He came from a noble family, his father was Péter Kölcsey, his mother was Ágnes Bölöni. His father died when his son was 5 years old, so his mother sent him to school in Debrecen, where he studied for 14 years, until 1809. When he was 12, his mother died, and the household was then run by Aunt Panni, the family’s faithful old servant, who looked after him and his three siblings. The county authorities appointed Antal Gulácsy as the guardian of the orphaned children, and he also helped the family with some financial support.
In 1813 he studied poetry. In 1805, at the funeral of Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, he met Ferenc Kazinczy, whose friendship had a great influence on him. From about this time onwards, Kazinczy became Kölcsey’s main teacher and role model.
In 1809, he finished his studies at the Reformed College in Debrecen and went to Pest to practise law, but he did not sit the bar exam: he gave up law for literature. At the age of 13 he wrote his first poems. He retired to his small estate in Álmosd, where he farmed and lived alone for his studies. He also looked after his younger brothers.
On 22 January 1823, he composed his great poem Hymnus, a’ Magyar nép zivataros századai (Hymn from the stormy centuries of the Hungarian people), which, with music by Ferenc Erkel, became the national anthem of Hungary. This day has been celebrated as the Day of Hungarian Culture since 1989. The original manuscript of the work, signed by Kölcsey himself, is kept in the National Széchényi Library.
In 1826, he went to Pest, where he founded the journal Élet és Literatura (Life and Literature).
At the 1829 election, the county governor, Baron Miklós Vay, made Kölcsey an honorary deputy notary, and the board of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences appointed him a provincial full member of the linguistics department in Bratislava on 17 November 1830.
In 1832 he was elected notary-general of Satu Mare county, and on 6 November of the same year he was elected ambassador to the Parliament.
As a politician, he was a reformist, fighting for the reattachment of Transylvania and its parts, for the modernisation of the constitution by the liberation of the people and for the rights of the Hungarian language.
After his return home, however, he took no further public political role and devoted himself exclusively to literature. On 12 November 1836, he became a founding member of the Kisfaludy Society.
His last major work, Wesselényi’s defence of his friend in his infidelity trial, exhausted his powers. Referring to his extraordinary integrity and esteem, Wesselényi remembered him as ‘He was not one of us’. His death was sudden. On an official trip, he was caught in a torrential downpour while travelling in a carriage, caught a cold and died on 24 August 1838 after a week’s illness.
Every man has two homelands. A broader one, which is connected to his nation, and a more intimate one, which is the immediate landscape of his homeland. Ferenc Kölcsey was given a truly special, narrower home by Fate. The county of Satu Mare and its seat, Nagykároly.
The charm of this region of Satu Mare, as I have seen it from my personal impressions and from my historical reading – if we examine its location more closely – is that it is situated at the intersection of three great historical landscapes. This is roughly the end of the Plain, which is characterised by fewer monuments and large squares. Kölcsey studied at the Reformed College in Debrecen, the intellectual centre of the Tiszántúl, and the foundational nature of this cannot be overstated. The other zone of great history is the Felvidék, the northern Germanic-urban line of the old Royal Hungary, where Kölcsey himself often visited, as Ferenc Kazinczy’s Széphalma and Kassa, the symbol of the Kuruc past, were nearby. The third area is historical Transylvania. The ancestors of the Kölcsey family were themselves of Transylvanian origin and kept this tradition. This Erdőntuli Country starts a hug away from Nagykároly, but only a few hours away on horseback is Zsibó, the residence of Baron Miklós Wesselényi, and just a few hours further the Koltó Castle, the scene of Petőfi’s honeymoon, or Nagybánya, the rallying point of Bem’s Transylvanian army. These three zones were, of course, always the route of the armies. For almost two hundred years, troops of Habsburg kings and Transylvanian princes marched back and forth along this natural passageway. It was in Nagykároly that Prince Eszterházy negotiated peace terms with Prince Bethlen Gábor. It is no coincidence that it was here that the warring parties finally ended the Rákóczi War of Independence.
This county was already known for its diversity in the reform era. After the emigration of Rákóczi, the landowners invited more and more Catholics – including many Swabians who were becoming Hungarianised – to join the Calvinists, so the new episcopal seat was established in Szatmár (német) instead of the archbishopric of Eger, a worthy counterpoint to the county assembly and the bishopric bureaucratic centre of Nagykároly. The northern part of the county was also inhabited by Ruthenians of Greek rite, for whom, at the time of Kölcsey’s birth, ecclesiastical volumes in Cyrillic were already being printed in the Piarist monastery in Nagykároly, and the Hungarian linguistic volume of the scholar Miklós Révai was also published here. It can be seen that a region with an essentially Kuruc tradition was slowly transformed into a European scene: in 1794, it was at the inauguration of the archbishop that the Hungarian Jacobins, who were well ahead of their time in urging bourgeois transformation and were the founders of the reform era, met. Kölcsey certainly knew personally the priest of the Piarist monastery in Nagykároly, Imre Erdősi, who in February 1849 led the newly trained soldiers in the Austrian mountain troops’ bullet train with a cross and a Bible in his hand during the breakthrough of the Branyiskó Pass.
