Hälfte des Lebens
Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignüchterne Wasser.
Weh mir, wo nehm ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehen
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.
Half a life
With yellow pearfruit dangles
And wild with climbing roses
The land in the lake,
Ye cherished cygnets,
And drunken with kisses
Dunk ye your heads
In sacred-solemnmost water.
Woe me, whence have I, when
The winter is, the blossoms, and whence
The sun and light
And shade of our earthhome?
The ramparts threaten
Speechless and cold, the windstream
Rattles the banners.
Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), resonant with supernal poetic ambition, marched perhaps even more rigidly to antique meters than his near-contemporaries, the creators of German classicism. Although later he came to rest high in their pantheon, during his lifetime Pindar’s gods ignored his apostrophic odes, and so did almost everyone else. Much later, when the Germans determined to wreak final vengeance on a world of Untermenschen, at that dimensionless film between reality and ruin, they declaimed Hölderlin odes while marching their children off to be slaughtered. They stuck to that same mania all the way downhill from Stalingrad to the bottom floor of Hitler’s bunker, still buried there deep in the center of modern Berlin. Ja, still there. (It couldn't be dug up without wrecking city utilities.)
Hölderlin too fought defeat with madness, which was taking hold while he wrote this very personal monument, sometime between 1802 and 1805. He lasted another four decades, all but mute, housed in and nursed by caretakers of the little tower in Tübingen (since rebuilt, like everything else German) where the Hölderlin-Gesellschaft now curates most of his leavings.
So we think this poem lies right at the knife-edge between desperate eloquence and aphasia, like the lake surface that inverts rank life in its reflection. You can only see the once-strict meter through the ripples around the swans (demoted to cygnets for the beat). By adhering slavishly to his scansion I rather made it worse, but the second line does flood a grammatical fissure with a hard dike of parataxis. Along with this vast fault, the epenthetic syllable in "hänget," the pregnant coinage "heilignüchtern," the thundercloud rhetoric, he dithyrambs an imagist miniature to span internal epochs we can never quite retrieve, or that we fear to know; then nails his dreamlike psychoscenes into the mind with an unforgettable sound: the skeletal clatter of those pennants, high in the cold wind. What a splendid job of going crazy! (Geörgy Ligeti resounds it with a 16-voice a capella setting of the poem, on Sony SK 62305.)
There are so many things a translator can’t do with a nugget like this. You can’t just ignore the stride of the beat. That’s what anchors a poem in the mind, that dumpster full of melodies. And you can’t just blatt out the tune without forging the words hard onto it, so all the hills and curves and sheer dropoffs fit right, no matter what hell it plays with your English. Okay, it’s impossible. Et alors?
Da es aber nicht so ist; eine schöne Dame, weiß und rot, hereinfliegt, zwischen den Vorhängen, welche die stolzen Livrierten vor ihr öffnen; der Direktor, hingebungsvoll ihre Augen suchend, in Tierhaltung ihr entgegenatmet; vorsorglich sie auf den Apfelschimmel hebt, als wäre sie seine über alles geliebte Enkelin, die sich auf gefährliche Fahrt begibt; sich nicht entschließen kann, das Peitschenzeichen zu geben; schließlich in Selbstüberwindung es knallend gibt; neben dem Pferde mit offenem Munde einherläuft; die Sprünge der Reiterin scharfen Blickes verfolgt; ihre Kunstfertigkeit kaum begreifen kann; mit englischen Ausrufen zu warnen versucht; die reifenhaltenden Reitknechte wütend zu peinlichster Achtsamkeit ermahnt; vor dem großen Salto mortale das Orchester mit aufgehobenen Händen beschwört, es möge schweigen; schließlich die Kleine vom zitternden Pferde hebt, auf beide Backen küßt und keine Huldigung des Publikums für genügend erachtet; während sie selbst, von ihm gestützt, hoch auf den Fußspitzen, vom Staub umweht, mit ausgebreiteten Armen, zurückgelehntem Köpfchen ihr Glück mit dem ganzen Zirkus teilen will - da dies so ist, legt der Galeriebesucher das Gesicht auf die Brüstung und, im Schlußmarsch wie in einem schweren Traum versinkend, weint er, ohne es zu wissen.
