Learning to see: Rilke’s Neue Gedichte

The last of our mini-series of literary posts also heralds the last of this year’s OGN reading group sessions: here, Rey Conquer introduces us to aspects of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry.
Stephen Emmerson’s ‘translations’ of Rilke’s Neue Gedichte, at the Austrian Cultural Forum’s Kakania festival in London, involved, among other things, turning the book into pills, into seed bombs, into a cake, even into the audience’s own excrement.  We might think this nothing more than a provocative stunt, an act of exuberant irreverence. After all, Rilke was serious and high-minded, one of the most important poets writing in Europe in the last century, and his poetry has influenced not just other poets but also philosophers and critics (not to mention nuns). But the idea of transformation was central to Rilke’s work, and Emmerson’s desecrations are a helpful caricature of some of the things Rilke himself was particularly interested in at the time he was writing the Neue Gedichte (New Poems).
459px-Paula_Modersohn-Becker_016 Rainer Maria Rilke 1906
Portrait of Rilke by the Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906.

Rainer Maria Rilke was 26 when he turned up in Paris in 1902 to write a book on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. He had written and published poetry, plays, short stories, art criticism (he went on to write a novel, based on his experiences in and of Paris, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) which was published in 1910). That is, he was no novice; but when in Paris, he set himself the task of learning, first from Rodin and then from Paul Cézanne—and this second encounter, in which he visited an exhibition of Cézanne’s paintings daily, is documented in a series of letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff. What did he hope to learn from these ‘apprenticeships’? For an answer we might turn to the protagonist of his novel, Malte, who writes, “Ich lerne sehen.”

Why might a poet want to learn to see? It seems obvious why a painter or sculptor would want to see, because the finished artwork is something that has to be seen (and in the case of both Rodin and Cézanne, the artwork is *of* a real thing that itself had to be seen). If we read Rilke’s earlier or later poems, seeing seems often less important than hearing or indeed thinking, remembering, imagining, and so on. But in the Neue Gedichte many of the most striking poems are like paintings or sculptures, or are about paintings or sculptures (one of the most famous, ‘Archaischer Torso Apollos’ is about a statue, for instance), and they pay a lot of attention to looking, and use techniques such as repetition and sound patterning to create a sensory ‘portrait’ of an object or scene. The very first to be written was ‘Der Panther’:
Der Panther
Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 6.11.1902, Paris
Even at a first glance we can see the ways in which parts of the visual world are turned into poetic language: for instance, the repeated word ‘Stäbe’ in the first stanza mimics the bars of the panther’s cage. Not only does this help us see the panther, it also helps us see that poetry, like painting and sculpture, is made out of something: words. Neither Cézanne nor Rodin hid the marks of their tools, and the very visible and audible use of  assonance and alliteration in this poem (‘Stäbe gäbe’, ‘Kreise’/‘Kraft’) is a way of making clear that this is something that has been worked, and worked on. For while working with Rodin, and while spending time with the paintings of Cézanne, it was not just looking and seeing that he was learning; he was also learning to work. In a letter to Clara, he reported Rodin’s advice: ’Il faut travailler, rien que travailler. Et il faut avoir patience.’ (‘You have to work, nothing but work. And you have to be patient’).
Emmerson turned Rilke’s poems into a ‘seed bomb’ that would be planted and produce, from the words, flowers. Rilke did the opposite: he turned flowers (and carousels, and swans, and fountains, and parrots) into words, into poems. These are poems that are at times linguistically difficult and dense, but with some patience, they open out.
Rey Conquer, Somerville College, Oxford

