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Andreas Gryphius: Poetry at the Edge
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Gryphius for English Language Readers
Andreas Gryphius: War Poetry for Peace
Poetry at the Edge
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This essay is the third of three essays in the GRIN Verlag. It starts where the second essay, Andreas Gryphius: Rooted in Darkness. The Paradoxes of Faith and the Phoenix Vision 1, ends. The second essay explored Gryphius' poetry where, under the pressure of atrocities, senseless warfare, the plague, starvation and dreadful extremes of experience with the loss of habitat, family, friends , the destruction of a context to live in where the mind, mens sana in corpore sano, teetered on the brink of collapse.
The themes, the fractured mind, the role of steadfastness or constancy, the resilience of the independent, iconoclastic mind which Gryphius admired in Copernicus and urged upon his daughter, are part of the prescription for a way forward out of disaster, out of the human wasteland, culminating in his “Phoenix vision”, the rebirth of life out of its own ashes, which is the unexpected and powerful force moving behind the disruptive antitheses and beautiful rhythms “with a dying fall” characterizing his finest poetry.
The last sentence of the second essay is: “It as though his message were that the heart must first be broken before it can become full or whole again. He is, thus, despite everything, the poet of a fresh growth dynamic struggling out of the ruins and devastation.”2
That is where this third essay starts. At times Gryphius goes one step further past the euphoria of resurgence to the grim business of living and working on anyway, beyond ideology and beyond faith. It is an ultimate position in his poetry of survival. His urgency is relevant3 for a world torn by conflicts: Iraq, Syria, The Lebanon. This makes it all the more desirable that his readers should not only be readers of German but readers of all the major world languages, and among these, English.
When I talked with a friend in Britain about writing yet another essay with translations4 about Andreas Gryphius for English language readers, he felt it was a “no go, a Sisyphus job.” If, he said, “ if you asked people among the crowds flooding across Trafalgar Square, busy with their own lives, what they knew of the Silesian5 poet Andreas Gryphius6 the most frequent answers would likely be, “Who's he?” “What's that?” “Nothing”, if people had time to answer at all7. He was of course right. That realisation lamed me at first: no point, there is no point at all, in going on trying to get Gryphius read in English today. For very many people indeed, the name Gryphius is not only alien as a word, but the man behind the name is obscure, meaningless, irrelevant, a nothing. That conclusive observation was like a knock-out punch: final clarity, dead end, give it up.
Yet, that impasse reminded me how, in the sixties, a fellow undergraduate told me he had dropped English Literature, his love till then, and had chosen to read Moral Sciences at Cambridge. Why? He had been stirred by a lecturer's challenge: “How can any one of us anywhere ever truly know anything at all?”
That dead-end was for him, it appeared, an insight, a challenge, an incitement. It was a brief, breathless, but decisive moment on a cliff edge, looking ahead into nothing, facing chaos, nihilism, anarchy: an aporia, no clear roads on. You just have to go on in order to keep the coherence of your thinking and experience together.
That is where Art and Philosophy can make you stand: lost, before a sudden fork in the road. That is where we stand in many aspects of our lives, and in international affairs today. So the questions about Gryphius did not go away. So what? Why bother?“ Why should anyone in our time anywhere give a fig for some verse or other by Andreas Gryphius, whoever he might be?”
Wondering whether there was any way at all to go on reading and trying to share Gryphius with others, I re-read many of the sonnets I had met as a schoolboy8. Again and again I was still confronted and overwhelmed by the power of the poetry, the impact of Gryphius' voice, his voices in his sonnets9. Indeed an English reader might call his sonnets Shakespearean in execution and stature: a voice of that order. His living voice, enacted down to the torn breath in his poetry, reels in antitheses before unleashed unstoppable human savagery with its victims crying out for thought, for justice, for cessation.
It is as though he were speaking now about what we, the human race, are doing now, say, in the Middle East. He bears witness to the de-humanization10 of opponents, callous violence , the dehumanizing deconstruction, the ephemeral vulnerability of living beings with a rarely clear voice. So you find yourself saying, this is our madness, our terror, our nihilism and this we must stop. That is his main message to the world today which is the reason for this essay: desist, survive, build.
Andreas Gryphius: Poetry at the Edge
With the currently shaken and shaky power of major states, the struggle for survival vying with the struggle for dominance, war, disease, starvation and disorder raging across the globe from South America to Asia, across Africa to Pakistan, with mercenaries inflicting horror on civilian communities, with weapons of mass destruction being activated, with the desecration of the earth for energy, with widespread political corruption, the mania of the oligarchies, knives on the street, domestic abuse and civil violence; trade warfare; TV news full of violence, devastation, gunfire, rockets; with all this and so much more going on, we have had enough.
Is there a voice in any language that can yet remind us what it means to make a field of slaughter, atrocities, disease and starvation of your street or your homeland and those of others? Would a voice like that be a necessary, a timely, an urgent presence in literature which needs to be available in the prominent world languages including English?
Whether these Cassandra-like voices decrying blood on the walls are attended to is another matter. The grim message of ancient Greek tragedy is not just that human development achieves the lofty harmonious calm of Athena's equitable justice after exhausting conflict. It is that humankind needs must go through all that exhaustion, the filth, the blood and misery in order to get there. It is a condition of being human. No prophet can halt it. The Furies are always with us. If this is true, can it possibly be that Gryphius' unlike Cassandra's voice might arrest our headlong rush to destroy civil values, civil life, life itself ? His voice is a chance to at least pause and listen.
Never mind then that for countless potential readers, the poet, dramatist, lawyer, Copernican11 astronomer and Lutheran pastor, Andreas Gryphius of Silesia remains for the most part completely obscure, unknown, little known to English readers and, if known, largely ignored.
