German/English: a poetic adventure


Ahead of our event with contemporary German poet Ulrike Sandig on sunday 22nd Feb, Tom Deveson gives us a taste of the long relationship between German and English poets: ‘a poetic adventure in six short paragraphs’….

1] A thousand years ago the Anglo-Saxons told one another poetic riddles in Old English, a West Germanic language. They are clever, imaginative, full of compound metaphor and double entendre. Never say that the Germans don’t have a sense of humour.

‘…Staþol min is steapheah   stonde ic on bedde

neoðan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum

ful cyrtenu   ceorles dohtor

modwlonc meowle   þæt heo on mec gripe

ræseð mec on redone…’

[‘My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. Sometimes a countryman’s very comely daughter ventures, proud girl, to get a grip on me, assaults my redness…’ – yes, it’s an onion]

2] Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare knew more than anyone the secret of drawing on the shared strengths of the English language’s Latinate and Germanic roots. Macbeth cries out:
‘…this my Hand will rather

The multitudinous Seas incarnardine,

Making the Greene one, Red…’

Look at the last line. After that polysyllabical classical flood come simple words that a speaker in Berlin or Vienna uses every day: ‘machen’, ‘die’. ‘grün’, ‘ein’, ‘rot’. The poetry is in the German.

3] Two hundred years ago, the English Romantic poets fell in love with German landscapes, German philosophy and German poetry. Byron and Shelley were overwhelmed by the impact of reading Goethe’s Faust. Shelley put it into English; both poets borrowed from it to construct their own fusions of epic and tragedy. Coleridge translated Schiller’s Wallenstein, that verse-drama whose episodic scope and ironic sweep foreshadow Brecht’s Mother Courage. Coleridge addressed Schiller in a fervent sonnet:
‘….Ah! Bard tremendous in sublimity!
Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood,
Wand’ring at eve with finely frenzied eye
Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood!
Awhile with mute awe gazing I would brood,
Then weep aloud in a wild ecstasy!’

4] A hundred and fifty years ago Matthew Arnold turned to Heinrich Heine for one of his central critical notions – Philistinism – and recognised that ‘he had all the culture of Germany; in his head fermented all the ideas of modern Europe.’ He was ‘a brilliant soldier in the Liberation War of humanity.’ He was ‘in the European poetry of that quarter of a century which follows the death of Goethe, incomparably the most important figure.’ And although he achieved, in Arnold’s view, less than he promised, there is nobility in the poetic tribute the English poet paid to the German:

‘…The spirit of the world
Beholding the absurdity of men—
Their vaunts, their feats—let a sardonic smile
For one short moment wander o’er his lips.
That smile was Heine! for its earthly hour
The strange guest sparkled; now ’tis pass’d away…’.

5] Eighty-five years ago, WH Auden was in his early twenties, living in Berlin, and writing poems in German. They sound rather like Brecht, although that may be more a matter of coincidence and concurrence than direct influence. They are full of grammatical errors but they have a raw power and energy, a bleak urban poetry of loneliness, bad weather and casual sex with boys. The tone and cadence of Shakespeare’s sonnets echo at a distance:

‘…Weil, wenn Du kukst mir an, dann ist mir wie

Ich König war ein grosses Industrie.’

[For when you look at me I feel as though/ I were the king of a great industry.]

Much later in life, Auden expressed the hope that he might become ‘a minor mid-Atlantic Goethe’. I think he was more than that; but certainly he never abandoned the treasures of his German word-hoard.

6] Today German poetry is easier for English readers to get hold of than it’s ever been. For centuries we’ve had Greek, Latin, Italian and French verse crossing the Channel to take up citizenship here. Now new translations of Rilke seem to fall from publishers’ desks like autumn leaves; John Greening [a recent Poet in the City interviewee] has provided samples of August Stramm, George Trakl, Ernst Stadler and Georg Heym; Michael Hofmann has given us versions of Gottfried Benn; David Constantine’s Selected Poems of Hölderlin won the European Poetry Translation Prize.

A hundred and eighty years ago, Thomas Carlyle wrote his warning: Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe. We may not feel the need to do the first, but we can feel more confident about doing the second.

Poet in the City is celebrating contemporary German poetry with Ulrike Sandig at Richmix on Sunday 22nd Feb, at 6pm. The event is free to attend.








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