Being In and Above: on Friedrich Hölderlin’s ‘Hyperion’

This is my review of Friedrich Hölderlin’s only novel, Hyperion or The Hermit in Greece. The review first appeared in the Temenos Academy Review (No. 20, 2017).  The translation I am discussing is a very recent one by India Russell which was published by Melrose Books in 2016. 

 

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Begun in Tübingen in 1792 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and published in two volumes in 1797 and 1799, Hölderlin’s only novel is really a philosophical and spiritual biography of its eponymous hero. It does not deliver what a novel reader might expect in terms of characterisation, suspense or specificity of incident (though its retrospective narrative is cleverly designed). It is best read as a doorway to the more metaphysical thought that underpins the later poetry. But Hölderlin’s youthful passion and urgency are evident, for example, in the portrait of his native Germany. Its people and culture are subjected to a withering satirical attack, with the corrupt state of German life acting as the penultimate phase of Hyperion’s long education. He reports, ‘I can think of no people more torn than the Germans. Artisans you see, but no human beings, thinkers, but no human beings, priests, but no human beings […] – is that not like a battlefield, where hands and arms and all limbs lie dismembered amongst one another, whilst the shed life-blood runs away into the sand?’ Such vivid images of division – between warring powers, within bodies of individuals – are central to Hölderlin’s critique of what was wrong with late eighteenth-century Europe.

Hyperion is an epistolary novel, the narrator writing from his native Greece to a friend, Bellarmin, who lives in Germany. Hölderlin’s prose is heightened and mellifluous, dramatically ebbing and flowing; and India Russell’s translation catches this far better than Willard Trask’s 1965 version or David Schwartz’s from 1990. The writing is breathless and aspiring; it is Shelley’s prose not Keats’s. The novel’s picaresque narrative records Hyperion’s travels after his birth on the Greek island of Tenos, where he spends his childhood and school years. He moves to Smyrna, returns home, then travels again to Calaurea, an island close to the eastern coast of the Peloponnese. It is here he meets and falls in love with the young woman, Diotima. Called back to action in the world, he fights the Turkish forces occupying Greece and later fights alongside Russian troops. He is defeated and wounded, then travels to Sicily, thence to Germany, befriending Bellarmin. Only on his return to Tenos does the novel’s account of his life open. So the narrative trajectory means that Hyperion reflects on his own life’s journey in the letters. Importantly, though no significant external events intervene, we perceive a difference between the Hyperion of letter one and the man writing the final words of the novel.

 

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The retrospective nature of the narrative only partly accounts for what Hölderlin calls in the Preface Hyperion’s ‘elegiac character’. In his opening letters, the protagonist regards reflection/judgement (‘Urteil’) as a curse, cutting him off from an unthinking sense of oneness with the world. As the novel opens, it is especially in relation to the natural world that Hyperion feels this alienation, though the limits of his current understanding are revealed: ‘I know not what happens to me when I lift my eyes before your beauty […] My whole being becomes quiet and harkens’. He later exclaims, ‘To be one with all, that is the life of the Divine, that is the heaven of man’ and yet ‘a moment’s reflection casts me down […] Nature closes her arms and I stand like a stranger before her’. He identifies his schooling as having made the first break between the sense of oneness experienced by a child and this later sense of estrangement. The loss is blamed on ‘Knowledge’ which inculcates the desire to be ‘absolutely reasonable, [to] have thoroughly learnt to distinguish myself from that which surrounds me’; and in such a state of nurtured division he suffers solitude and rejection from the world about him.

 

Hölderlin’s preface to the Thalia fragment of Hyperion (published by Schiller in 1794) lays these issues out more philosophically. ‘Man would like to be in everything and above everything’ he argues, quoting Loyola: ‘Not to be confined by the largest, but to be contained in the smallest, is divinity’. He observes how this pronouncement ‘designates the all-desiring, all-subjugating dangerous side of man as well as the […] most beautiful condition he can achieve’. On one side, we desire the freedom to be above our lives, to shape them, yet on the other we long to feel at home in our world, to be in it at the cost of our liberty. With one eye on the Revolution in France, it seems to Hölderlin that pursuit of freedom at the expense of a sense of unity with the world leads to a deracinated fanaticism that harms both ourselves and the world. But on the other hand, to experience existence without liberty and self-determination is to be sunk deeply in a form of passivity verging on idiocy. Hölderlin’s originality lies in his view of human life as being endlessly dynamic, the two impulses – to be both in and above our own lives – are to be held in tension, the self drawn in contrary directions with no anticipation of a resolution.

