Portrait – 17th July, 2015

Promise unfulfilled

Ferenc Békássy

Portrait–17th July, 2015


Ferenc Békássy

A forgotten poet who was friends with John Maynard Keynes and Rupert Brooke, wrote in English and Hungarian, was published by Virginia Woolf's press, and died at the age of 22.

A promising talent, Ferenc Békássy (1893–1915) died at the age of 22 in World War I. Békássy graduated at King's College in Cambridge, and wrote both in Hungarian and in English. He was the first to translate major Hungarian poets Endre Ady and Mihály Babits.

Békássy was born in an old aristocratic family. As Mihály Babits, the doyen of Hungarian literature in the first half of the 20th century, wrote in his obituary: he belonged to those aristocratic families who brought Western culture to their ancient mansions. In 1912, he was elected among the members of the Cambridge Apostles, a secret, élite intellectual society at Cambridge. His election was primarily due to his good friend, the economist John Maynard Keynes, who later became one of the intellectual fathers of the World Bank. At Cambridge, Békássy also met Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1925, Virginia Woolf’s publisher, Hogarth Press, posthumously published his poems written in English with the title Adriatica and Other Poems, with a preface by literary scholar and critic F. L. Lucas, who called Békássy's poems "evidence of promise unfulfilled."

In his essay-cum-obituary, Babits praises Békássy as a great talent, though more a "bud" than a "flower." The young poet did not belong to the 'Nyugat generation,' so called after the eponymous magazine of the first half of the 20th century, which integrated Western literary trends into Hungarian literature. Besides, he divided his time between England and Hungary. Neither did he belong to the generation of symbolists and impressionists, as he was typified by a "noble conservativism," rather than a "mannerish" voice and a preoccupation with fashion. In Békássy's poetry, Babits continues, Shelley and Keats meet János Arany and Mihály Vörösmarty.

Békássy, who was younger than the members of the Nyugat generation, is fairly unique in Hungarian literature. Babits touched on the essence when he said that he lacked the mannerisms of his contemporaries. Although Békássy did translate Ady, Babits and Kosztolányi enthusiastically, his poetry does not have much to do with theirs.

Békássy was influenced by Keats’s aestheticism, and wrote a monograph on Browning, who was a generation younger than him. After the introduction of French, German and Russian literature, it was with Békássy that English literature finally entered Hungarian literature in the beginning of the 20th century.

Békássy returned from Cambridge in the last moment. If he had stayed in Cambridge, he would have been made prisoner of war, but he would have survived World War I – and perhaps lived to be a great poet? Who knows. (In 1931, Aladár Kuncz wrote his autobiographical novel Black Monastery, one of the masterpieces of 20th century Hungarian literature, about his experience as a POW who was incarcerated in an island in France during World War I. Perhaps Békássy would also have switched to prose. Who knows?) In any case, he enlisted to a Hussar unit, and was killed in action four days after arriving at the Russian front. He was certainly not a nationalist – he was a patriot who knew his duty. His poetry also changed, intimating a sense of death.

Ferenc Békássy was forgotten by posterity, but since 2000, his revival has begun, pioneered by George Gömöri and Tibor Weiner Sennyey. A hundred years is not a long time in literary history. Békássy had died young; besides, his poetry was somewhat foreign to the Hungarian literary context of the era, being strongly influenced by Englishness. As Babits had rightly observed, the modern literary language of the beginning of the 20th century was somewhat mannerish and preoccupied by fashion. In Békássy’s poetry, the English influence is equivalent to a lack of mannerisms.

In his high school years, Békássy met Noel Olivier, the cousin of Lawrence Olivier, and was in love with her until his death – just like the eminent English poet Rupert Brooke, six years Békássy’s senior. They both enlisted to the army, one to the British, the other to the Austro-Hungarian one. The former died in April 1915, at the age of twenty-eight; the latter in June of the same year, at the age of twenty-two. Apparently, God was unable to decide which one of them deserved Noel Olivier. And this is how He solved the Gordian knot, to the detriment of literature.

Lajos Grendel


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