Poem of the Week

Half-Jewish Nobel Laureate in Agony

Paul Heyse finds succor in the embrace of the cool forest, and coy language.

Wondrously cool forest before bedtime.
Salman Masalha

Waldesnacht

(Forest Night)

Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse

Wondrously cool forest night
I greet you a thousand times
After the world’s discordant bustle
O how sweet now is your rustle!
Dreamily my tired limbs recover
Nestling into your mossy bed.
To me it seems that once again
All my agonies have fled.

Fathomless chords stir at the touch
Of a far-off song with flute-like sounds
Steering my thoughts to distant ground
Both beautiful and -- Alas! -- begrudged.
Forest night, rock me gently,
Hush all agonies that torment me!
Here amidst the woodland scents
I suckle sacred, blest content.

In these cozy crannied spaces,
My frantic heart, all will be well,
As gentle peacefulness descends,
Floating down on fluttering wings.
Serene, lovely birdsongs, swell
As I slip into a gentle sleep.
Again, mad torments: Depart!
And now good night, my frantic heart.

From Johannes Brahms, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 21, Berlin: Simrock, 1874. Translated from German by Vivian Eden

Nobel schmobel. A man can live to be 86, write reams of poetry, drama and fiction in German, have streets named after him, be first on all the chronological lists of Jewish Nobel Prize laureates in literature – and be remembered a century later by more singers than readers, thanks to this poem, along with two others for which Johannes Brahms, lullaby king of the Western world, wrote music beloved of a cappella choirs (Opus 62, no. 3).   

It’s a lullaby for big boys. Pursuing nocturnal relief from the “world’s discordant bustle,” the protagonist of Waldesnacht habitually (the word “again” appears twice) heads into a Romantic forest: man in harmony with nature, freed from “worldly discordant bustle,” far from other people.

Romantic poetry – like sexual frustration – requires unfulfilled longings and indeed, music intensifies his yearning for something distant, beautiful, unattainable and vague.

Paul Heyse, 1853, left, in a portrait by Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel and Johannes Brahms, ca. 1858, photographer unknown.
Wikipedia

Though beset by agonies, the protagonist confidently addresses the nighttime forest on a familiar basis. He details exactly what he would like it to do and issues imperatives all around.

Master of this satisfying solitary bedtime ritual, he curls up into a mossy crevice and suckles bliss in the midst of lovely smells until he falls asleep.

Unlike the author of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and perpetual Jewish non-laureate Philip Roth, Heyse, a mainstream man of letters, could only publish a masturbation reverie delicately coded in his milieu’s conventions. Though Heyse’s circles and Sigmund Freud’s overlapped later, psychoanalytic theory was still unarticulated. In all likelihood, the fantasized partner in the erotic imagery was intended as the evocation of a mythical Mother Earth rather than any actual mother.

Presenting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910, the president of the Swedish Academy said: “Paul Heyse was born in Berlin in 1830. His father was the philologist Karl Wilhelm Heyse, a gentle but determined scholar. From his Jewish mother, Julie Saaling, Heyse perhaps inherited his warm and lively temperament.” The Saalings, a prominent Berlin family of jewelers, had changed their name from Solomon.

The prize honored  “the consummate artistry, permeated with idealism, which he has demonstrated during his long productive career as a lyric poet, dramatist, novelist and writer of world-renowned short stories.”

When Heyse died in 1914, Realism was well on the way to extinguishing Romanticism in European literature and he faded from the shelves of bestsellers.

As for his Jewish credits, a biographer of Heyse’s friend Edward Bernays noted: “The fact that Heyse had a Jewish mother, but was ignorant of Judaism and Christianity, allowed Bernays to speak to him about Jewish matters with irony and tenderness.”

*Bonus: The Munich University choir performs “Waldesnacht

The Munich University choir performs Waldesnacht YouTube

Waldesnacht
Waldesnacht, du wunderkühle,
Die ich tausend Male grüß',
Nach dem lauten Weltgewühle,
O wie ist dein Rauschen süß!
Träumerisch die müden Glieder
Berg' ich weich ins Moos,
Und mir ist, als würd' ich wieder
All der irren Qualen los. 

Fernes Flötenlied, vertöne,
Das ein weites Sehnen rührt,
Die Gedanken in die schöne,
Ach! missgönte Ferne führt.
Laß die Waldesnacht mich wiegen,
Stillen jede Pein!
Und ein seliges Genügen
Saug' ich mit den Düften ein. 

In den heimlich engen Kreisen,
Wird dir wohl, du wildes Herz,
Und ein Friede schwebt mit leisen
Flügelschlägen niederwärts,
Singet, holde Vögellieder,
Mich in Schlummer sacht!
Irre Qualen, löst euch wieder;
Wildes Herz, nun gute Nacht!