Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Endre Ady: Strangeness and Tragedy

As I have indicated in recent posts, I’m a frequent participant in an annual meeting of P.E.N. in Slovenia. Another regular contributor is the charming Elizabeth Csicsery-Ronay, who lives in Budapest, where she both writes and translates poetry.

At this year’s conference, members concentrated on World War I, whose centenary we observe (one can scarcely say celebrate) in 2014. 

Elizabeth’s paper included a poem I found particularly compelling, one composed by Endre Ady (1877-1919), a major Hungarian-language author who was born into a family of impoverished Protestant nobles in Szilagy Country, then a part of Austria-Hungary and now of Romania.

For much of his short life, Edy was an editor of Nyugat, perhaps the most influential literary journal in Hungary’s history. Nyugat eschewed politics, but in other media Ady engaged that world with some vigor. Maverick by nature, he attacked both the nationalism of the more prominent contemporary parties, but also the anti-nationalism of the left.

After the fateful killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Ady believed war inevitable, and he lamented the Austro-Hungarian elite’s apparent eagerness for it.  Though the following poem makes no direct mention of the horrific cataclysm that was the Great War, it eerily captures the strangeness and chaos that cataclysm meant for all.


An angry angel beat the drum on high
Sounding the alarm on this sad Earth,
At least a hundred youths went mad
At least a hundred stars fell
At least a hundred veils were rent:
It was a strange,
Strange summer night.
Our old beehive burst into flame,
Our best colt broke his leg,
I dreamed the dead came back to life,
Our good dog, Brutus, went astray
And our servant, Mary the mute,
Burst into loud song
On that strange,
Strange summer night.
The worthless swaggered like heroes
And true men lay low
And finicky robbers went out to rob:
On that strange,
Strange summer night.
We knew that men were feeble
And bankrupt in love:
Even so, it was weird
The living and the dead on the turning wheel.
The Moon was never more mocking:
Never were men punier,
Than on that night:
That strange,
Strange summer night.
Dread bent over souls
with gleeful spite,
The hidden fate of his forebears
In every man dwelt deep,
Drunken Thought, Man’s once proud lad,
Heading to that grim and bloody wedding feast,
Was now lame and naught:
On that strange,
Strange summer night
I believed at that time, I thought
Some neglected God
Would come to life
And deliver me to death
And now, I live here,
Transfigured by that night
Waiting for God. I remember
That world-destroying,
Dreadful night:
That strange,
Strange summer night.

©  Translated by Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay

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