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15 March 2019

Funeral Oration for the Falling Leaves – Halotti beszéd a hulló leveleknek




A late 12th-century text known as the “Funeral Oration” (“Halotti beszéd”) is the first surviving complete work in (Old) Hungarian.1 Its opening is known to every schoolchild in Hungary: “My brethren, you see with your own eyes what we are: verily, we are dust and ashes.” Several 20th-century poets used this opening as a point of departure, among them the Transylvanian poet Sándor Reményik (1890–1941). Born in the Hungarian city of Kolozsvár, he wrote most of his works in the Romanian city of Cluj, died in Kolozsvár and lies buried in Cluj-Napoca. He performed this peregrination without ever leaving the city of his birth. With the post-World War I transfer of Transylvania from Hungary to Romania, its ethnic Hungarians went from being a dominant minority to being a subservient one; where the pre-WWI Hungarian policy of Magyarisation had suppressed Romanian culture, afterward the roles were reversed. It was in this atmosphere that Reményik became a leading Hungarian poet of Transylvania, concerned with preserving and propagating Hungarian culture. At first glance, his “Funeral Oration for the Falling Leaves” would seem to replace the grim dust and ashes of the original with a more sublime vision of death as a series of metamorphoses from one form of beauty into the next. Reményik, however, points to a crucial factor: such sublime metamorphosis is possible only in one’s native environment (he highlights this with jarringly unrhymed lines that contrast with the rest of the poem, in which he does not shy away even from rime riche). The poem becomes a coded rebuke to those Hungarian Transylvanians who, seeing no future for themselves in Romanian society, contemplated or indeed chose emigration.

Peter V. Czipott



Do you behold, my brethren, what we are?

Verily, scarlet and bronze and golden,

Eternal, holy beauty is what we are.

We cross death’s door, fall soundlessly:

Our pomp is greater, verily,

Than this world’s senseless pomp can be:

Nothing at all can ever mar

Our true and beautiful selves, our birthright;

Clinging to the tree, we glow in sunlight,

And when we leap to the waiting forest floor,

Brother leaves enclose brother limb, as before.

And there too we are at home, we are at ease.

When we turn brittle, harden, freeze,

Hoar frost glitters on us, ermine-white.

After the scarlet comes the ermine-white.

Verily, beautiful is what we are.

Do you behold, my brethren, what we are?

When we at last are one with Mother Earth

We also will be as beautiful as the Earth.

We’ll also be at home there in the Earth.

My brethren, only one thing orphans us:

To be outside our forest home

Without a homeland, or a home,

Being windswept to and fro

Across the cobblestones of a cold, unfriendly city,

Commingled with all sorts of litter.

My brethren, just that one thing orphans us.

Yet here at home we’re what we are:

Verily, scarlet, bronze, and golden,

Eternal, holy beauty is what we are.

Translated by Peter V. Czipott and John M. Ridland



1  For a reproduction of the page of the Pray Codex that preserves it and a trilingual (Old Hungarian, Modern Hungarian, and English) presentation of the complete text, see, for example, http://users. tpg.com.au/etr/oldhu/halotti.html.

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