Bálint Balassi (1554–1594) was a Renaissance lyric poet and regarded as a Hungarian in the deepest sense, the first to write the words "my sweet homeland" in reference to Hungary, a phrase which became a renowned canon of patriotism in Hungarian literature throughout the centuries that followed. Born into one of the wealthiest and most powerful noble families of the country, with strong ties to the Habsburg court, Balassi was educated by the Protestant reformer Péter Bornemisza and was already writing notable verse at a very young age. Unfortunately, his short life was marked by financial ruin and a series of social failures: an unhappy marriage, unrequited love, slander, legal troubles and a less than prominent military career. He died early in the war against the Turkish occupation of Hungary during the siege of Esztergóm.
Balassi was a true Renaissance figure, a child of his age, a noble writer who was reckless in romance and hot-tempered, but also a humanist with exceptionally refined taste. It was he who was responsible for the rebirth of Hungarian literature, transforming Latin into the Hungarian language, making him the second world-class Hungarian poet after Janus Pannonius. A worthwhile contemporary of Ronsard, Spenser and Sidney, he was a loyal adherent to the Neo-Platonic philosophy of love and Francesco Petrarch's mode of poetic expression, which he refreshed with local flavor and new poetic solutions. Having been influenced by German, Italian, Polish, Turkish and perhaps also Croatian, Balassi absorbed Neo-Latin poetry at an early age, and eventually came to hold the same position in the history of Hungarian literature as that of Petrarch in Italian literature. Poems had already been written in Hungarian before him, but Balassi's technique of literary expression – fictive lyrical autobiographies in cycles of verse – was his true innovative gift to Hungarian literature. According to traditional historic accounts, he assembled his poems together, written in "his own hand" shortly before or after he left Hungary for Poland in 1589. The unprinted volume circulated for years thereafter and comprised a collection of 100 poems that depicted Balassi as a heavenly version of himself; hopelessly struggling with love, losing to Cupid, burned on the pyre of passion, relinquishing Julia, leaving his homeland, searching for his old love in a new one, embarking on a pilgrimage through hell, arguing with God in poetic guilt. It was this "virtual" Balassi that took the place of the "real" unsuccessful one and sparked the imagination of subsequent generations. His students not only respected him as an emblematic figure of Hungarian literature (and of the Hungarian language in a broader sense), but also of culture, worthy of following as a European model for the renewal of civilized life.
The more we know about Bálint Balassi and his work, the more he seems to be a poet who transcended borders. He was literally born on a border, in the Northern Hungarian-Turkish territory near Poland. His mother-tongue was Hungarian, but he probably learned Slovakian and Polish from his nanny first. There is no doubting the honesty of his religious emotions, although he belonged to several denominations during his life - raised by a Lutheran, Calvinist parents, and then the influence of Jesuits during his adulthood. He lived for years with his father in the Court of Vienna and in the royal courts of Transylvania and Poland, perhaps becoming more familiar with the refined order of royal style and etiquette than any other Hungarian. His religious verse dealt with the passion of romance while his romantic poems used theological terms and soared to religious heights. Researchers have debated for years whether his descriptive language and place in Hungarian literature was that of the first Renaissance poet or that of the last troubadour. Whatever the case may be, Balassi was both archaic and ahead of his time, renewing contemporary fashion by reaching back to ancient sources and later incorporating features of Mannerism and Turkish poetic forms. Moreover, he did so in Hungarian, which offered no previous traditional model to follow. According to legend, he spoke seven languages in addition to his own: Latin, German, Italian, Slovakian, Polish, Turkish and Croatian. Bálint Balassi was not only the first, but also the most deeply European Hungarian poet, and to this day his work continues to exemplify the openness of Hungarian intellectual life to Europe and the world.