Monday, July 9, 2007

Brunch with the German Romantics

Casper David Friedrich: Cloister

Gothic monument by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Viktoria Park, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Caspar David Friedrich: The Cross on the Mountain

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

During Sunday brunch at Yorckschloesschen, Robert Morley walks by and joins me at my table. He also has his laptop, and goes to the online site of Bremer Sprachblog, which teaches German. Robert reads some highly complicated sentences aloud, commenting, "Listen to this. This is fabulous!"

Well, Robert, many people think the German language is ugly, guttural. That impression comes from all those World War II movies produced by Hollywood. But German is actually a beautiful language. I had the pleasure one evening of hearing the great German actress, Edith Clever, read portions of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) in the original language. It was extremely expressive and emotional.

I think that lyric German poetry, particularly of the Romantic poets, was in many ways a verbal form of the chiaroscuro found in the influential paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. I saw the Friedrich collection at Schloss Charlottenburg here in Berlin and instantly remembered passages from Goslar, Faust and Der Erlkönig. Poets such as Goethe, Rilke, Schiller, Heine, Brentano, Arnim, Eichendorff and E.T.A. Hoffmann (who, by the way, is buried 4 blocks from my apartment) often echoed Friedrich’s penchant for symbolism and double meanings. Darkness and light, a sense of the Gothic, the depiction of dreams and German mythology permeate their poetry. To me, the sheer descriptiveness, the actual sound of the language, has an innate musicality and tactile feel. No wonder that these qualities inspired great Lieder. I cannot imagine the artistic void that would exist if these poets had never lived.

One of the first German poems I ever learned comes instantly to mind, Ich grolle nicht by Heinrich Heine which inspired Robert Schumann to compose the perfect song. I include it below with an English translation:

Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ewig verlornes Lieb! Ich grolle nicht.
Wie du auch strahlst in Diamantenpracht,
Es fällt kein Strahl in deines Herzens Nacht.

Das weiß ich längst. Ich sah dich ja im Traum, Und sah die Nacht in deines Herzens Raum, Und sah die Schlange, die dir am Herzen frisst, Ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist.

I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking,
Love lost forever! I bear no grudge.
However you may shine in diamonds splendour,
no ray of light falls in the night of your heart.

I have long known this.

I saw you in my dream,
and saw the night in the space of your heart,
and saw the snake that eats at your heart,
I saw, my love, how very miserable you are.

So yes, Robert, it is a fabulous language.

© Alexander Frey, 2007