Nazim Hikmet spent one third of his adult life fighting for a socialist revolution in his native Turkey, one third in jail and one third in exile. Now he is dead. Very few in Britain can have felt anything at the news. Very few can have known who he was, even that he had been alive at all. Yet Hikmet was one of the great poets of our century. Britain, of course, is proud of its local poetic culture; not many readers feel any wish to explore beyond the limits of their own language. Even the great romantic masters of 19th-century Europe—Pushkin, Mickiewicz, Petofi—have scarcely and lately been translated. What chance has a poet of 20th-century Turkey?

Hikmet’s most famous poem—In this year of 1941—presents, in three books, a series of what he called ‘human landscapes’. The first book is set in a train, in which prisoners are being taken to jail. They are each portrayed—physically, socially, biographically, dramatically—as they talk to each other and to the gendarmes who are escorting them, reacting to the changing landscapes seen through the train windows, striking common chords with the gendarmes, whose peasant origins most of them share. The second book is set in the prison itself. Politicals, drug-peddlers, rapists are thrown together, responding to each other and to imprisonment, reinterpreting their past lives. In the third book, Halil, the ‘Hikmet’ of the poem, is sent, still under guard, to hospital, where he meets Faik Bey, a decaying middle-class doctor. Faik Bey is the spokesman of the bourgeoisie, its egotism and its solitude. Finally he commits suicide; the morgue to which his body is carried is contrasted with a near-by ward, where a woman is giving birth. Throughout the poem, the lives of the prisoners, the warders and the patients are linked to the society outside and to its history, by their reminiscences, by their meditations, by the newspapers they read and the arguments they provoke. It is a masterpiece of socialist art, which, Hikmet wrote, ‘is not a question of form or of content, but of consciousness, of philosophic, economic and social conception.’

Hikmet’s life was eventful. He was a guard of honour at Lenin’s bier; he was sentenced to 15 years in prison after the Kurdish revolt of 1925; he escaped that sentence, but went to prison on other charges; he was finally amnestied in 1950 and spent the rest of his life in exile, longing to return to Anatolia, to die there and be buried there, in a pine coffin, ‘while the cherries are ripening’. He could not. His last public appearance, at Moshi, at the Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference, was marred by the division in the communist movement he had fought for all his life. His death has robbed that movement of an outstanding writer. His poems remain. They should be translated more fully and into more languages, English among them, so that they may be possessed and learnt from as they deserve.