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By Georg Heym

Translated by Antony Hasler

Libris, ISBN 1 870352874, £30 / pb £14.95
Series 3 No. 2 - Diaspora

It was once memorably stated of Chopin’s late ‘Polonaises’ that they were like the confessions of a man with his throat cut. One might say the same of the poetry of Georg Heym, which, following decades of woeful neglect, is at last made available to us in exemplary translations by Antony Hasler.

Review by Will Stone

It was once memorably stated of Chopin’s late ‘Polonaises’ that they were like the confessions of a man with his throat cut. One might say the same of the poetry of Georg Heym, which, following decades of woeful neglect, is at last made available to us in exemplary translations by Antony Hasler. Heym who died in 1912 in the most dreadful circumstances, aged only twenty four, was an unswerving romantic, an intensely subjective poet who though presenting a rowdy and devil-may-care image on the outside was internally blessed with acute sensibilities and a prolific lyricism. This lyrical greatness became even more significant in his later work, in poems which, profoundly influenced by Hölderlin, have secured Heym a permanent place in the front row of German language poets. Though Heym is often dubbed an ‘Expressionist’ poet, as with his better known contemporary Trakl, this labels proves far too simplistic. 

Georg Heym was born in 1887, the son of a Prussian military officer. His relationship with his father was unfulfilling and remained unresolved until his death, and his mother failed to understand her son’s burgeoning vocation. Like the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, Heym had little time for his teachers and academia, and was scathing in his contempt for the establishment in general. Highly volatile and with a surplus of rude vitality, the young Heym led a restless bohemian existence in Berlin, chasing an endless stream of girls with disturbing excesses of passion. He suffered chronic mood swings, and, craving decisive change, entertained notions of escaping to far-flung lands or indulged in suicidal fantasies. His thoughts were inscribed in a remarkable diary, sadly not yet translated into English. Antony Hasler summarises thus: ‘His diaries show continuing melancholy and turbulence, and a highly fertile dream life which he records with merciless detachment.’ 

To begin with, Heym tried his hand at drama but his efforts were snubbed by publishers. However, after getting a chance to read his work at the fashionable Neuer Club in Berlin, presided over by Jacob Von Hoddis and a regular haunt for the likes of Karl Kraus, Else Lasker-Schüler and Gottfried Benn, his incendiary poems soon began to appear in journals and a first collection Der Ewige Tag was published in 1911. As Patrick Bridgwater affirms in his valuable biography, every single one of Heym’s many heroes was a thorough  romantic and/or revolutionary. As early as 1905 Heym declares a deep fraternal bond with Hölderlin, this is extended in 1908-9 to Kleist and Büchner, uncompromising romantic spirits who died young. In this respect, Shelley and Keats were also to draw the young Heym’s gaze. Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine all followed. Büchner’s drama Dantons Tod aroused Heym’s fascination for the French Revolution. In the poem ‘Robespierre’, one of a series on this theme, Hasler manages to retain the original rhyme scheme and produce something which reads convincingly in English without resorting to jarring embellishments. Although assonance has had to be drafted in, it sits comfortably alongside the full rhymes.


He bleats, but in his throat. The bland eyes stare
into the tumbril’s straw. Sucking, he draws
the white phlegm through his teeth from chewing jaws.
Between two wooden struts a foot hangs bare.

At every jolt the wagon flings him up.
The fetters on his arms rattle like bells.
Mothers hoist their children up, and yells
of cheerful laughter cross the rabble’s top.

Someone tickles his leg. He does not see.
The wagon stops. He looks up. At the end
of the street he sees the last black penalty.

Upon the ash-grey brow the cold sweat stands.
And in the face the mouth twists fearfully.
They wait for screams. But no one hears a sound.

This shocking poem exhibits details of the real visually enhanced by the imagination, and it is this revelatory synthesis which is surely crucial to Heym’s vision. We are there with Robespierre (and Heym?) in the tumbril and feel acutely the supreme terror of his fate. Thus details like the ‘tickling of a leg’ or the ‘cheerful laughter’ drifting over the rabble hold the most mordant significance.

