Seán Lysaght: From Epigrams to Tweets.


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THW1 March 1, 2016



IntroductionXenia‘On Looking at Schiller’s Skull’
by  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



The following epigrams are a selection from a large corpus of two-liners written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller in 1795 and 1796. The two men had only recently begun a friendship that was to blossom into a deep relationship of mutual affection and creativity; this continued until Schiller’s early death in 1805, an event that shook Goethe deeply: it was, he wrote, as if he had lost half of his being. For the space of ten years, the two men had been the focus and driving energies of the greatest civilising period in German culture.

At the time they embarked on the Xenia, Goethe and Schiller were neighbours, living in Weimar and Jena respectively. Goethe had been settled in Weimar since 1775, with a comfortable position under the patronage of the Archduke Carl August. Schiller lived with his wife Charlotte in nearby Jena, a university town with a population of 4,000, of whom between five and seven hundred were students. Unlike his robust and famously protean friend, Schiller suffered from poor health, having ruined his constitution by immense labours as a historian and editor in earlier years, until a number of patrons came to his rescue.

Once they became acquainted, Goethe was a frequent visitor to Schiller’s rooms in Jena, and he spent extended periods at the Old Palace, working and socialising. (Goethe’s domestic set-up in Weimar was blighted by noise from his weaver neighbour’s looms.) The two men had many interests in common, centering on a new literature and theatre for Germany, and a new philosophy based on Kant’s metaphysics and the art of the ancient classical world. Schiller was at that time editor of a flagship journal, the Horae, and of an annual Muses’ Almanach, both of them vehicles of the new project.

There was a certain laddish exuberance in the exchanges that produced the Xenia. Goethe and Schiller had a lot of personal and principled axes to grind and they threw themselves into the composition of the epigrams with mischievous relish. The original format required a line of hexameter followed by a pentameter; in many instances one poet would deliver the first line as a challenge for the other to complete it with a second. The following translation from the series illustrates the structure:

The silver column of the source rises up in the hexameter;
In the pentameter the melody falls away.

In practice, however, there were many variations and divergences from the norm, and the bursts of laughter that accompanied these sessions were overheard by Schiller’s landlord in his rooms above.

As the collection grew, the two poets eventually formed the idea of publishing the bulk of the epigrams in the Muses’ Almanach as a satirical take on the German cultural scene. Cast in this way, the Xenia are pictured on their way to the Leipzig book fair as a brood of impish tricksters ready to take aim at the follies and mediocrities of other writers. This set of 414 couplets published in 1796 stirred up a turbulent reaction, and established the Xenia as a risky episode in both poets’ careers. In time, the topical relevance of the epigrams waned (who is interested in J.C.F. Manso, Friedrich Nicolai or Fritz Stolberg nowadays?); many were seen as just ephemeral ‘tweets’ of their day; and their position in the canon of both writers’ works was complicated by the fact of joint authorship.

As controversy receded, the polemical epigrams declined in interest; their moment had passed, and by late 1796 Goethe wrote that, ‘After the crazy wager with the Xenia we simply have to put our energies into greater and more worthy works of art and tranform our protean natures, to the dismay of our enemies, into figures of nobility and virtue.’

While the epigrams are usually glossed as a moment in literary controversy, there were many of a more reflective type that received less attention. Schiller recognised the value of some of these and put them in a separate section of the Almanach as ‘Tabulae Votivae’, or votive plaques. The present selection is taken from this reservoir of epigrams, many of which put in a nutshell leading thoughts and impulses of that famous joint venture. They are intended to show the spirit – if not the letter – of Germany’s great humanising moment in the late 18th century.

The two men shared a Burkean distaste for the excesses of the French Revolution and for tyranny in all its forms. They were citizens of the old German Empire, but not hide-bound conservatives. Through Schiller’s philosophical guidance, they believed in artistic beauty as a foundational influence and guide to experience; Goethe, who had absorbed Kant’s philosophy before ever meeting Schiller, was stimulated and inspired by the more theoretically-inclined teaching of his younger collaborator.

