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The veil of poetry

September 2, 2014

Too many months ago I posted here translations of two of Goethe’s early ballads; I meant to put up more such translations as they were completed, but never got around to it. In any case, here are two mid-career poems–I’m no Goethe scholar, but I believe both to have been written around the age of fifty. Like the previous pair, these are both allegories for artistic creation. But the tone has changed; those poems portrayed twilit encounters with daemonic powers, these poems imagine mystical powers of overwhelming clarity. And the erotic metaphors are now less familial and more religious in tint; the point is not that poetry might create something valuable, but that attraction to it might, through the purification (not destruction) of desire, bring about moral conversion. Suspicious as I am of poetry-as-substitute-for-faith, I prefer the ballads: that is, I suppose, I prefer magic to pantheism. Still, they’re impressive poems, in both imagery and language. I have doubtless failed entirely to do them justice; the translation is slavishly literal.

In the fourteen-stanza first poem, “Dedication,” the narrator climbs a mountain and, when the fog clears, has a vision of the spirit of Truth. There are echoes of the Dante-Beatrice dynamic; first the spirit must rebuke him for his unwillingness to help his fellow man, then it offers him, as a way to do so, the veil of Poetry. This veil offers his a reproducible medium between the impenetrable fog and the blinding sunlight. The metaphor is similar, in fact, to that Hopkins used in his (later) poem “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe”; I suspect Hopkins had read it. Though Hopkins’ metaphor seems to me better–it’s unclear to me what, for Goethe, makes poetry able to achieve this mediation. Note that this poem served as a dedication for Goethe’s collected works, and, presumably, should be interpreted as a declaration and justification of his own (divine?) inspiration to write poetry.

In the nine-stanza second poem, “The God and the Bajadere,” the Indian god Mahadeva (Shiva) descends to earth to test humanity and spends the night with a temple prostitute with a heart of gold. In the morning she finds him dead, and, in spite of the priests’ commands, she immolates herself on his pyre, and is carried up to heaven. This poem has an interesting rhythmic effect, which I have doubtless failed to capture; the first eight lines of each stanza are in trochaic tetrameter, the last three switch to anapests, imitating, doubtless, the shifting patterns of the girl’s dancing.


The morning came; its steps scared off
The quiet sleep which mildly embraced me,
And I, awakened, from my still hut
Went up the mountain with fresh soul;
I was pleased with every step
By the new blooms which hung full of drops;
The young day rose with delight,
And all was refreshed to refresh me.

And as I climbed, from the meadow’s river
A fog drew forth in soft streaks,
It moved and shifted to wrap around me,
And grew winged around my head aloft.
The finest views I should no more enjoy,
A cloudy flood covered the province from me.
Soon I saw myself as if by clouds enclosed
And locked up with myself in twilight.

Suddenly the sun shone to pierce through,
In the fog a clearness let itself see.
Here it sank, let itself swing down,
Here its rising shared itself round forest and height,
How I hoped to bring to her the first greeting!
After the fog I hoped for it twice as keenly.
The lifting strife was not yet completed,
A splendor surrounded me, and I stood bedazzled.

Soon there made me open my eyes
An inner urge of the again-bold heart,
I could only venture it with a quick blink,
For all shined too burning and too glowing.
There hung, borne within the clouds,
A godly lady before my eyes,
No finer sight saw I in my life,
She looked at me and stayed lingering hanging.

“Do you know me?” she spoke, with a mouth
From which all love and true tones flowed,
“Do you recognize me, I who in many wounds
Of your life poured the purest balm?
You know me well, to whom, in eternal bonds,
Your striving heart joined fast and faster.
Did I see you not with hot heart’s weeping
As a boy eagerly yearning after me?”

“Yes!” I cried out, as overjoyed I sank
Down to the earth, “Long have I felt you:
You gave me peace, when through young limbs
Passion restlessly ransacked;
You have as with heavenly plumage
Cooled my forehead on the hottest day;
You gave me the best gift on earth,
And every joy will I have only through you!

“I do not name you. Yet I hear you by many
Very often named, and each title you HIS,
Every eye thinks to aim on you,
Almost every eye your shaft brings to pain.
Ah, when I’ve erred, I’ve had many playmates,
Now that I know you, I am quite alone.
I must enjoy my luck but with myself,
Your fetching light cover and lock away.”

She smiled, she spoke: “You see, how clever,
How necessary it was, to reveal to you little!
Hardly are you safe from the coarsest deception,
Hardly are you lord of the first childrens’ wills,
That you believe yourself already over-man enough,
That you fail to fulfill the duty of man!
How much do you differ from the others?
Know yourself, live with the world in peace!”

