A NARRATIVE POEM
TRANSLATED BY VICTOR CLEMENT
Title of the Hungarian original: AZ APOSTOL
The quotation on the cover is from the manuscript of The Apostle, in Petőfi's own hand
© CORVINA BUDAPEST 1961 Kossuth Printing Office, Budapest
"Goethe's friend, Bettina von Arnim, called him 'Sun God', François Coppée 'an eternal champion of Liberty', and Hermann Grimm 'the greatest poet of all peoples'; Carlyle held him to be of equal stature with Goethe, and Heine compared him with Burns and wrote that no one in Germany could be put on a par with him. His name is generally mentioned together with those of Aeschylus, Dante and Shakespeare. Some of his poems have been translated into as many as forty languages. Foreigners, when uttering the word Magyar, are as likely as not to follow it up with his name.” Thus did the Hungarian author and essayist Dezső Kosztolányi, who had returned to him with reverence and humble love after roaming through world literature, write of Petőfi. The British reader's ear may not register more than the ring of justified pride in these words of Kosztolányi; the Hungarian ear, however, can also catch an overtone of uncertainty. For Heine knew Petőfi only from a clumsy German translation, while for English-speaking readers Petőfi 's masterly folklore epic, János vitéz is interpreted by William N. Loew's Childe John. This honourable effort is rendered unworthy of the original not so much by its errors, as by its drabness and mediocrity.
What can they know of him—those outside his native country who do not know his face, but only the ferrotype made by a market photographer?
Kosztolányi 's spiritual hand guides my pen as I endeavour to evoke some of the poet's traits. "He was a charming genius... a genius of childlike charm and informality, of caprice, ardour and straightforwardness, of recklessness, inventiveness, zeal, loyalty, purity and good humour; no trick or fragment, but perfection itself even in his ephemeral self, a genius who stands unequalled throughout the globe ."
His career was short. At 19 he was member of a troupe of strolling players. The dreaded puritan critic, József Bajza, introduced him to the world of letters. At 26 he fell, under mysterious circumstances, on the battlefield of Segesvár. There, in the summer of 1849, the small army struggling for Hungarian freedom, having fought triumphantly against the Habsburg imperial troops for a year, was annihilated by the Tsar's forces.
Yet the twenty-six years of Petőfi's life framed the fullness of human existence—he tasted, experienced and mastered everything. He knew the feel of winter mornings in unheated rooms and the spell of summer nights on the open road; his senses received all the secrets of nature, of riotously coloured, multi-scented reality, the earth as well as the intangible blue that overarches it. He called himself "nature's thorny wild flower"; yet he read ancient and modern authors, in Latin, English, French and German. He was an ardent, daring revolutionary and at the same time the most clear-sighted and most unerring Hungarian politician of his day. "That belittled young fellow, that Sándor Petőfi, that rowdy poet of the people, saw clearer than ten million people," wrote Endre Ady, one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the twentieth century, in his self-analytical essay entitled "Petőfi Will Not Bargain."
A wanderer of the highways and the plains, he travelled on foot all over the country, rain or shine, yet he was every inch an oppidan in spirit, a city dweller, one of the first modern, deliberate Europeans who hailed the revolutionary upheavals of the nineteenth century as harbingers of a united Europe, of a free and limitless world.
Writing in a fine, even hand and making very few corrections, he composed his poems with a natural fecundity in which Reason's solo is accompanied by the chorus of Sentiments. To quote Kosztolányi once more, "They used to call him 'the artist of the essential'; even so, he is also our greatest artist of form, the greatest artist of inner form.”
He was a realist, but the world of realities seems to hover in his poetry.
These are about the things that the gratified Petőfi enthusiast would first hasten to tell an inquiring foreigner. But the reader who picks up The Apostle no doubt wants to know more. It might as well be said in advance that, by and large, this work is as characteristic of him, tells us approximately as much about him, as does Coriolanus (which, by the way, was translated by Petőfi) about Shakespeare.
Petőfi has knocked the bottom out of the myth (built up by literary pundits as a means of self-justification) which claimed that popularity with one's fellow-writers could not be the lot of those who were beloved by even the simplest of readers. Petőfi is the most widely read poet in Hungary; his work is something of a Bible for the Hungarian people; at the same time he has been the fountain-head from which successive generations of Hungarian poets have learned and are still learning. Hence the need at every step to quote Hungarian poets, for it is Hungary's poets, not her literary scholars, that have written most extensively and most relevantly about Petőfi.
The Apostle, as Gyula Illyés sees it, is a dictionary of the poet's ideals. "This modern epic tells us what the words Happiness, Liberty, God, Priest, Rebellion, Tyranny and King mean in his works." Though essentially true, this statement is perhaps somewhat exaggerated, for these definitions were characteristic of a moment of his life rather than of his oeuvre as a whole. The Apostle was written in the summer of 1848, when the storm of the March revolution seemed to subside into a gentle breeze. Petőfi was the most clear-sighted among the initiators of the revolution. On March 15, 1848, it was he who led a procession of the youth to the building of the National Museum in Budapest, where he himself recited his poem, the National Ode, which came to set the revolution off. The greatest gain that the Revolution achieved was the emancipation of the serfs, which gave only three out of twelve million serfs small holdings of land and an even smaller share of liberties. The nobility, however, were determined to cut the new-won ground from under the feet even of those three millions and reincorporate it in the cautiously clipped latifundia. National independence, the prime demand put forward by the Petofi-led youth on that hectic day in March, became the subject of a petulant haggle between an impotent Hungarian Administration and the House of Habsburg. Reaction seemed to be gaining the upper hand when Petofi stood for Parliament at his birth-place. This is how he introduced himself to his constituents: "This much I can tell you in good conscience that I am a plane that is tried and tested, and many are the rough chumps I have made smooth and without nicking my edge... You should by no means expect me to sing your praises, for if I did so, it would be a brazen-faced lie. Upon my honour, you aren't such splendid fellows—or at least you haven't been so far. Up till the fifteenth of March, all Hungary was a nation of toadies, of bootlickers; and in that prowess, you used to be nearer the top than the bottom of the list." Small wonder he was not returned. His comment on the event: "Today, on this day of June 15, the Hungarian people wanted to beat me dead... Three months ago today, on March 15, I was first among those who spoke up and entered the lists for freedom for the Hungarian people. Yet I blame not the people, but rather the impostors who beguiled and misled them and who shall one day be punished by the Law and by God alike... The People are sacred to me, all the more so as they are weak as women or children. Blessed be the name of the People, now and for ever."
The optimism of this moving diary entry is missing in The Apostle. Experiences of life, the social problems which the ebb-tide of the revolution revealed, the thoughts which had always occupied Petőfi but engrossed his attention with particular force at that moment, appear in a tragic garb in this poem. The prevailing tone of The Apostle is compounded of the black events of the poet's youth packed with vicissitudes and tribulations; of the tearful tragic scenes from Oliver Twist by the much read author Boz (the only name by which Dickens was known to him as yet); of the socially authentic patterns of Romanticism; and of the apparent failure in those weeks after March of his political ideals. The innermost and most tragedy-filled recesses of the soul throw off the rings which compose the loose-knit series of sequences in The Apostle. A presentiment of ultimate defeat and death quivers between the lines, but there is also the final resolution of the agonizing dilemma of the private individual who has a mission to fulfil. Of this he wrote in his diary: "It is with myself, not with the world, that I wish to live at peace."
Yet the fabric of tragedy is broken at one point—in the simile of the grape, he gives a self-confident, optimistic statement of what was most important to him, of his belief in the paramount ideal of the nineteenth century. In prose, he summed up the poem's message about historic progress as follows: "The agents of the Monarchy do not believe in or wish to check the development and progress of the Universal Spirit. This is a denial of God. By contrast, I do believe that the Universal Spirit develops by stages; I see how it is developing and can see the course it is taking. This Spirit advances slowly, taking another step forward every one hundred (or, at times, thousand) years. There is no reason for it to hurry—it has plenty of time, for it has Eternity on its hands. Now it raises its foot again to take a stride forward from Monarchy into Republic... I follow in its glorious footsteps."
School textbooks of the history of Hungarian Literature liked to point mainly to the weaknesses of The Apostle—and not without some reason. Yet it is with much better reason that we can refer to the virtues of this poem, feverishly composed in a short time—to the lurid blaze of the impassioned language and verse, the profound and symbolic content of its imagery, and its realism that is reminiscent of Dickens and the great Russians. To the artistry, in effect, which begins by stating its premises in the flamboyant style of the period, then proceeds to divest them ruthlessly of all trammels, frills and fashionable frippery, so as to depict the Human Drama, in all its nakedness, the Drama of Man in the raw. And its poetic quality—
"The heaven glows
has kissed it;
I will kiss now
your little face,"
This lilt, this ancient music reminiscent of the very first poem which comprises birth and death, full happiness and infinite sorrow, this gentle embrace of Heaven and Earth casts the spell of Beauty and Perfection on those who surrender to its magic.
The town is dark, night lies upon it,
the moon roams over other regions
and the stars have closed
their golden eyes.
The world is black
as bought-off conscience.
One single, tiny light
like the eye of a languid dreamer,
like a last hope.
It is the pale light of a garret.
Who keeps vigil by the light of the lamp?
Who keeps vigil there above?
Two sisters: virtue and misery.
Great, great is the misery there,
it hardly has room in the tiny chamber.
The garret is small, like a swallow's nest,
and not more ornate than the nest of swallows.
Dreary and bare are the four walls,
or they would be bare
had not mould painted on them flowers,
had not rain,
trickling down through the roof, striped them moodily...
The heavy rain streak reaches down
like a bell-rope
in a mansion of the rich.
The air is dense
with sighs and the smell of mould.
The hounds of the mighty lords,
bred in better quarters,
would waste away in such surroundings.
Pine bedstead, pine table,
which would not sell at a rag-fair,
a sack of straw at the foot of the bed,
a few straw chairs by the table,
a worm-eaten chest at the head of the bed,
these are the room's furnishings.
Who are the dwellers here?
Shadow and light struggle
in the tired blinking of the lamp...
the figures, like dream images, are faded,
and loom vaguely in the dimness.
Does the feeble light deceive the eye?
Or, are the dwellers here
all really so pale,
such ghostly apparitions?
Near the bedstead, on the chest,
the mother sits with her child.
With hoarse moans the infant sucks, sucks
at its mother's shrivelled breast,
and it sucks in vain.
The woman sits brooding,
and her thoughts must be sorrowful
for, like snow melting from the eaves,
her tears cascade down
upon the cheeks of the little one...
Or, perhaps, unwittingly,
merely out of habit,
the tears gush from her eyes,
like a brook from the rocks?
Her older child,
thank God, sleeps quietly.
Or does he only seem to be sleeping?
He lies on his bed near the wall,
covered by a coarse blanket;
the straw shows from under it.
Sleep, little man, sleep,
dream bread into your wasted hand,
and your dream will be kingly.
A young man, the father,
sits darkly brooding at the table...
Is it the gloom oozing from his brow,
that saturates the garret?
'Tis a heavy tome, this brow,
the woes of the world, all are inscribed upon it
this brow is an engraving,
the hunger and torment of a million lives
are etched into it.
