Sunday, October 6, 2013

Adelbert von Chamisso zum Gedächtnis (erweitert)

In an earlier essay, we treated of the many excellences of this binational writer.  French in origin, he yet was forced (by the vicissitudes of History) to flee his native land;  he wound up  permanently cut off  from francophone territory, and was obliged (late in life) to take up another tongue.

This he did with brilliance.  He never spoke it perfectly, but he wrote it like an angel -- nay, an Engel.

The following poem is not merely “correct”, from the standpoint of German;  it embodies the Germanic folk-ballad  to the very core:

Lebe wohl
Wer sollte fragen: wie's geschah?
Es geht auch Andern eben so.
Ich freute mich, als ich dich sah,
Du warst, als du mich sah'st, auch froh.

Der erste Gruß, den ich dir bot,
Macht' uns auf einmal beide reich;
Du wurdest, als ich kam, so roth,
Du wurdest, als ich ging, so bleich.

Nun kam ich auch Tag aus, Tag ein,
Es ging uns beiden durch den Sinn;
Bei Regen und bei Sonnenschein
Schwand bald der Sommer uns dahin.

Wir haben uns die Hand gedrückt,
Um nichts gelacht, um nichts geweint,
Gequält einander und beglückt,
Und haben's redlich auch gemeint.

Dann kam der Herbst, der Winter gar,
Die Schwalbe zog, nach altem Brauch,
Und: lieben? - lieben immerdar? -
Es wurde kalt, es fror uns auch.

Ich werde geh'n in's fremde Land,
Du sagst mir höflich: Lebe wohl!
Ich küsse höflich dir die Hand,
Und nun ist alles, wie es soll.


We ourselves once penned a poem, much in this spirit;  and this, in our twenty-ninth year.   We offer it here, as much to him  wherever he now dwells,  as to the insubstantial silent shades and shadows that briefly flit o'er this site.

The oats are sown, the harvest’s in,
the frost is on the field.
The farmer in his chamber bare
computes the meager yield.

As few and hard as prayer-beads
are the grains that he tells o’er.
A chill wind like a church-bell says
that summer is no more.

His mind like a horizon
dims with distant flash of light.
His eyes like narrowed window-blinds
are sick with inner sight.

Remembered sounds of children
scarce distinguished in the haze.
He wonders what’s become of him
since changing of the days.

And what’s become of summer
that  did  this fruit  beget?
These seven seeds of hopefulness,
and hard husks of regret.

These seven seeds that did not die
despite the drought and dearth,
The strength that will not bend nor bow
and holds on  in the earth.

The farmer leaves his darkened room,
alone on stealthy feet,
and silently  beneath the moon
he sows the winter wheat.


Chamisso’s most famous tale lies midway between traditional Märchen and the odd development known as Rootabaga Stories .  Chamisso himself called his Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte a “Märchen”, having no other terminology available.   A sample of its whimsy (darker than appears, given the overall diabolical plot):

In Rußland fror ich einmal bei einer außerordentlichen Kälte  sein Schatten  dergestalt am Boden fest, daß er ihn nicht wider losbekommen konnte.
-- Adelbert von Chamisso, Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (1814)

And from the same work:  “Es trat mir dereinst ein ungeschlachter Mann  so vlämisch in meinen Schatten, daß er ein großes Loch darin riß.”

Märchen are generally quite short, especially in the original folk-version (sometimes no more than a paragraph) before some littérateur gets his hand on it and pads it out;  whereas Peter Schlemihl is an entire novella.   Likewise, a Märchen normally  takes for granted a world -- or rather, no more than a stage -- dimly sketched, no more than needed for the assumptions of the story -- in which some things are otherwise than in our own world.   Given that, it tells its tale and has done with it:  the world is not “stored up” for future episode, nor worked-out in any way.  Chamisso, by contrast, artfully builds his world up piece by piece, starting from naturalist assumptions which turn out simply not to apply.

Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories are a logical extension -- or rather, a fantastical extension of this.  The plots (of which I can recall not a one) are less important than the characters, who recur throughout the collection;  and these in turn -- evanescent whimsies who slip through your fingers like smoke -- less important than the magical world that is built up stroke by stroke.   We have added our own imaginings to that timeless yet crescent world, which you may here here:

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