But since this is not so; a lovely lady, white and red, floats in, between the curtains, which the proud uniformed attendants part before her; the Director, devotedly catching her eye, scarcely breathes in subservience before her; lifts her tenderly onto the dapple grey as though she were his most beloved granddaughter about to embark on a perilous journey; cannot bear to raise the whip but at last steels himself to crack it; then runs along beside the horse, his mouth agape, his sharp glance following her every leap, scarcely able to grasp her virtuosity, cautioning her with exclamations in English and furiously demanding the most exacting attention of the grooms at the reins; then before the great salto mortale with raised hands implores the orchestra to silence; at last lifts his little one from the trembling steed, kissing her on both cheeks and holding no acclamation from the audience to be sufficient, while she herself, supported by him on highest tiptoe, in a cloud of dust, with arms spread wide and head thrown back, yearns to share her triumph with the entire circus—since this is so, the bleacher fan lays his face on the railing and sinking into the final march as though into a heavy dream, weeps, without knowing it.
All right. What doesn’t he know?
Part we now the curtains on this example. The two complete sentences, although breathlessly narrative-visionary, depend for their total effect on grammar.—Yes, grammar. Kafka first generates a space-time containing the sordid reality of a cheap circus act, using the hypothetical mood, the way language signals if-this-were-the-case-but-really-isn’t. Then he switches dimensions entirely. With a long imaginary parataxis, he draws it like it really is, in the indicative. And we all know, as does the broken spectator, with a clarity we didn’t really need, which is which. We knew it all along.
Lifted from Franz Kafka’s queer parallel universe, knowing often maps pretty well, under a kind of dream transformation, onto our more common one’s not knowing. Using this kind of math, our view from the bleachers turns into the rather startling discovery that Kafka knew exactly what he was doing, and did it with a kind of Einsteinian precision. He's telling us that sentiment the more flagrant nails shut the more tightly the coffin of reality, from which in these latter days not we nor he shall escape.
Laß die heil’gen Parabolen Laß die frommen Hypothesen Suche die verdammten Fragen Ohne Umschweif uns zu lösen. Warum schleppt sich blutend, elend Unter Kreuzlast der Gerechte, Während glücklich als ein Sieger Trabt auf hohem Roß der Schlechte? Woran liegt die Schuld? Ist etwa Unser Herr nicht ganz allmächtig? Oder treibt er selbst den Unfug? Ach, das wäre niederträchtig. Also fragen wir beständig Bis man uns mit einer Handvoll Erde endlich stopft die Mäuler— Aber ist das eine Antwort?
Drop the holy exegeses Stop the pious theorizing Answers to the damndest questions Give them to us straight and quickly. Tell us why the righteous person Struggles bleeding with his burden While the wicked rides in triumph High on horse, the smiling victor. Who’s to blame for this? Is maybe God our Lord not quite almighty? Or is he himself the prankster? That would be contemptible. So we ask and keep on asking, Getting at the end a plug of Dirt to finally stop our yappers— But do you call that an answer?
Ladies and Gentlemen, you are in the presence of a masterpiece bigger than it looks.
Maybe for the poem here on display, done about 1844, Harry (his family name) got the plot from Pascal:
However beautiful the rest of the play, the last act is bloody. At the end a little earth is thrown on our heads, and all is over for ever. (Quoted by Michael Dirda, Readings, 16.)
No folksong. No thwarted love. No antic travelogue. No thorned sarcasm, confessions, banter, dirty jokes. No rapiers through philistine throats. No sly digs, no double entendre, all trademarks of his early greatness. Just a flat-out frontal assault on oppression, in gold-standard verse. I can’t do the rhyme in English, only lecture you on some of the subtle tricks he plays with it. For example: in Goethe’s liberal Frankfurt dialect “hypothesen” rhymed acceptably with “lösen.” But a Prussian would hear an offensive dissonance, a typically Heinesque Bronx cheer. He had salted his early lyrics with such sour notes just to spoil the palates of silly romantics, but now he took aim at ugly, typically Prussian-theological, targets. Only four years later the Frankfurter Parlament would propose an enlightened pan-German constitution to the Prussian monarch Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who of course would have none of it. (It was this king’s illustrious ancestor Fred the Gross who had decreed religious tolerance thus: Glaubt, was albernes Gefasel Ihr auch wollt, aber gehorcht! Believe whatever foolish drivel you please, but obey!). Such was the climate Heine raised storms in.
