Dezsô Kosztolányi (1885 - 1936)

Kosztolányi was born in Szabadka (today Subotica in the north of the former Yugoslavia) where his father was the headmaster of a secondary school

His first volume of poetry Between Four Walls (Négy fal között) in 1907 got an ironical reception from Ady. The views of the two poets differed fundamentally on poetry and the role of the poet. Ady who followed the traditions of Hungarian romanticism thought that the writer has to be the spiritual leader of his country, as a prophet he should show the way for his people. Kosztolányi was far less committed to radical reform than Ady [q.v.], Juhász [q.v.], or others of his generation. As a critic, Kosztolányi objected to the outspoken emotionalism of Ady (q.v.] calling himself a 'homo aestheticus' in contrast to Ady, the politically committed 'homo moralis'. Kosztolányi declared that the calling of the poet is the creation and defense of beauty.

Beside Ady Mihály Babits (q.v.) was the second determinant personality of the Nyugat. He shared in many respects the views of Kosztolányi as to the role of the poet, which allowed Kosztolányi to become one of the founding members of this most respected review. Kosztolányi became very soon an intimate friend of Babits and Gyula Juhász. (q.v.)

The poetry of Kosztolányi is very directly related to the Hungarian impressionist prose. The strength of his lyre resides in dissolution, the influx of irrationalistic contents that compels the reader to be moved by the lines of the poet and to share his dreams. Kosztolányi, the most suggestive poet of modern Hungarian lyre discovers and makes conscious the world of the big cities, the growing loneliness and wish for introspection which was totally unknown to Hungarian poetry until the end of the 19th century as it did not know this strata of the human soul. Kosztolányi's poetry is dominated by extraordinary sensitivity and by an early preoccupation with death, against which he kept protesting throughout his life.


I dream of coloured inks. Of every kind.

The yellow is the finest. Reams and reams
of letters could I write in yellow ink
to her, the little schoolgirl of my dreams.
I'd scrawl something that looks like Japanese,
then try a bird, most intricately scrolled.
And I want other colours, many more,
like bronze and silver, emerald and gold,
and then I want a hundred more, a thousand,
or rather, I will have a million:
dumb-charcoal, funny-lilac, drunken-ruby,
enamoured, chaste or brash vermilion.
I ought to have some mournful violet,
a palish blue, a brick-red-like maroon,
like shadows seeping through a stained glass window
against a black vault, in August, at noon.
In reds I want a blazing, burning one,
and blood-red, like the blood-stained setting sun
and then I'd go on writing: with a blue
to my young sister, mother will get gold,
I'd write a prayer in gold ink to my mother,
a golden dawn with golden words re-told.
I'd go on writing, in an ancient tower.
My colour set, so fine and exquisite,
would make me happy, oh my God, so happy.

I want to colour in my life with it.


I'd like to tell you this, if you agree.
Last night I staid up working late again,
until three.
I turn in, but the cog-wheels of the brain
go rattling on and on. Almost insane
I'm tossing, turning, even counting sheep,
but cannot sleep.
I try in vain the mantras and the cures,
the bitterest medicinal liqueurs,
my script still leers at me with grisly threats,
my heart still blames those forty cigarettes
and else. The lethal coffees, I presume.
I give up trying and admit defeat,
then slowly, in my shirt-sleeves, pace the room.
Inside the dreaming family retreat
half-open lips are moist with honey-sweet
saliva, and on drunk, staggering feet
I look out on the street.

Wait, how shall I explain it? Here we go.
You obviously know
my house, and maybe you
recall my bedroom and the sad, forlorn
Logodi street, grey in the early dawn.
This is the shabby, melancholy view
in front of me.
Beyond the windows there are shapes to see,
unmoving, sightless, knocked-down like a tree.
They lie there horizontally, inane,
behind the lids their eyeballs stare asquint,
the fly-by-night anaemia of the brain
has misted up their minds, and just a glint
is showing through,
beside them, here a jacket, there a shoe.
They sleep in there, the room is just a box,
but in their waking dreams it is a place
of beauty. Can't they see the paradox?
It is a cage that stares them in the face.
Then suddenly an old insomniac
alarm clock picks the moment to attack
the sleeper with a call:
"Wake up to life, the hard facts of it all."
The building is asleep too, dumb and dead,
as it will sleep, some hundred years ahead,
when weeds will crawl beneath the ruined wall
and no one will recall:
was it a house or just a cattle-stall?

But high above there is the cloudless blue
of purity and light and grandeur too,
as frail yet firm as everything that's true.
The celestial sea,
as blue as always, as it used to be,
the blue duvet, my mother made for me,
the inkblot of my schoolboy gaucherie...

The living souls
of silent stars unfurl their aureoles
to greet the warm
mid-autumn night that comes before the storm.
Through distances that are un-spannable
these stars have watched the wars of Hannibal,
and now they see me, standing, barely dressed,
behind my window, here in Budapest.
What has happened to me, that's hard to know.
It seems, a shadow flew above my head,
my childhood, that I'd given up for dead,
and buried long ago.