These epigrams are representative of a forward-looking, humanist, enabling climate of thought that has a strong historical interest of its own. But they are reproduced here in the belief that they convey truths and insights that outlive their era and still have a life in ours.

The Xenia were conceived and executed as a collaboration, and that is how they are presented in this selection. Scholarship can speculate about, and in some cases prove, the authorship of individual pieces, but to do so goes against the grain of the project. Collaboration and joint authorship are rare things in literature; Wordsworth and Coleridge shared a relationship of similar intensity which was almost exactly contemporary to the time of the Xenia: their annus mirabilis (1796-97) produced only a brief moment of joint anonymity in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798). Goethe and Schiller, on the other hand, managed to harness their great aptitudes to a single impulse in the early months of 1796 in particular, and neither poet ever sought to cherry-pick his private property out of the common relationship.

When Schiller died in 1805, Goethe was shattered. He could not bring himself to attend the funeral. Many years later, Schiller’s bones were exhumed and his skull came into Goethe’s possession for a time. This otherwise morbid moment gave Goethe the occasion for a poem of curious, characteristic detachment, which is added here as a coda.

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1 Translation
Xenia? you ask. Just help yourself and don’t be asking,
They are offerings for guests, if you must know.

2 Like a Kiss
You say an epigram is too short to tell me something of the heart.
How come, my friend, isn’t a kiss much shorter still?

3 Mutual Exchange
Children throw a ball against a wall and catch it again;
But I prefer the game where a friend throws it back to me.

4 To my Friends
They say I hold nothing sacred. You’ve kept me company,
My friends, and you know what has always been sacred to me.

5 Silent Reproach
Why are there some you don’t openly reproach? Because he’s a friend,
So I reproach him in silence, as I do my own heart.

6 To —–
Share with me what you know, and I’ll receive it gratefully;
But you’re giving me yourself – spare me that, my friend.

7 A Regret
How deeply I regret it, when a magnificent spirit
Who’s worthy to go with me to the end, can only grasp me as a means.

8 Friends and Enemies
A friend is precious to me, but I can also use an enemy;
My friend shows me what I can do, my enemy teaches me what I should.

9 Spiritual Love
Spiritual love is the holiest of bonds between souls –
Take note – whenever it brings beauty together with beauty.

10 A Holy Wreath
What is holy? That which binds many souls together,
However lightly, as a rush binds a wreath.

11 Holiest
What is holiest? The deeply-felt thing
That keeps bringing spirits together, now and forever.

12 Love and Desire
Right you are! You love what you have, and desire what you don’t have,
Because a rich nature loves, and a poor one desires.

13 The Refined Soul
If a man could think himself free, you are he, you’ve no longer
Any need of choice or necessity ever again.

14 Schiller on Goethe
Whatever you give, you always give yourself completely, you’re always the one,
Even your quietest sound is your harmonious self.

15 The Faithful Mirror
You clear stream, you don’t distort the gravel, you magnify it
For the eye, like I see the world, —–, when you describe it.

16 To Goethe
I choose you as a teacher, a friend. Your living growth
Teaches me, your instructive word stirs my heart with life.

17 The Happy Few
All the others have to carry, to be busy, to mean something,
Whereas we, the happy few, all we have to do is exist.

18 Zeus and Beauty
Beauty asked, ‘O Zeus, why am I mortal?’
And the god said, ‘I needed you mortal to make you beautiful.’

19 Nymph and Satyr
As shy as a trembling doe that your horn pursues through the woods,
She flees only the enemy in man, still loathing, not yet in love.

20 Desire
What stirs the virgin’s swelling breast to sighs?
Young man, what fills your gaze to brim with tears?

21 The Latest Theory of Love
Love is a stairway to god, it starts with food
And ends with the highest substance, replete.

22 Re-reading
What writing do I read twice, or even three times over?
The loving page that the loved one writes to me.

23 The Highest Point
Woman gives way to man everywhere, only at the highest point
Does manly man give way to feminine woman.

24 The Highest Point II
What do I mean by the highest? The steady clarity of triumph,
As it shines from the brow of a woman, from the brow of a god.

25 Human Life
The young man goes to sea under a thousand sails
While the old man drifts calmly ashore on an old wreck of a boat.

