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The city has been a poetic subject since time immemorial. Apart from its elaborate battle scenes, Homer's Iliad is about the siege and destruction of Troy, a flourishing city. Roman chroniclers started their narrative ab urbe condita, from the foundation of Rome. In seventeenth-century poetry written in both English and Latin, London is celebrated as "Troynovant," the new, the resurrected city of Troy. Throughout history the city has functioned in various ways and in rather different contexts: in the eighteenth century it was the symbol of the New Jerusalem; in the nineteenth it appeared to many as "Babylon" and in the twentieth as a confusing Babel (Sharpe/Wallock,7). In the present essay I would like to concentrate on the dominant images of the city in modern Polish and Hungarian poetry, with special emphasis on certain representative poems written in the past sixty years.

Let me start with a self-limiting statement: I shall not tackle the latest stage in urban development as reflected in poetry. I have nothing to say about urban civilization without cities, the post-McLuhan model of the "global village" interconnected through an information network, or, as some studies have referred to it, "the decentered urban field" (Sharpe/Wallock, 16). It is the city in its various incarnations that interests me, the city as a concentrated and civilized human settlement. This city can be described as an organic entity, whether we attribute a "soul" to it or deny its existence.

It is fair to say that in most modern -- i.e., twentieth-century -- poetry, the city is not viewed with the animosity or moral disapproval of previous ages. Whereas numerous romantic or even postromantic poets idealized the village and damned the city (for example, Cyprian Norwid: "Miasto -- to przedsien piekielnej zatraty," "The city is the porch to hellish perdition" [Norwid, 134]), and even Baudelaire seems to oscillate between "lyrical celebrations and vehement denunciations" (Sharpe/Wallock, 157), by the beginning of the next century, life in a town or a metropolis was accepted as nearly as much a "natural" mode of existence as life in the country. The first poet who celebrates the dynamism and amazing diversity of urban life in unequivocal terms is Walt Whitman. He does this in a number of poems such as "A Broadway Pageant" or the short but powerful "City of Ships": "I have rejected nothing you'd offer'd me -- whom you adopted I have adopted, / Good or bad, never question you -- I love all -- I do not condemn anything, / I chant and celebrate all that is yours" (Whitman, 242).

From this enthusiastically celebratory approach there is but a short passage to the fascination with city life which appears in the work of two modern Polish poets, seemingly at loggerheads on esthetics: the Skamandrist Julian Tuwim and the chief representative of the Cracow Avant-garde, Julian Przybos. Tuwim certainly takes his cue from Whitman: in his first few books he celebrates the city in a "democratic spirit," hailing not only the place itself but also its very diverse inhabitants. The Cracow Avant-garde, on the other hand, while sticking on its mast the triple slogan "The city, the crowd, the machine" (in Polish, "miasto, masa, maszyna"), in reality admired most the nonhuman elements of city life. The difference between the avantgardist poet Tadeusz Peiper and Przybos in this respect derived from the fact that while for Peiper the city was his natural habitat, Przybos was born in the country and writes from the point of view of an outsider, of a wide-eyed newcomer to the city. Because of this, in poems like "Dachy" (Roofs) the city appears to him as a "total novelty," a place where "every element ... strives upward" (Carpenter, 116), a miracle of human inventiveness and superior technology. The young Przybos's city is almost entirely dehumanized, as its dynamism is expressed mostly in technological terms. What he was unable to grasp at this stage was the fact that a town acquires its unique character not only from its buildings, parks, or statues, but also from the nature and achievements of its inhabitants.

