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Biography

1883 born in Szekszárd, a small town in southern Hungary
1901-1905 studies Latin and Hungarian Literature at the University of Budapest
1906-1916 qualifies as teacher; holds posts in Szeged, Fogaras (today Făgăraş, Romania) and Budapest
1908 publishes first poems; begins contributing to Nyugat, the leading literary journal of the day; travels to Italy
1916 recites his anti-war poem "Before Easter" to great acclaim at the Academy of Music
1918 becomes editor of Nyugat
1919 granted the title of Professor
1921 marries writer Ilona Tanner (pen-name Sophie Török)
1930 appointed member of the Kisfaludy Society
1931 awarded Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur, at the same time as Béla Bartók
1937 cancer of the larynx diagnosed
1937 collected works published in ten volumes
1940 member of the Hungarian Academy of Science
1940 awarded San Remo Prize by the Italian Government for the best foreign translation of Dante's Divine Comedy
1941 dies in Budapest

Leaves from Iris’ wreath
00

1909 Leaves from Iris’ wreath 1909 Levelek Iris koszorújából Poet, novelist, critic and translator, Babits was one of the leading figures of Hungarian literature between the two World Wars. His range and his impact on Hungarian writing can only be compared with that of Rilke, Valéry, Eliot or Thomas Mann in their respective countries. His first volume of poetry, Leaves from Iris’ Wreath (1909, Levelek Iris koszorújából), shows superb craftsmanship and owes much to the classics. The poems combine intellectual discipline with a barely-suppressed dramatic tension as the poet seeks a way out of the prison of subjectivity. The first poem, In Horatium gives the poet’s programm. He is aware of joining a great literary tradition but his motivation is still the desire of endless freedom. In other words, he builds on tradition, e.g. by the expert use of classical forms; but renews tradition as well, e.g. by rejecting the horatian principle of „aurea mediocritas”. The symbol in the title is repeated here: the wreath of the goddess Iris is „the wreath of change in multiple colours joining never ending”. The last poem, The Epilogue of the Lyrical Poet (A lírikus epilógja) is one of the great achievements of the philosophical poetry of Babits. He starts his line of thoughts with the desire of freedom, but he concludes by declaring the fulfillment of his desire impossible. No matter how much the poet wants to reach beyond the walls of his personality, the very nature of thinking renders him a prisoner of his own self. His second volume, Prince, What If Winter Comes (1911, Herceg, hátha megjön a tél is!), includes what is perhaps his finest philosophical poem, Question at Night (Esti kérdés), written on the cosmic futility of self-regenerating existence. The volume Valley of Unrest (1920, Nyugtalanság völgye) is an emotional plea for reason and faith in violent times, showing a profound respect for human dignity and an aversion to violence in political thought. This year was especially difficult for Babits, as he had to witness political persecution that left its mark on his development as a poet and thinker

poems
1909

Poet, novelist, critic and translator, Babits was one of the leading figures of Hungarian literature between the two world wars. His range and impact on Hungarian writing can be compared with that of Rilke, Valéry, Eliot or Thomas Mann in their respective countries. His first volume of poetry, Leaves from Iris’ Wreath (1909), shows superb craftsmanship and owes much to the classics. The poems combine intellectual discipline with a barely-suppressed dramatic tension as the poet seeks a way out of the jungle of subjectivity. The first poem, “In Horatium” gives the poet’s programme. He is aware of joining a great literary tradition but finds his motivation in the desire for limitless freedom. In other words, he builds on tradition, for example, by the expert use of classical forms, but renews tradition as well, by rejecting the horatian principle of “aurea mediocritas”. The symbol in the title is repeated here: the wreath of the goddess Iris is “the wreath of change in multiple colours joining never ending”. The last poem, “The Epilogue of the Lyrical Poet” (A lírikus epilógja), is one of Babit’s great achievements as a philosophical poet. He starts his line of thought with the desire for freedom, but he concludes by declaring the fulfillment of this desire impossible. No matter how much the poet wants to reach beyond the walls of his personality, the very nature of thinking renders him a prisoner of his own self. His second volume, Prince, What If Winter Comes (1911), includes what is perhaps his finest philosophical poem, “Question at Night”, written on the cosmic futility of self-regenerating existence. The volume Valley of Unrest (1920) is an emotional plea for reason and faith in violent times, showing a profound respect for human dignity and an aversion to violence in political thought. This year was especially difficult for Babits, as he suffered political persecution that left its mark on his development as a poet and thinker