Never mind that the wars he experienced from his childhood on were wars that devastated the European battleground. Collectively known as The Thirty Years War (1618-1638) these multi-national conflicts are seldom known of in English speaking countries. Nevertheless, we are confronted by a fresh hard hitting emotional challenge when reading his verse because of the sort of place the human world is, a place where such things happen.
Admittedly, Gryphius (1616-1664) is identified on the Continent as the most powerful dramatist of mainland Europe in the seventeenth century, a generation after John Donne (1572-1631), a contemporary of John Milton (1608- 1674), whose work including the pamphlets was known in Silesia, Holland and Poland.12. He is lauded by specialist critics as the great, even the greatest, German Baroque lyrical poet, as Marian Szyrocki implies in his Die deutsche Literatur des Barock 13. Gryphius's being a Baroque poet, however, may be true, but it is not the answer to the question, why read Gryphius in English? After all, he seldom demonstrates the polish, urbanity or sophistication of John Donne, George Herbert (1593-1633)), nor of Andrew Marvell(1621-1678), nor the fancifulness of Herrick( 1591-1674), all familiar to and enjoyed by English readers of literature.
His focus is different. He witnessed brutal warfare: seldom suave urbanity, nor cultured wit, but vicious deeds, the fragility of life, and harsh violence14. He paints the horrors of human savagery in words, as Picasso or Breughel did in images. He is an authoritative witness to disruption, annihilation and dismay, writhing to make us see it, intense to have us change. In this respect Gryphius' war poetry is beyond the genre or style of, say, the Baroque. His poetry screams in humanitarian protest for attention in real time, beyond the context and conventions of his lifetime.
For British readers, the Shakespeare's Company, Shakespeare's plays and sonnets bridged the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, dominating the international European horizon and literary perspectives for the artists and times around him like a Colossus15. For readers of English, John Donne's Holy Sonnets, his distinction next to the sonnets addressed to his sexual partners and more tellingly to his wife, are among the most powerful in the language16.
Nevertheless, behind and within the dazzling light Shakespeare shed and the shadows that cast17, great streams of thought and belief still carried independent energy which shaped behaviour, moulded perception and determined the backdrop of art. They were alive and active in Amsterdam and Leiden during Holland's Golden Age when Gryphius was studying there. Montaigne's essays had deconstructed the cliches of rhetoric permitting irreverent iconoclastic perception and dissent; the great tide of Stoic reflection18 and practice still informed thought, emotion and behaviour; and the revolution in the independent stud and application of the Scriptures, with new indigenous languages to work in, intensified Martin Luther's reawakened revolutionary impact on independent belief and responsible practice19 rejuvenated by the Protestant revolt against the Hapsburg power centres in Spain and in Vienna. They also undermined some of the moral edifices of the Roman Catholic Church, investigating beyond dogma, cliche', and intellectual suppression. These were the angels of dissent.
These forces were present for and in Gryphius' perception and creation. So were the outstanding Dutch poets like Vondel, Hooft and Huigens20 while the works of Lipsius, Spinoza, Grotius, even Descartes and Rembrandt21 were part of the fabric of life for students in The Free Netherlands22. From this vibrant complex of energy arises Gryphius' poetry which then carries the most arresting and authentic voice in the seventeenth century23 which speaks for the traumatized and terrorised victims of indiscriminate domestic warfare and terror while searching for some spirit that can renew and survive, rooted in the fierce independence of the Lutheran mind set24.
In this Gryphius equals if not surpasses Shakespeare25 in his sonnets. Shakespeare's sonnets are defining masterpiece for the intricate workings of individual inter-reactions within a long term love affair. Gryphius' sonnets about war26 are beset with chaos, impotence, terror. At times they embody, past all talk, all conventions, a dour indomitable presence of inner intransigence, resistance, dissent appealing against destruction, and any deus ex machina, reminiscent of a living apatheia. For German readers Gryphius's best known sonnet is possibly “Thraenen des Vaterlandes 27 ” - Tears of the Homeland 28 ”.
Wir sind doch nunmehr gantz / ja mehr denn gantz verheeret!
Der frechen Voelcker Schar / die rasende Posaun
Das vom Blutt fette Schwerdt / die donnernde Carthaun /
Hat aller Schweiss / und Fleiss / und Vorrath auffgezehret.
Die Tuerme stehn in Glutt / die Kirch ist umgekehret.
Das Rathauss ligt im Grauss / die Starcken sind zerhaun /
Die Jungfern sind geschaend't / und wo wir hin nur schaun
Ist Feuer / Pest / und Tod / der Hertz und Geist durchfaehret.
Hir durch die Schanz und Stadt / rinnt allzeit frisches Blutt.
Dreymal sind schon sechs Jahr / als unser Stroeme Flutt /
Von Leichen fast verstopft / sich langsam fort gedrungen.
Doch schweig ich noch von dem / was aerger als der Tod /
Was grimmer denn die Pest / und Glutt und Hungersnoth
Das auch der Seelen Schatz / so vilen abgezwungen.
So, that's us, again laid waste / more than that, devastated utterly and torn!
The marauding rabble's mass/ the trumpets' maddened sounding
Swords greasy with blood / the thundering cannons' pounding
Have all sweat/ all labour /all reserves ravaged and worn.
Our torched towers stand glowing, our gutted church collapsed behind.
The strong, slashed to pieces/ our town hall in rubble lies
Our virgin young, abused, raped / wherever we turn our eyes
We see fire/ plague/ death/ which pierce heart and mind.
Here through the ramparts, through the town, runs fresh blood.
Three times these six years that our rivers' surging flood
All but dammed by corpses/ slowly pushed on oozing by.
