I have to admit, my knowledge of writers from other than English speaking countries is limited to the great ones, the ones who wrote the classics, but I was surprised to learn of von Droste-Hülshoff. I had never heard of her. Wikipedia says, “She was one of the most important German poets and author of the novella Die Judenbuche.” Elsewhere I believe I read she is the most important female German poet ever. How could I not have heard of her name at least? I don’t know.
And then to my surprise, von Droste-Hülshoff was catholic and had written religious poems, most notably a cycle of poems, titled “The Spiritual Year” on each Sunday and the all the feast days of the church calendar. Well, that certainly piqued my interest. I search Amazon for a good edition of her work in English, and unfortunately did not find much. I found only one book, The Wild Muse, and I put in into my cart, a dual language collection that has biographical commentary to go along with the poems.
However, I did find a few of her poems in English translation on the internet. Since today is Pentecost Sunday, the day the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, I’m going to provide her poem of this feast day. First, here is the English translation:
by Annette Von Droste-Hulshoff
The day was still, the sun's bright glare
Fell sheer upon the Temple's beauteous wall
Withered by tropic heat, the air
Let, like a bird, its listless pinions fall.
Behold a group, young men and gray,
And women, kneeling; silence holds them all;
They mutely pray!
Where is the faithful Comforter
Whom, parting, Thou didst promise to Thine own?
They trust Thy word which cannot err,
But sad and full of fear the time has grown.
The hour draws nigh; for forty days
And forty wakeful nights toward Thee we've thrown
Our weeping gaze.
Where is He? Hour on hour doth steal,
And minute after minute swells the doubt.
Where doth He bide? And though a seal
Be on the mouth, the soul must yet speak out.
Hot winds blow, in the sandy lake
The panting tiger moans and rolls about,
Parched is the snake.
But hark! a murmur rises now,
Swelling and swelling like a storm's advance,
Yet standing grass-blades do not bow,
And the still palm-tree listens in a trance.
Why seem these men to quake with fear
While each on other casts a wondering glance?
Behold! 'Tis here!
'Tis here, 'tis here! the quivering light
Rests on each head; what floods of ecstasy
Throng in our veins with wondrous might!
The future dawns; the flood-gates open free;
Resistless pours the mighty Word;
Now as a herald's call, now whisperingly,
Its tone is heard.
Oh Light, oh Comforter, but there
Alas! and but to them art Thou revealed
And not to us, not everywhere
Where drooping souls for comfort have appealed!
I yearn for day that never breaks;
Oh shine, before this eye is wholly sealed,
Which weeps and wakes.
All poetry loses something in translation. Poetry relies to a greater extent than prose on the sound and rhythm of the language, and so it can never be reproduced in a different language with the same effect and beauty. As you can see there is a rhyme scheme, and so the English translator felt the need to try to reproduce a rhyme scheme in the English. That always causes a red flag for me as a reader. The more one tries to use the nuances in the translation of the translated language, the more one drifts from the original meaning. Still this is not a complex poem; it tries to dramatize an historical event. I can’t speak for the accuracy of the translation. Here is the original German.
Still war der Tag, die Sonne stand
So klar an unbefleckten Domeshallen;
Die Luft, von Orientes Brand
Wie ausgedörrt, ließ matt die Flügel fallen.
Ein Häuflein sieh, so Mann als Greis,
Auch Frauen knieend; keine Worte hallen,
Sie beten leis!
Wo bleibt der Tröster, treuer Hort,
Den scheidend doch verheißen du den Deinen?
Nicht zagen sie, fest steht dein Wort,
Doch bang und trübe muß die Zeit uns scheinen.
Die Stunde schleicht; schon vierzig Tag
Und Nächte harrten wir in stillem Weinen
Und sahn dir nach.
Wo bleibt er nur, wo? Stund' an Stund',
Minute will sich reihen an Minuten.
Wo bleibt er denn? Und schweigt der Mund,
Die Seele spricht es unter leisem Bluten.
Der Wirbel stäubt, der Tiger ächzt
Und wälzt sich keuchend durch die sand'gen Fluten,
Die Schlange lechzt.
Da, horch, ein Säuseln hebt sich leicht!
Es schwillt und schwillt und steigt zu Sturmes Rauschen.
Die Gräser stehen ungebeugt;
Die Palme starr und staunend scheint zu lauschen.
Was zittert durch die fromme Schar,
Was läßt sie bang' und glühe Blicke tauschen?
Schaut auf! Nehmt wahr!
Er ist's, er ist's; die Flamme zuckt
Ob jedem Haupt; welch wunderbares Kreisen,
Was durch die Adern quillt und ruckt!
Die Zukunft bricht; es öffnen sich die Schleusen,
Und unaufhaltsam strömt das Wort
Bald Heroldsruf und bald im flehend leisen
O Licht, o Tröster, bist du, ach,
Nur jener Zeit, nur jener Schar verkündet?
Nicht uns, nicht überall, wo wach
Und Trostes bar sich eine Seele findet?
Ich schmachte in der schwülen Nacht;
O leuchte, eh' das Auge ganz erblindet!
Es weint und wacht.
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff
Other than trying to fast learn some basic German back in September when I had a business trip over to the country, I don’t know German. However, I can sound out the words, and I can see the alliteration and assonance and rhetorical repetitions, and even pick up a lyrical musicality in the lines. At least I think so. I would love to hear the poem spoken out loud, and while youtube had some audio of von Droste-Hülshoff poems, it unfortunately did not have this one. Perhaps I’ll revisit her poetry when I get the book from Amazon. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this one.
And happy feast of Pentecost!