The Poetry Of Heartbreak
World Literature Today|Autumn 2019
Miklós Radnóti’s “The Fifth Eclogue”
Edward Hirsch

In 100 Poems to Break Your Heart, the author’s current book-length project (in progress), Edward Hirsch offers short essays on poems he finds especially heartbreaking, including Dunya Mikhail’s “The War Works Hard,” Meena Alexander’s “Krishna, 3:29 a.m.,” Zbigniew Herbert’s “Mr Cogito and the Imagination,” and Rose Ausländer’s “My Nightingale.” The following is an excerpt.

Miklós Radnóti’s poems have an anguished intimacy and intensity. This modern Hungarian poet, killed during World War II at the age of thirty-five, clung with a desperate serenity to the classical values of the Western tradition at a time when those values were close to extinction. Radnóti’s poems were deeply felt and thoroughly modern—filled with his sense of anxiety, uncertainty, and fate—but their formal values tend to be classical. This makes him akin to his Russian contemporary, Osip Mandelstam. One feels in reading him a growing level of despair countered by such aesthetic and moral ideals of antiquity as the clarity of poetic form, the virtues of reason, and the philosophical rectitude of Stoicism.

I have learned a great deal from Radnóti’s eight eclogues (the sixth one is missing), a discontinuous series that he wrote in the late 1930s and early ’40s. In 1938 he translated Virgil’s ninth eclogue, which instigated his own dark pastorals. The term eclogue, a short dialogue or soliloquy, was first applied to Virgil’s Bucolics, which later became known as the Eclogues. These formal poems develop a pattern, first established by Theocritus in the Idylls, in which urban poets turn to the countryside for sustenance.

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