Monday, 25 November 2013

Miklós Radnóti: 'Letter To My Wife' - Poetry of Witness From the Grave

The poetry of Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) is so beautiful, so pure and devastating, that it could take the breath from your lungs or break your heart. The poems and the story behind them are, in terms of "poetry of witness", the ultimate voice of the voiceless and murdered, crying from the ground.

He was a Hungarian Jewish poet who during his life struggled against the obstacles placed in his way due to his ethnic background. Radnóti worked as a translator and tutor, and wrote poetry which received little attention in his lifetime. His passion for his wife Fanni is evident from his poems. In 1943 he converted to Catholicism, but this of course made no difference to how he was viewed as a Jew.

Radnóti was made to serve hard labour in the 1940s, until he was eventually shot on a forced march, already in a weakened condition. After the war, his body and those of others were exhumed from a mass grave. In his overcoat, there was a small notebook which contained his final poems. They are now considered some of the finest Hungarian poetry, and world poetry, ever written. Only someone quite remarkable, both in talent and in spirit, could have written such poems in very extreme circumstances, knowing that he was probably facing death.

It is a good time to read Radnóti's poems, if "good" is the right word. In the past ten days or so, a photo appeared on the internet which showed his poems being burned by neo-fascist extremists in Hungary. A statue commemorating the place of his death was also driven into and destroyed. The latter incident may have been an accident, though the circumstances are unclear, but the book-burning certainly wasn't.

I think it's important for these incidents not to go unnoticed, and such happenings in Hungary and elsewhere are not receiving a great deal of media attention. You can read other articles at Melville House and at The Missing Slate. I first heard about this from Hungarian-born British poet and translator George Szirtes, whose excellent blog often draws attention to Hungarian issues.

Here, finally, is one of the poems, 'Letter to my wife' - one of those final poems and beloved by many. It is impossible to read this without being deeply moved. It is incredible on a purely aesthetic basis, as poetry, and it is a testimony which should be listened to.

LETTER TO MY WIFE (Miklós Radnóti, translated by Stephen Capus)


  1. May I also recommend his poem "Nem Tudhatom" (I Know Not What...) which is essentially a love poem to his country written a few months earlier than the wonderful poem above. In many ways this is more poignant because his country had disowned him, he a Hungarian poet of Jewish origins, so hated and reviled by his compatriots. Yet he could write this love poem to the land of his birth in 1944. To my mind, this is one of the great 'patriotic' Hungarian poems - 'patriotic' in the true sense of the word, not the bastardised, corrupted meaning of the word we often associate with today. You can read several translations here However the poem comes alive when it is read by Zoltán Latinovits, one of the greatest interpreters of Hungarian poetry from the 1960's and 1970's. Again, through the wonders of the internet, you can hear him read 'Nem tudhatom' on YouTube at For some the music may be a distraction and for many not knowing Hungarian will be a distinct disadvantage. And yet, and yet... when I hear Latinovits read this poem, I reminded of the true power of poetry - to give expression to our deepest and most unspoken, yet most personal, thoughts. Rádnoti should be utterly celebrated in Hungary and the wider world today.

    1. Thanks very much for visiting and for this comment, and the links. I'll have to watch the video later, but I read the translations. 'I Know Not What' is indeed very beautiful. The details are so tender, so obviously close to his heart. I know what you mean about "patriotism", I think. It is possible to love one's country but not have it descend into tribalism and violence, and hatred of others. But humans don't often really succeed in this.

      It's great poetry just on its own, and it's important for people to know the story and to realise that (sadly) it's not impossible for what killed Rádnoti to happen again.