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Surprises – Lőrinc Szabó’s Poetic Reflections on the 1956 Revolution

In the history of Hungarian literature, it has rarely happened that a patriotic poet became canonical without taking an affirmative public role that has assigned social and national responsibility to Hungarian poets since Sándor Petőfi, the emblematic figure of the 1848 revolution.[1] Lőrinc Szabó, however, has proved to be one of the few exceptions to such expectations because his oeuvre epitomizes Hungarian poetry that has a strong focus on the private life of the poet with a patriotic but apolitical leaning.

For long decades, generations of Hungarian people have been raised reading his poetry with a strongly personal voice that scholars tend to label as subjective or confessional. In nursery schools, his most popular poems include the ones that portray his attentive and caring relationship with Lóci and Klára, his children, and various pieces from his volume Tücsökzene [Cricket Music] subjectively depicting the “landscapes” of his life in Hungary between 1945 and 1957. In high schools, Hungarian students learn about both the European and erotic dimension in his poetry with such set readings as Listening to Mozart and All for Nothing, respectively. In academic circles, he has also been praised for his sonnet cycle A huszonhatodik év [The Twenty-sixth Year] that voices the emotional intensity and mental complexity of his 25-year-long adulterous affair with Erzsébet Korzáti after she committed suicide. The poetic significance of this volume in Hungarian literature compares to that of the Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes. Besides his own poetic heritage, Lőrinc Szabó also made a considerable contribution to Hungarian literature as a prolific translator. The authors whose works he translated into Hungarian include such classics as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Raicine, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Goethe, Hesse, Yeats, Shelley, Rosetti, Kipling, Tennyson, Whitman, Puskin, Ovid or Horace.

With this artistic profile in mind, Hungarian readers easily become astonished when reading the poem Surprises with its obvious allusions to the events of the 1956 revolution. Due to the publication of all three sections of this poem in the volume Vers és valóság [Poetry and Reality] in 1990, it is undoubtedly the merit of Lóránt Kabdebó that today we see into the depths of Szabó’s cultural identity as it becomes manifest not only in his subjective poetic voice but also in the use of patriotic discourses of conventional Hungarian poetry.

On October 23rd, 1956, when public protest in Budapest turned into a revolution, Lőrinc Szabó stayed at Miskolc, the town in which he had been born. He and Gyula Illyés had been invited to a reader-meet-writer event by Sándor Bihari on behalf of TTIT, the Society for Dissemination of Social and Scientific Knowledge. Similar events were organized on Tuesdays to allow local people to discuss anything that otherwise was forbidden under the cover of literature.[2] The news of what happened in Budapest reached the two poets and their wives while having diner after the public reading with their local friends, but the unexpected difficulties on all means of public transport prevented the guests from returning to Budapest until October 25th. Szabó’s very first reactions to the unforeseen events were penned in the essay Ima a jövőért [Prayer for the Future], published in the journal Irodalmi Újság on November 2nd.[3] He admits that the two days spent at Miskolc were relatively calm, but in Budapest, Hungarian history steadily made its turn leading Hungarian people to the “wonder of liberty.” Besides glorifying the series of events that symbolically started with the fall of the idol, i.e. the Stalin statue, he also voices his concern about the future that was yet to come.

We must also be liberated in the sense that we must safeguard ourselves and our future from the risk and impulse of repeating the sins of the past twelve years. Lots of things must be repaired and justice must be done even in cases that are still to be known, and without which full reconciliation cannot be achieved. Hungary was liberated with the suffering and despair of its own people. Now, we shall redeem it with our holy work and a sort of heavenly justice on earth.[4]

On November 4th, when the Soviet troops launched a heavy punitive raid on Budapest and most major Hungarian cities, it became obvious that the liberation that Szabó cherished in his essay could not last. In the poem Surprises that he must have finished in December, however,he takes a considerably different stand. His answer to the question in a radio interview explains his choice of the title when he claims “it was about pleasant and awful surprises of life.”[5] In fact, it was the unexpected sight of destroyed buildings at Miskolc at the end of October that prompted him to write the poem as his former student István Lakatos recounts.

