3. A Poet of Loneliness: Gyula Juhász

The third member of the outstanding triad at Professor Négyesy’s*László Négyesy (1861-1933) was a noted teacher of aesthetics. seminar in the University of Budapest, Gyula Juhász, was the odd man out among them, not only in temperament and personality but also in the development of his later literary career. Juhász is traditionally regarded as belonging to the Nyugat group of writers, which is a half-truth at best; in spite of his early orientation he grew more and more lonely in his provincial isolation in his native Szeged, and Nyugat published only occasionally from his verse in his later years. Moreover, his poetry included local themes uncharacteristic of other authors in the Nyugat group.

Born on 3 April 1883 at Szeged, Juhász suffered from a dangerous emotional instability, derived probably from inherited neurotic traits, which proved the decisive factor in his personality. His lower-middle-class family would have liked him to become a priest but, after some hesitation, Juhász chose literature. As a young poet he embraced a wide variety of influences, ranging from Schopenhauer, Tolstoi, and the French Parnassians to Indian philosophy. At the university he had a thorough training in the classics; he acquired a superb grasp of the technique of sonnet-writing, and mastered the Villonesque ballad; but he also loved exotic forms like the Japanese tanka and haiku, which he successfully adapted. Having taught at various gimnáziums, he settled in his native Szeged, withdrawing more and more from the world; in his last years he scarcely left his room, and after many unsuccessful attempts he committed suicide on 6 April 1937. Juhász was prone to self-deception; his irrational approach to reality drove him towards suicide, an act of will left as the last resort. In spite of his morbid attraction to death as the final solution of all problems, Juhász was a lover of life: the mere fact of existence filled him with almost religious ecstasy – he worshipped life, but it somehow always managed to bypass him.

In his early poetry he came dangerously near to sentimentality, his themes often being unmerited suffering and an awareness of vanishing dreams. No doubt his early poetry was largely based on second-hand experiences, but in the bustling city of Nagyvárad real experience came to him. He participated in the lively literary life there; his poetry was published in the anthology Tomorrow (Nagyvárad, 1908), a milestone of modern Hungarian poetry, the contributors to which included Ady, Babits, and other experimenting poets.

The experience, however, which exercized a lifelong effect on Juhász was his love for a local actress, the subject of numerous ‘Anna’ poems. Anna could only offer him a casual liaison, whereas Juhász longed for a human relationship; consequently no affair took place, but the missed opportunity of redemption from loneliness left a permanent scar on the ego of the oversensitive poet. Of the many poems in which he attempted to obliterate the memory of his disappointment, ‘What Was Her Fairness Like …’ (1912) and ‘Anna For Ever’ (1926) stand out as specimens of Juhász’s special gift in evoking an elegiac mood. In order to write these desperately sincere poems he must have had to overcome both restraint and repression with an unashamedness that could have been achieved only after untold self-torture.

They not only show Juhász’s talent at its best; they reveal a high degree of perfection in their harmony of vocabulary and content. The earlier poem stresses the dimness of recollection; its three stanzas, each consisting of a metaphoric allusion in turn to ‘the fairness of her hair’, ‘the blueness of her eyes’, and ‘the silkenness of her voice’, are linked together by the repetition of the phrase ‘I can’t recollect, but …’ which introduces the allusion, and produces an overall effect of muted pain and resignation: this is contrasted to his attachment to the memory of Anna and, by transferring the original images to an ever-growing scale of similes, the gap between the narrow confines of the poet’s existence and the boundlessness of love is bridged in the last stanzas.

The structure of ‘Anna For Ever’ is more straightforward; the poet, recalling her memory, sets the tone with a self-imposed indifference; then, with a convincing spontaneity, the memories evoked overcome the initial indifference, and the poem ends on a very high note – a piercing cry without restraint or shame – it is an expression of embarrassing self-humiliation, the emotional intensity of which leads to a prayer-like conclusion, in a frenzy of self-annihilation brought about by the sudden release of the burden of passion.

