Posted on July 15, 2014
Friedrich Hölderlin, Selected Poems, introduced, edited and translated by Emery George. Princeton: Kylix, 2011. 963 pages. Hardcover.
Reviewed by Eric Miller
What is “nobility”? In a society, such as ours, that makes a fretful, often duplicitous, yet admirable pretence to democratic practice, the word may seem insistently, even discouragingly, to flaunt a feudal livery, contaminating all the situations into which we import it with the ghost of a titular presumption over the rest of society: an intractable case of most ancient bloodlines. But the origins of the word “noble” offer a means by which to parry, even to disarm, such narrow atavism. “Noble,” like “nobility,” derives from the same root as “gnosis”—“knowing”. When therefore we call a work of literature “noble,” we may address kinds of knowledge. We may designate not what literature knows, but how it knows: or—better—the specific knowledge that literature, only this literature, can both comprise and produce. Then much knowledge is not of some thing, some circumstance, or some fact. Literary knowledge often concentrates or, rather, dilates—as birdsong, that world-building music, also does—into a case of authoritative tone. Can literary tone be properly “noble”? Must nobility be banality, “fine ideas,” inelastic adherence to a stately elevation? I think not: the work of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) makes me think not. It is true that to invoke knowledge or “gnosis,” as I do above, already reinstates, in some measure, it must be conceded, the idea of an elect: an elect of knowers. Election is choosing. What could we choose to know? These questions, as they stand, are too broad: and, to modify or retract my earlier assertion, do require the focus of an instance, a thing, a circumstance, a fact. Herodotus and Plutarch provide coordinates for a theory of knowledge, as ironic as it is defiant. Hölderlin supplements that theory with all the resources of his time and place.
2. Our climate of consensus
Fortuitously, a friend of mine, Iain Higgins, wrote me recently that he was translating Hölderlin’s “Archipelago,” an elegy from 1800; that he was enjoying doing so; and that the poem would certainly not fly in our climate of consensus. The poem, if not the poet, too plainly venerates ancient Greece; the law of the father is not just assumed, but reinforced, with important reservations (the Greeks in their actions and their myths are not as unanimous in their conception of paternalism as the culture of their Persian foes, Darius and Xerxes). What we have learned to call “orientalism” compromises the fabric of the 296-line elegy—if by “orientalism” we mean to denote the depreciation of the invader Xerxes, whose horde (bridging the Hellespont with ships lashed together) fought to break and to occupy a contrastingly heroified, if disunited, Greek heartland.
Hölderlin’s partisan poem is divisible into several movements, like a piece of music. It opens with an apostrophe of Poseidon, the sea-god apposite to the sea-fight that history calls “Salamis” and dates to 480 B.C. (lines 1-61). The tutelary deity of Athens is explicably assumed to be Athena, but Themistocles, the statesman and strategist instrumental to the Greek victory at Salamis, in order to develop support for the shrewd high value he placed on nautical strength, instigated a theological campaign to magnify evidences of Poseidon’s interest in the city-state. Following Hölderlin’s address to Poseidon comes a lament for Athens as it was before the Persian invasion, with a cameo of Themistocles himself (61-85). From verses 86-103, Hölderlin describes the antagonist Xerxes’s arsenal and meditated plans of attack, with the corresponding despair of the Athenians, their city already despoiled. Battle in the straits by Salamis is joined and the fluctuating fortunes of the day are delineated, between lines 104 and 124. Xerxes’s disconcertment at the defeat of his great fleet occupies lines 125-135; the desolation of Athens regardless of the triumph, lines 136-160; the rebuilding of that city 161-178; its cultural acme 179-199; a melancholic allocation of all this to the long-ago past (200-256); at last the testimony of the poet’s persona in the first person singular brings Salamis and a revivifiable Athens into his present—into our present, a present substantiated (for example) by Iain Higgins’s translation. The poem ends with a fresh apostrophe of the immortal Poseidon (288-296).
