This song of mine's
a simple strain;
it sings of this:
it sings of pain.

He sounds like: Ai!
he whispers, hurts:
the head, the tooth,
the mouth, the heart.

Cuts like the knife,
stabs like the needle,
so horrid he is,
and yet so feeble.

Thin thread of voice,
a music quaking,
he sounds as if heaven
and earth were shaking.

He cries like water
and wails like hell,
he hisses, he trills
like a tinkling bell.

He broadcasts wide
that he's alive
and caterwauls
and babbles jive.

He grows and he swells;
and if he turns sickly
and shrinks, disappears,
he recovers quickly.

Now he's a steam-whistle
scream, to the life,
now he just cheeps
like a little wee fife.

He never ceases,
whatever you do,
he cuts and he hammers,
drills, chisels, rasps you.

He hollers and whoops,
rumbles and clatters,
constantly blathers,
natters and chatters.

When day's barely dawned,
he's already begun,
and he keeps right on going
'till the next rising sun.

He never gets bored
and neither do I:
I'm breaking a trail
under darkening skies.

Who he is, what he is,
I can't say exactly;
I don't even dare
to address him directly.

I can't lie in peace,
he won't let me sleep.
What else can I do?
Not let out a peep.

On my life's final slope
on its downward half,
this is our pastime;
we silently laugh.

I stand by his side,
I fall on my back;
he spins me along
a wild, frightful track.

I grow to detest him,
I curse him to hell,
then slowly and nicely
I make him my pal.

I don't wring my hands
or join in his choir;
about what it means
I don't even inquire.

I don't even inquire
what end it may serve;
I find it of interest
to merely observe.

His tune is just silly
even stupid and cheap
but it's surely not shallow
for its depths are so deep.

Its depths are the deep
into which I descend:
he putters about,
preparing my end.

He's stripping my body,
my body entire:
he's says it's all useless,
my earthly attire.

He's rushing and flitting,
that Being so alien;
he violently breaks in,
and now he's no alien.

I already await him,
no longer without;
inside of him now,
my soul gave a shout.

My blood's babbling loudly
as it calls out to die;
he's not the bad one:
the bad one is I.

Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936) has been esteemed primarily for lyrical novels of penetrating psychological insight, such as Skylark and Anna Édes ("Sweet Anna"). In Hungary, he is equally known for his poetry (especially "Drunkenness at Dawn") and his superb translations of foreign works from Shakespeare to Valéry. Kosztolányi's "Funeral Oration" evokes both the sadness and laughter associated with telling tales of a departed friend at the wake. In this virtuoso poem, the departed is likened to a character in a fairy tale by means of reference to the traditional opening lines, "Hol volt, hol nem volt" ("Maybe there was, maybe there wasn't") - the Hungarian equivalent of "Once upon a time". The translator is faced with the task of reproducing this reference in English, despite the difference in literal meaning. The poem thus contains dual intertextual references, quoting as it does the opening of both the medieval Funeral Oration and "timeless" fairy tales.

The Magyars had no written language when they occupied their present home, the Carpathian Basin, in the late ninth century C.E. A few Hungarian place names find their way into the mid-eleventh century Latin document founding the abbey of Tihany, but it is a late twelfth-century text that provides the first surviving complete work in (Old) Hungarian. The extant manuscript, the Pray Codex, gives the Latin title of Sermo sup. sepulchrum to this foundational monument of literary Hungarian. Commonly referred to as the "Funeral Oration" ("Halotti beszéd"), its opening is known to every school child in Hungary: "My brethren, you see with your own eyes what we are: verily, we are dust and ashes."

[Note by Peter V. Czipott]