The Poem

“Forced March,” by the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, is a poem of twenty loosely rhymed lines describing a war prisoner’s physical and emotional anguish in the midst of being forced to march toward an unnamed destination. The man imagines his home and his wife in an attempt to keep hope, despite the fact that it seems otherwise clear that he will never reach home.

The opening lines of the poem describe this man who, immediately after collapsing, makes the effort to rise again, overcoming the pain in his ankle and knee and the fact that it would be easier to remain prone and simply die. However, even though “the ditch will call him,” he will continue to rise and walk “as if wings were to lift him high.” Rhetorically, the poet asks, “why not?” Why should he not continue to rise? If this man were to answer, the poet says, he might explain that his wife is waiting at home, and it is at this home that he can anticipate a different death, one that is “beautiful, wiser.”

Against the backdrop of these images, the poet labels the prisoner a “wretch” and a “fool,” for in truth there is nothing left of his home where only “singed winds have been known to whirl.” The walls of the house have been knocked flat, and his plum tree has been “broken clear.” Worse than this physical razing is that “all the nights back home horripilate with fear,” describing the bristling of hair from terror.

The poem then...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Forms and Devices

In Emery George’s translation, Radnóti’s poem is built on paired rhymes, both conventional (“insane” and “pain,” “clear” and “fear”) or slant (“high” and “stay,” “answer” and “wiser”). The rhymed couplets give the poem a marching regularity, and the partial rhymes create a forced structure that suggests the compulsory march that is the subject of the poem. Yet more remarkable are the imposed breaks in the middle of each line. These caesuras give a halting quality to the reading of poem, like the halting pause of the man who tries to march, despite his limping and the occasional fall: “The man who, having collapsed, rises, takes steps, is insane.” When reading this poem, one is struck by how difficult it must be for the man to complete a step, to complete a phrase, and even to complete a breath.

Halfway through the poem, the point of view changes. In the first ten lines, the narrator speaks of “the man” in third person. Even the reader is addressed in second person directly (“should you ask, why not?”) and implicitly through commands (“But see”). However, in the tenth line, that point of view shifts to first person; the poet and the man on the march become the same as he calls out in anguish, “Oh, if I could believe that I haven’t merely borne/ what is worthwhile, in my heart.” The effect is to make the object of suffering more personal, as the reader more easily sympathizes and identifies with...

(The entire section is 470 words.)