David Constantine on Hölderlin, Eisler, Hamburger

 

1943

In Germany

The first complete edition of Hölderlin’s works, the Grosse Stuttgarter Ausgabe, was begun in 1941. The first volume of it (poems up to 1800) came out in 1943, for the centenary of his death. Also in that year the Hölderlin-Gesellschaft was founded, patron Dr Josef Goebbels, and it and the Nazi Ministry of Culture beween them issued a special Feldauswahl, a selected Hölderlin for the battlefield: ninety-six pages, a good number of his poems, extracts from his novel Hyperion, from his tragedy Empedokles, and from his letters, all faithfully edited and nicely printed on cheap paper in 100,000 copies. So with Hölderlin in their packs the soldiers were sent off into a war already lost.

 

One of the poems they were free to read was ‘Germanien’, which concludes with an image of an ideal Germany wehrlos [unarmed] at the heart of Europe dispensing counsel to the kings and peoples around her. And another was ‘Der Frieden’[Peace], written during the Revolutionary Wars. Printed entire in the Feldauswahl (Hölderlin left the first stanza incomplete), here it is now in my translation. I’ve numbered the stanzas; 7-9 must have made uneasy reading ‘in the field’.

 

 

Peace

 

1

As though the ancient waters, the

                                                            transformed into

            A different rage, more terrible,

               Came again, to cleanse, that being needed

 

2

So war in a style unheard of ran and grew

   And seethed without halt from year to year and swamped

      The scared land far and wide and people

         Paled in the darkness coming over them.

3

Heroic force flew up like foam and vanished

   Away, Revenge, you shortened often and soon

       The work of your servants and fetched them

           Home from the fighting and they were quiet.

 

4

Oh you, the implacable and never defeated

   Who strike the unbrave and the over-mighty

       So that from the stroke the whole poor tribe

          Will shake unto the last generation,

5

You, Nemesis, the covert keeper of goad

   And bridle, holder-back, bringer-on, are you

       Still punishing the dead? Or under

           The laurel gardens of Italy you’d

 

6

Have let the old invaders sleep. Nor have you spared

   Even the leisurely shepherds and herdsmen

      And haven’t the peoples by now done

          Penance enough for their easeful slumbers?

 

7

Who started it? Who brought the curse? It is not

   Of today and not from yesterday and those

      Who first lost the measure, our fathers,

          They didn’t know and their spirits drove them.

 

8

For too long, too long, mortal humans with glee

   Have trodden on each other’s faces and fought

      To rule, fearing their neighbours, and none

          Even on his own ground has a blessing.

 

9

And this generation in ferment as if

   In Chaos, its unsteady desires flit and

      Drift and their poor lives are wild and have

         Lost heart and are cold with anxieties.

 

10

But you, Mother Earth, continue quietly

   Your firm course in the light. You flower in spring,

       Out of your rich life the seasons grow

            Melodically changing, and leave you. 

 

11

Oh you who are the best-beloved of all

   The holy muses and the constellations, oh

       Longed-for renewer of life, come, Peace

           And give us heart and our lives an abode.

 

12

Innocent peace, our children are wiser

   Than the old almost, the quarrelling does not

       Turn their goodness or their minds, they have

           Some joy and clarity in their looks still.

 

 

 

13

And as with other spectators the judge looks

   With a serious smile on the young contestants

       There on the hot track forcing faster

           The chariots, the dust raising in clouds

 

14

So likewise Helios smiles over us and he

   The happy god, is never alone for the aether’s

       Blossoming stars are with him always

          Dwelling in holiness and freedom.

 

 

 

In America

Hanns Eisler, a close friend of Bertolt Brecht and, as composer, a major collaborator in his poetry and theatre, went into exile as he did after Hitler’s seizure of power. Until the War began Brecht had a home at Svendborg, on the Danish island of Fyn, and Eisler visited him and worked with him there; then from 1941-42 they were near-neighbours in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and did important work together until, 1947-48, they both became unwelcome in the Land of the Free and returned to the ruins of Europe.

 

Brecht cordially detested Santa Monica. Eisler did better, found employment more easily, but was still not at home. His ‘Hollywood Elegies’, settings of poems by Brecht, Eichendorff, Mörike, Hölderlin and others, are an exile’s laments for the homeland, its poetry and song; but with the particularly painful sense that the homeland had sunk into barbarism and that its culture had been appropriated by the barbarians-in-chief. His settings then were part of the struggle for Gemany’s inheritance, which began in 1933 and would continue after the War between the two separated halves of the former one nation. Eisler usually took liberties with the texts he was setting (even Brecht’s, which nobody else had the nerve to) and for his ‘Elegy No. 3, 1943’ he reduced the fifty-six lines of Hölderlin’s ‘Der Frieden’ to this compact ‘fragment’ (his term), that could be effectively sung:

                                               

As though the ancient waters, transformed into

A different rage, more terrible, came again,

So war in a style unheard of ran and grew

And seethed without halt from year to year and

The people paled in the darkness coming over them.

Who brought the curse? It is not

                        Of today and not from yesterday and those

                        Who first lost the measure, our fathers,

They didn’t know it.

For too long, too long, mortal humans with glee

Have trodden on each other’s faces and fought

To rule, fearing their neighbours.

And this generation in ferment as if

In Chaos, its unsteady desires flit and

Drift and their poor lives are wild and have

Lost heart and are cold with anxieties.

             

The title ‘1943’, besides being the date of composition, alludes to the centenary of Hölderlin’s death and to what the exiles knew (or guessed?) was being done in Nazi Germany to celebrate it. The song is thus a clear bid to reclaim a great national poet whose ‘nationalism’ was a fabrication of the Nazi Ministry of Culture then purveying it. 

 

 

In Britain

Michael Hamburger fled from Germany to England with his family in 1933. After only seven years here, aged sixteen, he was looking for a publisher for his Hölderlin translations. They came out three years later, in 1943; by which time Hamburger, the German Jew, was in British army uniform. The Poetry Society invited him to come and talk on Hölderlin, and read from his translations. He declined. His Company Commander summoned him, and ordered him to accept, for the honour of the regiment. He agreed. But his nerve failed him, he hid in the audience and got two friends to read and talk for him. That invitation and the occasion, like the translation and the publication themselves, were an absurd and beautiful act, against hatred and evil. Hamburger commented (in his autobiography, A Mug’s Game): ‘If I had asked myself at the time why that war was worth fighting, I should have said, because such absurdities are possible in Britain, and there was nothing I wouldn’t do to keep them possible’.

 

Poems are bread on the waters, messages in bottles, they may land anywhere. A close friend of mine found a Hölderlin. Feldausgabe in a second-hand shop in Oxford in 1968, and gave it to me. I came across Hamburger’s Poems of Hölderlin in Llangollen, five or six years ago. Published by Nicholson & Watson, it has nearly 100 pages of introduction, then 140 of poems, the German facing Hamburger’s English, page by page. Quite something, in the middle of a war against the native land of poet and translator.