Like Baudelaire who seems to be eerily present in the above poem, Heym farms a no-man’s land between the disquieting image based on truth and subjective lyrical impulse. Following Kirchner, perhaps his painterly brother, Heym sought the concealed truths of the metropolis in ferment, the sprawling moloch of Berlin. Poems like ‘The Fever Hospital’, ‘The Morgue’ and ‘The Slums’ are relentless in their morbid delirium. Heym seeks to distil the mayhem, pretension, emptiness and diabolism of the modern city. His most famous poems such as ‘The Demons of the City’ and ‘War’ are vessels for metaphorical abandon , crammed with apocalyptic images, and reminiscent of the scenes of skeleton-supervised human carnage in Brueghel’s famous painting ‘The Triumph of Death’. It is not surprising to learn that Heym, essentially a visual poet, revered Van Gogh, Munch, Kubin and Rops, poet-painters who shadow each other in their visionary excesses.

Hasler understands that Heym’s power is forged through the combination of haunting image and the melody scored by his remorseless iambic pentameters. Once a translator has placed his wheel in the tramline so to speak and adopted a formal rhyme scheme, it proves impossible to deviate and he/she must continue until the end. For many translators a spectacular crash is inevitable. In these translations one senses genuine poetic sensitivity at work, not just the tricks of a canny craftsman. And as has been demonstrated, where he does not manage to rhyme convincingly he compensates with a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of intuitive assonance. In all respects Hasler’s patient labour serves as an invaluable lesson to any prospective translator of poetry.

Heym’s language is breathless and forever in a frenzy of motion. Forests ‘rise and climb’, dusk ‘rushes upwards’, the sea ‘gulps’. Heym takes the moon as a symbol again and again. In one poem alone he comes up with eight different metaphors for the moon. In another the moon ‘lifts up its swinging lamp’, or ‘monstrous moons heave themselves stiff-legged over the rooftops’, ‘before his eyes a green half moon leads dances…’ Behind the frantic symbolism, Heym’s single unifying theme is death, and, like Trakl, he is overwhelmingly impelled towards morbid imagery. Trakl’s mournful cry that ‘All roads lead to blackest carrion’ also resonates in the poetry of Heym. Michael Hofmann has referred to this ghoulish preoccupation as a ‘typically Germanic mixture of bleakness and luridness, a frail, self-imperilled, insatiable nature; and a poetry dwelling obsessively on death and decay, narrowly and culpably pathognomic.’

But Heym, again like Trakl, can also surprise with a wave of serene beauty or tenderness. This is most evident in a remarkable short prose piece ‘The Autopsy’ included in the wonderful collection of short stories also published by Libris. Although a man’s corpse is seized on by doctors and systematically violated by chisels, scalpels and hammers, the flame of love still burns somewhere deep within, and the corpse recalls tender moments with his beloved amidst the gruesome hacking and sawing. The result is a minor masterpiece. Such deliberate incongruity also pays off in the poem ‘The Dead Girl in the Water’, in which the corpse of a girl floats out on the tide from the city. The imagery created here by Heym is both sumptuous and harrowing. Here are three consecutive stanzas.

The body wallows up, inflates the dress
as if it were a white ship in the wind.
The lifeless eyes stare up, enormous, blind,
into a sky of cloud-pink rosiness.

The lilac water gently rocks and swells,
the wake stirred by the water-rats, who man
the white ship. Now it drifts serenely on,
writhing with grey snouts and with dusky pelts.

In bliss the dead girl rides the outward draw
of wind and tide, her swollen belly heaving,
big, hollowed out, all that the rats are leaving.
It murmurs like a grotto as they gnaw.

And the German of the first of those stanzas:

Die Leiche wälzt sich ganz heraus. Es bläht
Das Kleid sich wie ein weisses Schiff im Wind.
Die toten Augen starren gross und blind
Zum Himmel, der voll rosa Wolken steht.

A return to Holderlin in 1912 and an upsurge of controlled lyrical power delivered new shorter-line poems of greater range and emotional reach. Works like ‘Autumn Tetralogy’ and ‘Umbra Vitae’ are considered perhaps the pinnacle of Heym’s achievement, whilst ‘Your Eyelashes, Long’ is a love poem of considerable depth and emotive power. But soon after this, tragedy struck and Heym was gone. In 1910 he had noted in eerie detail a dream he had of his death by drowning. On a winter’s day in 1912 this dream was to become a ghastly reality, when on a skating expedition on the Havel with his friend Ernst Balcke, the two fell through the ice and were drowned. 

Will Stone

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