19 January 2018

On Seeing the Reformation Monument, Geneva

I paced the length of it – one hundred and forty-three

paces from end to end. As a messenger

bearing the last salute of murdered millions

I passed along the line of stony faces;

Calvin, Knox, Farel, Beza! and those great bull-heads,

grim captains of embattled faith,

all those Williams, Coligny and Cromwell,

Bocskay with his battleaxe – how they looked at me!

It was all too much; I couldn’t take them in!

I had to step back toward the garden, back

among the trees, back into the soul,

into that coolness where alone it is possible

to see a thing objectively and entirely.

And now, standing before me, at attention,

like so many soldiers on parade,

they seemed almost

on the point of stepping forward

out of the rock face

in which they stood,

out of Time, which had set

solidly at their backs.

Once they could move. Then they stiffened and


stones in the sunlight. Their voices died away,

their words remain only in the form of deeds,

to provide a kind of explanation

somewhere in time… You who are dead,

you who stand at attention; speak!

Or am I to speak first?

Must it always be with you as it always was –

Here I stand; I can do no other.”

No compromise, whatever cause you serve,

for the lukewarm are spewed out of God’s mouth,

while the right intention shall survive

like an object? How much truth is left

in those great fists which once, four centuries ago,

grasped a mighty oath and never once

released their grip, but stiffened into stone,

into eternity, their fingers still

grasping the Bible and the sword?

What did you think you saw

in the goal towards which you hastened,

pushing on with the rage of a lover

as you drew near?

Do you sometimes wonder?

But suppose the answer should not be to your liking?

Well, I shall give it anyway.

It’s just as bitter for me as it is for you.

You stood there, burning with the truth of God,

while the opposing camp burned with the same fire;

then, for the thousand-and-first time,

instead of reason,

weapons and a flame resolved

how the soul may reach eternal bliss

Bodies writhed by the million

on battlefield and scaffold,

the wheel, the stake and all the new

master devices for inflicting pain;

and opposing forests,

forests of the cross of Jesus,

sprang up all over Europe. People burned,

in order that paintings, “idols”, should be burnt,

and the “false Book” of the opposing party.

Cities and villages burned!

Half-savage mercenaries

devoured the flesh of men, fire met with fire,

crime with crime, until the final – Victory? –

Time, which awaited you, sagely, patiently,

with a touch of humour.

Now, today, in my country, as in yours,

the same two camps face each other still,

opposing fortresses gaze on opposing fortresses.

From ancient towers, austerely white or gold –

ornamented, opposing bells, like cannon,

peal out defiance to opposing bells,

every Sunday. And, inside, the priests

still thunder as they used to; but, after service

they wave across the street, signalling

at what time and at whose house this evening

they’ll meet for a game of cards or a nice fish supper

with a few drinks

Fair enough! I approve!

If I were a clergyman, I’d do the same!

Live and let live” by all means.

And yet, you know –

those Thirty Years of killing… wasn’t it just

perhaps a little too high a price to pay?

D’Aubigné’s fury, Coligny’s death, the Night

of Saint Bartholomew still unavenged,

Germany, all Europe, torn apart,

and the Turk in our country

a hundred and fifty years…

So this was your “victory”? God’s way

of “proving, like the sun”, that the fight was not

for Him, but because of Him?

Was this the prize decreed to you by the future,

since there could have been no victor whom

He had not predestined to his triumph?

You won

The Devil won with you!

You were mugs, the lot of you! About turn!

You have no right to take even one step forward.

Crumble with your stone and with your Time –

Crumble! For the fight was lost before it had begun.

Or perhaps I spoke harshly, like one who first

castigates himself with his own truth.

So you failed.

The net result, written upon the blackboard –

the continent you wiped clean with your armies –

was the mere answer to a foolish riddle,

and that only possible in Hungarian,

where Protestants call themselves “keresztyén”

and Catholics call themselves “keresztény”

both meaning “Christian”. And so the riddle runs:

Why is a keresztyén more than a keresztény?”

Did you really require the blood

of so many millions dead, before

you could distil this particle of sense,

this little “y”, and when, forgetful of

your duty, you took up the sword and hacked

the Gordian knot of Christian brotherhood,

(keresztyén hacking keresztény),

and when you had cut so valiantly,

through the tangle of your own perplexity,

did you find it there, that little “y”?

And were you satisfied with your “result”?

But suppose none of this

had ever been? Then only inside myself

the two opposing bells would toll,

calling up for the thousandth time

the old bitter conflict, hardly less bitter

for finding expression only in the old

vile opposition of two words; “word-wrestling”:

then the shepherd of Tolna

would have kept the faith of his old Lord;

then the preacher of Sárrét

Must have endured the battle – in his own breast.

What made you take up arms?

Does not a virtuous man in his own right

furnish a proper answer to the wicked?

And if the battle had not been fought? If, wordless,

the Faith had perished in “the Roman Filth”?

If the world and the ideal together,

led by the “Church vendor with the tiara”,

had gone where it was no longer possible

to speak against unrighteousness? Well, of course,

it would have been indeed heroic to say:

Here I stand; I can do no other!” Of course

virtue would have made its sacrifice!

but hopelessly! And what would then have happened

to us? Would we have been spared the conflict,

the bloody sacrifice, the Inquisition?

If – albeit “in vain” –

Gustavus Adolphus had not ridden,

if the Puritans of Toulouse had chosen

to submit rather than take up arms,

if the Vaudois, the Hussites and the free men

of Bocskay, who knew no word of Scripture

nor yet of prayer, had said; “We will not fight” –

do you suppose we should then have had peace?

1 almost see a patronising smile

crossing your stony faces at the thought of it!

And would we Magyars have been quite the same

if there had been no Calvin?

I don’t think so.

Or put it another way: would you have had

electric light, had not Giordano Bruno

gone to the stake? Here was the beginning

of nuclear power – and when, some time tomorrow,

you take a rocket and fly out into space,

you will have these to thank for it, men

who were not daunted by the stake or the galleys

or the certain prospect of defeat,

the “in vain” that waits on every step.

They saw: they saw it well,

that there is no road leading to the past;

the past collapsed in smoke, hurling them forward

as the powder hurls the cannon ball,

they undertook the burden of their Fate;

then say with me: Glory be to them!

I stood before them, a speechless messenger,

hardly caring now what explanation

their deeds might have to offer, deeds, which, like

a child, can be reasonable for themselves

only when they’re grown up.

Finally, as a self-consolation, I said:

Whoever was responsible for the intention,

not event God could have made it otherwise.


[1946–47, published 1956]1


Translated by John W. Wilkinson



1  This English translation was originally published in Tribute to Gyula Illyés, edited by Thomas Kabdebo and Paul Tabori, Occidental Press, Washington, 1971. Gyula Illyés, Selected Poems, Eds. Kabdebo–Tabori, Chatto and Windus, London, 1971. Reprinted in: Gyula Illyés, What You Have Almost Forgotten, Selected Poems, Eds. William Jay Smith and Gyula Kodolányi, Curbstone–Kortárs, Willimantic–Budapest, 1999.

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