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Biography

1773 born in Debrecen
1780-1795 studies at the Protestant Collegium, Debrecen
1785 discovered as a child prodigy; his first poems appear
1792 encouraged by Kazinczy; reads Rousseau, Voltaire, Gessnert and Pope; establishes a workshop at the Collegium for reading Western authors; translates Italian poets
1793 offers his play for the theatre in Pest; translates Emanuel Schikaneder's famous, free mason-inspired libretto for The Magic Flute as The Whistle of the Witch; poems appear anonymously in Magyar Múzsa (Hungarian Muse)
1794 writes philosophical poems, translates Holbach; teaches poetry; his free spirit leads to conflicts with the leaders of the college
1795 dismissed without a certificate; probably witnesses the execution of the Jacobinite Martinovics and his friends; starts to study Law at Sárospatak
1796 seeks patrons in vain in Parliament in Pozsony; can publish poetry only in his own poetry journal, Diétai Magyar Múzsa (Hungarian Muse at the Parliament)
1797 meets the wealthy Julianna Vajda, his "Lilla", who marries someone else (1798)
1799 deputy teacher in the Protestant School at Csurgó; his plays are performed
1800 his contract as a teacher terminates; returns to Debrecen; collects subscribers for his book
1801 meets Kazinczy, recently released from prison; travels to Pest to study Hydro-Engineering
1802 his flat in Debrecen is consumed by fire; suffers chronic attacks of tuberculosis
1804 called to Nagyvárad to write farewell poems for Mrs Rhédey Lajos; contracts pneumonia at the funeral
1805 dies in Debrecen

Collected Poems
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Mihály Csokonai Vitéz spoke eight languages and published works of high scholarship, but for too long time was considered a kind of uneducated genius, a child of the people. But he was deeply cultured and one of the great synthesizers of Hungarian poetry. He drew from Hungarian, Western European and Eastern literary traditions, from both their formal and stylistic innovations. Besides his Hungarian poems of diverse rhyme and stanza schemes, he handled Classical metrical forms and the simultaneous (“Western-European”) verse forms, all with the same ease. His poetry is an intersection of the stylistic trends of the age (Classicism, Rococo, Pre-Romanticism). His first real poems took their ideas from the philosophy of the Enlightenment; he was especially influenced by Voltaire and Rousseau, but completed his readings with his own social experiences and fresh (linguistic) passion (“Konstancinápoly” (Constantinaple), “Az estve” (The Evening)). Csokonai’s first love poems answer to the conventions of the Rococo (rich in stanza forms), and although they express a personal gentleness in the details, as in “Nyílj ki, nyájasan mosolygó rózsabimbó” (Open up, amiably smiling rose-bud), he finds his genuinely personal voice after the disappointment of his love (“Még egyszer Lillához” (Once more to Lilla), “A reményhez” (To Hope)). His great elegies, his pre-romantic poems of loneliness, were born from pain (“A tihanyi ekhóhoz” (To the Echo in Tihany), “A Magánossághoz” (To Loneliness)). In these poems, forced loneliness—as a reinforcement of self-esteem—offers space to the creative imagination. This is the peak of his poetry: the dreamy and the real, the musical, the philosophic and the emotional all find their layer. While writing Dorottya, Csokonai’s interest turned to the folk tradition (“Szerelemdal a csikóbőrös kulacshoz” (A Love Song to the Wooden Canteen Covered with Pony Skin). Suffering from illness, he writes a poem that is magnificent both in language and in vision (“A tüdőgyúladásomról” (On My Pneumonia)). His last work is the philosophical poem in six parts he wrote on request, called “A lélek halhatatlansága” (On the Eternity of the Soul), in which he considers the final questions and, after a list of doubts against the eternity of the soul, he utters a soft ‘yes’. According to writer Viktor Julow, “[Csokonai] performs magic at the highest level, as so many times before; with his high-quality thoughts, he enlivens a trite genre that had sunk under the literary, and transforms it into the most up-to-date work of art. Out of the dated funeral ode, renewing his frequent world-embracing intuition, he creates genuine philosophical poetry.”

The Dreamy Tempefői, or Whoever Becomes a Poet In Hungary is a Lunatic
1793

The play of this telling title is in fact a satirical review of society on the stage. Present are all the typical Hungarian noble and religious figures, ready to spend their money on anything except culture, more precisely, on the publication of the poet Tempefői s poetry. Csokonai sketches a grotesque picture of the fate of poets in this country, of the indifference of those in power and the blighted prospects of an independent career as a writer.

Dorottya, or The Triumph of the Dames at the Carnival, A Strange Heroic Couplet in Four Books, comic epic
1798

Csokonai wrote his comic epic, the panorama of village life, under the influence of Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, which he had translated from the French in prose form (unfortunately the text did not survive). It is partly an old maid mockery (although in the end the elderly noble lady miraculously turns young), partly the criticism of the aristocrats, although a lot milder than the previous Tempefői. That is why his monographer, Viktor Julow, claims, “One should not wish to find the chief merit of Dorottya in its—indeed, secondary—satirical message, but in the full-blooded, realistic portrayal that constantly looks through the burlesque guise and the light veil of Rococo mythology intended as mere decoration. One could get an authentic reconstruction of the habits, the lifestyle, the mentality and the characteristic figures of turn-of-the-century aristocracy merely from Dorottya, and better, more fully than from any literary work of the time. The fact that the author portrays them during the days of the carnival, the main season for parading, for unending merriness and programmed carelessness and idleness, gives him the opportunity to grab the most characteristic traits of their world in its negativity, and render the situation and the action typical.”

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