Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gottfried Keller, failed poet - It rises in my mind without end, without end

Gottfried Keller is the great Swiss fiction writer of the 19th century.  Last year, I read his enormous portrait of the failed artist as a young man, Green Henry (1854), perhaps the most Goethe-suffused fiction not written by Goethe that I have ever read.  I think I am just repeating something I wrote last month, but who read it carefully enough to remember?  A new, late New Year’s Resolution: more repetition.  More repetition.  Where was I?

Keller was a poet before he was a novelist.  Here’s the beginning of an untitled* poem of his:

Every wing in the world had fallen.
The white snow lay still, glittering.
No cloud hung in the stars’ pavilion.
No wave hammered the hard lake.

This is just stillness, yes, the winter stillness after a heavy snow.  Is there a contrast between the softness of the first couple of lines and the hardness of the last one?

The lake’s tree came up out of the depths
Till its top froze in the ice.
The lake spirit climbed up the branches
And looked hard through the green ice, upwards.

The poem has taken a strange turn.  That first stanza was generically descriptive, of a mood more than a place.  This is something different.  The point of view has been thrown off, hasn’t it?  How does the observer of the still lake see the spirit in the branches?  Keller has thought of that.

I stood on the thin glass there
That divided the black depths from me;
I saw, limb by limb, her beauty
Pressed close under my feet.

Why, I wonder, is the poet out on the ice?  Was he actively seeking the lake spirit?  We’ve had one color per stanza: white, green, black.

Through muffled sobbing her hands
Played over the hard lid.
I have not forgotten that lightless face;
It rises in my mind without end, without end.

Keller switched to the prose for which he is primarily known after failing, so he thought, as a painter and as a poet.  This is the only poem of Keller’s that I have read.  The greenish spirit, entangled in the underwater branches, trying to escape through the ice, or draw the poet to her, or whatever she is doing, the face rising through the water, and then through the poet’s memory – what failure.

The translation is by W. S. Merwin, and is on page 148 of Selected Translations 1948-1968 (1975).

* Untitled by Merwin!  Keller's title is "Winternacht," "Winter Night."


  1. Am I wrong in thinking that poem is profoundly creepy? I wonder how it is in German. Gah!

  2. May I say that anything translated by Merwin is going to be beautiful?

    Interestingly, my father has been pushing Julia Peterkin's books on me. (She won the Pulitzer early in the 20th century for her novel Scarlet Sister Mary.) She too is obsessed with color imagery in her writing--in a way that seems like it is going to be trite but then convinces you of the wisdom of her choices. Color symbolism seems so unsubtle--but in her work and in Keller's poem it carries a lot of weight anyway.

    "Hammering the hard lake." Um, hm hum. Thanks for sharing.

  3. BTW, "Um, hm hum" is supposed to be read aloud as a cluck of approval.

  4. The German poem can be found here - search for "Winternacht," the German title. No idea why Merwin abandons the title.

    Yes, it's as creepy in German! The "lake spirit" is "die Nix." The last line is perfect ("Immer, immer liegt es mir im Sinn!"). The German, unsurprisingly, rhymes - Merwin only picks up a few hints of that.

    I'm going to spend some more time with Merwin's little book this week. I was surprised when I realized how much of his translation work I have read.

    I know what you mean about color symbolism - it's easy to abuse. But color is so fundamental to how we understand the world that it would be perverse to ignore it. A writer has to learn how to use it, I guess. When to bother to say, as Keller does here, that the snow is white.

  5. It appears from a quick Amazon search that Gottfried Keller's work is translated infrequently and in small press editions. Perhaps Keller is due for an OUP or Penguin Renaissance.

    Who was it that said "Painting is silent poetry and poetry painting that speaks"? It seems to me Keller rises above mere mimicry and creates a visual image that evokes more than a wintry landscape. Great selection for today, AR.

  6. Keller is a perfect NYRB writer. They already publish several of the other great, neglected* mid-century German writers - Theodor Storm, Adelbert Stifter, Theodor Fontane (forthcoming).

    That's a nice description of what Keller is doing. One might wonder is the nixie is "real," or is some sort of psychological projection.

    * Neglected in English! In German-language literature, Keller, Storm, etc. are standard canonical authors.