Was Ferenc Kölcsey, author of the Hungarian national anthem, gay?

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that the literature on Kölcsey is enormous and there is nothing he ever wrote, as far as we know, that remains unpublished.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.

Ferenc Kölcsey, portrait by Anton Einsle, 1835 / Wikipedia.org

Ferenc Kölcsey, portrait by Anton Einsle, 1835 / Wikipedia.org

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.

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Paul
Guest

“once he recovered… he devoted his life to the betterment of his country. As if he transferred his love… to the homeland and its people.”

I think you have your answer right there. They will ignore the homosexual bit and concentrate on his great love for his country. He was misguided, but saw the light and did the right thing.

But my wife isn’t going to like this – she’s still recovering from the Schiff András episode!

Mutt
Guest

It’s fun reading Hungarians commenting on articles like this. Half of the comments is just homophobic trash (my estimate).

The rest of the other side the interesting. They claim that it doesn’t matter if Kolcsey was gay, they do not care a bit. But it’s completely unfair to ACCUSE a dead man who cannot defend himself.

This reminds me on an innocent remark by some Hungarian average Joe who was interviewed once:

“There is no racism here, but there is definitely a need for it …”

Guest

OT: Re Schiff Andras My brother and sister-in-law just went to a Schiff concert in San Francisco. They were eager to tell me about Schiff’s refusal to return to Hungary for political/media reasons. Apparently this was published in the program notes.

tappanch
Guest

A more correct translation of

“ez a szív nem a lyánykájé.”
would be
>> this heart does not belong to THAT girl. <<

In other words, this poem just tells Szemere that
Kölcsey does not like his fiancee. I cannot conclude
from THIS poem that Kölcsey had homosexual feelings.

tappanch
Guest

Correction: your citation was from the ending of the LETTER, dated 09-09-1813.

Isn’t it possible that the words “szerelem” [male-female love] and “csók” [kiss] had different meanings two centuries ago? Like “szeretet” [brotherly love] and brotherly kiss on the cheek?

Member
Of course, it is idiotic to try to pinpoint the feelings which Kölcsey had for his male friends on the simplistic scale of today (was he gay or wasn’t he, did they “have sex” or didn’t they?). Love is a many-splendored and a many-sided thing, and we will never know what forms of physical intimacy (or wishes for such intimacy), if any, there were between Kölcsey and Szemere. But certainly Kölcsey wasn’t naïve and ignorant as concerns the numerous forms of erotic love; he had read Anacreon in original already at college and knew very well how old Greek authors celebrated same-sex love. So, whatever he felt for Szemere or Kállai, he had points of comparison for his possible homoerotic feelings. (By the way, there are similar problems with one of the pioneers of Estonian poetry, Kölcsey’s contemporary, Kristjan Jaak Peterson. Inspired by Anacreon and others, he dedicated many love poems to a mysterious “Alo”, whose person or sex is still a mystery, and especially in Soviet times, this was a real problem for literary historians. I have read a novel based on Peterson’s life in which the author has really maximally utilised the possibilities of the genderless Estonian language… Read more »
Member

tappanch :
Isn’t it possible that the words “szerelem” [male-female love] and “csók” [kiss] had different meanings two centuries ago? Like “szeretet” [brotherly love] and brotherly kiss on the cheek?

Actually, you can check it, for instance in “Magyar nyelvtörténeti szótár” (http://mek.oszk.hu/07000/07026/pdf/ ), a philological dictionary from the late 19th century, with lots of examples from older Hungarian literature. Both “szerelem” and “szeretet” have been translated by both “amor, eros” and “caritas”, and there are examples of both kinds of uses for both words. But in any case it is obvious that “szerelem” already in the oldest sources is also, or even mainly, used in the meaning of “erotic love”.

In any case, it is beyond any doubt that Kölcsey had very strong feelings for these two men. We cannot really know whether these feelings had overt or covert sexual expressions, but it seems fairly probable that whatever he felt was at least very close to what people of our times would call (homosexual) love.

Guest
Paul
Guest

I don’t see how being described as gay is an ‘accusation’ – after all, it is neither a bad thing, nor a choice.

I’m not gay, but it wouldn’t bother me in the least if someone thought I was. In fact in some ways I’d be flattered, as the gay men I’ve known have generally been a lot nicer/better human beings than many of the straight ones.

And, whether he was gay or not, how does that affect the quality of his work?

tappanch
Guest

Fidesz & the democratic opposition were able to mobilize the same number of new voters in the repeated local by-election in Baja.

Today [3 weeks ago]

Fidesz 138 [97]
Opposition 69 [29]
Jobbik 14 [20]

Paul
Guest

So, yet another reality kick in the privates for the opposition. When are they going to notice that Fidesz are winning (and will win) hands down, even without cheating?

Whatever we may think of Gy, he is the only opposition politician actually living in the real world, and the only one who really understands Orbán and Fidesz – and understands what needs to be done about them.

Thomas
Guest

Interesting. Thank you. I cannot wait myself. perhaps not on the tunes of the national anthem will be rewritten but a new poem will be chasen once this “disgrace” come to light. Or Orban’s sweeps will be working overtime to make sure the news will get quickly under the carpet.

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