But I stay silent yet on that/ that's still worse than dying
Fiercer than plague/ fire and desperate hunger's last sighing
That oh so many did their souls' great treasure, enforced29, deny. 30
This voice in the song, inured to dismay, is appalled by destruction. While the neat external form gives a stable structure, a face, to turbulent thought seeking coherence with clear observation of detail amid heaving emotions and bitter protest, the inner poetry, expressed in the broken breath of the antitheses the heavy rhythms, mirrors a cycle of shock within which ends in the same feeling of ultimate devastation with which it began.
The intensity of the language is self-evident when we consider the single word “verheeret” in the first line of the German original. It is multi-layered in meaning and intent. It means laid waste, it means appalled, devastated, it contains that word “Heer” which means army. One word does an immense amount of work in the poem. The word itself compresses emotion and meaning like a zip file does pictures but shows the whole complex at once, registering the exhausting impact of sinister and brutal force. The line as a whole is also broken up in its rhythm by the antithetic presentation of broken breath. You witness the broken breathing, the short silences of dismay, the gasps, the antitheses of a sickened mind (/). There is no one word in English that will do the same work. The multi-layered music of the poem goes on. The deadened tone of the narrative voice is emphasized by the full stops making periods like aphorisms within the poem. This is all reinforced as the poet employs ears and eyes recording the details of horror, culminating in the sickening image of erstwhile powerfully flowing rivers choked in corpses, for years merely seeping on through them.
And then in the last quartet comes an ultimate inability to spell out the details. We have only the unspoken surrender to ultimate despair, the reference to the renunciation of faith (the soul's treasure/ Seelenschatz) , the physical torture and humiliation (abgezwungen), the implicit suicides which end up the cycle of horror within, echoing in meaning “mehr denn gantz verheeret”, “more than that, devastated utterly and torn”31.
As well as being realistic observation within the recoil in horror, the sonnet is a passionate message to the readers (Gryphius had a large number of readers) about how awful this insanity is, how far it goes, how inanely repetitive. The sonnet registers the shocked mind reaching out in protest. It does more. It broadcasts the outrage. This is Gryphius' unusual positive here: the active mind communicating to others in passionate protest in vibrant language which can even reach us today. The poetry assumes and relies upon the human ability to communicate, to respond, to invite the attempt to share states of being and extremes of emotion within such dreadful circumstances.
Swaying on the edge of losing all faith in anything, the poem reaches out, a leap of faith, appealing to potentially shared perception, to extremes of response in other people. In its outrage, it is a cry for help. Therein it is a path to sanity, the route to interaction. This comes about because it embodies creative faith in the responsive bonds between people preserved in language and the written word, rather as the painter relies not just on his own creative genius alone, but also, needs must, on the projected ability in others to see and respond in full.
This, the reason why the poem exists at all , is what it is, finally, for. It proposes and incorporates the trust that people can potentially recoil as a community from all the imposed horror and can therefore be moved in desperation to reflection seeking change: the cessation of relentless destruction. As Kafka said of any great book, his art is the axe that breaks the ice. He wins a dynamic positive out of catatonic despair: the faith in the efficacy of communication which proposes listeners who care.This feature of his art goes beyond the resurgence of energy from all the devastation in his lyrics. It is the belief in and furthering of a responsive community, posited in his verse, crying “Enough. No more.”
Gryphius' struggle with his melancholy, the struggle to find a new integrity after the dissolution imposed by trauma creates avenues or mechanisms of release that arrest attention, highlighting constructs which permit emergence from the impact of violence and destruction. He confronts the inevitable apathy, the dejection, the isolation the depressive cycle32 of the trauma within himself , asking in effect, can I cope with this?.33 His ultimate answer passes dogma and faith by. At such moments Gryphius is close to “Father, father, why hast thou forsaken me?” that existential agony in the New Testament34 which arouses profound consternation. This is evident in the extract from “Traenen in grosser Hungersnot35 ” ( “Tears in Starvation's grasp” ) below.
…. Schau, wie die lebende Gerippe
Mit tiefen Augen dir nachsehn.
Wie sie mit ganz verschrumpfter Lippe
Fast atmelos dich, Herrm anflehn
Und, wenn sie nun den Geist hingeben
Zu dir die duerren Arm' erheben!
Des Kindes Herze wird gebrochen
An der verstarrten Mutter Brust,
Der Mutter die (nur Haut und Knochen)
Selbst auf dem Kind erblassen musst'?
Der sucht vor den erhitzten Magen,
Was schwer und schrecklich ist zu sagen.
Ach, Herr! Ach, und ach! Dass dich erweiche
Die grimmst' und allgemeine Not
Das ganze Land ist eine Leiche,
Ist dein' Vatertreu' denn tot?
Nein, nein! Du wirst uns, Herr! nicht lassen;
Du kannst nicht dein Geschoepfe hassen
Look, how these living bones
with sunken eyes seek for you
How they with wholly shrivelled lips,
all but barely breathing, still cry to you
And, when they now give up their spirit
Lift up their thin arms to you.
The child's heart is broken
At the mother's rigid breast,
the mother who (just skin and bones)
on her own child fell pale in death.
And he mouths at that fermenting stomach
which is harsh to witness, terrible to say.
Och, God, no, O, be softened
in this most cruel and general need.
The whole land is a corpse
Is your loyalty, Father, then dead?
No, no, you will not leave us Lord
You cannot hate your creatures...”
