December 1, 2008

Else Lasker-Schuler

Else Lasker-Schüler [Germany]

"The Black Swan of Israel" and "The greatest lyric poet of modern Germany" are two of the epithets used to describe the poet Else Lasker-Schüler. "The subject of her poems was mainly Jewish, her imagination essentially oriental, but her language was German," wrote Gottfried Benn (see PIP Anthology, volume 2).

Lasker-Schüler was born into a gourgeois family of German-Jewish origin in the provincial town of Wuppertal-Elberfeld on February 11, 1869. Her father, Aaron Schüler, was a private banker with connections to the building trade. In the poet's autobiographical writings, he is described as a playful, affectionate and not quite grown-up eccentric. Her mother, Jeanette Kissing, a great admirer of Goethe and Heine, encouraged her daughter's early attempts at writing poetry. The harmony of this idyllic existence was disrupted by the death of her favorite brother, Paul, in 1882, and the death of her mother in 1890, from which she never fully recovered. For Lasker-Schüler, death was a reality which she had to turn into fantasty to be able to bear.

In 1894, Else Schüler married Dr. Berthold Lasker and moved to Berlin. But five years later, the marriage ended, marking a rupture with conventional values and the beginning of a bohemian existence which was to lead for the rest of her life. A year later, Lasker-Schüler gave birth to her son, Paul, allegedly fathered by one Alcibiades de Rouan. The affair remains clouded in mystery.

Styx, her first book of poetry, was published in 1902. Certain general themes which appear in this early volume were to recur throughout her poetic career: loneliness and disillusionment in love, an ardent desire to reach beyond mere personal relationships to a greater spiritual communion, a sensual and inventive use of language, and the creation of an extravagant personal mythology. Nor was this mythicizing penchant restriced to her art alone.

She married George Levin, the famous art critic and composer, in 1902, renaming him Herwath Walden. He was one of the leadilng promoters and theoreticians of the German Expressionist Movement, as well as the founder of their major journal, Der Strum (also named by Lasker-Schüler) in which she published her poems.

After the break-up of her second marriage in 1911, the poet's life became even more unstable. Most of her days and nights were spent at the same Berlin café which she desribed as "our noctural home...our oasis, our gypsy caravan, our tent in which we can rest after the painful battles of the day." It was here that she wrote the poems of her Expressionist volume, My Wonder (1911) and became intimately acquainted with many of the great artists of the period: George Trakl; Gottfried Benn, with whom she had a tempestuous love affair; Franz Marc; Karl Kraus; Oscar Kokoschka; Georg Grosz; and Franz Werfel. Several of the poems in this work are about or dedicated to these artists.

By 1913, though already a celebrity in the German-sjpeaking world, Lasker-Schüler was living in loneliness and destitution. The poet's son, Paul, a gifted artist who meant more to her than any other living being, died in 1927, at the age to twenty-eight. After this loss, the poet turned ever more inward, immersing herself more deeply in Jewish tradition, especially in mysticism and the Kabbalah.

In 1932, Lasker-Schüler was awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize for literature. However, when Hitler came to power several months later, the sixty-four-year old poet was beaten by a group of Nazis with an iron rod. Without so much as returning to her room, she ran to the station and took the first train out of Germany to Zurich.

After several years as a vagabond, Lasker-Schüler emigrated to Palestine in 1939, and founded a literary group called "Der Kraal," where she would read her poems by candelight, often accompanied by little bells and a harmonica. In Jerusalem, as in Berlin, Lasker-Schüler was regarded as an eccentric personality, still clad in her fairy-tale dresses, jewelry and masks, convinced that she was Jussuf of Thebes or Tino of Baghdad, living in an unheated room without even a bed, decorated with puppets and toys.

It was during her last years in Jerusalem that she wrote possibly her most famous book of poetry, My Blue Piano (1943). Many of the poet's earlier concerns and images recur in this last volume, but with a density, and frequently, a calm largely absent in her earlier writings.

On January 22, 1945, she died after suffering a severe heart attack. She was accorded the rare honor of being buried on the Mount of Olives.

