Gyula Illyés was born into a family of poor farm workers on one of the large estates of a wealthy aristocrat. His grandfather was a shepherd and his father a mechanic; the joint efforts of his relatives were needed to pay for his schooling in Budapest. At the end of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy collapsed, giving way to a liberal republic, which was taken over by a short-lived Communist regime. Illyés joined the Hungarian Red Army in 1919. After the old regime defeated the revolution, he fled to Vienna in 1920, then went to Berlin, and a year later to Paris. He attended the Sorbonne, studying literature and psychology, and he supported himself by tutoring and by working in a book bindery. His earliest poetry appeared in Hungarian émigré periodicals. During those years, he made the acquaintance of many young French poets, some of whom later became famous as Surrealists: Aragon, Éluard, and Tristan Tzara. In 1926, the political climate became more tolerant in Hungary, and Illyés returned. He worked as an office clerk and joined the circle connected with the avant-garde periodical Dokumentum, edited by Lajos Kassák. Some of his early poems caught the eye of Mihály Babits, a leading poet and senior editor of the literary periodical Nyugat, and in a short time, Illyés became a regular contributor to that outstanding modern literary forum.
Illyés’s first collection of poems was published in 1928, followed by twelve...
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