26 A Father’s Advice
If you want to be free, my son, then study something decent,
And be your own man, and never cast your gaze upwards.

27 Everyone’s Duty
Always strive for completeness, and if you can’t become complete
In yourself, link up with something complete as a serving member.

28 A New Discovery
They tell you solemnly that you shouldn’t steal, you shouldn’t lie.
What liar or thief is there who ever doubted that?

29 The Moral Type and the Beautiful Type
The first is a delegate on behalf of all the souls,
But a beautiful nature has always stood on its own.

30 Moral Power
If you don’t have the power of fine feeling, you can still have reasonable wishes,
And behave as a soul in a way you cannot as a man.

31 Beauty’s Burden
A frivolous spirit carries only lightness on light shoulders,
But a beautiful spirit carries profound things lightly.

32 The Antiquary
I can spot in the statues the first thing a Christian eye sees:
Zeus and all his kind in distress, afraid of death.

33 Independence
Here, everyone shows what he can do. Let neither censure
Nor praise pull anyone up or down.

34 Assignment
Let no-one be the same as another, but everyone may equal the best.
How can that be? Let each be his own perfection.

35 Right There
What’s the hardest thing of all? What seems easiest:
To see with your own eyes what’s in front of you.

36 A Dangerous Consequence
Friends, consider carefully before you utter the deepest,
Starkest truth, because straight away people will blame you for it.

37 To a Certain Moralising Poet
Yes, I know, man is a miserable wretch; but I wanted
To forget that, and I’m sorry now that I came to you.

38 A Blessing
‘There’s so much falsehood and deception in our dealings with people,
No-one appears as he is!’ Thank God for that, my friend.

39 Everyone and a Few
If you can’t please everyone by your actions and your artwork,
Do it right for a few, it’s bad to please the multitude.

40 A Limit
Let it be right, all that you do, and leave it at that,
My friend, and refrain from doing everything that’s right.

41 Two Influences
By doing good, you feed the holy plant of humanity;
By creating beauty, you scatter seeds of divinity.

42 My Shackles
Skip on, you gay creatures, my shackles won’t let me follow,
But I know how to rest, and how to live within myself.

43 Tabulae Votivae
What God has taught me, and what has helped me through life,
I hang up here in the sanctuary with gratitude and reverence.

44 A Parting Wish
Live, couplets, if there’s life in you, and tell the next
Generation what we revered, what we hated, what we loved!

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by  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Here in the bleak house of bones,
Like faded souvenirs of years of colour,
I see the skulls in ordered rows

Who in life could have killed each other
Packed tightly now, after all that hate,
Deprived of weapons, they lie on one another.

These limbs and hands were once so delicate
As they moved! But who wants to know
What once put pressure on these shoulders and feet?

There’s still no rest for you weary souls.
They would not leave you to the grave; you were compelled
Back up here to the sun once more.

Now who’s to know who loved this brittle skull?
Except for me, reader of the sacred word,
I know the grandeur of the core it held.

And I know the holy impulse that used to stir
Here, as I stand surrounded by these husks
And I know this priceless object, like a treasurer!

Even in this cold, in this mould and dust
I am quickened by a reverie
As if this shrine of death could be life’s source.

The shape enchanted me with mystery!
Still keeping to its God-enraptured trace!
At that sight, I am back beside the sea,

That current where ennobled figures race.
O secret vessel, you gave our age its truth.
It falls to me to recall that living face.

I turn away, abashed by all that mould was worth
To breathe the air, and let thought run
In sunlight on a free mind’s wealth.

What is there better in this life for a man
Than a sense of divinity in the universe?
How substance grows to spirit in its turn.
How the mind-grown keeps its substance!

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Seán Lysaght has published six volumes of poems, including The Clare Island Survey (1991), Scarecrow (1998), The Mouth of a River (2007) and Carnival Masks (2014), all from Gallery Press. He has also published a translation of Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams (Gallery, 2008), and a verse narrative of the life of Edmund Spenser under his own imprint in 2011. He won the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award in 2007 and his Selected Poems appeared from Gallery in 2010. He lives in Westport, County Mayo.

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