The “forced march” of the title can be interpreted in two ways. The first is the forced march that the prisoner is a part of as he presses on, despite his physical pain, toward a destination not named in the poem. In the second sense, the poet forces himself onward, as “he simply dare not stay” in the ditch in which he has collapsed.
In fact, the compulsory nature of the march may be caused more by the poet’s own drive. Though he “is insane” and “a fool” for hoping that his home and wife still exist, he creates a pastoral scene. “Tell me it’s still there,” he commands himself; his insistent tones can be heard in lines such as “Oh, if I could believe/ that there is, to return, a home.” In contrast to the way he compels himself onward are the “sleepy gardens,” his waiting wife, and “morning slowly tracing its shadowed reticence.” The languorous nature of his mental destination serves as a fitting goal to the pure relentlessness of his journey. The final lines, as he calls to a comrade to rouse him back to action, end this reverie and return him to the reality of the forced march.
The poet’s imagined home life also operates in the context of a biblical allusion. He imagines his wife waiting in a garden in the morning where “among bow and foliage fruits were swaying naked.” In its innocence, the scene suggests Eden before the Fall of Man. By contrast, he is in darkness (despite a full moon) and believes that the plum tree (like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) has been broken. This land of his pleasant past is gone, and with his inability to return to it he resembles the cursed Adam, who must labor to survive. The paradise of his former life exists only as a dream.
These literary meanings are made more significant when the poem is placed in its autobiographical context. Of Jewish lineage and an outspoken leftist writer, Radnóti was drafted into forced labor by his government at the outset of World War II. In 1944, during his third term of labor, he worked mining copper and constructing railroads until prisoners near the war’s front line were relocated at the approach of Allied forces. This forced march ended when Radnóti and twenty other prisoners, sick and brutally treated by their fascist Hungarian captors, could not be placed in a local hospital. They were shot and buried in a mass grave. When Radnóti’s body was exhumed two years later, his wife identified his body and found a small notebook, soaked with blood and stained by earth. “Forced March” was among these 144 poems that Radnóti had written during the last months of his life.
The feelings in the poem, therefore, come out of a historical as well as a personal context. The poet wanted to give witness to the atrocities committed against him and his fellow prisoners—and against his fellow citizens and even all humans. The resulting poem must be viewed in this context to receive its full impact, so that readers will listen and remember. In fact, the final line reaches out to a fellow prisoner: “Don’t go past me, my friend— shout! and I’ll come around!” The camaraderie between the prisoners allowed Radnóti to survive long enough to pen these words, and that final image, however desperate, attests to the poem’s message of aid and succor. This plea in the poem, which comes to the reader even across the gulf of death, reaches out to ask the reader not to pass him by but to give voice and bring his message back to life.