Balassi Bálint (1554-1594)
Baron Balassi Bálint de Kékkő et Gyarmat (Hungarian: Gyarmati és kékkői báró Balassi Bálint, Slovak: Valentín Balaša; 20 October 1554 – 30 May 1594) was a Hungarian Renaissance lyric poet. He wrote mostly in Hungarian but was also proficient in further eight languages: Latin, Italian, German, Polish, Turkish, Slovak, Croatian, and Romanian. He is the founder of modern Hungarian lyric and erotic poetry. Please note, that in this article, like in most of my writings, I am using the Oriental name order for Hungarian names where family names come first. The ancient eagle-nest of the Balassi (or Balassa) family was Kékkő castle (Modrý Kameň), here is more about this castle:
Balassi was born at Zólyom in the Kingdom of Hungary (today Zvolen, Slovakia). His father was Balassa János, the captain of Zólyom castle. Bálint was educated by the reformer Bornemissza Péter and by his mother, the highly gifted Protestant zealot, Sulyok Anna. It is interesting to note, that Balassi Bálint was related to the famous captain of Eger, Dobó István because Dobó’s wife was called Sulyok Sára. Similar way, he was related to Bocskai György whose wife was Sulyok Krisztina: their son, Bocskai István later became the Prince of Transylvania.
His uncle was Balassa Menyhárt, the infamous but valiant knight who has changed nine times sides between the Royal Hungary and Transylvania but won great victories against the Turks in the meanwhile. (Note, you can read several stories about the Balassi family and Kékkő Castle in my books above.) Here you can read about Lord Balassa Menyhárt’s battle at Szalka in 1544:
As we can see, he was coming from a warrior family, where everybody used to be a member of the Valiant Order, fighting against the Ottoman Empire on the edge of the Borderland. Bálint had a younger brother called Ferenc, he also lost his life in battle against the Ottomans, you can read more about him here:
Bálint’s father and his uncle, Dobó István were arrested by the Habsburg king in 1569, and Bálint and his family had to flee to Poland. Balassi Bálint ‘s first work was a translation of Michael Bock’s Wurlzgertlein für die krancken Seelen, (published in Kraków), to comfort his father while in Polish exile. On his father’s rehabilitation, Bálint accompanied him to court and was also present at the coronation Diet in Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava), capital of Royal Hungary in 1572. At the festival after the coronation of King Rudolf, the 18-year-old Bálint attracted the court’s attention with his unique “Hajdú-dance”.
In 1575, the Turks took the family’s castles, Kékkő and Divény. It was the time when Lord Bekes Gáspár, with Habsburg’s help, tried to usurp the throne of Transylvania. Bálint was sent to the camp of Lord Bekes Gáspár to assist him against Báthori István (Stephen, Prince of Transylvania); but his troops were encountered and scattered on the way there, and he himself was wounded and taken prisoner. Balassi was not kept in very rigorous captivity, however, it lasted for two years, during which he accompanied Báthori where the latter was crowned as King of Poland. He returned to Hungary soon after the death of his father, Balassi János.
Then, he joined the army and fought the Turks as an officer in the fortress of Eger in North-Eastern Hungary. Here, in 1578 he fell desperately in love with Lady Losonczi Anna, the daughter of the famous captain of Temesvár, and evidently, from his verses, his love was not unrequited. But after the death of her first husband she gave her hand to another nobleman, Ungnád Kristóf.
Naturally, Balassi only began to realize how much he loved Anna when he had lost her. He pursued her with gifts and verses, but she remained true to her pique and to her marriage vows, and he could only enshrine her memory in immortal verse. Soon, Anna followed her husband and went to Southern Hungary because her husband was appointed as Bán (Duke) of Croatia. In the meantime, Bálint was the Lieutenant of 50 Hussars in Eger and took part in several raids and ambushes.
Balassi served in Eger until 1582. In his life, he has had lots of legal cases because he was sued for brawling and violence against women, not to mention his alleged crimes against others’ property. Many of these crimes were just accusations, though. In 1584 married his niece, Dobó Krisztina, the daughter of the valiant commandant, Dobó István of Eger. This became the cause of many of his subsequent misfortunes. His wife’s greedy relatives nearly ruined him by legal processes, and when in 1586 he and his wife embraced the Roman Catholic faith to escape their persecutions because Bálint was even accused of becoming a Muslim. He had a son from his wife, his name was János.
Balassi’s desertion of his wife and legal troubles were followed by some years of uncertainty, but in 1589 he was invited to Poland to serve there in the impending war with the Ottomans. This did not take place and after a spell in the Jesuit College of Braunsberg, Balassi, somewhat disappointed, returned to Hungary in 1591. In the 15-Year-War, he joined the Army in 1593 and fought for the retaking of his family’s ancient castles, Divény and Kékkő. He died at the siege of Esztergom-Víziváros in 1594 as the result of a severe leg wound caused by a hook-gun. He is buried in Hybe that can be found in Slovakia. Here you can read more about his heroic death here:
Balassi’s poems fall into four divisions: hymns, patriotic and martial songs, original love poems, and adaptations from Latin and German. They are all most original, exceedingly objective and so excellent in point of style that it is difficult even to imagine him a contemporary of Tinódi Lantos Sebestyén and Ilosvay Péter. The list of Balassi’s military deeds includes duels, raids, and ambushes similar to the knights of the Valiant Order’s who served on the Borderland. Here is more about the Valiant Order:
For beauty, feeling, and transporting passion, there is nothing like Balassi’s poems in Magyar (Hungarian) literature until we come to the age of Csokonai Vitéz Mihály and Petőfi Sándor in the 18th and the 19th century. Balassi was also the inventor of the strophe which goes by his name. It consists of nine lines a b c c b d d b, or three rhyming pairs alternating with the rhyming third, sixth and ninth lines. He translated poems and songs in Turkish, too.
