Now, not St. Gellért but St. Gellért’s maid,1

sing in my room – my mind – as twilight fades,

your lips the first to sound Hungarian song

under those twilit trees you sang among.

The Tartar in your features, faint to trace,

is still our secret, binds us to that place,

our soil, and your song still confirms the bond

here in a foreign land.

Hungarian speech! I wander, you my guide,

teacher and tempter to my wounded pride,

tortured, or drunk on my anxiety,

my evergreen earth, all that belongs to me,

my pelt, my pelf, my judge, my jug of wine

before the grave; beyond it, these my lines,

jumping for joy, surly-scornful, grieved without guerdon:

heavenly burden.

Hungarian word! Through lips and throat, my loosestringed

instrument; my fever, homeland, house,

bedding and dream; pony and jingling sleigh;

the song in my mouth for which I’ll have to pay: –

I have no chainmail, armor, breastplate, but

with Berzsenyi,2 my ribcage thunders out,

the enemy will be broken against my ranks,

which hold along both flanks.

Attack me with your poisons, daggers, picks,

I’ll stand my ground with verbs that end in -ik.3

Over hill and dale, chase me through seven worlds,

the words-that-name-themselves fly with me, whirled

like honking swans far overhead at dusk

over paths that thread through hissing thick-packed brush,

and in each word a hundredfold I see

your face, sad Hungary.

Archaic roots: meadows pressed down to bogs,

where trees, like dead verbs, lie, dry burnt-out logs.

Archaic words: on the skyline, centuries lost,

through misty fog, marsh rushes glimmer like ghosts,

slain soldiers fallen in hollow grassy places;

you – bison, ibis, creatures with unknown faces –

from flat-bottomed reed-boats hunted extinct by men

in drought-parched fens.

High vowels: crickets, cicadas chirping in meadows;

deep vowels: violet shades in the dusky shadows;

curse words: the world into wilderness maligned;

syntactic structures from pagan hunting blinds;

conjunctions: quick-flashing minnow-ripples dashing;

and you, cheery accent and dreary accent, clashing;

our souls’ stout cloak, homespun, of cornflower blue,

no tongue outdoing you.

You, past-tense T: our history’s crows’ wings spread,

shadow of crosses, stakes, and gibbeted dead;

and adjectives, rich, fertile flower-rows,

where all abundance, lush, disorderly, grows,

whose playful wooden plow implanted you?

And you, curt clauses, subordinating, who

draped you along the rafters in red strings

like paprika ripening?

Case endings, grubby sucklings of the slum,

you can’t grow up, just hang on, sucking, dumb;

and echelons of E’s: ebon fields upon

which wretched beggars tread ploddingly in procession;

and you, cling-clang adverbials of place,

blazing clear paths through tall cornfields of space,

ban-ben-bim-bam: a distant steeple sounding,

bell words rebounding.

Indicative mood. The drought forever lay

on gray and sun-cracked clods and clumps of clay.

Vowel-harmony! Did Werbőczi’s iron hammer4

batter you into twisted rules of grammar?

What are you? For five centuries subdued

into robotic peasant servitude?

or consonance, pointing a fairer future,

far-off, far sweeter?

And lovely nouns, you landlords, stark and great,

majestic folk, declensions your estates,

unbudgeable, the ruin of the nation;

and you, lost subjects, ground-down to your mean station,

sons executed or forced into exile –

Hajnóczys, Dózsas, Rákóczis5 – all the while,

O, to our sorrow, so many bright flames doused,

our homeland, too, unhoused.

You’re peasant speech, not Latin panoply,

not noble councilors’ but serfs’ agony,

Hungarian tongue! A small tree somehow standing

through whirlwinds, whipped and swayed, subservient, bending –

and will your trunk sprout limbs or leaves, or both?

You are what’s present, a Saint Veronica’s cloth

veiling their faces so we cannot see,

what’s been and what’s to be.

Hungarian speech! Like flames from glowing coals,

you flare and grow, hot as our fiery souls.

Not hopes fulfilled but eagerness all urgent,

a common future and a resonant judgment,

not vintage wine poured out by its purveyors,

not grand piano submitting to its players,

but must, fermenting, swimming in our tears,

our shawm-song6 down the years.

(Paris, 1940)

Translated by John Ridland and Peter Czipott

Editor’s Note. In our previous issue, July 2011, we published Australian novelist Gerald Murnane’s essay, “The Angel’s Son – Why I Learned Hungarian Late in Life”. It is followed there by one of the Hungarian literary works that left a most lasting effect in Murnane’s mind, a passage from Illyés’ People of the Puszta. We had no space left there for publishing the other such work, Faludy’s poem Ode to Hungarian. Now we are making up for that omission. György Faludy (1910–2006), poet and writer, who fought in the British Army during World War II, became politically active back in Hungary in the Social Democratic Party. In 1948 he was arrested under false charges by the Communist Government and ultimately deported to the Recsk labour camp of political prisoners. A classic prose account of those years is given in My Happy Days in Hell. Released in 1953, he emigrated to the West after the fall of the October 1956 Revolution, and lived as a writer in exile in Canada most of the next 35 years. Faludy has been popular for his daring and fairly liberal renderings in Hungarian of the best of classical erotic poetry. Ode to Hungarian was written in classical rhymed stanzas, in 1940, during his first exile in the West. This translation of the poem was first published in Literary Imagination VII:1 (Winter 2005). Californian poet John Ridland taught at UC Santa Barbara, and was awarded the Medal for Hungarian Culture for his translation of Sándor Petőfi’s classic János vitéz (John the Valiant). In recent years he has translated modern Hungarian poetry in collaboration with Peter Czipott, also of Santa Barbara.


1 Saint Gellért (San Gerardo), first permanent bishop in Hungary after King Stephen’s conversion, was caught by the pagan opposition, stuffed in a spike-studded barrel and rolled to his death down the hill today bearing his name in Budapest. A legend in the Gesta Hungarorum refers to a female servant’s (ancilla) singing the first song ever recorded in the Hungarian language.

2 Dániel Berzsenyi (1776–1836) was a poet and one of the first to lead the revival of Hungarian as a literary language, in the face of its suppression by the Habsburg authorities.

3 Ádám Makkai, the poet, translator, and linguist, points out that verbs that end in -ik are anomalous in their conjugations.

4 István Werbőczy codified Hungarian law (in three Latin volumes) in the 16th century, in response to the peasant uprisings led by György Dózsa.

5 József Hajnóczy Hungarian anti-feudal constitutionalist of the 18th century, at first encouraged by Emperor Leopold against the feudal class, later executed for his role in the anti-Habsburg Martinovics conspiracy. György Dózsa, Calvinist leader of a peasant uprising, put down violently in 1514 was condemned to be roasted alive on an iron throne, and his chief followers condemned to eat of his flesh before being executed. Ferenc Rákóczi II was the Prince of Transylvania and leader of an early 18th century War of Independence (1703–1711) against the Habsburgs that fired the imagination of all western Europe, but generated no aid.

6 Shawm, an early, double-reed wind instrument, translates tárogató, a Hungarian reed instrument, precursor of the clarinet; this woodwind was used as a martial wind instrument instead of trumpets in Rákóczi’s army, and rapidly became a symbol of Hungarian nationalism, incorporated into (or perhaps deriving from) the folk music tradition.

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