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Voice of Conscience: The Life and Work of Attila József

by Iván Kovács


Attila József is internationally acknowledged as an important poet of the first half of the 20th century and has been widely translated from Hungarian into all major European languages, as well as Russian and Esperanto. Harold Bloom, the American literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University included József’s poetry among the works that he listed which he considered as canonical. No other Hungarian poet could identify with, and take on the cause of the downtrodden and destitute, as József did. If such a contradictory idiom is permissible, his depth of feeling and humaneness is nothing less than searing, empathetically crying out for justice and a fairer deal whereby the world can be put to right. Although in his earlier days he was a Leninist and member of the Communist Party, he later became outraged when he realised that the Communists regarded him as nothing more than a propaganda tool that could be exploited, and he denounced his association with them by personally handing back his membership card. Disassociated from any type of -isms, he became a champion of liberty and justice in his own right, with allegiance to no other authority except his own conscience.

Attila József was born on 11 April 1905 in Budapest’s suburb of Ferencváros. His father, Áron József, was a soap factory worker, and his mother, Borbála Pőcze, who came from peasant stock, augmented the family’s meagre income as a domestic servant and washer woman in the employ of the rich.

Not much is known about József’s father except that he abandoned his family when József was three years old, with the hope that he would make a better fortune for himself in America. All he bequeathed to his son were his family name and the choice of József’s given name, Attila. He was an admirer of Attila the Hun, and consequently believed that anyone christened by the name of such a powerful historical personage could not do otherwise but to turn out a prominent figure among his fellow creatures. As we know today, this wishful thinking on Áron József’s part – at least in his son’s case – turned out to become a fulfilled prophecy.

József’s mother was unable to provide for Attila and his two sisters, Etelka and Jolán, on her own, with the result that the Child Protection League found it necessary to take steps on their behalf. Thus, Attila and Etelka were placed in the care of foster parents in Öcsöd, a village in south-east Hungary. This, however, came at a price, and both children were put to work on their foster father’s, Ferenc Gombai’s, farm. For their upkeep they had to perform household work and feeding and tending the farm animals. József’s formal schooling began in 1911 at the local primary school in Öcsöd.

After two years in foster care Attila and Etelka were reunited with their mother in June 1912, but their lives were none the easier for that. Continuous change of residence from one rented apartment to another – caused by shortage of payment and consequent evictions – also resulted in the inevitable change of schools that the children were subjected to. Most of József’s daytime hours were spent in the streets where he tried either legally or illegally to contribute to his mother’s income. He sold water in a cinema, stole coal and firewood from the Ferencváros railway station, made pinwheels which he sold to well-to-do children, and carried baskets and parcels in the market hall.

Although the József family could hardly make ends meet there were further hardships and tragedies to follow. With the approach of the war years poverty became more widespread and obvious, and as if things had not been bad enough, Borbála’s health turned for the worse, and at the end of 1914 she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and by 1917 Borbála was so ill that she had to be hospitalised, and it was her children who had to take care of her now. József also had his share of sickness and was laid up in hospital with scarlet fever from mid-September till mid-October that year. His elder sister, Jolán, had found employment with the attorney, Ödön Makai. She first became friends with him, and soon after their relationship became romantic. Through Makai’s influence and connections József and Etelka were sent to the town of Monor, where once more they came under the care of foster parents. Some encouraging aspect, as remembered by József’s elder sister, Jolán, was that József wrote his first poems towards the end of that year.

By the summer of 1919 Borbála could no longer get out of bed. Jozsef went to stay with relatives to try and ease their financial situation, and it was there that he received the news that his mother had died on the night of 27 – 28 December 1919. This tragedy was to stay with him and leave its mark on the rest of his life. This would become apparent in several of his poems that he wrote in the future. After Borbála’s death it was Jolán who took in her siblings, Attila and Etelka, and Makai became their legal guardian.

József’s school years up until the time that he matriculated in Budapest at the Werbőczy Gymnasium on 13 December 1923 were turbulent to say the least. He moved about so many times, and attended so many schools and boarding schools, that any normal child would have performed very poorly indeed, if not given up altogether. József, on the other hand, had such a capacity to absorb knowledge that he would often prepare for exams by means of which he would pass two grades simultaneously, and still astonish his teachers by finishing at the top of his class. Besides that, he made the acquaintance of several contemporary poets who were active in Hungary, and through their contacts, started to publish his poems more regularly. His first collection of poems was published in the autumn of 1922 under the title Szépség Koldusa (Beauty’s Beggar), which appeared in 300 copies.