Almost every line, even word, contains a study topic. (Assignment for advanced students: “Kreuzlast.”) Heine’s rhyme stomps ahead, arriving at “niederträchtig,” peak of the poem’s—how to put it?—torque curve. Nothing can blunt the viciousness of that word, the point that teeter presses on. Which is more debased, that I blaspheme, or that it’s the plain truth? God and Heine go mano a mano. Place your bets.
I can’t work the resigned gasp “Ach!” into the English, but grunt it out when you read it, and you’ll get all the force of this primal contest in one glottal. Then only the sardonic assonance of “Handvoll” with “Antwort”, but no more rhymes now. Speeding through the run-on “mit einer Handvoll / Erde” the poet slams his goosestepping trochees smack into that final wall of prose. I don’t know anything like it. Do you?
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) fought small minds behind great powers. Converting early from Judaism, the better to attack from within, didn’t work. Hardline Prussian rule (which then encompassed Heine’s native Rheinland) and his own conscience soon drove him into French exile. In 1843, love for Fatherland and its abused ideals, of which by then he was among the most cogent defenders, brought him once more to his homeland for a disgracing interlude. He went right back home to Paris, never to return. But in parting he produced Deutschland: ein Wintermärchen (Germany: a Winter's Tale), all innocent balladesque coruscation, rising to a literally inspired prophecy of Germany’s future. He sticks his head in Charlemagne’s chamberpot and takes a deep breath. Sure enough, not so many years later—
Maybe pausing to skewer every petty fool in sight made him miss the ride up the peak to universal acclaim. And being Jew, then and there, didn’t help. In the foreword to Deutschland he impaled the reactionaries who had forced him into the French embrace and then accused him of treason with jabs at their own bogus patriotism:
The Nazis just snipped him out of existence, although every German mind sang with his lyrics (Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten . . .). But the powers followed the fascist lead. Werner Burkhard’s encyclopedic anthology Schriftwerke deutscher Sprache (1964), for example, doesn’t even mention him. Isn’t that sordid splendor? He comes on (not came) too strong for the weaklings that run things. He is (not was) the greatest German poet.
Our hearts are armed against the displeasure of these heroic lackeys in black-red-gold livery. . . . I ‘ll respect and honor your colors if they deserve it, when they are no longer an idle or servile gimmick. Plant those colors on the heights of German thought [once again on the unsinkable Reichstag, above], make them the standard of free humanity, and I’ll shed my best heart’s blood for them . . . Calm down, I’m not about to surrender the Rhein to the French [or Austrians, Russians, English, Goths, Vandals—], just for this very simple reason: the Rhein belongs to me. Yes, belongs to me, by inalienable birthright, I am the free Rhein’s even much freer son, my cradle stood on its banks, and I see no possible reason why it should belong to anyone but its native children.
Okay, now your bonus:
Worte Mein Fallschirm Mit euch spring ich ab Wer euch richtig auszubreiten weissschwebt
Words My parachute With you I jump off Whoever knows how to spread you out rightfloats
. . . implicit the drastic consequences of botching it.
German has two plurals for the concept word (das Wort): Wörter, the loose dictionary kind, and Worte, meaning strings of Wörter that make sense. No way I can translate that, so I stoop to explain.
There's more: euch is objective familiar plural, about like relaxed Southern English y'all, but rather than wrangle you through Chaucer-age pronouns I confess defeat again and explain.
I think you begin to see now what's going on.
There's nothing new about pictorial typography. The Germans call this version of it Mittelachsenvers, meaning axial verse. Of course you can't hear it, but I'll just notice that Bienek puts it to practical use. With some imagination you can see, I claim, his skydive, maybe leap, ripcord, spread, and all, right there in his sonogram. That's the kind of thing poets can do.