Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Poets and Patriots

Today I'm moving on from novellas to poetry, with a couple of short works I randomly threw together.  Of course, as is often the case, if you look hard enough, you can find connections anywhere - and today I didn't have to look very hard at all...  Fasten your seat-belts; today sees us crossing the Rhine (in style, of course!).

First up today is Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea, a late-18th-century pastoral story of a rural romance.  Hermann, an innkeeper's son, is out one day offering supplies to refugees fleeing from the French troops who have pushed the Germans back over the Rhine.  Suddenly he sees a beautiful, gentle maiden who is taking care of a woman and her child - and, well, you can guess the rest...  After a brief trip home, Hermann returns with a couple of friends, determined to find out more about the lovely Dorothea and, if possible, to bring her home as his wife.

While I originally had my doubts, Hermann und Dorothea is actually poetry, written in unrhyming hexameters.  I only found this out after the event though - you see, my Kindle version didn't keep the original lines, leaving me thinking that it was stilted prose with capital letters in funny places :(

There is a rather political background to this work.  The setting is a time when there was no German nation, just an abstract dream of uniting hundreds of independent fiefdoms which shared a (fairly) common language and heritage.  Goethe is setting up his two characters as examples of Germanic ideals, prime caring Teutonic citizens who work hard for the common good.

To be honest though, this was not my kind of story.  I found it simple and uninspiring, and the resolution was never in doubt.  I really didn't like the writing much either - its focus on dialogue over description was disappointing.  I hate to say it, but this might be another Goethe nominee for a Golden Turkey (the second nomination in a row!).  For one of the undisputed greats of world literature, Goethe really doesn't have a very high strike-rate around these parts ;)

Moving on fifty years or so (it's lucky that the bus has time travel as a standard feature...), we're crossing the Rhine once more - in the same direction, but with very different feelings.  The German poet Heinrich Heine spent most of his later life in self-imposed exile in Paris, reluctant to expose himself to danger from the ever-present Prussian censors.  Like any good German though, he did get homesick, and the result of one of his rare journeys home resulted in the poem Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen (Germany. A Winter's Tale).

The poem, preceded by a prose introduction, is the story of Heine's journey (as shown on the map) across the border, up through the Rhine country and Westphalia, to his family home in Hamburg.  As he presses further into his home country, he describes the landscape, the people and the institutions with quick wit and poetic licence - and his opinions are rarely favourable.  He comes to bury the Prussians, not to praise them...

Things have changed since the writing of Hermann und Dorothea, and not for the better.  German unification is only a matter of decades away, but it will be achieved under the jackboot (and I use the word deliberately) of the powerful state of Prussia.  The creation of a major German-speaking state is to be achieved not by a coming together of minds, but by one state gobbling up dozens of others and becoming a major player in European politics.  When English speakers today think of typical negative German stereotypes, it's often the legacies of the Prussians that we have in mind.

Heine despises the Prussian authoritarianism and misses no opportunity to mock its people and institutions:
"Noch immer das hölzern pedantische Volk,
Noch immer ein Rechter Winkel
In jeder Bewegung, und im Gesicht
Der eingefrorene Dünkel" (Caput III)

"They're still the same wooden, pedantic folk,
And still with ninety degrees
In every movement, and in their face
Darkness in a deep freeze" *
* Translated very loosely to keep the rhyme ;)
As a native of Hamburg says, after the fire that destroyed much of the city, the other German states were quick to offer aid:
"Man schickte uns Kleider und Betten genug,
Auch Brot und Fleisch und Suppen!
Der König von Preußen wollte sogar
Uns schicken seine Truppen." (Caput XXI)

"They sent us all clothes and bedding enough,
With bread and meat and soups!
The King of Prussia even desired
To send us all his troops."
It may sound at times as if the poet hates his home country, but that is not the case.  In fact he's very patriotic - he just has a different idea of what this means to the people who are in charge...

I did enjoy Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen, but it wasn't the beautiful poetry I had been expecting.  It seems more like comedy at times, a little slapstick and verging on limerick-style in places.  In his introduction, Heine says that in getting the book past the censor, some of the bite has had to be extracted, and that there is, perhaps, too much humour. I would certainly agree that the satire is a lot tamer than it might have been.

Despite that though, it does make for good reading, and it's probably a good one for anyone wanting to try something in German.  The short sections, and the straight-forward verse, make it a fairly simple read, even if you're a little short on confidence.  All in all, Heine's poem is entertaining stuff - and certainly not what I was expecting...