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In the novel, Hyperion’s early and brief encounters with Adamas on Tenos present one possible easement of his sense of alienation. Excited by the older man’s devotion to the past, he reads the Classics and visits Mount Athos, Olympia, Mount Cynthus and the grave of Homer. Hölderlin’s earlier poems frequently echo just this nostalgic impulse in his idealisation of the Classical past. David Constantine points out that for Hölderlin, ‘the civilisation of Periclean Athens seemed to him the best the human race had ever achieved and he wanted an equivalent of it for his own day and age and even believed the French Revolution might bring it about’. So this is not, for Hölderlin, any simple nostalgia but rather a call to spiritual and philosophical revolution. A poem like ‘The Archipelago’ portrays the devastation of eighteenth-century Greece (under the rule of the ‘Persian’) but also anticipates its renovation:

 

Lovingly back to the waiting abandoned river

Come the people of Athens and down from the homeland’s mountains

The shining crowds, meeting like waters, replenish

The emptied plain with joy.

 

(tr. Constantine)

 

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But in the novel, Adamas’ overly literal idealisation of the past is quickly dismissed by Hyperion. Alone, Adamas travels on into Asia in search of peoples of ‘rare excellence’ who, he hopes, are still living out such ancient virtues. Left dissatisfied, Hyperion is bored and restless on Tenos. He leaves for Smyrna and encounters a very different solution to his problems in the form of Alabanda, a man devoted not to the worship of a past age but to the struggle for social change. For a period Alabanda and Hyperion live ‘like two streams which roll down from the mountains and cast off the burden of earth and stone and rotten wood and the whole inert chaos that had impeded them, to forge the way to one another and break through until where, seizing and seized with equal strength, united in one majestic River, they then begin the journey in to the wide Sea’. Such a sentence is a good illustration of Russell’s skill in this translation – the results are flowing, energetic, with just the right degree of distancing from conventional language usage. For the two men, the present state of society is like a ‘barren, rotten tree’, needing to be felled so that a ‘new world’ can grow in its place. But Alabanda is too much a man of action, a fighter, consumed with the wish to exercise freedom to effect social change and (as the simile above suggests) liable to destructive violence and a moral fanaticism. His mode of operation is to ‘burn the weeds […] blast the dull clods from the Earth!’. He himself admits to being ‘rough and offensive and unsociable’. Hyperion finds he cannot commit himself to this course either and we become conscious of his tendency to vacillate between (again) being within and without, between commitment and alienation and aware too of the fact he perceives this as is a problem needing to be resolved.

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It is on the visit to Calaurea that Hyperion meets Diotima, a young woman who is unreflectively at home in the natural world. This character was introduced into later drafts of the novel and is a portrait of Susette Gontard, the married woman whose children Hölderlin was appointed to tutor in 1795, the woman he loved. Though Susette seems to have reciprocated Hölderlin’s affections, the relationship was doomed. He dedicated the second volume of Hyperion to her. The name Diotima appears frequently in Hölderlin’s later poetry and is the name of the seer or priestess who first taught Socrates to regard love as the means of ascent to a contemplation of the Divine. In Hyperion she lives contentedly in the world as opposed to Alabanda’s position above the world, and his wish to change it. Her heart is most at home among flowers, ‘as though it were one of them’, and Hyperion enviously observes her unreflective unity with the natural world: ‘Diotima’s eyes opened wide and quietly, as a bud opens, her dear little face opened before the airs of Heaven, became pure speech and soul and, as though she began a flight into the clouds, her whole form stood stretched gently upwards in easy majesty, her feet hardly touching the Earth’.