The spare structure, succinct wording and precision of the lament highlights Gryphius's implacable details. This reminds me of the much later G. M. Hopkins, not so typical of the Baroque.36 The single words here pick out rigor mortis and putrefaction without embellishment, simply register distasteful detail. The emotional flow militates against the idea of divine intervention. On the contrary, Gryphius's cataloguing mind underscores abhorrence, expresses helpless compassion and shame, registered in the three sighs, “ach” “ach, “ach”: cries of exhaustion, of recoil, finally of imperative anger. The following prayer is insecure, pale, gesturing vainly at a future concession and release. Reality insists: it is too late for the mother, too late for the child. Gryphius' rendering of the scene moves people to revulsion releasing compassion. Despite its grimness, it thus triumphs over present agony by arousing dissent, going beyond Jeremiah's37 “Justus quidem tu es, domine,...”, with images which lame the homilies of religion. Images of war like those from Iraq or Syria38.
What remains in Gryphius after the nausea in the vision?
Here the voice of desperate protest and insistent dissent dominates, uncompromising, demanding, making terror visible, assaulting while marshalling human response, like Jeremiah, as G.M. Hopkins put it “...wrestling with, my God, my God39.” Agonised protest is a leitmotiv in Gryphius.
This strain of protest, carried by physical and psychological detail, recurs relentlessly in Gryphius' long poem (and also in the longer report) about Freystadt. Freystadt had been repeatedly destroyed by war like Magdeburg in 1631. But lastly the town was wiped out by an accidental fire, an apotheosis of senseless annihilation caused not by Divine intervention but by incompetence, by missing fire equipment.40. This excess of misfortune added consternation, astonishment, bitterness, dismay corroding the substance of faith and permitting well-founded criticism of civic failure.
Despite the excess of negative experience, Gryphius still narrates the story, seeks response, strives for constructive optimism but the rationally led emotional argument runs into a dead-end where there is nothing left but him standing there in strain before the ruins.
For this reason the poem , On the Destruction of the town of Freistadt requires closer attention. On the face of it, the contemplation resembles John Donne's toughly argued Third Satire. 41, Donne's poem, which reads like a commentary on Romans 2, is a soul-searching, tear provoking, but complex enquiry into the erring human mind seeking real truth, the challenge of philosophical doubt, the issue of equity for pre-Christian thinkers, the pressure of time on integrity, and ultimately into the necessity of finding safe ground to rest on before life ends.
In his comparably structured poem, however, Gryphius' agonised reflection slips beyond the question of doubt into grimly recording the desolation and destruction with no saving grace, no context of explanatory belief. Indeed the poem, even more the full report, was most unpopular for that reason; he blamed authorities for the incineration of Freystadt. He was indeed forced to leave the area.
The doubt in restitutive justice is not overcome for Gryphius. There is, in that world, no equity. His doubt grasps at straws. The hope for a dreamt up future, slightly reminiscent of the “cloud-capped towers” of Shapespeare's The Tempest 42, is projected against the backdrop of lost and losing in the violent past. The strain of bearing witness, being a witness, the Greek for which, as Gryphius well knew, is martyr, discovers the dimension of hopelessness and dejection: Gryphius's melancholy, for which he was known. His rhetoric of hope, all but a parody, pathos, in the poetry, slips through irony into the dynamic of despair.
… Es werden deine Mauern
Nicht mehr voll Jammer stehen und, wo man jetzund Trauern
Und Zeter rufen hoert, wo jetzt des Hoechsten Grimm
Ohn' Mass und Ende tobt, da wird die Jubelstimm'
Erschallen voll von Lust;
Auch wird die werte Treu', die Treu', die wir verloren
Von aller Redlichkeit stehn bei uns neugeboren.
Wie denk ich doch so weit,ich,der in dieser Naeh'
Nun dritten Untergang mit nassen Augen sehe'!
Und was geht itzt nicht ein! Wie selig sind zu schaetzen
Die,welchen keine Not die Klau' ins Herz kann setzen
Weil sie der Tod entsetzt! Wir sind recht lebend-tot
Und teilen unsere Zeit in tausenfache Not.
Wir teilen Leib und Gut; was nicht die Pest genommen,
Hat Buechs' und Saebel hin; was diese nicht bekommen,
Frisst die erhitzte Glut. Was laesst der Flammen Raub
von Freistadt? Was du siehst, die Handvoll Asch' und Staub.
… And no longer will your walls
Filled with lamentations stand; where the ear now stalls
At the grief, the screaming, where the unbound fury of the Highest
In excess rages; there the voice of joy will in delight resound
And that prized loyalty, which we had lost and torn
shall with decency again arise, in us reborn.
How can I conceive such remote visions like that: me, who, right close, me
Who this third destruction through tear-filled eyes again must see?
And what does not not perish! How blessed are they in whose hearts the talons of this despair cannot clutching stay
For death has set them free. We, we are the living-dead indeed
And divide in fractions our time of a thousand fold need.
We share in body and possessions. What the plague did not rip away
Musket and sabres torn apart, and what of these could stay the heat and fire devours. What has the flames' marauding dash of our Freistadt left behind ? This handful, you see, just dust and ash.
The poem conjures up a recreation of the town and life in it building up to the rhetoric of solace: paradise regained after paradise lost, a release from all the burden of all the past loss and pain: “...and your walls will no longer full of lamentations stand.” The poet's voice seems to confirm it in a crescendo of hope, he all but believes it, but once questioned- “ How can I even think it?”- the edifice, in a twist in argument and tenor as in a drama, crumbles, leaving just a handful dust and ash, all gone, more or less nothing.
It is high art but as low a point as Gryphius arrives at: there is neither faith, nor prayer, nor hope , nor is there at this moment any charity, to intercede in a bleakness that resembles a dead stop.
And so what then? What does this poem give us? What is its essence? It does not offer us faith, confidence or reassurance like Donne's argument. Admittedly Donne is writing about philosophy and Gryphius about war imposed trauma. It can be argued the contrast here is contrived43, comparing fruit and coal. And yet, and this is an abiding difference, Donne can reside in belief, while Gryphius, like G. M. Hopkins, is mired in contending for it.