But below the sombre brow,
two smouldering eyes flicker
like two vagrant comets
which fear no one
but are feared by all.
soars always farther, always higher,
until it is lost up there in the infinite,
like an eagle among the clouds.
Quiet was the wide world without,
quiet was the narrow room within,
but for the sighs of the autumn wind outside
and the sighs of the mother within.
The little boy sat up quietly on the bed,
leaning his flaccid limbs against the wall,
and imploringly, in a voice
that seemed to come from under the churchyard soil,
"Father, I am hungry!
I have tried hard to fall asleep,
but I cannot.
Father, this hunger hurts me, give me some bread,
or just let me see some; that would feel good too."
"Wait till tomorrow, my son,
wait till tomorrow, then you'll get some bread,
a soft, white loaf baked with honeydue."
"Better a dry black crust today
than a soft white loaf tomorrow, father.
For by tomorrow I may die,
and I shall die, I know...
Tomorrow is so very far away,
you've promised me that 'tomorrow' long ago,
and it's still just today, I am still starving...
I wonder, father, when we die,
and we are put in the grave,
shall we be famished there also?"
"No, my child,
when we are dead, we will starve no more."
"Then, father, I would like to die,
please get me a coffin,
a narrow little coffin,
as white as my mother's face.
Have me borne to the churchyard
and bury me under the soil...
The dead must be happy
for they don't have to starve..."
Who would call the child
Where is the dagger, where the sword
that could inflict a wound
more deeply rending
than this child's lips inflicted
on his father's heart?
He restrained himself,
but his tears spurted suddenly;
he touched his face
and wiped it with his trembling hand.
He thought the blood ran on it
from his broken heart.
He was not one to complain,
but now his woes burst forth irrepressibly:
"Oh, Lord! why have You created me?
Why did You not leave me there
in the nothingness,
where my soul and body long to return?
Why have You made me a man?
Why have You given me a family
if I cannot feed it
from my own blood like the pelican...?
But, blasphemous words! Halt on, my lips!
The Lord knows what He wreaks,
we blind humans cannot see His lofty design,
and we must not call Him to account.
He delivered me upon the ocean,
placing a compass in my soul,
I must pursue the course it indicates...
Here, my son,
take this piece of bread, eat it,
I've saved it for the morrow,
and if you eat it now,
Heaven only knows
what you will eat tomorrow."
The child seized the bread with greedy pleasure
He crouched back on his bed
and so eagerly devoured
the God-given dry crust
that his eyes lit up
like two love-lorn fireflies.
And when he had swallowed the last morsel,
sleep descended upon him,
like the mist of twilight on the valley.
He laid his little head on the pillow
and slept and dreamed,
his face wreathed in a smile.
What were his dreams about?
A coffin, or fresh bread?
The mother, too,
had wept herself to sleep.
She placed her babe next to the other,
folded them both in her arms,
and slept thus at the edge of the bed.
The man rose from the table,
tiptoed to the cot,
and stopping before it, folded his arms,
"At last, my loved ones,
you are happy!
You do not feel life now,
sleep has eased from your shoulders
the great burden you have borne all day long.
Lord, does sleep love them more dearly than I,
that it brings them a happiness
I cannot give them?
Yet, it is enough they are happy...
Sleep at peace, my loved ones,
sleep at peace, good night!"
He kissed the sleeping three,
the sacred trinity of his life.
He extended his hand in blessing
over their heads.
Why could this hand give them
only the mere gesture of blessing!
He returned to his chair.
He cast a tender glance on the crowded cot
and the sleepers dreamed themselves
among roses and angels.
Then he looked out through the window,
peered into the darkness,
staring fixedly as though
he would set it ablaze
with the north-light of his flaming eyes.
Where might be roaming
the soul of this wakeful man?
What path had he chosen?
And whom did he seek?
He roamed that sphere
where madmen alone and demi-gods
dared and could soar.
Casting off the cares of home and day,
like a newly-hatched bird discarding its shell,
he broke loose and flew;
the man in him died and the citizen arose.
Who had belonged to his family till then,
now belonged to the world;
he had embraced three beings before,
now he embraced millions.
The wings of his spirit fluttered up there,
whence the earth appears as flimsy
as the spark upon the ashes
of burned paper.
As he swept by some stars
in his swift flight, they quivered
like candle-light breathed upon.
He flew on and on.
Millions and millions of miles divide
one celestial body from the other,
still, they fell back
as trees in a dense forest
behind a galloping horseman.
And when at last he sailed above
the billions of stars,
he reached... he reached...
was it the end of the world?
no... the centre of the Universe!
And there he stood, before Him
Who governs the worlds
with a glance,
Whose essence is light,
and each spark of whose eyes is a sun
with planets and moons revolving around it.
And thus spoke his soul,
bathing in the light of the Arch-Spirit
like a swan bathing
in the limpid waters of a lake:
"O Lord, be adored!
A grain of Your sand,
has soared to these heights
to fall prostrate before You.
You have entrusted me with a difficult mission,
but I don't grumble.
Indeed, I bless You for it, since it reveals
Your love for me, and that I am Your chosen son.
The dwellers of the earth have grown depraved,
have strayed from You and become slaves...
Slavery is truly the mother of sins,
all others are but her babes.
Men bow before men!
He who toadies to his fellow man
mocks You, O Lord!
You are sneered upon, my Lord, down there on earth,
but that cannot go on forever,
Your glory must be restored.
You have granted me life, my Father,
I shall devote it to Your service.
What will the reward be?
Or will there be a reward ?
I do not bargain.
The most abject slave will toil
if he is paid for it.
I have ever toiled without reward,
and I shall toil on without hope of pay.
But I shall have my reward, and it shall be great:
to see my fellow-men
reclaim their manhood after slavery,
for, though they are full of guilt,
I love them deeply despite their sin.
Give me, give me light and strength, oh Lord,
That I may work for my fellow-men!"
Thus spoke his soul,
and it flew back from the spacious sky
to the earth, into the tiny room
where, benumbed, his body awaited it.
The man shivered,
chills ran down his spine,
sweat trickled on his brow:
Was he awake or dreaming... ?
He did not know...
He must have been awake for now he grew drowsy,
sleep weighed on his heavy lids.
Straining his weary limbs,
he dragged himself to the straw sack,
spread on the floor.
He who soared in the sky,
now lay on the coarse paillasse! While the hangmen of the world
rested on their silken pillows,
he, the world's benefactor,
tossed on his frieze cot.
But now the oil lamp flickered its last,
its pallid life extinguished.
Without, the night began to dissolve
like a secret passed on;
that merry shepherdess, the dawn
sprinkled roses on the little window
and on the bleak walls of the room,
and the first rays of the rising sun
fell on the brow of the sleeping man,
like a golden wreath, like a bright, warm kiss
from the lips of God.
who are you?
Who are you, man among men?
The garment of your soul
is a regal cloak woven of star-beams,
and your body is clad in faded rags.
Your family goes hungry, and so do you,
and you call it a holiday
when fresh bread comes by chance
to your bare table.
And the happiness you cannot attain
for yourself and yours,
you strive to gain
for the world at large.
You have free admission into heaven,
but if you knocked at a lordly mansion,
the door would be slammed in your face;
you chat with God,
but if you accosted a fine lord,
he would rebuff you.
Some people call you
a holy apostle,
others call you
an ungodly scoundrel.
Who are you? Of what origin?
Do your parents proudly call you their son,
or do they burn with shame
when your name is mentioned ?
How were you born? on burlap or on velvet?
Shall I relate the story,
the life of this man?
I will tell it... could I paint it,
I would paint it a brook
springing from unknown rocks,
through a dark and narrow valley
where croaking ravens nest;
a brook ever stumbling over rocks,
and its ripples
ever murmuring in eternal pain.
The clock struck twelve;
in the dead of night
darkness and cold held sway:
the twin tyrants of winter nights.
All the world was under cover,
who would tempt God in such weather,
under an open sky?
The pavements, where but a while ago
multitudes had thronged about,
were now deserted like a river-bed
which had become arid...
in the desolate streets only
one maniac was abroad:
It galloped through the streets
as though the devil rode astride it,
thrusting his flame-spurs into its loins.
In its wrath it leaped on the roofs
and shrieked down the chimneys,
then rushed on and with throat
into the blind night's deaf ear.
Then it clutched at the clouds,
shredding them with its sharp talons;
the stars shuddered in terror,
and among the ragged clouds
the moon drifted about
like a corpse over the waves.
Suddenly, with a single puff,
it blew the clouds into a mass
and swooped down upon the earth
like a vulture upon its spoil,
snatched at the panel of a window,
shook it and wrenched it from its hinges,
and when the folk, startled
out of a profound sleep, awoke screaming,
off it galloped, howling with a dreadful laughter.
Deserted lay the town... and yet, behold,
a living figure... or was it a ghost?
It moved so phantom-wise.
It came nearer, nearer; one could see then,
it was a woman —
but the darkness held secret whether
she was a beggar or high-born.
She looked about furtively,
spied a carriage,
and with stealthy steps crept towards it.
The coachman was asleep on his box.
Softly, she opened the coach door...
Was it to steal? No, the contrary,
she put in something, closed the door,
and vanished like a thought.
Soon the gate opened,
out came a lady and a gentleman,
they climbed into the carriage; the coachman
started his horses and sped off...
Inside, there was a whine and a scream...
The lady screamed,
because at her feet an infant lay whining.
The carriage reached its destination,
the gentleman and the lady alighted;
and the lady addressed the driver:
"Here is your fare, my good man,
the tip is in your carriage,
a fine little infant,
treat it well, for it is a gift from heaven."
Thus spoke the lady, and the noble couple departed.
You poor infant, there, in the carriage!
Why were you not born a dog?
In her ladyship's lap
you would have been raised then;
she would have fed you with tender care;
but since you were born human,
and not a dog,
God only knows what fate has in store for you!
The coachman scratched his ear, his head,
whether he prayed or swore
no one knows, only that he murmured.
He did not like the gift from heaven.
He wondered what to do now with the child.
If he took it home,
his master would throw it at him,
and turn them both out of the house.
Angrily he brought down his whip
and drove on in despair.
In the outskirts, in a dingy tavern
the spree was still on; the lamp-lit
window glowed red
like a drunkard's nose.
The coachman could ask nothing better;
he placed the gift from heaven neatly
on the tavern doorsill, and left.
Hardly had he rumbled off,
when a drunken reveller,
bidding his friends good night,
stepped from the tavern and stumbled
so hard that he sank a furrow with his nose
in the frozen snow.
The venerable man cursed loudly
that his dignity had fared so ill.
"That sill has grown since yesterday,"
he grumbled, "yesterday it was not that high,
if it had been that high yesterday,
I would have stumbled over it,
but yesterday I did not stumble,
though I drank no less than today,
for I am exact and particular,
and I drink the same every day."
Thus he muttered and painfully rose,
and started off, grumbling still:
"I don't care what anyone says,
this doorsill is higher than yesterday,
much higher, I won't budge from that.
I raised my foot as high as I could,
and still, what happened! It's a dirty shame.
Thar damned threshold has grown, yes sir...
Or maybe someone put a stone there?
It could be; people are mean
and mighty eager to trip you up...
Nasty, nasty people,
they roll a stone under my feet,
and my nose regrets the blindness of my feet.
My only consolation is that the others,
when they leave, will stumble too.
