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Goethe’s Roman Elegies Translated by Michael Hamburger

I was just going to tweet the text of this poem, but Michael Hamburger’s translation of Goethe’s Roman Elegies is so sublime and beautiful that I decided it deserved a blog post instead.  I have been reading, along with his autobiography A String of Beginnings, the Michael Hamburger Reader from Carcanet Press.  In addition to his translations, this fabulous volume contains his own poetry and essays.  Hamburger, who began translating Goethe at the age of fifteen, comments about his poetry: “To reflect on the untranslatability and elusiveness of Goethe’s poetic work as a while is to go straight to the heart of his uniqueness, his staggering diversity and the extent to which many of his most original poems—especially the earlier lyrics—are inextricably rooted in their own linguistic humus.”

From Goethe’s Roman Elegies

V.

Happy now I can feel the classical climate inspire me,

Past and Present at last clearly, more vividly speak—

Here I take their advice, perusing the works of the ancients

With industrious care, pleasure that grows every day—

But throughout the nights by Amor I’m differently busied,

If only half improved, doubly delights instead—

Also, am I not learning when at the share of her bosom,

Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?

Only thus I appreciate marble;  reflecting, comparing,

See with an eye that can feel, feel with a hand that can see

True, the loved one besides may claim a few hours of the daytime,

But in night hours as well makes full amends for the loss.

For now always we’re kissing; often hold sensible converse.

When she succumbs to sleep, ponder, long I lie still,

Often too in her arms I’ve lain composing a poem,

Gently with fingering hand count the hexameter’s beat

Out on her back; she breathes, so lovely and calm in her sleeping

That the glow from her lips deeply transfuses my heart.

Amor meanwhile refuels the lamp and remembers the times when

Likewise he’d served and obliged them, his triumvirs of verse.

—Michael Hamburger, trans.

 

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Love is Not Blind: A Renaissance Love Elegy by Cristoforo Landino

Mercury slays Argus while he is guarding Io. Peter Paul Rubens. 1636-1638.

The Italian Renaissance scholar Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498) is best known for his philosophical dialogues written in the vernacular Italian of which he was an advocate.  But, in the style of Latin love elegy—Catullus, Ovid and Propertius—he did compose a series of poems about his love affair with a woman he tenderly calls Xandra.  In the following poem entitled “Conqueritur de Amore” (Complaints about Love) he vehemently dismisses the commonly held notion that love is blind (translation is my own):

Alas, whoever believes that Love is blind is indeed deceived: Argus, the ferocious monster, didn’t have as many eyes in his head as my lover! For what shadows or what out-of-the-way places are able to secretly snatch me away in safety from her eyes? The riverbanks and the rivers overflowing their curved banks and the leaf-covered fields are my witnesses, for it is among them that, desiring to put aside my shameful, fiery passion, I have sought to complain pointlessly about the savage lashings of my mistress. For you, oh wild beasts, have often seen me wandering around among your mountains in a vain attempt to hide myself. And what have I accomplished? That cruel god, Cupid, never guides his path away from my heart. Are there no other mortal hearts for you to burn with your little torches? Or what about immortal hearts? Or do you prefer to safely relax with your fellow deities with whom you’ve made a sacred pact? You are certainly sure to tire out those bloody weapons of yours as I now stand in resistance. But your bow only holds me in its sights. Go ahead and lead forward, you three Fates, you savage spirits, your distaffs that you have imposed upon us so harshly; I just pray that there is a limit and an end to my madness. There is no limit for a grand love. But my Xandra knows what your quiver is capable of, she knows full well about adverse love. Although she might be capable of conquering fierce tigers and Sicilian giants or conquering Harshness itself, she nevertheless does not look at my wounds with dry eyes. My girl is indeed harsh, but she is not that hardhearted.

This poem is particularly indebted to Ovid for its mythological allusions to Argus and Cupid; Ovid is fond of calling the amorous god “savage boy.”  I especially like that, although the poet is trying to hide from all seeing eyes of his love, in the end he playfully acknowledges that she does have a soft spot for him and he for her.

