The Importance and Influence of Ady


György Lukács

I suppose it follows from the Hungarian situation that the true revolutionary is not a typical Hungarian phenomenon. I cannot analyse this further within the scope of this study, but it is certainly connected with the specific nature of Hungarian development and the fact that in the 1848-49 revolution the gentry filled the role which the lower middle classes and the proletariat filled in France. With the development of capitalism the gentry went steadily downhill and the potential revolutionary elements which were still part of its make-up in 1848-49 increasingly declined. Even the objectively-minded progressive movements, the bourgeois and labour movements adapted themselves to this peculiar state of Hungarian development. Now under true revolutionary conditions a great man always appears—personified by Petőfi 1 in 1848 and at the turn of the century by Ady—combining in themselves all that should have existed in Hungary, but in fact they had no real group of adherents or followers. I believed, and I still believe, that no matter how enthusiastic people were about Ady and made use of him as a battering-ram against reaction, he remained isolated, even within the movement connected with Nyugat. 2

The situation was roughly the same in 1848, under quite different circumstances of course, and Petőfi too was an isolated figure at the time. Ady saw the situation clearly. It would be a forced post facto assertion, without justification, to maintain that there was an important political left wing in Petőfi’s 1848. The kind of left wing represented by Marat and Robespierre in France simply did not exist in the Hungary of 1848. And still less at the beginning of the twentieth century, in that period of transition, the period of Nyugat. It should be remembered that the famous article

1 Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849). Hungary’s great revolutionary poet.

2 Nyugat (West), literary periodical published from 1908 to 1941. All significant poets, writers, philosophers and artists of that age were contributors to Nyugat.


by Ignotus 3 against what he called “persecutional aesthetics” demanded no more than that the contributors to Nyugat should receive acknowledgement and not only the official Hungarian literary establishment. It was never its purpose to oppose or undermine Hungarian officially sponsored literature. Ady, alone, had this purpose in mind at that time, and while, at best, there were writers who sympathized with and defended Jászi 4 and his political party, and others, attracted by the labour movements, who turned to Austro-Marxism, Endre Ady was a unique phenomenon from a political point of view. Although he captivated many of his readers time and time again, he never had a broad mass following in Hungary at that period. I think that one must start from this point for a proper assessment of Ady’s importance, for it explains the tension in Ady’s poetry, without parallel in the literary work of any other writer of this age. The others were either of Jewish origin and concurred—with slight leftist leanings—in the compromise of the Jewish bourgeoisie, or came from gentry or half-gentry families and did not want to sever their links with their origin. In the case of Babits, 5 for instance, this was particularly clear.

Those who did not find the compromise acceptable did not take what might be described as a specifically Hungarian stand: Ervin Szabó, 6 for one, was really in the opposition and sought a remedy for the opportunism of the Hungarian workers’ party in French syndicalism. Or let me take my own case: I tried to reconcile Ady’s “faith in protest, mission in veto” with Hegelian dialectics. This sort of experiment naturally, could not be expected to have much effect, and consequently the peculiar situation arose whereby Ady, the great battering-ram and standard-bearer of Nyugat was, in point of fact, isolated within Nyugat itself. I think we have to be fully aware of this paradox.

The history of Ady’s influence is an interesting question that still has to be written. It starts with a thumping lie: the line that, starting with Dezső Szabó 7 after 1919, wanted to turn Ady after his death into a Hungarian nationalist. This, of course, is absolutely untrue, for it was just Ady who was the first Hungarian poet to see the connection between the fate of Hungary and the national minorities. Petőfi was not conscious of this in

3 Ignotus (1869-1949). Journalist and poet, one of the founders and editors-in-chief of Nyugat, an enthusiastic supporter of Ady. Lived abroad from 1919 to 1948.

4 Oszkar Jászi (1875-1957). Historian and journalist, leading left-wing politician. Head of the Radical Party. Left Hungary during the Republic of Councils. After 1926 he lived in the USA, where he was a professor of sociology at Oberlin College.

5 Mihály Babits (1888-1941). He and Ady were the great Hungarian poets of that age.

6 Ervin Szabó (1877‑1918). Historian, librarian, left-wing social democrat leader, Marxist sociological writer.

7 Dezső Szabó (1879-1945). Novelist and pamphleteer, had a considerable literary influence between the two world wars. His ideas were nationalist and racial.