The modern city which functions well in peacetime utterly changes its character in times of war, when aerial bombardments or artillery attacks destroy some of its best-known landmarks. The leveling of familiar buildings or entire districts lends a powerful impetus to sentimentality. Poets react to drastic change, in this case to the destruction of parts of the city which they have known from childhood, with understandable nostalgia: even the disappearance of unattractive buildings or alleys is often "mourned" by them. This, of course, is a traditional reaction; nevertheless, it affects many poets, starting with Baudelaire, who half-regretted the demolition of parts of old Paris by Hausmann. During and after World War II, Warsaw was often treated in a sentimental, topographic manner by a number of poets. Warsaw, of course, suffered more than most European cities; it was heavily bombarded in September 1939 and then was almost completely destroyed in the Ghetto Uprising and in the uprising of 1944. Paradoxically, though, the first ode to occupied Warsaw was written not by one of the Skamandrists (most of whom fled to the West in 1939), but by the usually unsentimental "catastrophist" Czeslaw Mitosz. "City" ("Miasto") opens with the image of a ruined city where "a wandering fiddler plays to empty windows," and grows into a confession of love for and a glorification of the capital. The poem was written in 1940, shortly after Mitosz had crossed several "green" frontiers to get back to Warsaw from Wilno (Vilnius), at a time when Warsaw, though damaged, was still relatively intact, and it expresses the attachment of ordinary Poles to a city which before the war had had some very poor, run-down districts and consequently many critics and detractors (for example, Zeromski and Broniewski, in poems such as "Ulica Mita" [Nice Street]). Mitosz himself, as we learned later from Rodzinna Europa (Eng. Native Realm), did not particularly like Warsaw, and it was just the historical moment which "seduced" him, to the extent that his poem concludes with these lines:
 (Fiddler in the morning, to whom are you playing?
 There are stairs without a house and empty floors,
 no people.

 -- It's to you I play, most beautiful of imaginary towns
 And the saddest of real ones.)

Later on, Mitosz was ashamed of his moment of "weakness" (i.e., sentimentality) and never included the poem in any of his postwar collections. Nonetheless, during the war he was not the only poet writing in this emotional, tender tone about Warsaw. The recently rediscovered Juliusz Krzyzewski (1915-44), a poet who shared the fate of Krzysztof Baczynski and his generation, wrote several odes to the city. Poems such as "Widok z okna pociagu" (View from the Window of a Train) and "Do Ciebie, Warszawo" (I Write This to You, Warsaw) are interesting examples of sentimentalism with a special allure. In the first, shorter poem, written in 1941, Krzyzewski applies a cinematographic technique and shows the city's panaorama from a distance, claiming that "Warsaw ... has never been as beautiful as today" (Marx, 397). In the second poem, which bears the date 1943, the poet (who was born in Lomza but grew up in the capital) openly declares his love for Warsaw and his nostalgia for the time of his youth, when Marshal Pitsudski was still alive and Poland still enjoyed independence (Marx, 393).

In "View from a Window of a Train" the building that Krzyzewski sees towering above the city is the (already war-damaged) Cathedral of Saint John in the Old Town. It may be just a coincidence, but in the spring of 1945 Mitosz also chooses the ruins of the Cathedral as his main point of orientation: "What are you doing here, poet, on the ruins / Of St. John's Cathedral this sunny / Day of Spring?" (Mitosz,76). No sentimental aggrandizement of the city is necessary: now the poet sitting amid the ruins of the capital just wants to communicate his feelings against the backdrop of a national tragedy. The title is important: it stresses the fact that the speaker is in Warsaw, in a city which Hitler intended to wipe off the face of the earth after the Warsaw Uprising. Most of the residents died, fled, or were forced to leave the city in 1944; surely, those who fled will come back to rebuild it? At the moment it is an empty shell, an open field containing miles and miles of rubble. Yet Mitosz addresses himself: "You swore never to be / A ritual mourner." Instead of a dirge, what the poem is concerned with is the poet's dilemma: how to proceed? How to find a middle way between permanent "mourning" and "happiness"? The poem ends on a self-doubting, tragic note: "It's madness to live without joy / And to repeat to the dead ... / Only the two salvaged words: / Truth and justice" (Milosz,77). If the poet can sing both of the fallen and of those who can carry on living, perhaps a balance can be struck and there is a hope of genuine deliverance.

Milosz's dilemma in a Warsaw reduced to ashes compares interestingly with the attitude of Gyula Illyes, a Hungarian poet several years his senior. Illyes was born in 1902 into a peasant family. By the end of the first world war, he was old enough to get involved in revolutionary politics, and had to leave Hungary for Paris in 1921. Five years later, he returned to his native country, and from then on he lived mainly in Budapest while writing poems and a very influential village sociography, People of the Puszta, on the lot of the country poor. Illyes could never feel completely at home in Budapest, in spite of the fact that for many years he was employed in one of Hungary's leading banks. The reason for his hostility toward the capital can only partly be explained by his socialist convictions, though the latter certainly inform such poetic pamphlets as "The Wonder Castle" ("A kacsalabon forgo var"), a caustic denunciation of bourgeois luxury in the Buda hills. So, Illyes, who had to go into hiding after the Wehrmacht's March 1944 occupation of Hungary, had mixed feelings upon witnessing the Russian siege of Budapest and the burning of Buda Castle: while the enormity of the national debacle filled him with sadness, at the same time he was looking forward to inevitable social change arising out of the destruction. For him, it was the old conservative regime that went up in flames with the Castle, the symbol of feudal Hungary, but at the same time he was appalled at the huge price his country had to pay in human life and property for liberation.

