09. 12. 2018. 10:59

János Arany: The Picture Show

János Arany, one of the giants of 19th century Hungarian literature and poetry was born 200 years ago in 2017. In the connection with Petőfi Literary Museum's exchibition, we're pleased to present one of his ballads, The Picture Show, in a new translation by Bernard Adams.

The Picture Show

(A narrative poem)

Look, good folk of Debrecen,
At these pictures, hear my tale!
Something terrible that happened
– Many the stout heart that quailed –
In a distant time and drear;
I've made this new poem about it
In the course of this new year.

My first picture, see, reveals how
Noble count reproves his daughter,
For she'll bring disgrace upon him
If she doesn't stop – she ought to –
Being fond of that boy who
Isn't worthy so much as to
Wipe the mud from off her shoe.

See the anger on his features,
Ancient lineage to preserve!
She, a slender blonde so lovely,
Trembles, weeps; says not a word,
Or, that is, she says again
She can't leave him, will die rather,
That his grey head feel no pain.

Second picture: see the father
Summoning the lad to appear.
There he stands, all proud and dashing,
In his bearing see no fear.
But he's poor – a commoner –
Quite unworthy of the hand of
Any high-born girl like her.

Sternly the young lady's father
Lets this fact be clearly known.
Without notice of dismissal
This upstart forthwith must go.
And go far! The world is wide.
But the boy stands firm, undaunted,
Bowing deeply he replies:

"Good my lord! Your daughter's mine,
Loves no other, heart and head;
No man ever shall us sunder:
Give your answer: may we wed?
Be it "Yes" or be it "No",
Needless are her rank and riches:
E'en in rags with me she'll go."

Frigid, summary refusal:
You men, throw this fellow out!
Watch now as the picture changes
And my pointer moves about
And you see the girl repeat
'E'en in rags' as there she lies
Prostrate at her father's feet.

Footmen lay rough hands upon him
While her father takes a handful
Of his daughter's golden hair –
Who she is, he seems unmindful –
Flings her bodily through the door.
Not a word is heard about them
In the palace evermore.

Flimsy shack outside a village
Offers shelter to the pair;
Hiding place, contentment even,
Could they toil and hardship bear.
"Little cottage, room for two;"
Sighing ends the song, however:
Real life shows that is not true.

How can hands so delicate
Stand a life of washing, scrubbing?
Slender waits one's hands will fit round,
How endure lifting and lugging?
Life's comparitively sweet
For him, no milk that's curdled;
There's sour cream on top to eat.

Autumn evening, by the fireside
Dozes the old count. The chimney
Roars, outside it's wet and windy,
As in comes a youthful lackey,
Whispers – clearly in distress –
"Ragged woman at the drawbridge,
Says that she's our young mistress."

"Let the dogs tear her to pieces!
I've no daughter! It's all lies!"
Comes the grimmest of the pictures.
Pregnant woman, close your eyes,
Or you'll be like what you see,
Like the old count's hapless daughter
Hounded from her family.

Winter passed, the New Year too, in
Pleasure and forgetfulness;
In the daytime horse and hound,
Of an evening cheerfulness
Among gay society
Who, to pass the time, indulged in
All sorts of frivolity.

In those days the writing table
Here and there was still in fashion;
Inside one leg of a tiny
Table was a pencil hidden.
As spectators gathered round
Otherworldly spirits' written
Messages would then astound.

Quoth lovely lips, "My lord dares not
Speak with the spirits!" Thus reproved,
The count reached smiling for the table;
At his mere touch the table moved.
Swift flew the pencil up and down –
And on the paper there appeared
In well-known hand: 'Tis I, Verón.

An icy breath touched on his cheek,
He looked behind him and, dismayed,
There saw Verón, whom he had spurned,
No longer living, but a shade,
Pale and in rags – a ghastly sight!
And in her arms, whether asleep
Or dead, she bore an infant child.

"I come no grievous charge to press,
Your grandson but to show to you.
His body lies beside my own,
Together in a forest tomb.
Were he to live, a handsome boy;
Here sleeps his soul, not yet to rise,
Who died too soon life to enjoy."

Like one disturbed by ghoulish dreams
A few disjointed words he groaned;
This, to those nearby who heard it,
Seemed quite odd, for he was known
As a man known for ready talk.
He left the house – and was no more
Seen in that gay society.

At home he locked him in his room
Calling upon his daughter, and
Those that eavesdropped at the keyhole
Scarcely half could understand
Of the gibberish that he whined.
From mouth to mouth the whisper ran:
"Hush . . . the count has lost his mind."

But no, not mad: fully aware
He acted, spoke, his will ordained;
But when he bade his table write
In search of balm for his great pain
And she reappeared alone,
He begged and asked on bended knee:
How might he then best atone?

"I shall not say 'I forgive you'
For the curse that on you lies
Not from me comes. While I lived yet
In my heart did not despise,
It was pain, not hatred, broke it.
Pray to God for absolution,
His grace will your sin remit."

"Tell me, then, where lies your body?
For your father long has hunted.
I will build a chapel for you,
With a gilded tower surmounted;
There you shall rest fittingly."
"Better where your mastiffs drove me,
Better the wilderness for me!"

One picture more, the very last:
Great sarcophagus of stone
(One of many in that crypt there),
But on this one, here behold,
Coat of arms carved upside-down.
Never shall this tomb be opened
Till the Day of Judgment dawn.


János Arany




Bernard Adams was born in 1937 in the Black Country of the English West Midlands. Educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, he did his National Service in the regimental band of the Royal Scots Greys, then read Hungarian and Russian at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was awarded Heim Foundation/PEN America Center translation awards in 2008 and 2012, and in the same years won second prize in the John Dryden translation competition in the U.K. In 2009 he received a translation award from the Füst Milán Foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Science. He has published some 30 titles. In 2006 he moved to Hungary, and now lives at Zánka on the north side of Lake Balaton.

Translated by: Bernard Adams