As a child Johannes Bobrowski spent his time on both sides of the River Memel—in his home city of Tilsit in East Prussia and at his grandfather's farm in Lithuania. In 1928 the family moved to Kaliningrad (then Koenigsberg), a city of cultural sophistication. It was there the young Bobrowski studied the classics and learned to play the organ. Ultimately, he went to Berlin where he studied art history before being inducted into the German army. Throughout most of World War II he served in the eastern front, but for four years he was captured and imprisoned in a Russian war camp. In 1949 he returned to East Berlin, working as a reader, first for the publishing house of Verlag Lucie Groszer and later for Union Verlag.
A few of his poems were published during the war and a selection of poems was published in 1955 by the East German periodical, Sinn und Form. Some of his work also appeared in Deutsche Lyrik auf der anderen Seite (German Poetry on the Other Side) in 1960. But it was not until the publication of his 1961 collection, Sarmatische Zeit, that Bobrowski was recognized for his remarkable talent. The book, published when he was in his mid-40s, brought him international recognition, which was augmented by the publication, the following year, of Schattenland Ströme (Shadow-land Rivers). Over the next few years he published two works of fiction, Levins Mühle (1964; Levin's Mill, 1970) and Litauische Claviere (1967; Lithuanian Pianos), and several collections of stories. His final collection of poetry, Wetterzeichen, was published posthumously.
Many of Bobrowski's poems take place in the historical land of Sarmatia, the land of steppes between the Vistula and the Volga. Accordingly, his poetry often deals with myths and archetypes. But in working through these archaic forms, Bobrowski's themes often concern the injustices and horrors of his lifetime, and he has described his lyrical distancing as an attempt to write about the sense of guilt he bore being a German in the 20th century. His work is thus a poetry of expiation, and these concerns, along with his self-effacing lyricism, made him a popular poet on both sides of what, during his lifetime, was separated into East and West Germany. Among his many awards were the Gruppe 47 Prize and the Alma Koenig Prize (both in 1962), the Heinrich Mann and Charles Veillon prizes (awarded in 1965), and the F. C. Weiskopf Prize (1967).
BOOKS OF POETRY
Sarmatische Zeit: Gedichte (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1961); Schattenland Ströme: Gedichte (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1962); Wetterzeichen: Gedichte (East Berlin: Union Verlag, 1966); Im Windgestraeuch: Gedichte aus dem Nachlass, ed. by Eberhard Haufe (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1970); Gedichte: 1952-1965 (Frankfurt: Insel-Verlag, 1974); Gesammelte Werke (poetry in vols 1 and 2), ed. by Eberhard Haufe (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1987-88).
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS
Shadow Land: Selected Poems, trans. by Ruth and Matthew Mead (London: Rapp & Carroll, 1966; Chicago: Allan Swallow, 1966; reprinted with additions as Shadow Lands [London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1984]); Selected Poems: Johannes Bobrowski and Horst Bienek (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1971); From the Rivers: Selected Poems, trans. by Ruth and Matthew Mead (London: The Anvil Press, 1975); Under the Night's Edge, trans. by Margaret Mahony Stoljar (Canberra: The Leros Press, 1989).