Tudor Arghezi, the penname of Ion N. Theodorescu, began his writing career as a journalist around the year 1900, at first signing his work “Ion Theo”. By the interwar period, and particularly after 1922, his reputation as a poet was enormous. Arghezi was frequently named one of Romania’s greatest poets, even “a new Eminescu”, despite reservations on the part of Eugen Lovinescu, one of the leading literary critics of the time.
Arghezi’s first collection of poems, Fitting Words (1927), was published relatively late in his life, and begins with a “Testament”. His main talent as a poet is his ability to employ every possible lexical tool, every possible aesthetic nuance. He is, as present-day literary critic Nicolae Manolescu names him, an “orchestra-poet”, who can ascend to the heavens on the wings of psalms and prayers before plummeting back to earth, where we now find him in mouldering gaol cells amid the sounds of the inmates’ curses.
Influenced by various literary movements of the time, and by major poets Mihai Eminescu and his great rival Alexandru Macedonski at the turn of the century, Arghezi was for a long time an imitative writer. It was not until 1931 that he found his own individual voice, publishing the collection of poems Mould Flowers. A coherently themed series of texts, whose construction might be likened to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, the collection features Arghezi’s most important poems, including the famous title poem. Although not wholly new (many of the “mould flowers” had previously been published in various newspapers), the poems in the collection together make up one of the masterpieces of Romanian literature, despite the reticence of reviewers at the time. The collection captures sexual love from various viewpoints, and in this it is blatantly at odds with the kind of ethereal love poetry written in Romanian in the previous century.
In Arghezi’s work, the seamy is not glorified, however. On the contrary, the grotesque, the macabre, the coarse are treated as negative values, even though they are depicted in a neutral manner by a lyric “I” that often resorts to anecdote and storytelling, which by no means detract from the poetic substance of the text, but rather enhance it, lending it a voice unique in Romanian literature.