After spending a pleasant summer in the country with one group of writers, our latest German Literature Month journey has us taking the bus back in time to the start of the nineteenth century, where another circle of literary friends awaits us. This time, though, we’ll be splitting our time between fact and fiction, as we examine the work and life of a famous, if short-lived, poet, and I’m afraid you might need a few hankies. Being a Romantic poet might sound nice, but in reality it’s a bitter life, especially when those around you fail to live up to expectations 😦
Karoline von Günderrode, despite her death in 1806 at the age of twenty-six, is a writer whose work has found great acclaim over the last couple of centuries, and In die unbegrenzte Weite: Gedichte. Prosa. Briefe (Into the Great Beyond: Poems. Prose. Letters) is a nice collection of bits and pieces from her career. At first, I was a little concerned that this marixverlag edition might be a slapdash book of copyright-free work ripped from the Internet (and printed as cheaply as possible), but it’s actually a lovely, well-presented hardback edition. I’ve no idea how authoritative it is, and I suspect it’s a bit of a lucky dip rather than a complete overview, but for a reader (like me) wanting to sample the writer’s work, this edition is certainly up to the job.
As the title suggests, the collection brings together various genres, with the focus of the first part of the book on Günderrode’s poetry. It begins with one of her most famous pieces ‘Wandel und Treue’ (‘Change and Fidelity’), consisting of a dialogue in verse between a woman, Violetta, and a man, Narziß (Narcissus), in which she lambasts the faithless lover. He, however, has a very different view of love:
Was ist denn Liebe, hat sie kein Bestehen?
Die Liebe will nur wandeln, nicht vergehen;
Betrachten will sie alles Trefliche.
Hat sie dies Licht in einem Bild erkennet,
Eilt sie zu Andern, wo es schöner brennet,
Erjagen will sie das Vortrefliche.
‘Wandel und Treue’, p.13 (marixverlag, 2014)
Then, what is love, does it never stay?
Love just wishes to change, not fade away;
It wants to see all that is sublime.
Has it acknowledged one picture’s light,
It hurries to others, whose light shines more bright,
It wants to hunt down and see the divine. ***
(my – necessarily weak – translation)
Just a pretty poem? Alas, as we’ll see later, there’s a lot of Günderrode’s own experiences of love mixed in with her verse.
This darker side of love is a constant theme. ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ (‘Ariadne on Naxos’) is a short poem describing the sorrow of the woman deserted by Theseus in Greek myth, recording her laments before she hurls herself into the sea. The ocean also plays a major role in ‘Piedro’, a longer piece where a man embarks upon an epic sea journey to hunt down the rogue who stole his lover. However, when the enemy is about to breathe his last:
Und er stirbt so holde im Tode,
Daß Piedro niedersinkt,
Und von seinen blassen lippen
Reuig heiße Küsse trinkt.
And he faces death so bravely,
That down Piedro sinks,
And from his pallid lips,
Hot kisses remorsefully drinks. ***
The poem then takes a bizarre twist, with the revenged lover pining away for the man he killed.
Another theme many of these poems have in common is an obsession with the exotic and the mythical, and this is also the case in the prose fragments included in In die unbegrenzte Weite. Some of you may recall that I’ve already translated one of these, the ten-page story ‘Geschichte eines Braminen’ (‘Story of a Brahmin’), and another good piece is the story ‘Timur’ (or ‘Tamerlane’). Here, a woman falls in love with a warrior who betrays her by taking revenge against her father, and it doesn’t take the smartest of readers to work out that this is bound to backfire against him sooner or later. Hmm, a woman scorned – I’m sensing a theme here…
If you’re beginning to think that my take on Günderrode’s work is slightly clouded by knowledge of her personal life, you’re completely right, and it’s the second half of In die unbegrenzte Weite that forces the reader to see the prose and poetry in this light. The book ends with a short essay by editor Hans-Joachim Simm, where we learn of the writer’s short, unhappy life, with particular reference to her circle of friends (a kind of early-nineteenth-century Bloomsbury group) and several men who played a major role in her life.
However, it’s one thing to hear about Günderrode’s woes in a few crisply written pages; it’s quite another to follow the story over almost a hundred pages of letters written by those involved. I can’t say I’m the kind of reader who delves into the private lives of the writers I admire, but these selected letters make for fascinating reading. The early ones help to flesh out the picture of the writer’s inner circle of friends, with Lina, as they often called her, exchanging messages with members of the Brentano family, including Gunda, Bettina and Clemens, whose clumsy advances she coolly rejects.
What emerges in these early letters is a woman with a keen mind who gets bored easily, particularly when forced to talk to people who can’t keep up with her formidable intellect. Frustrated by her position in life (and wishing she were a man instead), she’s well aware that others see her as cold, but is holding out for someone whom she can consider her equal. One possible candidate is Friedrich Karl von Savigny, but (alas) he keeps his distance, eventually marrying Gunda Brentano instead.
It’s here that tragedy strikes, in the form of her relationship with the married philologist Georg Friedrich Creuzer, and in the letters they exchange, the few that survive, we see how Günderrode patiently waits for her man, even attempting to strike up a relationship of sorts with his wife. Meanwhile, Creuzer strings her along with feeble excuses, often in the form of numbered lists:
Was Du schreibst vom Scheidenlassen, darüber muß ich Duch und die Heyden erst mündlich sprechen, sonst könnte ich sehr ungeschickte Sachen machen. Für den Augenblick ist aber an’s Scheiden nicht zu denken. Denn 1.) wenn’s Krieg wird, bin ich meiner Besoldung nicht sicher, wie darf ich wagen Dich zu meinem Weibe zu machen. Bete also mit mir um den Frieden. (pp.181/2)
What you write regarding divorce, I will have to discuss this with you and Heyden face to face, otherwise I might do something foolish. For the moment, however, divorce is out of the question. For 1.) if war breaks out, I can’t be sure of my pay, how can I dare to make you my wife. Pray with me, then, for peace. ***
This particular letter has three more excuses including concerns over her fortune and a need to wait for various acquaintances to return so that he can discuss the matter with them in detail.
Girl – he’s just not that into you…
Reading the letters is a fascinating yet frustrating experience, and the closer we get to the poet’s tragic death, the more obnoxious Creuzer becomes (and the more rage the reader feels). Even without the hindsight of centuries, it’s clear to see how this will end, but that doesn’t soften the blow when it lands. What makes it even worse is the selfish, cowardly way in which Karoline’s ‘lover’ ends their relationship, and the decisions he takes after her death, including suppressing her latest book of poems for fear it might affect his reputation.
Less enjoyable than absorbing, In die unbegrenzte Weite is still an intriguing look at Günderrode’s life and work, and even if her poetry isn’t always to my liking, I did find a few pieces I enjoyed, and the prose fragments were also generally well done. However, it’s the letters that really make the book, and if you do get the chance to try some, I’d definitely recommend them. While many writers have dreamed up a different life for poor Lina (such as Christa Wolf’s imaginary match-making attempt), the reality is that she died far too soon. Thankfully, though, as this collection proves, she’s far from forgotten.