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Miklós Radnóti (Hungary)

Miklós Radnóti, one of the giants of modern Hungarian poetry, was born to a Budapest Jewish family in 1909, converting to Catholicism as a young man.

He developed a unique poetic voice: in verses of rare luminosity, he gave a vivid, complex vision of love and pain, exuberance and foreboding. At his birth, his mother and twin brother had died and this gave him, as a leitmotiv running through his poems, an almost prophetic premonition of his own fate which grew ever stronger as Hungary's alliance with Nazi Germany flourished. But this darkness was tempered with joy in the visible world and with love for his sweetheart and muse, Fanni Gyarmati, who he married in 1935.

His first book of poetry, A Pagan Welcome, was published in 1930 when he was 21. It consists of celebrations of life and love, naïve, formless and avant-garde in manner. Later volumes show the influence, first, of libertarian socialism and, then, of Roman Catholicism. Radnóti's real talent does not emerge, however, until his fifth book, Keep Walking, You, the Death Condemned (1936), where it is focused by his growing anxiety at the rise of fascism. This book and Steep Path (1938) reveal his growing preoccupation with fate and the deaths of poets in their youth. Steep Path also includes the first two of his Eclogues in classical metres. From 1940 onwards, with Hungary in the shadow of the Third Reich, Radnóti, like many other of Jewish race, was obliged to serve in forced labour battalions. The last of these — at Bor in Serbia — was evacuated in 1944 as the Germans retreated from the eastern front. Radnóti and his fellow-prisoners were force-marched back into Hungary, where on 9 November 1944, too weak to carry on, he and many comrades were executed by firing-squad. The following year, his body was exhumed from a ditch and was identified from the notebook of poems in the pocket of his greatcoat. These were published in 1946 under the title Foaming Sky.