1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Petŏfi, Alexander
PETǑFI, ALEXANDER (1823–1849), Hungarian lyric poet, was born at Kis-Koroso, Pest county, on New Year's Day, 1823. The family received its diploma of nobility from the emperor Leopold in 1688, but the ultra-patriotic Alexander early changed the old family name, Petrovics, which pointed to a Croatian origin, into the purely Magyar form of Petǒfi. The lad's early days were spent at Félegyház and Szabadszallas, the most Hungarian parts of Hungary, where he got most of his early education, including a good grounding in Latin. German he learnt subsequently at Pesth, and French he taught himself. He began writing verses in his twelfth year, while a student at the Aszód gymnasium, where he also displayed a strong predilection for the stage, to the disgust of his rigorous father, who formally disowned his son, early in 1839, for some trifling peccadillo, and whose tyrannical temper became downright furious when a series of misfortunes ruined him utterly in 1840. For the next three years Petǒfi led the wretched life of a strolling player, except for a brief interval when, to escape starvation, he enlisted as a common soldier in an infantry regiment. During the greater part of 1842 we find him a student at the Calvinist College at Pápá, where he made the acquaintance of young Jókai, and wrote the poem “Borozó,” which the great critic Bajza at once inserted in the leading literary review, the Athenaeum (May 22, 1842). In November of the same year the restless poet quitted Pápá to join another travelling troupe, playing on one occasion the Fool in King Lear, and after wandering all over Hungary and suffering incredible hardships, finally settled down at Pesth (1844), where for a time he supported himself by all sorts of literary hack-work. Nevertheless, in the midst of his worst privations he had read voraciously, and was at this time profoundly influenced by the dominant Romanticism of the day; while, through Tieck, he learnt to know and value the works of Shakespeare. His first volume of original poems was published in 1844 by the Society Nemzeti Kor, through the influence of the poet Vorosmarty, when every publisher had refused his MS., and the seventy-five florins which he got for it had become a matter of life or death to him. He now became a regular contributor to the leading papers of Pesth, and was reconciled to his parents, whom he practically supported for the rest of their lives out of his literary earnings. His position, if not exactly brilliant, was now at least secure. The little volume published by the Nemzeti Kor was followed by the parody, A Helység Kalapácsa (1844); the romantic epic János Vitéz (1844); Ciprislombok Etelké Sìrjáról, a collection of passionate elegies over his lost love, Etelké Csapó (1845); U ti Jegyzetek, an imitation of Heine's Reisebilder (1845); Szerelem Gyongyei (1845); Felhok (1846); Szerelme ès házassága (1846), and many other volumes. The first edition of his collected poems appeared in 1847. Petǒfi was not yet twenty-five, and, despite the protests of the classicists, who regarded him with cold dislike, the best heads in Hungary, poets like Vorosmarty and critics like Szemere, already paid him the homage due to the prince of Magyar lyrical poets. The great public was enthusiastic on the same side, and posterity, too, has placed him among the immortals. Petǒfi is as simple and genuine a poet of nature as Wordsworth or Christian Winther, and his erotics, inspired throughout by a noble idealism, have all Byron's force and fervour, though it is perhaps in his martial songs that Petǒfi's essentially passionate and defiant genius asserts itself most triumphantly. On the 8th of September 1847 Petofi married Julia Szendrey, who bore him a son. When the revolutionary war broke out, he espoused the tenets of the extreme democratic faction with a heat and recklessness which estranged many of his friends. He took an active part in the Transylvanian campaigns of the heroic Bem; rose by sheer valour to the rank of major; was slain at the battle of Segesvár (July 31, 1849), and his body, which was never recovered, is supposed to have been buried in the common grave of the fallen honveds in the churchyard of Fehéregyház. The first complete edition of Petŏfi's poems appeared in 1874. The best critical edition is that of Haras, 1894. There are numerous indifferent German translations.
See Ferenczi, Petŏfi Életrajza; Fischer, Petŏfi's Leben und Werke. (R. N. B.)