3. A sister of Themistocles
What is the climax of Hölderlin’s poem? In common with much of his verse, it features continual climaxing, only the nature of each climax is proper to its harmonic sphere or motif. The account of the sea-fight at Salamis where the Greeks at length prevailed, having both won and lost just before at Thermopylae, certainly amounts to a climax. We can assume Hölderlin’s knowledge of Herodotus and Plutarch’s account of Salamis and, in the silences of the poem, a degree of consequent irony in respect of this triumph. Meanwhile, if we reckon a war as a succession of battles (not the only method), the Greek victory at Plataea would follow soon.
“Nobility,” however, was my inaugural theme. What is the relationship between nobility and honesty? In Herodotus and Plutarch’s Salamis we may find honesty, as well as nobility. Here is a near-droll nobility that confesses its ignobility, its confusion, its compromises, its cowardice and even its manipulation of the invader to coerce a necessitous courage from its own feebler forces, whose chief advantage was that, unlike the Persians, they knew how to swim. The advantage becomes apparent once your ship has been sunk from under you. The nobility of Salamis has also to do with independence, even the right not to follow one’s own best interests—rather than the model of coordinated central control bodied forth in the figure of Xerxes and in his fleet. If Herodotus may be believed, this conformity was flouted only by Artemisia. Enrolled in the Persian confederation, she attacked a fellow ally’s ship. She convinced bemused observers that this assault exhibited not only her bravery, but also her fealty to Xerxes. On the grounds of this alone, she could be reckoned a sister of Themistocles.
Knowledge was a topic I introduced. The nobility of Salamis may consist in knowing everything ignoble, while observing the true stakes in the matter: the annihilation of an uninvited interloper in Athens, the heart of a Greece whose walls had already been overthrown, whose goods ransacked, whose temples collapsed in fire. Greece, as Hölderlin and some after him have understood it, only realized itself in the aftermath of the war, in part as a result of the war. Nobility is carried forward in Hölderlin’s recollection of battle and rebuilding, and more especially in the persistence of the nature, Neptunian and ethereal, that encompasses all culture: Salamis too has not ended, the war has not ended: by the same token, the splendid, ironic restoration has not ended, Athens has not ended, and I believe that Iain would concur with me in the claim that Hölderlin has not ended. To be attacked sometimes may be a cultural prerequisite, the precondition of what some have called (and have been reprehended for calling) the “glory” of Greece. This glory in the end is not principally a martial glory. Why not? Themistocles, the Greek leader, Herodotus himself informs us, had to trick the confident enemy into sealing off the Greek escape route from the straits, by dispatching his Persian friend Sicinnus to provoke just this action. So Themistocles compelled the only provisionally bound, timorous, grossly outnumbered, and disputatious allies into making a stand. It still did help that they could swim.
4. Kairos and cadence
Salamis, like Thermopylae, may remain (in its limited, esoteric way) exemplary. Yet whoever translates Hölderlin, or (much worse) emulates Hölderlin, seems as unlikely to prevail as the Greeks against the congested bridges and ships of Xerxes. Iain’s observation about Hölderlin’s chances now in the literary world is probably correct. What is Salamis? Who is Xerxes? Does Athens matter? Who is Friedrich Hölderlin? And who do you think you are, anyway? Not someone who “fits our list,” that’s for sure. Having fooled his own people into fighting in unison, Themistocles had the wit to lecture them before the onset (so Herodotus tells us) on the theme of “nobility and baseness”. He was within his rights, because (as I have already asserted) that bird-like power—tone—can be all: can, granted an accurate intuition of kairos and cadence, actually make all. No side is entirely worth defending, all are canting, ignoble, unsure. We are Themistoclean in our own relations to the noble and the base, tricksters even in respect of ourselves, yet in deadly earnest once the invader has presumed on our very houses.
Plutarch’s life of Themistocles itself shows awareness of how the amalgamation of the noble and base was his hero’s field of experiment. Himself not nobly born and springing from a family not wholly native to Athens, Themistocles convinced young men “of high birth” to take exercise with him at a wrestling-ground called Cynosarges. This invitation became, in Dryden’s phrasing of the Plutarch’s words, “an ingenious device for destroying the distinction between the noble and the base-born, and between those of the whole and those of the half-blood of Athens”. Wrestling is the very figure that Hölderlin chooses to express the struggle of Persian with Greek fleet, and it furnishes the muscular archetype for our adjective “agonistic”. The agony destroys kinds of nobility and kinds of baseness, and makes a new and stronger alloy of both in the resultant compound. When the envoys of the invader came to Athens, Themistocles refused the Persian demand of submission expressed in a demand for Athenian “earth and water”. Both elements are the object of Hölderlin’s address, but what a different demand the poet makes.
