Although I realize there is great interest in Viktor Obán’s trip to London, I’m going to turn my attention elsewhere today. But before moving on, I would like to call your attention to an interview with Orbán that appeared in The Daily Telegraph today. Some readers of Hungarian Spectrum have already discussed this interview in the comments section, but, if you haven’t read it yet, it is definitely worth taking a look at. I might add here that the prime minister’s office was quick to charge that the Telegraph‘s reporter falsified certain parts of the interview. The specific passage the spokesman referred to concerns the reporter’s question whether “he could become an authoritarian strongman, the Vladimir Putin of his country,” to which he answered: “The risk is there. . . though it is much smaller if Hungary is economically successful.” “He thinks,” the reporter continued, “that circumstances have changed.”
Today I’m turning to a nineteenth-century poet, the author of the lyrics of Hungary’s national anthem, Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838), who became a minor online sensation in the wake of a literary historian’s revelation that most likely the greatly revered Kölcsey was gay.
Now you have to understand that the literature on Kölcsey is enormous and there is nothing he ever wrote, as far as we know, that remains unpublished. His early love poems may not have identified the object of his love, but his letters did. Since 1960 his surviving letters, all 420 of them, have been available. Among these letters are several addressed to Pál Szemere, a fellow poet, which indicate that Kölcsey’s love poems were most likely were written to him.
There were other reasons to suspect possible homosexuality. We know a great deal about Kölcsey’s life but nothing about any female companions. Here and there in some of his poems he talks about a mysterious “girl,” but that girl is nameless and faceless. We also know about his melancholic nature and his references to his unfulfilled desires. But literary historians simply didn’t want to dwell on the secret life of one of Hungary’s great poets. The author of the national anthem’s lyrics was untouchable. At least until now.
Krisztián Nyáry, a literary historian, is in the middle of publishing a series of books devoted to the great love affairs of Hungarian poets and writers. He promotes his books by publishing short “teasers” on Facebook. It was here that the other day he had a post on Kölcsey. Nyáry identified at least two men Kölcsey most likely was in love with. The first was Ferenc Kállay, a schoolmate of Kölcsey in the famous Calvinist Debrecen Kollégium, where the orphaned boy was sent at the age of six. We know relatively little about their relationship because no early correspondence between the two survived. About the second, however, Pál Szemere, a fellow poet and writer, we know a lot. I was able to read Kölcsey’s letters to Szemere and have no doubt that Nyáry correctly analyzed his feelings. The letters are available on the Internet. Szemere’s letters to Kölcsey are not so easy to access. As far as I could ascertain, in this country they are available only in Columbia University’s Butler Library.
According to Nyáry, Kölcsey’s passionate love was not returned by Szemere, who looked upon Kölcsey as a good friend and not more. Szemere was known to be a ladies’ man, and about three years after he met Kölcsey he got married. When Kölcsey learned about the impending marriage, he wrote and sent to Szemere a poem entitled “Jegyváltó” (Engagement): “„Mért e reszkető könyű szememben? / Mért ez édes órán új remény? / Bájos arcod, százszor boldog álom, / A múltban s jövőben nem találom.” (Why the fluttering tears in my eyes? / Why is there new hope in this sweet hour? / Your charming face is a hundred times a happy dream, / I cannot find in the past and the future.) And he finished his letter with these words: „Ölellek véghetetlen szerelemmel, mint mátkád ölelni soha sem foghat – ez a szív nem a lyánykájé.” (I embrace you with infinite love as your betrothed never will–this heart does not belong to that girl.) I don’t think that he could have been more explicit.
The fact that Kölcsey had homosexual desires is not the important issue. Many poets and writers did, and this is not why I decided to talk about this case. What is important here is Hungarian society’s total inability to handle the issue of homosexuality. Surely, no scholar who ever dealt with Kölcsey’s oeuvre could have missed the obvious signs in his letters to Szemere. Yet they decided to ignore them or even to hide them from the public. The result is a misinterpretation of Kölcsey’s literary work, which centered on his contemplation of issues of love, friendship, and love of country. As Nyáry says, once he recovered from his unrequited love of Szemere, he devoted his life to the betterment of his country. As if he transferred his love from a person to the homeland and its people.
So far only the Internet crowd and the few papers that picked up the story have been buzzing about Kölcsey. I can hardly wait to see when Hungary’s literary establishment will discuss the matter. I’m curious what kind of explanations will be offered.