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Die Poesie

Gott sandte seinen rohen Kindern
Gesetz und Ordnung, Wissenschaft und Kunst,
Begabte die mit aller Himmelsgunst
Der Erde grasses Los zu mindern.
Sie kamen nackt vom Himmel an
Und wussten sich nicht zu benehmen;
Die Poesie zog ihnen Kleider an,
Und keine hatte sich zu schämen.


In Goethe Gedichte II: Gedankenlyrik; Westöstlicher Diwan, 1982, Diogenes Taschenbuch 20438.



God sent his rough-hewn, hapless children
Law and Order, Learning, Art,
Bestowing on them all of heaven’s favours
To lighten for them striving earth’s grim lot.

Unclad they came from heaven, and
Unsure as to their nature or which part to play . . .
Then Poetry arrayed their frames in fitting garb—
And Shame? She blanched and crept away!


Perhaps especially in the case of poetry, interpretation happens simultaneously and inevitably with this process of rendering lines of words into another language, i.e., translation. I hope I’ve done some justice to Goethe’s verse, however verbosely and rather loosely. Thanks to the good folks at LEO.org for help with that chameleony grass.


Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1749-1832, is generally considered Germany’s greatest and most influential literary figure of the modern era. Foremost a writer of epic and lyric poetry, he was also playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, critic, and prolific amateur artist. There are many sources online concerning Goethe and his legacy; I have accessed a thoroughly readable summary of his life and work, and their social and literary contexts, at Britannica.com. It is written by Nicholas Boyle, updated August 2015 (accessed March 2017). Please read if you want to get a good feel for the scope of Goethe’s stature and accomplishments. An excerpt, from towards the end of the piece:

If there is a single theme running through Goethe’s huge and varied literary output, it is his reflection on subjectivity—his showing how in ever-changing ways we make our own selves, the world we inhabit, and the meaning of our lives. Yet he also shows how, without leaving that self-made world, we collide all the time with the reality of things. Ultimately, Goethe believes, this reality is not alien or hostile to us, because, whatever it is, we—and our capacity for experience—ultimately derive from it too. Goethe therefore calls it Nature, that out of which we are born.

All right, so hold on . . . This “reality of things” just mentioned: so there is an “I” and there are “things” . . . My thinking is that each of these things is a subjectivity in itself, just like I am, whether it be animal, vegetable, mineral. What is “Nature” but a thronging mass of subjectivities?
We humans seem, in our very humanity, to endlessly attempt to seek out objectivity, some measure of it at least; we call this seeking the truth. Whether through immersion in nature, in scientific pursuit, philosophy, art, theology / religion / spirituality / mysticism—even travel, reading, relationships—we seek the same “thing”, with greater or lesser awareness of our aspiration. Poetry / poesy itself is, at its heart, a tool we employ to try to touch, to comprehend, some objective truth in this life . . . yet the final mystery remains, always remains. So do we also seek comfort in truth? I think we must do. And will we find it? . . . And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time . . . / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well . . . (T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding”)
I guess that’s where hope comes in. (Though Eliot has a thing or two to say about that, too. For another day.)

Decades ago, I came across the following line that appears in Goethe’s tragic play / epic poem, Faust, Part Two. It occurs in a pivotal conversation between Faust and Mephistopheles*, though I don’t know the exact context. It is spoken by Mephistopheles:
Gestaltung, Umgestaltung,
Des ewigen Sinnes ewige Unterhaltung.

(Formation, transformation, / Eternal Mind’s eternal occupation.) (der Sinn is hard to translate; it can mean sense, meaning, consciousness, memory, intellect. The word mind would not normally be capitalized in English, but I’ve taken the liberty of doing that.)
Asking your indulgence, dear reader, I quote this line for you because, though my knowledge of the German language is weak, these words have stayed with me, teasing me with a measure of truth, and mystery, through the years.

*Mephistopheles is a representative of Lucifer / Satan. There are many ways to interpret his action in the play, as well as the work’s final outcome—which may well offer redemption after the tragedy has played itself out.