The Poets’ Niche – July 2011

The Poets’ Niche

By Mark Sconce

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe(1749-1832)


Johann-Wolfgang-von-GoetheThe Guadalajara Reporter headline stared back at me: City’s Goethe* Institute Closes Its Doors.

My eyes locked, a memory-dream claimed me: On the train to Frankfurt that night, my sole traveling companion turned out to be a student in his twenties, five years my elder. Our small talk turned to poetry for some reason, and I remember asking him if maybe the German language wasn’t particularly well-suited for recitation. Kurt took no offense whatever, seeing instead a teachable moment, a time to dispel my notion. He began to recite Germany’s greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and proved within a few stanzas that German poetry was beautiful to hear. I also learned what it means to be a callow youth.

Who wants to understand the poem

Must go to the land of poetry;

Who wishes to understand the poet

Must go to the poet’s land.   Goethe

Next station stop, Frankfurt, where Goethe was born into Lutheran circumstances in 1749 and where his house is now a national museum/shrine. I would eventually enroll in Berlin’s Das Goethe Institut , home to German language studies, history, politics, literature, culture and a fitting memorial to the last great Renaissance man—poet/philosopher, playwright, novelist, diplomat, civil servant, amateur scientist (discovered the human intermaxillary bone), botanist (The Metamorphosis of Plants, 1790), scientific theorist (The Theory of Colors, 1810), meteorologist (The Goethe Barometer), mineralogist (rock hound). “The greatest happiness for the thinking man is to have fathomed the fathomable, and to quietly revere the unfathomable.” Goethe

All of you know The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, some of you know The Sorrows of Werther, and many of you know his most famous play, Faust, the ambitious scholar who makes that notorious and odious deal with the Devil–his soul for unlimited power and knowledge. “Am I a god? I see so clearly!” But this column’s space allows for only a few of Goethe’s quotations and enchanting lyric poems.

Knowest thou the land where the lemon trees bloom,

Where the gold orange glows in the deep thicket’s gloom,

Where a wind ever soft from the blue heaven blows,

And the groves are of laurel and myrtle and rose?

–Tr. By Longfellow

Had Goethe visited Ajijic?

Mountain peaks are dreaming
Mid the silent night;
Quiet vales are gleaming
In the dewy light.

Underneath the moon
Birds are in their nest;
Wait a while and soon
You as well shall rest.

–Tr. By Jim Falen for this column**

Politically conservative but hardly dour, Goethe penned the following:

In the wilderness a holy man

To his surprise met a servant of Pan,

A goat-footed faun, who spoke with grace:

‘Lord, pray for me and for my race,

That we in heaven find a place:

We thirst for God’s eternal bliss. The holy man made answer to this:

‘How can I grant thy bold petition,

For thou canst hardly gain admission

In heaven yonder where angels salute:

For lo! thou has a cloven foot.’

Undaunted the wild man made the plea:

‘Why should my foot offensive be?

I’ve seen great numbers that went straight

With asses’ heads through heaven’s gate.’

—Tr. by Paul Carus

Given to the sentimental, Goethe was the idol of Romantics.

I think of you, whenever sunlight’s glimmer

On ocean breaks.

I think of you, whenever moonlight’s shimmer

Reflects in lakes.

I see your face, when over distant ridges

The mist appears;

In the deepest night, when crossing narrow bridges,

The wand’rer fears.

I hear your voice, within the muffled surging

Of sea’s refrains;

In peaceful groves, I hear your voice emerging,

When silence reigns.

You may be far, but I am still attendant,

I hold you near!

The sun has set, the stars are now ascendant.

Were you but here!

–Tr. By James Falen for this column

Finally, Germany’s most exalted cultural figure lay dying, age 83, “More light,” his final words.

Close friend, Johann Eckermann, reported: “The morning after Goethe’s death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart – there was a deep silence – and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.”

*For the diphthong challenged, it’s GrrrrrTuh.

**I am indebted to Professor Emeritus James E. Falen for his translations herein.

Deep gratitude to Fred Mittag for helping me understand Goethe’s Weltanshauung.

Ojo Del Lago
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