Editors now would, I think, reject Hölderlin everywhere—translations of Hölderlin nearly everywhere. The solace is that this is nothing new. Themistocles, after all, had to go to great lengths to precipitate the great sea-fight at Salamis. Hölderlin fought in his time to get published. Contemporaries received his work with an incomprehension only varied by lesser and greater degrees of unease. Hölderlin is besides as temporally remote from us as his age-mate, William Wordsworth: both were born in 1770. My present concern (I come to it at last) is to consider Emery George’s new translation of the German poet—a massive facing-page translation comprising 963 pages, and put out by Kylix Press, in Princeton, New Jersey. Because Iain Higgins happened to offer me his “Archipelago” in his own admirable version, I will discuss this poem as he treats it and as George treats it, showing how each translator idiosyncratically heightens certain Hölderlinian excellences, making a pair of appropriately discrepant allies in the cause of the German writer. In the light that these translators cast, I discover strong arguments not to refute Iain’s doleful, slightly ironical assessment (patriarchy, antiquarianism, Eurocentrism, orientalism, elitism—or to summarize the indictment with a Hebraism, the very “ism of isms”), but to shift the vantage of possible response to Hölderlin altogether, keeping in mind the noble as a gnostic and a tonal quality—irony salting the achievement. (Let me supply still another instance, in connection with Salamis: Themistocles appointed a Spartan, Eurybiades, as admiral of the allied fleet. Sparta’s severe greatness deserved the tribute of such an appointment. Yet this Spartan was, deliciously, a coward—“faint-hearted” is Plutarch’s epithet.)
5. Dogs and birds
I have the fantastic fortune to be drafting this review in fair weather, at a Vancouver Island campsite, near Miracle Beach and near the shallow seas that extend from this shoreline. So complicated are the songs of Swainson’s thrushes and winter wrens where I sit among the birches and firs on this day in early July that their generous audibility is an amazement to a much simpler me. The latter species is holarctic: they sing in Europe, where I have also frequently heard them: and the song, to my perhaps deficient ear, rings identically near the Rhine River as here in British Columbia, though ornithologists do discern subspecies. The Schwarzwald or Black Forest—Hölderlin often writes in a Swabian context—is, moreover, since the nineteenth century, planted with North American Douglas firs: I discovered this when visiting Germany many years ago. Leaving aside Salamis, leaving aside Greece, these immediate minor organic connections (Zaunkönig, Tanne) with Hölderlin’s terrain have, I will venture the fanciful theory, allowed me to refine a sense of what is best in Hölderlin and best, also, in Higgins and George’s translations.
Writing amid the shock-waves of the French Revolution, Hölderlin may develop a latent philosophical model of nobility, nearly shorn of its association with class or material wealth—or as effectually shorn of those contaminants as is practicable. He can do so by associating this nobility with the city-states of ancient Greece, and their self-defence against the invader Xerxes. Like his contemporaries Goethe and Novalis, Hölderlin mediates the study of nature through ancient personifications (the Archipelagic Poseidon, the presiding Ether); aspects of his work could be conformed without too much strain to some of our North American versions of “nature writing”. Themistocles has thus far furnished an emblem for the knowing fusion of the noble with the ignoble, propagating great hybrid kinds, noble in fecundity, noble in invention. Hölderlin’s verse—it strikes me from my tent beside a Canadian beach and (as an ancient might say) beside a Canadian Poseidon— supplements the surprising figure of Themistocles with a further means of affirming intrinsic nobility, a nobility finally more than democratic. That condition has to do with the ennobling experience that we all have, of the universe—of the non-human, precipitated into a pervasive tone.
