János Pilinszky

János Pilinszky (1921-1981)

A poet who wrote relatively little and yet exerted a major influence on Hungarian literature, Pilinszky was born in a family of intellectuals. He was educated at the high school of the Piarist Order, after which he studied law, literature and the history of art at the University of Budapest, but did not complete his studies. His first poems appeared in 1938. He was drafted into the army in 1944 and stationed in Harbach, Germany, where he saw the horrors of the concentration camps - an experience which he would carry with him for the rest of his life. He became, in fact, one of the few non-Jewish intellectuals (he was a Roman Catholic) who contributed to the canon of European literature a number of poems which honoured the memories of those killed in the Holocaust. His famous 'Oratorio for a Concentration Camp' became a universal symbol of the tragedy of human existence.
Between 1946 and 1948, during the short-lived post-war democracy, he served as co-editor of the Budapest literary review Újhold [New Moon]. His first volume of poetry, Trapeze and Crossbars ( Trapéz és korlát) appeared in 1946. It won much critical acclaim, and in 1947 it received the prestigious Baumgarten award. In the 1950s, dogmatic Communist cultural policy forced Pilinszky, along with many others, into silence. But in 1957, after the Hungarian revolution, he could join the editorial staff of the Catholic weekly Új Ember [The New Man]. In 1959 he published the volume Harmadnapon [On the Third Day], and in 1963 the volume Requiem. In 1972 his last poems were published under the title Szálkák [Splinters].In the seventies his genius was even recognized by the Kadar regime. In 1971 he was awarded the Attila József Prize and in l980 the highest award, the Kossuth Prize.
His work translated into English by Ted Hughes and János Csokits, and into French by Pierre Emmanuel, brought him international fame. He visited London several times and read his poetry there at international poetry festivals.
Pilinszky's terse and beautiful poetry expresses alienation with a rare evocative force; in most of his poems, Catholic existentialism is manifested in hermetic forms. Even the commonest of words have a volcanic effect in his poetry; silence and things unexpressed become an integral part of his texts. The chief philosophical paradox of his poetry is the simultaneous experience of absolute Catholic faith and the absurdity of being cast blindly afloat in the sea of human existence.


And all will be forsaken on that day.

The fallen grounds and heavens will be set
apart, and silent, waiting for the end,
the kennels likewise: soundless, separate.
Dark flocks of fleeing birds will fill the air.
And we shall see the rising sun that day,
as pupil of a hushed, demented eye,
and watchful, even-tempered beast of prey.

But as the midnight wind blows, agitating
the myriads of leaves upon the trees,
I too keep tossing, turning in my exile,
and speak aloud in restless reveries:

Do you recall the passing of the seasons,
that march across the creases of the land?
And have you seen the wrinkles of decaying,
the tell-tale blotches on my tired hand?
And do you know the name of loneliness?
And do you know the kind of pain that moves
(forever treading this eternal darkness)
on webbed-together toes, and cloven hooves?
The sleepless nights, the bitter cold, the ditch,
the twisted heads of convicts in the cell,
and do you know the frozen feeding-troughs,
the unrelenting pains of deepest hell?

Sunrise. The dark of scrubby trees ahead
against the heaven's angry infra-red.
I'm on my way. A man confronts his end
and walks along in total soundlessness.
With nothing. And his shadow? Yes.
A stick? Yes. And his prison clothing? Yes.

I've learnt to walk to this end. That I may
take this belated, bitter walk today.

Now soon the muddy night will cake around me,
and under dozing eyelids I shall see
this march, and guard the vision of those fevered
black little branches and each tiny tree.
That red-hot little spinney, leaf by leaf.
This very place was Paradise before.
Now, half asleep, I feel a growing grief:
To hear its giant trees once more...

I wanted to go home as he had gone,
according to the Bible. Home at last.
Outside: my dreadful shadow looms. Inside:
my parents and the silence of the past.
They come and weep and call me. I can feel
their awkward hugs, poor father's and mama's.
I'm back in the established order.
I turn my gaze toward the windy stars.

If only I could speak to you, just once,
I loved you so. For years and years
I kept repeating what a child
might whisper through the planks, in tears,
that I'd return and find you here,
I hope. There is still hope at least.
Your presence throbs here in my throat.
I'm frightened, as a hunted beast.

I cannot speak your words, your human speech.
I know of heavy-hearted birds who try
to find a safer nest within their reach,
under the sky, the burning, fiery sky.
Abandoned fence-posts in hot, scorching fields,
and rigid burning cages standing by.
I cannot understand your human speech.
and cannot speak your language. Here am I,
my own word is more homeless than the word.
I have no words.
Their terrifying weights
fall crumbling through the air,
a tower rings out and reverberates.

You are nowhere. The world is but thin air.
Forgotten sun-beds, empty garden chair.
My shadow jars upon the ragged stone.
I stick out of the earth. Worn out. Alone.

God sees my shadow, cast on fence and stone.
He sees me standing in the sun-hot glare.
He sees my shadow in that stifling press
it's there without a single breath of air.

By now I am as lifeless as a stone,
with rigid lines and little grooves like lace,
by now it's just a fistful of debris
what used to be a human creature's face.

Instead of tears it is a wrinkle, which
keeps trickling, trickling down, an empty ditch.


I wish to God I could forget the Frenchman.
I saw him from my window in the dawn;
he sneaked among the shadows in the garden
as if he had been planted on the lawn.
He looked around and peered in every corner,
then found at last a secret hideaway
where he could now enjoy his new possession!
He wouldn't leave this shelter, come what may.

The man was feeding, gorging on a turnip,
he hid it underneath his army coat.
The bites were raw, but quickly chewed and wolfed down
to tumble feverishly past his throat.
His tongue was both delighted and disgusted,
he sensed the sickly sweetness of the food:
a ravening voluptuous encounter
between damnation and beatitude.

I can't forget his shiver-shaken shoulders,
his starving hand reduced to skin and bone,
his fingers clinging to his lips like limpets
to feed him - and to eat some on their own!
The hopeless shame and anger of his organs
engaged in bitter fights of jealousy
as hunger forced them slowly to surrender
the last remains of solidarity.

The monkey-chatter of his happy munching,
the way his clumsy legs were left behind
and squatted humbly while his body wallowed
in wild delights and pains of every kind.
His gaze - if I could but forget the Frenchman!-
he nearly choked, but went on slavering,
and gobbled on regardless, yes, he feasted:
on this, that, on himself, on everything...

But why go on? - The man was soon recaptured,
the prison camp was just across the way...
I'm roaming in the shadows of my garden
as in that garden on that other day.
I look into my notes and quote the entry:
"Could I forget the Frenchman...!" so I wrote.
And burning in my eyes, my nose, my eardrums
the memories come crying from his throat:

"I want to eat!" - At once I sense the craving,
the everlasting hunger that he felt,
the hunger that the poor man doesn't feel now,
- by earthly food such craving can't be quelled.
He feeds on me! With ever-growing hunger!
And I am less and less good for the part.
The man would once put up with any morsel,
but now he claims the title to my heart.


And now the ashen skies begin to roar,
the trees of Ravensbrück are wakening.
And roots can sense the sun through every pore.
And winds resound. And so does everything.

Mean mercenaries murdered Him in vain,
His final heartbeat did not mark his exit,
for on the third day He did rise again.
Et tertia die resurrexit.


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