The Nightmare
1916

This unique novel reveals Babits’s fascination with the subconscious. Elemér Tábory, a diligent student at the top of his class, becomes aware of a recurrent dream in which he is apprenticed to a cabinet maker and is a dull, malevolent, bitter and awkward lad at the bottom of the social heap, constantly taunted and laughed at. As Elemér rises in the ‘real’ world and prepares to marry his beloved, his dream-self descends into crime. The two selves, faintly aware of each other, move closer when Elemér decides to search for the other and starts travelling and gambling. His own world begins to disintegrate. Following his bride’s suggestion, he kills his alter-ego in the dream by sheer willpower; the following day, he is found shot dead himself, without any trace of a weapon.

The Son of Virgil Tímár
1916

Here Babits examines the nature, the possibilities, and the borderlines of ephemeral and celestial love with lyrical sensitivity and philosophical thoroughness. The story itself provides the framework for such an examination, touching upon several topics that were especially sensitive at the time of writing. The exactitude of the questions posed results in a novel offering a thought-provoking description of the age. The teenage son of Lina Vágner, a lonely woman with an unclear past, is orphaned; he is taken care of by a professor at his grammar school. The monk teacher Virgil Tímár treats him with paternal love, and the two develop a happy, spiritually intimate relationship. This process is disrupted by the unexpected appearance of a Jewish journalist from Budapest, Vilmos Vitányi. He claims to be the boy s father and offers a letter from the deceased mother as proof. The adolescent s identity is torn between the two antagonistic perspectives offered by Tímár and Vitányi. This is made most obvious by his disputed name: Tímár calls him Pista while Vitányi knows him as Vilmos. Conflict takes place between father and son, between the notions of earthly versus heavenly male virtues, between elevated spirituality and earthly filth, between opposed religious communities, between love and egoism, between spiritual and erotic love, and ultimately between love of human beings versus love for God. The repeated appearances of the main characters prompt the reader to give each of them a second thought, as they each appear in the light of one other. Tímár s self-reflections force us to reevaluate our usual prejudices and to probe the questions posed by the novel with the intention of finding a deeper understanding and sense of reconciliation.

Sons of Death
1927

The title Sons of Death is a double reference. It is in part a reflection of the despair felt by the author over a world moving headlong towards a second world war. At the same time it puts a name to the fate of the novel’s characters living at the fin de siècle, at the moment of the collapse of the grand style of romantic Hungary. According to the epilogue, the book is to be read as fiction, although several autobiographical hints are dropped, and although the hero, Imre Sátordy, shows a strong resemblance to the author. The plot covers the story of three generations of two middle class families in the country: the Sátordy and the Hintáss families. The almost mythical grandmother, Cenci, represents the disappearing golden age. Her son Mihály Sátordy and her son’s friend Gyula Hintáss—also his wife’s lover—provide different examples of the same tendency towards financial, emotional and moral decadence. Imre’s childhood is populated by all these characters; little wonder that he grows into an intellectual rebel. In his university years at the capital he establishes a literary journal in order to awaken society to their fallacies. However, his heroic attempt leads to financial ruin, and he must flee home. In the end, Imre gives up his prophetic ambitions that have proved to be ridiculous and meaningless and devotes himself to the hard work of a small-town teacher, carried out with calmness and humility. Although Babits’s intention was clearly to offer a grand tableau of the society of his youth, his achievement is different. His scope is relatively narrow since he focuses on a particular layer of society. Instead of great tragic heros there are only everyday characters committing ultimately forgiveable mistakes, like adultery or embezzlement. The narrator concentrates on the inner drama of the soul and the text is full of literary and philosophical references. Nyugat, the main literary journal of the time, celebrated the novel for the great objectivity and irony of its style, as well as for the “philosophy of inner peace” offered by the conclusion.

Essays, Studies
1978

In Babits’s essays one reads the opinions of a never-satisfied moralist on classical and contemporary artists and philosophers (Henri Bergson in particular), on the phases and principles of the Nyugat, and, during the Interwar Years, on pacifism and the Intellect that defies war.

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