Mihály Babits

Mihály Babits (1883 - 1941)

The son of a judge, Babits was born in Szekszárd and pursued his university studies at the University of Budapest. He taught at the high schools of Baja, Szeged, and Újpest as well as in Fogaras, a city in Transylvania (now Fagaras in Romania). He felt banished to the outer provinces there and wrote the poem Letters from Tomi, which evokes the exile of the Roman poet 0vid. Back in Budapest, he started to publish in Nyugat (West), the famous literary monthly of which he was later appointed editor. Although extremely widely read, he never became anyone's imitator. Instead, he became the teacher and spiritual father of a whole generation of poets such as Lörinc Szabó, Weöres, Pilinszky, and Nemes Nagy (qq.v.) who are sometimes characterised as the 'urbanites.' A master translator of unsurpassed skill, Babits rendered the entire Divine Comedy by Dante in 'terza rima', Shakespeare's The Tempest; and a large number of Latin medieval hymns collected in the volume Amor Sanctus.
Hungarian literary historians to this day, perhaps not unjustifiably, call him 'the Hungarian T.S. Eliot'. His books of poetry include Leaves from the Garland of Iris [Levelek Irisz koszorújából], 1908; But Prince, if Winter Should Come [Herceg, hátha megjön a tél is], 1911; Recitativ,[Recitative] 1916; Island and Sea [Sziget és tenger], 1925; and In Race With the Years [Versenyt az esztendôkkel], 1928. He died of throat cancer shortly after completing his masterpiece The Book of Jonah [Jónás könyve]. He describes the spiritual agony of Jonah, the Prophet, who first refuses what God wants him to do but who is morally obliged to cry out against sin and corruption, a creative and dignified warning against Fascism.


If my lips shred to pieces - oh, courage!
this wild, wild burgeoning month of March,
drinking excitement with trees all excited,
drunk with seething, tantalising,
blood-bearing, salt-scented March winds,
by grey, heavy skies,
enmeshed in the murderous mill wheel;
if my lips shred to pieces - more courage!
if bleeding raw with the song, and if
drowned by the thunderous Mill, my song
cannot be heard but merely tasted
by tasting the pain,
even so, give me yet more courage
-oceans of blood!-
bring the bitter song of bloodshed!
God, we have now heroes to glorify!
the mighty giants' blind, bloody victories,
engines and red-hot gun barrels
busily packed with cold compresses
for their dreadful exercise:
but I will sing no paean to victory,
the rough-shod iron tread of trampling triumph
is as paltry to me,
as the deadly mill of the tyrant:
the teeming, pregnant winds of March, mighty rush,
fresh tingling blood, won't let me salute the mad
death-machines, monstrous mills, rather
lovemaking, people, and the living
swiftly flowing, racy blood:
and if my lips are torn to shreds - give courage!
in these salty, blood-scented March winds,
by grey heavy skies,
enmeshed in the murderous mill wheel,
where mighty thrones and nations grind to dust,
century old boundaries,
iron shackles and ancient beliefs
crumble into smithereens,
flesh and the soul in double demise,
as gangrenous sores
are spat in the face of the virginal moon
and one rotation of the wheel
ends a generation:
I will not praise the mighty machine
now in March when in the air,
excited by the blustering wind
keenly we sense the moistness,
taste the sap rising, precious Magyar
blood to awaken:
my mouth, as I swallowed the sharp salty spray
flaked into sores,
saying verse is a curse of a pain now.

but if my lips shred to pieces, oh courage!
Magyar song soars in the month of March,
blood-red songs fly, ride the tempest!
I scorn the victor's glorious fame,
the blind hero, the folk-machine,
the one, who spells death wherever he goes,
whose gaze can maim, paralyse the word,
whose touch betokens slavery,
but I'll sing, anyone who may come,
the one, the first, who comes to pronounce the word,
the one, who first will dare to say it aloud,
thunder it, oh fearless, fearless,
that wondrous word, so waited for
by hundreds of thousands, holy,
mankind-redeeming, breath-restoring,
nation-salvaging, gate-opening,
liberating, precious word:
it's enough! it's enough! enough now!
come peace! come peace!
peace, oh peace again!
Let us breathe again!
Those who sleep shall rest asleep,
those who live keep coping,
the poor hero buried deep,
the poor people hoping.
Ring the churchbells to the sky,
glory, alleluia,
bring us blossoms, new-born March,
bountiful renewer!
Some shall go their work to do,
some their dead to witness,
may God give us bread and wine,
wine to bring forgiveness!
Oh peace! come peace!
we want peace again!
Let us breathe again!
The dead do not seek revenge,
the dead do not mind us.
Brothers, if we stay alive,
leave the past behind us.
Who was guilty? never ask,
plant the fields with flowers,
let us love and understand
this great world of ours:
some shall go their work to do,
some their dead to witness:
may God give us bread and wine,
drink up, to forgiveness!


There was time when my fingers could shape the word
as the Lord may have created the winged, shiny
articulated, armoured ladybird.

Later, the poem was shaped on my lips in a burst
of brass clarions, as the clarion call
hangs on the soldiers' lips chapped of feverish thirst.

But now when the poem tremblingly, softly, appears,
it seems to flow out of sunken eyes
like trembling, shimmering tears.

I do not weep for myself: I have companions,
strangers to joy even in their dreams,
my poor brothers, those pauper millions.

They'd build huts in the woods: but logs are forbidden commodity
and they are glad if they get a small grim box
inside a huge box of a building in the city.

And they are lucky - when all is shattered and they need a rest
- if they can step over the balcony railing
and good mother earth clasps them to her breast.

