When last year I was interviewed by Radio Kossuth about Ferenc Békássy, one of the questions concerned the chances of finding any still unknown manuscripts by the young Anglo-Hungarian poet who died at the age of 22 in the First World War. At the time I said I thought this was unlikely, but recently a document has emerged which proved me wrong.
It is a farewell letter in free verse to Ferenc Békássy’s English friends, members of the exclusive Cambridge debating society known as “The Apostles”, to which the young poet was elected as a first-year undergraduate in January 1912. Békássy was eager to join this distinguished group of Cambridge intellectuals – mostly philosophers and scientists – as his friend James Strachey put it in a letter to the poet Rupert Brooke, “Feri … took to it like a fish … he just revelled in it”.1 Unlike the unsociable Ludwig Wittgenstein who was elected to The Apostles some months later, Békássy took his membership seriously. He was elected Secretary in October 1912, and held the position for a year and a half, attending and often moderating most meetings when in Cambridge, dazzling his elders with his erudition, wit and eloquence.2 As his friend and fellow-poet Gordon Luce recalled: “His spell I remember more potent than anyone’s on Sat(urday) nights, his words fluent and rich, yet troubled, like the pool of Bethesda.”3
Before leaving England, Békássy took part – alongside 29 other active or former members – in the Annual Dinner of The Apostles in the Connaught Rooms in Great Queen Street, London, signing the list of participants alongside his friend, the Kingsman Frank Bliss. It was at this meeting that he resigned as Secretary and was replaced by Frank Laurence (“Peter”) Lucas.4 However, his interest in “The Society” did not cease with his final departure from England in August 1914. In spite of the war, correspondence between Cambridge friends continued, first via Italy and then Switzerland; for example, Wittgenstein, though he was serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army, managed to exchange letters with his only English friend, David Pinsent, up to the latter’s death in 1916. As for Békássy, in his last (unposted) letter to John Maynard Keynes in January 1915, he complains of getting only “a word”, not a letter, from him, but then goes on to ask about mutual friends: “Tell me how the Society continues – the only undisturbed thing these times.”5 This optimistic presumption, we know now, was at odds with reality for several reasons: Cambridge had been emptied of young men who had gone off to fight and most of The Apostles became either conscientious objectors or joined non- combatant auxiliary units. By 1917 three members of The Apostles (Rupert Brooke, Frank Bliss and Békássy himself) were already dead and between 1916 and 1918 The Apostles held no meetings, save for their Annual Dinner in London.
Békássy’s ”Farewell Letter” to The Apostles only recently came to my attention, in King’s College Archives Centre, catalogued under KCAS/39/7/3, as it had not been cross-catalogued with Emma Békássy’s covering letter to Goldsworthy (“Goldie”) Lowes Dickinson, one of Ferenc’s close Cambridge friends.6 The covering letter was written from the Békássy family home in Zsennye in July 1922, more than two years before Mrs Békássy’s visit to Cambridge and it provides information about the circumstances in which the farewell text was written. According to this, Ferenc spent two days at home before going to the front7 and it was during this period that he used the red ink that he formerly only used for correcting to put to paper his innermost thoughts and feelings. Emma Békássy continues to Dickinson: “There are many things among his writings that are related to Cambridge friends and Cambridge life. I trust I may show them to you some day.”8
The Farewell Letter is written in free verse, 20 lines each beginning with a letter of the Greek alphabet going (with three exceptions) from alpha to omega, the last two lines consisting of a sort of explanatory prose. It is sketched on two A4 sheets, the second sheet also contains, upside down, a poem in black ink and in English; it was crossed out by Békássy. The text on the first page bears the title “To his brothers in the spirit at their meeting this day. Saturday Evening 10h–1.15 p.m.” Underneath this can be read on two separate lines: “their brother / Békássy”. In other words, the young poet who became a Hussar in the war, recalls the Saturday evening meetings of The Apostles and declares his yearning for the company of a select group of English friends, stressing a bond which was in some ways stronger than the ties of blood with his family and country:
α Exiled from the true intercourse of brothers
β lost in the desolation of my soul:
γ I am a wanderer in many lands.
