Saturday, April 27, 2013

What the Jews Taught me about German Poetry

I and the Other

What the Jews taught me

about German Romantic Poetry

In Memory of the two professors 
without whom I would not be able to write as I do now,

Doctor Laurent Gousie
Doctor Arthur Jackson,

both of whom have gone to be with the Lord.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, 
and may perpetual light shine upon them.

        One of our great English poets, T. S. Eliot, believed that the person of the poet had no place in the poetry, and that poems had to stand on their own completely apart from any personal experiences that the poet may have had. Eliot was reacting against Romantic poetry, English and American Romantic poetry, but like most other English authors, Romantic or otherwise, he mistakenly read the ideology of English Romanticism into the works of the original Romantic poets, the German Romantics.

       Eliot’s great objection to Romantic poetry is that it is too ego-centric. Many of the poems are told from the point of view of the poet (or a first person speaker who closely resembles the poet). Think of William Wordsworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. According to Eliot, the speaker of Wordsworth’s poem is too centered on his own personal experience when he sees the daffodils.

I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.


Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay: 
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood, 
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Even in the case of English Romantic poetry, Eliot is probably being unfair, because, as my mother pointed out, there is something universal about what Wordsworth was saying in this poem. We have all had similar experiences to the one that the speaker in Wordsworth's poem had with the daffodils (I hope!). 


        German poems are frequently told from the point of view of a first person narrator as well. T. S. Eliot said that such poems were ego-centric, but was he correct? Or is there something else happening in German poems which Eliot did not perceive?

        Let us begin with a simple Goethe poem, and before we go any farther let me point out that Germans do not consider Goethe a Romantic, but rather a neo-classical, poet, as was his friend Friedrich Schiller, but Goethe’s poetry transcended his age, (and so did Goethe himself, who lived to befriend many young Romantic artists such as Felix Mendelssohn and Clemens Brentano), and his lyric poems set the standard for all the lyric poems which were to come during the Romantic period proper.

        And now that we are finished with that very long sentence, let us begin with a simple Goethe poem. In this poem, Gefunden, the speaker of the poem is walking out in nature, just as the speaker in Wordsworth’s poem I wandered lonely as a cloud is doing, but there is a critical and obvious difference between the two poems. Can you find it? Here is Goethe’s poem:


Ich ging im Walde
So für mich hin,
Und nichts zu suchen,
Das war mein Sinn.

Im Schatten sah ich
Ein Blümchen stehn,
Wie Sterne leuchtend,
Wie Äuglein schön.

Ich wollt es brechen,
Da sagt es fein:
Soll ich zum Welken
Gebrochen sein?

Ich grub’s mit allen
Den Würzlein aus.
Zum Garten trug ich’s
Am hübschen Haus.

Und pflanzt es wieder
Am stillen Ort;
Nun zweigt es immer
Und blüht so fort.

If you can think like a little child, or like a big grown-up Jewish philosopher, or possibly like an Elf or an Ent, you have probably already seen the difference. In the Goethe poem, the speaker addresses the flower, and the flower talks back to him in return! In fact, in this poem the flower, not the speaker, wins the debate. Or rather the speaker and the flower have a dialogue, and because the flower speaks to him, and because the speaker listens to the flower, the speaker goes out of his way not to harm the flower, but rather to replant it in a garden, where it may continue to grow.

        If the speaker, the Ich of the poem conversed with the flower, shall we say the du of the poem, and the flower carried her point, on whom does the poem center, on the speaker, or on the flower?

         Some people interpret this poem allegorically, with the flower symbolizing Goethe’s wife Christiane (who died young), but even if the flower is the poet’s wife, the question still remains the same: is the emphasis on the ich or on the du? Or is it on both?

        The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber interpreted the use of ich (I) very differently from the way in which T. S. Elliot interpreted it.

“How beautiful and legitimate the full I of Goethe sounds! It is the I of pure intercourse with nature. Nature yields to it and speaks ceaselessly with it; She reveals her mysteries to it and yet does not betray her mystery. It believes in her and says to the rose: ‘So it is You’--and at once shares the same actuality with the rose.” *

According to Martin Buber, the ich of Goethe’s poetry learns from the du (Nature). The ich is focused on the du, on the other Creation that it is in dialogue with, not on itself. The ich of Goethe’s poems says “du,” not “me-me-me-me-me.”

        Martin Buber’s interpretation of Goethe’s poetry works just as well if the flower in Gefunden represents Goethe’s wife. In that case, Goethe, the ich of the poem is dialoguing with his wife, the du of the poem, and recognizing that she is another ich.

        By saying “du,” the ich of the poem recognizes the other Creation as another ich, not merely an es (it) for the speaker’s use. J. R. R. Tolkien expressed the same idea when he explained to one of his readers why Tom Bombadil has to be in The Lord of the Rings, even though he is not a part of the plot. Tolkien wrote that Tom Bombadil is

“A particular embodying of pure (real) science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent with the enquiring mind.”

        In his poem Wünschelrute, the devout Christian German Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff expresses the idea of Creation speaking, or singing, back to us:


Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen,
Die da träumen fort und fort,
Und die Welt hebt an zu singen,
Triffst du nur das Zauberwort.

In this poem Eichendorff is asking the reader to converse with Creation.

        But, you are saying, Clärchen dear, flowers don’t talk in real life! But is there a sense in which flowers and trees and mountains and rivers do talk? All of these are creations of God, and God reveals himself in many ways. Our modern society tells us to seek truth within ourselves, but one of the ways that we come to know God is by knowing things that are other than ourselves (it is for others to find truth in us, and for us to find truth in them). If we are talking about a creation, then we are talking about a thought of God.

        When the young, devout Christian German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, himself the grandson of the Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, traveled through the Swiss alps, he wrote home to his family saying “How beautiful are these thoughts of God!” and “I do not understand how anyone could see these thoughts of God, and not come to knowledge of the Creator.”

Swiss Alpine Scene by Felix Mendelssohn

        It is not sentimental to encounter a thought of God, and it is certainly not ego-centric. The focus of the poetry is on the other, (the other person or the other Creation), and on the dialogue between the speaker and the other, not on the self.

        Jews, like Martin Buber, and Christians like J. R. R. Tolkien and Joseph von Eichendorff, and Jewish Christians like Felix Mendelssohn, and Christian universalists like Goethe (Goethe’s universalism can be discussed at a different time), people who have revelation from God himself, are able to hear the other Creations speaking.

But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7-10)

*From "I and Thou" ("Ich und Du") translated from German to English by Walter Kaufmann