1848; he had no realization of this problem as Ady and one other had—Béla Bartók—the only other person in Hungary to be aware of it. The fact that Bartók extended his work of collecting folk songs to Rumanian and Slovak territories amounts to the same awareness in the sphere of music as Ady’s more general perception. Bartók’s music was a protest against the kind of Gypsy music the gentry favoured; it was anti-gentry, not anti-Rumanian or anti-Slovak Magyarism. In this respect—although it seems that they did not meet personally or at least were not closely associated with each other—there are many common traits in Bartók and Ady. Hence, Dezső Szabó’s plan was doomed to fail. What demonstrates the poet’s real place, and I consider it an interesting piece of literary evidence, is the fact that Ervin Sinkó’s 8 revolutionary novel Optimisták (Optimists) contains a number of young characters who constantly refer to Ady. In the Sinkó-Révai 9 revolutionary circle in which the scene of this novel is laid, Ady was a living influence in 1918-19. It was in all probability not the only group of this kind, though the only one that left evidence in the form of literature behind it.

It is very important in considering the development of Ady’s influence that, in my opinion, all revolutionary movements ceased again after 1919. In the period that followed 1919, even the most Leftist poets were inclined to compromise. For this reason I find István Vas’s 10 autobiography of great interest, for it reveals the petty-bourgeois, compromising nature of Kassák 11 even more clearly than Kassák’s poetry itself. At that time Ady was even more of an isolated figure with a single echo—devoid of the Ady kind of social problems—resounding in the poetry of Attila József. 12 The poem Attila József wrote in memory of Ady calls up the memory of Ady the revolutionary; in a poem of Attila József, as in a great poem of Endre Ady’s, stones crash against castle windows, and this expresses the only true continuity from Ady to be encountered in Hungarian poetry. I do not deny

8 Ervin Sinkó (1898-1967). Hungarian novelist who lived in Yugoslavia, and was a university professor in Novi Sad. In the inter-war years he emigrated to Paris, where he moved in the circle of Romain Rolland, Barbusse and Mihály Károlyi. His more important novels deal with the Hungarian revolution in 1919, and the Moscow trials in the Stalin era.

9 Josef Révai (1898-1959). Politician, journalist, historian and essayist. Foundation member of the Hungarian Communist Party. Lived in Moscow from 1934 until the liberation of the country. From 1949 to 1953 Minister of Education, he put into practice the Stalin-Zhdanov policy in literature and art. Author of several studies on Ady.

10 István Vas (b. 1910). Poet, translator, on the editorial board of The New Hungarian Quarterly and a frequent contributor. His poems appeared in Nos. 23 and 29, and an essay on Apollinaire in No. 34.

11 Lajos Kassák (1887-1967). Poet, novelist, painter, left-wing socialist. Between the two world wars was a pioneer of Hungarian avant-garde art and letters. See his poems in Nos. 23 and 28, and parts of his autobiography in Nos. 19 and 31.

12 Attila Jósef (1905-1937). Great Hungarian poet in the period between the two world wars. See his poems in No 31 in Edwin Morgan: “Modern Hungarian Poetry.”


that there have been disciples of Ady among the revolutionary elements of the Communist Party; it is beyond dispute that Reval was one of Ady’s most intelligent followers. After 1945, however, the revolutionary movement promptly became a manipulated movement. An excellent—unfortunately unpublished—study by Ferenc Donáth 13 describes how all political parties, including that of Rákosi, agreed to extinguish the revolutionary councils about to be formed east of the river Tisza, for the aim of these councils was to become a second power against the Debrecen National Assembly. Revolutionary fervour, full of the illusions so characteristic of Benjámin’s 14 poetry in the forties and fifties, soon changed into disenchantment; the theme of disillusion dominates the mentality of the young today, and this is why Ady’s elevated style sounds so strange to them. This elevation of Ady’s is genuine and concrete, and consequently stands in fierce contrast to bureaucratic pomposity; it is however, also diametrically opposed to what might be called the political cynicism with which the young have followed events for a long time.