Donna Clara – Heinrich Heine’s Bad Romance

We were a bit voreilig with our posts – oops! Heinrich Heine’s work is at the centre of the second of OGN’s reading groups – this week, Alex Marshall gives us an insight into some of the complexities of Jewish life and literature in nineteenth-century Germany.
Donna Clara‘ (Buch der Lieder, 1827) is Heinrich Heine’s most direct and probably funniest commentary on antisemitism. In lush, mock-epic verse, Heine describes the courtship of a fair maiden, tired of the false promises and empty flattery of the court, by a handsome young knight, almost the very image of St George, interspersed with the sudden, gratuitous and frankly bizarre outbursts about Jews she subjects him to. When she asks the gallant knight his name, we instead hear his father’s: “Rabbi Israel von Saragossa“.
Lancelot Bears Off Guenevere, Tales of the Round Table, Andrew Lang (1908)
The relish and pride with which the young knight reveals this secret is matched only by the tolerance he shows, sitting patiently through no less than three antisemitic rants and only revealing his ancestry when asked about his identity. We’ve all indulged someone we fancied more than we would someone else, but is the knight’s superhuman patience that far away from the flattery of the other suitors in the court? Did he deceive poor Donna Clara by letting her fall in love with him, and can we blame him for it?
Since Heine based this poem on “personal experience” his readers might wonder just how long he spent, sitting at a dinner table, while the pretty girl opposite alternated lingering eye-contact with anti-Jewish tirades. Did Heine ever reveal his own roots to her, or is Donna Clara, like much great humorous writing, the product of a case of Treppenwitz?
Jews burned alive for the alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492; a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
The mock-epic form adds greatly to the humour, but also expresses the underlying tensions between Heine’s German and Jewish identities. While German Romanticism loved to, well, romanticise Medieval Europe, Heine reminds us that, for Jews, the Middle Ages were not just a time of courtly love and shining armour, but fear, persecution, and ritual  humiliation. These myths that were the life-blood of German romantic nationalism, but for Heine, a German romantic nationalist who was also a Jew, they were what you might call problematic. As the poet imagines himself chivalrously winning the heart of a fair damsel, he wryly asks what the damsels in those days would have really thought of him.
But other questions come up. Has Donna Clara ever met a Jew before, or is she merely repeating what she heard elsewhere? Why does he not give his own name, but the obviously,Jewish name of his father, Israel? Is that really his father’s name or is he merely a “son of Israel”? Why does he stress his father’s rabbinical learning, unlikely to impress your average antisemite? Is he more proud of the scholar’s blood in his veins than his own knightly status? Has he, like many Jews in the nineteenth century, Heine included, had to convert to Christianity to get the job? And why St George, the Christian martyr and slayer of monsters who, although usually portrayed as a European knight, has his origins in Palestine?
Alex Marshall, University of Oxford

How to start reading Kafka?

This week, ahead of the third OGN reading group, Karolina Watroba thinks about how to tackle one of the most famous German writers of the early twentieth-century: Franz Kafka.
Franz Kafka in 1906

Franz Kafka is probably the most famous German-language writer, and he has certainly been one of the most influential authors of world literature in the twentieth century. His unique style has even given rise to a brand new adjective, ‘kafkaesque’ – so if having one’s name turned into a common word is anything to go by, Kafka has really become an inseparable element of our culture. It might seem overwhelming to actually have a go at reading something written by a literary legend like Kafka, which is why I want to share five ideas for how you can start reading him!

1. Translations of famous opening lines – different every time!
The first of Kafka’s texts I read in German, and in fact one of the very first pieces of literature written in German that I decided to tackle in the original language, was a novella called ‘Die Verwandlung’ – ‘The Metamorphosis’. It later turned out that I would study this story in my first year at Oxford – it is one of the prose set texts for first-year students here. ‘Die Verwandlung’ was originally published in 1915, and it begins with one of the most famous opening sentences in the history of literature:
‘Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.’
In Ian Johnston’s translation: ‘One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed, he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.’
You’ll find eight other English translations of the opening sentence to compare in this fun article from The Guardian. Kafka’s works are in the public domain, so you can find them online for free. Check out this bilingual edition of ‘Die Verwandlung’.
2. Expect the unexpected!
Perhaps the best-known, and the most influential of Kafka’s texts, is his unfinished novel Der Prozess The Trial. He wrote it at about the same time as ‘Die Verwandlung’, but it wasn’t published until 1925, a year after his death, when his lifelong friend, Max Brod, decided to go against Kafka’s will and start publishing his hitherto unpublished texts, rather than burning them. Der Prozess boasts another unforgettable opening sentence:
‘Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.’
In John Williams’s translation: ‘Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.’
Even in this opening sentence, it is already evident that, in many ways, Der Prozess is written like a detective story. So if you like suspense and investigations, you’ll find Der Prozess very interesting – partly because it reverses the conventions of this genre and constantly challenges your expectations of it.
3. Short forms for the short of time
If both ‘Die Verwandlung’ and Der Prozess seem too long to start with, why don’t you try one of Kafka’s many shorter pieces? He wrote numerous little texts that range in length from just one line to one or two pages. Those published during his lifetime are conveniently collected in one volume, Ein Landarzt und andere Drucke zu Lebzeiten (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994). There you’ll find such little gems as ‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’, or ‘Der neue Advokat’, as well as ‘Die Sorge des Hausvaters’, which will be the text for our reading group next week. These texts are very brief (‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’ is just one sentence, six lines!), but also incredibly intriguing – and simply unlike anything you’ve ever read.
4. Get an introduction to the critical debates
While having a go at reading Kafka is definitely the best way to get to know his works, at some point you might feel like having a look at some secondary literature on him. A great starting point would be Kafka: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2004), written by Oxford’s own Ritchie Robertson. This little book is accessible and thought-provoking, which makes it an ideal place to start exploring broader themes and concerns running throughout Kafka’s work.
5. Get an introduction to the critical debates (Teil 2!)
Another place to go if you’d like to discover new ways to approach Kafka, is a series of documentaries and drama called In the Shadow of Kafka, produced by BBC Radio 3 in May 2015. You’ll hear there, among others, German poetry expert Karen Leeder talking about meaning and communication in Kafka’s works, or Margaret Atwood – a famous Canadian writer – reflecting on what Kafka’s texts have meant to her since she was a teenager.
I hope that this post has given you plenty of ideas about how to approach Kafka yourself. Go explore!