‘Tyrany is always stupid,’ said Lőrinc pointing at the destroyed and damaged houses. ‘It is eventually stupid, which gives hope to sensible people. Tyrants might be good tacticians but they are bad strategists. They sacrifice their immediate goals for long term ones. They win in the present but consequently lose their own illusions and cheat on us i.e. their own future.’ Before we reached Városmajor, he returned to the idea he had come up with. He decided to write a poem about the revolution. Yes, of the 1956 revolution paraphrasing the Appeal. He even recited a few lines but I can recall only the central idea that the grave out of which a nation clambers is surrounded by marvelling people.[6]

The poem that inspired Szabó was the 19th century patriotic ode Appeal written by Mihály Vörösmarty, which Hungarian people still regard as their second national anthem. It is remarkable but not accidental that Szabó’s central idea, eventually worded as “and already the world gazed, marveling, / At the people clambering out of their graves,”[7] contradicts the prophecy that in the poem by Vörösmarty reads as “around the graves where we shall die / a weeping world will come, / and millions will in pity gaze / upon the martyrs’ tomb.”[8] This stanza alludes to the 18th-century prediction of Johann Gottfried Herder that Hungarian language and thus the Hungarians squeezed between Slavic, Germanic and Wallachian people will die out. The fear of the “national death” was so widely argued and permeated national discourses throughout the 19th and 20th century permeating national discourses[9] that it is no wonder that patriotic poets also relied on both its confirmation and refutation.

And it is not only the central image of Surprises that comes from Vörösmarty, but Szabó also borrowed the rhyme pattern from the Appeal in which only the even-numbered lines rhyme. Even if it was not named in the recollections of his student, there is another emblematic poem that determined both the form and images of Szabó’s poem. Similarly to The National Song by Sándor Petőfi, Surprises is based on the most traditional Hungarian verse form called “ősi nyolcas” [ancient eight] referring to the use of 8-syllable lines that rhyme. Besides the prosodic similarities, the last but least line, “No! We shall be slaves no longer!”,[10] verbally echoes the refrain of Petőfi’s song, c.f. “God of Hungarians, we swear unto Thee, We swear unto Thee—that slaves we shall no longer be!”[11]

As for the overall composition of the poem, all three sections consist of six quatrains and their subtitles, I – An Unsuspecting Poem of October 15th, II – One Week Later, III – In Mid-December, suggest that they are meant to be read as snapshots of events in a chronological order evoking a special mixture of personal and historical memories. The repetition of the same image at the beginning of the first and last quatrain, “One moment kisses you on the mouth” and “Yet the moment kissed you on the lips,”[12] gives an intimate conceptual frame and personal touch to the poem. The internal perspective of the speaker of the poem with all his doubts becomes dominant even when the December events are meant to be recalled.

And something took counsel in council
and then it was back to the Same Old Thing,
and everything around fell into corruption
congruent with the custom of corrupting,

and the treads drove ahead. I don’t know,
I no longer know how it was, and what
happened I no longer know.[13]

Yet, there is delicate tension between the slightly confused recollections of the actual events in 1956 and the historic ones that intertextual references to the Appeal by Vörösmarty bring back. Behind the lines “Freedom, it was the task of Youth / To see your heroic banner wave,”[14] Hungarian people hear the tone of the following stanza from the Appeal: “Here Freedom’s blood-strained flag has waved / above the Magyar head; / And here in age-long struggles fell / our best and noblest, dead.”[15] Similarly, the last line of the poem, “And further: God bless the Hungarian!”,[16] is the literal borrowing of the first line of the National Anthem written by Ferenc Kölcsey, “Lord, bless us Hungarians,”[17] which in fact is a prayer of blessing for the future of Hungarian people.

