Gyula Illyés

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Làszló Ferenczi (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4892

SOURCE: "Gyula Illyés, Poet of a Nation," in The New Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 68, Winter, 1977, pp. 54-65.

[In the following essay, Ferenczi muses on Illyés's "open door" policy concerning creativity and his promotion of that openness.]

There are some magic titles, or metaphors, which give a true description of the attitudes or philosophy of a poet. How revealing Paul Éluard's L'amour de la poésie! How much we know about Robert Goffin from A bout portant, or about W. H. Auden when he says Another Time, or about Stephen Spender when he writes The Still Centre, or about André Frénaud when he argues Il n'y a pas de paradis. Gyula Illyés, poet, writer of prose, dramatist, essayist, translator, announces to the world Nyitott ajtó (Open door), Ingyen lakoma (Free feast), and Kézfogások (Handshakes).

Illyés published a selection of his verse translations of Open door in 1963. Almost every European literature is present in this volume, and Chinese and Japanese poems to boot. Medieval French poetry and modern European poetry are especially well represented; among the contemporaries we find his personal friends, Tristan Tzara, Jean Follain, André Frénaud, as well as Boris Pasternak and Nezval. This son of the Hungarian puszta became acquainted with the medieval French, the dadaists, and the surrealists, all at the same time, in the early twenties in Paris; and that was when he undertook to translate them.

Free feast is a selective anthology of essays published in 1964; it includes the work of several decades. The subjects are Hungarians and foreigners; Racine, Éluard, the Soviet G. Martinov, or Eastern poetry. The expanded edition of 1975, Iránytűvel ("With a compass") includes, in addition, an essay on Tzara, a record of the poet's creed regarding loyalty to friends and responsibility. In the course of half a century Illyés has returned again and again to Tzara in translations, in essays, or in quotations throughout his autobiography. Even now, looking back from the seventies, Illyés considers dadaism a serious and noble movement, whereas Tzara is regarded not as a curio of literary history, but as a poet whose qualities will be discovered by future generations.

What Illyés himself had accomplished, however, is radically different from Tzara's work. Illyés is the poet of the landless peasant; he is the classicist poet of Hungarian national consciousness. Yet he feels we can better grasp, and become more aware of, folk poetry under the effect of surrealism.

Handshakes (1956) is one of Illyés's twenty volumes of poetry. Perhaps no more important than the others, it is nevertheless my favourite; it was in some of these poems, published in reviews (and eventually included in this volume) that I discovered the poet for myself during my high school days, and began to suspect something that Jean Follain had formulated so perfectly:

Faced with (this) mystery of Time and that of death, Illyés wants to preserve—in spite of all the evil deeds of history and its troublesome ambiguities a certain innocent view of the world. He knows how to keep alive all the great frontiers of the unknown. (From A Tribute to Gyula Illyés, eds. Thomas Kabdebo and Paul Tabori, preface by Jean Follain, Washington: Occidental Press, 1968).

One of these poems that had appeared in a periodical first was titled "Bartók." Not quite a quarter of a century after its appearance it became a classic, nowadays it is taught at school. The poem is passionate, meaningful, thought-provoking, and has a quieting effect—like all good poetry. But what passions it provoked at the time of its appearance! I had not read such liberating verse by a living poet during my schooldays. The dogmatic cultural policy of the first half of the fifties held that Bartok was alien to socialism and humanism, as were so many other great artists of the past and present. This was also the poem which mentioned the name of Pablo Picasso, likewise rejected until then; in other words, the poem rehabilitated the Hungarian composer and the Spanish artist, rehabilitated true universality.

It was an occasional poem in the true sense of the word, an artistic programme of liberation and of enthusiasm and, of course, a political poem as well; and from the distance of almost a quarter of a century it is obviously a masterpiece. Of course we, enthusiastic students (and I believe others as well) already suspected it, but at 17 and 18 we could not have known Illyés's secret, that potential immortality lies concealed even in his most occasional work, because of the extremely demanding form, his incredible respect for artistic principles, and his honesty as a thinker. To put it differently, he prepares the most topical texts from durable matter. He is master of lasting political verse.

After his "Bartók" poem, after the volume Handshakes neither Open door nor Free feast were surprising titles. How pertinent the preface to the latter:

It is good to eat, but people have to be taught and encouraged to do even that. They must be educated constantly in order to eat what is tasty, what is good, what is healthy; they must overcome their prejudices in this domain as well. There is so much great food—varying from country to country—that people will not take a bite of, or sip, out of superstition. The same goes for intellectual food. This is where appetite has to be fostered, tastes analysed, vitamins and calories recommended: to beg that at least a spoonful of the unfamiliar dish be introduced into the guzzle.

Open door is the opportunity to defeat superstition and prejudice. It is only through the open door that the offering of the free feast and the act of shaking hands become possible.

In his volume of translations he does not print the poets according to nationality: "I thought it would be more instructive if I arranged them in the order of their birth. Since their development is along different lines, this mingling—though the oriental poets remain separate—may lead to the clarification of that which is essential. How much more significant it is within a given civilization, when he lived, than where! How similar the language of poets in a given era is; they transcend the hedges of their mother tongue, the ramparts of their fatherland! How well they understand one another even in their debates, even in their misunderstandings!"

The poet who wrote this is the same who in the 1930s, in his brief and grotesque epic Hősökről beszélek (I speak of heroes) revealed to us the world of the large estates, and of the field-hands living under conditions of semiserfdom servitude on those estates. I mean, in particular, The People of the Puszta, this sociological description permeated with autobiographical elements, by now a clas sic. The poet became the spokesman of landless peasants and also in the early thirties of national consciousness, tortured as he was by the nightmare of the death of the nation. (Visions of the death of the nation Illyés reminds us, has been a theme of Hungarian poetry ever since the 17th century.)

It is about this national poet, sometimes accused of being overly national, that his younger contemporary Alain Bosquet said: "Only three or four living poets have been able to identify themselves with the soul of the century, in the widest sense of the term … Their genius burns in the Hungarian poet Gyula Illyés …" (Quoted in A Tribute to Gyula Illyés, inside jacket).

I believe so myself, but I was happy to quote Alain Bosquet. I think it would be the worst kind of hypocrisy if, while addressing a foreign public, I would not admit that we in Hungary believe Illyés to be one of the greatest, most universal poets and educators of our century.

I don't know Illyés personally. Two or three superficial meetings cannot be considered a personal acquaintance. But I owe him friendship, important conversations, significant reading experiences. If I managed to exchange meaningful words with ten or fifteen European, Asian, or African poets, if I have an inkling of what my interlocutors said about the land problem, the way of life of the peasant, the significance of national being and tradition, the function of literature in their respective countries, if they felt they were not talking to the walls or to the taperecorder, then I owe it, at least in part, to the fact that I am a reader of Gyula Illyés.

I speak about myself shamelessly: but I received authorization for it from Illyés himself. He was once asked, during an interview: "What is poetry good for, all things considered?" And Illyés answered:

I can give you an answer only by telling you what it is that the poems and literature as such gave me. Poems have taught me how to speak. It is through poetry that unconscious feelings, intuitions, concepts have touched me first. I would be unable to formulate exactly the plus-value I may have received from a specific poem, but I know that poetry taught me a whole scale of inexpressible, and perhaps as yet unexpressed feelings, just as my mother had taught me what is a cup, a table, a pair of plyers, a knife. People who have been raised in the same literary environment can understand one another practically at a glance; they approach each other with ease. Hence poetry has a practical effect, that is what I would tell a social scientist. As for subconscious, transcendent experiences, these should be discussed in a psychological essay.

And in the preface to his volume of poetry Fekete fehér (Black white), in 1967, he wrote: "It is not his own business the writer has to investigate but that of his readers."

Illyés, this lonely man, often prone to despair, who neither offers nor accepts easy solutions, is a true citizen of the république des lettres. He respects the work of art, the artist, the real or potential reader, in sacred earnest. In this century didactic poetry is not what it used to be in the 17th or 18th centuries. The best didactic poetry of the 20th century, to mention but a few examples, was written by poets like Pessoa, Auden, Léopold Sanghor, or Éluard. And Gyula Illyés. True enough, the others wrote theirs mostly in the first half of the century.

Illyés is the poet of the creation of values, the preservation of values, the making aware of values. And not only the values of poetry; rather the values of the individual, of particular classes, of particular nations. No one appreciates poetry more highly than he does. But there is no one who knows better to appreciate products other than poetic, whether it be that of the peasant, of the artisan, or of the industrial worker. More accurately, perhaps, he includes all true creativity within the category of poetry.

He was born in 1902 at Rácegres, on a large estate in Western Hungary, on a puszta (this is nothing like the stepps called puszta and found by the tourist seeking exotic sites—the pseudoromantic puszta promoted in such a theatrical, hence false way, in the Great Plains, by the Hungarian tourist organizations). His father was an engineer on the estate. Gyula was not the first in the family to receive an education. He became an avid reader early in life. In one of his reminiscences he describes the frenetic, formative influence exerted on him as a schoolboy by one of the great classics of 19th-century Hungarian literature, the epic poem Toldi by János Arany. Thanks to a teacher uncle he became acquainted, at the time of the First World War, with the best series of publications of the times; thus he reads Guglielmo Ferrero, Kropotkin, and Darwin. He read Marx for the first time, and studied French enthusiastically:

"I learnt to speak my mother tongue in a heavy dialect. The way I said 'yes' betrayed not only my provincial origin but also that I grew up on a puszta: that my world was the lowest stratum even among the peasantry. It was some kind of negro skin I was wearing, a yellow star. I started to learn French in order to be able to speak. For my dialect bore this stamp, which gradually deprived me of speech altogether. So it occurred to me that when I speak French nobody would notice I came from a puszta. At most, they might notice that I am Hungarian. And as such I would blend into equality with the millions who speak French with a foreign accent. Hence, unlike others, it is not national but class isolation that I wanted to break away from," he wrote in 1963 in his essay "Hála a második anyanyelvért" ("Thanks to the second mothertongue") dealing with French language and literature.

He was sixteen when the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed at the end of October 1918; in the next threequarters of a year he witnessed the failure of the bourgeois revolution, and the fall of the Republic of Councils. He was there, arms in hand, when the eastern front of the Republic collapsed, and he participated in the support action on behalf of the relatives of the political prisoners. He had to emigrate.

He lived in Paris for five years, until 1926.

"Paris was freely and refreshingly infinite, like the puszta itself. It was not merely a matter of French civilization. There was even a Parisian civilization. Its main accomplishment is that even in crowd one has the right to be alone. My self-confidence was enhanced by my belief that one could step into the apartment of a writer as one would into a museum, into an old church, into other public places … And they received me at all hours with exemplary self-control … In his flat in Montmartre … (Paul) Reverdy lit a slice of paper from a small oil lamp at a picture of the Virgin between two Picasso masterpieces, and then lit the wick under the samovar to make tea. He talked to me, and made me talk" ("Thanks to the second mother-tongue.")

In his autobiographical narrative Hunok Párizsban (Huns in Paris, 1946) Illyés describes Tristan Tzara's moving kindness and attentiveness. He was also witness to the production of the pamphlet "The Carrion" by young surrealists at the time of the death of Anatole France.

"It was Paris that made me Hungarian," he wrote elsewhere.

In 1934, in The People of the Puszta, he wrote: "Those who set out from the farm servants' dwellings to become human beings regularly cast aside and forget their origins at first, like tadpoles becoming frogs. This is the road of progress and there is no other. Those who desert the air of the pusztas must acquire new hearts and lungs, otherwise they die in their new environment. And if they ever want to get back there, they must compass the world to do so."

"I myself went through the stages of this agonizing metamorphosis and only after the sixth or seventh stage did I become enough of a man to tackle the puszta."

