Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

As a Hungarian, Radnóti was not necessarily vulnerable to German imprisonment: after all, Hungary was Germany’s ally in the war. However, Radnóti was an independent, left-wing thinker; in addition, he was a Jew. A prime target of Nazi persecution, he lived nearly the entire wartime period anticipating his own death. Although “The Seventh Eclogue” gives voice to rapturous visions of freedom, liberation, and release, the poet knew all the while that, in the real world, he would never be free to return to his home, that his life was to end shortly under the grim conditions of imprisonment. “The Seventh Eclogue” was written in the Haidenau prison camp in the mountains above the Serbian town of Zagubica, where Radnóti was imprisoned by the Germans in July of 1944. Radnóti survived countless ordeals in the following months but was finally shot by the Germans and buried in a mass grave in Hungary in the autumn of 1944.

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Yet Radnóti, though recording his torment, does not surrender to it. He attempts to remain a thinker, a poet, a human being; insofar as possible, he goes on as before. This is illustrated by the fact that he had begun writing eclogues before the war, his first being written in 1938, when his own personal heartbreak and his questions about the nature of his poetry seemed far more important than external world events. Thus Radnóti displays an extraordinary consistency, persistence, and courage. He bears witness to the war and, tacitly, his own death, yet produces a poem that stands against all the suffering that he and millions of others had to endure at the hands of the Nazis.

The dialectic between imprisonment and freedom is the central motif of the poem. The poet, imprisoned, is able to attain imaginative freedom; even if the literal redemption of the captives in never achieved in life, a victory of the imagination has been won. But the poem is not credulous in its utopianism. It ends on a note of practical disappointment that the poet is still far from his beloved, who cannot be brought back to him by all the visions in the world. The poem ends on a touchingly personal note, as the presence of absence of the beloved takes precedence over the carnage and torture of the war. Yet this interior focus is part of Radnóti’s overall message. The individual, he makes clear, cannot be lost amid a tumult of wars and ideologies. The maintenance of individual feelings and individual consciences, far from being a personal whim, is a prerequisite if civilization—the beauty, mystery, and classical rigor that the poem has been trying to evoke against the darkness—is to be preserved.

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