Lóránt Kabdebó

Such direct allusions to canonical poems of Hungarian patriotism overwrite the tone of subjective reflections and thus make Surprises an exceptional poem in the oeuvre of Lőrinc Szabó. Needless to say, in 1960 only the first section of the poem was published in a journal and in the Selected Works of Lőrinc Szabó, as it was void of such allusions and images that ideological and political censorship could find alien to the regime.[18] The second and third sections in which the poets glorifies the revolution and describes Budapest under Soviet raid were accidentally discovered by Lóránt Kabdebó in 1980, while he was looking at unpublished manuscripts in the archives for the third volume of his monograph on Lőrinc Szabó.[19] Even in those days, it was obvious both to him and Pál Réz, the editor of the book, that they could not publish these sections even if this discovery would have considerably modified the artistic image of Lőrinc Szabó. They had to wait until the change of the political regime to reveal the existence of these last two sections first in 1989 at a public reading in Miskolc then in 1990 on the pages of the newspaper Magyar Nemzet.[20] Yet in those days nobody suspected that this poem would cause one more surprise to Lóránt Kabdebó. In 2002, the manuscript archive of the library at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences received new documents from the heirs of Lőrinc Szabó among which the autograph of the whole poem was found. This copy and an entry in the diary of Gyula Illyés prove that the last two lines of the fourth stanza in the second section were actually written by Illyés and the two poets even considered revising the poem together.[21]

Judit Mudriczki

Ten days of freedom? Make that eleven!
From the heart, every moment, kisses were torn!
And you were no longer ashamed to admit
that you had been Hungarian-born.[22]

Considering this affirmative claim of patriotism that originally comes from Illyés and all historical and cultural implications discussed above, Béla Pomogáts reasonably argues that Surprises reflects Lőrinc Szabó’s conviction that Hungary is not only a political and institutional entity determined in space. Rather, it is an intellectual and spiritual concept in time, the historical and moral guarantee of which becomes manifest in Hungarian poetry when words of ritual and sacral traditions mingle with images of topical accounts of historic events. Thus the references to conventional patriotic poetry connect Surprises to the spiritual heritage that Hungarian literature represents, which eventually gives rise to historical hope.[23] At the same time, the discovery of the last two parts of the poem as well as the role Illyés played in its birth contribute to the legacy of Lőrinc Szabó with refining his public image in terms of his patriotic stand.

Judit Mudriczki


[1] George Gömöri, “Literature and Revolution in Hungary,” World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (Spring, 1991): 240-243.
[2] Adrienne Molnár, “Bihari Sándor (1992),” in A ciklon szélcsendjében. Emlékezések, dokumentumok Szabó Lőrinc 1956. október 23-i miskolci irodalmi estjéről, illetve Miskolc irodalmi életének szerepéről az 1956-os forradalomban, ed. Csaba Fazekas (Miskolc: Bíbor, 2000), 77.
[3] Béla Pomogáts, “Egy prózai és egy verses vallomás — Szabó Lőrinc 1956-ban,” Új Holnap 45 (May-August 2000): 70.
[4] Lőrinc Szabó, “Ima a jövőért,” in A ciklon szélcsendjében. Emlékezések, dokumentumok Szabó Lőrinc 1956. október 23-i miskolci irodalmi estjéről, illetve Miskolc irodalmi életének szerepéről az 1956-os forradalomban, ed. Csaba Fazekas (Miskolc: Bíbor, 2000), 140. The translation is mine.
[5] Lóránt Kabdebó, “Jönnek, jönnek, katonák jönnek, / katonák akik nem köszönnek,”in Akkor is karácsony volt: Bölcsészek 1956-ról, ed. Marianne Dobos (Miskolc: I és É Bt., 2004), 172.
[6] Kabdebó, “Jönnek, jönnek,” 173. The translation is mine.
[7] Lőrinc Szabó, “Surprises,” trans. John M. Ridland and Peter Czipott, in Down Fell the Statue of Goliath. Hungarian Poets and Writers on the Revolution of 1956, ed. Csilla Bertha (Budapest: Hungarian Review 2017), 80.
[8] Mihály Vörösmarty, “Appeal,” trans. Watson Kirkconnell, in In Quest of the Miracle Stag. The Poetry of Hungary. An Anthology of Hungarian Poetry from the 13th Century to the Present in English Translation, Vol. 1., ed. Adam Makkai (Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur 2000), 260-261.
[9] Susan Gal, “Linguistic theories and national images in 19th century Hungary,” Pragmatics 5, no. 2: 155-166.
[10] Szabó, “Surprises,” 81.
[11] Sándor Petőfi, “National Song,” trans. Adam Makkai, in In Quest of the Miracle Stag. The Poetry of Hungary. An Anthology of Hungarian Poetry from the 13th Century to the Present in English Translation, Vol. 1., ed. Adam Makkai (Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur 2000), 391.
[12] Szabó, “Surprises,” 79-81.
[13] Szabó, “Surprises,” 81.
[14] Szabó, “Surprises,” 80.
[15] Vörösmarty, 260.
[16] Szabó, “Surprises,” 81.
[17] Ferenc Kölcsey, “National Anthem” trans. Watson Kirkconnell and Earl M. Herrick, in In Quest of the Miracle Stag. The Poetry of Hungary. An Anthology of Hungarian Poetry from the 13th Century to the Present in English Translation, Vol. 1., ed. Adam Makkai (Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur 2000), 226.
[18] Lóránt Kabdebó, “Naplójegyzetek a forradalom idejéből (Illyés Gyula: Naplójegyzetek 1956–1957),” Forrás 9, no. 9 (September 2017): 135.
[19] Kabdebó, “Jönnek, jönnek,” 172-173.
[20] Kabdebó, “Jönnek, jönnek,” 173.
[21] Lóránt Kabdebó, “Naplójegyzetek a forradalom idejéből (Illyés Gyula: Naplójegyzetek 1956–1957),” Forrás 9, no. 9 (September 2017): 136.
[22] Szabó, “Surprises,” 80.
[23] Pomogáts, 72-73.


