple and original greatness. Such a writer should have been born either in the ancient days of the heroic age or on its margins. In the later years of sophistication the ancient is represented with features of the present age; thus we see Trojan heroes depicted in Virgil’s lines, which shine with a thousand beauties, but they are animated by the spirit of Octavian’s times; whereas with the figures in Homer and Ossian the external form, the soul and the spirit of the age all converge. […]

19I fancy that the original sparks of a real national poetry are to be sought in the songs of the common folk; therefore it is expedient to look to our peasant songs with this in mind. We find two kinds of them; for they either relate stories or sing about the personal emotions of the moment. In neither group can we encounter very ancient pieces, which justifies my remark above about the lack of feeling of the Hungarians towards their ancient past. Who would dare to deny that the days of yore possessed songs of a more honorable character than the present times?

20[…] Among the songs of the second kind more sparks of poetry seem to glitter. In some of them we encounter, even if only for a few lines, genuine sentiments, a certain light and carefree flight and an attractive alternation from one subject to the other; but it is also undeniable that their most vulgar characteristic is the empty and inappropriate fabrication of rhymes, which causes the most incongruous ideas to be strung together and to form a ridiculous disarray, in which better-matched ideas are occasionally intermingled.

21Are we to believe that, the national poetry having been elevated long ago, it will no longer be found among peasants but among the more refined classes of the nation instead? Let us step back a little and try to find the way by which our poetry, making a shift into the written language, could have become more refined. […] Let us confess that we have chosen the wrong path in learning from the Romans. Instead of ascending within our circles with their assistance, we have inclined to servile imitation; instead of absorbing their spirit and making it our own within our own world, we transformed ourselves to their world; but not feeling at home there, we keep glancing back to our homeland, and, our imagination permanently divided, we remain strangers both here and there. Isn’t it obvious that a real national poetry can and must soar only from the bosom of the nation? The light from an alien fire can only dimly shine for a nation.

22[…] And yet beyond all doubt the straightest path lies open through the writing of theatrical works. Of all the genres of poetry this is the one with the most direct and most palpable relation to the sphere of everyday life. Epic and lyric poetry both conjure a world in front of our eyes, yet this world appears with the poet, and floats in a certain distance, in a certain height above us. In a drama the poet must make himself visible: a refined life flows on beside and around us, and our illusion assuming the features of reality, we seem to rise out of ourselves and we are imperceptibly blended into the poetic world. Happy is the poet who can allure us to such pleasant illusions, and from whose world no cold interests, unpleasant conflicts or feelings of strangeness can thrust our fancy back! In his works a real poetic realm would be created in which a refined nation would find its homeland; in his works the glorious heroic past and the present, the sentiments of humanity and patriotism could all embrace; while we, constantly held in check by remembrance and compulsion, would be saved from the peril posed by an incessant progress pressing further and further forward— the peril of gradually losing our original features and our bosoms becoming unable to take fire any more.

23But when shall such a poet emerge, and when shall the arms of a fair-minded nation and a suitable national theatre ever open for such a poet?!


Bless the Magyar, Lord we pray,
Nor in bounty fail him,
Shield him in the bloody fray
When his foes assail him.
He whom ill-luck long has cursed,
This year grant him pleasure,
He has suffered with the worst
Time beyond all measure.

  • 4 Prince of the Huns, father of Attila.

To Carpathian peaks you brought
Bendeguz’s nation,4
Beautiful the land you wrought
For their occupation.
Wherever the Danube rolls
Where the Tisza urges
Heroic seed of Árpád’s soul
Flowers along their verges.

Ears of ripe corn wave to us
Across Cumanian meadows,
Tokay grapes extend to us
Honey dripping shadows.
Flags of ours you plant upon
Turkey’s forts and fences,
Matthias’s horde tramples down
Wien’s proud defences.

Ah, but through our crimes and faults
Furiously driven,
You unleashed your thunderbolts
Hurling them from heaven,
Arrows of the Mongol hordes
Rained on us in battle,
Then the Turkish overlords
Took us for their chattel.

Osman lips, how frequently,
With their fearsome crowing,
Celebrated victory
As our blood was flowing.
Dearest land, sons of your clay
Turned on their own mother,
You, their charnel house, where they
Laid waste to each other.

Fugitive, concealed, alone,
Fearing sword and sentry,
Vainly seeking for a home
In his native country,
Climbs the peak, flees to the vale,
Doubt and care uphold him,
Seas of blood lap at his heel,
Seas of fire enfold him.

Castle once, now heap of stones;
Fled are all its graces,
Death-cries, rattles, sighs and groans
Occupy their places.
Ah but liberty disdains
Veins that death must vanquish,
Red-eyed orphans in their chains
Weeping where they languish.

With the Magyar take your stand,
Lord, in his vain struggles,
Shield him with your mighty hand
From that sea of troubles.
He whom ill-luck long has cursed
This year grant him pleasure,
He has suffered with the worst
Time beyond all measure!

24Translated by George Szirtes, in The Lost Rider: A Bilingual Anthology

25(Budapest: Corvina, 1997), pp. 71–73.


1 Álmos (819–895), tribal chief of the Hungarians at the time the Hungarians appeared in the Carpathian Basin, and father of Árpád.

2 “Magister P.,” traditionally referred to as Anonymus, author of the Gesta Hungarorum (c. 1200), which was the first surviving chronicle describing the origins of the Hungarians.

3 Matthias Corvinus, son of János Hunyadi, king of Hungary (1458–1490), distinguished for his Renaissance cultural orientation and bold foreign policy, which defied the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire as well. His rule is traditionally considered as the most splendid period of the history of late-medieval Hungary. He also supported the creation of a new humanist narrative of the Hungarian past which reworked the historical lore of the medieval chronicles.

4 Prince of the Huns, father of Attila.


Dávid Oláh (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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