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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter V. National Heroism: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

National song

Sándor Petőfi
Traduction de George Szirtes

Texte intégral

1Title: Nemzeti dal (National song)

2Originally published: First printed as a pamphlet in Pest on 15 March 1848

3Language: Hungarian

4The modern edition is Petőfi összes művei (Budapest: Akadémiai, 1956), pp. 37–38.

About the author

5Sándor Petőfi [1823, Kiskőrös (Central Hungary) – 1849, Segesvár (Rom. Sighişoara, Ger. Schässburg, present-day Romania)]: poet. His parents were of Slavic origins; his father was a butcher. He studied in various secondary schools all over the country. For some time an actor, he later joined the army but was discharged in February 1841 because of ill health. His first poem was published in Athenaeum in 1842. After working as an actor in Kecskemét for a time, he eventually moved to Pest, where, with the help of Mihály Vörösmarty (1800–1855), he published an edition of his poems. He met Júlia Szendrey in Nagykároly (Rom. Carei, present-day Romania) and married her in September 1847. He was a prominent figure among the group of young radicals that promoted the Revolution of March 1848. His poem, ‘National song,’ printed as a pamphlet, became the symbolic text of the revolutionary demonstrations. After a failure in institutional politics, Petőfi entered the military and, after serving in Debrecen, moved to Transylvania. From January 1849 he served in the army of General Józef Bem (1794–1850). While his propagandistic services were highly appreciated by Bem personally, Petőfi fell into conflict with the military leadership and subsequently resigned his commission. On 30 July 1849, however, he rejoined Bem’s army, and was killed on the following day in a battle between the Hungarian and Russian forces at Segesvár. As his body was never found, there has been a lasting controversy about the circumstances of his death: from time to time the legend resurfaces that he was actually taken captive by the Russians and his grave is to be found somewhere in Siberia, which even inspired excavations in the 1990s. Already in the 1850s Petőfi had became ‘canonized’ as the symbol of the 1848–49 Revolution and War of Independence, and he has remained a crucial cultural and political reference ever since.

6Main works: A helység kalapácsa [The hammer of the village] (1844); Versek, 1842–1844 [Poems, 1842–1844] (1844); János vitéz [János the Brave] (1845); Szerelem gyöngyei [The pearls of love] (1845); Versek, 1844–1845 [Poems, 1844– 1845] (1845); Felhők [Clouds] (1846); Összes költeményei [Collected poems] (1847); Az Egyenlőségi Társulat proclamátiója [The proclamation of the Society of Equality] (1848); Újabb költeményei, 1847–1849 [New poems, 1847–1849] (1851).


7In the 1840s the Hungarian reform movement underwent a process of radicalization, culminating in the outbreak of the Revolution in March 1848 and the subsequent establishment of the first modern representative government in Hungary, which in turn was followed by the revolutionary war against Vienna. The Revolution also brought about the triumph of a circle of young intellectuals of radical democratic convictions, usually referred to as the ‘March Youth,’ who emerged as a powerful cultural and political lobby-group in the mid-1840s. In contrast to the previous generation of liberal politicians stemming from the middle nobility and the country-gentry, these radicals came either from the petty nobility or from non-noble background; they were mostly but not exclusively educated in Protestant secondary schools, and represented the first cohort of a new social phenomenon, the intelligentsia, who earned their living by publishing literary works, translating, and working in journalism.

8Their emergence meant the shift of focus of public life from the traditional framework of gentry politics and antiquarian scientific journals towards new forums of sociability and public debate such as literary magazines, cafés and, in general, the urban space. Their appearance also effected a considerable paradigm shift in terms of the traditional itinerary of reception of European intellectual trends. While the previous generation was mostly formed by German romantic ideas or ideas mediated by a German cultural filter (such as the ‘stadial history’ model of the Scottish Enlightenment), the new generation emerged under the influence of French romantic literary and political doctrines, especially those of Jules Michelet, Alphonse de Lamartine and François Mignet. Some of the characteristic figures of this generation subsequently became eminent cultural or political personalities, for example, the greatest Hungarian romantic writer Mór Jókai (1825–1904), the important late-romantic poet and political journalist János Vajda (1827–1897), and the liberal politician Dániel Irányi (1822–1892), who played a considerable political role in the post-1849 emigration and subsequently in political life after the Compromise of 1867. Others, such as the charismatic political writer and historian Pál Vasvári (1826–1849), perished during the War of Independence, while others again retreated from public life after 1849 and became completely forgotten.

