Théophile Gautier begins his 1852 Enamels and Cameos by invoking Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan (1819), so I thought it was time to reread it, or at least as much as Michael Hamburger translated in Roman Elegies and Other Poems & Epigrams (in the 1996 Anvil Press edition, although the translations are also available elsewhere).
Gautier says he is writing his trifles in the face of the cannons of 1848, so that “stifled art might breathe again.” Goethe began writing his poems in 1814, after twenty years of intermittent war.
North and West and South are breaking,
Thrones are bursting, kingdoms shaking:
Flee, then to the essential East… (from “Hegira”)
Goethe is responding to the great German Persianists and Arabists who were working on Asian languages and literature and translating classical poets like Hafiz. Goethe’s poems are not just about poems, but about translations.
This tree’s leaf that from the East
To my garden’s been entrusted
Holds a secret sense, and grist
To a man intent on knowledge.
Is it one, this thing alive,
By and in itself divided,
Or two beings who connive
That as one the world shall see them?
Fitly now I can reveal
What the pondered question taught me;
In my songs do you not feel
That at once I’m one and double?
In an earlier poem, “Found” (1813), a transplanted flower stands in for the poem.
Then whole I dug it
Out of the loam
And to my garden
Carried it home…
Another poem as plant in the garden. On the other hand, Goethe was a botanist – Goethe was too many things – so when he says the gingko biloba is a source of knowledge, he can also mean that literally. By the way, I have no idea why Goethe spells it “gingo”; the translator is faithful to Goethe here.
I have no idea, really, what is original and what is borrowed from Hafiz and others, what conceits are simply conventions of Persian verse that Goethe stuffed into a German poem and Hamburger later bent into English. In “On Laden Twigs,” the poems have become fruit.
The casing bursts, and joyful
Each one breaks loose from its trap;
So too my songs are dropping
Profusely into your lap.
That one is also, it turns out, kind of dirty.
Shield the eyes of any innocent youngsters nearby.
No longer on sheets of silk
Symmetrical rhymes I paint,
No longer frame them
In golden arabesques;
Imprinted on mobile dust
They are swept by the wind, but their power endures,
As far as the centre of the Earth,
Riveted, bound to the soil. (from “Hatem to Zuleika”)
Then, after this wonderful conceit inverting the idea of writing poems on dust, the poem turns to Zuleika, the poet’s lover and the poem becomes mildly erotic (“And your limbs, too, roused from their languor, thrill”).
It is not true that all of the poems in West-Eastern Divan are about poetry and sex, but it is possible that they are nearly all about poetry.
Admit: the poets of the East
Are greater than we of the West.
But the one thing in which we leave them behind
Is detestation of our own kind.