A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The snow of blossom seemed black/In this white radiance. There fell into my face/A white light from a bright star/Which shone directly into my soul.
– from Cherry Blossom in the Night (all translations are my own)
To the student who has to work through Barthold Heinrich Brockes’ nine-volume opus Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott (thankfully condensed by the nice people at Reclam into an undergraduate-friendly single volume), it can be rather like travelling by train with a small child. Look! It’s a cow! Look! It’s a butterfly! Look! It’s a cherry tree!
Because, essentially, Brockes as a poet has one simple and to him overwhelmingly important concept, standing as he does on the threshold of the Enlightenment, between the old religious understanding of the world and the new scientific one. Namely, that science does not refute God, but brings Him nearer. The more we understand about the world, the more we understand about God; every small detail of the world around us bears witness to His creation. Brockes’ lucid and prolific expression of this concept, emerging at that particular time, had considerable impact; he is seen as a key figure of early Enlightenment literature (hence his presence on so many university curricula). But it does make for some fairly predictable poetry, since Brockes’ almost invariable approach is to focus on some small aspect of Creation (often from his garden) as the basis for a reflection on the divine beauty of nature. Take the Little Fly (a poem I learned by heart for an exam in 2001 and which has stuck with me ever since):
…Es war ihr klein Köpfgen grün,
Und ihr Cörperchen vergüldet,
Ihrer klaren Flügel Par,
Wenn die Sonne sie beschien,
Färbt’ ein Roth fast wie Rubin,
Das, indem es wandelbar,
Auch zuweilen bläulich war…
Its little head was green/And its little body gilded/Its pair of clear wings/When the sun shone through them/Turned an almost ruby red/Which, changeable as it was/Was also sometimes blueish
A long and detailed examination of the little fly (who was, by all accounts, quite beautiful) leads to a prayerful conclusion:
Hast du also, kleine Fliege,
Da ich mich an dir vergnüge,
Selbst zur GOttheit mich geleitet.
And so, little fly/As I enjoyed you/You yourself led me to God.
Reading poem after poem along these lines, especially if you are doing so under pressure, can be a somewhat stultifying experience. It becomes easy to see Brockes as a faintly ridiculous figure, this stout pillar of Hamburg society with his fur hat and his many musical children, wandering his walled garden, writing verses about bluebottles. The German eighteenth century is populated with so many stormy characters fiercely debating love and death and so on that the ant in Brockes’ garden (which represents Man in the world, just so you know) seems neither here nor there.
And yet, almost ten years on, my most vivid recollection of Paper Ge 8 (German literature, thought and history from 1700-1815, including Goethe’s works to 1815) is of Brockes’ ant. Returning to read these poems after so much time, I felt not only a familiar affection for these well-known texts but a new and surprising sense of just how beautiful they are, at least to me, in the simplicity and clarity of their language. In a reading life which remains dominated by stormy characters, Brockes provided a much needed moment of calm meditation.
This time round, I shall read them one by one. No rush.
Reclam Verlag, ISBN: 978-3-15-002015-9