A Walesi Bárdok: The Bards of Wales
One of the best-known literary connections between Britain and Hungary comes in the shape of an epic ballad written in the mid-nineteenth century by the poet János Arany, who was a contemporary of Sándor Petőfi, the national poet of Hungary, who was killed in the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-49. Arany was, indeed, a close friend of Petőfi, and his death in exile in Russia had a profound effect on Arany, as did the entire events of 1848-49. He later wrote a parabolic poem, Walesi Bárdok, about the Plantagenet King Edward’s crushing of Welsh Independence and his legendary mass murder of the country’s bards. It’s publication coincided with the visit of the Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph to Hungary, at a time when there was a sense of Austrian oppression among many Hungarians, and suppression of dissent. It was not safe for poets to write openly of their hatred of the Empire, so Arany used his knowledge of British history and literature to compose a masterly yet thinly-veiled attack on the Hapsburg monarchy, leaving his Hungarian readers in little doubt as to whom his scorn was directed.
Appropriately, János Arany was born on the day after St David’s Day, the festival of the patron saint of Wales, on 2 March, 1817, in Nagyszalonta, Bihár County, then in Royal Hungary, but now part of Romania. He was the youngest of ten children, only two of whom lived beyond childhood. At the time of his birth, his older sister Sára was already married and his parents, György Arany and Sára Megyeri, were 60 and 44 years old, respectively. János Arany learned to read and write early on, and was reported to read anything he could find, both in Hungarian and in Latin. Since his parents needed support early in Arany’s life, he began working at the age of 14 as an associate teacher.
From 1833 he attended the Reformed Church College of Debrecen where he studied German and French, though he quickly became tired of scholarly life, and temporarily joined an acting troupe. Later on, he worked in Nagyszalonta, Debrecen, and Budapest as teacher, newspaper editor, and in various clerical positions.
In 1840 he married Julianna Ercsey (1816–1885). They had two children, Julianna, whose early death by pneumonia devastated the poet, and Lászlo who also became a poet and a collector of Hungarian folklore..
In 1845, he won the competition of the Kisfaludy Társaság (a literary society) with his writing, “Az elveszett alkotmány” (“The lost constitution” in English).
After Toldi, one of his most famous works, was published, he and Sándor Petőfi became close friends (see their letters: To János Arany by Petőfi and Reply to Petőfi by Arany). Petőfi’s death in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-9 had a great impact on him.
He was employed as a teacher in Nagykőrös where the local museum is named after him.
Arany was elected a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1858. He was the secretary-general of the Academy from 1865. Also, he was elected director of the Kisfaludy Society, the greatest literary association of Hungary.
The early death of his daughter, Julianna in 1865 marked the beginning of Arany’s hiatus as a poet. He did not write any original pieces until the summer of 1877, when he began working on his poetic cycle entitled Őszikék. Őszikék is substantially different from the previous works of Arany, concerning themes like elderliness, or the imminence of death.
He translated three dramas of Shakespeare into Hungarian, and they are considered to be some of the greatest translations into Hungarian in history; he also helped other Hungarian translators with his comments. He revealed a great preference for the spiritual world and poetry of Britain. The stimulating effect of translating Shakespeare roused a vivid echo in Arány, and he succeeded in transplanting the dramas of the bard into a Hungarian worthy of him.
The epic poetry of János Arany presents the legendary and historical past of his nation. The Death of King Buda (1864), the first part of a projected Hun trilogy is one of the best narrative poems in Hungarian literature. The other parts of the trilogy (Ildikó, and Prince Csaba) are unfinished. Arany died in Budapest on October 22, 1882.
One of his most famous poems is A Walesi Bárdok’ (The Bards of Wales). Arany wrote this poem when the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I, visited Hungary for the first time after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Originally Arany was asked to write a poem to praise the Emperor but he wrote a piece concerning the campaigns of the Plantagenet King of England, Edward I, to subjugate the Welsh and trample over their culture. Arany was drawing a parallel here with Austria’s treatment of Hungary and the Hungarians.
János Arany is today considered as one of the greatest Hungarian poets beside Sándor Petőfi, Endre Ady, Miklós Radnoti and József Attila . His poems are among the most widely read works in Hungary, and children are required to memorise and recite A Walesi Bardok as part of the National Curriculum.
Here are some extracts, in a translation by Peter Zollman (1997), from The Bards of Wales (1857):
King Edward scales the hills of Wales
Upon his stallion.
“Hear my decree! I want to see,
My new dominion.
“Show me the yield of every field,
The grain, the grass, the wood!
Is all the land now moist and rich
With red rebellious blood?
And are the Welsh, the wretched Welsh,
A peaceful, happy folk?
I want them pleased, just like the beast
They harness in the yoke.”
“Sire, this jewel in the crown,
Your Wales is fair and good:
Rich is the yield of every
The grassland and the wood.
“And Sire, the Welsh, God’s gift, the Welsh,
So pleased they all behave!
Dark every hut, fearfully shut
And silent as the grave.”
King Edward scales the hills of Wales
Upon his stallion.
And where he rides dead silence hides
In his dominion.
He comes to high Montgomery
To banquet and to rest;
It falls on Lord Montgomery
To entertain the guest:
“Well then, you sirs, you filthy curs,
Who will now toast the king?
I want a bard to praise my deeds,
A bard of Wales to sing!”
They look askance with a furtive glance,
The noblemen of Wales,
Their cheeks turn white in deadly fright,
As crimson anger pales.
Deep silence falls upon the halls,
And lo, before their eyes,
They see an old man, white as snow,
An ancient bard to rise.
“I shall recite your glorious deeds
Just as you bid me, Sire,”
And death rattles in grim battles
As he touches the lyre.
“Our dead are plenty as the corn
When harvest is begun,
And as we reap and glean, we weep:
You did this, guilty one!”
“Off to the stake!” The King commands,
“This was churlishly hard.
Sing us, you there, a softer air,
You, young and courtly bard!”
“Maiden, don’t bear a slave! Mother,
Your babe must not be nursed!…”
A royal nod. He reached the stake
Together with the first.
But boldly and without a call
A third one takes the floor;
Without salute he strikes the lute,
His song begins to soar:
“The brave were killed, just as you willed,
Or languish in your gaols:
To hail your name or sing your fame
You’ll find no bard in Wales.
“He may be gone, but his songs live on –
The toast is: King beware!
You bear the curse and even worse
Of Welsh bards everywhere.”
“I’ll see to that! – Thunders the king –
You spiteful Welsh peasants!
The stake will toast you, every bard,
Who spurns my ordinance!”
Five hundred went singing to die,
Five hundred in the blaze,
But none would sing to cheer the king,
The loyal toast to raise. –
But over drums and piercing fifes,
Beyond the soldiers’ hails,
They swell the song, five hundred strong,
Those martyred bards of Wales.
George Szirtes et. al. (eds.) (1997), The Lost Rider: A bilingual anthology: The Corvina Book of Hungarian Verse. Budapest: Corvina.