Diotima is initially unconscious of the beauty Hyperion sees in her but she becomes more self-aware in the letters documenting their relationship. She also comes to understand the real nature of Hyperion himself, recognising that (as Hölderlin’s philosophical thinking suggests) he cannot remain content with what she has to offer. Though Hyperion may indeed wish for such oblivious contentment, it is ironically Diotima who suggests he must do otherwise: ‘Will you lock yourself in the heaven of your love, and leave the world that needs you? […] You must, like the ray of light, descend like the all-refreshing rain, you must go down into the land of the mortals, you must enlighten like Apollo’. Light, healing and poetry are, of course, among Apollo’s many attributes and it will be as an artist that Hyperion must give (as Diotima puts it) ‘what you have within you’. In ‘As on a holiday…’, one of his later hymns, Hölderlin advises his fellow poets:

 

us it behoves to stand

Bareheaded beneath God’s thunder-storms,

To grasp the Father’s ray, no less, with our two hands

And, wrapping in song the heavenly gift,

To offer it to the people.

 

(tr. Hamburger)

 

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Michael Hamburger

It takes a long time for Hyperion to accept Diotima’s proposal that his true role must be that of an artist. Only after the process of recording his life for Bellarmin does Hyperion achieve what Hölderlin’s Preface refers to as the ‘resolution of dissonances’ in his character. At one point he notes, ‘I am an artist, but I am not skilled’. He returns to Alabanda for a period, fighting and being wounded in a war with the ‘Persians’, then suffers the loss of Diotima. Her last words to him suggest that he has been ‘put to the test and it is bound to become clear who you are’. Hyperion’s test will include the writing of his self-examining epistles. In effect, Hyperion ends by pursuing an art, like Hölderlin’s mature poetry, that essays some interim representations of the Heraclitean ‘One differentiated in itself’. Russell’s essay, accompanying her translation, interprets this as the lightning strike of a ‘Divine force’, an insight that (loosely) links Hölderlin, Shelley and Empedocles. She tends to replace philosophical incisiveness with a blustering, autobiographical style, but what her exposition lacks in rigour it makes up for in enthusiasm.

 

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In a letter of 1801, Hölderlin declares there ‘is only one quarrel in the world: which is more important, the whole or the individual part’. Hyperion finally accepts that the irresolvable tension, the pulse or heartbeat vital to the fully-lived human life is that between unity and freedom, Being and reflection, living in life and above it. With new-found optimism, he compares these ‘dissonances of the world’ to lovers’ quarrels, where ‘Reconciliation is in the midst of strife and all that is parted finds itself again’. He offers a further encouraging metaphor: ‘The arteries divide and return to the heart and one, eternal glowing life is All’. What remains to us is an unending quest or process not liable to completion or final stasis. The impossibility of completion is famously expressed in the novel’s final, almost throw-away phrase (‘Nächstens mehr’). In Russell’s fine translation this is rendered as ‘More shortly’ and the ‘more’ that followed was, of course, the poetry for which Hölderlin is now most famous.

 

‘I Hear the Unheard Heart’: the Poems of Rose Auslander

What follows is a review – originally published by Poetry London earlier last year – of Rose Auslander’s poetry. As I say below, her work has been surprisingly little noticed in the UK literary world. The situation is rather different in her own culture where she is well-known and much admired as this entry on the germanlit.org website makes clear. She is an unusual and original poet well worth seeking out and you can find this book on the Arc website.

While I Am Drawing Breath is a revised version of Mother Tongue, Anthony Vivis and Jean Boase-Beier’s 1995 volume of  Rose Auslander’s poems. That book strode across an effectively empty stage and the same is surprisingly true of this new version: there are really no rival translations into English currently available (she’s not even included in Michael Hoffman’s Twentieth-Century German Poems (Faber, 2005)). This sadly reflects Auslander’s reception through the first half of last century. Only at the age of 64 did her work begin to be noticed, though until her death, 23 years later, she received prizes and accolades, mostly in Germany. Her relative neglect is surprising given her extraordinary personal story, surviving the worst horrors of the twentieth century, and the vivid, gem-like minimalism of her work.

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The life is important. Rose Scherzer was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in 1901, growing up in Czernowitz (then part of Austria-Hungary). The First World War forced the family to Vienna, then Budapest, but later Auslander returned to study at Czernowitz University. She made the acquaintance of philosopher, Constantin Brunner, but in 1921 emigrated to America with Ignaz Auslander (to whom she was briefly married). She returned to Czernowitz only to find it occupied by the Nazi’s in 1941. She lived in the Jewish ghetto, surviving against the odds, writing poetry and meeting Paul Antschel (later Paul Celan). The town was liberated by the Russians but while Auslander tried to arrange for the family to emigrate to America, her mother died, precipitating her daughter’s breakdown. She did not write in her native tongue again for another 10 years.