The work of his life since his return home or, if we need pinpoint a date, since the publication of his first volume of poems, Nehézföld (A hard land) in 1928, is a record of this undertaking.

The metamorphosis described by Illyés, the leaving and returning, and later the process of undertaking, are all well known psychological phenomena; the confessions of a number of artists, scientists, and politicians bear it out. Illyés was not the only one who did not slam the door behind himself after the metamorphosis. But every kind of fidelity is unique and indivisible, and even in the most difficult times Illyés remained faithful to his French experience, to the spirit of the république des lettres which he seems to have acquired in the company of dadaists and surrealists.

In 1942, when Hungary was an ally of Fascist Germany, it was he who edited (and translated in part) the anthology Λ francia irodalom kincsesháza (The treasure-house of French literature.) He wrote in the preface:

"How can one express gratitude to an entire nation? Since Bessenyei and Petofi how many Hungarians have become richer from the wealth of the French spirit? Translation work is a mark of homage. I would like to present this collection of homages as the expression of our gratitude at this difficult moment of the French nation."

The anthology introduced French literature from the first text in verse in the vernacular, the Cantilène of Sainte Eulalie (881) to Péguy and Apollinaire, including the works of poets, prosewriters, and moralists. Although part of a series, it was an occasional collection: a political and artistic programme, the praise of the French spirit, the defence of the "open door", in the third year of the Second World War. And, like the Bartok poem, it stood the test of time, and remains to this day among the best, the most stimulating introduction to French thought in the Hungarian language.

Between 1942 and March 1944 Illyés was a literary power, the editor, of the periodical Magyar Csillag. This was the most prestigious literary periodical of the time in Hungary. Illyés believed, quite consciously, the periodical to be an arm of resistance, a "corrall" into which all values could be collected and preserved. When, as a result of the Race Law (à la Nürnberg) the Hungarian writers of Jewish descent found themselves excluded from literature, Illyés opened up the periodical to them in spite of attacks from the extreme right. Not Illyés, but the interested parties testify that he saved lives in this manner. Incidentally, his youthful experiences with the workers' movement and the reminiscences about his contacts with French writers recorded in Huns in Paris began to appear in Magyar Csillag. This too required some courage. The German occupation of the country on March 19, 1944, forced him into hiding.

The leading periodical of the great literary renaissance at the beginning of the century was Nyugat (1908-1941), often referred to as a Hungarian version of the Nouvelle Revue Française. One of the respected collaborators of Nyugat from the very start, and its editor during the last decade was Mihály Babits (1883-1941), the liberal Catholic poet, novelist, essayist, and translator. One of his most significant works was the Európai irodalom története (The history of European literature); and it was precisely Illyés who wrote the preface to its German edition. In the introduction to the Open door Illyés proved again a disciple of Babits: "Supra-national literature, read everywhere alike, preceded national literatures", he argued.

Among those who began writing between the two world wars there were barely any who did not learn one thing or another from Babits; likewise there were but few who did not turn on Babits passionately for a longer or shorter period of time. Perhaps there never has been a writer so fiercely berated by friends and opponents of merit.

Soon after his return from Paris Illyés became a close and faithful friend to Babits, by fifteen years his senior; he also became one of the main contributors of Nyugat. After the death of Babits, when the officials of the Horthy regime made the continuation of the "liberal-destructive" periodical impossible, Illyés received permission to launch Magyar Csillag. This review became a rallying point for the most diverse views; it became the mouthpiece of progressive creative artists and writers, including the "populists."

It is possible to date the beginnings of the "populist" movement with fair accuracy by the publication of a certain article. In 1933, Illyés published in Nyugat a warning about the destruction threatening the peasantry of Western Hungary. The article elicited a considerable response, and soon led to the formation of a group of writers who were wont to identify the peasantry with the nation (or, to be more exact, the nation with the peasants). The members of the populist movement, however, were not exclusively of peasant origin, as Illyés reminds us. For instance, their periodical was edited by György Sárközi, who started under the influence of Neo-Catholicism somewhere close to Babits and who, because of his Jewish descent, fell victim to the National Socialist terror.

It is not my task to write about the populists here, although I feel justified in regarding them as the most sig nificant Hungarian intellectual movement between the two world wars. I need only mention that we are not dealing with a unified movement at all; that its own semiofficial historian excluded precisely Illyés and László Németh, preferring to describe Illyés as a disciple of Babits, and Németh as a "loner." This ostracism, however, did not prevent Illyés either then or now, from identifying himself with the attitudes of the populists. And something else. Those conversations I owe to Illyés, to which I had referred above, have convinced me that the "populist" movement was not as peculiarly Hungarian as its opponents, or its biased supporters, would often have it. The social and national problems of the peasantry, the problem of national identification, the relationship of rural and urban, from the turn of the century to our days, in Europe and beyond Europe, in this century or that, at this time or that, have become topical issues. Illyés himself had always said so himself.

It is characteristic of Illyés after his metamorphosis, after he found his calling, that he stood up for his views on the "open door" not only in the sixties and seventies, but also during the decade and a half before 1945, when it was most dangerous. He has always remained faithful to Babits, although several of his companions among the populists had attacked the great poet, considering him as just about the enemy number one; and Illyés has always remained faithful to the populists as well, even during the most diverse attacks against them, before 1945 and after, from the right and from the left; and he has remained always faithful to the dadaists and surrealists, although this faith was likewise not without peril either before 1945, during the Fascist period, or after, in the years of dogmatism. Almost alone among the thinkers of our century Illyés deems that we can only be faithful to the principles of social progress and to universal culture, by leaning on national culture and traditions.

This triple faith, in the populists, in Babits, and in the surrealists, is embodied in masterpieces such as The People of the Puszta (1936), his biography of Petőfi (1936), cr Magyarok (Hungarians), a collection of essays and diary notes published in 1939, and in hundreds of poems as well (but I would also refer to his plays). The People of the Puszta is actually an overture to the sociological and literary movement by means of which the populists sought to uncover, document, and change the life of the peasantry. His Petőfi biography of 1936 asserts in a straightforward and provocative way, in contrast to the conservative, official interpretation of the time, that Petőfi was a poet of the revolution, and that this revolution had become, if possible, more timely than ever. This piece of writing was also incidental, just like his People of the Puszta, and it too became a classic; both dealt with the most burning daily problems. And their increasing effect at home and abroad proves, after more than forty years, that Illyés had been using lasting materials and created lasting works. Incidentally, this also applies to the far less familiar Hungarians in which we find side by side essays dealing with the misery of the peasant, the threat to the nation, and Tzara.

Furthermore, all this is particularly characteristic of his poetry. One of his poems of more than forty years ago, one of the most important pertaining to the populist movement, was described as follows by the English poet Eric Mottram in The New Hungarian Quarterly: "Illyés 'The Wonder Castle' is a major example of how to get explicitly social consciousness into a poem, without turning the work into a documentary or a form of propaganda."

This lengthy lyrical work is practically a summing-up of everything that has preoccupied Illyés in The People of the Puszta, Petőfi, and Hungarians. I will quote two excerpts. An invitation to a dinner in a swanky residential area of Budapest gives the poet the occasion to talk about contrasts and confrontations. Thus, he meditates while the cog-wheel railway climbs the hill:

… I felt I was climbing
up the Hill straight from the puszta's

evening fields, where many times
I'd written out day-labourer's schedules.

I'll tell you why I thought that way,
looking at the ticket in my hand
in my seat on the Cog-Wheel Railway:
for should a peasant have a mind
to take the self-same ride,
he'd dig for his ticket an entire working day.
At home seventy fillérs is a whole day's pay.

And this was how he saw the upper-class neighbourhood:

… With the old look-out tower
it was like a magic castle,
the terrifying or happy
seat of some Asiatic deity
found only in Hungarian or Vogul folk-tale,
called Castle Spinning on a Duck's Leg: Wonder Castle.

In 1934 he met Malraux in Moscow, at the first congress of Soviet writers. (By the way, Illyés had written an excellent account of his trip, acceptable even now, in fact, reissued under the title Oroszország [Russia].) During the sixties, Malraux, as a member of the Government, received a delegation of Hungarian writers, of which Illyés was a member; the meeting was recorded by Illyés in one of his most memorable essays.

On the day of the burial I was reading Malraux's Lazare which had just seen print; and I also happened to pick up the book Illyés had written seven years earlier, and which exists in French and a number of other languages. Kháron ladikján (Charon's ferry). Was it the time and the place? The two books frightfully resembled each other. Not because of the style, and not because of their topic taken in the narrow sense. Rather because of the passion with which both authors interrogate death; because of the ruthless objectivity with which they look at themselves; because of their rejection of every form of cheap consolation. And because both appeal to human solidarity. For decades, both had been preoccupied with the problems of death and of creation. Illyés writes in "Charon's ferry": "Actually old age is the only worthwhile question any imaginable philosophy may ask."

In 1926, as he returned from Paris, Illyés met the problem of death. He was concerned with the nightmare of national death, as were many Hungarian writers before him, and the problem of human death, the death of the individual without the shelter of religious faith—actually for the first time in Hungarian literature. During four decades, varying according to place, time, occasion, age, Illyés had written about death unflinchingly. To resort once again to the metaphor I have used many times already, here too Illyés opened doors: he joined, without appeal, the individual being to the social being. When he pays attention to a class, to a nation, and to nations in general (since even geographically speaking his interests become ever more catholic, the years having only enhanced his curiosity and his worries), he never forgets about the individual human being, and vice versa. And he formulates this unity, in the spirit of the Open door of the Free feast, and of the Handshakes in the epilogue to his poem "The Maker" ("Teremteni"):

With these mortal eyes
to learn what I am here to do,
the job that waits for me to do it,
for which, somewhere,
a peasant, hoeing, sends me this
glass of wine,
a worker touching down his soldering-iron
sent light
into my room,
to find with mortal eyes
the eternal task:
Make the future speak!
—already it is quarreling with death,

skillfully, intelligent,
bustling, with

To do the job
well, to our liking
—yes, like good

Almost stroking its face
in gratitude.,

To leave it there,
to look back a few times
on the one who lies there satisfied;
she keeps my riches,
conceiving my future,
the meaning, maybe forever, of all
I was here for,

Mortal, imperishable.

Thus wrote Illyés in 1968, almost a decade ago, when he was 66.

Teremteni—(literally: "to create") the title of the poem and of the volume, the title of the second volume of his collected verse, covering the period 1946 to 1968. It is a key word, sibling to Open door, Free feast, and Handshakes. At 75 Illyés continues to work, to create, faithful to himself, and without repeating himself. The work shapes him and he shapes with his work. To despair, illness, old age, nightmares he replies with work that has become a ceremonial act. Jean Follain knew about him that "he offers us communion without reservations or literary artifices with the joys and sorrows of the present; but he is always caught again by amazements that bear witness to hope."


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Gyula Illyés 1902–1983

Hungarian poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, dramatist, and political activist.

For the quality of his writing and political activism through that writing, Illyés is generally considered the greatest Hungarian poet of his time. In a country where the inhabitants have historically turned to their artists for support in times of crisis, Illyés is accepted as the greatest spokesperson for the common people. Regardless of genre, his works are marked by a simplicity of language and stark immediacy that compound its stirring nature. Illyés's work can never be discussed without placing it in the context of Hungary during his lifetime—a period marked by great political upheaval—because, as he himself admitted, "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."

