Heinrich Heine: Two Poems, after the French Transcreations by Gerard de Nerval

H. Heine (1797-1856) on cover of Die Jugend, 1906
H. Heine (1797-1856) on cover of Die Jugend, 1906

[To be noted: the high credit that Heine gave to Gerard de Nerval for his French prose versions after the German rhymed verses, much as Goethe found Nerval’s prose transcreations of Faust its perfect translation.] 

The Castaway 

Longing & love!  

It’s all broken: I’m lying here sprawled on the shore, deserted & naked, a corpse that the sea has spit up with contempt.  

Before me the ocean fans out, a vast desert of water, while in back of me nothing but exile & grief, & over my head clouds sail by, grey & formless, the daughters of air, who draw water up from the sea, whisps of fog that they lift with great effort, then let them fall back on the sea, exquisite & useless, just like my life. 

Waves murmur, gulls caw, old memories seize me, dreams forgotten, snuffed out, images slow to return, sad & tender. 

Up north there’s a beautiful woman, regal & beautiful, wearing a white robe, voluptuous, circling her frail cypress waist; her hair in black curls unloosening, blesst like the night, from her head crowned with  tresses, wind blowing capriciously, touching her tender pale face, & there in her tender pale face an eye large & powerful shines, a black sun

Black sun, how many times have your flames turned against me, your ardors consumed me, how many times was I left here staggering, drunk from your juices!  

But just then a trace of a smile crossed her lips fiercely arched like a child’s, sweet but fiercely arched, breathing out words faint as moonlight & gentle as attar of roses. 

My soul then came forth & glided rejoicing up to the sky. 

Be silent, you waves & you gulls!  

Joy & hope! love & longing! everything comes to a close. 

I lie down on the earth, a miserable castaway, pressing my face still aflame on the watersoaked sand.  

The Dream 

A dream passing strange enraptured my mind, filled my body with dread.  Many an image rose up before me & made my heart quaver.
            Here was a marvelous garden – so beautiful I wanted to walk through it absent all care; so many beautiful flowers were watching.  Enraptured I watched them in turn.
            There were birds there that trilled softly, sweetly.  A red sun that shone on a background of gold streaked the lawn with a medley of colors.
            Perfumed the grasses sprang up.  The air was sweet & caressing, & everything opened, everything smiled, everything called me to share its magnificence.
            In the midst of a border of flowers I could make out a clear marble fountain.  There I saw a lovely young girl who was washing some kind of white garment.
            With ruby red cheeks, with clear eyes & curly blond hair, an image of holiness! – And as I watched her, she seemed like a stranger, yet somehow familiar.
            The lovely young girl kept working & singing a very strange song: “Run, water, run in your fountain, wash out this white linen cloth.”
            I went up to her, spoke to her softly: “O tell me then, sweet lovely girl, why this garment is white?”
            And she answered straight off: “Prepare yourself well.  The garment I wash is your death shroud.”  And once she had spoken, all that vision vanished like mist.        
            And I saw myself carried by magic to to the heart of a murky dark forest.  The trees rose up to the sky, & caught by surprise, I stood there & pondered, stood there & pondered.
            But listen: what a muffled sound!  The echo of an axe out in the distance.  And running through the bushes and the thickets I came on an open space.
            In the middle of a verdant clearing, a gigantic oak! & look, my marvelous young girl was hacking at it with an axe.
            Blow after blow, & brandishing her axe & swinging down she sang: “Steel bright, steel clear, cut me a plank to make a bier.”
            I moved up close to her & spoke in a low voice: “Tell me, lovely young girl, why you’re making this oak chest?”
            And she answered straight off: “Time runs on.  And what I’m making here will be your coffin.”  And no sooner had she said that when the vision vanished like mist.
            I saw a wasteland then, on every side of me, colorless & pale.  I had no sense of how I got there.  I hesitated frozen in my tracks & shivering.  And when I managed to go on, directionless, I saw a white form up ahead & ran to reach it.  There it was and I could see it was that lovely young girl once again.  She was bending over, facing the pale ground & busy with a pickaxe, cutting through the clay.  I moved up slowly, staring at her once again.  She was at once a thing of beauty & of horror.
            Now the lovely young girl sang another strange refrain: “Pickaxe, iron pickaxe, large & sharp, dig out a hole for me that’s large & deep.”
            I moved up close to her & spoke in a low voice: “Tell me, lovely sweet young girl, what does this hole you’re digging mean?”  She answered me: “Easy, rest easy, I’m digging your grave.” 
            And as she said it I could see the hole grow wider, gaping, gaping.
            I looked into that hollow space, and as I did a quake of terror seized me, & I felt myself pulled down into the darkness of the grave.

 English versions by Jerome Rothenberg after Nerval

 * * *
COMMENTARY
with Jeffrey C. Robinson

I don’t care very much about my fame as a poet, nor am I concerned whether my songs will be praised or blamed. But you shall lay a sword on my grave, for I have been a good soldier in the war of liberation of mankind. (H. H., The Voyage from Munich to Genoa) And again: I am the son of the Revolution, and I take up the charmed weapons upon which my mother has pronounced her magic blessing. (H. H., The Romantic School)

(1) A turning from Romanticism as previously practiced & a reminder of how much tension existed in such movements, both within & across generations. But with Heine selbst the drama of poetry (& of “the poet”) took its own particular twists, & after sentimental (“romantic”) early lieder, he became in works such as Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1844) a satirist/ironist who, as Nietzsche wrote of him. “possessed that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection.” His, then, was a further example of an oppositional, often courageous practice marked by a strong impulse toward dismissal & invective — against his literary & philosophical predecesors (The Romantic School, etc.) & the cultural & political milieu that banned his work & drove him into twenty-five years of Paris exile.

Growing up in a period of post-Napoleonic reaction & with a sense of betrayal by earlier Romantics, much like what was felt by Shelley’s generation in England, he was a supporter of later revolutions (1830, 1848) & of a nascent socialism & communism. His turn toward materialism & a kind of art-&-life continuum was a counter both to his own romantic questing & to those “Goethians” & Jena School Romantics (“priests and petty nobility, who conspire against the religious and political freedom of Europe”) who “allowed themselves to be misled into oclaiming the supremacy of art and turning away from the demands of that original real world which, after all, must take precedence.” In saying which he revived & transcended the older Romanticism while pointing to a conflict that has still to be resolved.

(2)
“Yes, if a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his
opinion, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.
Remember Heine? You have admired him. He walked through
a revolution too. He didn’t have his eyes left, and he
wasn’t as gay as you. It was paresis laid him low. (What
got you?) He left what he called his mattress grave and
found his way, blind, through the bullets in the street,
it was 1848, to the Louvre. He did it, he took the risk,
to have another look at Venus. What were you looking at
in a broadcasting studio?”
Charles Olson, from “A Lustrum for You, E. P.” [Ezra Pound]

(3) His close relationship with Gerard de Nerval with whom he collaborated on the translation of many of his lyrics as prose poems, is the basis of the translations presented here. [Other translations by Ezra Pound lie behind Olson's Lustrum.]

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, 2009. For further information check the following URL: http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/10540.php.]