While I Am Drawing Breath contains work written in these later years (it’s a shame the arrangement of this book gives no sense of chronological development). By then the friendship with Celan had been revived and Auslander abandoned the rhyme schemes and metrical patterning of earlier work for a more free, highly compressed, yet colloquial style, rejecting all punctuation. It is this style that German readers recognise as her distinctive achievement and is the culmination of the tragic restlessness of her life as well as her fascination with language. It was hard to speak of what she had witnessed:

 

From the eyes

of sated man-eaters

smoke surges

and my words

have blackened

in it

(‘Smoke’)

Paul Celan

Eloquence, volubility, the pleasures of the text risked disrespect for the victims of war. Auslander’s words are never far from mourning:

I call out

my willow-word

to the sunken souls

the squall has

driven down

to the pebbles

(‘Willow Word’)

Czernowitz, probably 1941

Yet she seldom speaks directly of pogroms and persecution. ‘And Shut Out Their Love’ does record the advent of “guns and jagged banners”, but Auslander’s imagery is more mythic, more folk tale: hunger, blood, fire, snow, ashes, smoke. Faced with the “unbearable reality” of the Czernowitz ghetto, the options were to despair or dwell in “dreamwords” and there are strong escapist longings as in ‘In Those Years’ with its snow-bound world into which come seductive rumours of  a “country / where the lemons flower” (an allusion to Goethe’s 1795 lyric ‘Mignon’). ‘Immer Atlantis’ (translated here as ‘Atlantis Always Glittering’) re-creates that mythic city:

there are always celebrations in swaying gardens

well-proportioned people

always holy and delicate

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But her friendship with Brunner suggests Auslander was pursuing something more complex than the sort of consolatory fantasy this suggests. He warned against the dangers of superstition, or pseudo-contemplation: unfounded beliefs creating a distortion of true insight. Auslander regards language itself as a ‘third way’, a melding of self and world, without the risks of denying reality. In ‘Mother Tongue’, movement along the “word path” leads to transformation “from myself into myself / from moment to moment”. In ‘Words’, language is neither slave to reality nor liberated self-expression, but “my source”. In ‘The Net’ the goal is “one word / which says it all” as Brunner suggested, an ascent to a plane of spiritual (geistig) contemplation encompassing love, art, and philosophy.

That Auslander’s work pursues such goals without tumbling into arid abstraction and commentary is one of the pleasures of these tough, unselfpitying poems. She is open to “dull brown” as well as “radiant blue” (‘As If’) and her obsession “for binding words” is an attempt “to reach even further / into this known / unknowable / world” (‘Sentences’). What she hears through the cuckoo, rainbow, snow, camomile, mills, carnivals, islands and trees is a spiritual realm, given validity not by any organised religion but by the suffering she has endured:

I hear the unheard heart

in my breathing

like a clock made of air

then the melody of the music-box

is alive in my temples

its tones muted like the moving spheres

(‘The Unheard Heart’)

Jan Wagner: the Poet as Tea-Bag and as Chameleon

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Iain Galbraith’s really skillful translations of the German poet Jan Wagner have just won the Popescu European Poetry Prize. Wagner’s poems brew a formal brilliance (Karen Leeder remarks in her Introduction to Arc’s Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, that “virtuoso” is the compliment most often applied to him) with an intense concentration on really existing things. In the German tradition, of course, such a meticulous and sensual evocation of things (‘die Dinge’) harks back to Rilke’s advice in the ninth of his Duino Elegies (1922):

 

Perhaps we are here to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window –

at most: column, tower . . .

 

Rilke’s cycle of poems arrives at this conclusion (“Praise this world to the angel, not some / inexpressible other”) not at all in the spirit of defeat but in a celebratory mood because it is only through honest interaction with the world that we define and refine our sense of ourselves. Equally and dialectically, through, our emotional and artistic responses to the world of things we are able to translate the inanimate and unconscious world into something more significant, lasting, spiritualized.