—Jeanette Litman-Demeestère and Peggy Frankston


Styx. Gedichte (Berlin: Axel Juncker Verlag, 1902); Der siebente Tag. Gedichte (Berlin: Verlag des Vereins für Kunst, 1905); Meine Wunder. Gedichte (Karlsruhe/Leipzig: Dreililien-Verlag, 1911); Hebräische Balladen (Berlin: A. R. Meyer Verlag, 1913); Die gesammelten Gedichte (Leipzig: Verlag der Weiszen Bücher, 1917); De gesammelten Gedichte (Leipzig and Munich: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1920); Hebräische Balladen. Der Gedichte erster Teil (Berlin: Verlag Paul Cassirer, 1920); Die Kuppel. Der Gedichte zweiter Teil (Berlin: Verlag Paul Cassirer, 1920); Mein blaues Klavier. Neue Gedichte (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Press, 1943)


Hebrew Ballads and Other Poems, trans. by Jeanette Demeestère-Litman and Audri Durchslag-Litt (New York: The Jewish Publication Society of America, ); Selected Poems. trans. by Jeanette Demeestère-Litman and Audri Durchslag-Litt [enlarged from Hebrew Ballads and Other Poems] (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000).

[The poems below were published in Selected Poems, which may be purchased here.]
[The Else Lasker-Schuler on-line bibliography and links page can be found here.]

My Drama

With all sweet-scented scarletflowers
He lured me.
I could not bear this narrow room for one more night;
Before his door I stole crumbs of love
And, longing for him, consumed my life.
A pale angel weeps softly within me,
Buried—I believe deep in my soul,
[He stands in dread of me.
In wild weather I saw my face!
I don't know where, perhaps in dark lightning,
My eye frozen in my countenance, like a winternight;
I never saw a grief more grim.
...With all sweet-scented scarletflowers
[He lured me.
Again the pain stirs in my soul
And guides me through all remembrance.
[God weep not,
[Say nothing of the sorrow,
My anguish must not burst forth.
No more faith have I in Woman and Man,
The cord, that tied me to all life,
I gave back to the world
Out of every sphinxstone my sorrow will burn,
Blaze around all blossoms, liek a black spell.
I long for my blind, cast-out solitude,
To find solace, to embrace it, like my child.
I learned to hate my womb, my heart's blood, and him
[Never to know Eve's blood—so much
[As in you, Man!

Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère-Litman

(from Styx, 1902)


Mother and father are in heaven—
Out of silent morning dreams
Three souls suffuse
God's land with tender sorrow—
For three sisters are we,
Who dreamed of old, in sphinxlike shape,
In Pharaoh's time;—
I was formed in the deepest womb of the world
By the most tenacious artist-hand.
And do you know who my brothers are?
They were the three Magi who journeyed east
Following the white star to God's child.
But eight fates festered in our blood.
Four plagues us in the evening red,
And four make dark our morning glow,
Bringing upon us hunger's dread,
Heartgrief and death.
So it is written:
Above our final grave they still endure,
Weaving the curse upon all worlds
To rejoice in their evil.
Even the winds will shy away from their dust.
Satan, have mercy.

Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère-Litman

(from Styx, 1902)


I do not know the speech
of this cool land,
Nor can I keep its pace.

I cannot even decipher
The drifting clouds.

The night is a step-queen.

I can't stop thinking of Pharoah's woods
And kiss the images of my stars.

My lips already radiant
Speak of distances.

I am a painted picturebook
Upon your lap.

But your face weaves
A veil of tears.

The corals were torn
From my iridescent birds,

By the garden hedges
Their tender nests turn to stone.

Who will annoit my dead palaces—
They wore the crowns of my fathers,
Whose prayers drowned in the holy river.

Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestètre-Litman

(from Meine Wunder, 1911)

The Voices of Eden

Wilder, Eve, more erring, admit
Your longing was the serpent,
It's voice wound over your lip,
And bit into the seam of your cheek.

Wilder, Eve, more voracious, admit
The day you wrested from God,
You looked upon the light too soon,
And sank into the blind caldron of shame.

It would out of your womb,
At first, like a hesitant fulfillment,
Then seizing itself impetuously,
Created itself,
A godlike soul...

And it grows
Over and beyond the world,
Losing its beginnings,
Beyond the boundaries of time,
And back around your thousandfold heart,
Towering above the end...

Sing, Eve, your fearful song, lonely,
Lonelier, dropping leaden, like your heart beats,
Loosen the dark cord of tears,
Strung round the nape of the world.

Like the moonlight, vary your countenance,
You are lovely...
Sing, sing, listen—the rustling sound—
That night plays, oblivious to all.

