The Moody Poets’ Gallery (Or a Melancholy Glance at Hungarian Poetry)

The Connection Between Miserable Weather & Hungarian Poetry (If Any)

So the other day it was grey and gloomy and it was also p***ing it down in a typical London fashion. Moreover it was a Sunday afternoon, and you would expect better from a Sunday afternoon in March, even in London.

In any case, the weather was miserable, I was miserable, and I felt like wallowing in some miserable Hungarian poetry.

Not at all a difficult thing to do, that: misery and poetry goes hand in hand in Hungary, and although we do actually also have some cheerful poems you’re not going to get any of those today.

Before we dive in at the deep end, a word of warning: Hungarian is an obscure language and not a lot of her poetry has been translated into English. (And what's been translated leaves you holding your head - in dispair.) The source of today's miserable poetry is a single bilingual anthology, going by the title of The Lost Rider. It's about as representative as a single anthology can ever expected to be. 

(And some of the translations are, well, dire.)

The Moody Poets’ Gallery

Miserable Poem Number 1: How to Be Really Sorry For Yourself

Man comes at last to a vast stretch
of sandy, dull, waterlogged plain,
looks round in wonder, the poor wretch,
nods sagely and knows hope is vain.

Well this one is a classic. First of all, the poet, Attila József, committed suicide, so that he’s got proper credentials for writing miserable poetry. Second, he chose an appropriately miserable title: Without Hope. If there’s a third and fourth as well, I can’t remember them. (It’s been a long time ago I went to school!) Instead, let’s have a bit more of the poem:

My heart is perched on nothing’s branch,
a small, dumb, shivering event:
the gentle starts jostle and bunch
and gaze on in astonishment.

(Attila József: Without Hope)

Aw… And it’s even more pathetic and heart-wrenching in Hungarian.

Miserable Poem Number 2: How to Be Really Sorry for Yourself as a Nation

When it comes to national anthems, most nations go in for lusty optimism: the US national anthem, for example, proudly celebrates being bombarded in their own harbour by the Royal Navy, while the English anthem revels in crushing the rebellious Scots (although nowadays this verse is politely omitted). In Hungary, however, we go in for a good wallow in self-pity instead:

Castle once, now heap of stones:
Fled are all its graces,
Death-cries, rattles, sighs and groans
Occupy their places.

(Ferenc Kölcsey: Hymn)

Although you might find hard to believe that those lines can feature in anyone’s national anthem, they definitely feature in Hungary’s. Those and some other similarly depressing ones. Ferenc Kölcsey wrote Hymn in a moment of political despair and the poem is a long litany of the nation’s misfortunes while asking for divine help and blessing. We usually content ourselves with singing the first verse (that’s the bit asking for divine help).

Miserable Poem Number 3: Disappointed in Love

Well, of course! Here’s a woebegone example from the beginning of the 19th century, by Mihály Csokonai Vitéz:

Hope, begone, desert me!
Abandon me. Too soon
Hard heartedness without thee
Conducts me to my tomb.
My former spirits falter
And leave me in despair
My flesh wants earth for shelter,
My soul the upper air.
My meads lack all embroidery
My lawns are parched and bald,
My sweet woods lack variety
My sun is darkness called.

(Mihály Csokonai Vitéz: To Hope)

Miserable Poem Number 4: Describing One’s Own Death

But I should stop being frivolous. Some people had rather more reason to be miserable than others; this is particularly true for several 20th century poets. Miklós Radnóti, the author of the following poem was of Jewish origin and was murdered in 1944, a few days after he described the death of a companion on a forced march:

I fell beside him, his body had turned over
tight as a bow before release.
Shot through the nape. I whispered to myself,
That’s how you too will end. No more now, peace.
Patience will flower in death. And I could hear
A voice above me say: der springt noch auf¹.
Earth and dried blood mingling in my ear.

(Miklós Radnóti: Razglednicas)

¹der springt noch auf = this one will still get up (in German)

Radnóti was buried in a mass grave, and the notebook with the poem was found on his body when he was later exhumed.

Miserable Poem Number 5: Despairing of the 1930s

This one speaks for itself:

I see now, life is much nastier
than I had guessed
when as a young man I was about
to leave the nest.

I see the suckers being cheated
day after day,
poor sucker can’t stop being a sucker
try as he may,

I see how reason becomes the whore
of interest,
how villains dress up as Galahads
on holy quest,

I see the noblest causes soiled by
the too-many,
I see that only death can bring us
true harmony, —

and since this isn’t a fact to despise
or to deplore,
and since the seed of all human beings
is bloody war:

I look at life, with calm resolve
and patience steeled,
as a doomed leper colony, or
a battlefield.

If I had learned about these perils
all at a blow,
I would have certainly hanged myself,
some time ago.

(Lőrinc Szabó: Private Truce)

Well, I’m glad he didn’t hang himself. Because Lőrinc Szabó also wrote some absolutely enchanting poetry about childhood – unfortunately for you, none of it is translated to English as far as I’m aware.

Miserable Poem Number 6: The Sins of the World on Your Shoulders

God sees that I stand in the sun.
He sees my shadow on stone and on fence.
He sees my shadow standing
without breath in the airless press.

By then I am already like the stone;
a dead fold, a drawing of a thousand grooves,
a good handful of rubble
is by then the creature’s face.

And instead of tears, the wrinkles on the faces
trickling, the empty ditch trickles down.

(János Pilinszky: Apocrypha)

Hungary had a large Jewish population before World War II and they were all but exterminated after Germany occupied the country in March 1944. The Catholic János Pilinszky, who saw some concentration camps at the end of the war in Germany and Austria, could never after free himself from survivor’s guilt.

Miserable Poem Number 7: Being Cursed with Talent

The following poem, written in the beginning of the 20th century, is not the easiest to interpret. One interpretation is that it essentially bemoans the fate of those dazzling with talent – those ‘loved by the Lord’, as was the prophet Elijah (and of course, Endre Ady himself):

The Lord, like Elijah, gathers up
His darlings, those with harshest lots:
Those gifted with quick hearts of flame
Become his fiery chariots.

Elijah’s nation rush to heaven
And stope there in perpetual snow,
To ice-bound Himalayan peaks
Their ragged rattling chariots go.

Bleak statelessness, nor earth nor heaven,
By winds of fate they’re tossed and hurled.
Elijah’s car makes for the cool
And wicked beauties of the world.

Their hearts burn bright, their brows are hung
With icicles. And how Earth laughs.
The Sun meanwhile strews diamond dust
Like ice along their frozen paths.

(Endre Ady: On Elijah’s Chariot)

Well, whatever the poem is about, it certainly does not lack in chilling imagery!

Miserable Poem Number 8: In the Aftermath of a Lost War

Another poet with survivor’s guilt: János Arany bemoans the lost War of Independence (1848-49) and the death of his friend, Sándor Petőfi, who disappeared during the war.

I lay down the lyre. Such a dead weight!
Who cares for songs now anyway,
Or loves pale flowers that bloom too late
Once mighty trees have died away?
The tree being dead the folded bud
May briefly flourish on the bole,
I sense your doom deep in my blood
O vanished springtime of my soul.

(János Arany: I Lay Down the Lyre)

Just in passing – Arany was a much better poet than Petőfi, but nobody ever could convince him of this fact, although he lived to ripe old age.


I hope you enjoyed this brief, albeit melancholy introduction to Hungarian poetry!

(If you did, spread the light! 🙂 )

Links:More Hungarian poetry in English (The High Window)And some more... (Hungary Today)And still a bit more... (Hungarian National Library)

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