 

And these things, which live by passing away,

acknowledge your praise of them, as they vanish,

they look to us to deliver them, we, the most

fleeting of all. They long for us to change them,

utterly, in our invisible hearts – oh, endlessly,

to be within us – whoever, at last, we may be.

 

It is just this ebb and flow between self and other, each re-defining the other, each growing in response to the other, that Wagner seems intent on recording. But it’s not always an easy process as the poem ‘Mushrooms’ suggests. The narrator must listen for the snap of a twisted stem as if cracking a safe, “hoping for the right combination”. But when the right balance (I’m afraid it has to be this dull-seeming word) is achieved between active exploration and passive sensitivity then two worlds are miraculously joined.

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But we need not get too po-faced about the process. Wagner suggests a tea-bag might help us envisage it. In two haikus, he wryly evokes both facets of such communion in a religious visionary and a rope-dangling, Indiana Jones-type adventurer:

 

1

draped only in a

sackcloth mantle. the little

hermit in his cave

 

2

a single thread leads

to the upper world. we shall

give him five minutes

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Jan Wagner

Wagner reflects the often rebarbative nature of the process partly through typographical choices, abandoning capital letters throughout (a far more disturbing move in German, of course, which capitalizes all nouns, all things). It’s also reflected in the choice of fruit in ‘Quince Jelly’. Knobbly and ugly, even ripe quinces are inedible when raw, astringent and tough. Wagner acknowledges the “tough and foreign” quality of the fruit and its taste which makes “our palates baulk”. Yet the human work invested in the transformative domestic process yields great rewards:

 

quinces, jellied, lined up in bellied jars on

shelves and set aside for the darkness, stored for

harsher days, a cellar of days, in which they

shone, are still shining.

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Such meticulous observation and sensual details held in the form of verse ensure Wagner’s things are always more than themselves and here the quince jelly is a poem, much like Wordsworth’s daffodils, an accumulation of “wealth” to flash upon “that inward eye” in days and years to come.

Wagner also chooses a ‘Chameleon’ to represent the poet. Describing the creature’s curved tail as a “pastoral staff” raises the spiritual stakes with a wonderfully light touch. The animal’s perceptive acuity is likewise explored with its tongue like a “telescope”, snapping up the “constellation” of a dragonfly. Its eye is a “fortress” yet contains a flickering pupil; an indefinable restlessness is suggested by its shed skin like “an outpost or long-discarded theory”. Most tellingly, the chameleon’s independently moving eyes enable Wagner to suggest the balance of both centrifugal and centripetal thrusts of the true perception: the animal gazes “simultaneously at the sky / and the ground, keeping his distance / from both”.

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The title poem of Arc’s selection (taken from 5 collections between 2001-2014) is another portrait of the poet. ‘Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees’ has the narrator wearing an ever-accumulating beard of swarming bees. The risks and dangers are part of the point but the poem focuses on the accumulating “weight and spread”, suggesting the swarm extends and adds to the narrator in some intrinsic way. Indeed, he becomes “the stone-still centre of song”. In the next quatrain, the passive singer is converted into an “ancient knight” arming for battle, yet he does not either advance or retreat:

 

just stands there gleaming, with barely a hint

of wind behind the lustre, lingering breath,

and only vanishing becomes distinct.

 

This teasing last line (“und wirklich sichtbar erst mit dem verschwinden”) is best understood again through Rilke. Auden affectionately ribbed Rilke as a poet whom “die Dinge bless, / The Santa Claus of loneliness” but it is in the challenge to self confronted through honest encounters with the world of things that we re-make and re-define our sense of self. Here is the idea expressed in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus, 2, 13:

 

To the used up – to all Nature’s musty and mute,

its brimming storehouse, its inexpressible sum –

joyously add yourself and the account’s done.

 (All translations from Rilke here taken from my translations of  ‘Duino Elegies’ and ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’)

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Hear Galbraith read ‘December 1914’ below:

 

 

 

A new translation of Brecht’s ‘Of poor B.B.’

Having posted last week about Brecht’s poem ‘Of poor B.B.’ it felt pretty inevitable that I should have a go at translating it myself. Though it can’t always be the case, most translations are like this – undertaken as a tribute to the original poet and poem, a public declaration that this fascinated me, an attempt to really work out how the text functions and achieves its ends. Disseminating the text to the target language’s reading public is also an aspect of this tribute paid.