It'd be fun to hide myself somewhere
and watch them fall
as they come out, ha, ha, ha
But what are you saying, old man?
Does such malice become you?
No, it does not become me, and so
I shall make amends by going back
and hurling that stone from the door.
A thief I am, and a robber, to boot,
and if it comes to that, I knock people cold,
but my conscience would not bear it
if anyone smashed his nose."
The good old fellow staggered back
to hurl away that vicious stone.
He reached for it... swung it... and...
it gave a scream!
The old man, taken aback,
"What the devil,
no stone ever felt like this,
it's soft and besides, it cries!
A shrieking stone, that's pretty strange.
Let's see it here, by the window... ho, ho,
this is a child, a real, live child.
Good evening, buddy,
or little sis... I don't know which you are.
How the devil did you get here?
You ran away from your parents, did you,
you little rascal?
But what am I talking about,
what sort of silly prattle is this!
The poor little thing is in swaddling clothes,
maybe it was just born today.
Who could its parents be?
If I knew, I would take it back to them.
It's really brutal
to discard a child
like an old shoe, it's cruel.
Swine wouldn't do it,
not even bandits.
It is wrapped in old, faded rags.
It must be a poor woman's child.
Hm, or perhaps she is really rich?
Perhaps she covered the child with these rags
so no one would suspect its noble origin?
Who knows, no one can really know for sure,
it's a secret and will remain one forever.
Who will be your father, poor little one?
God willing, I'll be your father.
Why not? I'll rear you decently,
I'll steal for you as long as I can,
and when I grow too old to work,
you'll steal for me. That's how it is,
one good turn deserves another.
It'll be fine. My thefts will become
more legitimate this way, stealing for both of us.
My conscience will bother me
even less than now.
But damn it... what you need is milk,
yes, milk... and you shall get some, too,
there's the neighbour's wife; only yesterday
she buried her little child,
she'll take over the nursing,
sure she will. For good money
she'd suckle the devil himself."
Thus meditating, the good old man
went slowly home. Narrow alleyways
led to his concealed dwelling,
an underground pit, a cellar.
He aroused the neighbour's wife from sleep,
by pounding his fist on the creaking door.
"Hey, woman! A candle, a light,"
the old man shouted. "A candle, hurry,
or I'll burn down the house.
What for? What for? No questions!
A candle, I say, and be quick!
There... and now, go to it,
suckle this child.
Where did I get it? I found it,
God blessed me with it.
Didn't I always say that
the good God loves me? Sure he loves me,
more than the priests would believe.
Hm, this is a rare treasure!
I entrust it to you, kind neighbour,
nurse it, I'll pay
the cost of its upbringing.
We'll settle the terms, we understand each other.
True, money is scarce nowadays,
for, the devil knows, people have
a hundred eyes;
still, I will pay you royally,
God will help me.
But I warn you, take good care of the babe,
as if it were the apple of your eye,
for this child is the hope of my old age."
They struck a bargain.
The half-frozen infant warmed up
on the breast that he took into his mouth
and from which he sweetly drained
the bitterness of life.
Just one day old and how tossed about!
And how much more it will be tossed about!
Early next day the old fellow
dropped in at the neighbour's wife,
and asked inquisitively:
"Well, how's the guest? I hope it's fine.
But it's pretty cold here,
look, lady, brood of witches,
build a fire... Must I tell you a hundred times
that I'll pay the bill?... But, by the way,
is it a boy or a girl? I don't even know yet."
"A boy, neighbour, a boy;
a finer I've never seen in my life."
"So much the better. In seven or eight years
he'll be a thief. By Christ,
I'll make a glorious thief of him!
One thing is sure, I know darned well
how to raise a boy,
I raised blind Tom, too,
the one that was hanged the other day...
There was a thief! He had only one eye,
and still could rob
a thousand-eyed God...
Don't worry, my lad,
you won't be a bungler either,
I swear to it. But woman,
we ought to give him
a name he'll make famous in this world.
What do you think, angel,
what shall we call him? Let's see, what day
was yesterday? Sylvester's day... good,
Sylvester shall be his name. I'll be the priest,
and you, woman, shall be god-mother.
Let's baptize him so he may use
his name lawfully,
and become a Christian, not a heathen,
so that Saint Peter won't turn him away
from Heaven's gate.
Is there water in that pot?... There is.
Lift up the boy,
and bring him to me... but stop,
if I'm a priest, I need a cassock...
there is a sack, I'll hang it round my neck."
The old fellow donned the sack,
took the pot of water in his hand,
and with full pomp and circumstance
christened the boy,
and he was named Sylvester.
Four years passed,
the infant became a child,
he grew up there, in the darkness,
underground, with sin
and vermin for company.
He did not breathe the clear air of heaven,
nor see the beauty of the earth.
He lived yet was like the dead.
The old man found his delight in the child,
for wit and skill flashed from him
like sparks from flint.
And the old man thought:
The flame grows from the spark.
He was hardly four, and he already
stole fruit from the peddlers and snatched
the pennies out of the blind beggar's hat.
For every prank his good tutor
gave him praise and bread, too,
but he gave him a sound thrashing
when he came home empty-handed.
However, this occurred but seldom,
and the old fellow's hopes
grew day by day;
on the cliffs of a rosy future he built
his dream castles untiringly,
and he built them until one fine day
he found himself caught up there, in mid-air
that good old man, that thoughtful mentor!
He had to end at the gallows.
He who had deserved even more than that...
The neighbour's wife was present
at his execution,
she saw how the hangman
tied the knot around the old thief's neck,
who finally stuck out his tongue
as if to mock the world
that had put him to shame.
And when, after the ceremony,
the neighbour's wife returned home,
she spoke then kindly to the little boy;
"Now the devil take you, my boy,
in God's name go to blazes.
I'm not paid for your keep any longer,
and you can't expect me, like a fool,
to feed you at my own expense.
Come along, I'll do you the favour
of showing you the gate. But if you
return, I'll throw you in the sewer!"
The child did not grasp the matter,
but silently obeyed.
When the door was slammed behind him,
he glanced back once more at the sound,
then set out and sauntered away.
He walked and walked
out of one street, into another.
Never before had he walked so much;
all that he saw was new to him...
Fine, fancy shops, fine, fancy people,
he stopped amazed, and amazed walked on.
As he left one street, another one
opened at once, endlessly,
and thus he reached the end of the town.
From so much marvelling and so much wandering
the little boy grew tired;
at a street-corner he crouched down,
leaning his head against the cornerstone.
Across the street, some lively children
were at play with their motley toys.
He looked at them and smiled as though
he, too, were playing,
he watched them until
he slowly fell asleep.
He slept long; suddenly
he dreamed that two pointed, red-hot irons
approached him, coming nearer and nearer,
to sear his eyes out of their sockets...
He whimpered in horror
and awoke with a start.
It was late at night,
there were stars up in the sky
but no people in the street,
only an old hag
stood before him
with glaring eyes,
and the little boy feared them more
than the flaming hot irons in his dream...
He clung to the cornerstone so tightly,
he almost wore a groove in it,
he did not dare to look at the hag
and did not dare to look away from her.
The old woman caressed his face
and addressed him as gently
as her nature permitted:
"What's your name, sonny?
Who's your father, who's your mother,
and where do they live? I'll take you home,
come now, give me your hand."
"My name is Sylvester...
I have no father, nor mother,
I never had, I was a foundling,
and I may not go home anymore;
the neighbour's wife threatened
to throw me in the sewer if I did."
"Then come with me, sonny,
come with me, I'll be your mother,
your loving, tender mother... come along."
The woman took the boy by the hand,
he followed her anxiously
trembling, in a stupor,
not knowing what was happening to him.
"See, here is where we live, sonny,"
said the old hag at her home,
"this is my room,
yours will be the kitchen.
You won't be alone... hey, doggie,
doggie!... here he is... isn't he a nice doggie?
You'll sleep here with him.
The rug's big enough for both of you,
a splendid bed, you couldn't ask for a better one
and the dog will keep you warm.
Dont't be afraid, he won't bite you,
he's a good little dog,
see how gently he looks at you,
see him wag his tail?
You'll love each other
like brothers, I have no doubt about it.
Lie down next to him and sleep, my son.
Are you hungry? I would give you dinner,
but it's too late now, I see you're sleepy,
and then it's bad, especially for children,
to eat before going to bed,
you would dream of devils.
So just lie down and sleep, son."
The old hag left him.
Timidly the boy crept
onto the rug, near the dog;
he crouched at the edge of the carpet;
he did not dare to get closer to his companion.
But the dog
nestled close to him, comforting,
his eyes glimmered through
the darkness of the night, and this glimmer
was so gentle, so fraternal
that it poured courage and
confidence into the little boy.
They drew closer and
closer to each other.
The child caressed the dog's hair,
the dog licked the child's face;
the boy even talked to him, and in reply,
the animal whined softly.
They sealed a deep, abiding friendship.
Next morning the old witch
spoke thus to the boy:
"Now listen to me, my child,
you can imagine that I shall not
keep you for nothing,
not even Christ's coffin
was watched for nothing.
You'll work, for it is written
that those who don't work, won't eat.
However, your work will be light,
as light as a king's...
You will beg, nothing else.
I'm ashamed to work,
for I have grown too fat,
and if I beg, they drive me away,
they chase me away, those cruel people.
So you'll beg instead of me,
they'll take pity on you,
and will give you alms, my son.
You'll say you're an orphan,
that your father perished and your mother
is home bedridden, ill and starving.
I'll keep an eye on you from afar,
and will watch you, so you'd better beware,
or it won't be well for you,
I can promise you that, on my honour.
I'm very good when I'm good,
but very bad when I'm bad,
write that in your mind and heart,
my darling boy.
You're going to beg from anyone
whose clothes are better than yours,
and you'll find many such, don't worry.
You'll have to stretch out your hand,
tilt your head to one side,
raise your eyebrows and frown,
curl your lips bitterly,
wet your eyes with spittle,
and beg for alms
in the holy name of God and your ailing mother.
Understand, my child?
If you don't, I'll explain again,
and if you can't learn it at all
with words, I'll beat the art
into your head with a cane."
The boy assured her he knew it all
and would forget nothing.
The woman rehearsed the scene
with the boy and was amazed
at the child's quick mind.
"I've found a golden goose
in you, my little son, hee, hee, hee!"
cackled the witch.
"We'll have a princely life,
a real princely life!
Let's reap our harvest at once...
Want to eat now? When we return, sonny,
you can eat your fill then.
But you must not eat too much,
or you'll grow fat like myself,
and then our bread-and-butter will vanish
and we'll be left with our tongues hanging:
fat beggars get meagre alms."
They walked to a busy thoroughfare;
there the hag
left the child at a street-corner;
she turned into a nearby tavern
from where she kept watch,
and whenever someone dropped
a coin into the boy's hand,
she raised her glass of brandy,
and gulped it down with a grin.
One day passed like another.
The boy begged and starved;
the old hag watched closely,
so the poor little creature would not grow fat.
He begged and starved; these two things
he knew of life, and nothing else.
He used to watch
the other children play,
he stared at them intently,
thinking how good it must feel
to be able to play, to have fun.
From day to day his mind matured,
and he began to realize
that he was unhappy...
He had passed two years already at begging.
There was no longer any need
to wet his eyes with spit,
for they often were filled with his tears.
