SIX POEMS BY WILHELM LEHMANN (1882-1968)

Translated by Sean Haldane

An Meinen Ältesten Sohn / To My Eldest Son (1923)

The winter lime, the summer lime

Flower apart –

The song comes to an end, my son,

In the between-time.

 

The swallow-root draws chalk out of the hill

With white teeth,

Through the earth I can see it

Dark beneath.

 

On the grey stone, streaks of rain run –

The last note

Of the song is caught in the gold-bunting’s throat.

Sing it, my son.

An Einer Flöter Blasenden Freund/To a Flute-Playing Friend (1928)

In the air sounding from the flute

Your clever mouth controls,

Heavy stones are light and swift birds still

At your breath’s enchanting will.

 

A lovely stranger stops her car

In front of the house where your song has begun.

As she listens to your note

I feel an exchange of power.

 

The lovely one sees me. She doesn’t know I shake,

That I have a short time yet to live:

For as long as I hear you I can lift stones that float

That hover light as leaves,

I can catch the swiftest bird

As it hangs on the sound it has heard –

Foolishly she speaks to me, carried away, the lovely one:

‘I choose you as the father of my son.’

Samstagabend Am Gutshof Vorbei / Saturday Evening by the Manor House (1934)

A sweat-soaked saddle hangs over the fence,

The week-wearied hoof of the horse clomps in the stall,

For Sunday the gardener tills the bed

Where salvia flower with bursts of red.

 

The sundial has no time to measure time,

Into the mouldering ground it has sunk

As if wallflower perfume has made it drunk,

Dandelion light balls dust it in.

 

The saddle on the fence, leave it apart,

Gardener, hold back the rake,

No Sunday will come. This nothingness

Does not first require me to break.

 

With its yellow-stitched beak the young swallow presses its throat

Not knowing this is needless

For the faded heart.

Fahrt Uber den Plöner See / Journey on Plön Lake (1940)

Shifting like stage-sets in a dream

Each tree island seems new,

As if the landscape is a stage

In a festival of blue.

With the boat’s meanderings,

Leaves, weeds where water laps,

Refresh the eye. A Handel opera could be playing,

Acis and Galatea perhaps.

Our fingers slip through the waters

Gurgling along the clinkers, on land

The banks go by like melodies,

And my hand seeks your hand.

Now when it all has passed us by

We do not end the game.

Boatman – once more, around the lake!

The journey, not its end, is our aim.

Shifting like stage-sets in a dream

Each tree island seems new,

As if the landscape is a stage

In a festival of blue.

With the boat’s meanderings,

Leaves and weeds here and there are straying

Where water laps. We should hear Handel’s opera,

Acis and Galatea is playing.

We see all that we hear, we feel,

The banks are the melody.

Where they near, or disappear,

The boat takes us willingly.

There swims the bushy Prince’s Isle,

There Bosau spire rises above,

We journey through the terror of the times,

Together still, my love.

Are such high spirits too presumptuous?

Will hard times exact revenge for this dream show?

Must their jealousy strike us,

As Acis was crushed by the giant’s blow?

The Gods are not without love –

What you did to both, do it, so!

Galatea fled into the sea,

Acis melted to the stream’s flow.

Spur Der Thetis / Track of Thetis (1950) Letzte Tage / Last Days (1968)

The God of noon has prayed for silence

Over bleaching stones, withering wrack.

Strand-oats tangle their knots,

The stones are hollowed by passing time.

 

Wind pushes lukewarm water onto the strand,

Spell-bound slowly sinks its hand.

Where wind and water cannot grasp,

Imprinted soles form a track:

Melodic, oak-leaf margin,

The impressed body of a violin,

The long toes like organ pipes:

Thetis’ foot. Seeking Achilles, she stepped onto the land.

Letzte Tage / Last Days (1968)

Emptied is the jug,

Earth speaks, it is enough.

A friend has placed chrysanthemums, petals curled,

By the bed, spicy smell of the world.

Before my fingers go cold

They feel the urge to hold

The stems, the last pieces of time,

The great Without Pain takes me home.

ESSAY: WILHELM LEHMANN AND ECKERNFÖRDE.