Balassi’s heritage is being cherished by many institutions and schools in Hungary but let me tell you about the Bálint Balassi Memorial Sword Award is a European award for literature presented in Budapest since 1997. The native form of this name is Balassi Bálint-emlékkard. This award commemorates Balassi Bálint as it is presented annually to an outstanding Hungarian poet, and to a foreign poet for excellence in the translation of Hungarian literature, including the works of Balassi. The sword itself is a replica of those sabers that the 16th-century Hungarian cavalry wore during the sieges of fortresses. They are the work of a contemporary swordsmith. This award is presented each year on Bálint’s (Valentine’s) Day, February 14, in the city of Buda.
In the beginning, only Hungarian poets received the Balassi sword, but since 2002, each year, a foreign literary translator has also been recognized. Since then the board has viewed Balassi’s sword as a literary prize of European scope. But since then it has been received by Asian and American poets as well, making it an award of global scope.
Let me share with you one of Balassi’s songs that were translated by Joseph Leftwich into English. I am adding the original Hungarian text, too. You can listen to it by clicking here, sung by Kátai Zoltán:
Soldiers’ Song (English)
Soldiers, what finer worth
is there upon this earth
than the borderlands can show?
Where in the time of Spring
beautiful birds all sing
setting our hearts all aglow –
the fields have a fresh smell
where dew from heaven fell,
delighting us through and through!
Let the foe but appear –
brave soldiers have no fear,
their hearts are roused by battle.
High-spirited they rise,
and shouting their war-cries
quickly they prove their mettle.
Some fall, wounded or slain,
but the foe flees again –
our lads have suffered little.
Banners and gory spears
each one of our men bears
riding in the army’s van.
They dash like the sharp wind,
footmen follow their lead,
for such is the battle plan.
Pommels of leopard-hide,
gleaming shields at their side
hang beside each crested man.
Arabian steeds – dash, fly,
heeding the trumpet-cry,
then, those standing sentinel
dismount, and with swords drawn,
wait until the new dawn.
When night on the battle fell,
the soldiers, tired and spent,
go to sleep in their tent
for a brief refreshing spell.
For honour and good name,
for manhood and for fame,
they leave everything behind –
they give up all they own
nobly, and quite alone,
staunch models of humankind –
like hunting hawks they fly
across the smoke-stained sky,
of the wind they one remind!
So when the Turks they spy,
joyous, give battle cry,
wielding lances gallantly.
Should the odds prove too great,
sharply they turn and wait,
though blood-drenched, unflinchingly
fall on the chasing foe
and strike them, blow for blow,
routing them victoriously.
Open fields and grottoes
are the spots where each goes,
to lay ambush on the road –
fighting hard night and day
is their work and their play,
they crave battlefields and blood;
thirst and hunger’s their treat,
they do not dread the heat,
this, their life, they find is good!
Loving their soldier’s trade,
they wield their trusty blade,
to roll heads down on the ground!
Many men met their doom,
eaten by wild beasts, soon
after they were slain. And ‘round
now come hungry vultures,
carnivorous creatures –
such reward their bravery found!
Braves of the Borderland,
noble and glorious band!
Warriors of grand repute!
Through the whole world your name
has won honour and fame,
like rich orchards ripe with fruit.
With good luck and riches
may God fill your britches –
may God’s boon be absolute!
There is another interpretation of this song, by the Misztrál Band; I think it is more Eastern-like, consisting of more south-Slavic tunes. Here it is:
Egy katonaének (Hungarian)
Vitézek, mi lehet ez széles föld felett
szebb dolog az végeknél?
Holott kikeletkor az sok szép madár szól,
kivel ember ugyan él;
Mező jó illatot, az ég szép harmatot
ád, ki kedves mindennél.
Ellenség hírére vitézeknek szíve
gyakorta ott felbuzdul,
Sőt azon kívül is, csak jó kedvébűl is
vitéz próbálni indul,
Holott sebesedik, öl, fog, vitézkedik,
homlokán vér lecsordul.
Veres zászlók alatt lobogós kopiát
vitézek ott viselik,
Roppant sereg előtt távol az sík mezőt
széllyel nyargalják, nézik;
Az párduckápákkal, fényes sisakokkal,
forgókkal szép mindenik.
Jó szerecsen lovak alattok ugrálnak,
hogyha trombita riadt,
Köztök ki strázsát áll, ki lováról leszáll,
nyugszik reggel, hol virradt,
Midőn éjten-éjjel csataviseléssel
mindenik lankadt s fáradt.
Az jó hírért, névért s az szép tisztességért
ők mindent hátra hadnak,
Emberségről példát, vitézségről formát
mindeneknek ők adnak,
Midőn, mint jó rárók, mezőn széllyel járók,
Ellenséget látván örömmel kiáltván
ők kopiákot törnek,
S ha súlyosan vagyon az dolog harcokon,
Sok vérben fertezvén arcul reá térvén
űzőt sokszor megvernek.
Az nagy széles mező, az szép liget, erdő
Az utaknak lese, kemény harcok helye
Csatán való éhség, szomjúság, nagy hévség
s fáradtság múlatságok.
Az éles szablyákban örvendeznek méltán,
mert ők fejeket szednek,
Viadalhelyeken véresen, sebesen,
halva sokan feküsznek,
Sok vad s madár gyomra gyakran koporsója
vitézül holt testeknek.
Óh, végbelieknek, ifjú vitézeknek
Kiknek ez világon szerteszerént vagyon
mindeneknél jó neve,
Mint sok fát gyümölccsel, sok jó szerencsékkel
áldjon Isten mezőkbe!
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