Everywhere the deaf din—
Your fear rolls over the steps of earth
Down God's spine.

Hardly a hairsbreadth between him and you.
Couch yourself deep in the night's eye,
Let you day wear the dark night.

Heaven suffocates, inclining to the stars—
As you go, cast no shadow,
Wither away, temptress.

Eve, you over-ardent listender,
Oh, you cluster of whitened foam
Flee, even your eyelash's fine cutting edge!

Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère-Litman

(from Meine Wunder, 1911)

George Grosz

Sometimes colored tears play
in his ashen eyes.

But he always encounters hearses;
They scare his dragonflies away.

He is superstitious—
—Born under a great star—

His script, a downpour;
His drawings, characters of cloud.

His subjects swell with size.
As though they had long lain in the stream.

Mysterious vagabonds with tadpole mouths
And putrefied souls.

Five dreaming pallbearers
Are his silver fingers.

There is no light within his errant fairytales
And yet he is a child.

The Leatherstocking hero
On intimate terms with the Indian tribes.

Generally he despises all people,
They bring him ill-luck.

But George Grosz loves his misfortune
Like a clinging adversary.

And his sorrow is dionysian;
Black champagne, his lamentation.

He is a sea with a shrouded moon.
His God only seems to be dead.

Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère- Litman

(from Meine Wunder, 1911)


But you never came with the evening—
I sat waiting in a shawl of stars.

...Whenever there was a knocking at my door,
It was my own heart.

It now hangs on every doorpost,
Even on yours;

Between the ferns the fireroses expire
In the withering garland.

I dyed the heaven blackberry
With my heartblood.

But you never came with the evening—
...I stood waiting in golden shoes.

—Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère-Litman

(from Meine Wunder, 1911)


Into my lap a great star will fall...
We would waken the night,

And pray in tongues
Carved like harps.

We would be reconciled in the night—
So much of God overflows.

Our hearts are children
Who, weary-sweet, would rest.

Out lips want to kiss,
What do you fear?

Does my heart not verge on yours—
Your blood still stains my cheeks red.

We would be reconciled in the night,
If we embrace, we shall not die.

Into my lap a great star will fall.

—Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère-Litman

(from Hebräische Balladen, 1913)


Cain's eyes do not please God,
Abel's countenance is a golden garden,
Abel's eyes are nightingales.

Abel always sings so clearly
To the chords of his soul,
But through Cain's body run the city's trenches.

And he will slay his brother—
Abel, Abel, how deeply has your blood stained heaven.

Where is Cain, now that I would smite him:
Did you slay the sweet birds
In your brother's countenance?!!

—Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère-Litman

(from Hebräische Balladen, 1913)

My Blue Piano

At home I have a blue piano
But have no note to play.

It stands in the shadow of the cellar door,
There since the world's decay.

Four star-hands play harmony
—The Moon-maiden sang in her boat—
Now rats fandango on the keys.

Broken is the keyboard...
I weep for the blue dead.

Ah, dear angels, open to me
—I have eaten bitter bread—
Heaven's gate, while I'm still alive,
Even against the law's decree.

—Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère-Litman

(from Mein blaues Klavier, 1943)

To Me

My poems, declaimed, jar out of tune the keyboard of my heart. If only
they were still my children, clinking needfully on my rhymes. (Please don't
tattle!) Left behind, I still sit on the last bench in the school-room, as before...
But with mellowed hear: 1000 and 2 years old—fairy tales springing up over
my head.

I roam all around! My head flies away like a bird, dear mother. Nobody shall
spirit away my freedom—should I die somewhere at the road's rim, dear
mother, you'll come and carry me up to the blue heaven. I know you were
touched by my lonely floating and the playful tick-tock of mine and my dearest
child's heart.

—Translated from the German by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestère-Litman

(from Mein blaues Klavier, 1943)


"My Drama," "Homesickness," "Chronica," "The Voices of Eden," "George Grosz," "Parting," "Reconciliation," "Abel," "My Blue Piano," and "To Me."
Reprinted from Selected Poems, trans. by Audri Durchslag-Litt and Jeanette Demeestèere-Littman (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000). Copyright ©Audri Durchslag and Jeanette Litman-Demeestère, 2000 and Green Integer. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, I've been looking for the Blue Piano in English (I only know it in Hebrew). Like Else I'm exiled from my beautiful Jerusalem, which can be a state of mind as much as a state of affairs.