Karolina Watroba, Magdalen College, Oxford

The Nibelungenlied, or Making a Medievalist

Ahead of OGN’s annual German literature reading groups, we’ll be introducing the texts that will form the basis for each of the four sessions over the coming weeks. Dr Mary Boyle will be leading the first group on 8 July. Here, she ‘macht uns für den Startschuss bereit’ by introducing our first text: the Middle High German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied…

Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit

von heleden lobebæren, von grôzer arebeit,

von fröuden, hôchgezîten, von weinen und von klagen,

von küender recken strîten muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen°

[In ancient tales many marvels are told us: of renowned heroes, of great hardship, of joys, festivities, of weeping and lamenting, of bold warriors’ battles–now you may hear such marvels told!*]

Nibelungenlied Manuscript C, Folio 1r, about 1220-1250
A page from the Nibelungenlied, Manuscript C  (ca.1220-50)

I was first given the Nibelungenlied in English translation when I was sixteen or seventeen. I used to read it in the car on the way to and from guitar lessons. Perhaps my seventeen-year-old self would be disappointed that it was the Nibelungenlied I kept up with, and not the guitar, but after another twelve years of medieval studies, I think it was the right call.

The Nibelungenlied was written down by an anonymous poet around the year 1200. The story was not of his own creation; he wove together centuries’ worth of legends about the hero Siegfried, his betrayal and murder, and his wife’s bloodthirsty and comprehensive revenge. These myths and half-forgotten histories were not just popular in German, but also circulated in Old Norse.  Medieval gore is not exclusive to twenty-first-century fantasy film and TV!

Siegfried's murder Nibelungenlied Manuscript K 1480-1490
Siegfried’s murder, as shown in Manuscript K (1480-1490)

I am going to use an extract from the Nibelungenlied for my Oxford German Network Reading Group session, as an introduction to the literature of the German Middle Ages. The text as a whole covers almost everything that a twenty-first-century reader might expect to find in medieval literature: castles, romance, knights, queens, quests, dreams, and lots and lots of blood. It provides fodder for any number of conversations you might equally have about modern literary texts: gender politics, the role of religion, the use of violence, space and place, narrative construction, love and loss, and many more. It wasn’t the first medieval text I encountered, but it fixed itself firmly into my mind.

It’s not a ‘perfect’ text, but it is never less than compelling. At times we see how the poet struggled in combining these semi-connected myths into a single narrative. Characters remain inexplicably youthful for decades. There are abrupt changes in the figures who are expected to attract our sympathy. We hear conflicting accounts of backstory, and characters behave in ways which can appear illogical. On top of that, we have inherited three distinct versions of the text. But the Nibelungenlied has taken hold of the imagination of generations of readers (and, initially, listeners). The reception of the text is a branch of study on its own. It has been reshaped and reinterpreted: used by the Romantics, refashioned by Wagner, and, unfortunately, co-opted by the Nazis.†

I began by quoting the famous opening stanza of the Nibelungenlied with its promise of heroes and of wonders, of toils and of weeping. I will close with the final stanza, when all of those things have been laid bare. The wonders have passed, and all that remains are consequences.

Ine kán iu niht bescheiden, waz sider dâ geschach:

wan ritter vnd vrouwen weinen man dâ sach,

dar zvo di edeln knehte ir lieben frivnde tôt.

hie hât daz mære ein ende: daz ist der Nibelunge nôt.°

[I can’t tell you what happened afterwards there, except that knights and ladies were seen to weep, and noble squires, too, for the death of their dear friends. Here this tale is at an end–that is The Nibelungs’ Doom.*]

Mary Boyle, University of Oxford


° Karl Bartsch and Helmut de Boor (eds.), Siegfried Grosse (trans.), Das Nibelungenlied (Stuttgart: Reclaim, 2002, repr. 2006).

* Cyril Edwards (trans.), The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

† For more information, see Werner Hoffman, ‘The Reception of the Nibelungenlied in the Twentieth Century’ in A Companion to the Nibelungenlied ed. by Winder McConnell (Columbia: Camden House, 1998), pp. 127-152.