The moment when Illyes can think about the city and the political division in Hungary arrives with the rebuilding of Liberty Bridge, which he witnesses from a nearby pontoon bridge in 1946 ("Amikor a Szabadsaghidra a kozepso reszt folszereltek" [When the Central Part Was Fitted into Liberty Bridge]). The completion of this work reminds the poet of the damages which the war had caused in terms of human lives, the disruption between "men and men, people and people, homeland and homeland" which has not yet healed: "Szettepve elek magam is. Mennyi van mit sirassak! / Es mennyi megis, aminek -- hogy elmult mfirvigadjak!" (I am living in a torn state myself. So much is there to mourn! / And yet so many things have gone, which ought to cheer me up! [Illyes, 319]). Illyes hopes that the gap between the city's past and its promising future can be "bridged," but he knows that it will take a long time to create a national consensus, let alone unity.

If Illyes never had a sentimental attachment to the Hungarian capital, a near contemporary of his, Istvan Vas (1910-91), became the most accomplished poet of modern Budapest. Unlike Illyes, Vas was born in the capital and felt completely a part of it; I don't think one can find a parallel to him in the Polish context, in spite of poems by K. I. Galczynski ("Warszawski wiatr") or Julian Tuwim ("Ab urbe condita") glorifying Warsaw in sentimental-topographic or rhapsodic terms. Vas's approach to his native city is often ambiguous -- after all, as a young man he was also a socialist, appalled by the living conditions of the lower classes and tormented by the guilt of enjoying the privileges of middle-class comforts -- but it is never hostile. Basically, in his poems two distinctly different faces of the city are presented: the attractive and panoramic one, and the ugly, socially divisive one. In the midthirties, in poems such as "Level a szabadsagrol" (the title is a pun which can be translated in two ways: "Letter on Freedom" or "Letter on the Time When You Are Free," i.e. on holiday or on leave), the latter, unattractive side of the city is described, where even the bourgeois quarter which is "home" lacks beauty: "Izles nelkuli, szurke, cikornyas epuletek, / Ez honom, otthonos en mar csak koztiik lehetek" (Tasteless, gray, yet pompous buildings / This is my home, I can feel familiar only among them [Vas, 1:80]). But even this poem, which contains some very critical lines about Budapest, ends with a panoramic view: the city "seduces" the poet, who forgets about poor architecture and social antagonisms while sitting on the balcony of his girlfriend's flat with a grand view over the Danube, from where you can see "the whole of Budapest" (Vas, 1:81).

Some years later, more precisely on the eve of World War II, Vas wrote another and this time unabashedly laudatory poem about his native city. "Budapesti korkep" (A Panorama of Budapest) is again influenced by the natural beauty of the city, viewed from the Buda hills on a bright summer day. It is an ode to the capital, summing up its history and cultural tradition in ottava rima, not omitting "suburban misery" but somehow blending it into an enthusiastic confirmation of life in this richly diverse, vibrant, and dynamic urban conglomeration. In the penultimate stanza, Vas invokes: "Hatalmas lanc, te zard be eletem! / Fogadj magadba, tag, gyonyoru korso! / Te zuros varos, te vagy ennekem / A szulofold, a bolcso es koporso" (Gigantic chain, you should enclose my life! / Receive me, you ample, beautiful jar! / You troubled city, you are for me all: / My homeland, my cradle, and my coffin [Vas, 1:152]). For Istvan Vas, Budapest is a unique place, the only city in which he can be content and, occasionally, even happy.

While metaphors change, the basic solidarity with the city remains even in moments of despair. In the summer of 1944, when Budapest is taken over by German soldiers and their Hungarian henchmen, Vas sees the city as "a spoilt beast" chased by the hounds and hunters. "The now cleansed countryside" is pitted here against "sinful Babylon," marked for destruction. Vas, who is of Jewish birth and whose life is now in constant danger, feels like a "hunted beast" himself ("Varos" [City], in Vas, 1:240) and pledges loyalty to the "cynical, conniving stones" of the city. The depth of his sentiment for Budapest can also be gleaned from the sadly restrained two-liner with which he greeted liberation by the Red Army in 1945: "Pest felszabadult romjai. / Jaj, nem tudok ujjongani" (The liberated ruins of Pest. / Alas, I am unable to cheer [Vas, 1:260]).

Individually, liberation gave Vas a new chance at a normal life. As for the city, one third of it lay in ruins, and many years were needed to rebuild it. By the time the rebuilding was complete, revolution broke out in October 1956, and the street fighting plus the frenzied efforts of Russian tanks to control the situation brought new devastation upon the city. At that moment, Vas wrote his most remarkable poem on this subject, "Pesti wrote his most remarkable poem on this subject, "Pesti elegia' (Pest Elegy). Its form (three-line rhyming stanzas of uneven length, alternating between fourteen and eighteen syllables) is a variant on a sixteenth-century Hungarian poem, the "Lucretia Song," with its long lines divided into units of 6-6-7 syllables, though it may also have an affinity with Mihaly Babits's "Pious Conversation for Easter," a poem written in three-line stanzas, each line consisting of seventeen syllables (Babits, 433). Vas's poem is only in part a chronicle of recent events, and its tone is exalted, almost religious. It begins with an exclamation, "Micsoda varos!" ("Remarkable city!" [Vas, 2:111; Gomori/Szirtes, 79]), then continues with a description of mud and slush and the depression that rules the city in February 1957, four months after the Soviet tanks put down the Hungarian revolution.

Vas first asserts his solidarity with the city in its present sad state, and suggests that it has survived even "the murderous climate" of these winter months. In the sixth stanza, he suddenly reminds the reader of what happened in October: "What voices have rung down these streets, or flew to address / Impossible hopes but whistled out nevertheless / The youthful and brilliant logic of ultimate cleanliness!" (tr. George Szirtes, in Gomori/Szirtes, 81). There can be no doubt about the context of this (for the time of its writing very bold) allusion: it points to the Budapest students' demonstration that started the revolution on 23 October 1956! After this reminiscence, Vas turns the city into a metaphor of a living organism: it becomes an individual, whose "stone heart, though [it] keeps on missing, its beats never die" (Gomori/Szirtes, 81) -- the city may be devastated again and again, yet it never dies. In fact, as Vas indicates in the ninth and tenth stanzas, the city "meg tudta orok eletet a Halaltol valtani" (redeemed its eternal life from Death [Vas, 2:112]), which also meant redemption for the poet himself: "Redeeming herself, the city redeems me as one of her own" (Gomori/Szirtes, 80).

With what did the poet earn his right to absolution and forgiveness? With his unflinching loyalty, formulated in the very last line of the poem: "itt eltem es egyszer sem akartam elni mashol, csak itt" ("I lived here, nor wanted anyplace else. Not then and not ever" [Vas, 2:112; Gomori/Szirtes, 80]). From the point of view of the communist regime, of course, it was this last line that made the poem "publishable," for after the defeat of the revolution, 200,000 Hungarians left the country as refugees, and anyone who would assert his defiant local patriotism was welcome. Still, Vas's "Pest Elegy" should not be defined as just a sentimental-topographic poem; it is far too symbolic for that, with its subdued pathos and its quasi-religious undertones.

While Warsaw was much written about in the first years after World War II, and some critics maintain that "a whole wave of great poetry arose from the ruins of Warsaw" (Drewnowski, 92), in later years, once the rebuilding of the capital was more or less completed, the sentimental-topographic approach became dated and, in fact, sank into the schematic pool of popular songs. Instead of praising the existing Warsaw with its windswept streets and its hideous early-postwar architecture, poets moved toward a more diachronic and symbolic approach. It was in the spirit of this change that Zbigniew Herbert, an esthete and an author of classicizing ironic verse, wrote "Raport z oblezonego miasta" (Eng. "Report from the Besieged City"), a long poem which was first published in Paris after the collapse of the Solidarity movement.

