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

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reconfiguring Romanticism (28): From Goethe’s West-Östlicher Diwan

Translation & commentary by Pierre Joris


That you never end is what makes you great.
And that you never begin is your fate.
Your song’s a gyre like heaven’s vault,
Beginning and end are ever the same
And what the middle brings is patently
What remains in the end and was in the beginning.

You are true poet’s source to joy
That spills from you wave after wave ceaselessly.
A mouth always ready to kiss,
A breast full of song pouring forth sweetly,
A throat always parched for drink,
A good heart, gushing.

And if the whole world should disappear
Hafiz, with you and you alone
Would I compete! Pleasure & pain
As twins we’d share!
To love & to drink like you
That shall be my pride, my life.

May songs now resound with their own fire!
For you are older, you are newer!


TALISMAN on Carneol
Is luck & well-being for the believer,
If on Onyx all the more so,
Kiss it with hallowed lips!
It chases away all evil,
Protects you & where you are:
When the engraved word
Purely heralds Allah’s name,
It arouses love & deed in you.
It is women most of all
Who are edified by talismans.

AMULETS are similar
Signs written on paper;
But one’s not as strictly pressed
As on the noble stone’s tight edge,
Thus pious souls are granted
Here to choose much longer verse.
Men wear these papers
Faithfully as scapularios.

THE INSCRIPTION has nothing to back it up
And yet: it is itself & has to tell you all
That in your turn, with honest pleasure,
You wish to say: I say it, I!

But ABRAXAS I rarely bring!
Here supposedly the grotesque
That stark madness made
Has to stand in for the highest.
If I tell you absurdities,
Just think I’m bringing Abraxases.

A SIGNET RING’s difficult to draw,
It is highest sense in densest space;
Though here you know how to acquire
a thing authentic,
Dug in or raised, the word stands,
you hardly think it.


A Note on Goethe’s West-Östlicher Diwan:

Like many a northern boy, Goethe fell in love with the images and tales from the Orient at age 12. But — except for a poem entitled "Mahomets-Gesang" ["Mohammed's song"] dating to 1774 — it wasn’t until his sixties that this early infatuation came to literary fruition in the collection of poems we know as the West-Östlicher Diwan, composed in the main between 1814 & 1818. The early years of the composition also coincide with his last great love affair, with the much younger Marianne von Willemer, and could be seen as a making-public-while-covering-up of that affair. In fact, a number of the poems attributed to the poetic persona of “Suleika” are not by Goethe, but by his lover Marianne. Much literature on classical Persian and Arabic matters (& translations of the poets) appeared in those years, and Goethe read up on most of it (in Latin, English, French and Italian, given that he didn’t have Arabic or Persian). Some of his poems (such as BLESSING-PLEDGES) are in fact versified bits from such literature.

But at the core of this late creative surge lies Goethe’s avowed Ahlverwandschaft with the Persian poet Hafiz, the addressee, instigator, dedicatee of much of the Diwan. Whatever Saidian critique of “orientalism” may apply to this work in hindsight, it is also clear that this is probably Goethe’s most powerful long sequence of poems. The gusto for life, the exuberance, the magnificent lyricism evoked by this consummate and graceful composition make it indeed into one of the great works of Romantic poetry. [P.J.]

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