No Comment — August 1, 2007, 7:49 am

Brentano, Death and the Dilemma of Romantic Despair

brentano

I have just posted an original translation of a major poem by the early German Romanticist Clemens Brentano. He is not a well-known figure, either in Germany or abroad. But Brentano is a figure marked by irony at every turn. The irony is not his, however, but the observer’s. He wanted popularity more than anything else, it seems—he strove for it with all his country affectations (the word in German would be “volkstümlich,” which acquired over the historical stretch a rather more sinister flavor). But even today, an essay can easily be printed about the German Romanticist movement without mentioning his name. Indeed, if he does come in, it would most likely be in an ego-withering way, as the brother of Bettina von Arnim, the famous correspondent of Goethe’s. But he is still the most romantic of the Romanticists, the one who bubbles away with anxieties and the one who most enthusiastically embraces Catholicism as the Romantic antidote to modernity and reason. He is not a frivolous figure like Walter Scott; his writing is serious enough, though there is still plenty of reason to question its universality, or its ability to endure. But his work, and this poem in particular, always struck me as encapsulating the very essence of that literary movement which contributed in many ways to the modern essence of European thought. The early Romanticists were in an essential way reactionary–they are against a blind faith in progress based on science and reason; what they offer in its place is, however, blind faith. Their thinking lies at the heart of European conservatism from the nineteenth century and into our own age.

It’s an important, even compelling, intellectual tradition. But also a problematic one. And this poem demonstrates its promise and its problems in an unusual way.

I never much really liked Brentano. His writings are interesting but there is something intellectually treacherous about them. His religious euphoria spills quickly into dangerous territory, including a number of close brushes with intolerance (anti-Semitism in particular, though usually softly and indirectly expressed. It was ironic, since a good many of his contemporaries were convinced that he was a Jew.) It also has a nascent chauvinistic nationalism. He is, dare one say it, defiantly irrational. Brentano was obsessed with demonstrating his Germanness, which a psychiatrist might have explained by the fact that, as the child of an Italian father and a French mother, he had so precious little of it. Indeed, in the end, his non-Germanness is one of his redeeming features.

On the other hand, he seems sometimes a right-leaning Doppelgänger to Heinrich Heine. They both feel deep roots in the Rhineland, and both composed poems about the Lorelei. Brentano’s is not so well known, of course, but it’s actually a superior poem. (Not to say he is a superior poet, of course, Heine stands head and shoulders over any contemporary on that score). And they shared a fascination with Moorish Spain of the Golden Era—the period in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived and thrived side-by-side under a Caliphate. His poem, “The Alhambra” marked his furthest swing from his naïve-charismatic Catholicism, and also arguably his best work.

Still, Brentano is thankfully not a popular writer. But his work, and this poem is a great example, brings key aspects of intellectual Romanticism to the fore: its tormented emotions, concerns with redemption and death. I couldn’t find evidence of this poem from 1816 having been translated before, and it struck me as one worthy of a broader audience.

This is one of the most genuinely Romantic, and most religious poems of confession in the modern canon; its lyrical qualities are impressive (though, as usual, they don’t well survive the passage into another language). These seventeen stanzas are a veritable maelström of emotion, packed with angst and brooding, fears of indefinite sort. They seem close in some respects to literature of the Thirty Years War, such as the poems of Andreas Gryphius, who senses death behind every corner (hardly paranoid; in those days it was). But Brentano is not driven to internal conflict by the depravations of war, though the Napoleonic Wars are a recent memory. It is a more modern sort of existential angst.

Consider the strange twists that start right in the title. “Springtime cry”? In the poetic canon, springtime is the time of promise, birth, redemption, happiness, light—the green fuse. It is the clean breath of renewal. How can it be linked to an existential cry?

There is only one possible construction of this turn and the several passages in which it reverberates, namely, that the author (this poem has a distinctly first-person approach, which I reinforced in the translation) feels excluded from the mystery of spring, the promise of rebirth—and the religious promise of redemption—that swirl around him. The waves (another strange metaphor) break about him, they do not penetrate. And this non-participation is what gives rise to his pangs of anxiety.

The first six stanzas present a clear dilemma, which is the unrequited striving of an alienated (or at least isolated) individual who is filled with longing for security (the longing verges on something more religious, namely salvation, but Brentano is a bit coy in his presentation until the last stanzas).

The next series of stanzas take a different approach. The metaphors move away from the surface and burrow deep into the earth; he speaks of mines and shafts. Reading this made me think immediately of Brentano’s contemporary Novalis, who was, in fact, a mining engineer, and who was able to develop the metaphor of subterranean works in the most captivating fashion. Brentano is linking to that tradition in a way that I think his contemporaries certainly would have understood. But there’s a key difference. For Novalis the interior of the earth is a treasure chest of untold riches–God’s hidden bounty for humankind to enjoy; for Brentano here, like the surface, it brings only more reminders of alienation. He feels no joy, no sharing, no sense of participation.

And then the next stanza, we are suddenly back on the surface, among waves. I am swimming, he writes. But again, the water metaphor, also frequently associated with something euphoric, especially in the charismatic Christian tradition, offers no solace. He is trapped in his self, unable to commune with the joyous world about him.

All of this cascades to a conclusion—a painful, soul-felt plea for redemption, a plea to overcome the ego-bound exclusion from the natural world. This is, I think, a powerful summation of the thinking of the charismatic Catholic branch of the Romanticist movement. Death lurks everywhere, deep in the background, even in the time when the promise of life is at its most powerful (the spring). The narrator wants an ecstatic religious experience; he sees the only solution from his heavily borne anxieties in this experience. It is the consummately irrational voice of the early Romantic movement. In Novalis, Tieck and others the extreme irrationality is more suppressed, but in this piece by Brentano it gushes to the surface. It is at once wondrous to behold, powerful and frightful. Is Brentano climbing out of an abyss? Or is he rather not sinking more deeply into one? That must be the question that history hurls after him. But there is no other poem in which this tension is expressed quite so powerfully.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Post
Inside the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.

The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Post
Europe’s Hamilton Moment·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

Number of Turkish college students detained in the last year for requesting Kurdish-language classes:

1,146

Turkey was funding a search for Suleiman the Magnificent’s heart.

A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today