Biographical Information

Illyés was born in Râcegres, on the Hungarian puszta, or plains, at the estate where his parents were servants. His people were landless agricultural workers in this feudal society. The efforts of his family allowed him to attend school in Budapest, but after his participation in the unsuccessful Hungarian Communist Revolution of 1919, he was forced to flee the country and finish his education at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Illyés's time in Paris had a profound effect on his work in that his experiences outside of Hungary gave him a better understanding of his homeland. At that time he also associated with dadaists and surrealists Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara, although their influence did not have a lasting effect on his style. He began his writing career in Paris but returned to Hungary in 1926. With his first novel, Puszták népe (People of the Puszta) in 1936, Illyés established himself as an influential writer on the scene, and he continued to gain esteem as his career progressed. In 1937 he became an editor of Nyugat (West), a well-respected literary magazine, and eventually began his own magazine, Magyar Csillag (Hungarian Star). At the onset of World War II, Illyés's writing became increasingly political and he was censured for it. When Nazi oppression ended, Hungary enjoyed a brief period of independence during which Illyés served in parliament. When Communists came to power, Illyés was allowed some freedoms because of his position among the people, despite his constant denunciation of the government. His work continued to champion the people even after his death in 1983.

Major Works

Although most widely known as a poet, Illyés is renowned for his prose masterpiece, People of the Puszta, a mostly autobiographical tale of peasants and poverty. Its objective and detached descriptions helped expose the horror of that life, spurring on other social commentators and fledgling acts of reform. Illyés's next work, Petöfi (1937), a critical biography of the nineteenth-century poet Sandor Petöfi, is held as the greatest work on that subject. Illyés was extremely prolific throughout his life and was known for the complete body of his work, especially his poetry. Without objection, however, critics consider his most famous poem to be "Egy mondat a zsarnoksagrol" ("One Sentence on Tyranny"), a simply stated and profoundly moving piece on the causes of tyranny published in 1956.

Critical Reception

Gyula Illyés was universally lauded throughout his long career by critics and, more importantly, the people of Hungary. He was loved and read not simply for his writing skills, but for his constant support of the people through his works. Because a good part of his work has not been translated, nor has there been an adequately detailed study, Illyés remains relatively unknown to the English-speaking world. But as French critic Alain Bosquet noted, "There are only three or four … poets in the world who could gradually absorb the spirit of the century in the widest sense of the word…. In Gyula Illyés their genius is present…. His famous poem 'One Sentence on Tyranny' will survive as one of the purest cries of a generation's pain."

Mátyás Domokos (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: "Gyula Illyés, A Living Classic," in The New Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 88, Winter, 1982, pp. 9-22.

[In the following essay, Domokos defines Illyés's "classicism"the strength of his poetry due to its complete integration with the Europe in which it was created.]

Gyula Illyés's first pieces were published in the beginning of the twenties in Hungarian and international classical avant-garde magazines. Since then, from over fifty published volumes and innumerable other writings as yet unpublished in book form, a many-sided artistic world emerges, whose every individual manifestation must always have been found astonishingly new, disturbingly original and exciting by his readers—to borrow the title of one of his late poems, each piece belongs to "the world of eternal works of art." The author himself is considered one of the truest, one of the most representative of Hungarian writers. His great fellow-poet and friend, L őrinc Szabó, justly wrote of him in 1956: "All the citizens of Hungary—no, even the whole of our cultural life of the future, shall forever remain in his debt." He is instinctively and naturally thought of as a living classic by the literary and intellectual Hungarian public.

Illyés's pen does not bind him to any one particular literary genre. He has been writing poetry and prose, essays and drama, polemical pamphlets and literary sociology for six decades, expressing himself with the same passionate clarity in short newspaper articles, many-tomed biographically inspired novels, diaries and philosophical treatises alike. It would be hard to determine which part of his own writing he considers the most important: the essays that celebrate the spirit, the variety, the expressiveness, the vividness of the Hungarian language; the journalistic pieces intended to shape, analyse or redress the historical consciousness of the Hungarian people while illuminating current questions of vital importance; the translations, the artistic virtuosity of interpreting, with unfaithful fidelity, the messages of foreign poetic worlds; or that which we consider after the French as the "attempting of the impossible," the expression of that which cannot be told except in verse. In other words, his is a universal literary spirit, continually inspired, active in all literary fields, and producing work of lasting validity.

But what is the meaning of this epitheton ornans, on what is it based? It is based on the unity of the life and the work, on the artistic realisation of this unity. Yet is it right, is one entitled, in an aesthetic sense, to judge a work in the light of our knowledge of the facts of the personal life of the author, to place the facts of that life upon the precision-scales of the ideas professed in the work of art? T. S. Eliot, in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, emphatically declares that "the honest critic and the sensitive judge is not interested in the poet as a person, but in his poetry." Illyés himself is among those who object to a critic's vivisection of the personal life of the artist (he usually cites Maupassant, who wrote in a letter to a friend: "I don't like the public barging in on my life … My life is my own … Everything I have written belongs to the public, to the critics, is open to discussion and curiosity, but I do not want anything that relates to my way of living or my person to be cried from the housetops."

Illyés himself knows that the biography of a poet has always more to offer, is always richer and thus more enlightening than an ordinary, everyday biography, and is necessary for a deeper, more complete understanding of the poet's work—if he did not know it he would not have sown his œuvre with biographical references, examples and allusions. In art, as in life, experience lived is the most irrefutable argument if it has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. Eliot knew this well, writing in his study of Hamlet, as if continuing the above-cited thought: "Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for 'interpretation' the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know." Which seems an insoluble task within the limits of an essay of determined length, since in the case of a Hungarian poet, because of linguistic and other barriers, almost every historical fact can be considered as unfamiliar to the foreign reader. This is why I am taking the liberty of outlining a rudimentary biography in order to characterize the nature of Illyés's classicism from the personal side as well.

Gyula Illyés is known throughout the world primarily as the author of The People of the Puszta (Puszták népe, 1936) since this, invariably moving autobiographical novel appearing in the guise of literary sociology is the work which has been translated into the most languages. (In New Zealand it became compulsory reading material as a guide to the true nature of European feudalism.) He was in actual fact born on a "puszta," on the 2nd of November in 1902 in Felső-Rácegres, at a time when Hungary was still part of the Dual Monarchy. Though his mother had rocked his cradle in front of a mechanic's house, a large step away from a farm labourer's dwellings, they were nevertheless inhabitants of the Transdanubian countryside, a bleak and dreary wilderness which, though Illyés has called it the "fairy valley" of his childhood, bears in reality little resemblance to the photographs found in travel agencies, embellished by commercial romanticism. (The Transdanubian puszta means the miserable dwellings of farmhands and labourers on big estates, while on the Great Plains it means the infinite flat steppe.) As a "young dog" his spirit and intellect were matured by the agitated years and bloody events of the First World War, and the self-imposed study of the French language was a first sign of that longing, that yearning after education, enlightenment, the radiance of European culture, which was to characterize his life. During the age of revolutions and counter-revolutions following the "golden age" of Francis Joseph, his Beatrice was the Goddess of Revolution, unattainable throughout the history of mankind, and as her romantically arduous teen-age knight he came into contact with the struggling Hungarian labour movement—as a consequence of which he had to escape to Paris when he was barely twenty, and remained there in exile for five years. After his return in 1926 he became one of the mainstays of the last significant Hungarian avant-garde magazine, the Dokumentum, founded by Kassák; then he joined the ranks of the leading contributors to Nyugat, a literary magazine of the highest standard, which revived Hungarian literature from the beginning of the century, expressing the direction, the spirit, the atmosphere of this revival in its chosen title—West. After the death of Mihály Babits, the editor of the magazine, Illyés became editor-in-chief of Magyar Csillag, which continued in the Nyugat tradition and became in turn a stronghold of European leftwing humanism, until forced to cease publication when German troops occupied Hungary. Illyés spent the last months of the war in hiding. In the post-war world he reorganized and edited the magazine Válasz, which was devoted to the cause of the village proletariat. Since Válasz ceased publication on official orders at the end of the forties, he has lived for his writing only, but his work, ideals and behaviour have always been the subject of invariably passionate debate.

This much should have become clear from this bird's-eye view of the author's life (which is also the reason why I thought it worth giving): though Illyés has lived through seven forms of government, which, in historical terms, can be divided into at least a dozen extremely distinct, at times sharply contradictory periods, he is among those who can have the rare satisfaction of never having had to rewrite or disclaim a single line of his life-work in this ever-moving, ever-changing East-Central European world. This is the constant moral co-ordinate of his living classicism; to this he owes his permanent, large reading public—and to this consistent moral attitude, characteristic of the whole of his œuvre, he has owed the outbursts of jealousy and "foaming hatred." His œuvre has thus weathered the storms of changing opinions and turbulent passions, from which it would appear that he has found a conscientious solution to the objective moral dilemma which haunts the modern artist (and not only in Hungary). Thanks to the moral integrity of his personal life his work bears the stamp of authenticity without having to resort to spectacular-romantic gestures or wild heroic scenes; it nevertheless safeguards his work from moral wear and tear.

However, Gyula Illyés is originally and ultimately a poet; moreover, a poet of avant-garde instigations. In Paris as a young man he had been part of that company of poets who had begun to form a new French avantgarde which counted among its members Aragon, Eluard, Crevel, Max Jacob, Breton, Cocteau, Desnos, Vaillant-Couturier, Malraux, Supervielle, and the pope: Tristan Tzara. Not only had he been part of the company, he had also written and published hair-raisingly modern poems in French. Is it not sacrilegious, or to look upon things from another angle, can it not be thought old-fashioned pedantry to speak of "classicism" in the case of a poetic œuvre emerging from the cascade of the permanent revolution of modern poetry—a poetic œuvre which has remained loyal to certain fundamental laws of that poetic revolution? And what can, after all, be considered the criterion and possibility of classicism, in a process whose single invariable trait is undefinability and permanent uncertainty, a trait which, to all intents and purposes, connects modern poetry with quantum physics?

Let us imagine (if we can) that an unprejudiced, uncommitted, critical mind sets out to write the precise and true history of the newest epoch of European poetry. It is clear that we must imagine the impossible: the "perfect critic," who, with infinite knowledge and an all-encompassing gaze, is capable of bringing order and method into the chaos which began in the middle of the last century, in the summer of 1857, when Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal was published. This chaos dates back more than a hundred years and is invariably called "modern poetry" by general agreement throughout the world (as if its inspiring Muse were related to those beautiful ladies who have a past but are ageless). If this ideal critic wished to penetrate the theoretical clouds surrounding this chaotically swirling modern poetical world from its cradle, his pragmatic passions will find that the process originates—paradoxically—in Hegel's aesthetics, who predicted the death of poetry from his professor's desk at the Berlin university, irrefutably asserting that art shall step "from the poetry of the imagination into the prose of thought," because poetry is "that strange art in which art itself begins to disintegrate," to be replaced by the prose of scientific thought.

The outcome (which seems to be a malicious trick that history plays to demonstrate how unsuccessful futurologists and theoretical soothsayers and prophets of the spirit are) is well-known by all. Contrary to Hegel's gloomy prophecy (and probably without his knowledge) Rimbaud completed the revolution in contemporary poetry within the "inner age of imagination and sensibility" (Hegel) with the categoric imperative of Il faut être absolument modernel. Instead of decaying, poetry began to flourish, a phenomenon which we can bear witness to even today. Bear witness to—and endure. Because parallel with the birth of never before experienced, gloriously new poetic worlds, a symptomatic Badness is becoming ever more apparent, a badness more ignominious than the predicted painless death: it is the general, almost irredeemable discrediting of the modern poetic word, of modern poetry. To be aware of this it is unnecessary to attend the arrival of the ideal critic of one's imagination. No humble but honest commentator of modern poetry can turn a deaf ear to the loud complaints of the reading public (complaints whose validity, if he is not tone-deaf, and if his honesty is stronger than his snobbishness, his own reading experience will affirm). Our contemporary poetry, especially its neo-avant-garde, reflects to a lesser and lesser extent those vital historical, social, moral, and metaphysical problems of our age that fill human existence with almost unbearable tension and anguish and upon whose precise artistic description and implacably truthful artistic interpretation the spiritual life, the future—the very existence of humanity—may depend.

