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."
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.
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.
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."