He had but one friend
who looked at him kindly
and with whom he shared
the meagre morsels
he received at home,
or found in the streets.
This only friend was the dog,
How the boy longed for him when he left him
mornings; and evenings, when he went home,
what fun he had with the dog!
The old woman began to envy
the friendship they shared.
She was jealous that the dog
loved the child more than her,
and she often whipped the animal.
When the dog bitterly howled with pain,
the boy, too, wept and sobbed his heart out.
At last the old woman
chased the good dog from the house,
she kicked him out several times,
but he came back just as often
and grew still fonder of the little boy.
Thus the child lived. He was barely six years old,
but he had lived through the agony of six centuries,
and the poor pleasure of a few minutes.
Once, he was standing at a street-corner,
shivering... it was a late fall evening,
mud covered the street, and fog the mud,
heavy, dreary fog; and in the mud and fog
the child stood, his feet and head bare,
and whimpering stretched his wasted hand
to those passing by.
His voice sank in their hearts,
like a searing pain,
like the sound of the bell
that tolls for the dying.
A gruff old gentleman
stopped before him and watched him at length
with a stern, penetrating gaze.
The child was about to flee.
"Halt!" the gentleman growled at him.
The child stopped, motionless with fear,
and the man asked: "Are your parents alive?"
"My..." he tried to say
he had an ailing mother who was starving,
and that his father had just died,
but to this gruff gentleman
he dared not lie.
The words stuck in his throat, he felt
that this man knew everything, and thus replied:
"I have no parents, I mean,
I dont't know whether they're alive;
I was a foundling ."
"Then come with me," the gruff gentleman said,
and the boy followed him.
The old woman emerged from her hiding-place
and yelled at him: "You'll stay here,
you lying brat!
This boy, sir, is my son!"
"Please, sir," the boy implored,
"please, sir, I'm not her son.
Save me, take me with you,
I beg you in the name of God and all the saints!
I am weary already of begging,
I had to beg for her,
and she let me starve;
she kept me looking seedy,
so people would take pity on me.
Oh, Lord, how hungry I am!"
Thus spoke the child, and glanced up
at the gruff gentleman; from his entreating eyes
the tears sprang in a torrent.
"Oh, you miserable wretch, you ungodly runt,
you devil's offspring, you!"
shrilled the old witch at the boy.
"A kick is too good for you,
you bag of lies,
you worthless, good-for-nothing brat!
He begged for me? Good Lord!
I'm ashamed to death
when he begs, it's his own base habit,
the moment I take my eye off him.
How often I have thrashed him for it!
He brings such disgrace on me!
I am poor but I needn't beg,
for I can live
by honest work.
And then to say that I let him starve!
Why, I take the choicest morsels
out of my mouth
and stuff them in his!
And that's not enough... he renounces me besides!
Doesn't your heart break, you miserable wretch,
you ugly mite, to deny your mother,
your mother who bore you? How can it be
that your spleen and your lungs and your heart and gall
didn't burst at those words!
There is no better granny on earth
than I, and he is such a wicked grandchild!
But judgement must be near...
when a child denies
his own dear mother!"
The old windbag blew off all that
in a single breath;
here the gruff gentleman
"Enough of this comedy,
or I'll silence you with this cane,
you hateful old hag!
You're dead drunk;
if you sober up,
come to me with his baptismal papers
I live in that large house over there—
and you may take back the boy,
but only if you produce the document.
And now, get out of my sight...
and you, boy, come with me,"
The boy followed the gentleman;
from time to time he glanced back,
he fancied that the hag
would reach out and grab him by the neck;
but she did not dare to approach.
She remained where she stood,
shaking her fist,
and rolled her glowering eyes
like the smith the red-hot iron.
The boy's life changed for the better,
no longer was he forced to steal,
no longer did he have to beg,
what happiness it was, what bliss!
Only, at times, the hawk of anxiety
hovered over him: what if the witch
would bring the certificate,
what would happen to him then?
And, sometimes, the dove of sadness
flew over him when he thought about
his faithful dog,
his bedfellow and friend.
For his sake he was almost willing
to return to the old hag,
and to beg, only to be with him again.
He often dreamed of the dog;
he dreamed that he embraced him
and that the dog licked his face and hand,
and when he awoke and did not find his friend,
he wept bitterly in his desolation.
When the nobleman reached
his home with the boy, he handed him over
to the servants. They scrubbed off
the old dirt that had grown on him,
and in place of his old rags,
he received a fine new suit.
How he liked it all!
He felt he had not lived before,
that he had been reborn.
Then the gentleman summoned him
to his presence and said with severity:
"Boy, this child here is my son;
you will call him 'sir',
he'll be the master, you the servant,
you have only to obey him,
but be prompt and exact at this.
Each glance of his eyes is a command,
if you fulfil it, there will be no trouble,
you will have food and shelter...
But if you don't, I shall have the worn-out rags
in which I found you
hung around your neck;
then you may go out into the wide world
to beg as you did before."
And the orphan boy served the young master;
he walked behind him, stood at his beck and call,
was ever his shadow,
watching every move of his lips,
and hardly was a command uttered,
when it was fulfilled,
and still how much the good boy
had to suffer!
For the gracious master
was a vicious brat,
as gracious masters are wont to be.
He made him understand who was master,
he made him feel it at every instant.
If he burned his mouth with the hot soup,
he slapped his little servant in the face;
if no one greeted him,
he knocked the hat off
the little boy's head;
and he pulled at the boy's tuft
if the comb stuck in his own hair,
and there was no mischief, no wicked prank
that he failed to play on him.
Whenever he thought of it,
intentionally, he would step on his toes,
then push him back and tell him
not to get in his way.
He would smear him with mud, and then strike him
for being so unclean;
he splashed water in his eyes, and when the child
would cry, he called him a whining bastard.
The poor boy had to suffer greatly;
but he bore his woes patiently.
He endured them resolutely, like a man
who has a noble soul.
And why did he suffer it, why did he not leave
his tormenting job as he often thought of doing?
Ah, if you but knew why he remained!
Neither fine food, nor fancy clothes
lured him back whenever he started out
to lose himself in the wide world;
he was unlike the hen or the goose
that wanders off but, when hungry,
goes back to its roost to be fed;
but was like the lark and the nightingale
which, if their cage-door opens,
leave behind their fine fare
to take flight, and are satisfied
with what scant food they find in the open.
Like them, our boy
did long for freedom,
and yet stayed behind, like the goose and the hen,
and whenever he started out, he always returned.
What lured him back?
It was his thirst for learning.
He learned many things with his master.
There he stood behind him, unnoticed,
he peeped into his books
and followed intently
the tutor's every word,
and what he once learned,
he never forgot.
He learned to read and write
quicker than the highborn young lord.
And as his years marched on,
his knowledge grew with them,
like the antlers of the stag,
and he became proud of what he knew;
if the gracious young master replied
with the usual nonsense,
he corrected him silently,
and smiled at his silly answers.
The servant's superiority
over the young lord
did not pass unnoticed by the tutor.
If his pupil did not know
he shamed him by calling on
the servant for the answers;
he had learned the lessons by ear.
This was to the boy's credit,
but it did not add to his happiness;
the haughty young master
made him pay dearly whenever
the servant outshone him.
Day after day the poor boy suffered
new and brutal persecutions,
and day by day he felt more intensely
the inflicted indignities.
Now, if his master whipped him,
his body did not feel it, but his soul
blushed, not for the pain,
but for the humiliation.
He turned sixteen years of age.
Each day a new ray darted
into the dissolving fog of his mind;
each ray was a letter,
and this text grew out of the many letters
"By what right do they flog me here?
By what right does any man hurt another?
Did God create one man
better than the next?
They preach that God is just,
if He's just, He could not have done so.
He must love all men alike.
I won't tolerate their abuse any longer,
no matter what becomes of me.
I get food, clothing and shelter here,
but I serve them in return,
and thus discharge my debt.
They have the right to make me work,
but not to beat me.
If they strike me once again
it will be the last time, God willing!"
And so it came to pass.
At the first occasion
he did not have to wait long—
when the young master raised his fist, he cried out:
Don't strike me again or else
I'll strike you back so hard
you'll remember it till your dying day.
I have been your dog long enough,
you've beaten and kicked me;
hereafter, I'll be a man,
for a servant is a human being, too!
I admit, one hand here lavished goodness upon me,
but another hand beat it off with a stick;
our accounts, then, are balanced;
we owe each other nothing."
At these unexpected words the young master
and infuriated he screamed:
"You servant trash, you rebel, you scoundrel!"
And the boy gave this answer,
in a voice full of contempt:
"Servant? Trash? If we consider
our birth, my father was perhaps
more noble a gentleman than all your kin;
that he abandoned me,
was his sin, not mine;
if all gentlemen have evil hearts like yours,
then he did well to cast me off.
Because then I have this to thank
if I become an honourable man.
And rebel?... is it rebellion
if a man feels and declares
that he, too, is human like anyone else?
If so, I proudly say: I'm a rebel.
If only I could express all I feel
the way I feel it,
millions would revolt with me,
and the world would tremble,
as Rome trembled before Spartacus
when the gladiators struck at its walls
with their broken chains!
My noble master, good-bye to you,
we cannot stay together any longer;
I have talked to you as a man,
and if a servant ever
rises to be a man,
he may starve or die on the gallows,
but a servant he will never be again!"
He turned around, and walked out,
and forever left the house
where his childhood had floated away
like a flower on a muddy stream.
He set out at random into the wide world,
Youth flared up in his heart,
blazing like a burning city
upon which that shrieking giant,
the storm, had blown;
and what fabulous pictures
rose out of the flames!
Those flames tempered his soul
like iron the white heat of the foundry.
As he was leaving the town, the young master's tutor
caught up with him.
The good man was breathless,
he had run hard to overtake him.
Sweat covered his face,
he mopped it again and again
as he talked to the boy,
and there was little coherence in his words:
"Here, my boy, take this money,
one year's salary for me,
you can live on it for years
if you're thrifty.
You'll become a great man,
I'm sure you will.
I've never seen a boy more gifted.
I share all your feelings completely,
but I have never dared to utter them,
I feared you and admired you
while you were speaking.
God bless you for every word you said.
I advise you, I order you,
yes, I order you, my boy:
study, finish school,
I shall curse you and God will punish you.
You were not born for yourself,
but for your country, for the world.
So I urge you, study—
though it is superfluous
to tell you this,
for you really love to learn.
And now, God bless you, son,
good luck, and happiness,
and remember me once in a while,
but if you don't follow my advice,
forget me forever."
The boy stooped
to kiss the good man's hand;
the other did not permit it,
but embraced the boy, kissing his cheek
and left him with tear-filled eyes.
How this gladdened the boy!
Poor boy, how happy it made him!
This was the first token of affection
he had received.
Sixteen years he had to live,
before he could meet a man
who did not thrust him off,
a man who embraced him!
The youth had left the town behind.
Emerging from among the narrow walls,
he felt he had broken free from prison,
and avidly breathed in the fresh air,
God's most precious gift,
which imparts strength to the legs
and wings to the soul.
Once, after a long while, he looked back,
He had made headway, the town lay far behind,
The shapes of the houses grew blurred,
and the mist of distance
swallowed up the brown spires,
and the noise of the multitude
was like the humming of bees.