We are shown the mind at work in the agony of rebuilding; the investigation of the blocks of feeling and response; the admission of substantive realities, the items lost, the rejection of unfounded hope and rhetorical flight, the solid recollection of what sharing between people meant in a state of suppression, being bereft of everything.
It reveals a process of grief in a scarred, embattled and shocked being. It is realistic commiseration, coming to terms with the dreadful past in action, fully admitting the ubiquitous onslaught of the time suffered first hand. Above all, it is the only way to go on in some sort of truth; for staying with the truth is as much an aspect of Gryphius's poem here as it is in Donne's. With the search for truth goes the unspoken search for a state of being, a kind of truth, which will sustain life.
John Donne's Satire III44 and Gryphius's long poem are differing meditations about belief and faith. Both are emotionally charged but thoughtful arguments emerging from living voices themselves engaged in intense meditation about truth, belief and reality.
John Donne, as the poem moves from withheld tears to fierce ratiocination about the need for secure faith in the search for truth, settles for stable faith against the chaotic rush ensuing on its loss. For Donne's challenging poem the burdensome search for Faith is the content of life, while the belief emerging from the effort is secure rest and security for the striving figure scaling the heights:
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death's twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body's pains; hard knowledge too
The mind's endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; ….
As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough stream's calm head, thrive and do well,
But those, having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream's tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consum'd in going, in the sea are lost.
So perish souls, which more choose men's unjust
Power from God claim'd, than God himself to trust.
The “blest flowers” image holds a lovely moment of peace and security on a great river's bank held back from the vortex of the turbulent waters tearing away towards the sea. It is the safe heart of the poem, a refreshing refuge from the mind's contortions grappling up the slopes of the hill of truth.
Gryphius, however, when he proclaims, “we are the “living-dead”, is in that vortex. He has, at this moment , lost his hold on any faith in any future and has reached his lowest point immersed in the dreadful past with its resulting present: nothing but ash and dust.
In this, unlike Donne in his poetry, Gryphius reaches a moment of down-to-earth finality, grim acceptance of sobering reality, as the end of his search for hope.
It is a moment of defeat. It is also the turning point towards action. This rock bottom descent to the end does not emerge from the monumental dichotomy of the “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” vision in Milton's grandiose works on their massive scale. Gryphius has found this final place to be beyond rhetoric and pretence: this point past convention: an aporia confronted by inner obduracy.
The dreadful Civil Wars and religious strife in the various countries, the relativity of values of the time, had to produce such antitheses, dead ends, requiring a synthesis in language, the acrobatics of wit, in the intellect and in the emotions to preserve sanity. Thus people could pacify disruptive antitheses within, put discord to rest and animate their qualities so constructive activity could be employed ; they really had “to move on”, as we, rather superficially ,say now. They had to stay sane.
Donne finds a way to move on with his flowers at the source of a river and with his taut meditations in his Holy Sonnets, so does Milton with his Titanic struggles, the grandeur of such conflict. Gryphius cannot take those routes here though he certainly moves on. He goes one step further past acquiescence, past consolation. His poetry lives in the individual, the persona of the poem, who faces the onslaught of feeling, acknowledges the residues, the trauma, events left behind and yet struggles through these burdens, stops, mind-blocked, but does not give up. He lays hands on the problems, and starts rolling the rock up the hill again.
The life of his poem, the actual vitality, speaking on past despair, creates the presence of a suffering exhausted vitality which struggles on. The impact of this quality is where empathy enters into the reader's relationship with the poet and allows this struggling human factor, this human worker, to take on reality for observer.
He bears witness to the burden of emerging from the ruins and taking up life again. Gryphius, his hands, full of dust and ashes, stands in the poem, at an end: burn out. But he is going on to live and work. This is one of Gryphius' achievements: this point where labour commences beyond despair.
In this he offers us his singularity, different from Donne's distinguished wit-laden enquiries, different from Milton's clash of Titans, but in its way just as monumental. His stand-fast, heart-of-oak indomitability is his answer to post traumatic inaction and apathy. Despite everything, this feeds a reason to move about in the world and be practical to try to make this wasteland live again: in this, a realist not an idealist.
In fact, this is what Gryphius as lawyer and politician actually did within the real context of peace treaties affecting his region, part of the history of reconciliation.
He comes to another level of protest in Freystadt, beyond faith45, beyond despair, seeing in the disaster not divine dispensation but administrative negligence, arousing anger and rejection as, with reference to the long analysis in “Fevrige Freystadt46 ”, Marian Szyrocki points out in his introduction to Gryphius : Werke in einem Band. 47 “ For this Gryphius and his brother and his patron Schoenborn were sharply attacked by the Catholic authorities48. Gryphius writes about it in his epigram “On his description of the Fire in Freistadt in 1637”
Um dass ich deine Glut und letzte Not beschrieben,
O Freistadt, und wie du seist in dem Feu'r geblieben
Draeut man mit Hass und Hohn
Because I described your incineration, your last agony so dire,
Oh, Freistadt., and how you fell in the fire,
They pressure and threaten me with hate and scorn...
More poignant perhaps is his Beschluss Sonnet (1639)49, in a Petrarchan form but ferocious in its seriousness, which contains the explicit line, “For God had taken away his Word, my light.”:
Umbringt mitt hoechster angst, vertaeuft in grimme Schmerzen
Beststurzt durch schwerdt und fewr, durch libster freunde todt
Durch blutverwandter flucht und elend, da uns Gott
Sein wort, mein licht, entzog: als toller feinde schertzen
Als falscher zungen neidt drang rasends mir zue hertzen,
Schrib ich, was itzt kimbt vor, mir zwang die scharffe noth,
Die federn in die faust. Doch laestermaeuler spott
Ist als der erst rauch umb hell entbrandte kerzen.
