Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Goethe at Christmas 2

Aside from the puppet theater, nothing was obvious to me of relevance to Christmas in connection with Goethe's life. I find this absence interesting because Goethe is otherwise so partial in his literary writing to portraying traditional customs and ways of life. Doing a Google search of "Goethe and Christmas," however, I discovered a number of sites linking to a poem in English called "The Christmas Box." Here is the English rendering (you can tell from all the apostrophes that it is a 19th-century translation):

This box, mine own sweet darling, thou wilt find
With many a varied sweetmeat's form supplied;
The fruits are they of holy Christmas tide,
But baked indeed, for children's use design'd.
I'd fain, in speeches sweet with skill combin'd,
Poetic sweetmeats for the feast provide;
But why in such frivolities confide?
Perish the thought, with flattery to blind!
One sweet thing there is still, that from within,
Within us speaks, that may be felt afar;
This may be wafted o'er to thee alone.
If though a recollection fond canst win,
As if with pleasure gleam'd each well-known star,
The smallest gift thou never wilt disown.

I admit that this poem was unfamiliar. I checked the index of first lines in my edition of Goethe's poems, but found nothing under "Weihnachten" (Christmas) or "Schachtel" (box). Since the translation gave a date of 1807 for the poem, however, I was able to locate it quickly among the sonnets that Goethe wrote beginning in Advent of that year. It is called "Christgeschenk."

As fluent as Goethe might seem to have been in all manner of poetic forms, he never tried his hand at sonnets before the year 1800. It was about this time that the Romantic poets reappropriated a poetic form that had fallen out of favor among 18th-century poets, who instead imitated and emulated classical meters of Greek and Roman poetry. August Wilhelm Schlegel wrote many and even dedicated one to Goethe, to which Goethe seems to have felt compelled to respond, though rather unwillingly, with two sonnets, one called simply "Das Sonett," the other "Natur und Kunst."

In late November 1807, however, he was a frequent guest in Jena at the home of the publisher Carl Ernst Fromann, who had published the sonnets of Petrarch the year before. Goethe and another guest, the Romantic poet Friedrich Zacharias Werner engaged in a sonnet competition. Sonnets are generally composed in cycles that explore aspects of love, including the relationship between lovers. The most famous are those of Petrarch and Shakespeare; other great sonneteers include John Donne and the German Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius, who wrote on religious themes. What prompted the poetic competition between Goethe and Werner seems to have been the presence in the Fromann household of Fromann's 17-year-old foster daughter Minna Herzlieb.

The poems are well regarded in Goethe's oeuvre. What could there not be to like when passion, renunciation, and spiritualization of love are combined? Still, to my ears, they are a too abstract, with very little of the sensuous detail of Petrarch's sonnets. The "Christmas Box" forms an exception and may have been inspired as much by the Christmas season during which it was composed as by Minna Herzlieb. It brings together sweetly (one has to use this word here) the baked delicacies of Christmas with the "Poetisch Zuckerbrot" (sweet nothings?) with which he would like to tempt the beloved.

The lovely picture at the top of this posting, from the late 19th century, is courtesy of Goethezeitportal. Click on the image to enlarge.

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