Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Stefan George's poems - The brief beholding makes me glad

Was it going to be worth reading the poems of Stefan George in translation, I wondered?  Lyric poems in the tradition of Goethe and Heine, known for their singular beauty and innovative use of German; images derived from a semi-private mysticism; translations by a disciple of the poet.  Maybe the last worried me most, for some reason.

But no, everything is fine.  Poems (Pantheon, 1943), translated by Carol North Valhope and Ernst Morwitz, at least, is good, worth reading.  Instructive. There are later volumes by Morwitz, working with other collaborators, that contain more poems (good), but the one I had available was first singularly ugly, an insult to a poet as deeply concerned with the aesthetics of his books as William Morris, and second lacked the German poems (very bad).

The early poems, in German, are exquisite.  Even an ignoramus like me can hear it.

Sieh mein kind ich gehe.
Denn du darfst nicht kennen
Nicht einmal durch nennen
Menschen müh und wehe.

See my child, I leave,
You must not behold,
No, nor yet be told
How men toil and grieve.  (pp. 62-3)

In the second stanza, Morwitz has to bend English for a rhyme (“Over you I gloom”), but that hardly violates the spirit of the poem.  The third stanza ends with a repetition of the first line.  A poem for a child.

George brings French Symbolism into German, and thus in English often sounds like an English Decadent, colorful:

The wasps with scales of golden-green have gone
From folded cups of flowers, and we swerve
Within our boat in widely sweeping curve
Around the isles of leaves in bronze and fawn.  (p. 71, from “Now do not lag in reaching for the book”)

Here he describes a Fra Angelico painting, or really his method:

The gold from holy chalices he took,
For yellow hair, the ripened wheaten stalks,
The blue from women washing at the brook,
The pink from children coloring with chalks.  (p. 41, from “An Angelico”)

The above poems are all from the 1890s.  As George aged he became more of a sage, a prophet, with a “circle” that would issue pronouncements – theater is bad, music is bad, that kind of thing.  Baffling.  His poems take a turn to the abstract and esoteric, some of the ideas embodied, and then disembodied, in the figure of Maximin, a blond boy who died young.  Think Death in Venice, I guess.  I do not understand the more abstract ideas in these later poems, yet to his last book in 1928, George continued to write perfect lyrics, like “Seelied (Seasong),” where the old poet watches a Maxinim-like figure play on the beach while the sun sets:

Mit gliedern blank mit augen klar
Kommt nun ein kind mit goldnem haar,
Es tanzt und singt auf seiner bahn
Und schwindet hinterm grossen kahn.

With naked limbs, with cloudless eye
A goldhaired child now passes by,
It sings and dances as it nears,
Behind the boat it disappears.

I watch it come, I watch it go,
Though never words for it I know,
And never speech for me it had,
The brief beholding makes me glad.  (pp. 234-7)

Reading George in English is also a kind of “brief beholding” of a great poet.

File this one under German Literature Month.


  1. Of potential interest: There is an experimental folk band from Wisconsin that set two of George's poems to music. They can be heard here for the especially curious:

  2. Of real interest - fascinating - thanks!

  3. Now, now - don't forget your capital letters for nouns ;)

  4. I believe that issue must be addressed to the poet himself, not to me. The texts are correct as I have them.

  5. die geneigte LeserinNovember 5, 2016 at 8:47 AM

    Not easy to discuss George without seeing the whole picture!

  6. Mentioning Morris risks giving the wrong idea, since the aesthetics are opposed, but the similarity is that George, like Morris, was concerned with and controlled every design element of his books. The different colors of inks!

  7. These are wonderful translations. He really captured the musicality. You got a tiny typo. It should say Menschen mueh und wehe. I'm pedantic. Sorry. And can't even use Umlaute as I'm on an English iPad.

  8. Thanks - fixed now. How many times did I go over that text?

    The musicality - I agree, I was impressed. But I guess Morwitz was immersed in this poetry.

  9. Really? Well, that's... unusual in itself. Not something I've ever seen. I wonder if that's stylistic?

  10. Yes, stylistic. That image linked above (and here) is a good sample of the way the books are designed and the texts are composed.

    I assume that among George's writings, or perhaps sayings as reported by his circle, there are justifications for each of the design choices, including the non-standard capitalization.

  11. die geneigte LeserinNovember 7, 2016 at 6:28 PM

    Tony -- George had a very clear idea of what his poems should look like on the page. Even his manuscripts show that he is paying attention to the lettering and the color. Of course, poets like Apollinaire were also thinking about poems in visual form (in a very different way, of course), so he's far from alone in his concerns.