It is not so long ago that Fernand Léger, the man who transformed the everyday mythology of the twentieth century into modern yet timelessly universal images, the brilliant painter friend of Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Reverdy, Cendrars, Cézanne, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, and Braque, defined the fundamental problem and test of modern art as that of "being free yet not losing contact with reality." It is this, the contact with reality, that seems to have been lost in the all-inundating silt of contemporary modern poetry; this is why it leaves unanswered the agonizing questions of contemporary man, why it remains silent in the face of the agonizing emptiness. For how can it give heed to Max Jacob's counsel, according to which "modern poetry is the world in man," if it is unable to retain its contact with these two fundamental realities? If its aimlessness must be compensated for by fashions, fads and theories, if it has lost the significance of its freedom by not knowing what to do with these two realities, with man and the world in the widest sense of the word, in which the surrealism of dreams is as real as history, politics, or love, or the facts, passions, interior and exterior excitements of the intellect which the human heart can still wish to see as the possible material of modern poetry, as in the times of Virgil, Dante, or Baudelaire …

Artistic freedom perceiving reality in a new way: classicism cannot be imagined without it. But what is the hormone of this classicism? For simplicity allow me to quote Eliot once again: "If there is one word on which we can fix, which will suggest the maximum of what I mean by the term 'a classic,' it is the word maturity." This maturity, one must add, is the artistic method of handling, of manipulating, reality and all poetry incapable of attaining that maturity with creative originality within the historical period of the language and civilisation in which it appears is unavoidably devalued and discredited in the eyes of humanity. "Maturity of mind: this needs history, and the consciousness of history," adds the author of The Waste Land in What is a Classic. "Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet's own people. We need this in order to see our own place in history. There must be the knowledge of the history of at least one other highly civilized people …"

For Gyula Illyés this maturity of the spirit, the original artistic contact with reality and the consciousness of history in Eliot's sense of the word, was achieved during the five years of exile in Paris between 1921 and 1926. The weekdays spent in physical labour and as a trade union activist, the holidays spent on the terraces of the Dôme, the Coupole and the Flore in the company of the young revolutionaries in art made him familiar with the history of another, widely cultured people, made it part of his destiny. And the history of France, according to Illyés, "is principally characterized by striving for lucidity." It was through this lucidity that he was able to recognize his poetic material and his own place in history. It is almost symbolical that the most significant pieces of his first volume of verse, Tough Land (Nehéz Föld), published in 1928, which attracted immediate attention for its originality and modernity, the pieces which reflected Hungarian conditions according to the harmonics of the most modern French poetry, were all written in Paris. Bewitched by the surrealist word-cinema, it was nevertheless without volition or intention that the image of "The Sad Field-hand" ("Szomorú béres") arose in his mind and was put to paper immediately—on a bench on the Ile Saint Louis, opposite the Palace Lambert.

"Actually, the reason why I am grateful to Paris," declared the eighty-year-old poet recently, "is because it was upon my return from there that I discovered—the world. I could have gone back, I had the opportunity. But it was with my Paris mind that I realised that this material, this place was mine; that if anywhere, this is where I must work … If I hadn't have gone to Paris, I would never have understood it." And however strange it may sound, this is how the "Hungarian abyss," The People of the Puszta, the awe-inspiring, incendiary book dealing with the life of the field-hands, enriched by biographical elements, was born—and could only have been born—out of the most typical avant-garde gesture and passion. Gide's Voyage au Congo, published a little earlier, encouraged and stimulated him to describe the "natives" of Central Europe, the suffocatingly hopeless life of tens of thousands living from hand to mouth in virtual serfdom: the life of those who "are to suffer corporeal punishment only until the age of forty," because, later, a telling off was enough to bring tears to their eyes. (Let me repeat that this was in the first third of the twentieth century, in the centre of Europe!) "I am more or less Gyula Illyés's fellow-countryman," wrote Mihály Babits, one of the leading figures of the artistic revolution which revived Hungarian literature. "But I read this book, full of incomparably rich and authentic experiences, as if I was reading an exciting travelogue about a sofar undiscovered continent and its natives, as if I myself were part of the expedition—all the more sensational and exciting as the continent chances to be the land of my birth." And the most shocking discovery—one may safely say its avantgarde novelty—for Babits as for every reader was that the people of the puszta are—servants; since "the puszta," writes Babits, "exists in our imagination as the idyllic land of freedom."

In Illyés's case the moment of creating modern poetical contact with reality coincided with the historical moment in Hungarian poetry when, to quote Babits, "the phoenix of Hungarian populist poetry was reborn." This same moment arrived throughout Europe, in the lyrical poetry of the twenties and thirties from Esenin to Lorca, as though poets from Leningrad to Granada had suddenly become aware, through the secret channels of inspiration (originating in Burns perhaps) that twentieth century civilisation would efface the old, traditional peasant way of life from the sociological map of Europe. The poets who belonged to this layer of society by birth felt it their mission to sing the swan-song of this disappearing world and human culture. Illyés himself wrote his poems in awareness of this: "A hundred dead peasants had to sing | furrowed brows bent over ploughs | that I should one day join their host | and open my mouth in song. | Fly high, my words, cry loud, my memories, | shout out, my people | I am singing your song." ("Three old men", "Három öreg", 1931. Prose translation.)

The most general "material" co-ordinate of Illyés's living classicism, of the maturity of his handling of his poetic material is this sociological reality. It is from this that he derives the concreteness of his poetic language, images and perception, whose inspiring sentiments and passions are fed by the primary human experiences of childhood: the continuous, nostalgic attachment to the world of the poor. "We were simple poor people" he wrote, describing this attachment in the prose volume Like the Cranes (Mint a Darvak, 1942) in an almost biblical idiom in the beginning of the forties, "and like the sage wanted nothing from life except simple living … My childhood in the puszta—with its mysteries and hardships—was more unhappy than happy … but if we were happy sometimes, it was because we were poor, because all the people around us were poor, that is, workers; that is, manual labourers … The secret of what life was could only be discovered through them. They are still in contact with what creation was for. Contrary to all appearances, I must maintain that only the poor know how to live, they alone know what life is, they alone can identify themselves with it … The most valuable spiritual part of humanity can be found in the infinite host of the poor." Stronger than the determination of his origins, stronger than the recognition of his poetic material, it was this conviction that led Illyés to join the ranks of those writers who acted as the spokesmen for the poor, for the Hungarian village proletariat. From the middle of the thirties he was one of those writers who ruthlessly and realistically depicted village conditions between the two world wars. What they did, politically speaking, was to defend human rights with the devices of art, in the spirit of Helsinki, but preceding it by forty years.

The unbroken contact with social reality and his own Voltairean spirit luckily safeguarded Illyés from treating the "divine" people or its synonym, the poor, as a myth. "It was not poverty, but the poor | that I praised to my heart's content," wrote Illyés at the end of the Second World War, on the eve of the great changes which would radically transform the aspect, the structure and the hierarchy of Hungarian society. "I profess—let there be an end to poverty!" writes Illyés in "One Year" ("Egy év," 1945); but also "Change, but without changing"—in other words, let the poor preserve the "most valuable part of their spiritual selves," their old, high moral standards in spite of the temptations that are the trappings of power.

Once again he recognized the impending dangers as a revolutionary poet, as the avant-garde, the "vanguard" of artistic and social revolutions should. He recognised the impending dangers of the preconditional interdependence of the instinct to tyranny and the instinct to servility which resulted in the numerous human, political and historical dramas of the fifties—and which provided him with material for his plays. The Minion (A kegyenc), an adaptation of a nineteenth century play, for example, clothed this century's lust for power in the garb of Roman history. It was first presented at the Vieux Colombier theatre in Paris at the beginning of the sixties. And if the classicism of Illyés has a political co-ordinate, more complex than that which is concerned with the tactics of everyday politics, it must be looked for he resolves the dilemma of political action and morality. It can be found in the conviction that man cannot be disloyal to the moral inheritance which entitled him to take part in the formation of history, an inheritance acquired and created through much suffering and pain. To this he cannot be disloyal even if his social circumstances change, even if he is under the spell of a certain goal.

Through the unrestrained contact with the realities of the century, Gyula Illyés's life-work, especially his poetry, is capable of dealing with subjects which resolve the schisms apparent in modern lyrical poetry since Mallarmé. His is the poetic synthesis of all the opportunities offered by European avant-garde and Hungarian classical traditions and it presents, in poems, be they in prose or in classical form, that philosophical reality or awareness of life that was brought to light by the end of the twentieth century. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that in our days it is to this that Illyés's classicism, his artistic, moral and intellectual maturity owes its most exciting results. But this was inherent in his poetic nature from the beginnings in Paris. Because Illyés has always been "a poet of many instincts," as his contemporary, László Németh diagnosed him. "There are some poems of Illyés which make me say that folk-songs shall never grow out of date," he wrote of Tough Land (Nehéz föld) in 1928, in a review of Illyés's first volume. But folk-poetry is only one of his impulses. Another is Horace and Virgil, via the poems of Hungarian romanticism. He can diffuse the atmosphere, the enthusiasm of Latin lyrical poetry in the form of avant-garde vers libre. The third poetic impulse of this rational poet, Voltaire-like in spirit, against all obscurity in poetry, was that faculty of abstraction of which László Németh wrote: "his most concrete images are somehow full of intimations of metaphysics." Over and above the images, his poetry on the whole—in fact, his inspiration—is full of "metaphysical intimations" and since the end of the fifties he too has been leading (as his master, Babits did "as the fisherman of an eternal current") a new poetic crusade into "Nothingness." These existentialist poems are naturally not the revelations of a dogmatic philosophy: they express the mysteries of philosophy, the agonizing ecstasy and drama of thinking. The single worthy—or, if you like, distressing—metaphysical question for Illyés, the question which emanates the atmosphere of philosophy in recent poems, is the question of Non-Existence. In point of fact it is a question that almost corresponds to the problem of suicide raised in the essays of Camus. But the difference is enormous. Illyés does not wish to provide the unavoidable metaphysical questions of existence with solutions of a metaphysical nature. He prefers to give earthly—materialistic—answers. Illyés's crusade into Heidegger's Nothingness, his struggles with the thought of death, with the agonizingly absurd question—Can death be defeated?—are concluded, through his original approach to the problem, in a manner new to modern Hungarian and European poetry. His materialistic conception of the universe leaves him without a God, without transcendence—without the possibility of belief in survival which gave solace to Christian humanity through hundreds of years, providing them with the final meaning of life, a recipe written on the pages of the Bible. Illyés, however, does not worship the idols of his own materialistic convictions. He asks his own questions, starting from the premises of a new state of existence. He is capable of discerning the changes wrought in the collective consciousness—and the collective subconscious—of humanity towards the end of this century, the consequences of which are evident: the world has lost its gods, the world has lost transcendence. But the consequences of this loss are not as obvious, as if we were afraid to reflect upon the life we are living. Yet if there is no God, if transcendence has gone like a dream, then the new, non-metaphysical interpretation of death lays the duty of giving an entirely new interpretation of life on the poet. The mission of the poet, as the late poems of Illyés affirm, is to keep these questions alive—to help man find his new place, his new "consciousness of existence" in a life without God.

What is the meaning of life, and can it have any meaning if death awaits us as the end, inevitably but totally senselessly? This question was planted in the consciousness of ontologically orphaned man with unbearable poignancy by the existentialists. Illyés does not accept the question as a starting point because he is an existentialist; he feels with an acute poetic instinct that the existentialists, Camus among them, have simply given a definition to that distressing, instinctive feeling which in the absence of a rational, that is, an acceptable and reassuring answer, can lead to the most varied excesses in the practical and moral—and historical—way of contemporary living; all this is due to the devaluation of moral norms and restraints based on old metaphysical illusions. Life has become dull, mass-produced, hopelessly manipulated. "Life is not worth the effort it takes to sustain it"—this is perhaps Georg Büchner's most bitter thought, voiced by the disenchanted Camille Desmoulins in a play (The Death of Danton) written some hundred and fifty years ago. Georg Büchner's bitterness today is a general experience and a general item of evidence. Yet it is this degraded, defenceless, pointlessly but skillfully tortured and subdued life that seems the most important, the only value in the eyes and consciousness of the world, a value whose hedonistic sustenance thus justifies any means. "Only the apes suffer" in front of the mirrors of their conscience, says Büchner.

