Gyula Illyés’s immense prestige and world renown were largely the result of his ability to integrate the philosophies and traditions of Eastern and Western Europe, the views and approaches of the rational intellectual and of the lyric dreamer, and the actions of homo politicus and homo aestheticus. In a 1968 interview, Illyés confided:
With all the literary genres with which I experimented I wanted to serve one single cause: that of a unified people and the eradication of exploitation and misery. I always held literature to be only a tool.
Five sentences later, however, he exclaimed:
I would forgo every single other work of mine for one poem! Poetry is my first, my primary experience and it has always remained that.
André Frenaud has remarked of Illyés that he is a poet ofdiverse and even contradictory impulses: a poet who can be
violent and sardonic, who lacks neither visions coming from deep within, nor the moods of sensuality. He knows the cowardice of man and the courage needed for survival. He knows the past and interrogates the future.
Illyés began his literary career in the 1920’s under the influence of Surrealism and Activism. He found his original style and tone at the end of the 1920’s and the beginning of the 1930’s. Lyric and epic qualities combined with precise, dry, objective descriptions (whose unimpassioned tone is occasionally heated by lyric fervor) determine the singular flavor of his poetry.
Nehéz föld and Sarjúrendek
Illyés’s first book of poems, Nehéz föld (heavy earth), strongly reflects his intoxication with Surrealism and other Western trends. His next collection, Sarjúrendek, represents a turning point in his art; in this volume, Illyés turned toward populism and engagé realism, although he still retained many stylistic features of the avant-garde.
Illyés’s tone became increasingly deep and bitter, his themes historical, and his style more and more intellectual during the 1930’s and 1940’s. In this period, he wrote many prose works, most of which reflected on historical, social, and political themes. He did not publish any significant collection of new poetry between 1947 and 1956. During this time of harsh political repression, he wrote historical dramas in which he sought to strengthen his people’s national consciousness by the examples of great patriots of the past.
Illyés’s poetic silence ended in 1956 when he published a volume of poems titled Kézfogások (handshakes). This volume initiated another new phase for the poet: His style thereafter was more intellectual, contemplative, dramatic, and analytical. He never lost the lyric quality of his poetry, however, and the passionate lyricism of his tone makes the moral, ethical, and historical analysis of his poems of the next twenty-five years glow with relevance, immediacy, and urgency.
A good example of this style is found in his collection Do``lt vitorla (tilted sail), published in 1965. This book contains a number of long poems—written in free verse—about his fellow writers and artists, amplifying their messages, identifying with their visions, and offering Illyés’s conclusions. The volume also contains a number of prose poems. In his preface, Illyés gives his reasons for using this genre: He states that he wants “to find the most common everyday words to express the most complicated things. . . . To concentrate into a piece of creation all that is beautiful, good and true without glitter and pretention but with innovation and endurance.”
Written in the middle 1960’s to another writer, “Óda a törvényhozóhoz” (“Ode to the Lawmaker”) analyzes the role of poets. The poet is “the chief...
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