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David Constantine, writing in Modern Poetry in Translation (No. 2 2015) about Derek Mahon’s recently published translations (Echo’s Grove (Gallery Press, 2013)) considers the “liberties” Mahon tends to take with such work to produce “almost” original poems in English while allowing their sources to remain audible. Mahon does this by working from “cribs of one kind or another” and Constantine suggests that this has become a very common practice. Indeed, “Mahon practices the belief that you don’t actually need to know well or even at all the languages you translate out of; even – a possible sub-text – that knowing them might be a disadvantage” (MPT, No. pp.111-113). As someone who was remarkably poor at languages at school, this is something I have found myself saying in recent years since going public with a few translations (for example, see post on translating Rilke). I like to think of the source poem as a series of gestures – like a dance performed by the original author – so the translator must try to achieve similar effects but with his/her own body (of language). A crib will guide me to the main movements, even to much of the details, but tone, emotional colour, shades of irony are harder to trans-late and cannot merely be copied. This gesture made by this body, if repeated precisely by my body, will more likely look awkward, or meaningless, or comic when it was intended as serious. I have to achieve the end (as far as I see it and understand its intended impact – you have to rely on the translator for that certainly) by using the resources at my disposal, my physique, my body of language.

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In practice, what this means is that once the basic outline and incontrovertible details are in place in a translation, I have to close the source book and try to pump some life into the target text. Ted Hughes imagined a poem without true life in it as limping (Poetry in the Making, p.15); a translation without true life in it is only going to be a halting performance you’d rather not witness, worrying about whether such a gesture was intended or not, ironic or not, you fear the whole is not coherent, a mere series of movements, not a dance at all. I’ve always liked Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the translation task: in introducing his now 50-year-old translations of Fyodor Tyutchev, he claimed ‘The aim of these translations has been to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind’ (Versions from Fyodor Tyutchev 1803-1873 (Oxford: OUP, 1960)).

Happily, ‘Of poor B.B.’ is not a text of great complexity. Brecht is usually concerned to communicate clearly and he says in ‘On Rhymeless Verse with Irregular Rhythms’ (Poems 1913-1956, pp. 463-471)) “what was needed was the tone of direct and spontaneous speech”. He mostly wanted to use “everyday speech” and “sobriety of expression” which he felt was “by no means irreconcilable with poetry”. So Brecht is not exactly Rilke or Mallarme for the translator. Looking at Hofmann and Hamburger’s translations (as referred to in last week’s post), most of Brecht’s dance is clearly conveyed with little variation between the two versions. Though Brecht’s lines are pretty irregular he does keep a ballad-like rhyme in lines 2 and 4 of each quatrain and I miss this in Hofmann’s version. Hoffman also (to my mind) overelaborates in a few of his English choices. “Sterbsakrament” (Hamburger has “last sacrament”) becomes “every sacramental perquisite”. Hofmann’s narrator looks at the two women in quatrain 4 “insouciantly” and his pine trees “micturate” (when the point of the contrast with the city asks for something more downright like Hamburger’s “piss”). I don’t think lexical adventures here are quite right for this poem. Also in quatrain 7, Hofmann’s antennae “underwire” the Atlantic. Brecht is referring to transatlantic cables but the allusion to supportive bras seems distracting and gives mankind’s efforts too much power. I read the point as suggesting our technology is dwarfed by the ocean in the remarkable image that our best advances merely entertain (“unterhalten”) or “amuse” (Hamburger) the Atlantic.

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Regarding the hat donned by the narrator to fit in with city folk, Hofmann’s “top hat” seems a little too up-market, while Hamburger’s “hard hat” conjures up a building site. I have gone for “bowler hat” of a clerk or business man. The sound of the birds in quatrain 6 is important. Hofmann’s “bawl” catches the anti-pastoral tone of the poem but Hamburger is forced by the needs of form to go for “twitter and cheep” (to rhyme with “sleep”). There is also some ambiguity in the final stanza where the narrator hopes to keep his “Virginia” alight in the coming earthquakes of social disruption. The German suggests the cigar will hopefully not go out (“nicht ausgeher”) and the cause: “lassen durch Bitterkeit”. Hofmann renders this as hoping the cigar will not “go bitter on me” whereas Hamburger (again in part for the sake of form) hopes to keep the cigar alight “embittered or no”. Hofmann’s phrase feels too narrowly concerned with the smoking experience but Hamburger’s rather awkward phrase does successfully suggest what I see in the final lines – the narrator’s hope (if not altogether sincerely) that he himself may avoid becoming bitter. My solution tries to hold both literal and transferred metaphorical senses of the bitter cigar equally within the line. I’ve come to think of this as important to the poem as the narrator is blessed with a degree of self awareness as much as he is cursed with a cynical, dismissive hedonism.