Illyés knows that this question—which on a philosophical level cannot be considered the concern of many—is at the same time an ever more absurd practical contradiction. For the most part it is unformulated or unconscious, but nevertheless poisons every minute of our lives in the form of mass anxiety, and is thus one of the most vital problems of our life today. This is the reason why Illyés the poet accepts the superhuman and absurd challenge of the question. The intellectual poems of his most recent period indicate that his answers are not limited to metaphysical solace, nor to the moving expression of the sufferings of the solitary Self under the depression of passing time, as often happens in the better examples of modern lyrical poetry. Illyés would like to find a communal answer to this most personal, yet most general question, an answer which counteracts the consciousness of certain defeat—of death—by-passing the earlier metaphysical beliefs and illusions of historical man.

At all events, this is the most delicate question of poetry and of Existence, and it is a sure sign of Illyés's maturity—of his classicism—that to deal with this most agonizing and most harsh reality of our time, he is courageous enough to be a modern poet who is not ashamed of being intelligible. That which cannot be expressed by human words, which, as Montaigne wrote, is "as hard to perceive as a flash of lightning"—that is where Illyés is at his clearest. This poet, who at a certain point in time incited a whole class to find a new place in society, who later urged a whole nation to a new conquest, would now, in the most personal and most deeply concerned messages of his latest poems, urge the whole of humanity to create a new kind of domesticity for themselves—he urges on humanity which, he says, is always "on the road," its mode of existence being a procession of caravans. "The host of humanity marches on," he writes, unfolding one of the basic metaphors of his œuvre, "marching since the beginnings of time. It drags itself along jungle paths and in marshes, then invents the wheel and travels in waggons, and soon the waggon can roll without its team of oxen. And at all times there are some who travel above the procession; they are those who seem to fly. They are conscious of something, of a certain goal. I am not thinking of the 'vanguard,' or the 'pioneers,' nor of the 'leaders.' Those whom I am thinking of rarely voice their thoughts; they can be seen only in rare lucky moments. Nevertheless, they are the true leaders. There are but a few of them and are to humanity what salt is to goulash: without them the whole world would be just about bearable."

The instigator of Illyés's continual attraction to the notion of the road is probably the recognition of a primeval modelling principle. The story of art has portrayed human life, the realization of human destinies from the beginnings of time—from Homer to the Gospels and the various legends on the quest of the Grail—always on the road. Cervantes sends his hero on a journey, as do the authors of the great epics, as does Goethe his Faust, as do the authors of Bildungsroman and the great Russian, English and French novels of the last century and this. (Kerouac's On the Road even emphasizes the conscious return to the myth and metaphor of the road in its title.) Literature expresses and realizes the "space-time" of human destiny in the metaphor of the road. But who is Illyés thinking of when he speaks about the true leaders of the procession? The fact that anyone who can offer a worthwhile human goal, belief—or at least a hope—may become a leader of the procession adds to the mystery, the beauty but also to the truth of the metaphor. And at least a volume of Illyés poems render probable the assumption that "surveyor" poets who bear the true knowledge of the meaning of the journey, of the relation between road and destination, are also among the leaders.

To be the vanguard of the procession as an intellectual, to be a true leader—this characteristically avant-garde virtue has been the historical role and tradition of Hungarian literature for centuries. To understand this the foreign reader must be aware of the historical fact—or, rather, of that series of events—which led authors from the sixteenth century onwards to sound another note on the lyre of Hungarian poetry, a note that is rarely heard in the poetry of other, luckier nations. (There are exceptional situations, such as that which made Aragon feel it his self-evident poetic duty to write on La Nuit de Dunkerque instead of on Elsa's eyes.) This note is the voice of the poet deeply concerned about the fate, the future, the survival, the existence of his nation, of those who speak the same mother-tongue. During the Middle Ages Hungary was a flourishing, prosperous, militarily efficient nation; which began to decline in consequence of the defeat at Mohács and the Turkish invasion. No longer self-governed, broken up into three large areas, the nation was left to fend for itself with no institutions of its own and its people lived in a perpetual awareness of death, ready to fight for survival, against annihilation. There were many periods during this decline when the maxim of Count Széchenyi, the most significant figure of Hungarian romanticism, pointed to the single perceptible manifestation, the single historical form of Hungarian national existence. The maxim was: "In its language a nation lives." During the Turkish occupation of Hungary the poetry of Balassi, Zrinyi, the romances and lays of protestant preachers, the university plays and the encyclopedias all served to preserve the national consciousness of the Hungarian people from the strongholds of the language. After the Turks had been driven out, the literature of the Hungarian enlightenment and romanticism performed the same role, counteracting the Germanizing politics of the Habsburgs. But this poetical role did not end with the appearance of Endre Ady and his companions, the founders of modern Hungarian lyrical poetry. In a sense it culminated in their work, in Ady's prophecies about the future of the Hungarian people, about their dispersion, the forced Diaspora, which history confirmed with terrible force after the fall of the Monarchy. Every third Hungarian-born person out of fifteen or sixteen million now lives anywhere in the world, from Alaska to the Cape Province.

In one of his studies Ortega writes that life is "continual endangerment, foundering on the open sea." The fundamental historical experience of the Hungarian people until the most recent times has been a series of shipwrecks upon the always stormy seas of East-Central Europe. The historical role of Hungarian lyrical poetry was not only determined by the fact that poets were existentially bound to the collective historical destiny of the nation, but was determined to the same extent and with the same intensity by the fact that the consciousness of the Hungarian people was existentially linked to the life-boats of its literature and poetry. This defined the spiritual and moral character of Hungarian lyrical poetry for centuries; this is what made Hungarian lyrical poetry sensitive towards national, social and political problems. An interest like this can only exist in countries where literature was forced into "résistance" for some length of time. This is one of the central "nerves" of the historical Hungarian lyrical sensibility. And it can be dissected out of four lines of Kölcsey's poem, now our national anthem, with the precision of anatomical sections: "The hunted hid, but in his den | a sword was tended to pierce him. | He looked around, but could not find | a home within his country." (Prose translation.)

This poesis hungarica nerve running through Illyés's poetry also developed through his meeting with a European mentality and art in his youth. Towards the end of the sixties he wrote: "The outlook, the artistic and social attitude that gave new colour, a new appearance to the conditions that I found at home was formed in the environs of the Sorbonne, in the literary cafés, at student debates and lectures for workers … This was why I was capable of seeing clearly the tragedy of Hungary and later of portraying it with the scope that Western artistic and political views had given me … and it was then that I recognized the true voice of Hungarian literature. The greatness of the language, its force of expression, but also its difficulties, which brought home to me with benumbing forcefulness the duty of the Hungarian poet, the duty of all humanists in this country. Above all the duty of those who are able to see local problems with the lucidity of a whole world. This is why, though I have always tried to express my thoughts as clearly as possible with the most modern devices, these thoughts were in point of fact the thoughts that had always haunted the authors of classical Hungarian literature. This may seem contradictory to some. But if I can throw a light upon the two influences that have governed me, I believe I can clarify my 'spiritual image.'"

This is the historical co-ordinate of his maturity, of his classicism and because of this there are some who (with the emphasis given to what is a little out of date) speak of him as "the last bard," the "last European national poet." Yet Illyés's poetry is in fact one of the most magnificent examples in modern art of the fact that personal problems, the problems of a nation and the problems of the world may easily be reconciled within a single poetic œuvre, since their conciliation is not simply a question of content but also of poetic attitude, and is realized according to the extent and quality of the poet's talent. Especially in an age which, one must admit, has not drawn a lesson from Voltaire's Candide, an age in which persecution, oppression and discrimination are not confined to politics, be they evoked by racial, national, religious or intellectual prejudice: they have become a general, universal state of existence. And they are what, if one is to preserve the vestiges of one's self-respect, poetry must exercise its right of veto against.

Principal Works

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Nehéz föld [A Hard Land] 1928

Ifjusag [Youth] 1934

A kacsalaba forgo var [The Wonder Castle] (epic poem) 1936

Egy mondat a zsarnoksagrol [One Sentence on Tyranny] (epic poem) 1956

Kézfogàsok [Handshakes] 1956

Fekete fehér [Black White] 1967

Hommage à Gyula Illyés [Homage to Gyula Illyés] 1963

Összegyüjtött versei 1977

Other Major Works

Puszták népe [People of the Puszta] (novel) 1936

Petôfi (biography) 1937

Hunok Parisban [Huns in Paris] (novel) 1946

Mátyás Domokos (interview date 1983)

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SOURCE: "A Poet Taking Sides, " in The New Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 91, Autumn, 1983, pp. 14-26.

[In the following interview, Illyés reveals his philosophies and opinions regarding a poet's beliefs and poetic responsibilities to the nation.]

[Domokos]: Gyula Illyés is 80 years old. Perhaps it would not be inopportune to talk with him on this day on the same topics as usual. Of poetry and ideas, on the position and opportunities for poetry today, its destiny and mission for man as the end of our century approaches. Perhaps it will not be inopportune to go directly into these topics and refer to something typical of what writers and artists have to face. I mean that more and more we hear that poets, literature and art are unable to answer the crucial historical, social and moral questionsthe troubling questions of our time: on existence, on history, on society, and ethics. The questions on which will depend the life, the future of mankind, of Hungary. Even if there will be one. During a career now stretching over more than half a century, Gyula Illyés has believed and proclaimed that the primary duty of a poet is to answer these very questions with "a courageous tongue" and with "an ear listening into the future." So, what do you, Gyula Illyés, think of this devaluation of poetry in the public mind?

[Illyés]: Readers resent poets because they cannot understand what they are reading, and poets resent readers even more for not treating properly what the poets are saying from the depths of their hearts. A reader today is certain to expect from poetry something rather different from what he actually gets. Poetry has become too enswaddled in too great a particularity and at the same time people have become less interested in particular destinies and more in public issues in art. These public issues have been expressed in poetry ever since the world began. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to give them a proper expression but that is when poets should in fact make a great effort to approach—not what their readers expect!—the artistic expression of truth. I do believe that there are no issues which cannot be effectively implanted in readers through art. People, and this is something else which cannot be denied, often expect the ready-made, they expect the poet to speak like a politician. But the voice of poetry can only be directed at eternity. It was no easier for Sándor Petőfi or Dániel Berzsenyi to write on public affairs than it is for a poet today. Well … in a way it was easier for them since they were both geniuses but in art genius is not the only … I mean, you have to actually begin … This is not to condemn, say, abstract poets who claim a little too loudly that it is they who are producing real poetry. Valéry's views on la poésie pure are well known. These are expropriated by everyone now, saying that the more the artistic elements are concealed, the superior the work is.

You are saying that the poetic deed, the act of poetry, is to deal with public issues not in the manner of a politician but in the manner of a poet?

No! The task of a poet is to express feelings and thoughts with a force that has the same impact on society as a victory on a battlefield. People are not sufficiently aware of this? … Because the poet's act is primarily an artistic act? I am not saying that a poet should not engage in politics. Today many poets say that they detest politics. But nobody detests politics: we all live in a community and we cannot deny this fact. I only try to keep a distance between myself and the low aspects of politics. But we do live in the polis, the community, and the poet has to be aware of this too.

But whether through spite or lack of talent or the sense of restriction or even through the flippancy of the injured, we see in certain of the arts in this century that some writers have forgone public issues.

