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