They gape in wonder and break out laughing,
they stare ahead, then look back; stall
and turn around in bewilderment:
they don't yet understand it all.
For the first time they become surprised,
their yearning eyebrows drawn up high;
up, up, they gaze, up at the moon,
its platter turning green in the sky,
the sun is reddening at the zenith,
each star sits tamely in its place;
there's a Greek fire burning in their eyes,
their weekdays all are holidays.
They walk this shabby wretched Earth
with dust and wear too well acquainted,
they walk this agèd senile world
as if a new home freshly painted.
How they observe, how they enthuse
when your mind's climbing up the wall;
they hope for miracles from a letter,
a news report or telephone call.
Say this with me: poor ignorant orphans,
new souls, free of contamination,
heroic--say with me: poor loons!
glory to them, and exaltation.



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]