The keynote of Juhász poetry is his attempt to relate himself to the outside world. Perhaps this explains why he espoused the cause of the war in its early phase. He saw it as a chance of settling old scores with the Russians for their part in the suppression of the War of Independence in 1848-9. As the war progressed humane feelings replaced his early attitude, and Juhász noticed the general misery created by the war, and more and more social problems, particularly those of the working class. Juhász was probably the only major poet who greeted the revolutions in 1918-9 with genuine enthusiasm (e.g. ‘Inscription to the Façade of Workers’ Home’, 1919).

It is, perhaps, this sense of loneliness and isolation which accounts for at least two of his frequent themes. One of them is his obsession with figures of Hungarian history. He wrote many poems about Hungarians of the past – these people lived in Juhász’s mind as contemporaries, their harassing memory evoked an Oriental Hungary imperfectly adjusted to Western culture or revolting against it (‘Thonuzoba’, 1918); Juhász, like the poets of the Age of Reform, was plagued by a conflict of loyalties – was he a son of those pagan warriors the memories of whom so often crop up in his poetry, or was he the spiritual descendant of a Christian Europe whose culture he admired without reservation? It was a difficult choice, because a landscape by Watteau could inspire him (‘Mlle Maillard’, 1908) just as much as his longing for the vast steppes of Turan*Turan: a Central Asian steppe and desert plateau. In the early twentieth century it was often thought to be the cradle of the Hungarians and their kinsmen. (‘After Turan’, 1920).

An unique feature of his poetry is, however, his evocation of the landscapes of his immediate surroundings, the Szeged country. This is the couleur locale which distinguished Juhász from the rest of the Nyugat writers, none of whom lived in such a close contact with one specific region. The Juhász country is the Hungarian Lowland with its poplars and acacias, the river Tisza, and one village in particular – Tápé, bordering on Szeged. The boats on the Tisza are his lonely companions (‘Silence Over the Tisza’, 1910); an uneasy gloom hangs heavy over the landscape when ‘dusk paints the grey trees with bleeding gold’ (‘Hungarian Landscape with Hungarian Brush’, 1912); behind the impressionistic colours there is an almost Asiatic passivity, but with the menacing possibility of a conflagration or of a summer tempest (‘Hungarian Summer’, 1918), with a transparently revolutionary message. The landscapes created by the blazing colours of his adjectives and nouns are always powerful in their connotative richness and their exact images – although the range of his vocabulary is often relatively limited – this quality is one of the main assets of Juhász’s poetry.

In the 1920s his landscapes became unambiguous carriers of a social message. ‘The Christ of Tápé’ (1923), hanging on a cross by the roadside, looks down over the toiling peasants of the village. The tin Saviour on a wooden cross cannot help; His weather-beaten image suffers with the people of Tápé, and Tápé stands for the whole country, badly in need of social redemption. ‘Wedding at Tápé’ (1923) goes even further; dominated by the hoarse sound of the double-bass in the village wedding (Brummog a bőgő), the poem epitomizes the harsh conditions of peasant life, and the last lines lend a danse macabre – like quality to the poem. This imagery suggests social commitment, and effectively brings out the existential problem of human life.

Juhász was a prolific poet, perhaps because he had always prepared himself for the final parting with life. This preparation for the last act is present in many of his poems: he often bids farewell, or leaves a last testament. He loved saying a final farewell to mankind, who had always left him alone with his torments, and consequently few poems in this category are more than a gesture of self-pity. In his last years, when his struggle with the demons intensified, he could no longer express himself with his earlier artistic restraint and composure; themes in his later poems are often treated superficially, the images are less powerful, and the structure of the poems also suffers, except in the short compositions modelled on the Japanese tanka and haiku, verses which still reveal his craftsmanship. During these years he wrote numerous occasional verses addressed to friends or former friends on the occasion of their retirement or death, and to actors, painters, writers, living or dead, Hungarian or foreign. The poems bear witness merely to the intellectual disintegration of a poet whose passion and energies seem to have been spent, and whose will to live is gradually diminishing, until he is irrevocably encircled by the growing shadows of the night.