On 11th April 1905, Attila József was born in Ferencváros, then a poor district of Budapest. His father, Áron József was a Romanian factory-worker and his mother, Borbála Pőcze, a Hungarian peasant girl; the couple already had two daughters, Etelka and Jolán. By the time Attila was three years old, his father had deserted the family, leaving Borbála struggling to support her children and eventually forced to place them in the care of the National Child Protection League before they were found foster parents in Öcsöd, a small village in the Northern Great Plain region of south-east Hungary.
The move to Öcsöd would have a profound and lasting effect upon the young Attila, his foster father was extremely strict, and cruelly insisted on telling the boy there was ‘no such name as Attila’ instead calling him Pista. József later remembered how this had made him doubt his ‘very existence.’ When he later discovered the tales of King Attila the Hun, József recalled how they ‘had a decisive effect on all my ambitions after that. In the last analysis perhaps it was this experience that led me to literature, that made me a thinking person, the kind of person who would listen to the opinions of others but would examine them carefully in his own mind.’ József finally escaped from Öcsöd to return to his mother in Budapest.
At the age of forty-three, Borbála died from cancer, leaving her fourteen year-old son under the guardianship of his eldest sister and her wealthy husband, Ödön Makai who ensured that he went to the best school possible. In 1922, at the age of seventeen and whilst he was still at school, József published his first collection of poetry, A szépség koldusa (Beggar of Beauty). Two years later, József’s work would cause controversy after his poem Lázadó Krisztus (Rebellious Christ) was featured in the October 1923 issue of the magazine Bluebird, consequently he faced charges of blasphemy was sentenced to eight months in prison sand a hefty fine, both of which were later overturned.
His ambition to become a teacher led József to apply to the University of Szeged to study Hungarian and French Literature, yet his defiant streak would ensure that his time there was cut short. One of the University’s lecturers, Professor Horger objected to the poem Tiszta szívvel (With a Pure Heart) which appeared in József’s second volume of poetry, Nem én kiáltok (That’s Not Me Shouting) in 1925 and began with lines, ‘I have no father, I have no mother, I have no God and no country.’
After abandoning his studies at the University of Szeged, József travelled Vienna in 1925 and then Paris the following, where he studied French Literature at the Sorbonne alongside Julian Bell, the nephew of Virginia Woolf who was also a poet. In a Parisian coffeehouse, József had his first encounter with Imre Cserépfalvi, a fellow Hungarian who would go on to become his publisher.
During his time in Vienna and Paris, József began to gain widespread and international acclaim for his poetry, with his poems regularly published in the French magazine, L’ Esprit Nouveau. In 1928, he returned to the Hungarian capital, where he briefly studied Hungarian Literature at the Corvinus University of Budapest, however, József’s interest in French surrealism permeated his third volume of poetry, Nincsen apám se anyám (Fatherless and Motherless) which was published in 1929.
Like many young British poets such as Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden, József too found himself attracted to Communism in the early 1930s, joining the illegal Communist Party in Hungary in 1930. Again, József’s work which reflected his own strong emotions and ideals was deemed controversial and in 1931, his work Döntsd a tokét, ne siránkozz! (Strike at Capital, Instead of Wailing!) was banned; a year later he was prosecuted for his essay Irodalom és szocializmus (Literature and Socialism) and charged with obscenity and political agitation. Within the Communist Party itself, József became a divisive figure, and was expelled, with some former comrades even accusing him of expressing Fascist views after he voiced the opinion that Communists and Social Democrats should unite.
At the same time, his poetry appeared to be taking a more mature direction and in 1932, he published his most well-known volume, Külvárosi éj (Night in the Slums) which includes his most recognised poem, Óda (Ode). It would seem that his personal affairs played the greatest role in shaping his poetry from the early 1930s onwards. In early 1928, he had met Márta Vágó, the daughter of the brilliant economist, József Vágó. The two were initially drawn to one another due to their mutual interest in sociology and philosophy, but in September 1928, Márta left Hungary to study social welfare at the London School of Economics and in spite of their frequent correspondence, she soon decided to end the relationship. The affair set a pattern for József and he was frequently drawn to women who sought to save him from his sometimes self-destructive behaviour. Through his involvement with the Communist Party, he met Judit Szántó, but again their romance was short-lived on account of his unpredictability.
József had been receiving psychiatric treatment since 1931, although it had done little to relieve him of the mental torment that had plagued him, a remnant of his unhappy and troubled childhood. He became fascinated by the work of Freud and sought to find a solution to his anguish, believing that ‘here inside is the suffering, out there, sure enough, is the explanation.’
In 1935, József was struck by a bout of severe depression after he was refused an invite to the Soviet Writers Congress in Moscow, a rejection that led him to write to a friend, ‘My eyes are jumping from my head. If I go crazy, please don’t hurt me. Just hold me down with your strong hands.’ The deterioration of his mental health can been see in his work and death became an increasing preoccupation in his poetry, for example in his 1934 collection Medvetánc (Bear Dance) and Nagyon fáj (It Hurts a Lot) two years later. Nevertheless, his work had lost none of its earlier ability to provoke and after a meeting with the German novelist, Thomas Mann in early 1937, József wrote Thomas Mann üdvözlése (Welcome to Thomas Mann) but was subsequently banned from reading the poem in public.
In February 1937, József met Flóra Kozmutza, the woman who was to be his last love and muse. Kozmutza specialised in the psychiatric care of children, working with the psychologist Lipót Szondi, and would later marry another poet, Gyula Illyés. In her memoirs, Kozmutza described her fleeting and passionate affair with József, and revealed that while she had accepted his proposal only two months after their first meeting, she had felt that he was surrounded by a ‘certainty of hopelessness.’
By July of that year, József had suffered nervous breakdown and spent the next three months at the Siesta Sanatorium. In November, he went to Balatonszárszó with his sisters to recuperate, and was visited by Kozmutza . At their meeting, József presented Kozmutza with two poems, Karóval Jöttél, (You Came With a Stick) and Ime, hát megleltem hazámat (Well, in the End I Have Found My Home Country). Along with the ominously titled Talán eltűnök hirtelen (I May Suddenly Disappear) these were to be the last he would ever write. Soon after, he wrote to Kozmutza reassuring her that he would recover as he believed ‘in miracles’ but asked her, ‘why are you weeping when our destiny is already written?’
On 3rd December 1937, József crawled onto the railway tack near where he was staying in Balatonszárszó. Trains and railway imagery had often featured in his poetry and he had loved to watch the passing trains in Budapest as a child, once witnessing a suicide which had haunted him and made him feel, as he told his family, ‘someone has died in my place.’ Several people helplessly watched as József was hit by a train. He had placed his right arm on the track and it had been completely severed, his neck was also broken by the impact.
József left behind an astonishing number of poems, but remained relatively unknown in his lifetime. It was not until 1945 that he was again embraced by the Communist Party who had taken over Hungary after the Second World War and hailed as the “Proletarian Poet.” By the 1950s, the intellectuals born in the 1930s, who were then coming of age, found a renewed admiration for József and he was seen as an influential figure by many who took part in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Since 1964, Hungary has celebrated his birthday as National Poetry Day and today, József’s poems are still resonant, the source of their enduring appeal and power being, as Ted Hughes noted, that their sadness is ‘always weirdly counterpointed by a strange elation, a savage sort of elation or even joy.’
Inspired by Hungarian poetry: British poets in conversation with Attila József – The Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Centre, London (2013)