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Of poor B.B.

I, Bertolt Brecht, came from the black forests.
My mother bore me into the city
while I was in her womb. And till my dying day
the chill of the woods will lie there inside me.

In the asphalt city I’m at home. From the beginning
supplied with every last sacrament:
with newspapers – and tobacco – and with brandy.
To the end, suspicious, lazy, content.

I’m amicable with the people I meet. I don
a bowler hat in just the way they do.
I say: they’re animals with a quite peculiar smell.
And I say: so what – I am too.

In the morning, in my vacant rocking chairs,
I sometimes set for myself a couple of women
and carelessly gaze at them and converse with them:
in me you have one here you can’t rely on.

When night falls, I gather men around me;
we address each other as ‘gentlemen’.
They swing their feet onto my table tops.
They say: things will improve for us. I don’t ask when.

Come morning, in dawn’s grey light, pine trees piss
and their vermin, the birds, start to shriek.
At that hour, in the city, I drain a glass and fling
my cigar butt away and, troubled, fall asleep.

We have settled, a superficial crew,
in houses that to our minds will never fall derelict
(we’ve built tower blocks over Manhattan Island
and spindly antennae that tickle the Atlantic).

What will last of cities is what blows through them: wind!
Houses make happy eaters: wolfed in a moment.
We know it – we are temporary
and after us comes nothing really worthy of comment.

In the earthquakes that are to come, I hope I’ll keep
my Virginia lit, not doused, grown bitter.
I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities
long ago from the black forests inside my mother.

tr. Martyn Crucefix

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Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Of Poor B.B.’

I have taken too little heed of BB, the poet. The chances are that you have too. This would certainly have been the case in 1976 when John Willett and Ralph Mannheim published Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 (Eyre Methuen) with its stellar cast of translators. The Introduction to that selection pointed out that, until well after his death in 1956, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking” under world literature. It’s our desperate bad luck that most of us have only ever been encouraged to approach Brecht through his dramatic theories, then his plays, “only coming to the poems as a by-product of his theatre work”.

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Things may have changed more quickly on mainland Europe, but only 10 years ago Michael Hofmann could still argue that the “prevailing British view of [Brecht was] as an arid theorist of drama [. . .] and  the author of a few baffling but conniving plays” (Introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems). In fact, Hofmann thinks of Brecht as the writer who took “poetry into the twentieth century”, its single most crucial figure. Against the claims of Eliot, Valery or Lorca this may seem a bold statement but Hofmann is thinking of poetry as “a living counter-force in socio-political reality [. . .] poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure”, an art that is “heartening and inspiring”. There is some risk of this drifting back towards BB the purveyor of proletarian political messages, but Hofmann’s contrast of Brecht with “his great counter-pole” in German poetry, Gottfried Benn, a poet of more familiar “private griefs and musics, of monologue, of fascination”, makes Brecht’s distinctive contribution clearer.

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In beginning to explore Brecht’s poetry I’ve been looking at poems from 1925-1928 and, like plenty before me, I’ve become intrigued by ‘Of Poor B.B.’ (German original and Michael Hamburger’s translation here; Hofman’s translation read here). Apparently the poem derives from lines jotted down on a speeding express train at 9.30pm in April 1922, when Brecht was travelling home to Augsburg after spending a difficult first winter in Berlin. The impact of the Great War is still visible here but Brecht is also very interested in exploring the impact of big city life. ‘A Reader for Those who Live in Cities’ was the title of a projected group of poems from around 1926.