Ihr neider belt und nagt, was nicht der wind anficht;
Was nich der Regen netzt bringt selten reiffe fruecht,
Die ros' ist immer mitt dornen rings umbgeben.
Manch Baum , der itzt die aest, hoch in die Luft aufreckt,
Lag als ein innutz kern, zuvor mitt edrt bedeckt,
So, was ihr unterdruckt, wirdt wen ihr todt seidt, leben.
Ringed in by intensest fears , obsessed in depth by bitter pains,
In shock, numbed by the sword and fire, by the death of my dearest friends
By the flight and misery of my blood kin, when God
Took away His word, my light, when the jokes of maddened enemies
When the false tongues of malice speedily pressed into my heart,
I wrote, as is now evident, sharp necessity forcing
The pens into my fist. But the vicious gossips' scorn
Is like the first smoke round brightly burned out candles.
You enviers, you bark and gnaw; what the wind does not sway,
What the rain has not soaked, seldom brings ripe fruit,
The rose is always all round with thorns beset.
Many a tree, whose branches now stretch up into the air so high,
Once lay a useless kernel covered in earth,
Thus, what you suppress, will, when are dead, then live.
The poem attests to the disasters Gryphius was beset by, to the hate he faced for the objective clarity of his long report ,which events forced upon him, it attests to his feeling abandoned by God's word, in itself a Biblical reference or a compendium of references,.50. It is the point where he was forced to act alone even if God had withdrawn His light: to write a report in prose aimed at solid reconstruction conveyed with emotional impact in the context of his poetry.
The vicious response of the authorities, expulsion, even imprisonment for the elderly Schoeborn, Gryphius' sponsor, itself attests to the special power and impact of this creative work which clearly eschews the ethereal “beyond”, for the nitty gritty reality of the moment; the moral challenge to act here and now. It is part of the “useless kernel” which will, at the end, live.
It is striking that, after the full stop at the end of Gryphius's poem about Freistadt, there is nothing but silence. And yet in that lives the poet's presence. He does not exit at the end of the poem, he just still stands there, with the impact of the poem lasting in the reader's reception of it like the last chord of, say, a Beethoven Quartet.
He stands there without any assertion of faith, here without a theological connotation such as divine retribution.51 Full52 of his “constancy”53, he just stands there, intransigent, about to carry on. It is a feature Martin Szyrocki refers to as “ his undaunted strength to sit it all out, his “Kraft fuer unerschrockenes Ausharren”54.
This energetic tenacity within Gryphius, his stubborn durability, that he calls “ Bestaendigkeit”: the dogged intractability of the consistent intrepid dynamic for just going on, an echo of the “Phoenix principle”55 but grimmer, is where his lyrical poetry turns into an intense existential choice, his own special leap into the dark. If the Baroque cannot be existential, as some argue, then this is a point where Gryphius transcends the mode.
It is this that permits him to clearly see that work, in part his work, is a way on out of the situation, the impasse in the spirit. From this point on, the only way left out is like the task of Sisyphus, you just have to go on.
At this moment, past any victorious resurrection, dogma and hope in ruins, the poet simply embodies corrective participation, as full as circumstances permit, using the tools and ability he has available to rebuild, until the collapse in exhaustion and the termination of life. Indeed that is what happened to Gryphius himself who died of a stroke while in discussions aimed at preserving the rights in law of the Protestant societies in Silesia against the dominance of the victorious Hapsburgs, the imperial Catholic rulers of the time. He died working in harness in his forty eighth year.
Gryphius discovers, expresses and communicates the living bedrock of resistance which at the end counters and can, at a great cost, survive anarchy, atrocity, and terror, tackling practical causes and practical solutions to counter physical destruction and to end the erosion of rights and justice.
This obdurate strength with its accompanying appeal to general humanity, with language as the great bond for humanity and positive human action, is one among the key dimensions of Gryphius's stature as a major poet.
His appeal is to a community of people through language and art who will protest and change the present by working at a different future. This is coupled with his rock solid perseverance. Despite everything, first floored by the awfulness of everything, he repeatedly gets up and surges on.
Gryphius observes and responds to devastation while permitting and expressing intense feelings which in turn are thought through in the context of their containment within sanity. This creates a fresh form of Metaphysical poetry which faces up to the ultimate challenge of meaninglessness and then stands fast ready to act alone.
Though a victim of savagery, atrocity and social disintegration into chaos, life struggles on in Gryphius' poetry and his work, emerging from the black hole of panic-stricken despair, withstanding the corrosion of depression, to still stand fast and build, evading the suicidal abyss of mute despair at the edge of which his poetry trembles.
When all is said and done, that could be a reason for individuals in the crowds bustling through Trafalgar Square or rushing across London Bridge or anywhere else in the world, to take a moment to look at what Andreas Gryphius achieved in his art, albeit through the cataract of translation.
His might also be a voice the multiple stunned victims of our terrible conflicts across the Middle East could bear to attend to.
My thanks go to the the people who assisted me with this project, perhaps the last of its kind attempted by me.
This includes Brigith Terry who encouraged and supported me over the months it all took, to Chris Joyce and Tim Moreton who, over lunch, usefully challenged the notion of the essay, and to Professor Jeremy Tambling who took the time to read the essay and to make proposals on the translations and on my handling of John Donne, most of which I have adopted, however inadequately.
My thanks also go to Jstor and the Cambridge University Alumni Association without whom I could not have accessed many of the secondary texts and much of scholarship I required.
See also Select Bibliography in Christopher Terry, “Andreas Gryphius Rooted in Darkness. The Paradoxes of Faith and the Phoenix Vision” GRIN Verlag: 2017. ISBN 9783668579392.