How efficacious is such a tonal generosity? I could make a claim for its power here and now. An admirable epigone of Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote in the first of his Duino Elegies of a violin heard from an open window, as one possible instigation for the advent of an instructive longing. What do I hear in lieu of that violin? Whenever I go camping—it has been years now—there is, I can prophesy it with accuracy, the same barrage of noise proceeding from a campsite invariably contiguous with mine. What kind of noise? A poor dog, condemned to be afflicted with a voice harder than any earthly substance, yaps with such method you would think it had been trained up for the purpose and that from a malevolent preceptor (a dog’s intrinsic malevolence being minor)—from a malevolent preceptor it presently received and carried out a series of senseless or (rather) deliberately disruptive commands (the antitheses of thought). Is the dog’s companion silent while that proxy self of his labours to undermine all concentration? Since it is still daylight, he contents himself with a train of sneezes too theatrical and too violent to have issued from a nose unconscious of its capacity to vitiate peace. Gesundheit is the practical blessing adopted from German into English on such occasions; I am not tempted to proffer it. The Stasi of the defunct East Germany practised what they called Zersetzung, the deliberate distintegration and demolition of the private life or self of those who might have opposed their righteous ministry: many would still restore their own East Germany, even in ignorance of the illustrious precedent of that polity: let us contrastingly build in our hearts a Hölderlinian Athens.
May the servile watchdog and its vile custodian transiently embody a measure of the ironies of Salamis. We all feel that such people follow us wherever we go; perhaps they do. They would not enjoy having followed me this time into my argument, and being shut inside it. All the more reason to conscript them, as aids to concentration—not dissipators of the same. After Themistocles had saved Greece, the envious citizens of Athens ostracized him, voting to banish him. Xerxes meanwhile long dead, the regnant Persian king received the distinguished exile, granting him asylum, with shock and gratitude, too, that the Greeks should “abuse and expel the bravest men among them”. Themistocles, paradoxical genius of Salamis, lived thenceforward in luxury and felicity in Magnesia, remarking to his children, “We had been undone if we had not been undone”.
6. Odenmaß, yes
But whence in the specific instance of “Archipelago” derives Hölderlin’s nobility, and how do Iain Higgins and Emery George mime and successfully convey it? In part it has to do with a simple thing, with Hölderlin’s use of the hexameter, and George’s ambitious fidelity in sticking, when apt, with that rhythm. Iain catches instead the gnomic intorsions and sudden flexibilities of Hölderlin’s work. And, just as the thrushes and the wrens around me subordinate the dog that predictably mars the acoustic integrity of my campsite to the prevalent power of their supremely sophisticated polyphonic chorus, so Hölderlin, Higgins and George manage (strange thing to allege—to believe—of an old sexist Hellenism), to dignify us, even our indignities. George learnedly quips “Odenmaß, yes; Maß, no”—an aphorism I will paraphrase in respect of “The Archipelago”: “Verse may have a measure, but life defies measure”. Let us put life to measure, then, is Hölderlin and George’s response, insofar as life is the life of verses.
George’s introduction to his selected translations returns to the reader a sense of wonder, in respect of Hölderlin’s elegies, among which “The Archipelago” falls. The model for his hexameter was perhaps especially the Goethe of Roman Elegies; George notes the sequence’s “sensuality and smugness”. It is true that George may overlook less complacent Goethean examples, such as “Hermann und Dorothea”. He ventures persuasively that part of the secret of Hölderlin’s superiority in the genre is his emphasis on elegiac recreation as much as on elegiac loss—the plunder of Athens, the reconceiving of Athens, the endurance of Athens in the verse itself, and therefore in the reader of the verse. George’s collection begins with Hölderlin’s juvenilia. So another of the admirable features of the project is the desire to see how the tepid performances of Hölderlin’s rather blockish predecessors (such as Klopstock), signalized (as Hölderlin imitates their original) by apostrophic titles (“To Tranquillity”), are renovated once the maturing artist moves from the vapidity of such models, while remaining within the same structural domain (“The Archipelago” lengthily addresses Poseidon, as at once a deity and an element). At the same time George amends Goethe’s reputation. He re-examines this luminary’s admittedly brusque mentorship of Hölderlin. Goethe said that the young writer should concentrate on short forms. “The Archipelago” is evidence that the advice would appear contrary to Hölderlin’s best interests. Yet George shows how epigrammatic impulses are assembled into the sweeping shapes of the great elegies, in a way that, to an English-speaking reader, might be familiar from the modifications to which verse was subject in the Renaissance—what Alistair Fowler has called “the epigrammatic revolution”. Out of the experience of epigram the reader learns to enjoy a thoroughly wrought texture of verse: this expectation is carried even into extended works.
