Vulpes Libris

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.

God’s glory in the garden: the poetry of Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747)

Der Blüte Schnee schien schwarz zu sein
Bei diesem weißen Glanz. Es fiel mir ins Gesicht
Von einem hellen Stern ein weißes Licht,
Das mir recht in die Seele strahlte.

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

7 comments on “God’s glory in the garden: the poetry of Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747)

  1. Anne Brooke
    February 16, 2010

    They sound great, Kirsty. Dare I assume there’s an English version around somewhere?…

    🙂

    Axxx

  2. kirstyjane
    February 16, 2010

    Unfortunately I can’t locate one! This would be a project for a particularly excellent translator.

  3. Jackie
    February 16, 2010

    Herr Brockes ideas of God and Nature matches mine, so I was very pleased to read this. While I understand your point that the poetry is simplistic, I think that’s because he is in awe of what nature is teaching him. There’s also a Zen feeling in them. How I wish there was an English translation of at least some of his poems, I’d love to read more.

  4. kirstyjane
    February 16, 2010

    The poems are lovely, aren’t they Jackie? I think it’s the stillness, the concentration and the meditative aspect that is so attractive for me. And that very straightforward, clear language is quite distinctive for its time. I did rather suspect you might like these!

    I am beginning to think there’s really a market for a translation of these poems! A small collection of them perhaps, rather than the whole nine vols…

  5. Jackie
    February 16, 2010

    A small volume of them would be excellent, with some pen & ink or watercolor illustrations, too.

  6. annebrooke
    February 16, 2010

    Jackie & Kirsty – the job is yours … I’d buy!

    Axxx

  7. Melrose
    February 16, 2010

    The first impression I got on reading these poems was a kind of haiku/Blake mix!

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This entry was posted on February 16, 2010 by in Entries by Kirsty, Poetry: lyric, Russian Series and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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