A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe, 1848-1884

By Frederic Ewen; Jeffrey Wollock | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
The Lyre and the Sword
Art and Revolution

1. Hungary—July 31,1849: Sándor Petöfi—The Poet as Warrior

I conned the Book of History, and at the end,
I asked myself, “Is this the chronicle of Man?”
A river of blood, springing from rocks of misty past,
And flowing on, down to our own day …
Oh, do not think its well-heads ever slacken,
For without pause, it rushes toward the sea,
A surge of blood into a bloody ocean!
I see approaching days of untold dread,
Such as no human eye has ever seen,
Will make this day's peace seem the graveyard's quiet,
One moment between the lightning and the thunder's roar.
The veil of future lifts; I see before me
A sight that rends my soul, yet thrills with joy:
I see anew the God of War in armor,
With sword in hand, coursing the wide world,
Calling the people to arms in the last of wars;
I see two nations arrayed against each other:
Here stands the Good—there the Evil one,
And ever-vanquished Good soon to be victor,
A triumph won through seas of untold blood!
No matter! The Day of Judgment's here!
Foretold of prophets in the name of God.
Yes, Day of Judgment—dawn of Life and Bliss—
When Man no longer needs to grasp for Heaven,
For Heaven descends, embracing Man and Earth!

—Sándor Petöfi, “The Day of Judgment,” 1847

July 31,1849. This was the day on which Sándor Petöfi, Hungary's uncrowned poetlaureate, was last seen alive. He fell at the battle of Segesvár, a soldier in General Bem's armies, during the disastrous defeat at the hands of the Russians. His body was never recovered. But his cenotaph, aside from the innumerable physical monuments erected to his memory, remains to this day in the indestructible body of his poetry. His life, his work, and his death at the age of twenty-six, enshrined, not only for Hungary but

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