I'll be direct: it is not merely a question of self-esteem or of being hurt, it is one of talent too. It is impossible to write poetry, to produce art, without inspiration or training. The less care we take over saying what art is, then the greater currency of the view that as an artist you must be absolutely an individual … I would go so far as to say that my own person, important though it is as a subject for poetry, is of little interest to me. Of course pleasure is an essential attribute of art. Art cannot exist if there is no pleasure, true. But this is only a short step away from affectation and another short step from self-content and from a mincing display of yourself. At the turn of the century it was also fashionable to proclaim that a poet should strive for self-realization. So every little Johnny Kovács from Kiskundorozsma or wherever wanted for this reason to realize himself in poetry. Though of course … In realizing yourself you should also realize human values of common interest! The reason why Petőfi was great was not because he was the son of an innkeeper or of the people but because of what he expressed out of this given fact and through his own destiny.

Finding a task through which one also realizes oneself is not self-evident. How does one go about it?

The boastful separation of ethics and aesthetics was another fatal mistake of many nineteenth century artists of talent. In this sense it was Oscar Wilde who went furthest. Every single artist without exception has two beings, one ethical, the other aesthetic. One always takes sides as between the ugly and the beautiful, even unconsciously just as one does between good and evil. Can it be possible then to push aside social injustice, social ugliness by saying "it's none of my business?" It is the greatest artists who have been very sensitive indeed to what is good and bad in society, and they expressed injustice. There is a great tradition for this and not only in Hungarian poetry. It is part of all poetries, although it has been especially rooted in Hungarian poetry. In my simple view, to sum up my poetic principles, a good society advances in the same way as a Roman war chariot. There are two wheels, one of which is politics, public life and the other is the intellectual—including the artistic—life. If one of the two doesn't turn or falls out of rhythm, then the chariot is thrown off-balance. The problem is enormous when politics takes up the task of art and dictates to art what it should say—and it is also a problem of the same magnitude if art has to take on the task of politics. This has happened in Hungary very frequently and not only here but in every country which has not achieved or has lost its statehood. We know full well that the Hungarian people lost their statehood in the sixteenth century at Mohács and our life of intellect reverted to the priest, the poet and the folksong. It was Hungarian poetry which accepted this with the greatest tenacity and talent: this is what we are proud of and this is our national characteristic in poetry. This is what I grew up with and among the immortals those are my masters who served this cause.

Memory can be very ungrateful, very forgetful where history is concerned, even when memory ought to recall suffering. At the same time there is always a feeling of disappointment in the actual course of history. Is this inevitable? You had a longish poem in Nyugat in 1935, deliberately reminiscent in form of Apollinaire's La chanson du mal-aimé. There is hardly a more accurate way of expressing this feeling than you did in this poem, so let us have some lines from it.


There is silence in me. It flows.
Like a raging epidemic, wherever I go
I infect that region with silence.
There in my heart ferments
enough poison for a continent.

You can change a shirt, a lover,
your faith but not your hopes,
nor the hopes of youth in your heart,
which made a man of you.
But what, then, were my hopes?

I have no regrets for my life,
but for the lives of those who accompanied me:
sometimes they stopped, they stumbled
halfway they fell onto their faces,
those brave passions of youth.

What was I given, do you know?
After the dreadful sorrow at the funeral feast
what did I drink more and more eagerly,
what maddening, distilled
frenzy to bring me comfort?

What images, what dazzling
lights flared up in my brain:
I recited with drunken lips:
Man can be changed for the better!
That's what I believed that spring.

Springs do come, which call
up his face, like the child does of
the old lover and the love.
But that intensity, that Future
which was mine refuses to come back to life.

What should poetry do about this feeling? What about the accusation that the poet who expresses this frustration, out of a sense of the truth, is a pessimist?

I don't think that is true. All sorts of different things are being thrown together here. To sum it all up very simply: one must get back again to the idea that the subject presented—the subject of a picture—differs from the artistic force it contains. Artistic accomplishment is always soothing …

… poets and artists, with Tolstoy leading them, always have been angered by social injustice and rightly so. I hope that these old injustices are over with now. But it is not only Tolstoy's work which remains with us, his attitude does too. And if we do not retain this, if we do not keep on looking at the world in this way then we reject art itself. The most optimistic cry is: "I'm suffocating! I can't bear it anymore!" As long as someone can and wants to cry out how poor is his lot, he is actually searching for the most optimistic form of expression. Not only ours, but every generation of poets and artists has identified the most painful problem in its society and if they were able to find the material to express it through, so that it still remains effective, then we have something of permanent validity. We, the populist writers, recognized the situation Hungarian peasants found themselves in, drew attention to it, moved the conscience of many people. So I think we carried out an historical duty, not just a literary duty. And don't we have some similar problems today? The oppression of national minorities, the persecution of minority languages is rampant. People have never suffered or been despised so much for their religion, their race or the colour of their skin as today …

starvation and poverty on a world wide scale

… here we aren't starving now, thank God! But when I see the problems we've mentioned around us, then it's not because India is overpopulated that I am grieving. Our population isn't increasing! For us, this is the "problem" and it is here. There is always and everywhere a reality to deal with. That it isn't easy?

Just recently an old piece of yours came out again, Ki a magyar? (Who is Hungarian?) This is a question your work continuously answers; indeed, the question itself is continuous, demanding fresh answers from each generation. In 1939, when you wrote the piece, this is what you had to say: "It is not physical similarity, but a shared past, common problems and the sense of a home which unite a nation and separate it from another with a separate past and present." And in the preface to your 1960 play Malom a Séden (Mill on the Séd) you say: "Who or what is Hungarian? Anyone who accepts being so."


Let me put it another waywhat does being Hungarian mean today? What does someone who accepts his Hungarianness have to do?

Well, that's no elementary school question either. There is a great line in Petőfi which I always quote: "If I hadn't been born Hungarian, I would now join this nation. Because it is forlorn, the most forlorn of all the nations of this world." It was not exactly so, but the main thing here is the poetic attitude behind the words. The depths of the issues of internationalism and nationalism can be reached through it. I can also answer your question by saying that I have been called a nationalist, and even at one time, a racialist. I want to see the man who would demand as consistently as I do a human existence for every people, without exception, but including the Hungarian people. Whoever is an internationalist in Hungary has first of all to win for the Hungarian people those rights which have been so much contested up to this day. I don't want to elaborate on Ki a magyar?: it was in fact a propaganda piece written against the impact of German Hitlerian racism. Today I would probably formulate it by saying that there are fifteen million Hungarians living in the Danube basin. Ten million of them within the borders of the country. Every third Hungarian is outside, that is. A responsible politician can—properly—speak only ort behalf of this ten million. But the country of a poet is his mother tongue and my country is those fifteen million Hungarians who are also my readers, who can understand what I say. Thus the borders of my country are more flexible. Even the emigré Hungarian living in a Western city who reads Hungarian poetry can be closer in spirit to me than many of those who belong here. So there is a Hungary of the mother tongue which is being persecuted, not because someone is being put in prison but because, say, one cannot go to a Hungarian school in New York … To think of these citizens of the mother tongue, compatriots of the language, is an especially important duty of the poet. It is a duty poetry has always undertaken involuntarily: and I am stressing deliberately that it is a duty, if there is such a thing for poetry. Lenin went even further—he said that the people of an oppressed nation have a greater right to decent treatment than the people of great nations—preferential treatment, in fact, is their due. And this is very true, this is what morality and justice demand.

Why is it useful and important especially for those who come from small nations to encounter the more advanced cultures of Europe, even through actually living abroad for a time?

The results answer the question straight away: without exception this has always proved advantageous to those small nations whose people have, whether as trail-blazers or of their own desire, got to know a society on a different—I'm not saying higher—level of development. These people returned with different eyes. It was the great good fortune of the Hungarian people that throughout their history so many of its spiritual leaders were educated abroad. Protestant ministers of old, as you know, were educated in protestant countries. Catholic priests had to make themselves familiar with the culture of Rome. Hungary's attachment to the West rather than to Byzantium entailed the bringing up of generations with a European outlook. At the same time they also passed a worthy test of character. Those Calvinist students for the ministry who had their education in Holland or England or elsewhere, or those Hungarians who lived in Paris or in Rome could well have stayed there for good. If a preacher of the seventeenth century spent some time in Holland and then returned to the bogs of Hungary and started preaching morality, he was also himself giving a credible example. And to some extent this happened in literature too. There have been and there are many gifted Hungarians who really could have easily stayed abroad and been successful. But they came home. It is our great fortune that Hungarianness has always exercised such a force of attraction and "re-attraction." There is no need to list the names of all those Hungarian thinkers who have been able to take stock of the Hungarian condition through the education and outlook they acquired abroad. I must confess that the reason why I am grateful for my five years in Paris is that when I returned I was able to discover the world. I could have gone back to Paris—there was the opportunity—but it was my Parisian mind which made me grasp that this is my material, that this place is mine, that this is where I must do something … If I had not been in Paris, I would never have understood this. This has happened too even to those who didn't actually spend much time abroad. For instance, László Németh, whose European or world culture helped him to refine his vision so that he was able to see things at home all the more clearly. It was the case for others too, Babits included. This is how the Hungarians, at least in ambition, have become a West European nation. Ever since, in fact, the time a thousand years ago when King Saint Stephen joined that horde of barbarians we used to be with the West.

There is no history of Hungarian literature written or to be written or even to be imagined which would not devote at least a chapter to the work of Gyula Illyés. Nor is there a literary historian who would not stress that the poet of Nehéz föld (Tough Land), the writer of Puszták népe (People of the Puszta) undertook from the beginning of his career to formulate those "bolder truths " and that he also accepted the role which expressing those bolder truths has compelled or forced him into. Yet it is still said of you that you are a poet "in hiding, " someone whose work is always in the arena of literature, of public life, but whose life is one of a poet in hiding.


Whatever I say, it covers, it conceals,
Like a mask dangles between you and me.
I smile, while, with its distorted grimaces,
Whatever I don't speak about, pants like a murderer,
Bares its teeth, rattles, wants just blood, just pain.
I wait with irony for the moment when you will shoot me in the head.

To what extent are we to take this poem seriously? You wrote it in 1934, the year People of the Puszta appeared? Is there such a thing as a mask? If so, what does it conceal?

Well, again, this is a many-layered thing. There are indeed poets who like to display themselves. I have already said that trying to please in art, which with some doesn't always stop short of mincing, is far from rare. That's why there are poets whose private lives are more successful works than those they have actually written. Very often chance has an important part in this. But, I'd prefer to read a Petőfi, to come back to him again, who was still writing as a man of eighty rather than being haunted constantly by the terrible image of him impaled on a lance on a battlefield at the age of twenty-six. Of course it made him into a Romantic hero, but if only he could have used a pen as a sage! There are poets, however, who want to lead a withdrawn life. To themselves, without any role or fame. In my case this was a kind of inheritance. I was brought up on the puszta in a smallish family circle and I can still remember my father's words, his parting advice, when I went away to secondary school. He said: "And I don't want to hear anything about you!" This is not really hiding … This is what a man should be—modest. Even young maidens can be immodest but it is unbecoming in a man. For me, it is something of a contradiction that a man can be an artist: that he conceives, that he goes into labour, that he gives birth…. I've never been able to be happy with this coincidence of usage in the language. Serious creators, Michelangelo and his like, have never gone in for this kind of thing. It's none of the audience's business to know how someone works. It really is difficult to create something which is good. Someone who doesn't tear up work, five times if necessary, and presents it in its napkin stage and boasting "look, I can do it!," someone like that is, at least, over-hasty in his work.

There's a well known saying of yours that in a way an artist signs and authenticates his work with his life. How is this so in the case of a modest poet?

