Brentano, Death and the Dilemma of Romantic Despair
By Scott Horton
Clemens Brentano, portrait by Emilie Linder (ca. 1833)
I have just posted an original translation of a major poem by the early German Romanticist Clemens Brentano. He is not a well-known figure, either in Germany or abroad. But Brentano is a figure marked by irony at every turn. The irony is not his, however, but the observer’s. He wanted popularity more than anything else, it seems—he strove for it with all his country affectations (the word in German would be “volkstümlich,” which acquired over the historical stretch a rather more sinister flavor). But even today, an essay can easily be printed about the German Romanticist movement without mentioning his name. Indeed, if he does come in, it would most likely be in an ego-withering way, as the brother of Bettina von Arnim, the famous correspondent of Goethe’s. But he is still the most romantic of the Romanticists, the one who bubbles away with anxieties and the one who most enthusiastically embraces Catholicism as the Romantic antidote to modernity and reason. He is not a frivolous figure like Walter Scott; his writing is serious enough, though there is still plenty of reason to question its universality, or its ability to endure. But his work, and this poem in particular, always struck me as encapsulating the very essence of that literary movement which contributed in many ways to the modern essence of European thought. The early Romanticists were in an essential way reactionary–they are against a blind faith in progress based on science and reason; what they offer in its place is, however, blind faith. Their thinking lies at the heart of European conservatism from the nineteenth century and into our own age.
It’s an important, even compelling, intellectual tradition. But also a problematic one. And this poem demonstrates its promise and its problems in an unusual way.
I never much really liked Brentano. His writings are interesting but there is something intellectually treacherous about them. His religious euphoria spills quickly into dangerous territory, including a number of close brushes with intolerance (anti-Semitism in particular, though usually softly and indirectly expressed. It was ironic, since a good many of his contemporaries were convinced that he was a Jew.) It also has a nascent chauvinistic nationalism. He is, dare one say it, defiantly irrational. Brentano was obsessed with demonstrating his Germanness, which a psychiatrist might have explained by the fact that, as the child of an Italian father and a French mother, he had so precious little of it. Indeed, in the end, his non-Germanness is one of his redeeming features.
On the other hand, he seems sometimes a right-leaning Doppelgänger to Heinrich Heine. They both feel deep roots in the Rhineland, and both composed poems about the Lorelei. Brentano’s is not so well known, of course, but it’s actually a superior poem. (Not to say he is a superior poet, of course, Heine stands head and shoulders over any contemporary on that score). And they shared a fascination with Moorish Spain of the Golden Era—the period in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived and thrived side-by-side under a Caliphate. His poem, “The Alhambra” marked his furthest swing from his naïve-charismatic Catholicism, and also arguably his best work.
Still, Brentano is thankfully not a popular writer. But his work, and this poem is a great example, brings key aspects of intellectual Romanticism to the fore: its tormented emotions, concerns with redemption and death. I couldn’t find evidence of this poem from 1816 having been translated before, and it struck me as one worthy of a broader audience.
This is one of the most genuinely Romantic, and most religious poems of confession in the modern canon; its lyrical qualities are impressive (though, as usual, they don’t well survive the passage into another language). These seventeen stanzas are a veritable maelström of emotion, packed with angst and brooding, fears of indefinite sort. They seem close in some respects to literature of the Thirty Years War, such as the poems of Andreas Gryphius, who senses death behind every corner (hardly paranoid; in those days it was). But Brentano is not driven to internal conflict by the depravations of war, though the Napoleonic Wars are a recent memory. It is a more modern sort of existential angst.
Consider the strange twists that start right in the title. “Springtime cry”? In the poetic canon, springtime is the time of promise, birth, redemption, happiness, light—the green fuse. It is the clean breath of renewal. How can it be linked to an existential cry?
There is only one possible construction of this turn and the several passages in which it reverberates, namely, that the author (this poem has a distinctly first-person approach, which I reinforced in the translation) feels excluded from the mystery of spring, the promise of rebirth—and the religious promise of redemption—that swirl around him. The waves (another strange metaphor) break about him, they do not penetrate. And this non-participation is what gives rise to his pangs of anxiety.
The first six stanzas present a clear dilemma, which is the unrequited striving of an alienated (or at least isolated) individual who is filled with longing for security (the longing verges on something more religious, namely salvation, but Brentano is a bit coy in his presentation until the last stanzas).
The next series of stanzas take a different approach. The metaphors move away from the surface and burrow deep into the earth; he speaks of mines and shafts. Reading this made me think immediately of Brentano’s contemporary Novalis, who was, in fact, a mining engineer, and who was able to develop the metaphor of subterranean works in the most captivating fashion. Brentano is linking to that tradition in a way that I think his contemporaries certainly would have understood. But there’s a key difference. For Novalis the interior of the earth is a treasure chest of untold riches–God’s hidden bounty for humankind to enjoy; for Brentano here, like the surface, it brings only more reminders of alienation. He feels no joy, no sharing, no sense of participation.
And then the next stanza, we are suddenly back on the surface, among waves. I am swimming, he writes. But again, the water metaphor, also frequently associated with something euphoric, especially in the charismatic Christian tradition, offers no solace. He is trapped in his self, unable to commune with the joyous world about him.
All of this cascades to a conclusion—a painful, soul-felt plea for redemption, a plea to overcome the ego-bound exclusion from the natural world. This is, I think, a powerful summation of the thinking of the charismatic Catholic branch of the Romanticist movement. Death lurks everywhere, deep in the background, even in the time when the promise of life is at its most powerful (the spring). The narrator wants an ecstatic religious experience; he sees the only solution from his heavily borne anxieties in this experience. It is the consummately irrational voice of the early Romantic movement. In Novalis, Tieck and others the extreme irrationality is more suppressed, but in this piece by Brentano it gushes to the surface. It is at once wondrous to behold, powerful and frightful. Is Brentano climbing out of an abyss? Or is he rather not sinking more deeply into one? That must be the question that history hurls after him. But there is no other poem in which this tension is expressed quite so powerfully.