By the God of the Hungarians / We swear, / We swear, that we will be slaves / No longer! - (literal translation).
The family lived for a while in Szabadszállás, where his father owned a slaughterhouse. Within two years, the family moved to Kiskunfélegyháza, and Petőfi always viewed the city as his true birthplace. His father tried to give his son the best possible education, but when Sándor was 15 they lost their money due to the Danube floods of 1838 and the bankruptcy of a relative. Sándor had to leave the lyceum he attended in Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica) in Slovakia. He had small jobs in various theatres in Pest, worked as a teacher in Ostffyasszonyfa and was a soldier in Sopron.
After a restless period of travelling Petőfi attended college at Pápa, where he met Mór Jókai, and a year later, in 1842, his poem A borozó ("The Pub") was first published in Athenaeum under the name Sándor Petrovics. On November 3 of the same year he published this poem, using the name "Petőfi" for the first time.
However, Petőfi was more interested in the theatre. In 1842 he joined a travelling theatre, but then had to leave it. He tried to keep himself financially afloat by writing for a newspaper, but that wasn't enough. Malnourished and sick, he arrived in Debrecen, where his friends helped him get back on his feet.
In 1844 he walked from Debrecen to Pest to find a publisher for his poems, in which he succeeded, and the poems were becoming increasingly popular. He relied on folkloric elements and popular, traditional song-like verses.
Among his longer works is the epic János Vitéz (1845, "Sir John", ISBN 1843910845). On the other hand, he felt he was forced into a folkish, wine-and-pubs, low-quality niche by his publisher, while in fact he also had an extensive Western-oriented education and revolutionary passions to write about. (Of course, these would be difficult to publish, due to the heavy censorship of the time).
In 1846, he met Júlia Szendrey in Transylvania, and they married the next year, against the will of her father, spending their honeymoon in the castle of Count Sándor Teleki, the only aristocrat among Petőfi's friends. Afterwards, he was even more possessed by thoughts of a global revolution. He moved to Pest and joined a group of like-minded students and intellectuals who regularly met at Café Pilvax. They worked at promoting Hungarian as a language of literature and theatre. (The first permanent theatre (the National Theatre) performing in Hungarian opened at this time.)
When the news of the revolution in Vienna reached them on the 15th, Petőfi and his friends decided to change the date of the "National Assembly" (a rally where a petition to the Hungarian noblemen's assembly would be approved by the people), from March 19th to the 15th. (This was a lucky decision, given that the authorities knew their plans, and intended to arrest the revolutionaries on the 18th.)
On the morning of the 15th, the revolutionaries wit Petőfi began to march around the city of Pest, reading the poem and the 12 points to the crowd (which swelled to thousands). Then, they visited printing presses, declaring an end to all forms of censorship and printing Petőfi's poem together with the 12 Pont. The mayor was forced by the crowds to sign the 12 Pont. Later, a mass demonstration was held in front of the newly-built National Museum, after which the group left for Buda on the other bank of the Danube. When the crowd rallied in front of the Imperial governing council, the representatives of Emperor Ferdinand felt they have no choice but to sign the 12 points. As one of the points was freedom for political prisoners, the crowd moved on to greet the newly freed revolutionary poet Mihály Táncsics.
Petőfi's popularity waned as the memory of the glorious day faded, and the revolution went the way of high politics: to the leadership of the nobles. Those in the noblemen's Assembly in Pozsony, today Bratislava) had in fact been pushing for slower reforms at the same time - delivering a list of demands to the Emperor on the 13th - but events had overtaken them briefly. Petőfi disagreed with the Assembly, and criticised the way they saw the goals and methods of the Revolution. (His colleague Táncsics was imprisoned yet again by the new government.) In the general election, he ran in his native area, but did not get the seat. At this time, he wrote his most serious poem, the epic Az Apostol ("The Apostle", an epic about a fictional revolutionary who, after much suffering, attempts, but fails to assassinate a fictitious king.)
Petőfi joined Polish revolutionary general Józef Bem's Transylvanian army, fighting a successful campaign against Habsburg troops, Romanian and Transylvanian Saxon militias. However, it was defeated repeatedly when Imperial Russia intervened to aid the Austrians. He was last seen in the battle of Segesvár (Sighişoara), July 31, 1849. The circumstances of his death are mysterious.
