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Goethe’s primal words

September 15, 2014

A few weeks ago I posted translations of two poems from Goethe’s middle years. To round out the view of the German poet, I’m posting one final translation, of a poem from Goethe’s later years–he was about seventy when he wrote this poem–a period in which he grew rather philosophical. Or, at least, his poetry grew more explicitly so. I haven’t read his collected works, but it seems as if, more and more, his poems did not even make allegorical use of character, plot, setting, instead becoming pure poetico-philosophical reflection. This can easily go wrong, but “Urworte. Orphisch” is a good example of it going right; perhaps, partially, because the use of Greek philosophical terms makes the poem’s language its explicit protagonist. These are primal words, creating a living world; the sequence DAIMON-TUCHE-EROS-ANAGKE-ELPIS becomes a dramatic arc in outline, each moment expanded in its own stanza into a philosophical tableau.

The primal words Goethe chooses tell a predictable story. You gain an identity; you wander around the world; you fall in love, arbitrarily; you orient your life around this love; you hope against hope that something good will come of it. I’ve never known quite what to make of this sort of idealization of romantic love. The best defense of Goethe’s version, perhaps, is that by raising it to such a level of abstraction–to a cosmic principle, even–the aura of meaningfulness that tends to envelop the individual love affair is stripped away. The beloved here merits only a single mention, at the end of the EROS stanza. The true beloved is ELPIS, who comes in at the end to reconcile two intertwined oppositions: DAIMON/EROS, that is, self-other, and TUCHE-ANAGKE, that is, luck-fate. (Intertwined because both self and other are both products of chance and, one chanced upon, impossible to alter.)

Or, at least, to promise reconciliation. But it seems to me too easy. With no risk (the gate is already unlocked) and no stake (no action is required), it should be no surprise that neither is there any real reward. I have a difficult time understanding the appeal of a poetic religion which demands no ethical change and whose promises are openly acknowledged to be empty. It looks more like escape.

Primal Words. Orphic

DAIMON. Daimon
As on the day that lent you to the world
The sun stood to greet the planets,
You so soon and on and on advanced
Under the law with which you began.
So you must be, yourself you cannot escape,
Soon so said sibyls, so prophets.
And no time and no power dismembered
Molded form, which living developed.

TUCHE. Chance
The strict bound yet went round gracefully
A Changing, that changed with and around us;
Not alone you stay, you make yourself sociable,
And act well as an other acts;
In life it’s soon un-, soon re-payable,
It’s a bobble, and it’s all bobbled through.
Soon the years’ circle’s gone round,
The lamp awaits the flame, it ignites.

EROS. Love
It doesn’t fail!–he plunges down from heaven,
Whither he swung himself from ancient wastes,
He floats up here on airy feathers
Round brow and breast the spring day long,
Seems now to flee, from the fleeing he returns,
Since he becomes a weal in woe, so sweet and scared.
Many a heart floats away at large,
But the noblest dedicates himself to the One.

ANAGKE. Compulsion
Then is it again as the stars wished:
Condition and Law, and all Will
Is only a wish, because we simply should,
And before the Will caprice is silent still;
The beloved is chided away by the heart,
To the hard Must comply will and whim.
So we’re seemingly free then, after many years
Just close to it as we were in the beginning.

But such a bound’s, such a brazen wall’s
Highest guarded-against gate is unlocked,
Though it stand with old rocks’ time!
An essence stirs light and unrestrained:
From cloudcover, fog, rainshower
She raises us with her, inspired by her;
You know her well, she swarms through all zones;
A wing-beat–and behind us aeons.


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