Lethe’s Cool Floods: Poetic Fragments by Karoline von Günderrode

As I read the poems and two dramas included in this translation of Poetic Fragments, I couldn’t help but think of a letter that Karoline von Günderrode wrote to her lover Friedrich Creuzer, a German philologist and archaeologist:

I can’t understand the change in your feelings. How often have you told me that my love brightens, enlivens your whole existence, and now you find our relationship damaging. How much would you have given once to win this “damage” for yourself! But that’s the way you [men] are, what you’ve conquered always seems to be lacking….You seem to me like a boatsman to whom I’ve entrusted my whole life, but now the storms are raging, the waves rise up. The winds bring me scattered sounds; I listen and hear how the boatsman takes counsel with his friends whether he shouldn’t throw me overboard or put me ashore on the barren coast?

Although they had a loving, passionate affair and Creuzer was planning to leave his wife for Karoline, the hardships that their relationship caused launched both of them into a depression.  Günderrode committed suicide with a dagger in 1806 after Creuzer broke off their affair via a letter.  The themes of love and death pervade Günderrode’s writing and demonstrate her deep interest in these philosophical concepts. The last stanza of her poem “The Kiss of a Dream” explores that fine line between erotic love and death:

The day is meager in love-sweet delights,
Its light’s vain boats hurt me
And its sun’s blazes consumes me
So hide, eyes, from the luster of the earthly sun!
Wrap yourself in night, it slakes your longing
And heals the pain, like Lethe’s cool floods.

This poem is particularly reminiscent of her letter to Creuzer, although I find the poem more hopeful; Lethe’s floods are soothing and, because of its powers to erase memory, have the ability to ease suffering.

Another intriguing commonality that I found in the additional poems as well as the two plays in this collection are her descriptions of love involving trios.  In the poem entitled “Piedro,” a sailor launches his ship headlong into the waves to retrieve his love that was captured by another man.  In the battle that ensues, Piedro kills a youth with whom he instantly falls in love.  Even though Piedro gets his woman back, he can’t stop thinking about the youth he longs for and decides that the only way to be with him is to take his own life:

Darkness rests upon the waters
Deep silence all around
Piedro’s ship reaches the coast,
But he sleeps deep in the ocean.

The plays in this collection are enchanting in both language and topic.  In Hildgund, the Lord of the Burgundian’s daughter is captured by Attila the Hun and then rescued by her beloved fiancé, Walther of Aquitania.  When Attila threatens to conquer all of Europe unless Hildgund agrees to marry him, she sacrifices herself for the safety of her country.  The play ends abruptly when Hildgund is about to join a wedding party hosted by Attila at which event she has in mind to murder him.  Hildgund is brave, passionate and willing to put herself in danger for Walther.  Günderrode’s speech for Hildgund is courageous and showcases a woman who is not willing to be passive while a man decides her fate:

Oh Walther! Yet you will indeed one day be avenged
And he regret his robbery’s brief joy.
Why do I hesitate, is it, then, too monstrous,
For shy, pale lips to name it?
Murder! Ha, the name alone appalls,
the deed is just, and bold and great,
The peoples’ destiny rests in my breast;
I will free them, free me.
Banished are fear and childish hesitation,
Only a bold warrior wins a great goal.

The final play in this collection, the topic of which I found the most curious, is Muhammad, The Prophet of Mecca.  Günderrode was very interested in the East and chose the struggles of this prophet to write about the afterlife.  The choral odes Günderrode composes  are beautiful and lyrical and worth reading the play just for those interludes.  Muhammad, who is banished from Mecca because of his teachings about one god, tells one of his enemies about the fate of the soul in the afterlife.  Once again, I find the tone of Günderrode’s writing positive and uplifting:

Mohammand: The soul of man does not die with the death of the body; it abandons it when its life has ended, and if it is the soul of a pious person then it climbs aloft in the space of the stars and creates itself a body out o fair; this new body has all senses like the previous, only in a yet higher degree; it never gets tired, knows no pain and is full of eternal health, life and youth.

Most of the literature that has been written about Günderrode has focused on her love affair with Creuzer, her personal letters and her tragic end.  She was, however, a talented poet, philosopher and dramatist whose work is virtually unknown to the English speaking world.  This dual language edition of Poetic Fragments, translated with introductory essays by Anna Ezekiel, focuses on Günderrode’s contribution to philosophy and literature of the German Romantic movement.  I highly recommend this book for both the translations and Ezekiel’s insightful essays and comprehensive bibliography.  I am disappointed that most of Günderrode’s writing has not been translated into English as this publication has made me want to read all of her literature.

Karoline von Günderrode, c. 1800, by an anonymous painter; Historical Museum, Frankfurt am Main

2 Comments

Filed under Classics, German Literature

2 responses to “Lethe’s Cool Floods: Poetic Fragments by Karoline von Günderrode

  1. I’ve wanted to read Günderode since Christa Wolf wrote about her fictional meeting with Kleist. This seems a good, perhaps the only place, to begin.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Evening Fantasy by Hölderlin (The German Library) |

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