Eckernförde is a fishing port and summer resort on the Baltic coast of Schleswig-Holstein, about 65 miles North of Hamburg, 35 South of the Danish border. The name means ‘Acorn-firth’. It is in the original ‘angle’ from which the Angles were displaced by Jutes and migrated to England in the 7th century. On a Saturday afternoon in mid February, 2000, pouring with rain and sleet, I arrived after a five hour drive from Holland where I had been at the funeral of an uncle, on a pilgrimage to where the poet Wilhelm Lehmann lived from 1923 until his death in 1968.

Lehmann was born in Venezuela in 1882 to German immigrant parents and returned with them to Hamburg in 1885. His father failed in business, embezzled money, returned in 1891 to Central America and died. Lehmann and his younger brother were brought up by their mother, a cultivated but it seems neurotic schoolteacher, at first in a green idyllic garden suburb then in poorer areas of Hamburg. After studying art history, botany, and medicine (then as now, students in Germany were encouraged to take courses in various subjects before choosing a direction), he settled for one of those thorough German doctorates in philology, on the subject of the prefix ‘uz’ in Old English. At the age of 20 he met Martha Wohlstadt, a woman of 35 whose ‘hair lay like a mighty tower on her head or fell in stiff plaits,’ became her lover, and married her when she became pregnant. He taught in a village school on the bleak North German plain, under the strains of incompatibility with Martha, hostility from local people who thought Martha must be a high class whore who had hooked a client, then the death of their first son from diphtheria. When Martha was expecting their second child she returned to live with her parents and Lehmann went to teach in Schleswig Holstein where he fell in love with a pupil, Frieda Riewerts, who eventually became his second wife. (Some of this triangular story is told in an expressionistic short novel, Maleen, 1918.) Idealistically, he then moved with Frieda back to the plains to teach in a progressive ‘free’ school characterised by fierce conflicts among the staff.

Of all German poets he may be the most influenced by English poetry. He corresponded with Masefield before the First War, and with Eliot and Frost after, and eventually was a thorough reader of Robert Graves whom he met, finally, at Oxford in 1964. He translated a few poems each by these poets, into metrical German. In his early years he was influenced by things Irish: he read Yeats and James Stephens, and studied Irish Gaelic. One of the strangest of his early novels, Die Schmetterlingspuppe / The Butterfly Doll (1917) describes how a group of Germans in Ireland are both enlightened and destroyed by the chaotic truth of the place. His main German influences were his friends the Jewish critic Moritz Heimann and the poet Oskar Loerke.

As a teacher and the father of children by his two marriages he managed to evade conscription until 1918. He arrived on the Western Front for the final defeat and slaughter, and after deserting in the confusion was recaptured by his own army and sent back into battle, then surrendered to British troops (actually Canadians whose first act was to strip him of his watch and money). He spent a year in a British prison camp in France where he became an interpreter. Some of this is in his longest novel, Der Überlaufer / The Deserter, which he wrote in 1925 but could not get published until 1964 – luckily for him. He was teaching in Eckernförde when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and ‘the hateful swastika flag’, as he described it in his diary, was raised above the school. Threatened with losing his job, he became a Nazi party member, but he and Frieda welcomed various Jewish friends (including the poet Werner Kraft), who stayed with them in Eckernförde on their way to exile via Denmark, and continued to correspond with them when they arrived in Palestine or elsewhere. Der Überlaufer would have provided ample cause for arrest and being sent to a concentration camp. As it was Lehmann had a nervous breakdown and lost the sight of one eye – as if having two would be too much, or perhaps the blind one kept the inner sight of poetry. His first book of poems, Antwort des Schweigens / Answer of Silence, a dangerous title since it suggested being an ‘internal immigrant’, was published in Berlin in 1935. He escaped being arrested, but his publishers were later shut down. He continued to teach school, with mixed feelings (a novel, Ruhm des Daseins / Space for Existence, tells part of the story). He survived, and became the focus, after 1945, of a circle of younger German poets (Elizabeth Langässer, Günter Eich, Karl Krolow) who admired the exactness of his nature poems.