The lad screwed up his courage:
Until I shall hear and see
nothing of the place I have lived till now,
if my life could ho called living."
And he continued on as though fleeing a whip-lash.
And when the town finally faded away,
and he stood there, in the boundless open space,
then only did he feel himself free.
"I am free!" he shouted,
"I am free!"
He could say no more,
but his tears spoke for him
and expressed his feelings with greater eloquence
than his tongue could ever fashion.
What emotion, what experience,
when a man feels free for the first time!
And the youth journeyed on and on;
he turned his steps wherever
a beautiful landscape lured him.
He gazed at the plains and the mountains,
the flat meadows and the woods on the hill,
at everything which came into view,
for it was all so new to him.
For the first time he was seeing nature,
the beauties of the universe.
And there in the wilderness,
among mountain peaks
stretching into the clouds,
where the roar of the river is like thunder
and the thunder, the trump of judgement-day...
or there in the plains of the prairies
where quietly saunters the gentle rivulet
and where the hum of insects is the loudest sound—
there the youth stopped,
looked around with devotion,
and after feasting his eyes and soul
on the grandeur of the horizon,
overpowered by a sacred sentiment,
he fell to his knees and prayed:
"I adore You, Lord; I know, now, who You are.
I have often heard and often uttered Your name,
but I have never understood it before.
Bounteous nature has revealed to me
Your power and goodness...
Be praised, forever be praised!
I adore You, Lord; now I know who You are."
Wherever he went, everywhere
he saw that nature was most beautiful,
but in it, man was ever unhappy,
tormented by misery, villainy;
and he began to realize
that he was not the most wretched,
and it wounded him to know
that there were others more piteous than he.
His own woes appeared
less and less important
until he forgot them completely,
until he saw and felt
only the woes of others,
and leaning his forehead on a cold stone
he wept bitter, scorching tears.
He remembered what the kind tutor
had charged him to do
when he had said farewell
and had given him money;
he kept his counsel well in mind,
and did not leave it unfulfilled.
He went to school,
and studied eagerly,
and among his fellow students he was like
the moon among the stars.
They admired him, but did not love him;
the nobility of his mind
weighed over them like a cliff,
and envy and mockery
rose against him
and sent forth
their poisoned arrows.
"Why do you wish me ill?"
he often asked his fellow-students
with gentle goodwill.
"Why do you want to harm me, my friends?
I am not learning for my own benefit,
I am learning for yours;
Believe me when I say
that others will profit by my learning,
everyone else but myself.
If you could see into my soul,
you would cling to me, good fellows,
you would like me as much as you dislike me now,
for I love you all.
If you could see into my soul
you would realize your frailty
and you would not snip the branches of the tree
which one day will give you
shade and fruit,
poor, shortsighted boys that you are!
Yet one day you will love me,
by God, you will!"
Loud laughter would greet his words,
they merely served as new bullets
in the shotgun of mockery
which was always aimed at his heart.
Bit by bit he became estranged from the world,
drew deeper and deeper within himself
and shunned everyone... he had but a single friend:
the solitude disturbed by no one.
He lived there amidst those images
the world regards as vain fantasies,
but which he well knew
were a living reality—
shapes of the future,
gazing into his soul.
There in his solitude, ardently he read,
like the Moslem the Koran,
like the Jew the Bible,
he read the history of the world.
World History! What a fabulous book!
Everyone finds a different truth in it.
To one it is bliss, damnation to another,
to one it is life, death to another.
Into the hand of one it thrusts a sword saying:
"Go forth and fight! You will not fight in vain,
you can redeem mankind."
To another it says: "Drop your sword,
in vain you would struggle,
the world will be unhappy forever,
as it has been for thousands of years."
What did this youth read in the book?
What did he think when he closed its cover
with trembling hands?
These were his thoughts:
"The single grape is a tiny fruit,
yet a whole summer it needs to ripen.
The earth, too, is a fruit, a mighty fruit,
and if a tiny grape needs one summer,
how many, then, are needed to ripen
this mighty fruit? It may take thousands,
perhaps millions of years,
but one day surely it will mellow,
and thereafter, people will feast on it
until the end of the world.
The grape is ripened by the rays of the sun;
until it sweetens, how many rays
breathe upon it the warmth of their life?
How many hundreds of thousands,
how many myriads of rays ?
The earth, too, is ripened by rays,
but they are not rays from the sun
but from the souls of men.
Each great soul is such a ray,
but only the great souls, and these are rarely found.
How then can we expect the earth
to ripen in a season?
I feel that I, too, am a ray
helping to ripen the earth.
The life of a ray is ephemeral,
I know that long before
the great vintage arrives
I shall be gone forever,
and every trace of my meagre works
shall be lost in that gigantic harvest.
But the awareness that I too, I too am a ray,
gives strength to my life
and resignation to my death!
Arise, my soul then,
and set to work!
No day, no moment must be lost,
the task is great,
time is fleeting,
and life is short.
What is the aim of the world?
Happiness! And the means towards it? Freedom!
I must fight for freedom,
as so many have fought before,
and, if need be, I must perish for it,
as so many have perished!
Admit me, soldiers of freedom,
into your sacred ranks,
I swear allegiance to your banner,
and if there be a single treacherous drop in my blood,
I will spill it, and purge myself of it,
though it be in the very core of my heart!"
Such was his pledge... man did not hear it,
but up above, God heard it.
He picked up his holy book
in which are listed the martyrs,
and inscribed in it the name Sylvester.
The boy became a youth,
the youth grew to manhood,
one year after another
came to visit the earth,
and departed without a farewell.
And the years did not pass him by either,
each one came to call upon him,
leaving its imprint on his brow, his heart.
He had already finished school;
he was long past those days,
he was in the midst of the world,
amid life, among people,
where at every step one is shoved about,
and each thrust scrapes off a layer
from the enamel of the soul,
and from the colour of the face.
How different was the world he saw
from what he had imagined!
It seemed to dwindle each day;
and man whom God created
in his own image,
became more depraved;
man whose eyes were meant
to gaze at the sun,
stared instead in the dust,
as though searching for worms,
to learn from them their art of crawling.
And the smaller man appeared to him,
the more gigantic he found
the task for which
he felt himself destined.
But he did not lose heart.
Perhaps he achieved as little as an ant,
but he was just as untiring.
His sphere was narrow,
but he filled it completely
with the light of his soul.
His integrity, his knowledge
had made a name for him while still in school,
and when he completed his studies,
many a nobleman offered him high,
rewarding positions with this enticement:
"Join my household, you'll be a servant, true,
but serving a master like myself
is a glorious task,
and, for bending your knee to me,
thousands will bow before you;
you'll have nothing else to do
but fleece these thousands as best you can,
and through such easy work you'll grow wealthy."
Sylvester thanked them politely for these
sinecures and answered thus:
"For the purpose of having
servants to serve me,
I will not be the servant of another.
I want no fellow-man
to bow and scrape before me,
but let none demand
bows from myself either.
I know no man to be my inferior,
nor any to be my superior.
And as for wealth,
it might not suit me in the least.
It would suit me even less at such a monstrous price
as fleecing others for it!"
Thus he would speak,
hat in hand,
but his head erect.
He refused the high positions;
but when some poor people came
to invite him to their village
for the post of notary, he accepted;
he went there more than happily.
And when he reached the village
and the villagers surrounded him,
he said to them, his eyes ablaze:
"Greetings, good people! Take a good look at me;
I shall be your teacher and father.
Since your infancy, what have they hammered
into your heads?
I shall teach you your rights!"
And he fulfilled his promise.
Thenceforth, after work,
the peasants did not go to the tavern
as they had since time immemorial.
They gathered before the town hall
in a semi-circle, and the old men
listened to the young notary.
They listened to him more eagerly than to their priest,
because he told them something better than the clergyman.
And whatever they learned from him they took home,
and they repeated it to their sons,
and the notary was held in high esteem.
But there were two houses in the village
that invoked curses instead of blessings
upon the head of the young apostle;
they were the houses where the priest
and the manor lord lived:
the parish house and the castle.
Day by day, the notary's deeds
grew more hated and more dreaded
in those two abodes,
and they plotted his undoing,
for they realized that if he remained,
they both would perish.
But up in the castle itself was someone
who respected the man of the people
as much as the people did;
who was pleased
when he was praised,
and who suffered
when he was abused.
Who was this creature
who, in such poor light,
could recognize a masterpiece
and evaluate it so justly?
Who was it?... the young mistress of the castle.
A woman's heart is a noble place,
its door is barred to selfishness
which can intrude
only by ruse
or by force,
but it opens wide to everything sublime;
and persecuted truth,
though exiled from everywhere else,
finds a last haven there.
A noble sanctuary is a woman's heart!
The young man did not suspect
he had a friend, a patroness
up there in the lordly mansion,
and so beautiful a patroness!
He sometimes saw the girl
strolling through the village,
or gazing from her window at the country-side;
and whenever he saw her, he pondered long.
At such times a wondrous sentiment
filled his heart
which spoke to him thus:
"Man is not merely a citizen
but a human being as well;
must he live for others, forever,
and never for himself?
You, poor fellow, when will you live your own life,
will that time ever come?
You dole out your soul to others,
will there be one to give you all hers,
or even just a portion,
perhaps a glance from her eyes from which
you might at least divine
what happiness really is?... Your heart is so thirsty,
it could drink up a shower, yet perhaps
not even a drop of dew will fall upon it!
Resign yourself to your fate, good fellow,
bear your lonely life in silence.
Be the earth which grows the grain
for others to reap;
be the lamp which, giving light to others,
consumes its own life."
Whether by ill or good fortune, once
the girl happened to meet him,
and she addressed him.
It was a brief encounter
and little was said,
but thereafter they met more often,
by chance or perhaps by design?
Neither the girl nor the young man could say.
And their meetings grew longer,
each time more friendly, more confident,
but they never spoke of themselves.
One time, however (had the girl urged him
or did his heart open of its own accord,
he could not recall), the young man
related the story of his life.
He told her how destitute he was; no being
on earth had ever called him "brother,”
or "friend,” or "son.”
He related the frightful misery
which had weighed upon his childhood years
and the mental agony
which had blighted his youth,
and which was more terrible than the misery itself;
and as he looked backward over his life,
down that whirlpool from which he had risen,
where like a black tarn the waters
of his agonies lay:
his soul grew giddy, and the tears
rushed from his eyes like an army routed
from the battlefield...
And the girl sobbed with him.
That very day, he had an entirely
different scene with the girl's father.
The haughty squire summoned
and rudely reprimanded him
for having led astray
and made rebels
and mutineers of them; and, the lord concluded,
if he continued to incite them
he would be driven out.
With dignity the young man replied:
"Sir, I resent your lecture,
I am no longer a school-boy,
and even then I was not addressed thus.
If I am at fault, if I am an instigator,
there is the law to judge me;
if I have committed no crime, then by what right
do you abuse me?
And as for your threat,
I am not afraid of being driven out;
I can earn enough to live on
wherever I may go.
But I shall not go away,
for I feel I am useful here,
and, for your own best interest,
you will not attempt
to turn me out;
for either the whole village will come with me,
or you will be compelled to leave.
I do not say this to threaten you,
but rather to give you good advice.
I know the people here,
I know how much they love me,
and what they would be ready to do for me.”
