Skip to main content

Pure Heart: Context in Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. Launched by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, it “reminds the public that poets have an integral role to play in our culture and that poetry matters” ( This series of posts illustrates what poetry means to us at Books We Read.

PoetryIn Hungary, April 11 has been celebrated as the Day of Poetry since 1956 with poetry reading, poetry book launches, poem recitation contests, and meet-the-poet events all over the country. Since 1964, the day also commemorates the birthday of one of the most significant Hungarian poets, Attila József.

Growing up there, one saw his poem posted on the walls in every classroom in grade school in Communist Hungary:

Your work should be precise, aiming high,
As the stars move along the sky,
The way it’s only worth it.

Nice and inspiring for all those young minds and souls.

However, there is a bit more to it! Little did the students (or even their teachers) know before the broader access to the critical edition of his poems that the first two lines of the original poem were missing. The literary device of ellipsis as a political cover-up?

By definition, ellipsis is the omission of one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make a construction grammatically (or here, semantically) complete. Although its use is rather rare at the beginning of a sentence, in this case it completely changes the meaning.

See the two missing, but crucial, lines in bold that create a whole new poem:

Don’t you rush it,
Although others will profit,
Your work should be precise, aiming high,
As the stars move along in the sky,
The way it’s only worth it.

By omitting these two lines, whoever excerpted the poem blunted its cynical view of authority and distorted its meaning. This kind of misleading by omission is why the oath witnesses take in court explicitly instructs them to tell “the whole truth”: “You do solemnly state that the testimony you may give in the cause now pending before this court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”

The author, Hungarian poet Attila József, was expelled from the Szeged University for another poem he published in 1925. According to university administration, someone with “homicidal and suicidal thoughts publicly expressed” could not be allowed to receive a teacher’s degree.

The first few lines of the poem are as follows.

Ain’t no daddy, ain’t no mom,
Ain’t no country, ain’t no God,
Ain’t no crib, or ain’t no lover,
Ain’t no kisses, ain’t no cover.

      ––Attila József: With pure heart (1925)

Try reading out aloud these lines. Does that sound familiar?

Well, yes! It is a children’s rhyme in any language, the poet experimenting with the clash of the content and the format––a daring literary move, evidently too daring for the powers that be.

More translations of this poem are available in various languages. Which one did you think get this right? Click on version for the full poem.

Kids playing in the sandVersion 1 by Thomas Kabdebo

Without father without mother
without God or homeland either
without crib or coffin-cover
without kisses or a lover

Version 2 by Paul Sohar

Fatherless and motherless,
godless and countryless,
I’m without a crib or coffin,
without a lover to possess.

Version 3 by Gábor Gyukics

Got no father, no mother,
no god, no homeland,
no cradle, no shroud,
no kiss, no lover.

See more in Spanish, French, and Russian.


Image: Lung histopathology in Covid-19 (upper) compared to normal (lower) by Gábor Veress, MD