Emily Brontë and Sándor Petőfi lived their lives in the same decades of the 19th century. However, at the time Hungary and England were a world apart. The two poets never knew about each other. The most beautiful English poems of the century were penned by Emily Brontë. Similarly, arguably the greatest Hungarian poet was Sándor Petőfi. They both died very young, only a few months apart. I came across this information by reading the following dialog in Book One, Chapter 9 – Wuthering Heights of The Sex Tourist:
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“Paul, did you know that the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, died the same year as the greatest Hungarian poet, Petőfi?” I’m so happy I can talk to Paul about literature again.
“No, I didn’t. I’ve just read in the museum that Emily and Anne died very soon after one another. I heard about Petőfi though. He wrote a famous love poem, didn’t he?”
“At the End of September. All Hungarians know it by heart, but I know the English translation too.”
“Would you recite it for me now?”
“Okay, here it goes:
‘The garden flowers still blossom in the vale,
Before our house the poplars still are green;
But soon the mighty winter will prevail;
Snow is already in the mountains seen.
The summer sun’s benign and warming ray
Still moves my youthful heart, now in its spring;
But lo! my hair shows signs of turning gray,
The wintry days thereto their color bring.
This life is short; too early fades the rose
To sit here on my knee, my darling, come!
Wilt thou, who now dost on my breast repose,
Not kneel, perhaps, to morrow o’er my tomb?
O, tell me, if before thee I should die,
Wilt thou with broken heart weep o’er my bier?
Or will some youth efface my memory
And with his love dry up thy mournful tear?
If thou dost lay aside the widow’s vail,
Pray hang it o’er my tomb. At midnight I
Shall rise, and, coming forth from death’s dark vale,
Take it with me to where forgot I lie.
And wipe with it my ceaseless flowing tears,
Flowing for thee, who hast forgotten me;
And bind my bleeding heart which ever bears
Even then and there, the truest love for thee.’
We walk in silence, while the autumn breeze blows my teardrops away. It just occurs to me that we’re in September.
“Wasn’t it unfair of Petőfi to expect his wife never to have another relationship if he died before her?” asks Paul.
“It was. After Petőfi died, his young widow re-married and many people were blaming her for that because of this poem. The poor woman was bullied and abused.”
“Petőfi is like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, but the other way,” says Paul. “I feel something similar too right now. True love has no boundaries.”
“And he died so young.”
“It’s weird that two of the Brontë sisters and Petőfi died within a year.”
“The sisters died of tuberculosis and Petőfi died fighting in the revolution. When they died Emily was thirty, Anne was twenty-nine, and Petőfi was only twenty-six. Can you imagine how the three of them would have changed world’s literature if they lived for another thirty or forty years?”
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Let’s compare Petőfi’s poem in this excerpt to one of Emily Brontë’s:
Fall leaves fall die flowers away
Lengthen night and shorten day
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day
The instinctive swiftness of this second poem is in stark contrast with the blurred weakness of the first one. This is not Petőfi’s fault. Unfortunately most of the beauty in Petőfi’s poem is lost in the translation above. I’m not saying it’s a bad translation; all I’m saying is that it’s an impossible task for any translator to achieve the same level of greatness.
Comparing and truly appreciating these poems written in two different languages is only possible if one reads or listens to the original ones with knowledge of both languages at mother tongue level.
Several other poems written by these two giants of literature boldly confront mortality and anticipate life after death. The most astonishing fact is that two of the greatest poets walking on Earth were writing their most beautiful poems in different languages at the same time.