Friday

Aug. 28, 2009

Not Swans

by Susan Ludvigson

I drive toward distant clouds and my mother's dying.
The quickened sky is mercury, it slithers
across the horizon. Against that liquid silence,
a V of birds crosses-sudden and silver.

They tilt, becoming white light as they turn, glitter
like shooting stars arcing slow motion out of the abyss,
not falling.
          Now they look like chips of flint,
the arrow broken.
          I think, This isn't myth-

they are not signs, not souls.
                                        Reaching blue
again, they're ordinary ducks or maybe
Canada geese. Veering away they shoot
into the west, too far for my eyes, aching

as they do.

      Never mind what I said
before. Those birds took my breath. I knew what it meant.

"Not Swans" by Susan Ludvigson, from Sweet Confluence: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the father of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (books by this author) born in Frankfurt (1749), the author of the epic drama Faust.

He moved to Italy in 1786, and when he returned to Germany in 1788, he fell in love with a woman from Weimar, Christiane Vulpius, a 23-year-old who was 16 years his junior. That year, he wrote her an epithalamium, a specific type of poem written for a bride on the way to the marital chamber. But he didn't actually marry her; instead, the couple lived together for 18 years unwed.

They were still living together in 1806, unmarried and with children, when Napoleon's French soldiers came and broke into their home in Weimer one evening. The soldiers were drunk, and the esteemed Goethe was in his nightgown. He came downstairs and talked them into leaving. But later that night, the soldiers returned to the house and brandishing their bayonets, the soldiers marched into the bedroom of Goethe and his mistress. Goethe was terrified, but Christiane started shouting at the soldiers, fending them off in hand-to-hand combat, and protecting the bewildered man of the house. After a prolonged skirmish, she pushed them out of the house and barricaded the kitchen and the cellar so the soldiers couldn't try to steal any more of their food. Grateful to the brave and steadfast woman who'd saved his life and home, Goethe went down to a church the very next day and married her, his live-in girlfriend of 18 years.

In 1806, the same year of the home invasion and marriage, Goethe published a preliminary version of Part I of his great work, Faust, the story of a brilliant scholar named Heinrich Faust, who makes a deal with the devil. The great epic has it all: seduction, murder, sleeping potions, an illegitimate love child, a stray poodle that transforms into the devil, contracts signed with blood, imprisonment in dungeons, heavenly voices, and redemption. It's often called "Das Drama der Deutschen," or "The Drama of the Germans." It's also referred to as a "closet drama" because it's intended to be read, not performed. Faust spent 50 years working on this two-volume masterpiece, finishing Part Two in 1832, the year of his death.

Christiane survived for only a decade after her and Goethe's wedding. In later life, after recovering from a heart disease that nearly killed him, the 73-year-old Goethe fell passionately in love with an 18-year-old woman, Ulrike Levetzow. She was witty and beautiful, and he was smitten. He wrote her poems, and he asked her (via a friend) to marry him, but she turned him down. He was devastated, and feeling melancholy and dejected, he wrote one of his best poems ever, which he never himself published. It's called the "Marienbad Elegy," and it ends:
To me is all, I to myself am lost,
        Who the immortals' fav'rite erst was thought;
        They, tempting, sent Pandoras to my cost,
        So rich in wealth, with danger far more fraught;
        They urged me to those lips, with rapture crown'd,
        Deserted me, and hurl'd me to the ground.

    — Goethe, "Marienbad Elegy" translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring

Goethe said, "Sometimes our fate resembles a fruit tree in winter. Looking at its sad appearance who would think that those stiff branches, those jagged twigs would turn green again and blossom and bear fruit next spring; but we hope they will, we know they will."

And he said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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