Category Archives: Classics

Bitter Healing: Poetry and Letters by Karoline von Günderrode

Karoline von Günderrode was born in 1780 to am impoverished, aristocratic, German family.  At the age of nineteen she went to live in a convent of sorts, the Cronstetten-Hynspergische Evangelical Sisterhood in Frankfur am Main,  which housed poor young woman and widows from upper class families who were waiting for the right man to marry.  While at the convent she was determined to educate herself and began writing poetry, drama and letters.  She spent time with many of the important intellectuals of her day including Clemens Brentano, Goethe, Karl von Savigny, Bettina von Arnim and Friedrich Creuzer  who read her works and gave her feedback.  Christoph von Nees published two volumes of her writings under the pseudonym “Tian” in 1804 and 1805.  In a letter included in the anthology Bitter Healing: German Women Writers 1700-1830, Günderrode responds to Clemens Brentano who has accused her of sounding rather masculine and “too learned” in her poetry:

How I got the idea to have my poems printed, you want to know?  I have always had a secret inclination to do so—why? and what for? I rarely ask myself.  I was very happy when someone was willing to represent me at the publishers.  Easily, an not knowing what I did, I have destroyed that barrier that separated my innermost heart from the world; and I have not regretted it as yet, for always new and alive is my desire to express my life in a permanent form, in a shape worthy of joining the  most excellent minds, greeting them and sharing their society.  Yes, I have always been drawn to that community; it is the church toward which my spirit is continuously making its earthly pilgrimage.

Her intellectual interests, influenced by German Romanticism, are evident in the poetry also translated for this collection.  Themes of nature, love, free will, metaphysics, death and gender roles pervade her verse.  The poem “Once a Dulcet Lie was Mine” begins:

Once a dulcet life was mine,
For I seemed all of a sudden
But a fragrant wisp of cloud;
Nothing to be seen above me
But a deep-blue ocean sea,
And I sailed now here, now younder
Lightly cradled by the waves.

And in “The Prime Lament” she ends with:

Who with all her heart and nature
Came to love a human creature
Ah! is not consoled
By the thought that joys departed
Usher in some newly started—
They can’t match the old.

That sweet state of living, learning
Both accepting and returning
Words and looks and airs,
Eager search and joyous ending,
Sentiment and apprehending,
Not a god repairs.

I found these lines beautiful and haunting in light of her romantic concerns and her death. Most biographies, films and works focus on her affairs with Clemens Brentano, Karl von Savigny and Friedrich Creuzer. Brentano and Savigny loved her and appreciated her intellectual talents but passed Gunderrode over to marry other women. Creuzer was unhappily married to a woman thirteen years his senior, but decided that he could not endure the scandal that would be involved if he left his wife for Günderrode. In 1806 Creuzer broke off their affair in a letter and Günderrode committed suicide by plunging a dagger into her heart which she had reportedly carried with her for many years. Her story sounds like something out of a Greek tragedy and it is not surprising that interest in her has largely been focused on her love affairs and her sad end.  Bettina von Arnim writes about her dear friend’s suicide, the full report of which is also included in the Bitter Healing anthology:

…It is quite impossible for me to write of Gunderrode on the Rhine: it is not that I am so sensitive, but I am on the spot not far enough removed from the occurrence for me perfectly to review it.  Yesterday I went down yonder where she had lain; the willows are so grown that the spot is quite covered; and when I thought how she had run here, full of despair, and so quickly plunged the violent knife into her breast, and how long this idea had burned in her mind, and I , so near a friend, now wandered in the same place, along the same shore, in sweet meditation on my happiness…

The translations included in Bitter Healing are the last few scraps of her work that I could find in English.  There are additional letters and a translation of an “Apocalyptical Fragment” in this anthology and I am hoping that more of her work will continue to be translated into English.

 

 

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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

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Cycle of a non-person: The Castle by Kafka

Kafka’s final novel describes a land surveyor, simply known as “K.” arriving in an unnamed village, over which looms a castle and its mysterious bureaucracy. Through K.’s attempt to find out why he has been sent and what he is supposed to do in the village, Kafka captures the feelings of alienation, anxiety, loneliness, pain and existential angst that are universal to the human condition. Conversations with the village mayor, the schoolteacher, the landlady of the inn and a woman to whom he becomes engaged never help K. feel settled or at home in this strange place which he refuses to leave.

As I was reading The Castle, a passage from an essay entitled, “Answers and Questions” written by the exiled  Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante kept coming to mind. Initially a supporter of Fidel Castro and the revolution in his country, Cabrera Infante becomes disillusioned with the suppressive Communist regime that launches his people into poverty. The author decides that if he is to continue his career as a writer then his only option is to leave Cuba and go into exile. He describes the horrifying and sad fate of those who are trapped in Cuba and have become what he calls a non-person:

Cycle of a non-person: request for exit from the country, automatic loss of job and eventual inventory of house and household goods; without work there is no work card, without a work card there is no ration book; the permission for exit can take months, a year, two, following the rules more of political lottery than of socialist chess; meanwhile, the non-person finds himself obliged to live by using the money he has saved in the bank: to leave he must restore even the last cent that he had in the bank at the moment of requesting the exit visa; if the bank account is not in order the exit visa is automatically cancelled: new request for exit visa, etc., etc.

The Castle illustrates that there are many ways in which a man or woman can be made to feel like a “non-person”: politically, socially, emotionally, economically, etc. We oftentimes feel in life, despite our best efforts to settle down, like we don’t belong in a home, a country, a relationship, a job, etc.