Bibliography

Gal, Susan. “Linguistic theories and national images in 19th century Hungary.” Pragmatics 5, no. 2: 155-166.

Gömöri, George. “Literature and Revolution in Hungary.” World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (Spring, 1991): 240-243.

Kabdebó, Lóránt. “Jönnek, jönnek, katonák jönnek, / katonák akik nem köszönnek.”In Akkor is karácsony volt: Bölcsészek 1956-ról, 147-177. Edited by Marianne Dobos. Miskolc: I és É Bt., 2004.

Kabdebó, Lóránt. “Naplójegyzetek a forradalom idejéből (Illyés Gyula: Naplójegyzetek 1956–1957).” Forrás 9, no. 9 (September 2017): 133–136.

Kölcsey, Ferenc. “National Anthem.” Translated by Watson Kirkconnell and Earl M. Herrick.  In In Quest of the Miracle Stag. The Poetry of Hungary. An Anthology of Hungarian Poetry from the 13th Century to the Present in English Translation, Vol. 1. Edited by Adam Makkai. Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur 2000, 226- 228.

Molnár, Adrienne. “Bihari Sándor (1992).” In A ciklon szélcsendjében. Emlékezések, dokumentumok Szabó Lőrinc 1956. október 23-i miskolci irodalmi estjéről, illetve Miskolc irodalmi életének szerepéről az 1956-os forradalomban, 76-84. Edited by Csaba Fazekas. Miskolc: Bíbor, 2000.

Petőfi, Sándor. “National Song.” Translated by Adam Makkai. In In Quest of the Miracle Stag. The Poetry of Hungary. An Anthology of Hungarian Poetry from the 13th Century to the Present in English Translation, Vol. 1. Edited by Adam Makkai. Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur 2000, 391-392.

Pomogáts, Béla. “Egy prózai és egy verses vallomás — Szabó Lőrinc 1956-ban.” Új Holnap 45 (May-August 2000): 70-73.

Szabó, Lőrinc. “Ima a jövőért.” In A ciklon szélcsendjében. Emlékezések, dokumentumok Szabó Lőrinc 1956. október 23-i miskolci irodalmi estjéről, illetve Miskolc irodalmi életének szerepéről az 1956-os forradalomban, 140-141. Edited by Csaba Fazekas. Miskolc: Bíbor, 2000.

Szabó, Lőrinc. “Surprises.” Translated by John M. Ridland and Peter Czipott. In Down Fell the Statue of Goliath. Hungarian Poets and Writers on the Revolution of 1956. Edited by Csilla Bertha. Budapest: Hungarian Review 2017, 79-81.

Vörösmarty, Mihály. “Appeal.” Translated by Watson Kirkconnell. In In Quest of the Miracle Stag. The Poetry of Hungary. An Anthology of Hungarian Poetry from the 13th Century to the Present in English Translation, Vol. 1. Edited by Adam Makkai. Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur 2000, 260-261.

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