1. A View from the Ivory Tower: Mihály Babits

UNTIL his death, Ady was regarded as the unquestioned figure-head of the Nyugat movement, but he never aspired to leadership, since his preoccupation with the self made him reluctant to accept the responsibilities and obligations of a leader. After Ignotus, the first editor, left Hungary as a consequence of his political activity during the upheavals of 1919, Babits became the editor of Nyugat, a solitary watchman over Hungarian literary culture until his death in 1941, when Nyugat itself ceased publication.

Mihály Babits was born on 26 November 1883 in Szekszárd, a quaint Transdanubian community, into an intellectual middle-class family. Educated at Budapest University, where he befriended Gyula Juhász and Dezső Kosztolányi, two prominent poets of the Nyugat generation, Babits earned the epithet poeta doctus with his extensive knowledge of contemporary European and classic poetry and prosody. He learned to distinguish between aesthetic and moral values, although he accepted that they were interdependent. Nevertheless, Babits conscientiously refrained from assuming the role of a politically committed poet; during World War I, he was a pacifist in the humanitarian sense, and later he confined his public engagements mostly to editing Nyugat (from 1916 onwards as a co-editor, and after 1939 alone), adhering to the view that the poet should be first of all an artist. His efforts to keep life and literature apart earned him the accusation of looking at life from ‘the ivory tower’ of art. Yet, as his poetry revealed, keeping himself aloof from the political and social issues of the world caused him much heart-searching and self-torment. In fact, the main theme of his poetry was how to relate the self to the outside world, and in this respect his problem was essentially the same as that which puzzled the young Lukács in his philosophical essays.

This theme is expressed effectively in the last poem of his first volume, Leaves from Iris’ Wreath (1909), ‘Epilogue by the Lyric Poet’: ‘I am to write poetry about the universe / yet cannot get further than my own self.’ The young poet’s references to the ‘magic circle’ and his ‘own prison’ illustrate the resoluteness with which he sets out to overcome his intense subjectivity. The volume revealed also that Babits had mastered poetic forms; he could employ unexpected metaphors lightly and gracefully, he was deeply immersed in classical antiquity, and last but not least, he subjected himself to rigorous self-criticism. In spite of his intellectual discipline, the volume is permeated with excessive restlessness; the super-craftsman struggles with his own suppressed sensibility (‘Sunt Lacrimae Rerum’), with complex emotions, sometimes even with the buoyancy of hedonistic freedom (‘Ode to Sin’). Virtuoso technique seemed to have come to him with baffling spontaneity. (e.g. ‘Motion Picture’, about the banality of early movie romances, in which the mildly ironic treatment of the subject mixes well with his thrill and admiration for the new medium.)

In his early poetry Babits introduced a concept of beauty hitherto unknown in Hungarian literature (‘The Danaids’), his talent having been shaped by classic restraint and tradition but at the same time creating new traditions The volume Prince, What if Winter Comes? (1911) contains perhaps his best philosophical poem, ‘Evening Question’, concerning the cosmic futility of self-regenerating life. The paradoxical meaninglessness of existence comes naturally to the mind of the poet, riding on the tides of graceful rhymes consequently the final question: ‘Why does the grass grow if it is going to wither? / Why does it wither if it is going to grow again?’ is not a source of embarrassment or bewilderment, but proposes that the contemplation of beauty is not a futile experience.

A new poetic state of mind is revealed in Recitative (1916). Babits had spent intellectually lonely years in godforsaken provincial high schools as a teacher, and his sophisticated mind was often forced to register the limitations of his environment. Indifference and pessimism merge in the inherent sadness of these poems; he speaks of ‘hurting, freezing songs’, or ‘vinegar songs’, fights his deep melancholy in melodious lines rich in assonance and alliteration (‘Letter from Tomi’*The place of Ovid’s exile (present-day Constanţa).), or turns his attention to the external reality of everyday life (‘Gipsy Song’, ‘An Old Priest is My Mother’s Uncle’); at times he projects his escapism into outlandish themes derived from readings (‘Gretna Green’); his meticulous craftsmanship only accentuates the sad atmosphere of the playful rhymes. His poems written during World War I (‘In the Hands of God’) are remembered for their pacifist eloquence and for his humane abhorrence of violence when he describes, for example a demonstration which became known in the history of the working-class movement as ‘Bloody Thursday’:

On the Streets of Pest running people, rifle-shots,
Policemen, broken glass, the voice of the people,*A reference to ‘Vox populi’ (Népszava) used for the title of the social-democrat daily. revolution,
And I count helplessly the minutes alone.
No news, no newspapers, my streetcar is delayed.
I live in a mute village where even dogs don’t bark … .

