Dezső Kosztolányi: Happy, Heartbroken Song


Dezső Kosztolányi (March 29, 1885 – November 3, 1936) was a Hungarian writer, journalist, and translator. He wrote in all literary genres, from poetry to essays to theatre plays. Building his own style, he used French symbolism, impressionism, expressionism and psychological realism. He is considered the father of futurism in Hungarian literature. Kosztolányi also produced literary translations in Hungarian, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Lord Alfred Douglas’ memoirs on Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling’s “If—”.

NB: By clicking on the date you can read the supplement of Hungarian poetry which was publishened in The High Window  in  June 17, 2019   [Ed.]


Dezső Kosztolányi: Four Poems translated by Edit Gálla


Look here, my son, I’m giving you everything,
take it, it’s yours forever, keep it all.
Here’s winter and summer, when boughs gently swing,
I’m also giving you honey and gall.
Look, here is the bitter and here is the sweet,
here is the pitch black and here is the white,
here’s calm and fever so that you burn with heat,
here’s wholesome bread and poison full of spite.
Here’s milk, but also blood, a sight horrendous,
I give you arms to wrestle and embrace,
battles to fight against the odds, regardless,
keep the sword beside the rose, just in case.
There’s also some misplaced, bent or broken stuff,
there’s some cheerful sunshine and some laughter,
some pluck to besiege a fortress, just enough,
and a deep, low sigh that follows after.
You inherit a strange, ambivalent hoard,
inconsistent things, gathered in a heap,
I’m only human, it’s all I could afford,
neither reach for the sky, nor delve too deep.
I’m passing these to you, all I had to give.
I stand here, a beggar, holding my breath.
And now, in my right hand, there’s the will to live,
and in my left hand, I am clasping death.


I’ve got some bread, I’ve got some wine,
I’ve got a child, a lovely wife.
Then why should I despond and pine?
I do not need to starve or strive.
I’ve got an orchard, as I pass,
The rustling branches slowly sway,
Inside, the pantry guards its mass
Of nuts, maturing day by day.
I’ve got good blankets, soft and plain,
A telephone, some hand luggage,
I do not have to ask in vain
For favours, I’ve got patronage,
No more the one who long ago
In love with grief, had tears to shed,
I sometimes raise my hat although
I’m often greeted well ahead.
I’ve got bright white electric lights,
A cigarette case, pure silver,
My pen or pencil nimbly glides,
Here’s my smoking pipe to savour.
In baths, my weary limbs can rest,
To soothe my nerves, there is warm tea,
While I stroll around Budapest,
Some people now remember me.
From doleful songs that I have sung
Many an eye turns watery,
My nation hails me as the young
And gifted bard of Hungary.
But in the dead of night I halt,
I freeze and fret and faintly seek
A treasure in a secret vault,
A treasure so old, so unique,
Like a sick man awakening
From fever dreams, dazed and tired,
I stand there, groping, wavering,
Wondering what I once desired.
I could not find what I wanted,
The treasure for which I perished,
My place in the world is granted,
My heavenly home has vanished.


You see, my brethren, all at once he died,
he deserted us for the other side.
We knew him. He was not illustrious,
just a heart, dear to our heart, close to us.
Just clod and clay.
He is no more.
The treasure store
is in decay.

Ponder his death, his life, what they bespeak:
that every single person is unique.
No one like him ever lived nor lives now,
no two leaves are the same on a tree bough,
there’ll be none like him as time is passing.
Look at this head, this broken, collapsing,
gentle eye. Now, my brethren, turn your gaze
on this hand, engulfed by unearthly haze,
a strange, derelict,
and rigid relic,
on it, as if chiselled with an ancient knife,
the cuneiform secret of his precious life.

Whoever he was, he was heat, he was light.
People recognised him when he was in sight.
Whenever he knew or felt that he preferred
this or that kind of food, or uttered a word
with his lips, now sealed by silence, when the knells
of his voice were heard, like underwater bells
in the deep, when, not long ago, he said: “Please,
my darling, I think I’d like to have some cheese,”
when he was drinking wine and cheerfully let
the smoke curl and furl from his cheap cigarette,
when he dashed, made some phone calls and would run
to chase his dream, the coloured yarn he spun,
a sign on his forehead shone bright like the sun:
he was one in a million, the only one.

It would be all in vain, he can’t be tracked down,
you can’t find him in Asia, nor in Cape Town,
seek him in the past or future, it’s inane,
anyone may, but he won’t be born again.
All the while,
we’ll never see him faintly, quaintly smile.
Although the powers of Lady Luck are great,
he was a wonder she cannot recreate.

My dearest friends, what happened to him, what came
to pass, is like that fairy tale, quite the same.
Out of the blue, life thought of him and anon
we began telling his story: “Once upon…”
He was crushed by storm-tossed skies, it was his lot,
now, in tears, we can only say: “there was not…”
Here he is, who was striving for the best,
a statue of himself, frozen and at rest.
Words, tears, drugs can’t bring him back to life, he’s gone.
Once upon a time, at one time, only one.


I’m waiting for them to bring, then remove the empty tray.
I’m waiting for the guest to arrive, and then go away.
I’m watching them open the door to butt in,
an object, a pair of eyes or a button.
I’ve smashed you into pieces, you diverse,
unbearably bewildered universe.
I’d rather cling onto a broken part,
than stare directly at the crazy heart
of the whole, yet I’m at peace,
gazing at a little piece.
The whole and I are strangers, poles apart,
but I’m on friendly terms with every part.

Edit Gálla, the translator of this selection of Kosztolányi’s poems, is a lecturer at Károli Gáspár University in Budapest and holds a PhD in literature and cultural studies, specialising in modern English and American literature. She has also published a volume of poetry and translated various English poems into Hungarian.

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