7. Auden and Trakl
It is time to consider the virtues and occasional defects of George’s translation, and of Higgins’s. The distinction between their styles could be expressed as the difference between W.H. Auden (George) and Georg Trakl (Higgins). A sample will illustrate the distinction. This passage derives from the second verse paragraph of the elegy. The object of apostrophe is the sea-god, Poseidon (20-24):
und wenn zu Zeiten, vom Abgrund
Losgelassen, die Flamme der Nacht, die untre Gewitter,
Eine der holden ergriff, und die Sterbende dir in den Schoos sank,
Göttlicher! du, du dauertest das, denn über den dunkeln
Tiefen ist manches schon dir auf und untergegangen.
Here is George:
and if let loose from the chasm
Now and then, the flame of the night, the thunderstorm down there
Took hold of one of the dears, and the dying one sank into your lap,
Godly one! you, you endured it, for over the tragically dark depths
Many a being has risen, gone under, with you as a witness.
George wittily retains some of the sound-values of the German. “Let loose” picks up “losgelassen”. The translator puns when he writes “took hold of one of the dears”. “Holden” means “the dear ones”; George has transformed Hölderlin’s noun into a homophonic verb. “As a witness” is an addition, not really in the original. George thus often editorializes a smidgen, possibly to pad out his hexameter line. “Tragically dark depths” is likewise an interpretative formula. How does Iain Higgins render the verse?
… and if sometimes, released
From the abyss, the flame of night, the nether thunder,
Seized one of the fair who dying sank into your lap,
You, godlike one, you have endured, for through the dark
Depths much has already risen to you and gone.
Higgins sounds starker and simpler; he sometimes forfeits the pelagic majesty of the hexameter. He hews closer, however, to Hölderlin’s phrasing. “Nether thunder” is a succinct solution to “untre Gewitter,” with a Trakl-like ring. Beholden to his hexameter, George uses the expansive phrase “many a being,” whereas Higgins sticks with the curter, yet more comprehensive “much”. I say Audenesque for George’s manner, because the note he characteristically strikes is both chthonic and a touch refined—the reliable impression of refinement comes from the English hexameter. As can be seen, surplus wordage must be added, sometimes to the plain detriment of Hölderlin, sometimes furnishing an elegant or expository flourish, generally pleasing the ear insofar as the ear suspends judgement to repose in the undulant wash of rhythm.
8. Creation’s crown
Worth special scrutiny is a brief passage that could illuminate Hölderlin’s concept of nature writing—or at least of nature in writing. Nature and culture reciprocate in a way that may offer much to current practitioners of so-called nature writing. William Blake says, “Where man is not, nature is barren”. His German contemporary offers a related insight, with an important difference. Let us see how Higgins phrases the argument:
…always the hallowed elements
Pursue and lack, always even need, for their fame—
As heroes need the wreath—the feeling human heart.
Hölderlin actually writes,
…und immer suchen und missen,
Immer bedürfen ja, wie Heroen den Kranz, die geweihten
Elemente zum Ruhme das Herz der fühlenden Menschen.
In keeping with Greek opinion, Hölderlin understands “fame” as a function of literature. In this passage, that artistic practice ennobles not persons, but rather the intrinsically noble elements themselves. Is this at last where we discover the “gnosis” at the root of “nobility”? When Themistocles’s opponent, the chagrined Xerxes, exacted a penalty from the Hellespont (a storm having destroyed his cherished bridges), he did the exact opposite of Hölderlin’s recommendation. “No man sacrifices to you,” Xerxes petulantly advised the Hellespont: so Herodotus tells us. The Persian bidding that those waters be struck “three hundred times” with the lash, “a pair of fetters” accompanying with a separate splash this futile mortification, Xerxes added (exalting himself to Poseidon’s station): “your master lays this punishment on you for injuring him”. Listen again by way of contrast to Hölderlin’s philosophy, with which his words are thoroughly instinct (this time as phrased by Emery George):
…and the hallowed elements always
Seek, miss, find themselves wanting, of course, as do heroes the garland,
For their own sense of renown, the hearts of people of feeling.