By and by,
among the stunning treasures of the sky
I see a secret wisp of lightness, oozing
a hue of dawn, and blushfully perfusing
the levitating stars. Out in the east
light beams are released,
a sparkling palace fills the heavenly sphere,
a chandelier
is glowing in a blaze,
until the guests disperse and go their ways.
Out on the lawn the shadows of the night
are floating on the castle's candlelight.
The guests are leaving now, in groups or pairs,
descending on the stately marble stairs,
and coming to the end of their descent,
the noble giant of the firmament,
the host, farewells them in the evening cool,
outside the vestibule.
Then girlish whispers, jangling of a brooch,
end of the party, hailing for a coach.

A veil of point lace
descends from distant space
to adorn and grace
a ravishingly beautiful young girl's
rich auburn curls
with the delicate gold-trace
of plaited purls,
and priceless precious pearls.
The veil spreads peaceful light upon the true
celestial landscape's otherwoldly blue,
or it descends upon an angel, who
carries with the poise of maidenhead
the richly jewelled thread
upon her head and, light as a butterfly,
leaps into a landau
to raise a graceful hand, or
to cast a flirty eye
into another carriage passing by,
and then she lets her horses romp away
along the fairy-lighted Milky Way
where mingling with the coaches until late
their horseshoes touch the stars and scintillate.

Struck by the sight
I cried and cried again in my delight:
"They have a ball in heaven, every night!"
There shone in that enchanted radiance
an ancient secret I could clearly sense:
the stars go home at dawn, along immense
bright boulevards of skyborne continents.

I waited
till daybreak, motionless, inebriated.
And then I asked myself: where have you been,
to what disgraceful lowness have you slipped,
what was so dear to you, a strumpet's mean
embrace, an all-important manuscript,
that seasons came and seasons passed unseen,
and you could never glean
the secrets of that great galactic scene?

The score
is fifty years, I realize in awe.
- I have my dead now, ever more and more -
while from their high resplendent mirador
my cosmic neighbours, all these fifty years,
have watched me cry and wipe away my tears.
Now I confess, that kneeling on the floor
I thanked for all this, humbled to the core.

I know that one fine day I'll have to leave,
and I have nothing in which to believe,
but tightening my heart-strings as a chord
I sang and sang until the music soared
to one who can't be seen and can't be guessed,
not in this life, nor in our final rest.
Before they come to throw me overboard,
I know that here, where I am so distressed,
stumbling through quicksands and souls, on my quest,
there is a great unfathomable Lord,
I was His guest.


Behold, dear friends, one day he was defeated.
He died. He left us here behind, he cheated.
We praise him. Not his science or his arts,
we praise his heart, and hold him in our hearts.
Now merest void.
What treachery!
A treasury
alas, destroyed.

Compare him with his peers, ad infinitum,
but he remains unique, a special item,
the one and only one, ever to be.
As two leaves aren't the same on any tree
so we shall never meet his like again.
Look at his friendly face and see the strain
still in his sunken eyes, the hand, the wrist
are fading fast in some mysterious mist,
as if a cold
centuries old
stone relic lay there, guarding in a crypt
a secret lifetime's runic manuscript.
His warmth, his light were no one's but his own,
we knew what he was: He. Himself alone.
As he would ask us for a certain food,
and as he moved his lips, now sealed for good,
and as his voice would fade and slowly swell
like mumblings of a sunken chapel-bell
from deep below the sea, as he would wheeze:
"I'd like to have a little bite of cheese"
and sipped a drop of wine after he ate,
and gazed upon his half-lit cigarette,
and as he phoned, or ran to catch the news,
or wove his dreams from silks of many hues,
so on his brow the marking brightly shone:
One in a million. One. The only one.

You try to find him, but it's all in vain,
from Asia, to the Cape, or here again,
in future, past, or in the interim
you may meet everyone, except for him.
It is futile
to try and find his faintly funny smile,
not even Lady Luck could duplicate
this miracle of circumstance and fate.

And now, dear friends, remember what befell
the old man, in the tale we used to tell.
When life awakened him, we simply said:
"There was..." and so the story went ahead.
When high heavens fell down to mark the end,
we said : "There wasn't..." and we mourned a friend.

An honest man is here before us, lifeless,
a silent statue, in his frozen likeness.
No tears will raise him, drugs or magic rhyme.
There was, there wasn't, once upon a time.


They've entered me in books of every kind,
I'm registered and checked in every way.
I'm kept in musty, ink-stained offices,
in folders that are growing grizzly-grey.
Oh, gnashing of teeth, oh, humiliation,
that I am captive till my dying day,
that they dispose of me from top to toe,
that I am just a record, filed away.
I'd much prefer to live in the Sahara
or rot beneath a mound of heavy clay,
for I am kept in books of every kind,
and registered and checked in every way.


  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.