The Poet as Witness
“Is death anything else than this?”
Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedo
Hungary is about to join the European Union, and a year-long celebration of the many links between Hungarian and English cultures, called Magyar-Magic, is taking place in the UK throughout 2004 (check it out at www.magyarmagic.com ). Part of this celebration involves an examination of the strong literary and artistic connections between two markedly different cultures, connected by a shared esteem of their respective literary traditions. In this context, the publication of a revised and refined translation of selected poems by Miklós Radnóti is to be welcomed for bringing the work of this major literary figure to a new generation of English readers.
Born in Budapest in 1909 of Jewish origin, Radnóti was shot, at the age of 35, by Hungarian guards working for the German occupiers of Hungary towards the end of the Second World War in 1944. He had been interned in a labour camp in Serbia and died during a forced march west across Hungary. In 1946, the mass grave in which he and his fellow laborers had been hastily buried was exhumed, and his body was identified by the bundle of poems in his coat pocket. Forced March presents some of these poems, along with selections from two of his previous books, published in 1936 and 1938.
One of the functions of poetry is to express the unthinkable mixture of the horrific, the tragic and the banal that constitutes such a biography. The remarkable power of Radnóti’s poems is that they succeed, repeatedly, in doing so. Perhaps even more remarkably, the consummate translations of George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer convey much of the emotional force of Radnóti’s Hungarian, and do so in verse forms that retain a familiarity for the English reader that verges, at times, on the heartbreaking.
Gömöri and Wilmer contribute a wealth of useful, clearly written scholarly machinery geared towards assisting the English reader unfamiliar with Hungarian poetry and the historical details of Radnóti’s life. Both translators are lecturers at Cambridge University, and both are accomplished poets in their own right. Gömöri escaped from Hungary after the revolution in 1956, and has written on Polish literature, as well as editing, with George Szirtes, an anthology of modern Hungarian poetry in English (The Colonnade of Teeth).
With this academic authority behind it, the poetry presented here resonates even more powerfully. Radnóti mixes a Romantic yearning with pointedly modern irony in ways familiar to English readers who know the tension between a long pastoral tradition and the newer, metropolitan tendencies of much 20th century poetry. Radnóti himself is well aware of this tension in his own work: “My pastoral Muse, be with me here in this city grove too,” he writes in ‘Third Eclogue.’ Like many of his poems, this one alludes to concerns he shares with Keats, a pivotal canonical marker of authority and pastoral reassurance. As with Keats, many of his poems take on an ominously premonitory quality:
Pastoral Muse, oh assist me! How poets die in this age . . .
The sky falls in on us, no tumuli mark our ashes,
No Greek urns, graceful in form, preserve them. Only poems
A couple if any survive us . . . Can I still write of love?
I see how her body shines. Oh help me, pastoral Muse!
English poetry contemporary with Radnóti, in its canonical forms, sought a mode of address that could comment on affairs of contemporary politics while maintaining some kind of poetic authority. The trick was to write poetry that didn’t become rhyming journalism, and the greatness of writers like Auden and MacNeice was their ability to achieve this. They were able, in William Empson’s words, to “learn a style from a despair.” Radnóti, in different ways, is equally successful (his right to despair being of a wholly different magnitude, of course) in forging his own style out of the Hungarian pastoral tradition and its certainty that the poet’s commentary matters.
Divorced from the background of the 1930s (Auden’s “low, dishonest decade”) he might read very differently. Read with the historical grain, his poems become significant meditations, justified outcries against the inhumanity of his time:
I lived on this earth in an age
When man fell so low he killed with pleasure
And willingly, not merely under orders.
His life entangled, trapped, in wild obsession,
He trusted false gods, raving in delusion. (‘Fragment’)
These lines, written in May 1944, self-consciously establish the poem as a form of protest heavy with responsibility, an art expressing rejection even as it seeks the impossible comprehension of what it contemplates. Radnóti’s poetry offers a moral register of ways we might respond to atrocity, with the ache of nostalgia as a possible ground of all response. “I know we ought to forget, but I / Never forget a single memory” he writes in ‘Foaming Sky.’
Throughout these poems one encounters a cultured sensibility increasingly forced into what the translators define as the position of a “Christian Stoic,” seeing “his own survival as of secondary importance: he had been called ‘As witness to the truth’.” “I’ve grown so used to this terrible world / That sometimes I am not hurt by it merely disgusted,” comments the Poet in ‘First Eclogue.’
Clive Wilmer’s ‘Note on the Translation’ concludes with the observation that “the diction, like the forms, was intended to carry significant moral weight.” It’s not clear whether he’s referring to the poems or the translations. But in the end it doesn’t really matter. Radnóti’s ‘A la Recherche’ contains the lines “Where is the night when friends, sparkling with wit and gusto, / Still drank their fine hock gaily from bright-eyed slender glasses?” This echo of Villon’s “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” suggests a value transcending any specific language. In asking “Where is the night?” Radnóti’s poems find an answer in the terrible world he lived in. His final ‘Postcard,’ scribbled on that last march, describes his own fate: “Shot in the neck. ‘This is how you will end’.” Ten days later he was executed.