Poems by Hermann Hesse

One of the joys of Hermann Hesse Reading Week has been the chance to discover new aspects of this great author’s work; for example, I hadn’t really considered his poetry, despite the fact that his novels are littered with it! However, Caroline mentioned his poems in one of her posts, and I thought it would be worth tracking down at least one new volume for the Week – and here it is:

hesse poems

The book contains 31 poems, selected by James Wright from those in Hesse’s Collected Works, and also translated by him. Wright was an American poet who died in 1980 and his introduction, penned in 1970 is a strange one. Wright states that he thinks many of Hesse’s 480 pages of poems are very fine; but while lauding the German author, Wright also seems to diss him a little, quoting an article that describes him as “second-rate”! This was a bit distracting, and the main thrust of the introduction seems to be to indicate a theme of homesickness as permeating the poems; well, at least, the ones translated here…

The verses themselves are presented in original German on the left hand page and English translation on the right. This is useful, as a non-German speaker like me can try to keep an eye on the original rhyme schemes and line endings. However, it was while flicking back and forward between the two languages that I spotted something odd in the poem “Ode to Holderlin”. The lines in German are:

Sehnlich wenden wir us, vom Tag Ermudete
Der ambrosischen Nacht deiner Gesange zu,

and the English version is given as:

We turn passionately, exhausted by day,
To the ambrosia, the night of your music,

Now as I said, my German is minimal, if non-existent; but it struck me that “ambrosischen” was a longer word than “ambrosia”, and I wondered if it had a slightly different meaning. I had a look at an online translation service (which I know is notoriously cranky and inaccurate!) but it came up with “ambrosial” and suggested the whole line could be rendered something like “To the ambrosial night of your song” – which to me changes the sense of the line a bit. Yes, I know, I know, translation is an impossible art, and poetry can’t be translated literally; I may be getting things completely wrong here – if I am, will a German speaker please correct me and I’ll calm down a bit. But I confess I was just a little unsettled by this.

hesse writing

Putting all this aside, though, I really enjoyed reading these poems. The verses range from “I know, You Walk” from 1899 up to “All Deaths” in 1921. The sense of yearning and melancholy they convey is strong, and seems to run through not only Hesse’s poems but also much of his prose writing. It’s something I might not have picked up on when I was younger but it seems more obvious now. The language is simple and effective in these translations, capturing verses about lost loves, ageing and loneliness. So I imagine Wright chose these particular poems to translate in order to give his collection a cohesion.

Yet I couldn’t help wondering if this is a representative selection of Hesse’s poetry writing; and unless there’s a more comprehensive collection available in English I may not be able to find out! Nevertheless, despite my reservations about this particular book, I’m glad to have had the chance to get to know another element of Hesse’s writing and I *will* keep my eye out for other poetry collections.