9The iconic figure of this generation was doubtlessly Sándor Petőfi. A romantic poet eminently concerned with shaping the self-perception of his national community, Petőfi operated with numerous discursive modalities, ranging from folkloric genre-poems to visionary poetry on the ‘universal mission’ of the Hungarians. Among these works the ‘National song’ has a pivotal position, due partly to its poetic strength, but also to its symbolic political role. The poem was written originally for a ‘Reform Banquet’ organized by university students to manifest their support of Lajos Kossuth’s liberal constitutional agenda. As events took a more radical turn, and Petőfi emerged as the tribune of the revolutionary youth, the printing of the poem came to signalize the collapse of censorship, and it was distributed as a pamphlet to the public during revolutionary demonstrations. It soon became the symbol of the revolution and became incorporated into the rituals of the new political system, for instance forming part of the oath taken by new recruits to the revolutionary guard. The image of Petőfi reading his poem to the enthusiastic masses on March 15 from the steps of the National Museum—an event which actually did not take place in this form—became the iconic representation of the Revolution.

10The poem compresses the lessons of Hungarian history into an urgent ‘either-or’ of revolutionary action, projected on a tripartite historical framework. The mythical past was characterized by liberties, which were consequently lost, so that, in the more immediate past, the nation was suffering under total slavery. The contrast of freedom and slavery is reinforced by other sharp symbolic alternatives, like that of the chain and the sword. The chain of slavery can be broken and the freedom of the nation can be regained if all members of the community are unified in a symbolic oath of allegiance to the nation, pronounced in front of the God of the Hungarians (this is an ambivalent reference to the presumed pre-Christian Hungarian monotheistic religion centered around a God of War, thematized in the late-eighteenth century pre-romantic literature seeking to create a Hungarian pre-historical mythology, but its roots go back as far as the early-modern discourse of ‘elect nationhood’).

11In the poem, Petőfi seeks to reshape the national community, transcending any social and legal differences. He submerges all the counter-positions into a gigantic contrast of individual interests versus the nation, activating the Messianic potential of the national ideology, projecting the cult of the founders of liberty, i.e., the present generation, to a pious future. He thus creates a framework of national transcendence, where the conception of divinity transgresses the common Christian theological notion and becomes the object of veneration in terms of the secularized ‘religion of the revolution’—in many ways evoking the Jacobin rhetoric during the French Revolution, the history of which Petőfi read ardently also during the revolutionary days of March 1848.

12In the dispute over the direction of the revolution the radical Petőfi was far from being unconditionally accepted, and soon after the glorious days of March he came to clash with the liberal mainstream of the political elite who became increasingly irritated by his anti-institutionalism and radical rhetoric. Later on, however, his figure was totally identified with the memory of the 1848 Revolution. He became an object of veneration immediately after the fall of the banners and his mysterious disappearance. His historical charisma became so formidable that later on every regime, regardless of its ideological orientation, sought to gain symbolic benefit from his cult.


National song

  • 1 In the Hungarian original it is singular: “by the God of Hungarians.”

On your feet now, Hungary calls you!
Now is the moment, nothing stalls you,
Shall we be slaves or men set free
That is the question, answer me!
By all the gods of Hungary1
We hereby swear,
That we the yoke of slavery
No more shall wear.

Slaves we have been to this hour,
Our forefathers who fell from power
Fell free and lived as free men will,
On land that was their own to till,
By all the gods of Hungary
We hereby swear,
That we the yoke of slavery
No more shall wear.

Whoever now his life begrudges
Deserves his death with thieves and drudges,
For setting his own worthless hide
Above his country’s need and pride.
By all the gods of Hungary
We hereby swear,
That we the yoke of slavery
No more shall wear.

The sword shines brighter than the fetters
It is the finery of our betters,
Of slaves and fetters we grow bored.
Leap to my side, ancestral sword.
By all the gods of Hungary
We hereby swear,
That we the yoke of slavery
No more shall wear.

Magyars, once more our name and story
Shall match our ancestors’ in glory.
The centuries of shame and hurt
Can now be washed away like dirt.
By all the gods of Hungary
We hereby swear,
That we the yoke of slavery
No more shall wear.

And wheresoever we may perish
Grandchildren those graves shall cherish
Singing our praises in their prayers
To thank us that our names are theirs.
By all the gods of Hungary
We hereby swear,
That we the yoke of slavery
No more shall wear.

14Translated by George Szirtes, in: The Lost Rider: A Bilingual Anthology (Budapest: Corvina, 1997), pp. 129–131.


1 In the Hungarian original it is singular: “by the God of Hungarians.”

© Central European University Press, 2007

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