As József was finding his poetic voice, the revolutionary element in his writing came to the fore very early. On 29 April 1923 he completed his poem Lázadó Krisztus (Rebellious Messiah), which was published in October that year in Kékmadár (Blue Bird). A month later, in November, the Napkelet (Sunrise), a magazine of the Hungarian Literary Society, responded to József’s poem with a virulent attack, which soon had a snowball effect, and by January 1924 József received a summons that he had been legally charged with blasphemy. In his defence his attorney stated that the ‘Rebellious Messiah’ of the poem was not to be understood as József’s personal attack on God, and furthermore should not be quoted out of context, but needed to be understood as the united voice of humanity protesting against its earthly lot, something that other poets like Endre Ady (Hungarian) and Heinrich Heine (German) have also attempted.

Despite these efforts József was sentenced to eight months in prison and a fine of 200 000 crowns. Some newspapers were up in arms and many people came to József’s defence, which finally resulted first in a suspended sentence, and then the dismissal of the case. Ultimately the court case had achieved nothing less than draw nationwide attention to a young poet, and unintentionally provided him with a generous amount of publicity.

In August 1924 József enrolled at the University of Szeged, following courses in Hungarian, French and Philosophy, which he kept up until the second semester, and then returned to Budapest at the beginning of June 1925. His second volume of poems, Nem én kiáltok (That’s Not Me Shouting), was published just after Christmas in 1924. In March 1925 the daily paper, Szeged, published his poem, Tiszta szivvel (With a Pure Heart), yet causing another public uproar in right wing circles. It led to József’s consequent expulsion from the University of Szeged but acclaimed by more liberal factions as a poem characteristic of the voice of József’s desperate and disinherited generation.

At the beginning of October 1925 József travelled to Vienna, and in November the same year he was enrolled at the University of Vienna, attending classes and visiting libraries. To earn his livelihood, he sold newspapers at the entrance of the fashionable Viennese restaurant, the Rathauskeller, and did housecleaning at the homes of the Viennese-Hungarian academics. His lot only improved when he was recommended to Zóltán Hajdu, the director of the Anglo-Austrian bank, who employed him as the private tutor to help with the education of his two sons.

Early in 1926 József returned to Hungary, but by September the same year he went to Paris. He put all his efforts into improving his French, and soon became a student at the Sorbonne. He spent an entire year in France, from October 1926 to July 1927 in Paris, and another month in Cagnes-Sur-Mer. Most of his friends were Hungarians, but among French contemporaries he made the acquaintance of Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire, and with his newfound knowledge of French he gained the confidence to write a poem which was good enough to be published in a newly revived and only number of L’Esprit Nouveau.

After József returned to Hungary he was never to leave his homeland again. From this point onward most of his time was taken up with the writing and publishing of his poems, and collections of his work saw the light of day on a regular basis. In February 1929 József’s third collection of poems, Nincsen apám, se anyám, (I Have No Father, Nor Mother), was published in 1000 numbered copies. It was about this time that József joined the Hungarian Workers Movement, and in the autumn of the following year he became a member of the illegal Communist Party. The fourth collection of poems, Döntsd a tőkét, ne siránkozz (Knock Down Capital, Don’t Lament), was published in 1931, and in October 1932 the fifth collection of his poetry, Külvárosi éj (Suburban Night) saw the light of day. Sometime in May 1933, József wrote his famous love poem Óda (Ode), and the woman to whom it was dedicated, Márta Márton, related many years later that she heard the poem broadcast over the radio by the Parisian channel devoted to literature. This was done in its French translation, and Óda was introduced as the most beautiful love poem known in modern world literature.

In December 1934 József published Medvetánc (Bear Dance), yet another collection, and in January 1935 was the recipient of a “minor” literary prize, awarded to him by the Baumgarten Foundation, a prestigious literary body that would posthumously honour him with the Baumgarten Prize in 1938.

