Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Not a pawn

Békássy at Cambridge
Békássy in uniform

Ferenc Békássy is a poet whose name has been all but forgotten outside his native Hungary.  As a student at King’s College, Cambridge before the war, Békássy competed with Rupert Brooke for the affections of Noël Olivier and was a close friend of John Maynard Keynes. When the First World War broke out in August of 1914, it was Keynes who helped Békássy to return to Austria-Hungary, where he enlisted as a Hussar. Battling against Russian troops on the Eastern Front, Békássy was killed on June 22, 1915,  just four days after arriving at the front lines. He was twenty-two years old.  His poetry was published in 1925 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the small volume Adriatic and Other Poems. 

Békássy’s poem “1914” recalls Josef Stalin’s quotation, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Over 17 million died in the First World War, a grim statistic. The tragedy of the war is perhaps better understood in stories and poetry. 


He went without fears, went gaily, since go he must,
And drilled and sweated and sang, and rode in the heat and dust
Of the summer; his fellows were round him, as eager as he,
While over the world the gloomy days of the war dragged heavily.
Victorious Assault, R.A. Höger 
He fell without a murmur in the noise of battle; found rest
’Midst the roar of hooves on the grass, a bullet struck through his breast.
Perhaps he drowsily lay; for him alone it was still,
And the blood ran out of his body, it had taken so little to kill.
So many thousands lay round him, it would need a poet, maybe,
Or a woman, or one of his kindred, to remember that none were as he;
It would need the mother he followed, or the girl he went beside
When he walked the paths of summer in the flush of his gladness and pride,

To know that he was not a unit, a pawn whose place can be filled;
Not blood, but the beautiful years of his coming life have been spilled,
The days that should have followed, a house and a home, maybe,
For a thousand may love and marry and nest, but so shall not he.
Hungary Landscape Faluszélén Laszlo Neogrady
When the fires are alight in the meadow, the stars in the sky,
And the young moon drives its cattle, the clouds graze silently,
When the cowherds answer each other and their horns sound loud and clear,
A thousand will hear them, but he, who alone understood, will not hear.

His pale poor body is weak, his heart is still, and a dream
His longing, his hope, his sadness. He dies, his full years seem
Drooping palely around, they pass with his breath
Softly, as dreams have an end -- it is not a violent death.

My days and the world’s pass dully, our times are ill;
For men with labour are born, and men, without wishing it, kill.
Shadow and sunshine, twist a crown of thorns for my head!
Mourn, O my sisters! Singly, for a hundred thousand dead.*

Repeatedly, the poem asks us to lay aside our preconceptions and stereotypes so that we may better understand and empathize with the individuals whose lives were forever changed by the First World War. From the first stanza, the young recruit who went to war gaily and eagerly is contrasted with the general mood of the time. We are asked to see his personal reactions as distinct from that time when the “gloomy days of the war dragged heavily.”

This recruit, who set off so gaily, died alone, poignantly isolated from the action around him. Almost in wonder, the poem comments on how little it took to kill this one man, even as thousands lay dead around him in the incomprehensible slaughter of industrial warfare. 

How can such a death be understood? Only by perhaps a poet – or someone who knew and loved the uniqueness of this man. His mother, his sweetheart, his family: they alone would remember his lopsided grin, the tenor of his voice, the mannerisms and moods that were particularly his. Only those who loved him are able to defiantly assert that he was not a unit, not a pawn – he was more than cannon fodder; he was an irreplaceable soul. 

Tragically, not only is the uniqueness of the man gone forever, but also lost is the potential of his particular life, “the days that should have followed.” Carol Ann Duffy also laments this heartbreaking loss of potential in her poem “Last Post,” vainly hoping that time might be rewound and all can be restored.

Hungarian prayer for the fallen
But magical thinking will not rewind the war. The last stanza of Békássy’s “1914” has the feel of a Greek chorus: there is an inevitability to the death of this man and the millions like him, for the “times are ill.” Men kill one another “without wishing it,” while women are left to mourn each of the hundreds of thousands of deaths “singly,” each one a scar upon the heart and an emptiness that can never be filled. 

In his own death, Ferenc Békássy has literally been remembered "singly" at King’s College, Cambridge.  Although he died in the same war as his classmates, Békássy fought with the Central Powers, aligning himself with his home country, England’s enemy. In 1920, British families of those who had lost their sons in the war protested Békássy’s inclusion on the King’s College Chapel Roll of Honour. As a compromise in 1921, his name was inscribed on another wall of the chapel, where he is listed simply as a “Pensioner.” 

 *To view this poem in Hungarian or to read other Bekassy poems, see this link. 

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