This is a peculiar, although possibly not unique, situation. It would be worth investigating whether there are, mutatis mutandis,similar characteristics in the relation between the German people and Heine. He too has been a central figure in German poetry for close on a hundred years, and yet there is scarcely anyone who could be regarded as a true Heine enthusiast. Everybody, even a Karl Krauss 15, holds aloof from Heine. I do not, of course, in the slightest degree intend to draw a parallel between Heine and Ady. That would be quite impossible, if only for the difference between 1848 and 1900 and the different development of Hungary and Germany, regardless of any others. But none the less I believe that Ady is not a case without precedent, and I wonder—although I have not gone thoroughly into the history of literary influences—whether it would be possible to find a similar phenomenon in English literature with Shelley? I find it highly characteristic that the Eliot circle fiercely reject Shelley, and if I may be permitted to draw an analogy, I should say that the Eliot kind of nonsense over Shelley is very similar to the Kosztolányi 16 rubbish over Ady. Of course, these are bold parallels without specific evidence, but I think that in the whole process of European development after the French Revolution there are common elements which point in that direction, and that in Hungary they show themselves even more specifically.

13 Ferenc Donáth (b. 1914). Sociologist, former Deputy Minister of Agriculture.

14 László Benjámin (b. 1915). Poet. See a poem in No. 23.

15 Karl Kraus (1874-1936). Austrian social and literary critic.

16 Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936). Poet, novelist, writer of short stories, essayist, translator, one of the most significant Hungarian writers in the first half of this century.


There is a difference in the Hungarian process of development between things as they actually are and the way they I should be. Petőfi, Ady and Attila József stand for what should be, which is not some Utopian “ought to be” from nowhere, but the expression of an effective subjective response to the objective needs of Hungarian development. Large numbers, on the other hand, were anxious to evade the tasks of historic importance confronting Hungary and the chief concern of a good deal of Hungarian poetry in the final analysis is to lay ideological foundations and to idealize the evasion of these tasks. Against them stands Ady, the great remonstrant.

Is Ady archaic in terms of style? Born and bred in a certain epoch, the idioms and the figures of speech of every poet are quite naturally typical of his age. This applies with equal force to Heine, Shelley, Petőfi and Baudelaire, and of course to Ady as well. I must admit that I take a poor view of all those categories of style, and particularly of Sezession, Art Nouveau,and the like when they are mentioned in connection with Ady. In the metaphors and the vocabulary of Ady obvious marks of the 1900-1918 epoch can be seen; the same, I think, is true of Babits and Kosztolányli, though of course in another form. Any intelligent critic could discover that Ady and Babits were contemporaries.

In analysing lyrical poetry particularly it is fair to say that there is no lyric poet whose poems all reach an equally high standard. It is usually said that Keats is an exception, but I for one cannot acknowledge that even all of Keats’ poems are on a level with the great odes. With the progress of time all that is written on impulse and for the ephemeral moment increasingly fades and in poetry only the great symbols survive in which the poet has succeeded in epitomizing the aspirations of his age. From the many hundred poems Ady has written there are—let us exaggerate—perhaps two hundred poems in which these find expression, and these two hundred verses are the intrinsic treasure through which Ady survives. Neither Ady, Petőfi nor any other poet ever became immortal through his collected poetical works. It is sheer rubbish to say Ady is obsolete: he is not out of date at all; but it is true, on the other hand, that he wrote verses in, say, a January issue of Nyugat that were already dead in February. This is no disparagement of Ady; it is true of all poets. I believe—and this is again quite another matter—that in Hungary, after the country has truly passed beyond the Stalin era and begun to build a living socialism which relies on a new proletarian democracy, there will be many more people who will become aware that Ady is the poet they like best. Since I read Új versek (New Verses) in 1906—that is more than sixty years ago—I have not lost touch with Ady for a single day. This, however, is a piece of biographical


information; and without wanting to exaggerate my own importance, I really cannot consider myself a typical phenomenon in the Hungarian development.

