Selected and introduced by Edward Hirsch
Miklos Radnoti's poems have an anguished intimacy and intensity as well as a profoundly humane spirit. This modern Hungarian poet, killed during World War II at the age of 35, clung with a desperate - and stoic - serenity to the classical values of the Western tradition at a time when those values were most imperiled, indeed, close to extinction. Radnoti's poems were both deeply felt and thoroughly modern - filled with his sense of anxiety, uncertainty, and fate - but their formal values tended to the classical. This makes him akin to his great Russian contemporary, Osip Mandelstam. One feels in reading him a growing level of despair countered by such aesthetic and moral ideals of antiquity as the clarity of poetic form, the virtues of reason, and the philosophical rectitude of Stoicism.
Radnoti's life was shadowed by tragedy. Born in Budapest on May 5, 1909, he was haunted by the fact that his mother died giving birth to him and his twin brother, who was stillborn ("Monster I was in my nativity,/ twin-bearing mother - and your murderer!"). He was 12 when his father died, and he was raised by distant relatives. Radnoti studied Hungarian and French literature at Szeged University, where he also joined the Art Forum of Szeged Youth, a group of talented intellectuals and artists with socialist leanings and a strong interest in Hungarian folklore. He earned his doctorate with a brilliant dissertation on the artistic development of the novelist Margit Kaffka but, because of his Jewish heritage, never received the university positions he deserved. He eked out a living as a freelance writer, translator, and schoolteacher.
In the early 1940s, Radnoti, a fierce antifascist, was drafted for hard labor into various work camps. The third and last time, he was taken to Bor, Yugoslavia, where he worked in a copper mine. He was taken from the mine and driven westward across Hungary in a forced march and there, near the town of Abda sometime between November 6 and November 10, 1944, was one of 22 prisoners murdered and tossed into a mass grave by members of the Hungarian armed forces. It was an unspeakable death. After the war, Radnoti's wife had his body exhumed and his last poems were found in his field jacket, written in pencil in a small Serbian exercise book. These poems display the classical poise of his art and literally rise from the grave to give testimony to his torment.
Radnoti published six individual collections of poems during his lifetime: Pagan Salute (1930), Song of Modern Shepherds (1931), Convalescent Wind (1933), New Moon (1935), Walk On, Condemned (1936), and Steep Road (1938). All the poems written during his internment appeared in a posthumous volume, Sky with Clouds (1946), which is one of the pinnacles of Central European poetry in this century. He also published a collection of selected poems (1940), an autobiographical novel, A Month of Twins (1940), and a volume of translations, In the Footsteps of Orpheus (1942), which ranges across 2,000 years of European literature. He translated Greek and Latin writers, Elizabethans and English romantics, and German writers from all major periods. He was also among the first to introduce into his own language such modern poets as Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Georg Trakl. Radnoti's sense of an ideal European heritage should be understood as a conserving stance - a humane action - against the destructive forces of European barbarism.
Radnoti's poems are filled with echoes of, and allusions to, classical literature even as they reveal debts to French poetry of the early 20th century. His youthful free-verse poems enthusiastically embrace an urbane pastoralism. These celebrations (pagan greetings) romanticize village life and endorse a natural eroticism. But as the 1930s progressed and the chaos of the times escalated, Radnoti responded by exercising more and more traditional formal control over his poems. …