Leonard Foster, foreword, The Penguin Book of German Verse, ed. Leonard Foster, Penguin Books:1957, reprint1985.See p xxxiv.
Andreas Gryphius: Deutschland - es werden deine Mauern nicht mehr voll Jammer stehen, ausgewaehlt mit Nachwort von Guenther Deicke, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin: 1953.
Andreas Gryphius: Fevrige Freystadt, the first new edition since 1637, published with commentary by Johannes Birgfeld, Wehrhahn Verlag, Hannover-Laatzen: 2006
Andreas Gryphius, Gedichte: Eine Auswahl,1968, ed.1979; Reclam: Stuttgart.
Gryphius: Werke in einem Band, ausgewaehlt und eingeleitet von Marian Szyrocki. 6te Auflage, Aufbau Verlag Berlin und Weimar: 1987.
F.R Leavis, intro. Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, Chatto and Windus, London:1950.
N. Kaminski,Andreas Gryphius, Reclam, Stuttgart:1998.
Stefan Kiedron',: Andreas Gryphius Und Die Niederlande : Niederlaendische Eibnfluesse Auf Sein Leben Und Schaffen, Universitaet Wroclaw, Weoclaw University Press :1993.
Schindler, Sonnets of Andreas Gryphius, University of Florida Press, Gainsville: 1971.
Paul' R. Sellin, So Doth, So Is Religion, John Donne and Diplomatic Contexts in the reformed Netherlands, 1619-1620, University of Missouri Press: 1988.
Marian Szyrocki: Die Deutsche Literatur des Barock, Reclam, Stuttgart: 1979, Edition of 1997.
J.A. Van Dorsten, Poets, Patrons And Professors, Sir Philip Sydney Daniel Rogers And The Leiden Humanists, publ. for The Thomas Browne Institute, Leiden, Leiden University Press; London: OUP:1962.
Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War Europe's Tragedy, Harvard University Press; Cambridge Mass. USA, paperback edition: 2011.
G. M. Hopkins, Reeves, Heinemann,, London:1953.
Picture of Andreas Gryphius on title page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andreas_Gryphius_1.jpg (8299 words)
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
1 Andreas Gryphius: Rooted in Darkness: Grin Verlag. 2017:
2 Terry, op cit, (GRIn Verlag) p.20
3 Marc Tyrrel, Texas National Security Review, “From Magedburg to Mosul: Iraq, Syria, and The Thirty Years War.”
4 Translation is only a signpost, it cannot be the equivalent of the art it tries to convey. This is discussed in the two previous Grin essays, Terry, op.cit, GRIN 2012 and 2017. Gryphius himself was a translator. The spirit of the time was engaged in “translatio, imitatio, aemulatio”. See Kiedron',op cit, p.104.
5 Silesia is on the Polish border. When the Jesuits forced Gryphius and his stepfather to leave, they fled to Poland. For some scholars in Poland Gryphius is regarded as a Polish writer who was, after all, educated in Danzig.
6 Andreas Gryphius (1616 – 1664.) Born in Glogau, died in Glogau. Exiled in Driebitz, Poland. Study in Danzig and Leiden (free Netherlands)
7 Cf. Peter Skrine: Review of Trammals of Tradition by Hugh Powell, The Modern Language Review Vol84, No 4, (Oct,1989)p 1024 Powell's (work in Englis) is sure to apopeal to readers in English-if they ever hear of it.” Source Jstor https//www.jstor/stable/3731251
8 I found selections of Gryphius' sonnets in Tunbridge Wells public library in about 1959 urged on by D.E. R. Johnson, German master at The Judd School, Tonbridge,Kent.
9 See Gryphius in einem Band , ed with introduction, Marian Szyrocki ,Aufbau-Verlag Berlin und Weimar:1987,XVII “Gryphius was a master of the sonnet.” Gryphius war ein Meister des Sonetts”.
10 Cf. Marc Tyrell, op.cit, on “dehumaization propaganda” and on “the naturalization of killing.”
11 Gryphius, despite theology, admired Copernicus and wrote eulogies to him: great independent spirit changing perception and perspectives of truth.
12 Janifer Gerl Stackhouse, Early critical Response to Milton in Germany: The “Dialogi” of Martin Zeiller The journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol 73, No.4 (Oct 1974) pp 487-496, UIP https://www.jstor.org/stable/27707789
13 Marian Szyrocki, Die deutsche Literatur des Barock, Reclam, Stuttgart:1997. Pp 191‑200.
14 The variety of Gryphius's poetry goes well beyond this essay. It is demonstrated in brief by Guenter Deicke ed, Andreas Gryphius: Deutschland, es werden deine Mauern nicht mehr voll Jammer Sein, op cit, pp 84-85.
15 See Janifer Gerl Stackhouse “The Mysterious Regicide in Gryphiu's Stuart Drama. Who is Poleh? MLN Vol.89, no 5, German Issue, Oct 1974, pp797-811. Https:// www.jstor.org/stable/2907085 (JSTOR); see also p.800, footnote 10, remark by Hugh Powell, “ this brooding Silesian who has not a little in common with the English Metaphysical poets.”from “Andreas Gryphius: The Two Versions of Carolus Stuardus”
16 Donne, Milton, Wordsworth G.M. Hopkins are regarded as the classic writers of sonnets in England after Shakespeare. The great modernist American poets like Robert Frost and onwards are perhaps more challenging at times.
17 The influence of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream on Gryphius' farce Peter Squenz is often discussed by scholars. The vehicle for Gryphius knowledge of Shakespeare was perhaps the Shakespearean players in Europe.