Thus the young man spoke, then bowed and left.
The following Sunday,
he was the subject of the sermon.
Shuddering, the priest told his flock
that this man was an infidel,
an infidel and a rebel!
And that if they further tolerated him
they would be lost in both worlds;
their king would have them murdered
for befriending a rebel,
and, after death, Heaven would not admit
the confederates of an infidel.
He warned them, begged them
to mend their ways before it was too late,
before perdition and judgement struck them down.
Tearfully he implored them
to look to their earthly and celestial bliss,
and not choose death and damnation
in place of life and salvation!
Incensed, the congregation
left the church
(the house of God and of peace),
and like wild beasts, they turned on that young man
whom yesterday they had called their father,
and warned him that unless he left
by that hour, the next day
he would be beaten to death.
The young man spoke as best he knew,
he spoke more inspiredly than ever before.
But all in vain. Where a priest has raised his voice,
there the truth shall be crucified,
there truth dies a thousand deaths.
At each word of the priest
a devil bursts forth,
and the devil, though not mightier,
is more eloquent than God;
if he cannot win by deeds,
he can seduce;
with curses and threats,
the people left the young man.
For a moment his soul was shaken,
black thoughts swooped onto his heavy head
like a host of ravens on a carcass.
"These are the people!" he cried out.
"These are the people whom I adore,
for whom I have lived and am ready to die!
It was so even a thousand years ago...
But what of it, in another thousand years
it shall not be like this. The people are still
in their infancy and can be easily misled;
but they will mature, they will become men,
and because they are still children, they must be guided.
Small wonder; since ancient times
priests and kings, those earthly gods,
have striven their utmost
to keep the people in ignorance,
for they wanted to rule,
and one can rule only the unenlightened.
Poor, misguided beings, how I pity them;
if I have fought so far in their behalf,
I shall fight hereafter with redoubled strength!"
Evening came, and then night,
the young man's last night in the village.
There he stood, in the shadow of the arbour,
looking up to the window of the castle
from which the girl was wont to gaze.
But the window was deserted now,
its flower, the girl, was not there,
still the young man stared at it, long and intently
like a petrified ghost from beyond the grave;
his mute sorrow and the light of the moon
drew a pale veil over his face.
Suddenly, he felt someone grasp his hand...
He had not even felt the touch at first,
so deeply was he lost in his thoughts...
When he turned, he saw at his side the one
whom he had sought at the window.
"I waited for you,” said the young man,
"I waited for you, hoping
to see you once more at your window,
to send up a silent farewell with my eyes,
and then to depart forever.
But fate is kind beyond my hopes,
now my lips may speak instead of my eyes,
and my hand may hold your sweet hand.
Good-bye, my dearest, dearest one,
the only one in all this world
who has looked upon me as a friend
and whom I may call my friend.
I have no memories,
you, alone, will remain in my heart,
like the icon on the wall of a humble hut,
before which the pious tenant
kneels at dusk and prays;
but were my heart filled
with a store of the most glorious memories,
at this moment, I would cast them all out,
and keep you there alone.
Farewell!... If you hear of me,
and the reports are good,
believe me, it shall have been your doing;
I shall strive to become useful and great,
so that you may never regret nor be ashamed,
but rather be proud that
you have accepted me as your friend.
Farewell, guarding angel of my soul!"
The young man started to go and would have left,
had the girl not held his hand,
pressing it convulsively...
She tried to speak and her voice failed her,
it was a long while
before she could utter brokenly:
"Farewell... go... go... God be with you,
most noble of youths!
Go... If only I could
I would go with you joyfully.
Shall we ever see each other again?
My shining star, will you fall from my heaven?
For I love you,
I must tell you this,
lest my love fling my soul of my body
like Vesuvius the blazing lava.
I love you and cannot be yours!
But upon my honour,
if I cannot be yours, I shall belong to no one!
Take this ring... this token of my love;
its diamond shall crumble
sooner than my loyalty to you.
Farewell, fair dream of my life!"
Paradise came down upon the youth
with all its bliss,
he knelt before the girl,
and embraced and kissed her knees.
Next day, as he left the village,
he looked at the ring
a hundred times, for only when he saw it,
could he believe
that last night's scene was reality
and not a delirious dream of his feverish soul.
He made his way (why did he ?
he himself could not say)
toward the city where once
he had stolen, begged and served.
There, in the outskirts, he rented
a small garret, and then wondered
what to do next.
After dark, a knock was heard on his door,
a veiled lady entered the room...
she closed the door, raised her veil,
and stood motionless and silent...
The young man reeled... his mind ceased working...
Before him stood his beloved friend.
"I have followed you," the girl said,
"if I am a burden to you,
order me out of your room,
don't be afraid, I will not blame you for it,
I will sit then on your doorstep
and go on sitting until my heart breaks.
I have followed you, I could not stay behind,
I have trailed you everywhere,
now that I am here,
tell me, what will you do with me?"
The young man bent his head on her breast,
and they wept long for sheer happiness.
"You won't drive me away then?" the girl asked,
"May I stay?... I'll' be with you,
that I may take half of your woes,
and that you may take all my happiness!
I will share with you
sorrow and misery,
and should I complain, even once,
you may doubt thereafter that I love you,
that I have ever loved you!"
They remained together as husband and wife;
no priest bound them to each other,
God and love did.
They did not swear eternal loyalty,
they did not bring that word to their lips,
they left it there, within,
untouched in the depths of their hearts,
where it belonged,
and so it remained pure as a star
that not even a breath has reached.
The days passed in happiness,
as did the months... the world did not know
whether they lived, and they did not know whether
another world beside their own.
But at last, the soul stirred in the young man,
and sternly addressed him:
"Awake, awake, you were not born
for yourself, but for others!
Have you forgotten your calling?
Arise, arise young man, begin your work!"
And still more severely spoke
another voice, domestic care:
"Set to work, otherwise
you will starve, both of you,
and in no time, the three of you."
He began to work, he wrote
just as his soul dictated,
freely and true to himself.
He took his work to a publisher
who read it through and exclaimed:
"You're a great man, sir,
and a great fool besides!
You're a great man, for this is a masterpiece,
even Rousseau wrote nothing greater;
and you're a great fool if you imagine
that this work can be printed.
Have you never heard the word
'censorship'?... if not,
then I'll tell you what it is.
It is hell's threshing machine,
we must put our sheaves in it,
and out it threshes the truth—
the grain out of the sheaves,
and throws back the worthless chaff,
and that's what the public chews on.
If you doubt my word,
go try it, and for every grain
remaining in your sheaves,
I'll swallow a lead bullet.
If you don't want
to fall into that threshing machine,
then don't produce grain, produce opiates
that intoxicate and deceive,
you can dish it up,
bag and baggage,
you may get even a reward for it."
The young man went home, reeling
as though he had run headlong in a wall.
He sat at the table, resolved
to write soberly, mildly,
and so suavely that the censor's hand
might glide over it, as over velvet.
When he finished his work,
he found it was even more unrestrained,
more bitter than his first attempt.
And this he started over and over,
a hundred times, again and again,
then tore it to shreds, realizing
that he was still on the wrong track.
He became convinced at last
that from the printed pages
no one will learn anything,
and that the words which could enlighten,
never would see the light of day.
"This is appalling!" he exclaimed,
"Is there no way then
to make myself heard?
And the fire of my soul,
which could have set the world ablaze,
must be choked within
to consume itself?
And I must live too... what shall I live on?
Shall I renounce my principle,
my sacred ideal?
Shall I join the scoundrels,
the cheats of mankind ?
No, by Heaven, no!
I would rather starve on a dung-hill,
or end my life
as I began it;
I will steal, serve, beg,
rather than pen a single word
which has not risen
from the spring of my soul,
rather than put a fraudulent seal
on the most trivial of my thoughts!
God be with you, my thoughts,
you walled-in prisoners!
Let my head be both prison and coffin
for you... oh, but no,
you cannot die there;
the day shall come, it must come,
when the gate of this prison shall be flung open,
and you shall roam the wide world over,
bearing light and warmth everywhere,
like the rays of the summer sun!"
And now the young man
let his own thoughts lie fallow,
and, so as not to run out of bread,
he copied the thoughts
of others. A bitter labour,
more bitter perhaps than chopping wood.
He started at daybreak
and finished at sundown,
and the lamp-light often saw the passing
of his nights, too,
and sooner blinked to sleep than he.
But even after so much toil
his table often stood bare;
and the white-cold winter often painted
its frost-work upon his window,
and froze the tears in the woman's
eyes... but it could not freeze
her ever-burning love.
Thus years came and years passed,
and the family enlarged,
they became three, and soon four,
and their poverty quadrupled
up there in the small garret,
where the walls
were striped by rain
and adorned by mould,
where now the three slept in one bed,
—the mother with her two children—
and, at their feet, on the floor,
on a rude straw sack,
lay the man... The first ray of the rising sun
descended on his forehead
like a golden wreath, like a bright,
warm kiss from the lips of God.
The family awoke one after the other,
first the husband who had been the last to fall asleep,
then the mother,
then the little boy... and the infant?
He slept deeply, and did not stir...
His brother and parents moved
on tiptoe and spoke in whispers
so as not to disturb his dreams.
Kind brother, kind parents,
why these soft steps, these undertones?
at the top of your lungs, have no fear,
the dead cannot hear you...
What do parents feel on seeing
their offspring dead?
And, above all, parents
whose child has starved to death?
If God had poured the power
of His right arm into my hand,
I still could not depict the agony
which tore at the poor woman's heart
with its thousand claws.
Let her fall prone on the corpse
and weep, weep, weep,
sob and wail,
from the deep vortex of her pain,
let her rail at high heaven
and hurl blasphemy, the mud of the soul,
onto God's visage;
let her, leave her be,
don't trouble her in her holy frenzy.
The man stood before the tiny corpse
in silent grief or, perhaps, glad;
glad that the child's sufferings were over.
The little boy stared silently
at his brother, wondering
whether he too would lie so pale, so white
and motionless if he died
and would have to starve no more.
Slowly, slowly, the hours
passed, one after the other, and the woman's
grief, assuaged as she poured it
over the lifeless body of her infant son,
and the raging torrents of her soul
assailed Heaven no longer,
but only trembled gently,
like ears of corn in the breeze.
She took the dead child in her lap,
rocked him tenderly,
and, half in song, whispered,
like forest leaves
in the autumn twilight:
"Are you asleep
my tiny one?
hat are you dreaming?
Tell me your dreams.
Are they not lovely,
For you don't sleep
yet in the earth.
Your mother rocks,
your mother holds you,
nestle and sleep,
sweet infant mine,
coal-black earth will
swallow you now.
The heaven glows
has kissed it;
I will kiss now
your little face,
oh, it does not glow!
If just once again
you would smile at me,
at your mother's smile,
heart of my heart,
my little child!
beneath it, you...
above it, I...
What drops upon it?
No, not the rain,
your mother's tears.
Be silent now,
n the graveyard,
I am talking
with my little one;
we speak gently,
keep silent now.
Does your head hurt,
does your heart ache?
Is the soil heavy
that entombs you?
Which was the softer,
my cradling arms
or the coffin now?
