4. The Sophisticated ‘Weltschmertz’: Árpád Tóth

Of all the Nyugat poets, perhaps it is Árpád Tóth whose poetry is the most homogeneous. Its dominant theme is a muted pain, a shy longing for love and happiness, its undertone is a constant resignation. In spite of the prevailing sadness, Tóth is captivated by the vision of beauty and truth, and his poetry maintains a sophisticated balance between his emotional and aesthetic experiences.

Born on 15 April 1886 in Arad, a large town in Southern Hungary, Tóth grew up in Debrecen, in the Eastern Lowlands, where his parents had moved after his birth. He never completed his university studies; first he worked as a journalist in Debrecen, and later in Budapest. His family inheritance of poverty and tubercolosis accompanied him all his life; and he died of the latter at the age of forty-two, on 7 November 1928. Tóth was a sensitive and withdrawn man, whose awkwardness prevented his enjoying life; it was only in his poetry that he was able to cast off the limitations of his personality.

His first volume, Serenade at Daybreak (1913), shows few signs of his apprenticeship with Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Oscar Wilde, but leaves an overall impression of that modern sensibility for which the poets of the Nyugat, Babits or Kosztolányi in particular, were noted. Tóth’s resignation and loneliness at times degenerate into a decadent pose. His favourite adjectives are similar to those of the young Babits and Kosztolányi; bús (sad), fáradt (tired), kopott (faded), furcsa (strange), or bágyadt (languid) are the keywords in the iambic lines which are interspersed with slow spondaic beats to give a monotonous effect. Women are often beyond his reach, yet erotic images occur in unexpected places. His favourite forms are the sonnet, the elegy, and the ode. Tóth’s poetry is burdened with self-imposed limitations, yet behind all the resignation, submissiveness, and renunciation of earthly joys there lurks a youthful restlessness, if not ebullience. Proof is provided by the revelry of his images (e.g. in ‘September Sonnet’, ‘Evening Sonnet’, or ‘Evening Tears’), by the abundance of colours, the musical alliterations, the effect of deliberately complex sentence structures, all of which are essential ingredients of his poetry. There is no place for self-pity even in a simple short poem, expressing the desperation of a lonely moment (‘Barren Hour’); the studied simplicity, the rhymes, and the structures of the poem suggest elegance, sophistication, and restraint; the tears are painted on the mask of the clown, the flawless expression disciplines the profusion of sentiments.

Tóth’s next volumes, On a Sluggish Galley (1917) and Joy Evanescent (1922), show no new poetic attitudes; most of the poems are still imbued with resignation like his earlier verse, yet Tóth’s horizon has widened: he is no longer preoccupied only with the self. There is a vague expectation, or a triumphant faith in the ever-present signs of life in Nature, an unaccountable exuberance, as he celebrates the rebirth of nature (‘April’). Tóth feels obliged to comment on the events of the outside world; he sees the war only in terms of wanton destruction (‘Elegy For a Fallen Youth’) – as a journalist he is a pacifist. One of his poems is inspired by his sense of loss caused by this worldwide destruction. ‘Elegy to a Broom Bush’ is filled at once with a triumphant, unrestrained joy at the beauty of inanimate life, and with grief at the fate of the self-destroying animal, man. The poem concludes with a vision of the silent feast of the vegetation on a depopulated earth; ultimate peace can be attained only in an unconcerned universe. Tóth succeeds in expressing a wild Dionysiac joy over this prospect, in spite of the obviously pessimistic implications of the poem.

The possibility of new life, born out of the ashes of the old world, led Tóth to accept social revolution as the means of change; the poet who had never been a man of action unreservedly hailed the new god which had replaced the Christian image, now stained with human blood and sufferings (‘New God’). His sudden enthusiasm is both genuine and overwhelming; he had the verbal power to express himself as the high priest of the new creed.

Tóth’s last volume, From Soul to Soul (1928), could not maintain the intensity of enthusiasm which took possession of him in the revolutionary fervour of 1919. It is marked by an increased range of vocabulary; he draws freely on the technical terms of the sciences, botany or astronomy, he has a definite flair for embedding images of modern life into his poetry (e.g. ‘Radio’), but his dominating poetic device is still the abundance of colours, particularly his over-generous use of light effects (‘Daybreak on the Boulevard’). Because of this aspect of his technique Tóth has often been called an impressionist poet.

As his health deteriorated his sense of resignation returned; broodings over bygone years and youth, however, now assume the finality of irretraceable steps; a sense of irreparable loss and a sensation of the final defeat overpowers him (‘On the Stones of Carthage’), yet he is unable to accept the widening gulf between his own impaired health and the seemingly imperishable outside world. He finds relief in a personal God who scrutinizes his fate, not, perhaps, entirely without compassion (‘Either to a New Spring or to Death’). On another occasion, doubt clouds his mind about what the gods intend to do with him; in which direction will the scale tip, for or against? Having pondered over the lot he has drawn, he turns from being the one who has been assessed to one who assesses: ‘and the cool gods / cast down their star-eyes’ (‘Retreat’). In the last poem of the volume, ‘Good Night’, a pagan unconcern provokes in him a feeling of nihilism without desperation. Tóth must have had every reason to be desperate, but in a volume which he saw only in page-proof (having died before it left the printer) had the willpower to make a final gesture: the mask of the artist is firmly put on in order to bid an unemotional farewell, a casual ‘good night’ before eternal night descends.

Tóth was not a prolific poet; his entire output consisted of a couple of hundred poems, containing perhaps no mediocre lines; a tribute to his craftsmanship, for he always seemed to find the precise word to describe his experiences, imagined or actual. The same can be said of his translations: he was one of the most conscientious men of letters of the Nyugat movement. His translations were published in Eternal Flowers (1923), and include such choice specimens from English as Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Poe’s ‘Raven’, or Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol among equally significant translations from the French and German. Tóth considered translation to be one of the most exalted tasks of a poet, the bridge to the successful admission of foreign poets into the realm of native literature.