Then why is it so difficult to break a way for Ady into world literature? In the first place it is far easier to introduce narrative and dramatic works into world literature through translations. There are many million people all over the world whose favourite reading is War and Peace, the Iliad or Swift, of whom only five or ten per cent at most have read these masterpieces in the original language. I read War and Peace inthe German Reclam Edition when I was a schoolboy in the seventh form of the secondary school (during lessons on the sly) and the badness of the translation is still fresh in my memory. Even a bad translation, however, cannot shatter the epic grandeur of War and Peace;it comes through everything. And this is true for Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies as well. Lyric poetry, however, can hardly ever be reproduced; that is one of its characteristics. In my youth, when I was closely in touch with all things German, I read French poetry in German, translated by lyric poets of the calibre of Stefan George, and I have to admit that if I had not read Baudelaire in the original, the Stefan George kind of Baudelaire would never have impressed me at all. I mention Stefan George on purpose, for no one can say he used literal translations or that he could not write verse—and yet just that got lost in his translations which is so humanly, so deeply moving in Baudelaire’s poetry. There are certain things whose emotional accents in French or German are radically different. And this all holds good to an even greater degree in the case of Hungarian, the language of a small people, and its remote literature. I think we would be deceiving ourselves if we were to believe that Petőfi has in fact found a place in world literature. And indeed, speaking of world literature, two things must be decisively distinguished. In the first place, what achieves the level of world literature, and what only achieves a national level? This is an objective judgement. In the second place, the actual fact of what is in truth part of world literature has to be established. This does not depend exclusively upon its value. (The term value is not used here in an aesthetic sense only, but in the context of the entire personality and the whole work.) A somewhat distant illustration is provided by Heine who really was part of world literature, and moreover, at a certain time exerted a considerable influence on French literature. Now, Heine had a German contemporary, Gottfried Keller, and I would not dare to say that he was of any less significance than Heine. Yet Gottfried Keller never achieved a place in world literature. He never had any influence outside German literature. That is to say that whether a writer becomes part of world literature depends


on various literary, social, linguistic and other circumstances, and it must be admitted that no Hungarian writer so far has really done it. Petőfi has not, and in Ady’s case certain specific additional difficulties arise, for since many of his greatest poems take a profound knowledge of Hungarian development and history for granted, the text would demand a number of annotations if the foreign reader is to understand it and this, particularly in lyric poetry, is an almost unsurmountable barrier. Our particular age, moreover, must also be taken into account. A dislike of elevated style and any compromise with manipulations is a characteristic of modern lyric poets, As a result—with the possible exception of a certain group of French and South American lyric poets—the content of Ady’s verse would sound very unfamiliar to contemporary poets.

Nor should we entertain too great illusions over Attila József. It is true that Attila József. is more easily translated, and there are therefore better Attila József translations, but it is out of the question that Attila József will be accepted as part of world literature in the sense that Mayakovsky and Eluard have been accepted. I think that this kind of bad luck has to be accepted by a small nation like Hungary. Everything must be done to produce adequate Ady translations in foreign languages but—if I may say so—without cherishing great hopes. A lyric poet who in fact achieves a place in world literature in this way is a rare bird indeed. Take Pasternak. I cannot form an opinion, but my Russian friends assure me that Pasternak must be regarded an important lyric poet. Yet not even the fact that his very bad epigonistic novel became a world literary sensation was able to boost the circulation of Pasternak’s poems.

I would like to mention in passing that there is a third sort of world literature to which I, for one, attach little significance, namely, the literature classified as world literature by literary experts. A simple example will put the reader straight: English literary critics regard twenty-five contemporaries of Shakespeare as belonging to world literature, though the utmost that Webster or Ford or the others have effected is that one has got to know their names; they have not had the slightest influence on the development of contemporary drama or on ideas of tragedy. World literature as seen by experts is very narrow and artificially invented by professors and academicians. In Hungary likewise we all learned about the great triumvirate Of Petőfi, Arany 16 and Tompa, 17 but this never succeeded in imprinting Tompa on the general literary consciousness of Hungarians. No matter what was

16 János Arany (1817-1882). He and Petőfi were the greatest Hungarian poets of the nineteenth century.

17 Mihály Tompa (1817-1868). Romantic poet of lesser significance, representative of what was known as the “folk-national” trend of writing.


said of Petőfi and Arany, and some were pro Petőfi others were anti, anything might be possible, but in the whole of my life I never met a single person who cared about the poetry of Tompa in any form for even five minutes. So I am quite uninterested in what literary experts consider world fame.

The great crisis that drew Europe into the First World War was echoed more or less consciously—through a variety of underground channels—in the entire literature of almost the whole world. It is my personal opinion that Ady was the first to react, and to react most effectively, and that Ady is supreme among all those who voiced recalcitrance and the necessity of revolution—hence, Ady is the greatest lyric poet of this age, both humanly and poetically. I have no fear of being branded a chauvinist for expressing this opinion.

SOURCE: Lukács, György. “The Importance and Influence of Ady,” The New Hungarian Quarterly, no. 35 (vol. 10, Autumn 1969), pp. 56-63.

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The New Hungarian Quarterly, no. 47 (vol. 13, Autumn 1972)

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