In this poem the city appears in two ways: as a locality under siege at this particular moment, and as a historical entity which had been besieged many times in the past. The poet speaks in the first-person singular as a "chronicler" who is now "too old ... to fight" but whose view is clear: he wants to give a precise account of the "siege." Yet already in the fourth line he has to admit, "mam byc dokladny lecz nie wiem kiedy zaczat sie najazd" (I am supposed to be exact but I don't know when the invasion began [Herbert, 81]). Then he continues: "two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at dawn" (76). This blurring of the time scale is of course part of Herbert's strategy, and his allusions are not lost on Polish readers: approximately 200 years ago, Poland was first partitioned among three foreign powers; "December" alludes to Jaruzelski's coup in 1981 and the declaration of martial law, whereas "September" for most Poles means the German invasion of 1939. The city has been attacked and much of it destroyed in the course of history; all that is left is the place itself, full of ruins and specters. Yet it must be defended -- it is both home and something more than home: a symbol of human dignity.

The technique of "blurring" both the time and the situation is deliberate. This allows Herbert to suggest that not only is the strength of the defenders' determination to resist the enemy changing from day to day, but the enemy itself is changing: "the enemies must take turns ... / Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the Transfiguration / who can count them" (Herbert, 77). And while the defenders have sympathizers and "former allies" from beyond the sea, they cannot count on the lifting of the siege, only on "flour lard [and] ... good advice." The West will not intervene, and the will of the defenders is weakening. Nonetheless, even if "cmentarze rosna maleje liczba obroncow / ale obrona trwa i bedzie trwata do konca / i jesli Miasto padnie a ocaleje jeden / on bedzie niost Miasto w sobie po drogach wygnania / on bedzie Miasto" (Herbert, 83); it is not the number of defenders that determines the fate of the City (now uppercased), for even if a single person escapes, "he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile / he will be the City" (77).

Discussing this poem, which for him epitomizes Polish poetry during the martial-law years of 1981-84, the critic Aleksander Fiut censures Herbert for reviving the Romantic model of national martyrology (Fiut, in Czerniawski, 305). I do not find his reading of the poem quite to the point, however. Herbert is one of the most European of all modern Polish poets, and he has no intention to play the "national" card; he sees the city as the symbol of the best European values, a synthesis of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures. The enemy are the "barbarians," whatever the color of their banners. And even the lines about the "single person" who might (though not necessarily will) one day embody the values of the city point less to Herbert's conviction about each individual's uniqueness than to the beginning of the Aeneid -- that is, to the possibility of a fugitive leaving behind a burning Troy, the memory of which will one day become the inspiration for the founding of Rome. So, what Herbert suggests here is that the city, however often and strongly it is buffeted by hostile forces, is not just a place but a place and a value system which, in the final analysis, is eternal. If not the stones, then the spirit of the city will survive.


Babits, Mihaly. Osszes muvei. Budapest. Franklin. N.d.

Carpenter, Bogdana. The Poetic Avant-garde in Poland, 1918-1939. Seattle. University of Washington Press. 1983.

Czerniawski, Adam, ed. The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry. Bridgend, Wales. Seren Books. 1991.

Drewnowski, Tadeusz. Proba scalenia; Obiegi; Wzorce; Style. Warsaw. PWN. 1997.

Gomori, George, and George Szirtes, eds. The Colonnade of Teeth: Modern Hungarian Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Bloodaxe. 1996.

Herbert, Zbigniew. Report from the Besieged City. John and Bogdana Carpenter, trs. New York/Oxford, England. Oxford University Press. 1987.

Illyes, Gyula. Poharaim: Osszegyujtott versek. Budapest. Szepirodalmi. 1967.

Marx, Jan, ed. Dwudziestoletni poeci Warszawy. Warsaw. ALFA. 1994.

Mitosz, Czestaw. Collected Poems. New York. Penguin. 1988.

Norwid, Cyprian. Dzieta wybrane, I: Wiersze. Warsaw. PIW. 1968.

Sharpe, William, and Leonard Wallock. Visions of the Modern City. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1987.

Vas, Istvan. Mit akar ez az egy ember? 2 volumes. Budapest. Szepirodalmi. 1970.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York. Mentor. 1954.

GEORGE GOMORI teaches Polish and Hungarian literature at the University of Cambridge. Among his recent book publications are the verse collections My Manifold City (1996) and Valtott hangokon (On Changing Voices; 2000), the collected-poems edition Ozsi maganbeszed: Versek 1954-1996 (Autumn Monologue; 1997), and the essay volume Magnetic Poles (2000). As a member of the WLT Editorial Board, he has coordinated the journal's coverage of Hungarian belles lettres since 1968.
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Publication:World Literature Today
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Date:Jan 1, 2001
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