δ Revering always our founder I live in the service of wisdom and goodness.
ε I am weaned from the breasts which gave me suck,
ζ I am gone out of my father’s house;
η I am no longer, alas, among you:
θ I have receded, I am fit for wings.
ι The wings of the butterfly, brothers:
κ I am earning a princely livery.
λ You are wise caterpillars, brothers:
μ The butterfly does not forget that caterpillars are more sane than he.
ν Farewell, for I cannot return to you:
ξ farewell, I would not return.
o I am at large in the world,
π let me now work out my salvation.
ρ This is my dearest message, that I am not gone from among you;
ς the society binds me always.
τ none of you have my mantle,
φ I have ceased from no real activities,
χ I have learnt a new thing in the society.
Ω You will learn it, therefore be patient: angels* know it, let them therefore be welcome. They have remained wise and good, and find a way to turn every particular thing to good account.
These are the points I made for myself, setting myself to meditate separately on each of them.
As mentioned above, the second part of the “Farewell Letter” was jotted down by Békássy above a 20-line long poem in black ink, a poem which he had crossed out to indicate that it was a separate piece, irrelevant to his message in red. It is the draft of a poem, beginning with the line “Ours is a good harvest” and ending with the lines “… we try / To watch the world, and reverence the fair, / And save the body; and may gladly die”.9 The last words make it possible to date the poem: it was probably written in early September 1914 when the poet returned home from Switzerland and witnessed a harvest fair at or near Zsennye, shortly before being called up to serve in the Austro-Hungarian Army.
Finally, we must answer the question: when exactly was the “Farewell Letter” (perhaps never to be sent off to England) written? As there was a gap between Békássy’s last leave and stay at Zsennye before going to the Eastern Front, Emma Békássy was right in thinking that this manuscript came into being towards the end of May – except she got the date wrong: 23 May and not 25 May as she thought, was a Saturday. On the other hand, there was a meeting of The Apostles on 23 May 1914, and it was the anniversary of this that the poet had probably recalled. He left Zsennye for Pápa the next day and in the following weeks still managed to write two or three poems.10 His regiment reached the front on 14 June 1915.11 He fell eleven days later, at the age of 22, near Dobronouc, Bukovina.
* “Angels” is a reference to older members of The Apostles who having left Cambridge are still allowed to take part in the society’s meetings.
1 Keith Hale (ed.), Friends and Apostles. The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905– 1914, Yale University Press, 1998, 213.
2 Minutes of the Apostles, Vol. XV, 1909–1919, King’s College Archives, KCAS/39/1/15. This large volume gives the names of members participating in the meetings and the titles of the topics discussed, but does not record the actual discussions. Occasionally the minutes record votes on a particular subject of controversy.
3 George and Mari Gömöri (eds), The Alien in the Chapel. Ferenc Békássy: Rupert Brooke’s Unknown Rival, Poems and Letters, Skyscraper, 2016, 234.
4 Minutes of the Apostles, Vol. XV. In the list of the guests at the 1914 Annual Dinner of The Apostles, Békássy is the only foreign member.
5 The Alien in the Chapel, 206. This letter reached Keynes only at the end of December 1920 when János Békássy sent it to him from London.
6 “I find it lucky that for Essays I go to Dickinson. He is so forbearing.” The Alien in the Chapel, 157.
7 Emma Békássy to G. L. Dickinson, Archive Centre, King’s College, Cambridge, KCAS/39/7/3.
9 This poem is unpublished. The MS of it as well as of the Farewell Letter was probably donated to the Archives in 1932, following Dickinson’s death.
10 Cf. Békássy Ferenc összes művei (ed. Tibor Sennyey Weiner), Magyar Pen Club, Budapest, 2018, 204–205. The very last publication Békássy read at Pápa before leaving for the front was G. L. Dickinson’s anti-war pamphlet, After the War, London, 1915, which probably reached Hungary via Switzerland. Ibid., 337.
11 Belonungsantrag (facsimile), Békássy … összes, 508. This is the official death certificate of Ferenc Békássy.