All the hardship and uncertainty of his tumultuous life was beginning to take its toll on József. By spring 1935 he was being treated for a mental condition believed to be schizophrenia, but which later turned out to be a wrong diagnosis, and which more knowledgeable experts in retrospect identified as borderline personality disorder. In May 1936 his poem A Dunánál (By the Danube), was published in the literary magazine Szép Szó (Beautiful Word), later to be recognised by many as the best poem that he had ever written. His last collection of poems to be published in his lifetime, Nagyon fáj (It Deeply Hurts), was published just before Christmas, 1936.

In December 1936 József made the personal acquaintance of the well-known Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, and saw Thomas Mann, the great German writer, in January 1937, who at the invitation of the contributors of the Szép Szó was honoured at the Hungarian Theatre. It was for this special occasion that József wrote the poem Thomas Mann üdvözlése (Welcome to Thomas Mann), which many years later was so successfully translated into English by the Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins.

During the second half of July 1937 József had a nervous breakdown, and he was sent to a sanatorium to recuperate. His friends tried to keep his condition secret but by 12 August news of his breakdown leaked out. He left the sanatorium on 4 November 1937, and travelled to Balatonszárszó, a village situated near Lake Balaton, to visit his sister, Jolán. On 2 December József spent the whole day in the company of his co-workers with whom he edited the Szép Szó, and was planning to return with them to Budapest, but the vehicle in which they were to travel was already filled to capacity, so he had to remain behind.

On the next day, 3 December, József planned to do some translation. He took it easy during the morning, and at lunch time he had a good meal. Then he read a newspaper, and in the afternoon accompanied his sister Jolán, with whom he did some shopping. An hour before his death, when he went for a walk, he was in a seemingly good mood. Coming to a railway crossing, he jumped over the railway barrier, and then attempted to cross between two railway carriages of a stationary goods train. Suddenly the train started to move, hitting József hard on the head. From this blow he fell across the line, and the train cut off his right arm. The blow on the head and the severing of his arm were enough to bring about almost instantaneous death. Many argued that his death was suicide, while others insisted that it was an accident. Like with many other young artists and poets whose deaths have been premature, József’s widespread recognition only happened posthumously.

 *               *               *

During his short life, spanning barely more than three decades, Attila József produced more than seven hundred poems. All of them are good, the majority are very good, and a considerable number are regarded as exceptional. Already at the age of seventeen he wrote poems with a seriousness and social conscience that set the tone for the rest of his life. Very much the angry young man, his fiery aspiration reveals in no uncertain terms where his loyalties lie. From this period of his writing one need look no further than his March for Young Lives, which reads as follows:

Our fathers have toiled like robots
To provide our miserly bread,
Sad, obstinate, but dedicated,
For all God cared they could have been dead.

But finally our childhood ended.
We knew not the meaning of happiness.
And now – iron-willed and courageous –
We are determined to end our distress.

We were cowardly with our fathers.
We had no rights, but only our justice.
Now no one can stop our moving forward,
Should anyone try they shall feel our roughness.

We are the Sons of Life,
The ordained heroes for the fight.
Once we get moving this Old Order
Is sure to be crushed by our right!

On a more personal note, love and women also form an important part of his verse. Already in his first published love poem, Far Away, Beside a Piano, he reveals a type of tenderness seldom capable of being articulated by a seventeen-year-old. It is a sonnet in which his sensitivity is revealed in the following rhyming couplets:

Notes are streaming from the piano
Like steam rising from sweet-smelling tea.
Rapture is softly caressing my cheeks,
And a legion of thrills struggles to break free.

Now I’m reminded of Martha’s voice.
It was like velvet, but this is not hers.
Poor thing, she gave me no keepsake.
Now I see the piano through blurs.

Her yearning mouth trembles before me.
Oh, how far off can I possibly be?
Oh, why is her memory so strong?

The distance persists and my chest feels hollow,
But notes keep streaming from the piano,
Like steam rising from sweet-smelling tea.

Death lurks in many of the lines of József’s poems, as if he were continuously attempting to make peace with it, and appears to find its courageous acceptance in his poem entitled The Brave. The first two stanzas of this poem confirm this in no uncertain terms:

Those who fearfully await death
Shall be taken in by the earth,
Their mouths transformed to purple,
Their horror-filled eyes will know no rebirth.