(‘23 May at Rákospalota’)

The theme of anti-war poetry and the panegyric on peace is continued in his next volume, The Valley of Unrest (1920). Some of the poems are magnificent expressions of Babits’s emotional plea to reason and faith on the diabolical battlefield of senseless destruction. (‘On the Death of a Philosopher’, ‘Fortissimo’, ‘Psalm for Male Voice’, ‘The Tears of the Tearless’). In addition the volume also contains poems of bucolic tranquillity, scenes of undisturbed landscapes dominated by fragrance, pastel colours, and peace, evidence of the poet’s instinctive urge to take refuge in the security of a different world. Babits’s final balance of the violent years was drawn up in ‘Did You Smell Slowly Killing Poisonous Fumes?’, the tone and the total nihilism of which resemble the abhorrence of doom expressed in Vörösmarty’s poems after the War of Independence in 1849. It is Babits’s profound respect for human dignity which is in danger of collapse, having seen the human animal in action, such a violent contrast to the ideals cherished in the pre-1914 world.

Babits learned his lesson. His later poetry maintained his unwillingness to fall for ‘noble’ slogans or to succumb to political ideals; a glance from ‘the ivory tower’ was enough for him to convince himself that the only freedom left for human dignity was to isolate oneself as far as possible from the rest of mankind. Not being a misanthrope, Babits found the choice difficult to adhere to. Moreover, it earned him much misunderstanding; he was often described both by contemporary and later critics a ‘cold’ poet. True, Babits’s poetry lacks, for example, love-poems, and shows little spontaneity, but there can be no doubt about the intensity of his emotions, in spite of his restraint and his willingness to accept the limitations imposed by virtuoso forms. It proves only that he was fully aware of the exposed, defenceless condition of the poet in modern times.

In the volume Island and Sea (1925) his despair subsides, yielding not to resignation, but to the realization of his isolation (‘The Old Tightrope Walker’), although his subconscious fight against uncertainty continues (‘My Dog, Ádáz’), and he toys with the idea that poetry as a means of self-expression may not survive (‘They Sang Long Ago, in Sappho’s Days’). Babits made a virtue of his predicament, guarding the integrity of his microcosmos in ‘The Farmer Fences Off his House’ (Gods Die, Man Lives, 1929), and at the same time learning to treasure life for what it is and what it may provide for all those who share the common experience of existence. In addition, a deepening religious feeling modified his poetic attitude (‘Psychoanalysis Christiana’). The theme of self-purification, taking him from pride to penitence, developed an overwhelming significance in the remaining years of his lifetime (Racing with the Years, 1933), and Babits finally found security and purpose in the realm of faith. The poet is now God’s candle which no wind can extinguish (‘God’s Candle’).

Babits’s last years were overshadowed by cancer of the larynx, which caused him great physical suffering; and the rise of a totalitarian regime in Germany – with its implications for Hungary – filled him with despair. Yet his illness was a source of strength; his last poetic work, The Book of Jonah (1939), with its postscript ‘The Prayer of Jonah’, is a summary and poetic stock-taking of values, destiny, and the ultimate validity of the poet’s message. While Jonah is the symbol of man’s helplessness, unable to discover the intentions of the Eternal One, he is also a self-portrait: Babits’s bitter repentance for his withdrawal into the miniature world of the self. Babits now realized that no poet can refrain from assuming responsibility, ‘because he who is silent is an accomplice of the guilty ones, / brother is called to account for the deeds of his brothers’. The Book of Jonah is written in slightly archaic language, with simple imagery and rhymes. Its author, ready to stand before his Master, shed the glittering garment of technical brilliance. Having been chastised by pain and suffering, Babits’s last poetic work witnesses a heroic will to articulate, and the reader cannot help sensing the tragic fate of a poet who seems to have come to grief in the manner of the Greek tragedies. Babits’s last outcry in ‘Jonah’s Prayer’ unequivocally commits the poet to the moral obligation of speaking out:

I too, before I disappear, might find
in an eternal Whale whose eyes are blind
my old accustomed voice, my words arrayed
in faultless battle order; as He made
His whispers clear, with all my poor throat’s might
I could speak out, unwearied till the night,
so long as Heaven and Nineveh comply
with my desire to speak and not to die.*Translated by Jess Perlman.

Babits died on 4 August 1941, not long after Hungary entered World War II on Germany’s side, little knowing what further monstrosities awaited Europe and his country. His poetic legacy – a call to give voice to moral indignation – was ignored by not a few of his fellow writers, and this at a time when the moral obligation to protest was no longer an issue confined to literature.