18 See Terry: Andreas Gryphius: Rooted in Darkness, GRIN, op.cit. p.9 : Justus Lipsius: De Constantia
19 Martin Luther ( 1483-1546),V on der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen: 1520 defines what became Protestant autocracy.
20 See the relevant chapters in Kiedron', op.cit.
21 See Josua Bruyn: Towards a Scriptural Reading of 17thC Dutch landcapre Painting. Whole essay,. Especially pp 94-95
22 See Terry, Andreas Gryphius: Rooted in Darkness, GRIN, op.cit. , pp. 3-6
23 See GRIN Verlag:Terry, Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664): A Modern Voice,:“2012
24 See Andreas Gryphius, Gedichte . Aufbau-Verlag Berlin:1953, ed with epilogue, Günter Deicke. See p.81.
25 Gryphius, like Milton, wrote in Latin; many of his sources were in Latin. Shakespeare was known to him. The extent of Shakespeare's direct influence is disputed but most scholars assert that he was acquainted with Shakespeare.
26 This essay does not touch upon the variety in Gryphius's sonnets of which there are said to be at least 300.
27 The “Vaterland” here is Silesia (Schlesien.). Germany (Deutschland) did not then exist at all as a nation state.
28 See my previous translation in blank verse Terry, Andreas Gryphius, A Modern Voice, op.cit., p4
29 Under duress. People were tortured or starved (as once upon a time in Ireland) to enforce a change of Faith.
30 In the two previous pamphlets the inadequacies of translations were discussed in detail. At best they can only be shadows of the living art. But the urgency in Gryphius's voice demands the effort. Still,only the original can be true.
31 See Marian Szyrocki, Gryphius Werke in einem Band, Aufbau -Verlag Berlin und Weimar:1987, Einleitung, p.VII
32 A point of comparison or contrast in music could be Schubert's cycle of lieder: “Die Winterreise”
33 Cf. Gryphius' examination of the victim's the nervous dejection, present, for example, for the English reader in John Stuart Mill's account of his effectively clinical depression in his Autobiography.
34 See, King James Bible:15, xxxiv. “My God,my God,why hast thou forsaken me?”
35 Traenen in grosser Hungersnot, Andreas Gryphius: “Deutschland-es werden deine Mauern nicht mehr voll Jammer stehen” Gedichte, Berlin 1953, ed. Diercke, op.cit.p. 71
36 Cf. G.M. Hopkins (1844-1899) : Sonnet: “ Thou art indeed just Lord.. but Sir, so what I plead is just.”
37 Jeremiah, !2. i—iv.”Righteous thou art O Lord when I plea with thee, yet let me talk with thee of thy judgements.”
38 See Andreas Kluth, The Thirty Years War, Lessons of the westphalian Peace for the Middle East. 08 10.2018. Pictures of the war in Iraq. Ref war-2545307_1920 27.67. 2017 13.08 on Google. See also Tyrrel, op.cit.
39 G. H. Hopkins, op.cit., “Carrion Comfort”
40 Gryphius, ed. Marian Szyrocki1987 Einleitung, op cit., p.XIII
41 Donne's argument resembles Romans 1 and Romans 2.
42 Shakespeare, The Tempest , Act IV, sc. I.” .. the great globe itself...shall dissolve..and leave not rack behind”
43 I am indebted for this observation and others to Professor Jeremy Tambling who very kindly proposed changes.
44 John Donne, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, The Nonesuch Press,Random House, London and New yok:1945
45 Gryphius worked very hard at his Christian commitment as his series of religious sonnets, themselves testaments to a life in Faith, full of meditative intensity, demonstrate.
46 Andreas Gryphius, Fewrige Freystadt, erste Neuedition seot 1637, Text und Materialie, publ ed Johannes Birgfeld, Wehrhan, Hanover-Laatzen, 2006. See also Beschluss Sonnet, 1639, p.120.( Promoted by the Verein der Freunde der Universitaet des Saarlandes)
47 Marian Szyrocki, Gryphius: Werke in Einem Band, op.cit., p XIII . In summary Szyrocki points out that he did not see this fire as God's will but looks for a rationalist interpretation pointing out that whole parts of the town could have been saved if fire-fighting equipment was in place and if the citizens had shoen more discipline and courage.. The Catholic authorities in the tiwn were displeased. See also Kiedron', op.cit.,pp.20-21
48 See Andreas Gryphius , Deutschland-Es werden deine Mauern nicht mehr voll Jammer stehen, ed.Guenther Deicke, op.cit., pp 83-84.Gryphus' poem was unpopular for its concentration on the here and now of reality reality without the context of any dogma.,
49 Andreas Gyphius, Fevrige Freystadt, ed Johannes Birgfeld, op.cit. p.120.
50 Romans I, xxiiii-xxviiii; Proverbs1:xxviii-xxi; Psalm 69, xvii., Isaiah 64:vii; Jeremiah 7,xvi; 11,xiv; 15. I. The references may also be an ironic gesture undermining his detractors but that probably cannot be proved.
51 See Gryphius's epigram, ed Guenther Deicke, op.cit,p.55 . “Ueber seine Bescreibung des Freistaedtischen Brandes in dem 1637 Jahre.”
52 “Scar it with the rack and the spear, let hungers pangs tense, let flames roar Destroy her life's goal, let her perish with terror, Yes, smash heaven itself, if is she, she will still stand.”
53 See Kiedron', op.cit. , pp 106-140. In this chapter Kiedron' shows the affinities between Lipsius and Gryphius and discusses”costancy” in detail, also with reference to Gryphius's dramas.
54 Szyrocki, Die deutsche Literatur des Barock op Rcit, Reclam Stuttgart, p. 192
55 See Terry: Andreas Gryphius: Rooted in Darkness – Grin Verlag (op.cit. Pp 16-20)