Nicolae Labiș published two collections of poems, The First Loves (1956) and The Stag Foal (1956), before his life was cut short in a tram accident at the age of just twenty-one. His third collection, The Struggle against Inertia, was published two years after his death.
The purity of his poetic voice is unmistakable, resembling nothing that could be found in Romanian poetry at the time, which was dominated by socialist realism and largely devoid of any literary merit. Even if Labiș himself composed facile narrative and descriptive poems in order to gain a foothold within the political system, he was expelled from the Party in 1954.
Perhaps also thanks to the tragic accident to which he fell victim, Labiș’s work was soon surrounded by a powerful mystique, which for a long time prevented any real critical assessment of it. His earliest poems, although showing talent, were obviously dictated by the political régime of the time, in which socialist realism was the dominant mode, demanding characters, landscapes and actions illustrative of the construction of socialism. But even so, in poems such as ‘The First Loves’ and ‘The Rhapsody of the Forest’ there are outstanding lines and strophes.
Poems such as ‘Espousal’ and ‘Dance’ depart from the line of politically subservient literature, revealing a poet of depths that the early texts perhaps did not hint at. And it is the poems that Nicolae Labiș published in his lifetime that demonstrate he was a poet worthy in his own right rather than one who was merely romanticised posthumously.
Nicolae Labiș’s most famous poem remains ‘The Death of the Roe Deer’, published in Romanian Life in 1955, and which was soon to appear in every Romanian language and literature textbook. Not lacking in charm and a perhaps slightly over-the-top sense of drama, Nicolae Labiș remains a cult poet in Romania.