Sweet dreams, sweet dreams,
dove of my heart,
a blessed good night;
but one thing I ask,
dream but of me,
let us be together”
And as she cradled her dead child,
slumber overcame her,
and while she slept, the husband pondered
how he would pay for a coffin.
How could he order a burial?
He had not a penny of his own.
He looked around in the room,
in search of something
of any value at all,
to sell... but there was nothing, nothing!
What thought crossed his mind
that he grew pale and shuddered?
He glanced at the ring on his finger,
the engagement ring more precious than his life...
Is this what he must sell now,
that his child might not go
naked into the earth?
Must he part with this treasure
which he had guarded with his life?
Which the countless sufferings of so many years
could not tear from his finger;
must he part with it now, forever?
His very hair turned grey from sorrow...
but there was no way of escape!
When he drew the ring from his finger,
it was as though he tore the heart
out of his breast by its roots...
His past and present were rent in two,
the bridge that had linked the spring
to winter, was demolished.
The stairway on which he had ascended
from earth into heaven had toppled.
But it had to be—in order that his child
might not go naked into the earth.
The infant had a decent funeral,
the coffin was of heavy wood,
the shroud was of silk,
and a large tomb-stone marked the grave,
for the ring had sold at a good price,
and they spent it all on the burial...
The father would not have it on his conscience
that he had taken even a single penny for bread
from the price of his engagement ring.
Such bread would have turned into poison,
that would have killed him,
and he still had to live for a very long while!
He had vowed that his thoughts
would not remain stillborn in his brain,
that the day must come
when they would break out of their prison
and go around the world.
And this came to pass. What the struggle
of many years had not accomplished,
what he had toiled so hard to achieve
was brought about by chance, abruptly.
He discovered a secret printing shop,
hidden away underground,
and there he had his writings printed.
What did he say in these works?
That the priests are not men,
and kings are not gods,
but mere men,
and that all men are equal,
and that it is not only man's right
but also his obligation to his Creator
to remain free,
for whoever does not cherish
the Lord's most divine gift,
does not cherish the Lord Himself!
His book was published, and all over the world
it spread by the thousands as swiftly
as if by lightning borne.
The thirsty world greedily drank up
that clear, soothing drink,
and refreshed its soul.
But the powerful grew pale; on their drawn
brows wrath appeared,
and they thundered angrily:
"This book is seditious.
It defames religion and royalty,
its author must be punished
according to the law."
The frightened populace echoed;
"Indeed, this book is seditious,
it defames religion and royalty.
Its author must be punished
according to the law.
The law is sacred and inviolable!"
And its author was punished fearfully.
In the middle of the street
he was seized and dragged away.
"Hold on!" he implored them,
"have mercy, give me one minute!
I don't want to run away,
I'll go peacefully anywhere,
just give me a short while.
Do you see that window up there?
It's the window to my room,
my wife and child are there.
Take me to them for one,
for only one short moment,
let me embrace them just once more,
and bid them good-bye;
then, drag me away, I won't care,
but I can't go without a word.
I'd rather go to hell
after bidding them good-bye,
than to heaven without taking leave.
Are there no husbands, fathers among you?
What would you say and what would you feel
if you were treated this way?
I have no one in the wide world
but my wife and my child,
and in the whole world they have no one,
no one at all but me;
let me go, good people,
let me go, to see them
once more, for the last time.
Don't take pity on me,
but on them, for they are innocent,
they did not violate
the laws, nor harm you,
don't kill them too!
Oh, Lord, if my words
cannot raise your pity, my tears
surely must... these tears
are drops of my heart's blood,
the death-sweat of my soul!"
And sobbing, he fell prostrate;
as once, in better times, he had embraced
his beloved's knees, he now embraced the gendarmes,
but with cruel and derisive laughter
they pulled him up and took him
to the cart which waited there for him.
When he saw that kind words were useless,
fury gripped him, and he summoned
all the strength of his body
to conquer and escape by violence.
He struggled with a lion's courage
and with insane force,
but all in vain! He was overpowered, tied,
and tossed to the bottom of the cart.
There he roared like a beast,
he bellowed imprecations such as these:
"The devil take you and all your offspring,
you Satan-ridden, savage beasts!
You keep loathsome, scurvy toads
for hearts in your bosoms!
May foul sores encrust your ugly snouts
as thick as villainy
encrusts your souls,
and let the worms on the dunghill
then devour you!
Curses on you and your king,
in whose name you drag virtue
to the slaughterhouse!
Woe to you, villainous king
who poses as God,
but are Satan, a Satan of lies!
Who has entrusted the people to you?
Who entrusted the sheep to the wolf?
Your hand is blood-red as your regal cloak,
your face lack-lustre as your crown,
your heart black as the gloom
that creeps behind your deeds
like the lengthening evening shadow.
How long will you keep
your stolen power, your stolen privileges?
May your subjects rise in rebellion
like the sea, and should you face them
with a hundred thousand of your mercenaries,
may God not grant you to die bravely
in battle as befits a man;
may you be the first to cravenly
run for your life and crouch behind your throne,
like a frightened cur under the bed,
to be dragged out from there
so that children and old women
with mocking laughter may spit in your
and then may you kiss the feet of those
who once kissed yours;
may they kick your grinning teeth out,
one by one,
and then kick out of you
your treacherous, miserable life!
May you rot in despair as you would have me rot!...
Oh, my wife... oh, my child..."
Had he been asleep and awoken suddenly?
Or lost his mind and regained his senses now?
Was it an hour or several months
that his mind had wandered?
Sylvester did not know.
He pondered and pondered over
what had happened and what was happening to him.
He looked around, and could see nothing,
it was dark, abysmally dark!
He said to himself: "It is night, indeed,
I must have slept and had a dream,
my dream comes back to me in part;
but it was a terrible dream,
I will not tell my wife,
I will not frighten her with it.
If only dawn would break; a night
so oppressing I have never passed.
Are you asleep, sweetheart,
are you asleep, my love?
She must be asleep, for she does not answer.
Sleep, my beloved,
sleep in peace!
And still not dawn! when will the day break?
This dense, stifling night is choking me!
Dawn, lift your radiant face,
or just show the tip of your little finger...
My forehead burns as if
a volcano were in my skull;
my brain is near to bursting."
And to wipe his sweating brow,
he lifted his hand... oh!
what a clangour!
The heavy shackles clanged noisily.
Now he remembered everything clearly,
and a chill ran through him,
like wind among ruins.
It came back to him now...
he had been seized in the middle of the street,
and dragged away with violence;
he had not seen his wife
nor his child; he could not say
good-bye, could not look
once more into the loving eyes
which were his happiness and his treasure!
And now he was there within the prison walls,
underground, no telling how deep,
deeper than the decaying dead
in the depths of the graves!
When would he see the sunlight?
When would he set eyes on his loved ones?
And why was he in this place of damnation?
Because he had made known to men
what God had commanded him:
that there is a common good
which all must share equally;
and that this common good is freedom.
Whosoever deprives another of even
a single grain, commits a deadly sin,
and the sinner must be annihilated!
"Oh sacred freedom, for you I suffer,"
cried the prisoner, his grief overflowing.
"Were I alone in the world now,
as I was for so many years,
I would sit on this stone bench calmly and proudly,
like the usurper on his throne,
and I would wear these fetters as happily
as I once wore my wedding ring!
But I have a wife and child...
What will become of them without me?
Who will nourish them
with bread and love?
And without them, what will become of me?
Oh my heart, if you cannot turn to stone,
why don't you shatter?"
He wept, railed and raged,
and the eternal darkness
stared at him indifferently,
until at last he grew silent;
his exhausted soul surrendered,
and he was as motionless,
mute and numb as the stone he sat on,
as the darkness that enveloped him.
His senses were dead, but his mind alive,
his thoughts flew low
like a bird with maimed wings.
"Twin of my coffin, my prison walls—
who built you, who shall destroy you?
How long have you been standing; how much longer
shall you stand?
Who before me sat on this dreary stone?
A martyr like myself,
or a bandit, perhaps?
Did his bones putrefy in this pit,
or did he live to see God's world again?
The world is beautiful; the forests and meadows,
the mountain peaks and the prairies,
the flowers and the stars...
I may never see them again,
or, if I do, it may be long after
I shall have forgotten even their names...
How many years must I waste here,
where each minute is an eternity,
where time drags tediously
like an old, lame beggar on crutches...
One year? and if it should be
ten or twenty, or even more?
Arise, come to me you who have died,
who once suffered in this place,
let us talk a while,
teach me how one should pass away
the time here,
rise and speak to me, you phantoms,
perhaps I too am dead by now,
and only dreaming in the grave... a bad dream...
I am dead... my heart beats no more...
this trembling I feel in my breast
is the death-convulsion of my ailing soul."
At last he even stopped thinking;
no sentiment nor thought
remained in his heart, his head.
He sat more rigidly than a statue,
and glared into the night
that filled his prison cell.
His limbs grew numb,
he began to lose consciousness,
his head pulled him downward,
and he slipped lengthwise on the stones...
For a long time he lay there, motionless,
perhaps not even drawing breath;
suddenly, as if gunpowder
had blasted him, or a red-hot iron
seared his loin,
he leaped up, and in a voice
so heartrending that the cold walls
echoed plaintively, he cried out:
"Oh, stay... stay!"
And he stretched out his two hands.
He remained standing a long, long time,
then lifelessly dropped his hands,
and sank back upon his bench;
he let his head fall on his chest
and two heavy tears rolled down his cheeks;
and in a voice drawn from
the depths of his soul, he moaned:
"She didn't stay... she went... she left me alone...
this is the end of everything!"
What had happened? Who had left him?
What had come to an end? Was he dreaming?
No, he was awake, it was no mere dream...
it was too strange to be true,
yet still it was true!
As he lay there, outstretched,
a woman's form appeared before him,
he recognized his wife;
she bent over him,
and whispered this in his ear:
"I have passed away,
God be with you..."
And she kissed the man's face;
it was then he leaped to his feet.
When he opened his eyes,
he could still see his beloved,
but in less than a second
she vanished, and the dungeon
which had brightened for a moment, grew dark again
like midnight after a flash of lightning.
"I have passed away, God be with you..."
He repeated the words she had uttered
in that sweet voice he would never hear again.
'I have passed away, God be with you...'
Good-bye then, sweet foliage of my soul,
whom the tempest stripped from me;
if it swept you away, why did it leave me here?
What use, what use is a leafless tree?
And where did the tempest toss you?
Where shall I find you,
wilted though you may be,
so I may sigh out the rest of my life
at your sacred remains...
I no longer want my life,
I have lost my reason for living;
you were the purpose of my life,
I lived through you and for you,
you alone were reality;
the rest of it? mankind, liberty,
these are but hollow words, barren illusions,
for which fools struggle.
You alone were reality,
goddess of my love!
And I have lost you forever!
I could burrow, mole-like through the earth,
and still not find you...
You will turn into dust, like anyone else,
common dust, no better,
and you will mingle with common dust,
as if you were a plant or a beast.
But I could bear my loss,
and endure this gigantic burden in silence
until it crushed me,
if only I could have said good-bye to you,
just one word of parting,
one last word... but it's all over,
God did not grant me that either.
How merciless God is!
And foolish man bows before him,
calls him "Father' and worships him...
You are a tyrant, God,
and I curse you!
There you sit upon the heavenly throne,
in your cold majesty as unfeeling
as the earthly tyrants.
