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Mihály Csokonai Vitéz

Mihály Csokonai was an innovative Hungarian poet, born and raised in Debrecen.  His talent was recognized early at high school by his teachers, József Háló Kováts who taught poetry and Fodor Gerzson who taught higher rhetorical and metaphysical classes. 

After graduating from Debrecen College in 1788, he went on to study applied geometry, natural sciences, and philosophy under József Milesz, theology under András Ormós as well as applied geometry.  He was most influenced by Hungarian history, general world history along with ancient literature. 

In recognition of his talent, he was offered a position and appointed as an assistant professor of poetics, even though he was popular with students the position did not last long in part due to jealousy of senior colleagues.  Often referred to as stubborn, and disrespectful of authority he was dismissed in July 1795.

His early work which is full of potential and political idealism that youth often provides, he supported the revolutionary ideas of the time, he ridiculed the nobility and despised the class system in which he belonged to the lower echelons. In addition, he distrusted the Church and the Muslim religion.

Mihály Csokonai Vitéz life took a turn for the worse, one might say as a consequence of his sympathies towards revolutionary ideas at a time of war (invasion of Europe by Napoleon) when unity against a common foe was paramount. 

During his life he was considered unremarkable  He became a drifter, a travelling poet, unlucky in love and life in general, which is reflected in his later poetry.

In contrast to his early work which is full of potential and political idealism, supporting the revolutionary ideas of the time, his later work was about the pain of denied love and poverty.  The woman of his affections was a wealthy girl referred to as “Lilla” in his poems, who was already married by the time he could get a financially acceptable position.

To Hope

Depart from me, O cruel Hope!
    Depart and come no more;
For blinded by your power I grope
    Along a bitter shore.
My strength has fail’d, for I am riven
    By all thy doubt and dearth;
My tired spirit longs for heaven
    My body yearns for earth
I see the meadows overcome
    With dark consuming blight;
The vocal grove today is dumb,
    The sun gives place to night.
I cannot tune this trill o’mine!
    My thoughts are all at sea!
Ah, heart! Ah, hope! Ah, Lilla mine!
    May God remember thee!

Mihály Csokonai Vitéz – Translated by Watson Kirkconnell

Ultimately he fought against any authority, a rebel without a cause.  He returned back to Debrecen, unsatisfied with life, and died in utter poverty, suffering from consumption.  His literary works only became famous after his death.

Today his poetry is considered as being the spirit of Enlightenment, fanatical in his pursuit of poetic form, and is known for adapting foreign influences into his own Hungarian Folk style of poetry.