by Alice Morgan
What is “Gloomy Sunday”?
If you ever heard about “Gloomy Sunday” it was probably in the context of the “notorious Hungarian Suicide song”. You heard the rumors about hundreds of people taking their own lives after listening to its melancholy notes. You heard about the sheet music being found in the hands of many suicide victims, and you heard about the song being banned in many countries. You might also know that the lyrics were written by Laszlo Javor and the music was composed by Rezso Seress, who took his own life by jumping out of a window.
I recently became fascinated with the story, so when I started to read more about it — trying to separate fact from fiction — I found it upsetting that a lot of the materials available in English fell victim to sensationalism, poor research, miss-translations or they were just flat out lies. In these series of essays I would like to bring a piece of history closer to those who are not fluent in Hungarian and as such would not be able to read about the following events. I will attempt to correct some of the wrongs, and paint a fuller, slightly less hazier picture of the story behind “Gloomy Sunday”, and how it came to be. In this first article I want to focus strictly on the poem itself.
It is important to recognize the fact that during the 1930s — when many of these events unfolded — the internet was suffering from severe lagg; so severe that you might say it was unusable. Information to the public was mostly conveyed by newspapers, as most people couldn’t afford to buy a radio yet. As such, there is not a lot of material evidence we can refer to when looking for sources, and even then we can’t ignore the context of major world events and the political climate. In conclusion: be cautious of what you believe to be true. If there is no source to support it, where is the information coming from?
I wanted to analyze the poem but for that I had to conquer the language barrier. I looked at a number of different translations, but I found that many of them ignore the narrative structure as well as the shifting perspective, so I decided to translate the poem myself. I tried to preserve the literal meaning as close to the original as possible without making it sound too weird in English. The one on the left is the original poem in Hungarian, the one on the right is my translation in English. Try to ignore all the negative connotations that you think you already know. What do you think it is about after just reading it?
Szomorú vasárnap száz fehér virággal
Vártalak kedvesem templomi imával
Álmokat kergető vasárnap délelőtt
Bánatom hintaja nélküled visszajött
Azóta szomorú mindig a vasárnap
Könny csak az italom kenyerem a bánat…
Utolsó vasárnap kedvesem gyere el
Pap is lesz, koporsó, ravatal, gyászlepel
Akkor is virág vár, virág és – koporsó
Virágos fák alatt utam az utolsó
Nyitva lesz szemem hogy még egyszer lássalak
Ne félj a szememtől holtan is áldalak…
Jávor László, 1934 (original)
It was a gloomy sunday with hundreds of white flowers.
I was waiting for you, my darling, with divine prayers.
It was that hopeful sunday before noon,
That the chariot of my sadness returned without you.
Ever since then sunday is always full of woe.
Tears are my drink and my nourishment is sorrow.
This will be the last sunday, my darling, please come!
There will be a priest, a casket, a wake and hearsecloth!
There will be flowers waiting for you, even now, and a casket.
Under the blooming trees this journey will be my last,
But my eyes will be open, so I can see you one last time.
Don’t be afraid to look at me, I will bless you, even in death.
Alice Morgan, 2017 (translated)
before the song, there was a poem
Now that you have some idea of what the lyrics say, let’s meet the person who put them on paper. Hold on to your thoughts, because you are going to need them soon!
The story begins with Laszlo Javor who was born in Budapest on May 4th,1903. He was a journalist and poet and he wrote the lyrics of Gloomy Sunday. He is the least known part of the successful duo, probably because he didn’t commit suicide and thus his story doesn’t carry the same weight of irony as his partner’s. It is a shame really, because even though I wouldn’t describe his life as tragic, he was just as interesting as Seress. We don’t know a lot about him, but he was certainly a talented and mysterious figure.1
The poem was first put to paper in 1934.2 The inspiration for the poem came from Sylvia, a dancer (and/or singer) who used to perform at a club in Budapest. (She is often mentioned as Javor’s fiance, but I haven’t found any evidence so far that they were ever betrothed to each other.) One day she was offered a contract abroad, and she left Javor. It is believed that she moved to Turkey, but later she settled down in Italy, where she got married. Javor was heartbroken. He aimlessly wandered the streets at night until one night — overcome by sorrow — he put his thoughts on paper. 3, 4
Laszlo Javor in Paris. The song became so popular in Paris that the impresario invited him to performer’s night.
deciphering the gloom
Let’s take a closer look at the poem together. After reading it for the first time, I think your impression is that the meaning of the second paragraph is a lot more clearer than the first one. It’s a lot darker and presence of death is stronger, but why is that? What is the first part about? You might also notice that the first paragraph is written as something that already happened, but the second paragraph is referring to the future. It’s referring to a “would be” scenario. It’s something that could happen, but it didn’t happen yet. It’s a fantasy.
“It was a gloomy sunday with hundreds of white flowers.”
Pretty straightforward. We get a time and a setting.
“I was waiting for you, my darling, with divine prayers.”
The poet was waiting for a woman to arrive. He calls her “darling” so we can deduce that this lady means a lot to him. The poet was praying or getting ready to pray. In the original it actually says “I was waiting for you with churchly prayer.” That doesn’t translate well into English, so I changed it to “divine”. The conclusion is that it relates to religion and it also hints at the location of the story.
“It was that hopeful sunday before noon,”
In the original he describes “before noon” as a “dream chaser”. Here, the poet personifies “noon” by giving it the ability to chase dreams. In reality he is referring to himself being full of hope. Sunday is not the “dream chaser” nor is it full of hope. It’s him.
