Beyond the Lines: Lerchengesang
We are inaugurating a new series, aimed at taking a different poem on each occasion and analyzing it from the standpoint of how a great classically composed poem might be unpacked, beyond the lines. This requires an approach which is fundamentally different from the one taken in the world of modernist and contemporary poetry.
Let us take an example from German, the Lerchengesang (Lark Song) by Carl August Candidus, which was famously set to music by Johannes Brahms:
Ethereal, distant voices, Heavenly greetings of larks, How sweetly you move men’s hearts With your enchanting voices.
As my eyes begin opening, Each memory takes its flight Into the gentle twilight,
Wafted by the breath of spring.
Translation © David B. Gosselin
In the opening stanza, the poet is greeted by the songs of larks, which rouse him from his seeming slumber. A change occurs as a result of "distant ethereal voices": the poet is roused from a passive state into an active state. He is awake.
In the second stanza, a new world is introduced:
As my eyes begin opening The memories take their flight[…]
As his eyes open, the world in which memories exist begins to fade and the world outside begins to appear through the eyes: one world opens as another one closes. One is the inner world of thoughts and the other is the concrete world outside. There is a tension created by these two worlds: two seemingly unbridgeable worlds are existing at the same time — one as the poets eyes are closed, the other as they are open. So how is this paradox resolved?
The memories take their flight Into the gentle twilight, Wafted by the breath of spring.
The memories fade as the poet is greeted by the springtime air, they are “wafted by the breath of spring.” Here, the image of twilight serves to reinforce the tension created by the first two lines. It is a meeting of both day and night, yet not quite either, as the light from the set sun is still lingering. Yet, there is a beautiful transition, which has the quality of a discovery, where the spring’s “breath” is the thing that carries these memories. While the ethereal world of thought seems to fade, the poet is greeted by the youthful spring, which heralds the promise of a new day — the past fades, but he is greeted by the future.
What we are dealing with here is not a series of disparate parts and images. Each image is an integral part, which serves to augment the tension and further elaborate the idea of the whole. There is neither a stylized approach of simply using images to induce sentiments without any rhyme or reason nor is there simply finely written prose which the poet hopes to woo us with or trick us into thinking “perhaps I just don’t get it and this poet is very profound?”
Modernists and contemporary thinkers will tend to feel that because there is such a high requirement of rigor, this means the poet is somehow being constrained and formulaic about composition; the idea of a poet becomes one of someone who is coldly calculating his every step. The artist is bounded by rules, thus it is not “free verse”, thus they just want to “free verse,” at which point they will be "free" to communicate their authentic thoughts and feelings.
The poetic genius Goethe, in his humble poem “Kunst und Natur” (Nature and Art) addressed that age old paradox with the following:
[…]the unfettered mind, The boundless spirit’s mere imagination, Will strive in vain for pure perfection’s heights.
He goes on to resolve the paradox with the idea that it is through limitation that greatness distinguishes itself. In the same way there is only one universe, the ability to accomplish something good and enduring in that universe requires us to discover and know something truthful about it. The universe is free, but in order to discover this freedom and achieve something great, one must desire to know how it works, lest their hopes come crashing down. In a word: one does not gain a greater freedom to fly, without first knowing something about the laws of gravity. Greatness is achieved by taking on all the obstacles that present themselves on the path to that goal.
In even such a simple yet beautiful little poem like the Lerchengesang, we can see how the poet uses the tension that he creates through the juxtaposition of different images in a way that reflects the movement of the idea itself; the twilight, the distant voices, the spring air all help further the tension between the transition of two different worlds. The poet is guided by his creative instincts, which provide the images that allow him to elaborate the creative process existing within his mind. As a result, the reader can partake in this same subjective process, through a series of objective steps — the poet has created a true poetic metaphor. The gulf between the subjective and objective magically flies away.
Such things are not a question of taste.
Hear this poem "off the page" in Brahms' beautiful musical setting: