December 3, 2010

Gottfried Benn

Gottfried Benn [Germany]

The son of a Lutheran minister and a mother of French-Swiss extraction, Gottfried Benn was raised in the small German village of Mansfeld, in an area which is now part of Poland. There he was educated privately and in the Gymnasium at Frankfurt an der Order, living in the same boarding-house as did the poet Klabund. In 1903, following his father's desires, he entered the University of Marbach, studying theology and philosophy. But he soon switched to medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm Akademie, a part of the University of Berlin, and, upon graduating, focused on venereolgy and dermatology as a medical doctor until the end of World War I.

In 1912, upon his graduation from medical school Benn was called to active military duty, but fell ill from the strenuous training. During this period, in utter mental and physical exhaustion, he wrote the work Morgue und andere Gedichte (Morge and Other Poems), which focuses on the kind of haunted visions and depersonalization of contemporary man that characterized much of Expressionist writing. The reaction to his poems, filed with drug-addicts, prostitutes, alcoholics, and other low-life figures, was one of outrage from bourgeois readers. During this period he met and entered into an intimate relationship with the poet Else Lasker-Schüler, and dedicated his second book, Söhne (published in 1913) to her.

Upon discharge from the military, Benn became employed as an assistant at the Pathological Institute of Westend Hospital, where he performed hundreds of autopsies. The result of this employment and the mental anguish from which he suffered and expressed in his poetry, he left that position, becoming a ship's physician in the spring of 1913. However, Benn suffered from sea-sickness, and, in New York, left the ship, attending a performance of Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera, and ultimately returning to Berlin. The ship to which he was to have been assigned sank with no survivors.

His third collection of poetry, Fleisch (Flesh), was published in 1917. This book carried further his prevailing sentiments of melancholy and cynicism. Over the next several years, his poetry continued to appear in expressionist journals, where he came to be recognized as a major avant-garde writer. But his work continued to move toward Nietzschean ideas that saw art as an escape from nihilism and sought, as solace to the suffering of mankind, beliefs underlying ancient mythologies and their primal urges. In 1916 Benn published a collection of short tales, Gehirne (Brains) which explored the psyche and its pulls between the Dionysian and Apollonian elements, ideas which he would further develop in his 1920 essay Das moderne Ich (The Modern Self).

These ideas, popular in their day, at first seemed simply to be a part of his unorthodox poetics; but with the rise of National Socialism, which shared many of these underlying beliefs, it became apparent that Benn was on a dangerous intellectual path. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he greeted Hitler's rise to power enthusiastically, expressing his shared values of the Nazi eugenics program and other concepts of the "German folk" on radio and in essays. Several of his Expressionist friends, now in exile in Russia and elsewhere, reproached him, further isolating his from the literary avant-garde. With Hitler's appointment to the head of German government in 1933, Heinrich Mann, the president of the literary academy, called for the Socialist-Communist coalition to overthrow Hitler. Benn supported Hitler, and Mann and his brother Thomas were expelled and, ultimately, forced to leave the country. Klaus Mann and others now questioned Benn's cooperation with Hitler's regime. Benn fought back through radio speeches. But he soon was himself denounced as a Jew, and was forbidden a health certificate to practice medicine.

When his new collection, Ausegwählte Gedichte was published in 1936, in celebration of his fiftieth birthday, the book was denounced by the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps and was reprinted in Nazi journals. In 1938 he was officially ousted from his membership in the Reichsschrifttumskammer and threatened with penalties if he continued writing.

After the War, Benn was further attacked by figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Alfred Döblin for his involvement with the Nazi regime. But he still had many friends, and with their support and the publication of his collection Statische Gedichte (Static Poems, 1948) and his lengthy autobiographical essay Doppelleben (Double Life) in 1950, he began to rehabilitate his career. In 1961 he won the Georg Büchner Prize of Poetry, upon which he delivered his famous essay, Probleme der Lyrik (Problems for Poetry). His final volumes, Destillationen (Distillations, 1953) and Apréslude (Afterlude, 1955) continued the expression of despair and disillusionment of his major poetry. Today Benn is recognized as one of the greatest of German poets, perhaps the best since Rilke.


Morgue und andere Gedichte (Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Meyer, 1912); Söhne: Neue Gedichte (Berlin-Wilmersdorf, 1913); Fleisch: Gesammelte Lyrik (Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Aktion, 1917); Betäubung: Fünf neue Gedichte (Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Meyer, 1925); Spaltung: Neue Gedichte (Berlin: Meyer, 1925); Das Unaufhörliche: Oratorim [text by Benn, music by Paul Hindemith (Mainz: Schott, 1931); Zweiundzwanzig Gedichte: 1936-1943 (Berlin: privately printed, 1953); Statische Gedichte (Zurich: Arche, 1948); Fragmente: Neue Gedichte (Weisbaden: Limes, 1951); Destillationen: Neue Gedichte (Weisbaden: Limes, 1953); Apréslude (Weisbaden: Limes, 1955); Gesammelte Gedichte 1912-1956 (Wiesbaden: Limes, 1956); Gesammelte Werke in vier Bänden. Band 3: Gedichte (Wiesbaden: Limes, 1959-1961).


Selected Poems (London: Oxford Press, 1970); Primal Vision: Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, edited by E. B. Ashton (New York: New Directions, 1971); Gottfried Benn: Prose, Essays, Poems, edited by Volkmar Sander (New York: Continuum, 1987).


with branch and young shoot undisclosed
to cry the louder out into the blue of sky—:
trunk only, all enclosure,
tall and shivering,
a curve.

Medlar is fugitive,
killer of seed,
and when have blessing clefts of lightning
roared round my shaft,
casting far and wide
the thing once tree?
Who ever saw a wood of poplars?

restless at night and through the day
over the gardens' mignonetted
sweet deliquescence gaping wide
that sucks its root and gnaws its bark
insignia of cries on its crowned brow it offers
dead space opposing,
to and fro

(from Fleisch, 1917)

Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton


"Evening is red on the island of Palau
and the shadows sink—"
sing, from woman's chalices too
it is good to drink,
deathly the little owls cry
and the death-watch ticks out,
very soon it will be
Lemures and night.

Hot these reefs. From eucalypti there flows
a tropical palm concoction,
all that still holds and stays
also longs for destruction
down to the limbless stage,
down to the vacuum,
back to the primal age,
dark ocean's womb.

Evening is red on the island of Palau:
in the gleam of these shadows
these issues rising from twilight and dew:
"Never and Always";
all the deaths of the earth
are fords and ferries,
what to you owes its birth
surrounded with strangeness—

Once with sacrificial
fat on the pine-wood floor
your bed of flames would travel
like wine to the shore,
megaliths heaped around
and the graves and the halls,
hammer of Thor that's bound
for the Aesir, crumbled, falls—

As the gods surcease,
the great Caesars decline,
from the cheek of Zeus
once raised up to reign—
sing, already the world
to the strangest rhythm is swung,
Charon's coin, if not curled,
long tasted under the tongue—

Coupling, Sepias your seas
and coral animate,
all that still holds and sways
also longs to disintegrate,
evening is red on the island of Palau,
eucalyptus glaze
raises in runes from twilight and dew:
Never and Always.

(from Spaltung: Neue Gedichte, 1925)

Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger


Their colons fed with mucus, brains with lies
these chosen races, coxcombs of a clown,
in pranks, astrology and flight of birds
construing their own ordure! Slaves—
from icy and from burning territories,
gross with vermin more and more slaves come,
hungry and whiplash-driven hordes of them:
Then all that's personal, the downy cheek,
with scurf and scab, swells to a prophet's beard!

Ah, Alexander and Olympia's offspring,
that least of all! They wink whole Hellesponts,
and skim all Asia! Puffed up, pustules
with vanguard, covert squadrons and with minions
that none may prick them! Minions: the best seats
for wrestling and in court! Let no man prick them!
Minions, joyriders, bandages, broad streamers—
broad streamers fluttering from dream and world:
the clubfoot sees the stadiums destroyed,
skunks trample underfoot the lupin fields
because the scent makes them suspect their own:
Nothing but excrement! The obese
course after the gazelle,
the windswift one, the lovely animal!
Inverse proportion enters everything:
The puddle plumbs the source, the worm the ell,
toad squirts his liquid in the violet's mouth,
and—hallelujah!—wets his pot on stones:
The reptile horde as history's monument!
The Ptolemaic line as tic-tac language,
the rat arrives as balm against the plague.
Most foul sings murder. Gossips wheedle
obscenity from psalms.

And this earth whispers discourse with the moon,
then round its hips it hangs a Mayday feast
then lets the roses pass, then stews the corn,
forbids Vesuvius erupt, won't let the cloud
become a caustic that would prick and shrivel
the beats' base form whose fraud contrived this state—
oh, all the play on earth of fruit and rose
is given up to evil's usury,
brain-fungus, and the gorge's speckling lies
of the above-named sort, proportion inverse!

To die means leaving all these things unsolved,
the images unsure, and hungry dreams
abandoned in the rifts between the worlds—
but action means: to serve vulgarity,
aid and abet iniquity, means loneliness
and dropping furtively the great solution
that visions are and the desire of dreams,
for gain, for gold, promotion, posthumous fame,
while giddily like a moth, indifferent
as a petard the end is near and bodes
a meaning that is different—

A sound, a curve, a chink of blue almost,
reverberated through the park one night
as I stood there—: a song,
only an outline, casual, three notes heard,
and occupied all space and made the night
so full, the garden full of apparitions,
created so the world and bedded me
prostrate within the stream of things, the sad
sublime infirmity of being's birth—:
a sound, only a curve—: but being's birth—
only a curve, proportion it restored
and comprehended all things, act and dreaming...

A garland interwined of scarlet brains
whose flowers grown from scattered fever-seed
shout to each other, keeping separate:
'the coloration form' and 'edges frayed,
the last thread snapping' and 'a hard cold contour,"
these spicy pickles of the protoplasm,
Here transformation starts: the beasts' base form
shall so decay the very word corruption
will smell for it too much of heaven—the vultures
are gathering now and famished hawks are poised!

(from Statische Gedichte, 1948)

Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton


Not very forthcoming in conversation,
opinions were not his forte,
opinions don't get to the center;
when Delacroix expounded a theory
he became restive, he for his part was unable
to explicate his Nocturnes.

Weak as a lover;
shadows at Nohant,
where George Sand's children
would not accept
his pedagogic advice.

Consumptive, of the kind
with hemorrhages and cicatrization,
the kind that drags on for years;
quiet death
as opposed to one
with paroxysms of pain
or one by the firing-squad:
They moved his grand piano (Erard) up to the door
and Delphine Potocka
sang for him at his dying hour
a violet song.

To England he went with three pianos:
Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,
played for twenty minutes
at Rothschild's, the Wellingtons, at Stratford House,
and to countless garters;
darkened by weariness and approaching death,
he went home
to the Square d'Orleans.

Then he burnt his sketches
and manuscripts;
no residues please, no fragments or notes
they grant such revealing insights—
and said at the end:
"My endeavors are as complete
as it was in my power to make them."

Every finger was to play
with the force appropriate to its structure;
the fourth is the weakest
(mere siamese twin to the middle finger).
When he began they rested
on E, F sharp, G sharp, B, C.

The man who has ever heard
certain Preludes by him,
whether in country houses or
in a mountain landscape
or on a terrace, through open doors,
a sanatorium's for instance,
will hardly forget it.

Never composed an opera,
no symphony,
only these tragic progressions
out of artistic conviction
and with a slender hand.

(from Statische Gedichte, 1948)

Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger



You leaning there over the fence with phlox
(splintered by rainstorm,
with a strange animal smell),
who are pleased to walk over stubble
and to accost old folk
gathering balm-apples,
breathe with joy and sadness
smoke over ploughland—

rising walls want there
roof before the snow and winter come,
to shout a "You're wasting your time"
at lime-slaking laborers,
but, hesitant, restrain yourself,

thickset rather than tall in build,
with dirty pumpkin also bare at your shoe,
fat and faceless this toady growth—

Descender from the plains,
ultimate moon of all flames,
from tumescences of fruit and flower
dropping, darkened your face already—
fool or baptist,
summer's fool, echoer, necrologue,
or foresong of glaciers,
anyway nutcracker,
ponderer of platitudes—

Snowfall ahead of you,
high silence, barren
the far unplantable distance:
that far your reach extends,
but, leaning over the fence,
throngs of beetles and plants now,
all life-desiring things,
spiders and fieldmice—


You, rowan-veiled
by early autumn,
cabbage-whites in your breath,
let the hands of many clocks revolve,
clamor with vesper bells,
the golden persistent hour
that so firmly continues to tan,
into a trembling heart!

You:—world of difference!
Only gods rest thus
or the robes
of untoppleable Titans,
embroidered so deeply
the butterflies and flowers
into their orbits!

Or a slumber of pristine kind,
when no awakening was,
only golden warmth and purple berries,
nibbled by swallows, eternal ones,
that never fly away—
This note strike, gong
this hour,
when you fall silent,
downward the forest-edges press,
thick with poplars, already cooler.

(from Statische Gedichte, 1948)

Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton


"Poplar," "Palau," "Monologue," "Chopin," and "September"
Reprinted from Primal Vision: Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, Edited by E. B. Ashton
(New York: New Directions, 1958). Copyright ©1958 by New Directions. Reprinted by permission of New Directions.

For an interview with Gottfried Benn, click the link below:

Gottfried Benn reads "Palau" at the link below:

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