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From the notes in Poems 1913-1956 it’s possible to reconstruct Brecht’s early draft which, compared to the final published version, demarcates town and countryside more simplictically: “I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.” Paradoxically, the use of his own initials in the title and the bold use of his full name in the opening line, actually distances the poem from the straightforwardly autobiographical. BB is a representative figure and his move from countryside to town (is this the Industrial Revolution?) was wholly passive, beyond his control, as he moved while still in his pregnant mother’s body. In fact Brecht’s mother had died before he began visiting Munich and Berlin and the poem claims that the “coldness” of the forests remains inside BB and will do so till his “dying day”. Quatrains 3, 4 and half of 5 of this ballad-like ABCB poem-draft also characterize the cold, unrestful, uncomfortable woods, even to the extent that the pine trees “piss” with rain and the birds are “vermin”.

The early draft’s modernist anti-pastoral seems to be confirmed by the opening of the second quatrain: “In the asphalt city I’m at home” and quatrain 5 follows the noise of the bird-vermin in the trees with the seemingly-content city-dwelling BB: “At that hour in the city I drain my glass”. But there is clearly trouble in the urban paradise. Quatrain 2 portrays BB at ease (with a dig at religion in describing newspapers, tobacco and brandy as ‘sacraments’) yet there is something unsettling in the three adjectives that follow: BB is mistrustful, lazy content. Having drained his glass and stubbed his cigar he “worriedly” goes to sleep. In quatrain 6 of the draft the reasons for this worry are clarified (one of the changes in the final version is to remove some of these more logical connections) as BB plays a guitar to an uncomprehending audience and has “difficulty understanding” himself as the city dwellers seem “different animals”. Quatrain 7 wonders whether this is because he has been “carried off to paper and women” (which I take to mean the ‘pleasures’ of the city) from the black forests which still thrive “in me” along with the “roar of pines”. So the early draft suggests BB’s displacement to the city has not achieved an escape from the darkness and coldness of the black forests of his birth and he seems therefore ill-equipped to live truly contentedly in the modern city.

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Michael Hofmann

Brecht’s revisions of the poem between 1924 and 1925 make it both more modern and more mysterious. Hofmann has described the result as “strange and pitiless”. The most clear change is in the final version’s quatrain 3 where BB makes efforts to fit into city life (being friendly, polite, wearing a hat), finding other inhabitants “animals with a quite peculiar smell” (I’m now quoting Michael Hamburger’s rhymed translation). But then BB admits “does it matter? I am too”. The draft’s more ‘easy’ theme of the outsider is being dismissed. Two new stanzas follow in which BB seems ever-more at home in the city, with both its women and men. With the former he is “untroubled”, boastfully suggesting he is “someone on whom you can’t rely”. With the men he heartily hails them, feet up on a table as they say “things will get better for us” but he knows not to “ask when”. BB is now wholly complicit in the urban insincerities, the lies and pretence that make life bearable.

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Michael Hamburger

So the changes show neither city nor the black forest offers any real contentment or fulfillment and it’s this profound sense of alienation that Hofmann links to the Modernist pessimism of an Eliot: “nature and culture, friendship and love, are all travestied and diminished”. This is why BB still falls asleep “worriedly”. In the new stanzas (7, 8 and 9) this pessimism becomes positively apocalyptic as the poem becomes about a cultural moment, a whole culture. Quatrain 7 uses the first person plural significantly; we are “an easy generation” (Hamburger) or “a whimsical tribe” (Hofmann) living in great cities that we hubristically believe are “indestructible” (Brecht refers to Manhattan here, a place he had yet to visit in 1924). In reality, of our cities only the “wind” will survive and we are (in our hearts and as we fall asleep perhaps) dimly aware that “we’re only tenants, provisional ones / And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about”.

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Had the poem ended here the comparison with Eliot’s 1922 wasteland pessimism would be more apt but, in the apocalyptic “earthquakes to come”, BB hopes to keep his Virginia cigar alight and whether we read this as a perky priapic image, a gesture of New World hope, or insouciant resilience to prevailing socio-political conditions, it’s here that we find something heartening and inspiring, even if the tone is mostly pyrrhic. The concluding balladic repetition (“I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities”) now reads like a more determined declaration of identity, a will to life, to a better world. This is despite the whole poem’s extraordinarily thoroughgoing portrait of alienation and cultural decadence. There’s life in poor BB yet.

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