ARANY, JANOS (1817-1882), the greatest poet of Hungary after Petöfi, was born at Nagy-Szalontá on the 2nd of March 1817, the son of György Arany and Sara Mégyeri; his people were small Calvinist yeomen of noble origin, whose property consisted of a rush-thatched cottage and a tiny plot of land. An only son, late born, seeing no companions of his own age, hearing nothing but the voices of his parents and the hymns and prayers in the little Calvinist chapel, Arany grew up a grave and gentle, but by no means an ignorant child. His precocity was remarkable. At six years of age he went to school at Szalontá, where he read everything he could lay his hands upon in Hungarian and Latin. From 1832 to 1836 Arany was a preceptor at Kis-Ujszállás and Debreczen, still a voracious reader with a wider field before him, for he had by this time taught himself French and German. Tiring of the monotony of a scholastic life, he joined a troupe of travelling actors. The hardships he suffered were as nothing compared with the pangs of conscience which plagued him when he thought of the despair of his father, who had meant to make a pastor of this prodigal son, to whom both church and college now seemed for ever closed. At last he borrowed sixpence from the stage-manager and returned home, carrying all his property tied up in a handkerchief. Shortly after his home-coming his mother died and his father became stone-blind. Arany at once resolved that it was his duty never to leave his father again, and a conrectorship which he obtained at this time enabled them to live in modest comfort. In 1840 he obtained a notaryship also, and the same year married Juliana Ercsey, the penniless orphan daughter of an advocate. The next few happy years were devoted to his profession and a good deal of miscellaneous reading, especially of Shakespeare (he learnt English in order to compare the original with his well-thumbed German version) and Homer. Meanwhile the reactionaries of Vienna were goading the Magyar Liberals into revolt, and Arany found a safety-valve for his growing indignation by composing a satirical poem in hexameters, entitled "The Lost Constitution." The Kisfaludy Society, the great literary association of Hungary, about this time happened to advertise a prize for the best satire on current events. Arany sent in his work, and shortly afterwards was awarded the 25-gulden prize (7th of February 1846) by the society, which then advertised another prize for the best Magyar epic poem. Arany won this also with his Toldi (the first part of the present trilogy), and immediately found himself famous. All eyes were instantly turned towards the poor country notary, and Petöfi was the first to greet him as a brother. In February of the following year Arany was elected a member of the Kisfaludy Society. In the memorable year 1848 the people of Szalontá elected him their deputy to the Hungarian parliament. But neither now nor subsequently (1861, 1869) would he accept a parliamentary mandate. He wrote many articles, however, in the gazette Népbarátja, an organ of the Magyar government, and served in the field as a national guard for eight or ten weeks. In 1849 he was in the civil service of the revolutionary government, and after the final catastrophe returned to his native place, living as best he could on his small savings till 1850, when Lajos Tisza, the father of Kálmán Tisza, the future prime minister, invited him to his castle at Geszt to teach his son Domokos the art of poetry. In the following year Arany was elected professor of Hungarian literature and language at the Nagy-Körös gymnasium. He also attempted to write another epic poem, but the time was not favourable for such an undertaking. The miserable condition of his country, and his own very precarious situation, weighed heavily upon his sensitive soul, and he suffered severely both in mind and body. On the other hand reflection on past events made clear to him not only the sufferings but the defects and follies of the national heroes, and from henceforth, for the first time, we notice a bitterly humorous vein in his writings. Thus Bolond Istók, the first canto of which he completed in 1850, is full of sub-acrid merriment. During his nine years' residence at Nagy-Körös, Arany first seriously turned his attention to the Magyar ballad, and not only composed some of the most beautiful ballads in the language, but wrote two priceless dissertations on the technique of the ballad in general: "Something concerning assonance" (1854), and "On Hungarian National Versification" (1856).
When the Hungarian Academy opened its doors again after a ten years' cessation, Arany was elected a member (15th of December 1858). On the 15th of July 1860 he was elected director of the revived Kisfaludy Society, and went to Pest. In November, the same year, he started Szépirodalmi Figyelö, a monthly review better known by its later name, Koszeru, which did much for Magyar criticism and literature. He also edited the principal publications of the society, including its notable translation of Shakespeare's Dramatic Works, to which he contributed the Midsummer Night's Dream (1864), Hamlet and King John (1867). The same year he won the Nádasdy prize of the Academy with his poem "Death of Buda." From 1865 to 1879 he was the secretary of the Hungarian Academy.
Domestic affliction, ill-health and his official duties made these years comparatively unproductive, but he issued an edition of his collected poems in 1867, and in 1880 won the Karácsonyi prize with his translation of the Comedies of Aristophanes (1880). In 1879 he completed his epic trilogy by publishing The Love of Toldi and Toldi's Evening, which were received with universal enthusiasm. He died suddenly on the 24th of October 1882. The first edition of his collected works, in 8 volumes, was published in 1884-1885.
Arany reformed Hungarian literature. Hitherto classical and romantic successively, like other European literatures, he first gave it a national direction. He compelled the poetry of art to draw nearer to life and nature, extended its boundaries and made it more generally intelligible and popular. He wrote not for one class or school but for the whole nation. He introduced the popular element into literature, but at the same time elevated and ennobled it. What Petöfi had done for lyrical he did for epic poetry. Yet there were great differences between them. Petöfi was more subjective, more individual; Arany was more objective and national. As a lyric poet Petöfi naturally gave expression to present moods and feelings; as an epic poet Arany plunged into the past. He took his standpoint on tradition. His art was essentially rooted in the character of the whole nation and its glorious history. His genius was unusually rich and versatile; his artistic conscience always alert and sober. His taste was extraordinarily developed and absolutely sure. To say nothing of his other great qualities, he is certainly the most artistic of all the Magyar poets.
See Posthumous Writings and Correspondence of Arany, edited by László Arany (Hung.), (Budapest, 1887-1889); article "Arany," in A Pallas Nagy Lexikona, Kot 2 (Budapest, 1893); Mór Gaal, Life of János Arany (Hung.), (Budapest, 1898); L. Gyöngyösi, János Arany's Life and Works (Hung.), (Budapest, 1901). Translations from Arany: The Legend of the Wondrous Hunt (canto 6 of Buda's Death), by D. Butler (London, 1881); Toldi, poème en 12 chants (Paris, 1895); Dichtungen (Leipzig, 1880); Konig Buda's Tod (Leipzig, 1879); Balladen (Vienna, 1886).
(R. N. B.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)