From them the great secret will be withheld
That death is but a great, heavy, kingly curtain,
That needs to be boldly torn asunder,
By those that are unwavering and certain.

One cannot help but draw parallels with the New Testament verses in Matthew 27:50-51, where it is written that “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.”

At the age of nineteen he writes in a confident, but yet unheard and new voice, as in the poem, It’s a Beautiful Summer Evening. It is full of irony, contradicting its title by portraying the Budapest of the mid-twenties in colourfully expressionistic, but disturbing imagery:

Startled factories are howling,
Sooty roofs are darkened by the evening,
Paperboys are yelling beneath the arches of street lamps,
Carriages are running to and fro,
Trams are ringing in a great procession.

Placard-faced people rushing along
And – one can see – behind large blocks of buildings
People’s hallelujahs, screams, groans, curses
Ascending breathlessly, coldly, slyly and flustered
On human ladders towards the heights.

It vividly illustrates the hub of a capitalistic and impersonal city, which can be equally applied to any of the great cities across the world, and can thus be appreciated universally.

Another poem, written a few years later, called Suburban Night, is written in a style and tone comparable only to T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and despite the unlikely possibility that these two poets could have known about each other, certain stylistic similarities between their verses are so striking that they must have been inspired by the same Muse. Two examples from separate stanzas illustrate this point:

And the night, upon a sky like oily rags,
Sighs and stands suspended.
It takes its seat on the outskirts of the city,
Crosses the square with steps that sway,
Gathering moonlight on its way.

A cat upon a palisade fence is sharpening its claws
The night guard fearfully slinks by,
And in the face of natural laws,
Sees spectres and strange glimmers, –
The light on bug-backed dynamos
Coldly, cruelly shimmers.

In 1936 József wrote By the Danube, one of his longer poems, where he narrates how he sits by the bank of the Danube, at first just contemplating how a melon rind is carried by the waves of the river, but as the poem evolves the Danube gradually takes on grander proportions, until finally it becomes a powerful symbol of Hungary’s tragic history, and the spirit of a nation’s identity and consciousness. Finally, the poem’s perception of reality is so unique that legitimate equivalents can only be found in Oriental philosophy, and more specifically the higher states of consciousness as encountered in such Hindu scriptures as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. To make this point clearer it is necessary to make mention of the concept of the ‘Eternal Now,’ a way of seeing the world not in a limited, linear fashion, but laterally and all inclusively, and then correlate it with the concept of the ‘Absolute’ or the ‘Whole’. A few stanzas selected to illustrate the above read as follows:

I sat on the lowest step of the landing,
Watching a melon rind carried by the river’s sweep.
Immersed in myself I was hardly aware
Of the chatter on the surface, the silence of the deep.
As if gushing from my own overflowing heart,
The mighty Danube – turbulent and wise – had much to impart.

* * *

The way things are, I have been watching
For a hundred thousand years what I realise now,
In one decisive moment time’s wholeness is fulfilled,
And my entire ancestry stands written on my brow.

I see what they never saw, because they were hoeing,
Killing, embracing, doing what endless generations do.
And they see in the living what we can’t grasp –
To which the passing of the ages holds the clue.

* * *

I have become the world – everything that was, is,
Like the many nations that war with each other.
The dead conquerors are victorious in me,
While the conquered lives on as my sister and brother

Finally the poem concludes as follows:

I have a need to work. It is a hard enough struggle
Having to confess one’s bloodstained past.
The Danube’s waves, which are the past, present and future,
Softly come together, embracing at last.
The continued fight which our ancestors fought
Is finally dissolved in a well-earned peace,
We can at long last pick up our tools,
And completing our tasks find pleasure in ease.

After its publication, the response to By the Danube was unequivocal, and by those who understood him, József was recognised as the greatest living Hungarian poet of his time.

Note: All the above poems quoted, whether complete or excerpted, were translated by Iván Kovács, and are part of a yet unpublished manuscript of an English rendering of József’s poems.


http://www.listology.com/marslike/list/harold-blooms-western-canon (See under Hungarian)                      https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B3zsef_Attila
Szabolcsi Miklós (Szerkesztő), József Attila Párizsban (Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1982).