The nearest in English to this exactness is probably the poetry of John Clare, which Lehmann did not appear to know. But his poems contain extended references to fairy tales and myths (which Clare would not have liked: ‘Behind every bush a thrumming Apollo’, was Clare’s criticism of Keats). Just as Hardy realised his poems were ‘seemings’, Lehmann saw his poems as ‘Erscheinungen’. Like Hardy he is a total animist: nature is alive, and what we see and feel in contact with nature is all there is, there is nothing ‘behind’. He rejected transcendence. He wrote that his novels were about the problem of living poetically in the world. He was an inspired poet, and rejected out of hand the idea that poems are ‘made’: they originate (enstehen).

I knew Lehmann had lived after his retirement in 1947 (at age 65: he did not continue teaching a moment longer than necessary) in a bungalow at the Southern edge of Eckernförde, and guessed from the town map I had bought in a Shell station that this must be Wilhelm Lehmannstrasse. But first I parked in the town centre, just behind the brick three storey High School where he had taught, and cut through a path fifty yards or so to a white sandy beach which lined the crescent bay. There was a sunny break from the rain and sleet. I had never seen the Baltic before. It spread out gun- metal grey to an Eastern horizon. There was a hotel behind the beach but a sign said it was closed for the month. I walked South, passing intrepid families bent against the wind, then turned and like them took on the bitter North wind as black clouds swept back and the sleet began again.

I left the beach and walked through narrow cobbled streets between pastel-painted stucco houses, then past chic restaurants whose hand-written menus under glass announced mainly sea food, to a harbour where fishing boats and a few pleasure cruisers were moored. I crossed a wooden footbridge. The sleet now turned to pouring rain. I walked along an embankment with the bay to my right now and on my left a hillside with elegant tall houses, English style privet hedges, and gardens with bare flower beds or leafless shrubs and rose bushes. My map showed a small hotel on a parallel street further up the hill but there were no connecting streets until eventually the road divided, one part continuing along the shore but the main part turning left up the hill. At the fork was a tavern, the ‘Seeblick’ / Seaview, then as I continued to the left a Turkish kebab stall and a few houses beyond. On a large multifamily house there was a discreet metal plaque announcing ‘Zimmer’ / Room. I rang the bell and was shown the room, a garden cottage separate from the house. It was immaculate, well heated, two beds with duvets, pine furniture, paintings of local scenes, a shelf of local historical literature. I took it for two nights, then walked back in the rain the mile or so to where I had left the car. It was only four o’clock but becoming dark and the shops were closed. There was a town map more detailed than mine under glass in front of the school. I took a biography of Lehmann from the car and looked up where he had lived during his long period teaching there, thinking that perhaps I could have a look before total nightfall. The address was 16 Jungmannufer, which the map showed as a street on the North shore – the continuation of the embankment road I had walked along. The house Lehmann had lived in longest was just around the corner from where I was staying.

First I drove in the other direction, to the South side of the town, to Wilhelm Lehmannstrasse and walked along it in the rain. On one side were low blocks of town houses and flats of an airy architecture with strips of wood and balconies – not at all like their grim equivalents in England. On the other side single houses and bungalows with gardens: in the dusk they could have been in a suburb of Bournemouth. Lehmann had mentioned in a 1963 essay for a magazine series by writers on ‘the place where I write’ that there were two poplars outside his window – but trees and shrubs are the fastest changing part of any landscape. There were several bungalows that might have been the one. Anyway he had characteristically emphasised that the only writing he did indoors was revision: ‘All my works originate in the open air.’

I drove to my garden cottage, and walked under the street lamps along the shore the hundred metres or so to 16 Jungmannufer, a big stucco house with a red tiled roof, facing the sea across the road and a beach, behind a lawn and a hedge with a gate. There were several entrances, to different flats. The bottom one had an enclosed sun room, the first floor one a balcony. Whichever floor Lehmann had lived on he had a view across the bay to the town, now visible as rows of lights, with the harbour on his right and the open sea on his left, and other dimmer strings of lights – the south of the town, Wilhelm Lehmannstrasse – in the distance.

