Miklós Radnóti

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Miklós Radnóti excelled as a translator of classical and modern poetry from a number of Western languages into Hungarian. A collection of his translations appeared in 1943 under the title Orpheus nyomában (in the footsteps of Orpheus). Of his prose, Ikrek hava (1939; The Month of Gemini, 1979), a quasi autobiography, is most significant; also noteworthy is his doctoral dissertation on the Hungarian novelist and poet Margit Kaffka, Kaffka Margit művészi fejlődése (1934; the artistic development of Margit Kaffka).


Miklós Radnóti received his doctoral degree in 1934 and was awarded the prestigious Baumgarten Prize only four years later. From this auspicious beginning, he began building his readership, so that by the height of his career few modern Hungarian poets had a wider reading public than Radnóti. Radnóti’s forte was his ability to fuse elements from diverse poetic traditions, filling traditional forms with new, unexpected messages, especially the terrifying experiences resulting from the Nazi Occupation of Central and Eastern Europe. While, as a young man, he boldly experimented with free verse, his mature poetry is devoid of flamboyance, characterized instead by classical simplicity and dignity. His major contribution to Hungarian letters is that he served as an artistic, as well as a moral example for several generations of Hungarian artists, a poet speaking for his nation, representing his country’s best humanist traditions amid war, privation, and persecution.


Miklós Radnóti (born Miklós Glatter) lived for only thirty-five years, and even his birth was darkened by tragedy: It cost the lives of his mother and twin brother. Radnóti’s father soon remarried; Radnóti deeply loved his stepmother and the daughter born of the second marriage, yet grief and guilt feelings concerning the double tragedy of his birth influenced his entire creative life. The figure of his mother is a recurring image in Radnóti’s poetry and prose.

Radnóti completed his elementary and high school education in Budapest. Then, following the suggestion of his guardian (his father, too, had died), he spent 1927 and 1928 in Liberec, Czechoslovakia, studying textile technology and working in an office. In the fall of 1930, he enrolled at Szeged University, majoring in Hungarian and French. By the time he received his doctorate in 1934, he had several volumes of poetry in print. It was during this period that he assumed the name “Radnóti,” after Radnót, the town in northeastern Hungary where his father had been born.

During the late 1920’s and at the beginning of the 1930’s, Radnóti became involved with youth organizations that were culturally nurtured by ideas from the Left. During this period, he wrote “engaged” poetry, using a deliberately nonpoetical language which was meant to identify him with the working class. Since that identification lacked the reality of experience, it exhausted itself in language and remained unconvincing. During his first trip to Paris in 1931, Radnóti met a number of French writers and artists, who introduced him to the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Paul Valéry, and Valery Larbaud. The progressive nature of this poetry liberated Radnóti from the confines of narrow social protest, and with his Sturm und Drang period behind him, he began to develop his mature style.

In 1935, Radnóti married his childhood sweetheart, Fanni Gyarmati, hoping to secure a teaching position in the Hungarian high school system. When this did not work out, he took temporary jobs, chiefly private tutoring, and accepted partial support from his wife’s family.

As Hungary’s political climate turned increasingly fascist, Radnóti shared the fate of those who had been persecuted for their Jewish origins. With the exception of brief periods of respite, he spent the years from 1940 until his death in various forced-labor camps, first in Hungary and later, after Hungary’s occupation by the Nazis (March 19, 1944), working a copper mine in Bor, Yugoslavia. In the course of the Nazi retreat, Radnóti’s company was also returned to Hungary, then moved west in the direction of the German (Austrian) border. Radnóti, however, died while still in Hungary, murdered by the soldiers guarding his group. He was among those who were shot after being forced to dig their own graves.

When Radnóti’s body was exhumed on June 23, 1946, nearly two years after his death, a small, black notebook was found in which Radnóti had written ten poems. (These poems appear in the volume Sky with Clouds.) It is a measure of Radnóti’s current standing in Hungarian poetry that a scholarly facsimile edition of this notebook, Camp Notebook, originally issued in 1970, had gone into multiple printings.


At the beginning of his career, Miklós Radnóti saw himself as a representative of a new literature, different in language and style from that of the previous generation of Hungarian poets. Together with fellow rebels, he attacked what he regarded as the tepid traditions of the past, boldly declaring himself one of the “modern shepherds.” The title of his first volume, Pagan Salute, suggests the rebellious spirit of Radnóti’s early work. The narrator of this first collection rejects the pacifying teachings of church and state and sings about the freedom of love and his desire for a natural life. The Romantic image of the shepherd placed in a pastoral landscape is one of the few happy, carefree images in all Radnóti’s work.


Radnóti’s youthful poems are characterized by social commentary, often obliquely expressed by means of images from nature. In “Law,” for example, an allegory about the illegal Socialist movement after the Nazi victories of 1933, Radnóti advances his political views in the guise of a “nature poem.” The wind “drops” passwords and whistles the secret signals of the conspirators. The political freeze is described as winter, and the new grass bares not the expected “blade” but a “dagger.” The laws of nature are translated by Radnóti into the law of revolution, and in the last stanzas the poet confirms his ties with the underground movement and calls on others to follow his example. A tree dropping a “leaf,” which by this point in the poem can be interpreted only as a political “leaflet” or flier, compels the reader to respond; thus, the poem becomes its own political leaflet.

Love Poems

Radnóti’s early work is also characterized by a strong erotic charge, although it is often unclear whether this represents a genuine expression of sexual desire or is merely another manifestation of the poet’s urge to revolt against social conventions. Between 1933, however, and 1935, when he married Fanni Gyarmati, Radnóti’s erotic/political poems changed dramatically. A new gravity and a mood approaching resignation accompanied his awareness of impending war; his manner became calmer and more controlled. His language, too, was simplified, so that a more personal, lyric voice could emerge.

The erotic flame of the sexual poems was replaced by a lyric glow, and the violent sexual images by intimate, tender descriptions of lovers. Radnóti became protective of married love, remaining silent about sexual relations. Indeed, Radnoti’s love poems to Fanni recall in their classical simplicity the great love lyrics of Mihály Vörösmarty and Sándor Petőfi, the preeminent Hungarian poets of the nineteenth century.

“Like a Bull”

Finally, the transition from Radnóti’s youthful, rebellious stance to his mature style can be traced in the poet’s changing self-image. In “Like a Bull,” written in 1933, the poet is...

(The entire section is 3251 words.)