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Not Dead, But Frozen into their Attitudes

Nothing excites me more than studying, researching and pondering etymology, derivatives, word usage, etc.  This little gem, from Owen Barfield’s book  History in English Words, was waiting for me in my inbox when I woke up this Sunday  morning.  It is not enough for me to copy into my commonplace book,  I had to share:

In the common words we use everyday the souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men, stand around us, not dead, but frozen intp their attitudes like the courtiers in the garden of the Sleeping Beauty. The more common a word is, and the simpler its meaning, the bolder very likely is the original thought which it contains and the more intense the intellectual or poetic effort which went to its making.  Thus, the word quality is used by most educated people every day of their lives, yet in order that we should have this simple word Plato had to make the tremendous effort (it is one of the most exhausting which man is called on to exert) of turning a vague feeling into a clear thought.  He invented the new word ‘poiotes’, ‘what-ness’, as we might say or ‘of-what-kind-ness’, and Cicero translated it by the Latin ‘qualitas’, from ‘qualis’.  Language becomes a different thing for us altogether if we can make ourselves realize, can even make ourselves feel how every time the word quality is used, say upon a label in a shop window, that creative effort made by Plato comes into play again.  Nor is the acquisition of such a feeling a waste of time; for once we have made it our own, it circulates like blood through the whole of the literature and life about us.  It is the kiss which brings the sleeping courtiers to life.

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Moon Clock by Donald Hall

Like an oarless boat through midnight’s watery

ghosthouse, through lumens and shallows

of shadow, under smoky light that the full moon

reflects from snowfield to ceilings. I drift

on January’s tide from room to room, pausing

by the wooden clock with its pendulum that keeps

the beat like a heart certainly beating, to wait

for the pause allowing passage

to repose’s shore—where all waves halt

upreared and stony as the moon’s Mycenaean lions.

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A Reading List Inspired by Kafka

I have the worst book hangover I’ve ever had in my life. I keep thinking about Stach’s biography of Kafka, and Kafka’s life and everything related to Kafka. I am having a hard time focusing on other books this week. As I was reading Stach I keep a list in my notebook of books that Kafka read, kept in his library, or mentioned often. Most of the books on my list were already sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention. I am thinking of slowly trying to make my way through some of these books next. If Kafka loved them, then maybe I will too.

Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857. Sentimental Education is mentioned in all three volumes of Stach’s biography because it was one of Kafka’s favorite books. He even learned French so he could read it in the original language. Flaubert’s style of writing was one Kafka wished to emulate.

Franz Grillparzer, “The Poor Musician.” This short story was one of Kafka’s favorites. I have Volume 37 of the German Library which I bought to read Stifter, so I was thrilled to find that the Grillparzer story is in the same collection.

Heimito von Doderer, The Lighted Windows. Doderer’s name comes up a few times in Stach’s biography. Thanks to a Twitter post from flowerville, I had already bought this Doderer book. Now I have more motivation to finally read it!

Heinrich von Kleist. Hyperion; The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist; An Abyss Deep Enough-The Letters of Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist is one of Kafka’s go-t0 authors. I’ve already read, and loved, Penthesilea, but I still have Hyperion sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention. Kafka actually loved to read the letters of Kleist, Flaubert and Hebbel.

Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet; Letters on Life; Letters Summer 1926 with Pasternak and Tsvetayeva; The Notebooks of Laurids Brigge. Rilke, who was also born and raised in Prague, is mentioned a few times in Stach’s biography. Rilke and Kafka actually met briefly at a literary reading. I’ve had most of these Rilke books sitting on my shelves for a while and I am now very eager to explore his writings.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain; Death in Venice and Other Stories; Thomas Mann Diaries 1918-1939; Thomas Mann Letters. As a contemporary of Kafka whose novels were very popular Mann is mentioned several times by Stach. Kafka and Brod, while vacationing in Italy, met Mann’s brother Heinrich as well.

Søren Kierkegaard. Either/Or; Kierkegaard-Letters and Documents; Works of Love; The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard by W.H. Auden. One of Kafka’s last diary entries is about Either/Or. But it was not so much his philosophy that Kafka was interested in as his personal life. Kierkegaard also had a failed loved affair and a broken engagement with a woman named Regine. So I am reading these letters as well as a biography of Kierkegaard recently written by Stephen Backhouse.

Max Brod. Three Loves. One of the things that I learned from Stach’s biography is that Max Brod was a prolific writer. The amount of novels, articles and reviews he turned out is astonishing but very few of them have been translated into English. I was lucky enough to find a rare copy of his novel Three Loves which hasn’t been in print since the 1930’s at my favorite NYC bookstore, The Strand.

This is by no means a complete list. These are the ones that piqued my curiosity and that I could find in English translation. There are many other books that I would liked to have included, but are not translated into English. Friedrich Hebbel, Felix Weltsch, and Oscar Baum, just to name a few. It was actually Hebbel’s 1800-page diary he was reading when Kafka wrote the famous line in his letter to his friend Oskar Pollack: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

On an unrelated note, I also have the three volume autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir that I am contemplating reading. I also just bought a few of the novels and volumes of poetry written by H.D. I am hoping one of these books will pull me out of my rut! If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

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