While Babits’s poetry is undoubtedly the most significant part of his lifework, like other major figures of the Nyugat generation he was not only a poet. His novels, essays, and translations are also part of his rich legacy. After trying his hand at writing short stories, his first novel showed his curiosity about the subconscious (The Stork Caliph, 1916). Its hero leads a second life in his dreams, and when he finally commits suicide in his sleep it is scarcely surprising that the real-life hero’s body is found dead in the morning. In no sense is the novel a Hungarian Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for Babits was interested in the unexplored possibilities of the self, no doubt a direct result of Freudian influence, rather than in the problem of split personality. Many critics consider The Son of Virgil Timár (1922) to be Babits’s best novel, and not without reason. It is the story of a half-orphaned boy deserted by his father, whose role is assumed by one of his teachers, acting out his suppressed desire for fatherhood. The return of the real father upsets the delicate emotional equilibrium of the main characters, whose conflicting attitudes and instincts Babits presents in a masterly analysis. The subtleties of the plot and the economy of style support Babits’s delicate psychological observations. Castle of Cards (1923) is a satirical novel in which Babits discloses, within a relatively short span of time (forty-eight hours), a large number of anomalies in the social structure of the fictitious Newtown. With this novel Babits continues the tradition of social criticism which was a salient feature of the Hungarian novel in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

His most ambitious novel is, however, The Sons of Death (1927). Using a large canvas and a wealth of autobiographical detail, Babits portrays the decay of the traditional Hungarian middle class, which has neither the vitality of the peasantry, nor the cultural ambitions of the new, largely Jewish, middle class. The novel is the outcome of Babits’s compassion for this class whose disintegration is no longer ridiculous, as Mikszáth had seen it, but pathetically tragicomic. In spite of some splendidly drawn figures (e.g. Grandmama Cenci, whose no-nonsense attitudes and unscrupulous pragmatism contrast well with the other characters who, all energy spent, meekly approach their invariable doom) the novel fails to be more than a somewhat rhetorical valedictory speech at the grave of the Hungarian gentry.

Babits never wholly recovered from the dreadful experience of the war years; a sense of gloom permeates not only his lyrics; but his novels as well, even when he turns to the future, as in Pilot Elsa, or the Perfect Society (1933). As a novel, Pilot Elsa has few commendable qualities. Nevertheless, as a vision of the future it is hardly possible to read it without a chill down the spine. The thesis of the novel is put bluntly in one of Babits’s essays: ‘In any case it might happen that the proud human race will be a quick and sorry victim of an apocalyptic collective suicide, the arms for which are already being manufactured in the factories of the military industry.’ History is a continuous warfare between two camps, one with ‘conservatism’ as its slogan, and the other with ‘progress’ on its flags. There is a touch of science fiction in the experiments of the scientist who produces a ‘miniature earth’, where everything that has taken place on Earth takes place again, except at an accelerated speed. The reader may have the impression that the story unfolding in the novel takes place on this ‘miniature earth’, or that what we believe to be the real earth is in fact the ‘miniature earth’. The novel only proves that Babits could not escape from his gloomy forebodings. As an alternative to the cult of illusion, Babits’s grim view of the world offered little hope; his self-chosen isolation in ‘the ivory tower’ of art did not prevent his sensing the horrors already looming on the horizon.

Babits had always been interested in the literatures of other nations, regarding the task of translator as his special duty; cultural values should not be locked in the language in which they were created; beauty is universal. His expert knowledge of the Classics, and of French, German, English, American, and Italian literature is attested not only by his numerous translations, but by his brilliant essays on literature. Of his translations, Dante’s Divina Commedia (Parts I-III, 1913, 1920, 1923) should be mentioned first of all; this won him the San Remo Prize awarded by the Italian government in 1940 as the best foreign translation of Dante. In addition to his Amor Sanctus (1933), a collection of medieval Latin hymns, Erato (Vienna, 1920), a book of antique and modern erotic poetry, deserves special attention, although his translations from Shakespeare, Goethe, and Sophocles are also remarkable. A by-product of his interest in foreign literature is A History of European Literature (1934), an imposing essay on the great creative minds of the European civilization. Its title reveals his concept of literature, for to Babits, European literature and its derivate literatures are universal manifestations of the human mind; he has no room for the ‘exotic’ (e.g. Japanese or Chinese) literatures, firmly believing that Europe alone represents the pinnacle of human civilization. Small wonder, then, that medieval Latin literature, not divided by national aspirations, had special appeal for him.