Again a matter of geography. There are countries whose writers inevitably have to acquire some public role. In the West, though I might add, in every country where the practice of art is healthy, a poet as an individual can be dishonest, a cheat, a man of no moral character, this would have no effect on his work. I'm not saying that this would be absolutely impossible here either. But here the poet is normally expected to tell the truth, even to live a "life of truth" as an individual. I repeat that the reason for this is that often in this part of the world intellectual and public life go their seperate ways; this is what every real artist has always felt even if he does put on a show of being untouched by "bourgeois" morality. This is not exclusively Hungarian either—poets from illfated nations have always been forced to this. I don't like the term vates, it's an empty cliché with a hollow sound to it. Still, there was a time when men of letters and such did play the role of Tyrtaeus—something taken as given here. You cannot avoid it; or if you try to, you end up in a different blind alley.

Béla Köpeczi (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: "At the Graveside," in The New Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 91, Autumn, 1983, pp. 27-34.

[In the following eulogy, Köpeczi describes the ideals, both social and political, that fed Illyés 's work and their lasting effect on Hungary.]

Gyula Illyés, the great poet, lived in an age in which the world and Hungary underwent epochal changes which were accompanied with anguish and sacrifice but which had their historic results, too. Illyés faced this age together with its contradictions and its aspirations to build the future. He was active in the working-class movement at the time of the Republic of Councils, he was all his life an advocate of the peasantry and of the entire nation, one who wanted and succeeded not only in writing but in acting in the interests of progress.

In 1939 he wrote that: "Man's business in this world is to be as perfect and as humane as possible, to be all the more sensible, the better and the more honest, to be all the freer without infringing upon the right of his fellowbeings to freedom. It is the nation's business also steadily to become perfect."

"Becoming perfect" meant to him first of all that he unhesitatingly struggled to see that social justice prevailed. As he himself said, "peasant experience" led him to seek "honesty" where the oppressed, the defenceless, the exploited were concerned. The writer of People of the Puszta described the pauperism of the Hungarian peasantry between the two wars with such force and such fervour of protest that he will for ever be remembered for his condemnation of an unjust social system and will set an example in the neverending struggle for the new. He cited also the revolutionary and literary example of his great predecessor Petőfi because he expected a radical social change to bring improvement in the lot of the people. This realization led the author of Ebéd a kastélyban (Luncheon at the Mansion) to identify himself with the historical judgement which socialism has passed on the capitalist Hungary encumbered with feudal vestiges. In Beatrice apródjai (Beatrice's Pages) he traversed with deep moral conviction the revolutionary path that has led to a change in the world and he remained—until death—true to the idea of social progress even though many things failed to come about as he had expected, even though he met with disappointments.

To him society was inseparable from the nation. He saw the nation as the community of working people who speak the same language, a community whose feature is the common work of shaping the future and to which language and culture also signify bonds which link even beyond the frontiers. His interpretation of the national idea was controversial even among his friends and companions-in-arms; his intention and the substance of his message, however, were unequivocal: he wanted equal rights and cooperation to prevail among nations. In 1959 he concluded an autobiographical piece thus: "I am sure that the peoples of this earth are travelling towards a classless society. The first stage of their organic union is full equality of rights. It is an absurdity to create equality of rights between parties showing mutual respect other than through understanding, that is in peace; indeed it is a contradiction in terms." Equality of rights through understanding and peace—this was the national and international programme of Gyula Illyés.

When taking stock of the national and national minority problems he always linked together his uneasiness and the idea of cooperation with neighbouring nations—in the 1930s as in the last years of his life.

Illyés did not lock himself up in the Hungarian microcosm, his experience as an exile helped him to see in politics and literature the whole world as well as his country. A hunok Párizsban (The Huns in Paris) shows the unparalleled comprehension of the fusion of national and international. All his work as a poet, but particularly his many literary translations, demonstrates time and again his search for universal connections.

These ideas are characteristic of all of his remarkably rich and many-sided lifework. He himself professed: "Without a good world-view … there is no kind of piercing the essence, stimulating action, namely 'genuine, great' poetry." "The surrealist of clarity" thought that literature ought to deal with everything of interest to man and the nation, and indeed he used his great poetic sensitivity to answer the questions which preoccupied the world and his homeland. This everyday commitment moved him also to profess a programme of poetic realism and of genuine artistic democracy. He knew all there was to know about literature, especially poetry, he knew every innovation of the avant-garde, yet by drawing on popular sources he became a modern classic who held that it was worth one's while writing only to be able to mould oneself and shape others as well, to stimulate to action.

Mihály Babits wrote of Illyés: "To resuscitate Hungarian and popular forms and to make them up-to-date, as the most essential possibility, the most difficult and most imperative of all tasks … With the people's verse, out of the people's soul, something comes in literature: greater simplicity, greater clarity, the spirit of 'meek poverty lasting for centuries'. Illyés is the poet of this spirit, who can belong to the people without repudiating culture, and to culture without repudiating the people …"

All his life Illyés wanted to tell the general public—and not the élite—what was "beautiful, good and useful" in plain, clear and succinct terms, in the finest and most informal language. His œuvre was and remains our companion, it makes us conscious of our thoughts and feelings, it prompts us to self examination by its high intelligence and by the simplicity of great truths.

Despite doubts, inner struggles and contradictions he professed historical optimism: "I have confidence in the Hungarian people's strength, I am certain that this nation progresses not towards its ruin but towards its improvement, no matter what trials it has been exposed to …" This was how he formulated the experience of the people to whom he always remained loyal and whose thoughts and feelings he expressed. The writer of the community made greater the chances of national and human advancement not only by what he produced but by creating around himself and his œuvre, with an unbroken consistency of ideas, a lively and constructive atmosphere for communal life. This is where poetry and politics meet, and this happened during the past twenty-five years or so in such a way that the creative energies in both spheres served the progress of the people. Illyés is a great artistic ally of socialist construction, which does not mean that politics or any person would or might make a claim to him. He is a writer of the Hungarian people, his œuvre belongs to the people, but any consistent policy or rather social activity imbued with the intention, the sense and loyalty serving the people can find in it a source of intellectual power.

Awe and pain fills us, taking leave of a great Hungarian author. To quote Horace his work is more lasting than brass. It is our responsibility to make common property of what he has bequeathed us, and to ensure that the generations after us will know it and be able to draw from it ideals, thoughts and feelings to the edification of the individual and the community.

May the poet's memory and works be surrounded, for the centuries to come, with the halo of the devoted affection of the Hungarian people, of the profound respect of the followers of socialism, and of the everlasting esteem of progressive men.

Further Reading

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Béládi, Miklós. "The Seventy Years of Gyula Illyés." New Hungarian Quarterly 13, No. 48 (Winter 1972): 83-9.

Attempts to answer the philosophical question: Who is Gyula Illyés?

Csicsery-Rónay, István. "Gyula Illyés: Grand Prix for Poetry." Book Abroad 40, No. 2 (Spring 1966): 156-7.

Summarizes Illyés's life and importance.

Cushing, George F. "The Role of the National Poet." Review of National Literatures 17 (1993): 59-80.

Discusses the history of national literature in Hungary, with emphasis on Petöfi and Illyés.

Gömöri, George. "Gyula Illyés (1902-1983): An Appraisal." World Literature Today (Summer 1984): 344-47.

Assesses Illyés's life and works on the occasion of his death.

Illyés, Gyula. "The Business of Poets (Brief notes)." New Hungarian Quarterly 16, No. 57 (Spring 1975): 72-7.

Collection of thoughts on the job of the poet.

Remenyi, Joseph. Hungarian Writers and Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1964.

Critical analysis of Hungarian literature.

Szabó, Peter Szentmihályi. A review of Összegyüjtött versei, by Összegyüjtött versei. World Literature Today (Spring 1978): 316-17.

Positive review of the two-volume edition of collected poems by Illyés.

Additional coverage of Illyés's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 109, 114.

William Jay Smith (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3325

SOURCE: "Gyula Illyés: Lyric Realist," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXI, No. 1, February, 1984, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Smith shows that Illyés is a lyric realist who eschews theory and involves himself directly in the view of humanity.]


Gyula Illyés, long considered Hungary's national poet, throughout his lifetime drew inspiration, like Bela Bartok in music, from Hungary's deepest roots. In his introduction to Once Upon a Time: Forty Hungarian Folk-Tales (1964) he says:

The Hungarian folk-tales, clothing the peasantry's confessions in pure poetry and expressing its aspirations to a higher, freer and purer life, do more than amuse us. It was over vast distances and at the cost of untold sufferings that the Hungarians reached their country. The Hungarian folk-tale—in which the heroes embark on incredible adventures, fight with dragons, and outwit the devil—has preserved, in its fairy-like language, the ancient treasures; it has preserved an ancient Hungarian view of the world.

That ancient Hungarian view of the world is preserved not only in the folk-tales but also in the anonymous poets of the Hungarian countryside. Gyula Illyés was inspired by them both in his poetry and in his autobiographical volume People of the Puszta. In all his work he avoids theories and concerns himself directly and particularly with basic humanity. "For him," Jean Follain has said, "the poet remains the foremost pioneer: he alone can say at which instant man turns assassin and hangman—when originally he had been a hero. The poetry of Illyés shows us the closeness of the infinite, and of childhood, the proximity of peace and death, while it brands and denounces the tyranny bent on leading human beings astray and provoking their miserable fears and stifling the fraternity of mankind."

Gyula Illyés, who died in 1983 a few months after his eightieth birthday, was born at Ráczegrespuszta in Western Hungary. His forebears had been indentured servants, shepherds and agricultural workmen, on a large estate; his father had risen to the position of village mechanic, and through the combined efforts of various members of his family Illyés was sent to school in the neighboring village and afterwards to high school in Budapest. He interrupted his university education to enlist in the army of the Republic of Councils in 1919, and when the republic fell, to escape arrest, he fled in 1921 to Paris, where he lived for the next five years. While working as a bookbinder, he attended courses at the Sorbonne. He published poems in French, and became the friend of Eluard, Cocteau, Aragon, and Tzara, gaining an intimate knowledge of Dadaism and Surrealism. He could easily have stayed on in Paris and earned a reputation as a poet writing in French, but he chose to return to Hungary. This decision was the turning point in his life: he separated himself from modernist literary movements, and, inspired by the ideals of the Hungarian poet Petőfi, a brilliant biography of whom he was later to write, he set out on a conscious mission to speak for the masses of his people. On the Ile Saint-Louis in Paris, opposite the Palais Lambert, Illyés sat on a bench in 1926 to set down his poem "The Sad Field-Hand":

The sun has hardened my crust of bread;
Tepid is my flask
And heavy and slow my sun-warmed blood.
Seated amid the steam of my worry and my sweat,
I watch the silent fields pitch around me.
It is noon.
Deep in the woods the wind and the future repose.

The overseer passes in his carriage.
My weary hand lifts my hat;
I am covered with ash and grime,
The gaze of my cattle refreshes my heart.

Beyond the dust, beyond the trees,
Beyond the spread of clouds, the fronded dust,
There where the indifferent sun reels on its way
Lie distant cities with illuminated squares wheeling beneath the stars,
And seas, floating islands, and flaming mountains of gold,
Of all these I have heard—
Of heaven and earth bursting with riches, and yet
I remain here, irresolute, at the center of an alien field,
A stranger for whom no one waits, and who, in the autumn,
His work completed, in the shade of a haystack,
Will without a word sink down to join the impassive earth.

In spirit the poet had never left his native heath, and he never would.

The position of the peasantry, from which he came, was always foremost in Illyés's mind. Miklós Vajda describes visiting him some years ago: "I casually mentioned that an experimental theater company was to be formed in Budapest. He looked at me sharply, and said abruptly, '[Damn, that will cost the peasant another two eggs.]' And then he broke into an impish smile. He still instinctively measures everything in terms of cost to the people, and rightly so, because this has always been a country where everything has to be done at the expense of something else; priorities are of supreme importance."