“That the chariot of my sadness returned without you.”
This line is our last clue to figuring out what the hell is going on and it’s not a metaphor either. I think chariot is referring to an actual chariot. The poet was waiting for a lady to arrive in a chariot, but she didn’t. That’s how a simple transportation device becomes “the chariot of sadness.” So, if we read the first four lines again, what do we get?
There are lots of flowers, probably outside a church because the poet was waiting for a chariot to arrive. He felt a trace of happiness, until the lady didn’t show up. Where is he?
I think he was waiting for the bridal chariot to arrive, but he got stood up at his own wedding. He was praying because he was getting ready to swear the oath of marriage to his future wife. Don’t forget, everything that we read so far has already happened. The poet knows that she is not going to show up. He knows the conclusion, which adds another layer of emotion to this already painful memory.
“Ever since then sunday is always full of woe.
Tears are my drink and my nourishment is sorrow.”
At this point, the reader caught up with the poet. We are not in the past anymore, we are in the present.
Every Sunday the poet is reminded of this painful memory. He is expressing sadness and disappointment.
Onto the second paragraph!
“This will be the last sunday, my darling, please come!”
The poet is hinting the end of his suffering and he is asking her to come see him.
“There will be a priest, a casket, a wake and hearsecloth!”
Here we learn that the poet is planning his own gruesome end. He is not merely asking her to see him, he is begging for her to come. He is trying to list all the reasons that could make her show up, because he is still haunted by the memory of her not coming to their wedding. He is afraid, and is trying to turn his own funeral into a spectacle that would attract his beloved’s attention.
“There will be flowers waiting for you, even now, and a casket.”
This sentence refers directly back to the first paragraph. The flowers at the wedding belonged to her. The flowers in the funeral should belong to him, but he is saying “even now” at his own funeral these flowers will belong only to her.
“Under the blooming trees this journey will be my last,
But my eyes will be open, so I can see you one last time.
Don’t be afraid to look at me, I will bless you, even in death.”
In the original the poet says “Don’t be afraid of my eyes”, but it’s not really his eyes she would be afraid of, but the reflection of her own guilt. The guilt that people feel when someone close to them commits suicide. He doesn’t want her to feel anything but happiness and he will think of her fondly even in death.
What did we learn?
I can say with certainty that the first paragraph of the poem describes a wedding that is in clear contrast with the funeral of the second paragraph. The poet is playing with opposites here, if the wedding stands for hope then the funeral stands for despair; the loss of hope. Past is set against a possible future.
We learn that nobody is dead at any given time. People seem to think that the woman is dead, but she is only dead in the figurative sense. He lost her because she left and married another man, not because she physically died. The entire second paragraph wouldn’t make sense otherwise. Why would you invite a ghost to your own funeral? He is clearly talking to her as if she was still alive.
The poet can’t be dead because he is the one talking and describing a possible grim end to it all. There is no double suicide, or a single suicide for that matter. No ones dead. There is no revenge or anger. There is just pain and a deep sense of loss.
The other meaning of Sunday
There are cultural differences and nuances that we learn specific to the region where we grow up; things so simple that we tend to think that they are universal and rarely question them. One of those things is the meaning of Sunday. What does Sunday mean to you? Depending where you live, Sunday may represent the beginning of the week, or the end of the week. In most Western cultures — including Hungary — Sunday is the last day of the week and appears as such on the calendar. But, what if that doesn’t apply to you? Did the meaning of the poem change already? Javor certainly thought so. More on that in the next episode!
translation and poetry
It is difficult to translate anything from another language, but when it comes to poetry, it’s almost impossible. Language changes the way we think and this becomes painfully obvious with every single word that we read. The word “house” doesn’t carry the same weight as “home”. They both describe the same object, they are synonyms and yet one carries more emotion than the other. “Home” is more inviting, personal and warm. One word can make a subtle but huge difference, so how can someone convey that to millions of people who all speak different languages? It can’t be done. Changes has to be made so the words can better resonate with the audience. It’s a compromise; something needs to give in order for something else to be improved. I adore all the English translations out there, and I wish I could understand all the hundreds of versions of other languages just to see what people came up with. ♥
The end. For now. I’m planning to write at least two more longer pieces about the subject and I will see where it goes from there. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you have something to share with me, (feedback, opinion, mistake?) shoot me an email or leave a comment below.
Special thanks to I. Marinov from urbanlegends.hu for his advice and guidance.
notes & trivia
♦ In Hungarian, family name always comes before the given name, so “Laszlo Javor” is really “Jávor László”,
♦ “Szomorú vasárnap” literary means “Sad Sunday”.
♦ Javor published two more books under the name “Gloomy Sunday.” The first one was a collection of his poems; 31 including “Gloomy Sunday”. It was published in 1935 by Horizon. He also wrote a novel, a contemporary love story that took place in Budapest. It was published by Nova in 1937. 5, 6
(most of these requires a paid subscription to view)
2 Somogyi Néplap, 1983. április (39. évfolyam, 77-101. szám) 1983-04-13 / 86. szám
3 Esti Kurir, 1937. november (15. évfolyam, 249-272. szám) 1937-11-12 / 257. szám
4 Népszava, 2010. november (137. évfolyam, 254-278. sz.) 2010-11-13 / 264. szám
5 8 Órai Ujság, 1935. július (21. évfolyam, 147-172. szám) 1935-07-10 / 154. szám
6 Pesti Hírlap, 1936. december (58. évfolyam, 275-298. szám) 1936-12-26 / 296. szám