(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The first volumes of the young Mihály Babits, Levelek Irisz koszorújából (leaves from Iris’s wreath) and Herceg, hátha megjön a tél is! (prince, what if the winter comes?), contain poems representing the best of Hungarian fin de siècle aestheticism and secessionist tendencies. Babits rejected both the lyrical approach of his contemporaries—who, in the tradition of Hungarian populism, relied on the anecdotal retelling of subjective experiences—and the pathos of the neo-Romantics. The most frequent object of his early poetry is a cultural experience treated in an intellectualized manner; his own feelings appear only indirectly and in a highly generalized form. Another notable trait of Babits’s youthful poetry is its playful richness and variety of tone. The poet refuses to reveal his feverish inner turmoil, his painful loneliness, and his internal conflict between thought and action. He hides behind a number of veils: now a scene from Hindu mythology, now a figure of the Roman Silver Age, now an episode from modern life—many worlds, many styles, many ways of looking at human existence. The poet’s touch makes the rather ponderous Hungarian words dance in exciting configurations. Babits’s verse can be read in a number of ways, not only because of the virtuoso arrangement of rhyme and rhythm but also because of the shimmering sound and sense of every word within the lines. Perhaps more than any of his Hungarian predecessors, Babits maintained a strong...

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