Thursday, January 26, 2012

Goethe's Venetian epigrams

I have wanted to continue the previous postings, on Goethe in Venice, and I spent some time in the past couple of weeks reading the so-called Venetian Epigrams. At first glance, I was not too impressed. They seemed to me to be rather sterile. The meter also didn't seem natural (Goethe was experimenting with classical forms), and the attempt to imitate Latin grammar meant that you often have to read the poems several times to figure out which noun goes with which verb. Moreover, the mythological apparatus sounds false. There is also the offputting cynicism, which, however, is part of the conventions of the genre.

Yet a deeper immersion proves more interesting. At the same time, there are some problems in discussing the epigrams as a poetic "product" or collection.

The stay in Venice, from March 31 to May 22, 1790, inspired Goethe to write "several hundred" epigrams, which he began to assemble in a Libellus Epigrammatum on his return to Weimar. Twenty-four such poems appeared, under the title "Sinngedichte" (the German poetic term for epigram), in Deutsche Monatschrift in 1791. It is a fairly innocuous effort. At Schiller's encouragement Goethe made a larger selection, of 103 epigrams, which appeared in Musenalmanach fur das Jahr 1796. The Munich edition of Goethe's works includes these 103 poems, under the title "Epigramme. Venedig 1790," but it also publishes (alongside the "Sinngedichte") "Epigrammen Erstes Buch Venedig 1790" and "Epigramme Zweites Buch," containing 136 in total.

There are various manuscripts of Goethe's epigrams, but none can be taken as definitive. The Munich edition is clearly trying to demonstrate that there is some kind of structural principle. The collection containing 103, for instance, and that of 136 show many duplications, but the poems also follow a different order. Compounding the problem is that some of the people who handled Goethe's manuscripts after his death went through them and literally used a razor to excise offensive passages. I mentioned in an earlier posting on this subject that one of the themes of the epigrams was religion. I was quite taken aback at the animus toward Christianity in "Epigrammen Erstes Buch Venedig 1790." At least in formal terms, this animus in toned down in the collection of 103 epigrams.

It strikes me that these problematic aspects are irresolvable, and as I read and reread the poems it seemed that the greater problem is that Goethe's epigrams seek to accommodate material that is not appropriate to the genre. The overriding theme is the felt tension between the present situation of Venice, a place that draws travelers and is therefore to be savored, and the longing for home, where the beloved is.

I think that there are two ways that Goethe might have solved the problem. The first would have been to restrict himself to composing a cycle of poems based on the love for Christiane and their child. These are, in my view, the best in the collection (see e.g., nos. 95, 96, 98-102). Here, for instance, is David Luke's translation of the first four lines of no. 102:

It is such joy to hug my beloved so close, to desire her,
And in her heartbeat to hear her first confession of love:

Joy still greater to feel life coming, another life pulsing
As it moves, as it thrives, in her dear nourishing womb!

Goethe, however, took his Martial along with him on the trip, evidently intending to be inspired by the ancient genre. In his attempt to be "symbolical," these lovely poems about the beloved jostle uncomfortably alongside very cynical observations on Venice, many about prostitutes and other low life. Since the beloved is Christiane Vulpius, a woman to whom he was not married but who had just borne his son out of wedlock, the juxtaposition of her with prostitutes is jarring, not to mention not very complimentary.

A second method, and more interesting, would have been to have used the material in the epigrams as the basis for a short novel. In that way, the observations on politics and religion and street life would have served as the realistic background for the traveler's musings about what has been left at home. In fact, I may write this novel myself!

Picture credits: Démodé; National Gallery of Art (UK); Sunday Observer; Amazon


Zentrist said...

I'm reminded here of something I think Disraili said, "If I wanted to read a novel, I'd write one myself!" Yes, please do write this novel!

I bring to this blog some haphazard reading in the history of philosophy--this morning it happened to be Durant on Spinoza. Apparently Goethe was quite taken with Spinoza, and this is an understatement. Goethe's various images of the life force at work in begetting and belonging, etc., owe something to the "life force" we find in this greatest of Jewish minds. As for the influence of Spinoza-Goethe on the novel, I saw this morning an amazing "story" that runs from Maimonides and the Hebrew Scriptures through Lessing, who was bowled over by Spinoza and thinks of him in Herder and Kant and Fichte and Hegel and Schopenhauer and Faulkner (who was deeply influenced, philosophically, by Bergson and his Life Force). Will Durant traces this story back to Fichte's version of the Life Force, the Ego, which seeks to preserve itself in the face of death. Schopenhauer's Will to Life and Nietzsche's Will to Power make more sense in light of this incredible story! It all goes back to Spinoza! Goethe must have been taken by the "merchandise" in Venice in all its variegated splendor...He seems to have adopted something of Spinoza's God, which is an interesting and novel and provocative mix of various gods. As for the novel itself, Daniel Defoe strikes me as very quintessentially English--and also Venetian!

Goethe Girl said...

To cheer me up recently I have been reading "Joy in the Morning" by P.G. Wodehouse, in which Spinoza plays an amusing role. Go figure.