No Comment — January 25, 2008, 5:48 am

Dehmel’s ‘Transfigured Night’

gustav_klimt_thekiss-743560

Zwei Menschen gehn durch kahlen, kalten Hain;
der Mond läuft mit, sie schaun hinein.
Der Mond läuft über hohe Eichen;
kein Wölkchen trübt das Himmelslicht,
in das die schwarzen Zacken reichen.
Die Stimme eines Weibes spricht:

Ich trag ein Kind, und nit von Dir,
ich geh in Sünde neben Dir.
Ich hab mich schwer an mir vergangen.
Ich glaubte nicht mehr an ein Glück
und hatte doch ein schwer Verlangen
nach Lebensinhalt, nach Mutterglück
und Pflicht; da hab ich mich erfrecht,
da ließ ich schaudernd mein Geschlecht
von einem fremden Mann umfangen,
und hab mich noch dafür gesegnet.
Nun hat das Leben sich gerächt:
nun bin ich Dir, o Dir, begegnet.

Sie geht mit ungelenkem Schritt.
Sie schaut empor; der Mond läuft mit.
Ihr dunkler Blick ertrinkt in Licht.
Die Stimme eines Mannes spricht:

Das Kind, das Du empfangen hast,
sei Deiner Seele keine Last,
o sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert!
Es ist ein Glanz um alles her;
Du treibst mit mir auf kaltem Meer,
doch eine eigne Wärme flimmert
von Dir in mich, von mir in Dich.
Die wird das fremde Kind verklären,
Du wirst es mir, von mir gebären;
Du hast den Glanz in mich gebracht,
Du hast mich selbst zum Kind gemacht.

Er faßt sie um die starken Hüften.
Ihr Atem küßt sich in den Lüften.
Zwei Menschen gehn durch hohe, helle Nacht.


Two figures pass through the bare, cold grove;
the moon accompanies them, they gaze into it.
The moon races above some tall oaks;
No trace of a cloud filters the sky’s light,
into which the dark treetops stretch.
A female voice speaks:

I am carrying a child, and not yours;
I walk in sin beside you.
I have deeply sinned against myself.
I no longer believed in happiness
And yet was full of longing
For a life with meaning, for the joy
And duty of maternity; so I dared
And, quaking, let my sex
Be taken by a stranger,
And was blessed by it.
Now life has taken its revenge,
For now I have met you, yes you.

She takes an awkward step.
She looks up: the moon races alongside her.
Her dark glance is saturated with light.
A male voice speaks:

Let the child you have conceived
Be no trouble to your soul.
How brilliantly the universe shines!
It casts a luminosity on everything;
you float with me upon a cold sea,
but a peculiar warmth glimmers
from you to me, and then from me to you.
Thus is transfigured the child of another man;
You will bear it for me, as my own;
You have brought your luminosity to me,
You have made me a child myself.

He clasps her round her strong hips.
Their kisses mingle breath in the night air.
Two humans pass through the high, clear night.

Richard Dehmel, Verklärte Nacht first published in Weib und Welt (1896)(S.H. transl.)


Listen to Arnold Schönberg’s stunning instrumental realization of this poem in his sextet for two violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos, “Verklärte Nacht,” op. 4.


Richard Dehmel is an important figure of the German Symbolist period, associated with the aesthetics of the Jugendstil, but hardly known in the English-speaking world. His poetry is inventive and pushed the boundaries of the stifling morality of the Wilhelmine period that Nietzsche ridiculed so brilliantly. This may, thanks especially to Schönberg, be his best known work. It was published in a poetry collection from 1896 that also included Venus Consolatrix, whose erotic language was sufficient to rouse the censors. Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Kurt Weill and Alma Mahler-Werfel all also composed his poems as Lieder.

I have always thought that Gustav Klimt’s Der Kuß (The Kiss) (1907-08) was also inspired by this poem. Indeed the ties to it are very powerful. This may be Klimt’s best known painting, executed in an audaciously conceived manner. It does not reproduce well, and if you’re in Vienna, it is worth the trip to the Österreichische Galerie in the Belvedere Palace to see it. The background is a pale but complex metallic field which looks like bronze, with bursts that appear to signify stars, while the field surrounding the couple embracing is dazzling gold leaf. The masculine figure is decorated with austere black-and-white rectangles, while the female figure is covered with patches that look like millefiori Venetian paperweights, a profusion of springtime colors. The dramatic stylization of the surroundings contrasts sharply with the natural, highly erotic posture of the central characters. This seems a very conscious realization of the poem’s mysterious central line: “wie klar das Weltall schimmert!” (“how brilliantly the universe shines!”) The kiss itself is a representation of the poem’s final lines. The kiss is a passage of breath between two souls, an exchange which melds into the night air itself. This is the most enduring and fascinating of the transformations which are the poem’s subject, as well as Klimt’s painting and Schönberg’s strangely passionate music. Dehmel’s, Klimt’s and Schönberg’s works each stand alone and can be appreciated in their own right. Together, however, they make up a Gesamtkunstwerk in which the same thematic material is worked with equal genius in poetry, representational art and music.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

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

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today