Kafka’s female characters and his descriptions of various romantic relationships in The Castle also fascinated me.  Women seem to hold a certain amount of power and influence in the village.  The Landlady, for instance, is the reason for the success of The Inn and the mayor’s wife Mizzi has more influence over decisions that are made in the village than the mayor himself.  When K. arrives in town he meets Freida the barmaid and after a single night of passionate sex on the Castle Inn floor, he becomes engaged to her.  But women can also become a burden as relationships grow more and more complicated and the passion dissolves.  K. takes a menial job as a school janitor so that he and Freida will have a home and a source of income.  How many sacrifices and compromises can a man or woman make in a relationship before one loses his or her identity?  How often to we feel like a non-person, a shadow of our true selves, because of obligations to family, friends, spouses, etc.?  I’m not surprised that Kafka was engaged several times and never had the desire to make a final commitment to one woman.

I am interested to see what others have thought about The Castle.  Let me know your impressions in the comments!

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Beware of reading too much Latin poetry: Stendhal’s Italian Chronicles

The nine stories in this collection are Stendhal’s translations and retellings of historical records from Italy in the 16th century which depict the upper classes behaving very badly: forbidden love, murder, adultery, torture, poisoning are all found within the pages of Stendhal’s translations.  Written between 1829 and 1840, most of the stories in this volume were not published until Stendhal’s death.  He tells us himself, in the beginning of “The Duchess of Palliano”, why the stories from this time period and in this part of Europe so fascinated him. Stendhal believes that “Italian passion” is something that no longer exists in the literature and culture of his own era.  Love, in particular, he observes, has given rise to so many tragic events among the Italians and Stendhal is fascinated with visiting Italy and searching through the archives of Rome, Florence and Siena to find stories of these “Italian passions”:

In order to get some idea of this “Italian passion,” that our novelists speak about with such assurance, I found it necessary to study history; and I found that the great histories written by men of talent, though often quite majestic, say almost nothing of such details. They tend to take note only of the follies committed by kings or princes.

Stendhal, in his extensive research, has a penchant for finding stories in which upper class Italian women from prominent 16th century families fall in love with men of lower rank for which unforgiveable indiscretions they are put on trial and condemned to death.  In “The Duchess of Palliano,” A Duke, in service to his uncle Pope Paul IV, takes advantage of his authority by pillaging local villages and engaging in all sorts of erotic debauchery.  One of his favorite pastimes is bringing home mistresses, one after the other, while at the same time expecting that his wife, the Duchess of Palliano, remain faithful and look the other way as far as his own sexual trysts are concerned.  Inevitably, the neglected Duchess falls in love with a handsome young man of the court and through a series of betrayals the Duchess and her lover are found out.  Her lover’s throat is slit and the Duchess herself is put to death by strangulation.  Stendhal doesn’t hold back from translating the gruesome details of these Italian chronicles—descriptions of torture, murder, suicide are all included in these passionate stories.

The longest story in the collection, “The Abbess of Castro” is one that has the most passion because of the primary source letters that Stendhal translates.  Elena de Campireali, the daughter of a noble family who possessed great wealth and many estates in the kingdom of Naples, is the central figure of this tragic story.  Elena’s father and brother are horrified when they learn she has fallen in love with a lower class brigand named Giulio Branciforte.  I found Stendhal’s introduction to Elena’s story particularly amusing:

It would appear that Elena knew Latin.  The verse she was made to learn spoke always of love, a love that would seem completely ridiculous to us if we were to come across it in 1839; that is, it treated of passionate love, love that was nourished by great sacrifices, love that can subsist only in an atmosphere of mystery, and love that is always found accompanying the most horrible misfortunes.

A fair warning from the author for those who might engage in too much translation of Catullus, Ovid, or Propertius!

Guilio visits Elena every night by standing under her balcony window and giving her a bouquet of flowers with a letter attached.  Stendhal includes translations from large excerpts of their passionate letters.  Guilio writes to Elena in one of the notes embedded in her flowers:

To tell the truth, I do not know why I love you; I certainly cannot propose that you come and share my poverty.  But what I do know is that if you do not love me, my life is worthless to me; it is useless to say that I would give it up a thousand times over for you.  But before your return from the convent, this life was not an unfortunate one; on the contrary, it was full of the most wonderful dreams.  So I can say that the sight of my happiness has made me miserable.

Stendhal has a valid point: we don’t see letters like this in the 19th or, for that matter, in the 21st century, do we?  Like the other stories in the collection, there is no happy ending for these two lovers.  Even though they profess their undying, eternal love for one another, in the end they cannot prevent her family from keeping them apart.

Despite the fact that these stories end in with the lovers’ deaths, they are full of passion, intrigue and interesting historical descriptions and details that Stendhal uncovers through his research.  Italian Chronicles is a fascinating look into the lives of 16th century Italian nobility through the eyes of the astute, erudite 19th century French novelist.

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If Only Sleep Would Come: One Night by Umberto Saba

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan, 1878

One of my favorite literary bloggers, Tom from Wuthering Expectations, did a post on Modern European Poetry with a focus on the Greek poetry contained within this wonderful volume.  If you haven’t had a chance to read Tom’s posts then please do yourself a favor and peruse his blog.  His analysis of literature is full of what the Roman poet Catullus would call facetiae (wit) and lepida (charms).

As I was reading through this collection of modern poetry, I was happy to find poems by Ingeborg Bachmann whose name I have seen many times on bloggers’ personal canons.  A few poems by the Italian author Umberto Saba also captivated me.  I thought I would share one particularly short yet moving piece (Catullus would definitely approve!)

One Night

If only sleep would come, as it has come
on other nights: already slipping through
my thoughts.

Instead now,

like an old washerwoman wringing clothes,
anguish wrings another pain from my heart.
I would cry out but cannot. As for torment—
suffered once—I suffer on in silence.

And that which I have lost, only I know

Translated by Felix Stefanile

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