Mihály Babits Analysis

Other Literary Forms

Although best known for his lyric poetry, Mihály Babits was also among the outstanding essayists of modern Hungary, and his novels and short stories were important expressions of the Hungarian intellectuals’ search for their place in a changing society. Equally familiar with the history of European and Hungarian culture, the formal and contextual problems of literature from Homer to the moderns, and the literary struggles of his own times, Babits wrote essays on topics ranging from Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche to folk literature. Especially revealing of his attitude toward the responsibility of creative artists is his 1928 essay, Az írástudók árulása (the treason of the intellectuals), which took its topic as well as its title from Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs (1927). Babits’s awareness of the intellectual and artistic ferment of the twentieth century is evidenced by the numerous reviews and critical essays he published.

Babits’s novels and short stories are marked by the lyrical approach to prose characteristic of his generation. His short novel A gólyakalfia (1916; The Nightmare, 1966) is heavily garlanded with the Freudian trappings of the period, particularly with notions concerning dreams and split personalities. The novel Timár Virgil fia (1922; the son of Virgil Timár) is closer to the author’s own experiences, as it deals with the life of a teacher-priest whose...

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Mihály Babits, the lyric poet of “restless classicism,” embodied the modern synthesis of the Hungarian spirit with the great European values. His only major award came in 1940, when he won the San Remo Prize from the Italian government for his translation of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). While his humanistic orientation and moral stand remained consistent throughout his life, the marginal nature of his background, combined with the events of his times, presented him with a weighty dilemma: His liberal erudition made him break with the provincialism of the late nineteenth century and urged him to lead his culture toward an acceptance of Western European trends, but his innate idealism made him lean toward conservatism and reinforced his view of literature as an “elite function,” independent of any social utility. His writings represent the highest level of urban liberalism in Hungarian literature. Standing on the ground of a humanism which was declared anachronistic and unrealistic by many of his contemporaries, Babits defended the cultural values he considered timeless, against all onslaughts, from Right and Left alike. His experimentation with form and his meticulous craftsmanship enabled him to become one of the most accomplished masters of Hungarian literature. During his declining years, Babits became a living cultural symbol in his country: He dared to produce intellectual writings in an age when the cult of spontaneous life-energy was approaching its peak and young geniuses openly raged against the artistic validity of intellect.

World War I

The years of World War I brought significant changes in Babits’s poetry. “The cool glitter of classical contemplation” is gone from the poems written during this period. The style is now simpler and closer to everyday experience, while the poet’s active pacifism also forced him to discontinue his flirtation with irrationalism. Babits remained immune to the radical fervor which infected many of his contemporaries, but his desire for peace was passionate and, at times, militant. After he claimed, in one of his poems, that he would rather shed blood for the little finger of his beloved than for any flag or cause, the nationalistic press of the period attacked him sharply. This did not stop the poet from repeating his cry for peace: “Let it end!” The signs pointing toward a great social upheaval in Hungary filled him with hope and enthusiasm: “The world is not a plaything! Here, one must see and create!” Soon, however, it became obvious that he viewed the events of 1919 (the “mud and blood of the revolution,” in the words of a Hungarian historian) with increasing apprehension. Hope in the passing of the chaos permeates his writings after 1919, and, in a characteristically bitter image, he compares political ideologies to “slow-acting poisons.”

Postwar Changes

In words as well as deeds, Babits put a distance between himself and public affairs during the post-World War I decades. “Fence in your property!” was his ars poetica; he sought to preserve his islandlike independence and remain aloof from politics, which interested him only as “a threatening force, which may seriously interfere with my life.” Nevertheless, Babits’s withdrawal into the shell of love (as represented by his 1921 marriage, and by the frequent get-togethers with a small circle of friends) cannot be classified as a frightened retreat. In stating his conviction that it is “better not to understand one’s age and to be left behind” (repeated later as “noble souls do not pay obeisance to their immediate environments”), Babits remained consistent with his elitist conception of art. As the spiritual leader, later editor, of Nyugat, and as the curator of the prestigious Baumgarten Foundation, he remained uncompromising in upholding the highest artistic standards, and he refused to treat literature as a social force, or as a propaganda tool. At the same time, there were anticapitalist pieces among his poems (“The Mice of Babylon”) and, realizing that the age of fin de siècle individualism was ended, he was enthusiastic about the rise of a socially and politically active neopopulist trend in Hungarian literature. Even his hitherto dormant nationalism was aroused, and in several poems he eloquently pleaded the...

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Basa, Eniko Molnár, ed. Hungarian Literature. New York: Griffon House, 1993. A historical overview that provides some background to the life and work of Babits. Includes bibliographic references.

Csányi, László. Babits átváltozásai. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990. Thorough biography of Babits with bibliographic references. In Hungarian.

Czigány, Lóránt. The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature from the Earliest Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A critical and historical overview of Hungarian literature. Includes bibliographic references and an index.

Lengyel, Balázs. “A Poet’s Place: Mihály Babits.” The New Hungarian Quarterly 24, no. 90 (Summer, 1983). A brief critical study of the poetic works of Babits.

Remenyi, Joseph. “Mihály Babits.” World Literature Today 63, no. 2 (Spring, 1989): 186. In his poetry, Babits reflects the introspective uneasiness of the modern man and his attempts to find meaning in the meaningless life.