To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (8): Heinrich Heine, with Gerard De Nerval, A Prose Poem & a Commentary


Longing & love!

It’s all broken: I’m lying here sprawled on the shore, deserted & naked, a corpse that the sea has spit up with contempt.

Before me the ocean fans out, a vast desert of water, while in back of me nothing but exile & grief, & over my head clouds sail by, grey & formless, the daughters of air, who draw water up from the sea, whisps of fog that they lift with great effort, then let them fall back on the sea, exquisite & useless, just like my life.

Waves murmur, gulls caw, old memories seize me, dreams forgotten, snuffed out, images slow to return, sad & tender.

Up north there’s a beautiful woman, regal & beautiful, wearing a white robe, voluptuous, circling her frail cypress waist; her hair in black curls unloosening, blesst like the night, from her head crowned with tresses, wind blowing capriciously, touching her tender pale face, & there in her tender pale face an eye large & powerful shines, a black sun.

Black sun, how many times have your flames turned against me, your ardors consumed me, how many times was I left here staggering, drunk from your juices!

But just then a trace of a smile crossed her lips fiercely arched like a child’s, sweet but fiercely arched, breathing out words faint as moonlight & gentle as attar of roses.

My soul then came forth & glided rejoicing up to the sky.

Be silent, you waves & you gulls!

Joy & hope! love & longing! everything comes to a close.

I lie down on the earth, a miserable castaway, pressing my face still aflame on the watersoaked sand.

[Translation from French by Jerome Rothenberg, after Nerval’s translation from German]

* * *

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

I don’t care very much about my fame as a poet, nor am I concerned whether my songs will be praised or blamed. But you shall lay a sword on my grave, for I have been a good soldier in the war of liberation of mankind. (H. H., The Voyage from Munich to Genoa) And again: I am the son of the Revolution, and I take up the charmed weapons upon which my mother has pronounced her magic blessing. (H. H., The Romantic School)

(1) A turning from Romanticism as previously practiced & a reminder of how much tension existed in such movements, both within & across generations. But with Heine selbst the drama of poetry (& of “the poet”) took its own particular twists, & after sentimental (“romantic”) early lieder, he became in works such as Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1844) a satirist/ironist who, as Nietzsche wrote of him. “possessed that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection.” His, then, was a further example of an oppositional, often courageous practice marked by a strong impulse toward dismissal & invective — against his literary & philosophical predecesors (The Romantic School, etc.) & the cultural & political milieu that banned his work & drove him into twenty-five years of Paris exile.

Growing up in a period of post-Napoleonic reaction & with a sense of betrayal by earlier Romantics, much like what was felt by Shelley’s generation in England, he was a supporter of later revolutions (1830, 1848) & of a nascent socialism & communism. His turn toward materialism & a kind of art-&-life continuum was a counter both to his own romantic questing & to those “Goethians” & Jena School Romantics (“priests and petty nobility, who conspire against the religious and political freedom of Europe”) who “allowed themselves to be misled into oclaiming the supremacy of art and turning away from the demands of that original real world which, after all, must take precedence.” In saying which he revived & transcended the older Romanticism while pointing to a conflict that has still to be resolved.

N.B. That he was also the only major Jewish poet of the nineteenth century — though a convert as well to evangelical Protestantism (“[his] entrance ticket to European culture”) — is another point worth noting.

“Yes, if a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his
opinion, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.
Remember Heine? You have admired him. He walked through
a revolution too. He didn’t have his eyes left, and he
wasn’t as gay as you. It was paresis laid him low. (What
got you?) He left what he called his mattress grave and
found his way, blind, through the bullets in the street,
it was 1848, to the Louvre. He did it, he took the risk,
to have another look at Venus. What were you looking at
in a broadcasting studio?”
Charles Olson, from “A Lustrum for You, E. P. [Ezra Pound]

(3) His close relationship with Gerard de Nerval with whom he collaborated on the translation of many of his lyrics as prose poems, is the basis of some of our translations here. [Other translations by Ezra Pound lie behind Olson's Lustrum.]

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, scheduled for publication in January 2009. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, & July 29.]

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