This world is bleak! The frightened poem has trembling tunes to play
like a gypsy in the condemned cell.
Humming, fluttering shiny ladybirds, shoo, shoo away!

Why should the clarion sound, if not for waking the dead?
Only the tears, the tears, the tears keep flowing,
they don't ask why they are shed?


Abandoned by my words I'm left alone
or I've become an aimless overflown
drifting river and in my murky mud
I drag the flotsam washed up by the flood:
old idioms exhausted vain pretences
like broken hedgerows signposts maybe fences.
Oh would the Master wisely grant the force
that channels deep, to lead a steady course
toward the sea, and would He fit the rhyme
to fringe my verse perfectly every time
ready for use by me the good disciple,
(for prosody I'd read His holy Bible),
as lazy Jonah shirked to no avail,
and then for three days rotted in the Whale,
I too went down and shared those deadly bays
of hot throbbing pain, but for thirty days,
for thirty years or three hundred, who knows,
to find, before my book will firmly close
and an even blinder and eternal
Whale shall swallow my last departing journal,
my real voice, to marshal every true
word into action, as He gives the cue,
to speak up loud as it is right and fitting
for all to hear (my sickly throat permitting)
until the powers, cosmic and Ninevean
will silence me and send me to oblivion.


I am the only hero of my verses,
the first and last in every line to dwell:
my poems hope to sing of Universes,
but never reach beyond my lonely cell.

Are others there outside, to bear the curses
of being born? If God would only tell.
A blind nut in the nutshell's dark traverses,
I loathe to wait for Him to break the spell.

A magic circle binds me like a chain,
and yet, my soaring dreams defy the weight -
but wishful dreams, I know, may tell a lie.

A prison for myself I must remain,
the subject and the object. Heavy fate:
the alpha and the omega am I.


Even as the praying statues of the sainted,
facing the believers smoothed and finely painted,
but towards the recess in the wall around them
scraggy rocks as once the quarrymen have found them:
such front-chiselled saints are we!

Since our souls were carved out of the ancient bedrock
stubborn stones still cling on, in unbreaking deadlock,
half-born filthy fragments, sharp and adamantine,
never seen by eyes and never reached by sunshine.
Help your people, Christ our Lord!

We have heard of carvers, of those pious ancients,
who carved every part with equal care and patience,
whether it was seen or hidden from the viewer.-
All is seen - they knew - by God the mighty Hewer.
Oh, if we could be like these!

Through the eyes of all men are we seen by Jesu;
fear, my soul, and tremble, for He truly sees you,
and beware, the shame you see in your behaviour,
through your very eyes is seen by Christ the Saviour.
Help your people, Christ our Lord!

Where can you take cover, your own terrifier,
and a spy too, in the Holy Judge's hire?!
In a drifting sand blow, sightlessly embedded,
unprepared, when Death comes for the ostrich-headed?
And what will befall us then?

Unconfessed, unseeing, sullied and guilt-ridden
as the years go by you end up on the midden,
tossed among dull potsherds - till the day is ended
thrown back in the dark earth, unwashed, unattended.
Help your people, Christ our Lord!

Who will ever carve us to be whole and simple
if our chisels cannot cut even a dimple,
if we have no hammers, burrowing wheelbraces
that can reach our deepest pain-tormented places?
We were made for suffering.

Suffering amounts to triumphing in glory:
Oh, the hardened chisels, they will stab us sorely
till we may deserve it that the King of Heavens
wants us to be statues in his Hall of Presence.
Help your people, Christ our Lord!


As twilight softly turns to sombre brown,
you see a velvet-silky eiderdown
spread slowly by an otherworldly nurse
to tuck in tight the sleepy universe
so caringly, that not a periwinkle
is blemished by as little as a wrinkle,
that butterflies remain perfectly painted,
their double wings so delicately decked
and not a single rose petal has fainted
wrapped in the shades that comfort and protect,
and in such soft repose they meditate,
unconscious of the velvet-silky weight:
on nights like this, wherever you should roam,
or muse inside your melancholy home,
or in a tearoom, by the setting sun
watch as they light the gas lamps one by one,
or walk your dog, and wearied by the climb
halt as the lazy moon begins to wane,
or drive along a dusty country lane,
your coachman nodding off from time to time,
or sail upon the sea, as pale as parchment,
or sprawl along the bench of your compartment,
or amble through a foreign city square,
entranced by gazing idly at the glare
of street lamps stretching many-many miles
in accurately even double files,
or cross the Grand Canal, towards the Riva
where opal mirrors split the sunny flames,
to brood upon the blush of bygone fever,
remembering the sweet and sorry games
of seasons past, which like those lamps of yore
loom up some time and then they disappear,
remembrance that will linger evermore,
remembrance that's a burden, yet so dear:
then lower your remembrance-burdened head
to contemplate the marble floor you tread:
and yet, in this delightful Paradise
the craven hearted question must arise:
why all this beauty, jewel, graven marble?
- you ask the question with dejected eyes -
oh, why the silk, the sea, the butterflies,
and why the evening's velvet-silky marvel?
and why the flames, the sweet and sorry games,
the sea, where farmers never sow a grain?
and why the ebb and tide of swelling waters,
and why the clouds, Danaos' gloomy daughters,
remembrances, the past in heavy chain,
the sun, this burning Sisyphean boulder?
and why the moon, the lamps shoulder to shoulder
and Time, that endless ever-dripping drain?
or take a blade of grass as paradigm:
why does it grow if it must wilt sometime?
why does it wilt if it will grow again?


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