A Resistance that Endures

2017. március 09., csütörtök

János Arany, famous Hungarian poet and quiet revolutionary, was recently honored posthumously for his famous poem, The Bards of Wales, as part of the 200th anniversary of his birth. The tale, based off a Welsh legend, was written in 1857 after the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution of 1848 as an act of civil resistance. 

János Arany lived in a turbulent period of Hungarian history, but despite this, he became one of the most important poet in Hungarian classical literature. Arany, sometimes called the “Hungarian Shakespeare,” was born in 1817 in Nagyszalonta, in what is today western Romania. His family was reformed and took him to be baptized on March 10th, an occasion that the Reformed congregation there will mark this year with a celebratory worship to remember the Reformed spirituality and hope that was so important to Arany. Growing up, Arany was both culturally and spiritually reformed. He was educated at the Debrecen Reformed Collegium and went on to be an elected member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, a director of the Kisfaludy literary society, a teacher in Debrecen and Budapest, and also write over 40 ballads – including his most famous, the Bards of Wales.

The Family Arany

During their schooling, every child in Hungary learns János Arany’s famous poem, The Bards of Wales, by heart. Educated at the Debrecen Collegium, his Reformed identity influenced his participation in the resistance following Hungary’s unsuccessful revolution for independence from the Austrian empire in 1848-49. His poem was meant as an act of rebellion towards Hungary’s occupiers and still holds great meaning for Hungarians today.

The Hungarian revolution against the Habsburgs began on 15 March, 1848 with massive demonstrations throughout the Hungarian capital of Buda and its sister city, Pest. These gatherings pressured the imperial government to appoint a new parliament and this independent government quickly passed a set of reform laws called the "April Laws”. These laws, in effect, created a democratic Hungarian government. Upon bestowing these new freedoms to the Hungarian territory, the Habsburg Empire realized that it set a dangerous precedent for democracy in their lands and responded by sending Austrian and Croatian troops into Hungary to crush the democratic movement and a war took over the country from September of 1848 until August of 1849.

The Bards of Wales tells the story of bards that were slain by King Edward I in 1277. The story goes that after his successful invasion of Wales he held a celebratory banquet in Montgomery Castle – but no bards would sing of his victories. In retaliation, one by one, King Edward I sent the bards to be burned at the stake, murdering 500 in total.

Memorial Plaque in Debrecen remembering the former student of the Reformed Collegium

Upon hearing this tale, Arany connected with it on a deeply personal level and wrote his master work, treating the story as an allegory for the treatment of Hungary by the Austrians following the failed revolution. Arany composed the verses after refusing to write a poem regaling the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph. The story of Welsh defiance was immortalized in The Bards of Wales and became a defining piece of Hungary’s cultural identity, even to this day. While he was not on the frontlines of the resistance, Arany used his skills as a poet to make his stand – and it’s one which has lasted the test of time.

"Now drink my health, you gentle sirs,

And you, my noble host! You Sirs...

Welsh Sirs... you filthy curs,

I want the loyal toast!


Five hundred went singing to die,

Five hundred in the blaze,

But none would sing to cheer the king

The loyal toast to raise.”

(Translation via babelmatrix.org)

According to Professor Robert Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, “The idea that the bards refused King Edward, that was part of the Romantic culture of Britain in the 19th Century. It was well known even in Europe but it was picked up by Arany due to [political] circumstances which made it famous." Hungary, in many ways, considers itself similar to Wales, finding common ground in the oppression that both have faced from conquering forces throughout history.

During the revolution, Arany played the role of a journalist, using his writings and poems to urge revolution. The Hungarian government set up their own local militia forces to ensure national security against the empire, and he was obligated to serve in the one near Nagyszalonta, his hometown, due to national regulations. When armed conflicts in the revolution began, these militiamen were involved. Despite participating in these battles, when Arany later wrote about his role in the conflicts he reflected that he didn’t really fight and was not interested in using his weapons. Later, Arany became an Officer in the local government during the revolution and was then in charge of organizing food and lodging for soldiers and recruiting new people to fight. He became much more involved in this work than in the actual fighting on the battlefield. When the official fighting ended, Arany then joined the civil resistance – and his poem, the Bards of Wales, became a manifesto for the movement.

Despite being well known in Hungary, the tale of the bards is not well-known in Wales. "Local people know very little about it at all. In fact it is only recently that I have been spreading the word about it," noted Montgomery Mayor, Eric Fairbrother, on a BCC Radio program.

Mr. Fairbrother recently traveled to Hungary to celebrate the 200th anniversary of János Arany’s birth and present the honorary status of Freeman of Montgomery posthumously to the poet. The ceremony took place on March 2 and was attended by many, including Hungary’s President, Janos Ader.

In his opening speech, Ader said that “those can be part of a heroic fight” who serve “not by standing in the front line,” but by writing works that last forever. Arany was educated in the Debrecen Collegium and, through his famous poem, helped in the, “re-establishment of the Hungarian nation,” despite being a more reserved man, according to Ader. As a part of the 200th anniversary of János Arany’s birth, commemorative coins have also been released and more events will be held in the coming year.

The poet's home in Nagykörös

Nagykőrös, a city in central Hungary, was an important venue in Arany’s life; he lived there for nine years where he taught Hungarian language, literature, and Latin at a Reformed high school at the invitation of the Reformed church. His time there is fondly remembered and the school is now named after him. Arany also raised his two children and wrote most of the Bards of Wales here.  The city also hosts the satellite elementary school teacher training program for Károli Reformed University. To celebrate these connections, the Reformed University organizes conferences and events for the coming year to celebrate the Hungarian poet.


Article by Kearstin Bailey

Via transceltic.com, bbc.com, dailynewshungary.com, babelmatrix.org, kre.hu, and hungarytoday.hu

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