The main opinion is that he died in the battle, based on the account of a Russian military doctor in his diary. He saw an unusual-looking corpse dead of a stomach lance wound, having Petőfi's characteristic yellowish face and matching clothing; Petőfi had the habit of wearing a civilian jacket with uniform trousers. Recently an ethnic Hungarian Romanian claimed to have located fragments of a stone eagle which local Hungarians are known to have erected in 1855 on the site of the mass grave where Petőfi was allegedly buried. Considering the number of fallen Hungarians in the battle of Segesvár, an excavation would not offer much hope, even if genetic material could be obtained from the graves of his parents. Some Hungarians, notably Ferenc Morvai, believe Petőfi was captured and taken to Russia, where he died some years later of natural causes. In Siberia he is even supposed to have written poems in a Russian language... These reports about his survival and later death in 1856 in Irkutsk (or in Barguzin) in a position of a Russian postman (with a name Alexander Petrovich Vengerov) sporadically emerged since 1850s. The information about his supposed grave in Siberia was brought to Central Europe again by Hungarian prisoners of war in 1918 and even by members of Czechoslovak Legions in 1920. But an expedition organized in 1989 by Ferenc Morvai did not prove it and supposed bones of Petrovich/Petőfi were identified as parts of female skeleton.
What is more, a correct translation of Petőfi's name in Russian would have probably been “Alexander Stepanovich Petrovich”. The name “Alexander Petrovich Vengerov” refers to an Alexander whose father was Peter and the family name was Vengerov. If we suppose that the family name Vengerov is also a translation from one of Central European languages, its original form could have been e.g.: Magyar, Ungarn, Unger, Madar, Madarovic, Uher, Wengrow etc… On the other hand there is not doubt that Petőfi as a Slav by origin (plus having attended Slovak schools in Aszód and Banská Štiavnica) could have learned Russian quickly and sufficiently to write poems in it. The argument that Petőfi could not serve to tsarist Russia or assimilate himself to Russian society because he was a strong Hungarian patriot, we should regard as a part of Hungarian nationalistic mythology. We know that once in his life he already changed his ethnicity (from Slovak to Hungarian) and opinions on his moral profile are radically different. For example, many Slovaks unofficially rank him into a group of the “worst traitors” of the Slovak nation.
After the Revolution was crushed, Petőfi's writing became immensely popular, while his rebelliousness served as a role model ever since for Hungarian revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries of every political colour. Today, streets are named after him throughout Hungary (perhaps one in every village, but in Budapest there are 11) and in the Hungarian-inhabited areas of Transylvania, as well as a national radio station and a bridge in Budapest.
The influence of folk poetry and 19th-century populism is very significant in Petőfi's work, but other influences are also present: Petőfi drew on sources such as topoi of contemporary almanac-poetry in an inventive way, and was familiar with the works of major literary figures of his day, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Pierre-Jean de Béranger and Heinrich Heine.
Petőfi's early poetry was often interpreted as some kind of role-playing, due to the broad range of situations and voices he created and used. Recent interpretations however call attention to the fact that in some sense all lyrical poetry can be understood as role-playing, which makes the category of "role-poems" (coined especially for Petőfi) superfluous. While using a variety of voices, Petőfi created a well-formed persona for himself: a jaunty, stubborn loner who loves wine, hates all kinds of limits and boundaries and is passionate in all he feels. In poems such as Jövendölés ("Prophecy", 1843) he imagines himself as someone who will die young after doing great things. This motif recurs in the revolutionary poetry of his later years.
The influence of contemporary almanac-poetry can be best seen in the poem cycle Cipruslombok Etelke sírjára ("Branches of Cypress for Etelke's Tomb", 1845). These sentimental poems, which are about death, grief, love, memory and loneliness were written after a love interest of Petőfi's, Etelke Csapó, died.
In the years 1844-45 Petőfi's poetry became more and more subtle and mature. New subjects appeared, such as landscape. His most influential landscape poem is Az Alföld ("The Plains"), in which he says that his homeland, the Hungarian plains are more beautiful and much dearer than the Carpathian mountains; it was to become the foundation of a long-lived fashion: that of the plains as the typical Hungarian landscape.
Petőfi's poetic skills solidified and broadened. He became a master of using different kinds of voices, for example his poem A régi, jó Gvadányi ("The Good Old Gvadányi") imitates the style of József Gvadányi, a Hungarian poet who lived at the end of the 18th century.
It's interesting to note that several of Petőfi's poems were set to music by the young Friedrich Nietzsche, who composed as a hobby while studying classics at Pforta before beginning his career in philosophy.