The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

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“The Seventh Eclogue” is a poem in seven stanzas, written in the classical form of the eclogue. The poem begins at twilight, in a military encampment. It soon becomes clear that the poet is a captive, confined in a stockade enclosed by “cruel wire.” With the fading of sunlight, the wire becomes physically invisible. The poet knows that the constraining wires are still there even though it is night. Yet the fact that he cannot see them fills him with a visionary hope, a fantasy of escape and liberation.

The second stanza presents the imagined escape of the prisoners. References to Serbia, where the Hungarian Army was engaged fighting on the German side during World War II, make clear the poem’s setting and wartime milieu. The poet glimpses a release to “the hidden heartland of home” that is actually so far away. He wonders whether his homeland, or perhaps literally his home itself, is as it once was. Might not the terrible bombing and carnage of the war have destroyed it? The stanza ends with perhaps the most striking line of the poem, “Say, is there a country where someone still knows the hexameter?” The hexameter is a six-beat poetic meter traditionally used in classical Greek and Latin verse, also used in this Hungarian poem in which the poet is deliberately evoking classical forms. By asking if the hexameter is still known in his homeland, the poet is wondering about the survival of civilization itself. Have the expressions of higher culture such as music, art, and poetry survived in war-torn Hungary, or have they been reduced to rubble in the wartime carnage?

In the third stanza, the poet describes the process of writing this very poem in the prison camp, or lager, the German term found in the poem. He must write when the guards do not see him, at night, and without a flashlight or book, lacking the ability even to put the correct accents (important in the Hungarian language) on the individual words. He is cut off from the outside world, receiving no mail; the camp itself is shrouded by fog.

People of many nationalities are in the camp, all imprisoned by the Germans, all wanting desperately to go home to their families. Even though they are all aware that death is nearly certain, they hope for a last-minute reprieve, a miracle. The poet compares his condition to that of an animal infested by fleas. The degrading conditions in the camp cannot last much longer, but, as the poet grimly concedes, neither can his life. The moon rises, making the wire once again visible, ending any possible fantasy of escape. The poet sees the armed guards, whose job it is to make sure none of the prisoners will get away.

In the last stanza, the poet addresses his beloved, who is back in his homeland. Despite all his dreams, he feels in his heart his separation from the woman he loves. Her absence, as signified by the bitter image of a cigarette-end replacing her kiss, renders any continuing hope impossible, as the horrible conditions surrounding him bring the poet to a state of final, resigned despair.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

An “eclogue” refers to a classical poetic form most commonly associated with the Roman poet Vergil. Eclogues sometimes involve dialogue between two characters (as in Radnóti’s own “Fourth Eclogue” (1943), but they can also be a monologue such as this one. Eclogues are written in hexameter, or six-beat meter, and traditionally describe a pleasant natural scene that may then suffer calamity or deprivation. Radnóti’s prison-camp setting is a particularly dire enactment of the traditional idea of the fallen or violated landscape. The first line might suggest a traditional pastoral scene, with its brooding twilight mood. But the sudden introduction of the “cruel wire” in the second line conveys the agony and emotional directness characterizing the rest of the poem. This is in obvious contrast to the conventionality and formal mood of the classical eclogue, though Radnóti is really extending the classical form, not overturning it. Indeed, Radnóti’s combination of emotional power and classicism, rare in twentieth century poetry in any language, is strikingly in evidence in this poem. The classical meter and precedent help contain the suffering and thwarted hope of the poem; they explain it and give it meaning.

Radnóti uses the eclogue form not only to frame the poem but also to contribute to its meaning. In the almost inconceivable barbarism of World War II, classicism—in times of peace merely a way of expressing kinship with literary tradition—becomes an eloquent counterpoint to the barbarism and horror in which the poet is immersed. The poem’s most crucial line, “Say, is there a country where someone still knows the hexameter?” exemplifies this protest against barbarism, this sense that what might seem a mere literary form is in fact the saving grace of a world otherwise lost to evil. In the original Hungarian, the line is “Mondd, van-e ott haza még, ahol értik a hexametert?” All the other words in the sentence are terse, ordinary one-or two-syllable words, and the abrupt appearance of the lofty “hexameter” shows how out of place the word is in the prison-camp milieu—and therefore how much the values it connotes are desperately needed.

The poet has difficulty even getting the poem on paper: Not only are the circumstances harrowing, but also the material necessities of writing—light, pen and paper, time, and freedom to write—are fundamentally lacking. That the poem was written at all, much less that it emerged as such an eloquent, accomplished, and fundamentally finished work, is a testimony both to the poet’s talent and to the strength of his character. A sense of poetry as an earned if limited victory over barbarism is at the heart of the poem’s classicism and its investment in classical forms and meters.