George’s metrical music beguiles. But Higgins compresses more evocatively Hölderlin’s ideas (“the feeling human heart”). His beauty emanates from the choice of a more incantatory repetition (“always ... always ... need ...need”). Let us briefly resume the topic of elemental powers. In Hölderlin’s verses, human endeavour itself, culture itself, is likened to the prize bestowed on the athlete. Various monotheists and even the most secular of scientists often assert in one way or another that we crown creation, with our faculty of reason. Hölderlin magnificently implies that we do not so much crown creation, as bestow a crown on creation. We are therefore critical, ingenious and appreciative at once, and the garland itself must be woven from nature. It could not have been wound from any other stuff. Exploring the analogy we could say that nature is in curious measure conscious of the contest, or if you will (shades of Themistocles, at Cynosarges) conscious of the agony—nature, moreover, would seem to solicit, among other things, the preferment honourably granted to it.
To be sure, George’s notes nowhere assert such a thing: but he does in his notes call “The Archipelago” the “crown” of Hölderlin’s elegiac enterprise. George’s notes are themselves extraordinary, a delightful resource. They feel at times Nabokovian. Consider George’s explanation for the choice of the word “sergeants” (when he translates a passage from “The Archipelago” concerning the Persian army and arsenal). I will cite George’s characteristic footnote, after the relevant extract from Hölderlin (lines 86-90):
Denn des Genius Feind, der vielgebietende Perse,
Jahrlang zählt er sie schon, der Waffen Menge, der Knechte,
Spottend des griechischen Lands und seiner wenigen Inseln,
Und sie deuchten dem Herrscher ein Spiel, und noch, wie ein Traum, war
Ihm das innige Volk, vom Göttergeiste gerüstet.
For the genius’ foe, the far-flung, impervious Persian,
Years he has counted them now, the reserves of weapons, of sergeants,
Mocking the land of the Greeks and its modest tally of islands,
And to the ruler they looked like play; as yet like a dream they
Seemed, these ardent people, equipped with the spirit of godhood.
“Sergeants,” explains George: “nothing could be a more fitting equivalent for ‘Knechte’ at this point. Engl ‘sergeant’ has its roots in OF serjant, which goes back to L servire ‘to serve’. A reading such as this one is in keeping with Hölderlin’s interest in the etymological use of words”. But what, for further illumination of the case, does Higgins say?
For genius’s foe, the far-domineering Persian,
Has long been counting his hoard of weapons and vassals,
Deriding the land of the Greeks and its few islands—
They seemed playthings to that lord and yet like a dream,
The deep-souled people armed with the spirit of the gods.
Higgins ventures a pleasant pun (“hoard” of weapons, ”horde” of vassals): he, too, betokens with sophisticated obliquity some of the wordplay in which Hölderlin delights. “Sergeant,” read without the benefit of George’s gloss, does sound a little anachronistic, though “reserves” is a fine word. Higgins’s “armed” is a stronger word than “equipped”. Eschewing the hexameter, Higgins can demonstrate an in some ways superior concision (no need for “seemed”). Higgins’s “vassals” is an appropriately partisan term for the adjuncts of Xerxes. “Sergeants” instead could evoke stentorian men of the twentieth century, exercising reluctant recruits. The present-day “sergeant” is envisaged less as a servant than as a possibly abusive masculine blustering presence, resented. Then again (in George’s defence) the armed forces of Hölderlin’s day could be terribly abusive, with punishments such as running the gauntlet accepted as the norm.
9. Like a swimmer
George can succumb to an excessive quaintness (a defect not foreign to the Auden whom I nominated as his parallel). First George, then Hölderlin, then Higgins—the comparative passage occurs toward “The Archipelago”’s close (lines 288-289):
But you now, immortally, even if Greek song does not
Celebrate you as it once did, from out of your billows, sir sea god!
Aber du, unsterblich, wenn auch der Griechengesang schon
Dich nicht feiert, wie sonst, aus deinen Woogen, o Meergott!