When Illyés returned from France, the poet Mihály Babits, the editor of Nyugat (West), took him under his wing, and Illyés became a regular contributor to the magazine. He published several volumes of poems in the late twenties and early thirties, all dealing with the plight of the poor villagers. With the publication of his two distinguished prose works, People of the Puszta and Petőfi in 1936, he became one of the leaders of the Populist writers who sought to give expression to the feelings of the people. When Nyugat was closed down by the authorities and Babits died in 1941, Illyés took over as editor of Magyar Csillag (Hungarian Star), and remained as its editor until the Germans came in March 1944. In several volumes of poetry and prose in the late thirties and early forties he wrote again of his childhood, but with less of his youthful enthusiasm. The Huns in Paris (1944) is a witty prose account of his years in France. After World War II Illyés planned to take over the editorship of a new review, Valasz, but when the authorities forbade him to do so, he retired and spent most of his time in his little house jutting into Lake Balaton at Tihany.

Always in the front ranks of literary movements, Illyés was even in his periods of enforced silence somehow eloquent. Because of his ability to survive and to express himself under the most difficult circumstances, some critics have remarked on his cunning and have compared him to a fox. His cunning apparently comes from an awareness of the contradictions within himself. In his youth he experienced the double influences of Catholicism and Calvinism, and in his education he was disciplined in Gallic clarity. (The history of France, he said, is "principally characterized by striving for lucidity.") During the Stalinist period in Hungary Illyés refused to publish, but because of his eminence as a writer the pressure on him was so great that he could not remain completely silent. He wrote at this time a poem titled "Roofers," which on the surface seems to praise people for rebuilding their houses but in reality is about the difficulty of writing in such a period. Illyés's most famous poem, "A Sentence for Tyranny," was written during the Stalinist era but was first published in 1956. It has still not been published in Hungary. Its concluding stanzas, brilliantly rendered into English by Vernon Watkins, demonstrate its appeal to so many people (it has been translated into more than forty languages):

Where seek tyranny? Think again:
Everyone is a link in the chain;
Of tyranny's stench you are not free:
You yourself are tyranny.

Like a mole on a sunny day
Walking in his blind, dark way,
We walk and fidget in our rooms,
Making a Sahara of our homes;

All this because, where tyranny is
Everything is in vain,
Every creation, even this
Poem I sing turns vain:

Vain, because it is standing
From the very first at your grave,
Your own biography branding,
And even your ashes are its slave.


…. In both his poetry and his prose Gyula Illyés might be termed a lyric realist. Edwin Morgan has called him one who like Robert Burns "gave the land a voice." In 1928 he wrote:

What you have almost forgotten—
The speech of your quiet people—learn again!
More reviving than a glass of fresh water
Is their hearty welcome to the tired traveller,
A welcome that brims with friendly warmth.
See how here among the villagers waiting to be paid
You too nod agreement when they speak, as they
Tell of their destiny in their own rough words,
Give reasons for their poverty.
Eager life flutters birdlike
In the difficult movements of their lips.
(translated by Gavin Ewart)

If, as some critics have found, his poetry at times appears to be lacking in mystery, it may be that he tries too strongly to adopt the speech of his "quiet people," to speak directly, and to disguise nothing.

What is immediately striking in the poetry of Illyés is its immense variety. He makes use of every kind of stanza form and every line length; he is equally at home in very formal stanzas and in impressionistic prose poems. In the couplets of "Aboard the Santa Maria" the poet, on his misty ledge overlooking Lake Balaton at Tihany, pictures himself as Columbus aboard the Santa Maria:

Buttressed forth, a hanging garden there,
the terrace like a ship divides the air.

A table of stone, a rickety chicken coop
emerge through holes within the shifting fog …

And now when the pounding waves reach up to me,
I feel I am centuries ago at sea …

Always in his poetry, as in People of the Puszta, he has an eye for precise, concrete detail. That detail can be exquisite and delicate as in "The Approaching Silence":

or in the Mozartian final stanzas of "A World in Crystal":

or terrifying, as in "While the Record Plays:"

Although he was able as a boy to take the killing of pigs and chickens on the puszta in stride, he tells us in "Work", his first "really shattering experience" came when watching the hooping of a cartwheel. The lesson of the craftsmen he witnessed he retained for a lifetime:

From the huge coal fire, with pincers at least a yard long, the apprentices grabbed the iron hoop, which by then was red hot up and down. They ran with it to the fresh-smelling oak wheel that had been fixed in place in the front of the blacksmith's shop. The flesh-colored wooden wheel was my grandfather's work; the iron hoop, which gave off a shower of sparks in its fiery agony, was my father's. One of the apprentices held the sledge hammer, the other the buckets. Places, everyone. As on shipboard. As at an execution. The hoop, which in its white-hot state had just expanded to the size of the wheel, was quickly placed on it; and they began to pry it out with their tongs. My father swung the hammer with lightning speed, giving orders all the while. The wood caught fire; they poured a bucket of water on it. The wheel sent up steam and smoke so thick you couldn't see it. But still the hammer pounded on, and still came the "Press hard"! uttered breathlessly from the corner of the mouth. The fire blazed up again. Water flung again as on a tortured man who has sunk into a coma. Then the last flourishing bush of steam evaporated while the apprentices poured a thin trickle from a can on the cooling iron which, in congealing, gripped lovingly its life-long companion to be. The men wiped the sweat from their brows, spat, shook their heads, satisfied. Nothing—not the slightest flicker of a movement—could have been executed differently.

Like his father and his grandfather before him, Illyés had a deep respect for his craft. At the end of many of his poems one can almost sense the poet, like his peasant forebears, wiping the sweat from his brow, satisfied with the artifact that he has created, for which nothing "could have been executed differently."

This sense of craft is carried to a point of extreme sophistication and subtlety in "The Maker," which might have come from the pen of Paul Valéry:

More ardent
than two lithe bodies dancing
together, embracing
those two
thoughts so different from each other
frolicked and turned
for life, for death,

finding their fulfilment
in a third.

As a babe in the hands of a midwife
begins to live, a success,
tiny, naked,
it kicked among the wheels and springs,
a deed that has been given
life and body almost
like our own.
It came with me,
came as my perpetual
dog, my master
on my leash,
myself on leash….
(translated by Daniel Hoffman)

For all the autobiographical detail in Illyés's poems, he always maintains a classical distance. Not long before his death Illyés was asked about these lines which he wrote in 1934 at the same time that People of the Puszta appeared:


Whatever I say, it covers, it conceals,
Like a mask dangles between you and me.
I smile, while, with its distorted grimaces,
Whatever I don't speak about, pants like a murderer,
Bares its teeth, rattles, wants just blood, just pain.
I wait with irony for the moment when you will shoot me in the head.
(translated by Miklós Vajda)

To what extent, he was asked, could this poem be taken seriously and if there were for him such a thing as a mask, what indeed did it conceal. Illyés's answer tells a great deal about the nature of his poetry: "This is a manylayered thing. There are indeed poets who like to display themselves. I have already said that trying to please in art, which with some doesn't always stop short of mincing, is far from rare. That's why there are poets whose private lives are more successful works than those they have actually written … I was brought up on the puszta in a smallish family circle and I can still remember my father's words, his parting advice, when I went away to secondary school. He said: 'And I don't want to hear anything about you!' This is not really hiding … This is what a man should be—modest. Even young maidens can be immodest but it is unbecoming in a man. For me, it is something of a contradiction that a man can be an artist: that he conceives, that he goes into labor, that he gives birth … I've never been able to be happy with this coincidence of usage in the language. Serious creators, Michelangelo and his like, have never gone in for this kind of thing. It's none of the audience's business to know how someone works. It really is difficult to create something which is good.

Even when speaking of social injustice, as he does eloquently in one of his finest poems, "Wonder Castle," he maintains a certain reserve. In this poem, written in 1937, he tells of arriving in Budapest from the country and of taking the funicular up the Buda hills to the more affluent section of the city:

It was as if, from the hell of the plain below us,
we were borne up from circle to circle
into some present-day Turkish heaven.
Or, with the old look-out tower
it was like a magic castle,
the terrifying or happy
seat of some Asiatic deity
found only in Hungarian and Vogul folk-tale,
called Castle Spinning on a Duck's Leg: Wonder Castle.
(translated by Kenneth McRobbie)

But he finds little wonder on the faces of the high-society figures he encounters in this wonder castle. He examines them closely and records their true lineaments with savage satire. At the end of the poem he has a vision of the plain from which he has come rising up, as it does in the folk-tale, and bringing down the towers on the hill. But even if such a revolution were to occur, the poet affirms that he would still want to retain his objective posture as a dispassionate observer:

I would even then
stand aside, still play the quiet man,
so that when all came tumbling down
order might be kept,
and calmly, impartially, I should
be able to give account
of how life was before the flood
in this pre-historic period.
(translated by Kenneth McRobbie)

In his introduction to the anthology Modern Hungarian Poetry, Miklós Vajda points out that poetry in Hungary has had through the centuries a special position never equalled by the other arts: "Poetry, which cannot be shelled like a city, or whitewashed like murals, crushed like sculpture, closed like theaters, or even banned and censored as easily as novels and journals, can spread and be influential even without print or manuscript. And so it dominated the literature of a people that had to live under difficult conditions, luring the best talents and forcing them to lead dangerous lives and produce extraordinary achievements." Gyula Illyés was the living embodiment of this poetic tradition. In one of his later poems, "A Wreath," he pays tribute to the Hungarian language, which is spoken by no more than fifteen million people, a third of whom live outside the country. The poem is a passionate statement addressed to his mother tongue, evoking those who have struggled to keep it alive:

You can no longer
soar. And yet you blaze,
wind-slit Hungarian tongue, sending
your snakelike flames along the ground, hissing
at times with pain,

more often with the helpless rage of the humiliated,
your guardian angels forsaking you.
Again in grass,
in weeds, in slime.
As through all those centuries, among
the stooped peasants. Among
the tight-lipped old, keeping their counsel. Among
girls trembling under coned reeds as
the Tartar hordes swept past. Among
children lashed together
while mute lips shaped their words,
for the Turks, if they heard a sound,
would bring whips down in their faces.
Now you show forth
truly—and to me as well—your use,
your pedigree, your coat-of-arms, the stone-biting
strength in your veins.

Language of furtive smiles,
of bright tears shared in secret, language
of loyalty, lingo
of never-surrendered faith, password of hope, language
of freedom, briefly-snatched freedom, behind-the-prison-guard's-back-freedom,
language of master-mocked schoolboy, sergeant-abused rookie,
dressed-down plaintiff, of little old ladies boring clerks,
language of porters, odd-job hired men, being a language
of the no-good-for-the-factory, no-good-for-test-passing proletariat,
language of the veteran stammering before his young boss; testimony—
rising from depths even greater
than Luther's—of the suspect
beaten up on arrival at the station;
language of the Kassa black marketeer, the Bucharest servant girl,
the Beirut whore, all calling
for mother, behold your son, spittle
on his rage-reddened face,
master of many tongues,
held worthy of attention by other nations
for what, as a loyal European,
he has to say:
he cannot mount any festive platform,
cannot accept any wreath,
however glorious, which he would not, stepping quickly down,
carry over to lay at your feet, and with his smile draw forth
on your agonizing lips,
your smile, my beloved, ever-nurturing mother.

The reference to the Bucharest servant girl reminds us that in the last decade of his life Illyés spoke out in a series of articles against what he called the cultural genocide of the two million Hungarians residing in Transylvania. He had treated the subject years before, in its full brutality, in "While the Record Plays." Illyés was not an apologist for socialism nor a public defender of any system or theory. He continued, a literary giant, throughout his life to attack injustice wherever he found it, and to promote passionately, and with the power and balance of his art, a civilized view of man:

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