Friday, May 23, 2014

They are swept by the wind, but their power endures - a bit of Goethe's West-Eastern Divan

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.

Gingo Biloba

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.


  1. But the one thing in which we leave them behind
    Is detestation of our own kind.

    What does he mean by this?

  2. I heard that young Werther killed himself over Goethe's misspelling of gingko. The chronology seems all wrong, though. Whatever, Goethe's "mildly erotic" sensibility here seems rather pale and subdued compared to Gautier's in "La Morte amoureuse"!

  3. I love Goethe's poetry. And I do it despite the fact that one of my all=time favorite writers, Arno Schmidt considered Goethe so overvalued that even 'cowboy fiction writer' Karl May was better and Fenimore Cooper was a lot better.

    Fun fact: Arno Schmidt owned what he used to call his treasured “5 book fetishes”:
    a logarithmic table;
    Ludvig Holberg's Niels Klim's Underground Travels;
    Cervantes' Don Quixote;
    Johann Gottfried Schnabel's Robinsonade: Whimsical mirages as seen by some sea traveller at the island of Felsenburg'
    and a certain fantastic fiction anthology which included Ondine by Fouqué, The Golden Pot by Hoffmann, Agathodämon by Wieland, The Scarecrow by Tieck and On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason by Schopenhauer.

  4. I'll do one more ramble through Goethe later today. It should be even more erotic. Within bounds. Wuthering Expectations is a prudish blog.

    I heard that Young Werther was autobiographical, which makes Goethe's long career even more impressive given that he killed himself when he was just 22.

    I can see how, for some German writer, the titanic figure of Goethe can become The Enemy. Schmidt's list has me checking university library catalogs. That Holberg novel is in English, yes.

    What does Goethe mean? That is a good question. I think he means that Western, or at least German, poets hate each other. I would not want to argue that point. What is questionable is the idea that Eastern poets do not hate each other. Not impossible, but questionable.

  5. On the topic of dust and wind:

    Black is the shadow goes over the dust beside my beloved;
    Me I changed into dust: shadow walked over and on.

    We're just a drop of water, in an endless sea
    All we do
    Just crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see
    Dust in the wind
    All we are is dust in the wind.

    I think that Goethe captured rather well the funky flavor of Hafiz:

    The fish needs to say,
    "Something ain't right about this
    Camel ride -
    And I'm
    Feeling so damn

  6. The Hafiz is hilarious. I had never seen that poem.

    Now there are Kansas lyrics on my blog. Terrific. Thanks a million.