This was the intellectual environment that surrounded the poet of the Hymnus in his youth. It is no coincidence that he rose to a national level and made his mark as a patriot, artist and politician! Few people know that Kölcsey was also a role model (almost an idol) for the young Baron József Eötvös, the future Minister of Religion and Public Education in 1848 and 1867, who was impressed by his impeccable moral stance and oratorical performance. Even József Habsburg, the Hungarian governor, was aware of Kölcsey’s literary achievements when they met in Pest. Kölcsey naturally became a leading figure in the Diets of the Order of Bratislava, so much so that when he exchanged his office as chief notary of the Diet for that of the Diet’s notary, Chancellor Metternich himself complained that the Vienna court had no influence on the minutes of the Diet’s district tables. And the 52 counties received these, extracted for further work, thanks to Kölcsey’s expertise! But he also defended, together with Ferenc Deák, the prosecuted Wesselényi (who coordinated the efforts of the Hungarian and Transylvanian assemblies but whose speech in Nagykároly was considered an insult to the sovereign) and the young Lajos Kossuth, who was arrested at a young age. Of course without any honorarium. Today, we can only wonder whether the rebuilding of the county house in Nagykároly, which was damaged in the earthquake in the early 1800s, was completed with a loan from the Károlyi family or with the officials’ own salary. It was in this stately county house that the pro-opposition burghers, armed with sabre and pickaxe, elected Kölcsey as county official in 1829. If you want to know how heated these local elections were, please read the opening pages of Mór Jókai’s novel The Sons of the Man with a Heart of Stone. Both the pro-reform and the bolshy nobles who wanted to cooperate with Vienna came armed and prepared for a regular battle within the ancient walls („For they were very happy to bash other people’s heads in for the country, but not their heads, they didn’t ask for that”). Fortunately, the most prestigious aristocrat in Northern Hungary, Count György Károlyi, supported the opposition from the background and this had its effect. As a friend of Széchenyi and Wesselényi, this active lord was one of the most respected politicians in the upper echelons. The wealthy family would have been entitled by custom to the title of hereditary archbishop, but Vienna tried to prevent this. The Károlyis were therefore ‘satisfied’ with having their nominee elected to the seats of deputy and chief magistrate by the county nobility, who were indebted to them… It was to this Count György Károlyi that Ferenc Kölcsey wrote the following poem on behalf of the others (excerpt):
Idvez légy szeretett, idvez légy dísze nemednek,
Károli szép törzsök méltó fakadéka nemes gróf!
Idvez légy, és híveidet kik örömre hevűlvén,
Könnyek alatt ragyogó szemmel járúlnak elődbe,
Károli légy koszorút tőlünk, légy gyermeki hálát,
S ünnepi ömledezést! Neked ég minden kebel és szív,
Minden ajak rebegése Tiéd! légy idvez örökre!
És mikor a Haza fűz fiatal fürtödre borostyánt,
S áldozatid bérét magos ének zengzeti nyújtják;
Vagy mikor a sokaság fennhangzó tapsai várnak
Míg a pesti mező dobogó paripáid alatt reng:
El ne feledd, hogy híveidet messzére s közelről
Hozzád hő szeretet szakadatlan láncai vonják.
Another Count Károlyi, István, was one of the founders of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (with 20,000 gold florins), and was also the head of several economic companies, and in 1848 he was the exhibitor of a complete Hussar regiment, which bore his name in the War of Independence. It can be seen, therefore, that the revenues of the manors around Nagykároly were indeed used in the service of the country. The Ars Poetica that „the estate is not yours…” was part of the concept of the true nobles, that the vast landed property should be used for the benefit of the country and the nation. This public philosophy is obviously not unconnected with the fact that Ferenc Kölcsey’s envoy to Szatmár County became one of the defining political and ethical creations of the entire Hungarian reform camp that was to emerge. The Counts of Károly supported the principle that serfs should be made free citizens and that landlord compensation should not be settled in favour of the stronger party, i.e. the nobility, and thus contributed to the success of the cause of serf emancipation without payment.
In the course of the protracted struggle, Vienna appointed an imperial administrator to head the county, whom the reformist majority was only able to remove in 1846. The new pro-Kossuth leader was inaugurated with great ceremony in Nagykároly. This celebration was also attended by the nationally known poet Sándor Petőfi, who had never been to a county ball before or since. Yet it was on this occasion that he met the love of his life, Julia Szendrei, and enriched his poetic oeuvre with the greatest lyrical poems a married man could write. I am sure that the spirit of the poet of the Hymnus must have hovered over this meeting. For Petőfi’s hosts were Endre Pap, a lawyer who started his tinkering under Ferenc Kölcsey, and Ignác Riskó, the chief notary of the county, who carried on Kölcsey’s legacy. Perhaps it was out of both individual and patriotic gratitude that the poet wrote his tribute to Ferenc Kölcsey. With this, I conclude my tribute to the creator of our national prayer, because I feel that Sándor Petőfi has said everything on our behalf, on behalf of our distant descendants!
Hát e falak közt hangozának
Nagy szavaid, oh Kölcsey?…
Ti emberek, nem féltek: épen
E szent helyet ily nagy mértékben
Nem féltek-e, hogy sírgödréből
Kikél a megbántott halott?
Hogy sírgödréből ide jő el,
S – hogy hallgassatok – csontkezével
Szorítja össze torkotok?
Nem, ő a sírt el nem hagyandja;
De lenn, sírjában, nem hiszem,
Hogy könnyei ne omlanának
Éretted, te az aljasságnak
Sarába süllyedt nemzetem!
Mily szolgaság, milyen hízelgés!
S mindig tovább mennek, tovább,
S ki legszebben hízeleg, az boldog. –
Ha már kutyákká aljasodtok:
Miért nem jártok négykézláb?
Isten, küldd e helóta népre
Földed legszörnyűbb zsarnokát,
Hadd kapjon érdeme díjába’
Kezére bilincset, nyakába
Jármot, hátára kancsukát!
Debrecen, 1st March, 2023
Dedication ceremony of the statue of Ferenc Kölcsey in Nagykároly
Statue of Ferenc Kölcsey with hymn background