You rule haughtily, and daily
you paint anew
the faded purple of your royal dais
with rays of dawn and the blood of broken hearts!
Be accursed, tyrant of tyrants,
as you have denied me,
so do I deny you.
You shall have one slave less,
take back this life which you threw to me
like alms, take it back and give it to someone else,
let someone else endure it,
I hurl it back at you so it may break
like a useless piece of earthenware!"
The prisoner howled so loud that darkness
itself was frightened and trembled;
he shrieked and in his frenzied fury
knocked his head against the wall and collapsed,
and the wall resounded with the horrible thud,
as though it had been wounded.
There the prisoner lay upon the stones,
in the pool of blood from his smashed forehead,
there he lay, and he did not die, he lived!
His bitter life had grown one with him,
it adhered to him as firmly
as pain was welded to his soul,
and eternal darkness to his prison.
For ten years he sat among those walls!
Ten years are long even at liberty,
how much longer, then, in that gruesome hole!
His beard grew long, as did his hair,
he often looked to see whether they were white.
But they always seemed black,
although they were white as the dove,
but their colour did not show in the darkness.
Ten years passed by. These ten years to him
were one interminable night,
and he still waited for the dawn to come.
It sometimes seemed he had been there
for centuries or for millennia,
and that the judgement-day
had already passed over the world,
and the earth had perished long before;
this prison was all that remained of it,
and himself long forgotten in the dungeon.
Wrath had already died out of his heart,
he cursed God no longer,
he did not even think
of God, or of Man anymore,
even his sorrows had forsaken his heart;
rarely would he weep,
only when he awoke from his dreams,
for in his sleep he sometimes was visited
by a beautiful apparition,
the spirit of his ever beloved,
who had remained faithful even beyond the grave!
But as soon as he awoke,
the lovely, sweet phantom would disappear,
and the prisoner wept, and went on weeping.
But why did his son not visit him?
For he had a son, too;
why did he never come to see him?
This he asked himself, and thus he answered:
"My son is surely alive, for the living
do not come here, only the dead may come,
you alone may come, my angel of love!
My son must be alive, and grown by now,
he may have grown to manhood.
What has become of you,
my poor orphan, my poor son?...
Who knows which way necessity drove him,
perhaps he is a bandit and will die on the gallows.
And what if he followed in his father's footsteps
and now, like him, lived underground,
perhaps in the same dungeon,
or in a neighbouring cell?
My son, my son, do you love me,
do you remember your father, my child?"
But hark, what sound, what strange tones!
The prisoner listened, listened all the more,
he was so intent in listening
that he dared not even breathe,
and those strains unlocked his imprisoned soul,
as the sun's rays open the flower's petals
and his lips parted in a smile
for the first time in ten long years!
A little bird had alighted
close by his window on the prison wall;
there the little bird sat and sang,
how sweet was its song!
And the prisoner said, or merely thought,
for he did not dare to speak
lest his voice frighten away his tiny visitor;
"Oh, God, how lovely it is!
This is the first sweet sound
I have heard since I came here,
such a very long time ago.
Sing, my little bird, oh sing,
your song reminds me
that once I lived, that I am still alive.
Your song reminds me of my youth,
the youth that forsook me long, long ago;
of the beautiful spring, and the flower
of that spring, my beautiful love!
Your song renews my sufferings,
but it also brings me solace,
and the lulled pain is perhaps
even sweeter than joy itself.
Sing, my little bird, oh sing...!
Who has sent you to me
to perch upon this wall
on which nothing but curses have settled?
Oh Heavens, such an auspice
could kill me,
it will kill me with happiness!
A secret voice whispers to me
that I shall be free,
that I shall not perish in this festering hole,
but shall die out there beneath God's glorious sky...
Little bird there on the wall,
free wanderer through a free world,
you are the herald of freedom!
'Tis so, it shall be so, I do not doubt it.
Be strong, my heart, if grief did not break you,
then neither shall joy.
Liberty shall win at last. The world shall tire
of its yoke and shake off its shame;
and, first of all, the doors of these graves shall open
and the first tears of joy
shall foil upon the cheeks of those
who suffered here for freedom.
Little bird, there, on the wall,
free wanderer through a free world,
you are the herald of freedom!"
The key clanked in the prison lock,
the little bird flew away in fright,
the gate creaked open, and the jailer
said to the prisoner: "You are free."
The prisoner shrieked in his joy
and clutched his head, as if
to hold fast to his sanity
which was about to escape him.
I have it yet!” he cried with childish glee.
"I have it! I did not let it fly away,
I have not lost my senses... I know
what has happened: I am free...
Can it mean that my nation, my country is free?"
The jailer replied sullenly:
"Why bother about the country, you fool?
Just be thankful that you are free."
But the prisoner did not hear him;
his thoughts were already far, far away...
roaming half the world, seeking the grave
in which his sweet lady lay at rest.
"First of all, I will visit you,
dead half of my soul," he said to himself,
"I will visit you; as you sought me out,
so I shall seek you now,
and kiss the earth
which gave you peace!
Oh, how slow they are
to unshackle my hands and feet;
these few minutes are longer than
the endless years I have languished here!"
Like the infant at its mother's milk,
he gulped down the fresh air
greedily and to his heart's content,
and each delicious breath erased one painful year
from his battered soul,
until it felt as light
as a butterfly, and flew about
over the newly verdant meadows of nature
and over the old tender memories of his heart.
The clean air made him young again,
it restored the vigour of his soul,
but his body remained old and broken,
he could scarcely drag himself, leaning heavily
on a cane; his long white hair and beard
waved sadly in the breeze.
He had lived a century in those ten years.
He reached the house where once
he had lived in a garret.
He looked searchingly at everyone,
but found no familiar faces.
Were these new tenants, or did he fail
to recognize them, had he forgotten them?
He asked if they remembered
the poor family who had lived there
a very long time ago;
and he described the family members.
"Oh, I remember, I remember well,"
a pious old lady replied,
"poor little woman, she was such
a beautiful creature and such an angelic soul...
But her husband was an ungodly criminal,
and he was justly punished.
He was taken and thrown into prison,
and unless he died, he must still be there.
When his wife learned that her husband
was taken and that she would never see him again,
she was stricken dead with a broken heart.
I never did understand how she could love
such a wicked man,
and how she could die for the love of him."
Sylvester listened to these words,
benumbed, as though he were not the one
the woman spoke about.
He asked: "Where did they bury
the young woman and what became of her son?"
"I don't know about her son,"
the old woman replied, "I never saw him again
after the funeral.
And I don't know where they buried
the young woman...
I meant to go to her funeral, but I had to go
to a christening that day..."
"I shall find her," the husband said to himself,
"I shall find her in the churchyard,
I shall examine every headstone, one by one,
until I find her own."
And he made his way to the cemetery,
and wandered among the graves,
going from one to the other;
and when he had seen them all, he began his search anew,
but never found the grave of his beloved.
So there was nothing, nothing left of her!
That glorious being had vanished
without a trace, like the sun's rays.
Winds had swept away her headstone,
and storms had washed away her grave,
God keep you now...!
The poor old man was deeply grieved
not to have found the one he sought,
not to be able to weep his tears
which still remained unshed
after such long suffering,
over the dust of that sweet being...
But he consoled himself:
this was the last sorrow
he would have in his life,
now he was done forever
with joy and sorrow;
and thereafter he would roam the world
like a body without soul, like a shadow without body.
But he was mistaken,
this was not to be his final sorrow.
When he had stepped from the prison
he had asked: "My nation, my country,
is it free, at last?"
And he had not listened to the reply,
for he firmly believed that it was.
But what did he soon discover?
That his nation, that the world
was even more abject
than ten years before when he had raised his voice;
man's dignity was becoming dwarfed, day by day,
and tyranny grew apace.
Had it all been in vain, all that suffering,
all the sacrifice brought
in behalf of mankind
by lofty hearts?
all the striving, all the struggle?
That could not be; it must, must never be!
That thought renewed his strength,
the dying fire rekindled in his soul,
he raised his bowed head toward the sky,
the feeble old man became a vigorous youth,
and a mysterious plan took shape in his head,
a great and bold decision,
on which the fate of the nation or perhaps
that of the wide world depended.
The plan was not new, it had already cost
the lives of thousands,
but someone might succeed in it,
and might he not be the one?
Carefully he concealed his intent;
did not even sleep near others
lest he betray it in his dreams,
lest it be thwarted if discovered.
He sought no aid,
not out of desire to finish
alone the tremendous task,
but to avoid imperilling others
were his plan to fail.
The city was swimming in noise and light,
people were gathering by the thousands
and surging like a flooded river; along the streets
the cheers and hurrahs resounded;
faces and clothes were festive and gay.
What great occasion, what holiday was this?
Had God, perhaps, come down to the earth
in his own image and with his own hand
restored to slave-men their long-lost freedom,
that the pomp was so brilliant, the joy so great?
No; not God, someone else passed there,
smaller than God, nevertheless
he thought himself greater: the king!
With haughty contempt he walked amidst
the throng, like a mastiff among the mongrels,
and wherever he looked, knees and heads were bowed
like a forest of reeds in a storm,
and with throats bursting flocks of servants
shrieked: "Long live the king!"
Who would dare not to cheer
or to shout something else
among the thousands upon thousands?
One dared... one alone among many.
This one, in a voice which roared over
the mob, shouted something else,
he thundered, "Death to the king!"
and fired his weapon.
The proud king crumbled in the dust...
Stand up, you craven tyrant,
he bullet went astray and grazed
your cloak and not your heart.
Satan, to whom you sold
your life, has spared it.
Stand up, you craven tyrant!
and wipe the dust from your face.
Who was the assailant, who and where was he?
There he stood... but he stood no more,
he lay half-dead, felled to the ground,
and all were eager to spit
in his old, care-worn face,
and to kick his snow-white head.
Miserable herd, why do you pile
God's curses upon your heads?
Was the curse that weighed on you too light?
Was it not enough to crucify Christ,
must you crucify all redeemers?
Oh wretched people, wretched a hundredfold!
Some days later a scaffold rose up in the square,
and a grey-haired man stood erect on the scaffold.
When the headsman stepped up to him
with the bright sword of dark death,
the grey-haired man looked along
the ranks of the malicious throng
and a tear of compassion trembled in his eyes;
he took pity on those who had trampled on him,
and now with pleasure watched his execution.
The sword rose and fell with a horrible swish,
and his head rolled down... Sylvester's head!
The people roared: "Long live the king!"
And the headsman's aides buried the corpse
near the scaffold.
The slave-generation aged, died out,
the rising generation mentioned their fathers
with shame, and strove to be better
than they had been, and so they became,
for one need but have the will!
A brave new people arose,
they knocked the shackles from their hands,
the heritage their fathers had left,
and they threw the chains on the graves
of those who had bequeathed them,
to rouse them with the rattling,
and to make them burn with shame even in the earth.
And then the victors remembered
the holy and the great
who had remained free amidst slavery
and had proclaimed the truth,
and whose reward had been death,
a shameful death!
The victors remembered them,
and wove their holy names
in the wreath of their triumph,
and would have borne them
into the temple of fame;
but where should they search,
where could they find them?
Beneath the gallows they had mouldered away
long, long before!
(Pest, June—September 1848)