On the Sunday afternoon I visited the Eckernförde Heimat (Homeland) Museum, what appeared to be a seventeenth century building, beautifully restored, with sanded pine floors, air-conditioned with temperature and humidity gauges in each room – very high tech. The guide leaflet, dated 1999, stated that a permanent exhibition was planned of ‘Der Schriftsteller [Writer] Wm. Lehmann’, but the designated room contained merely local paintings. There were exhibits commemorating a sea war with Denmark, the local fisheries, and the history of the town in the last war. This was comprehensive – photographs of Nazi parades, of the effects of a bombing raid which had killed several people including children (just around the corner from where I was staying, a few houses from where Lehmann and his family were sheltering in their cellar), of the refugee influx in 1945. There were contemporary newspaper cuttings about the bombing, which was represented as an atrocity by the British war criminals, an unprovoked attack on women and children. They had died in the ‘Freiheitskampf’ – the ‘Struggle for Freedom.’

On the way out I remarked to the elegantly dressed woman at the desk that I had been surprised to see that Eckernförde had been the target of bombing in the war. She replied, as if eager to set the record straight, that the navy had used the harbour as a torpedo testing range, and the British had clearly been trying to destroy the naval base but missed and hit nearby houses.

I drove inland five kilometers or so to Lehmann’s grave in a lovely ‘Friedhof’/ cemetery among the fields, surrounded by a high wire fence and gates which, luckily, were unlocked. The graves were clustered around a small church. It was now a bright, cold day. A few snowdrops and crocuses were showing in the grass. The grave sites were marked by big rough hewn stones, pagan looking, like small megaliths, with the names carved in Gothic script. The graves themselves were mostly covered with shrubs. Some, bare branched, were roses or other flowering bushes, others were evergreen, juniper or cypress. Clumps of heather were just coming out into pink flowers. I had two heather sprigs, one white and one pink, which I had picked in my garden in Warwickshire a few days before. (‘Never visit a grave without flowers’, my father used to say.) I started going along the lines of graves systematically, working my way around the church, starting on the South side. No Lehmann. By the North side of the church were three huge slabs of rock with names of war dead, listed by the year, starting with 1939, and finishing at 1945 – the year which took up all of the third slab, with 30 or so names.

Lehmann’s grave was almost the last of the 150 or so I walked by, at the North West corner of the cemetery. The names and dates of himself and Frieda (who died at the same age, 86, seven years later) were carved on the stone. A small bare shrub was just beginning to bud, but I could not identify it. There was a low evergreen, and a clump of pink heather. I pressed my pink and white flowering heather sprigs into the soil next to it.

Between the Friedhof and Eckernförde is Windeby, a former manor house, a ‘Gut’, which Lehmann used to walk to as an old man. It is sign posted from the main road, a narrow lane through woods. I parked and walked towards the house I could see through naked trees – white painted, vaguely Georgian. I found myself in a cobbled yard opening out from twin coach houses with a date, 1777, austerely proportioned, white stucco, green trim: the Enlightenment, like something out of Goethe. The cobble stones were muddy. Beside the house was a garden patch with an old man clearing up rubbish. The house, as I drew closer, was revealed to be empty – blank windows – its white paint fading to grey over stucco and wood and stained with dirt. Lehmann would not have liked this neglect, so far from the living Gut /manor house which comes into some of his poems. I struck up a conversation with the old man, but found him hard to understand. He did not even seem to know who owned the house: they were away, he said, it was too expensive to keep up. (There is no equivalent of the National Trust in Germany).

When I woke up next morning there was an inch of wet snow on the ground. After breakfast in the town centre, now bustling with people, I went into a bookshop. Many of the books were translations from English, novels, feel-good books on business and health. There were a few standard poetry texts – Goethe, Hölderlin, the inevitable Kahlil Gibran, Germanized. No Lehmann: although his works are being brought out in eight beautiful and scholarly volumes, there are no paperbacks or even a Selected Poems. I went to a sausage shop and bought a kilo of Speck / ham. It was Valentine’s day. In an elegant Konfiserie I bought heart shaped sweets and tiny cakes. I left Eckernförde at 9.30, in sleet and rain, along icy roads between snow dusted fields to the Autobahn. Down Schleswig Holstein, through the edge of Hamburg where the clouds cleared, in the sunshine across Lower Saxony, down through Holland where it began to pour with rain, through Belgium to Calais and the ferry to Dover – still raining – and the English motorways. After 760 miles I arrived home in Warwickshire just before midnight, and sat with my wife eating Valentine’s day sweets from Eckernförde.

These translations  were published in PN Review, 148, 2002