Hungarian Conservative

The Life of Bálint Balassi, a Classic Figure in Hungarian Poetry

The statue of Bálint Balassi in Kodály Körönd, Budapest.
The statue of Bálint Balassi in Kodály Körönd, Budapest.
Imre Faludi/MTVA/MTI
Baron Bálint Balassi de Kékkő et Gyarmat is celebrated as the pioneer of Hungarian romantic poetry, a valiant soldier, a daring lover and an accomplished polyglot. His life and achievements embody the true spirit of the Renaissance, and read like a tale of romance, valour, and fighting spirit.

Bálint Balassi (sometimes alternatively spelled as Balassa) is a Hungarian poet with an extraordinary life and talent, whose literary contributions remained unparalleled until the end of the 18th century. Born in 1554 in Zólyom (in modern-day Slovakia), his life was the embodiment of the romantic, chivalric spirit of his poems, and also epitomised the essence of the Renaissance era.

In his childhood, Balassi received some of the best education and training that was available at the time in science, the arts, and swordsmanship as well. His talents and incredible prowess in language were evident not only in the realm of poetry, but also in his polyglotism—although he wrote mostly in Hungarian, he also spoke Latin, Italian, German, Polish, Turkish, Slovak, Croatian, and Romanian. Notwithstanding his family’s reformed religion, the evangelical priest Péter Bornemisza was tasked with educating the exceptional young man.

Balassi’s adventurous life began by serving in the Hungarian army as an officer against the occupying Turkish armies, during which time he was also stationed in the famous fortress of Eger. This period is also characterised by his lack of success in managing his personal life—he fell in love with Anna Losonczy, the daughter of the captain of Temesvár. As his feelings remained unrequited, he sublimated his feelings into his writings. He made Anna Losonczy the centre of one of his poem collections for this reason.

The next chapter of his life began when, following the Viennese court’s command,

János Balassi, the father of Bálint, dispatched a team led by his son to Transylvania.

Their mission was to join forces with Gáspár Bekes in his campaign against the Transylvanian Prince, István Báthory. Their battle plans collapsed, however, when the battalion was captured near the Transylvanian border.

This unexpected twist of fate led Balassi to the Transylvanian court, where he was treated with the respect befitting his rank. A year later,

when Báthory acquired the throne of Poland, Bálint Balassi started to enjoy the luxuries of life at the Polish royal court, serving as a valued member of the new king’s entourage.

There, he transformed into a true courtier, in which his mastery of swordsmanship and exceptional education helped him enormously. However, his association with Transylvania led to repercussions in Vienna. As a consequence of his perceived betrayal, authorities sought to punish him by capturing his father, János Balassi. In 1577, Bálint decided to return home, but upon arriving, he was met with the tragic news that his father had passed away.

In the meantime, in December 1583, tragic fate struck the Dobó family as well, as Mihály Várady, the husband of the 24-year-old Krisztina Dobó, died. Krisztina, now a young widow, happened to be the daughter of the illustrious hero of Eger, István Dobó, and also the sister of Ferenc Dobó, who was Balassi’s cousin. The familial connection added a layer of complexity to the unfolding events as Balassi pledged to marry the young widow. A year later, on Christmas Day 1584, Balassi arrived in Sárospatak with his warriors where Krisztina lived at the time. In the absence of the Dobó brothers, Ferenc and Jakab, Balassi boldly proclaimed his intent to Krisztina—he swore to marry her and staked his claim to the castle of Sárospatak as her rightful dowry.  

Later, Ferenc Dobó dealt a heavy blow to Balassi by taking him to court on two charges for the aforementioned events. The first charge accused Balassi of unlawfully occupying a royal castle. The gravity of this accusation cast a dark shadow on Balassi’s reputation and future prospects. The second claim against him was equally distressing, charging him with incest.  Soon after the charges were made, Balassi’s marriage was terminated.

Once his marriage was annulled, Balassi learnt that the subject of his early adulthood love, Anna, is now widowed. He besieged her with poems, yet, alas, his affections were met with no reciprocation yet again. In the midst of this intense courtship, Balassi had an affair with Lucia, the wife of the Érsekújvár captain, for which he was also prosecuted.

Amidst his emotional struggles and turbulence in life, this period of his life proved to be inspirational for his creativity. In 1588–89, he composed Szép Magyar Komédia (A Beautiful Hungarian Comedy), as well as the Julia cycle of his poems.

In 1593, as the 15-year war against the Turks erupted, Balassi fearlessly answered the call of duty and joined Miklós Pálffy’s army in defence of his homeland.

Throughout the campaign, several castles were recaptured from the Turkish forces and brought back under the Hungarian Kingdom. However, in the heat of battle on May 19, Balassi was tragically struck—both of Balassi’s thighs were pierced by bullets. Shortly, on May 30, he died of his wounds.

Today, the legacy left by Balassi is highly recognised in Hungary, and in Europe as well.

Aside from the love poems, he is also known for his war-themed song A Soldier’s Song (Egy katonaének), and the ones filled with deep religious sentiments, such as Grant Me Tranquillity (Adj már csendességet).

In honour of his work, the Bálint Balassi Memorial Sword Award, a European award for literature, has been presented in Budapest since 1997. Also, the Balassi Institute founded in 1926 is named after him. Ever since its establishment, it has been responsible for promoting and disseminating Hungary’s rich culture and language, thus improving the country’s reputation worldwide.

When He Met Julia, He Greeted Her Thus’ by Bálint Balassi, 1588

None of this world do I care for

Without you, my fair beloved,

To stand by me were you made for,

You, my soul’s health, whom I covet!

Of my sad heart – you’re the pleasure,

You’re my soul’s fondest desire –

You’re my good cheer without measure

You’re the Godsend I require…

You are like a palace to me,

Like a rosebud, red and fragrant,

Like a violet you draw me

Life eternal may God you grant!

My sun’s light is resurrected,

Through your eyebrows black as charcoal –

Light to mine eyes is directed

Live on, live – you are my life’s goal!

Scorched with love, my heart’s a-fading

You alone I’ve been awaiting –

Oh my heart, my soul, my darling

Hail to thee, my Queen, my Lady!

Overjoyed, I hailed her thusly,

When I found my Julia lastly,

I bent head and knee, politely,

…She? – She smiled, though somewhat crossly.

Translated by Adam Makkai

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Baron Bálint Balassi de Kékkő et Gyarmat is celebrated as the pioneer of Hungarian romantic poetry, a valiant soldier, a daring lover and an accomplished polyglot. His life and achievements embody the true spirit of the Renaissance, and read like a tale of romance, valour, and fighting spirit.