“Pardon me,” I called out, “I meant it well.
Should I have opened my eyes in vain?
A fresh will lives in my blood,
I know exactly the worth of your gift.
If you wake in me for others the noblest good,
I can and will no more bury the talent!
Why do I search the way so full of yearning,
If I shall not show it to my brothers?”

And as I spoke, the high essence looked at me
With a blink of sympathetic forebearance;
I could read myself in her eyes,
What I missed and what I did right.
She smiled, that I was already convalescent,
At which my spirit climbed to new joys;
I could now with inner trust
Approach her and show myself to her.

Then the stretched out her hand in the streaks
Of light clouds and the fragrance around;
As she held it, it let itself be taken,
It let itself be drawn, it was no more fog.
My eyes could again wander in the valley,
To heaven I glanced, it was clear and lofty.
Only I saw her keep the purest veil,
It flowed around her and swelled thousandfold.

“I know you, I know your weakness,
I know what good in you lives and glimmers!”
So she said, so I hear her always speak,
“Receive here, what I long ago determined!
With it the happy one can on nothing break,
Who takes this gift with still soul.
From morning-fragrance woven and sun’s clearness,
The veil of poetry from the hand of truth.

“An when it becomes for you and your friends sultry
At noon, throw it into the air!
Straightaway murmurs round nightwinds’ cool,
Breathes around you flowers’ spice-odor and fragrance.
It quiets the woe of fearful earth-feelings,
Till cloudbeds stroll the vault,
Every life’s swell is becalmed,
The day becomes lovely, and the night becomes bright.”

So come then, friend, if on your way
The burden of living presses heavy and heavier,
When our road a fresh feminine blessing
With flowers adorns, with golden fruit tastes,
We go united against the next day!
So we live, so we walk happy.
And then also, if grandchildren mourn us,
To their desire still to take our love.


The God and the Bajadere

Mahadeva, the lord of the earth,
Comes down for the sixth time,
So he can turn into our likeness,
Feel with joy and pain.
He condescends here to dwell,
Lets it all happen to himself.
If he should curse or spare,
He must see men humanly.
And when he’d as a wanderer examined the city,
The great deplored, the small regarded,
He left them at nightfall to go ahead.

As he now goes about,
Where the last houses are,
He sees with painted cheeks
A lonely pretty child.
“Greetings, virgin!” “My pleasure!
Wait, I’ll come right out -”
“And who are you?” “A bajadere,
And this is the house of love.”
She stirs herself, to strike the cymbals to the dance;
She knows herself so lovely to carry in circles,
She bends and curves and hands him the bouquet.

Coaxingly she pulls him to the threshold,
Lively into the house.
“Handsome stranger, lampbright
Should straightaway the cot be.
Be you tired, I will refresh you,
Ease your feets’ hurt.
What you will, that you will have,
Rest, joy, or jest.”
She soothes busily pretend sorrow.
The divine one smiles; he sees with joy
Through deep ruin a human heart.

And he asks for slave-service;
Always brighter she becomes,
And the maiden’s early arts
Become more and more nature.
And so justified on the blood
Soon, soon, the fruit itself;
Obedience in disposition
Becomes not far from love.
But to prove her sharper and sharper,
Chooses the knower of heights and depths
Desire and horror and grim pain.

And he kisses the gaudy cheeks,
And she feels the lovers’ pain,
And the maiden stands ensnared,
And she weeps for the first time,
Sinks down to her feet,
No more won to wantonness,
Ah! and the supple members,
They deny all service.
And so to the camp’s pleasing celebration
Prepares the dark homely veil,
The nocturnal hour, the fine dream-web.

Late to sleep under jests,
Early wake after short rest,
She finds on her heart
Dead the much-beloved guest.
Screaming she falls down on him;
But she does not wake him,
And they bring the stiff member
Quick to the fiery pit.
She hears the priests, the death-song,
She races and runs parting the crowd:
“Who are you? what pushes you toward the grave?”

By the bier she falls down,
Her cry rings through the air:
“My spouse I will again see!
And I seek him in the tomb.
Should it fall apart to ash by me,
This member of god’s splendor?
Mine! he was it, mine before all!
Ah, only one sweet night!”
The priests sing it: “We bear the old,
After long tiring and late cooling,
We bear the young, even before they’ve thought it.

“Hear the priests’ teaching:
This was not your spouse.
You live as a dancing-girl,
And so have no duty.
Only the shadow follows the body
Into the still realm of death;
Only the spouse follows the spouse:
This is duty and glory together.
Resound, trumpet, to the holy charge!
O take, our Gods! the virtue of days.
O take the youth in flames to you!”

So the choir thus, without mercy,
Multiplies her heart’s distress;
And with outstretched arms
She springs into the tomb.
But the god-youth lifts up
Out from the flame aloft,
And in his arms floats
The beloved with him.
The Godhood rejoices in the repentant sinner;
Immortals lift up lost children
With fiery arms up to the sky.


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