But you, immortal, even though
Not celebrated as you once were in Greek song,
Still let your waves often resonate, oh seagod ...
“Sir sea god” is a somewhat absurd salutation. To be sure, there is warrant for such salutations in Homer (that poet refers to goddesses in credible translations as Lady this and Lady that, even though they do not ride in phaetons or wear bonnets).
More unfortunately, George gets clotted at the close (lines 290-296). George renders Hölderlin thus (I follow his translation with the original German, then with Higgins’s version):
Sound to me often yet into my soul, so that over the waters
Fearlessly lively my mind, resembling the swimmer, in fresh luck
Of the strong, do drill, and perceive the language of godheads,
Modulation, becoming; and when runaway time grips my
Head too powerfully, and distress, labyrinthine confusion
Among fellow mortals convulses my mortal existence,
In your depth of depths, then, let me remember the silence.
The third line of this extract is prodigiously awkward, though other aspects of the version merit great praise for their resourcefulness (“distress, labyrinthine confusion”). George’s ear abandoning him, he lets the regrettable “language of godheads” run smack into “my/Head”—a circumstance that would not be so damaging were Hölderlin not in his own right close to opacity:
Töne mir in die Seele noch oft, daβ über den Wassern
Furchtlosrege der Geist, dem Schwimmer gleich, in der Starken
Frischem Glüke sich üb’, und die Göttersprache, das Wechseln
Und das Werden versteh’, und wenn die reissende Zeit mir
Zu gewaltig das Haupt ergreifft und die Noth und das Irrsaal
Unter Sterblichen mir mein sterblich Leben erschüttert,
Laβ der Stille mich dann in deiner Tiefe gedenken.
Higgins of course supplies his own solutions:
... In my soul so that across the waters the spirit
Might move fearless, like the swimmer, practice the fresh
Luck of the strong, understand the gods’ language—change
And becoming—and when wrenching time too forcefully
Seizes my head, and need and wandering among mortals
Shake my mortal life, then let me dwell on your silent depths.
Higgins has the considerable merit not just of concision, but also of lucidity. For my own part, I would try to fit the word “fortune” (not “luck”) into this context, in recollection of Roman axioms (Fortuna fauet fortibus—phrases of that kind). “Fresh luck” sounds bad in English: technical accuracy does not wholly justify the locution. “Refreshed fortune” would perhaps carry the meaning more idiomatically. George is nevertheless admirable to attempt the naturalization of Germanic compounds (the epithet “Fearlessly lively”). Can we “practice ... luck,” despite the precedent for this formula that Hölderlin allows? No, in English we cannot—not really. What verb would better suit the sense? “Attract the fresh luck”? This phrase has the merit of describing Themistoclean method, since it combines the exercise of will with the courting of chance. Finally, Higgins’s “dwell” conveys more than George’s rather blank “remember”. The verb is in English so dead as to evoke nothing in the reader.
How great Hölderlin’s grasp of the principles of Salamis becomes clear in his splendid comparison of the intellectual striver, struggler, wrestler, survivor and celebrant to a swimmer, “dem Schwimmer gleich,” fearless and lively. For what originally advantaged the Greeks against their foe? They could swim. Odysseus was in this respect their pattern. They immersed themselves in the element that the dry-shod bridge-builder Xerxes saw fit to punish, without so much as trying it. Borne on the great tide of Hölderlin and of Poseidon, George and Higgins both prove themselves strong swimmers through the hallowed element, whose waves today break so gently on the sand of Miracle Beach. This gentleness magnanimously overlooks the furious barking of that sad, constrained dog and its still angrier, more mysteriously constrained, and sternutatory master—my perennial campsite neighbours, I almost said “warders”. True, they keep making their enigmatic demonstration. They have been making that demonstration, all along. Of course—but you guessed this already, didn’t you?—those two will follow me, follow me as they must, when I get up to go (as I am now getting up to go) to bathe in that ancient and modern, that imperishable ocean stream. It only remains to be said without equivocation that, all strengths and weaknesses of “The Archipelago” aside, George’s versions of Hölderlin represent both a noble attempt and, by and large, an equally noble achievement. I love the book.
Add new comment