Arany János painted by Barabás Miklós
The Hungarian poet, Arany János was born on March 2nd, 1817. His proud motherland is dedicating this year to his celebrations all over the country. The honor surrounding him is crowned by being recognized not only at home but outside of the Continent – in Montgomery, Wales.
How did this all happen? How would a 19th century Hungarian poet get involved with that faraway land?
The answer is a bit indirect.
The defeated 1848-49 freedom fight left Hungary in devastation, and hatred against its oppressor, Austria, and the Habsburgs. In the wake of the tragedy, the young emperor, Franz Josef I visited Buda in 1857 and, for the occasion, “quasi poet laureate” Arany János was asked to write a celebratory greeting poem to His Majesty.
Arany, having lost his property, his job and his best friend, Petőfi in that ill-fated, all-consuming war, circumvented the task by claiming ill health. But he did write a ballad “for the desk drawer” that was first published six years later only. It was disguised as a translation of an old English ballad, to evade censorship, but in essence it was an encoded resistance to the repressive Habsburg politics (known as the Bach Era) of his own time.
According to legend, “Edward I of England sent 500 Welsh bards to the stake after his victory over the Welsh in 1277 to prevent them from arousing the country and destroying English rule by telling of the glorious past of their nation.” (Internet)
Fact or fiction, the event was immortalized in Arany’s ballad The Bards of Wales (A walesi bárdok) taking place at Montgomery castle and is still being taught in 6th grade in the schools of Hungary. The best-known English translation is by Watson Kirkconnell. (A lesser known translation was written by our Editor, Erika Papp Faber, as included in her “Sampler of Hungarian Poetry”.) Since the legend has been presumably not popular with the Brits, it was not officially promoted in Wales. Yet it created a significant abstract connection between the Welsh and the Hungarians.
The Arany bicentennial prompted the Mayor of Montgomery, Wales to promote the recognition of the legend by posthumously giving the poet of its ballad Freedom of the Town.
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.