Gyula Illyés Illyés, Gyula - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

Làszló Ferenczi (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Mátyás Domokos (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Mátyás Domokos (interview date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Béla Köpeczi (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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William Jay Smith (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 203 words.)