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
 became
 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

Note:

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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