15 May, 2006

Morgenstern, Nein!

Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), author of the Galgenlieder ('Gallows-songs'), was a remarkable poet, a sort of German Lear or Carroll with a much blacker sense of humour. He wrote sound-poetry before Dada, invented the Rhinograde, and even composed a 'poem' purely out of metrical diacritics, the Fisches Nachtgesang, that last word ('Nightsong') one of the most beautiful vocables in the entire language. Here's another classic:

Pfeift der Sturm?
Keift ein Wurm?
hoch vom Turm?


Es ist des Galgenstrickes
Ende, welches ächzte,
gleich als ob
im Galopp
eine müdgehetzte Mähre
nach dem nächsten Brunnen lechzte
(der vielleicht noch ferne wäre).
Impressive stuff, and quite impossible to translate. Nonetheless, I attempt the second stanza:

It is the gallowsfixture's
end, which pitches,
as when
in gallop
a switchknackered mare
for the nearest fountain itches
(still, perhaps, so far from there).
It is this passage which interests me, for the incredible palatal-dental thickness of the German, only partly reproducible in English: welches ächzte-gleich-müdgehetzte-nächsten-lechzte. It is this inspissated susurrus, evoking the eerie heave and grip of the grave, which provoked me to fixture-stricture-pitches-switch-itches. That trochee ächzte (groans), in particular, is very powerful; I experimented with various ex- verbs, in an attempt to echo the sound—exude, exhort, exercise, exorcise, extricate—all iambs or dactyls—but none was right. (The only trochaic ex- verb is exit, irregular because formed from the noun, itself from the 3rd-person verb ex-it, he leaves.) Rendering the two dead stops of 'ob / Galopp' was too great a challenge. I owe 'Nay!' to Max Knight, a previous translator, whose general effort displeases me; naturally, it suggests neigh! My happiest innovation, I think, is 'knackered', which shares the literal sense of equine death ('knacker's yard') with the colloquial sense of 'tired'.

The passage is an extended metaphor; extended, in fact, almost into pataphor, a term which, as the cliché goes, would have to be invented if it didn't exist. There seems to be a long association between the horse and the gallows. Archaic English phrases for the gallows include 'the horse foaled of an acorn' and 'the three-legged mare' (there's a fine pub of that name in the City of York, though inferior to the Maltings and Rook and Gaskill), and Yggdrasil means 'Odin's steed', which refers to that god's self-hanging at the tree. Knight recognises (unconsciously?) the semantic connection in his introduction; referring to Morgenstern and his friends, he writes: "In a mood of horseplay, they founded a 'Club of the Gallows Gang'". In my mind is the association horse-hoarse-hearse; I am reminded also, indelibly, of a bawdy parody of Goethe's 'Erlkönig' offered us by our German schoolteacher, Richard Stokes, whose translation of Kafka is available from the Hesperus Press:
Wer reitet so spät zum Mutters bauch?
Er ist der Vater mit seinem Schlauch.


Sir G said...

Two Polish poets of the period between the wars wrote (some) poetry in an entirely imaginary language -- every word was a neologism -- it sounds Slavic, vaguely Polish -- and is quite pretty to the (slavic) ear. They preserve grammatical feaures of Polish -- and all those prefixes and suffixes, declentions and conjugations, superlatives, thickenings and diminutions and all the onomatopeic features of Polish make one feel that one almost understands what it is about, except, of course, one does not. (One has this "tip of the tongue" feeling throughout).

One of the poets, Tuwim, dropped this after a while and went on to develop a different idiom, while the other, Lesmian, made it an important element of his poetry for the rest of his life, and his poetry is full of these sort of neologisms -- which you "sort of get" except -- not quite. Reading him is a little akin to reading some of the denser Shakespeare -- where the meaning sort of washes over you. (Faulkner reads like that, too, though on account of syntactic confusion rather than neological invention, i think).

Two other similar Polish literary experiments come to mind: Reymont who in his "Peasants" (he got a literature nobel prize for it back in 18... something) in which he invented a non-existent (but very consistent an very beautiful) "regional dialect"; and a massive historcial novel written entirely in an imagined prehistorical Polish (oldest Polish texts date to 13th century but this story dates to 10th) (I completely -- and temporarily -- blanked out on the author's name, age is no fun). This takes some getting used to, but becomes a transparent reading once one acquires the "vocabulary". This is a sort of "Boewulf", you might say, made today, Tolkien-like.

this comment may as well for your coinage entry of today (in which you discuss the derivation of thesaurus).


Sir G

Sir G said...


Conrad H. Roth said...

Oh, thanks for the tips. These all sound fascinating. Are there (good) English translations of these various works? I can't think of anything quite the same in English, although perhaps "A Clockwork Orange" is in the same ballpark to the latter. I'm going to write a post on the amazing Hisperica Famina at some point: 7th-century Hiberno-Latin poems in the bizarrest forms you can imagine.

Dead Hippo said...

An excellent attempt at translating the untranslatable genius of Morgenstern. May I propose my own attempt, though it suffers from having been slapped together haphazardly at 2am:

Do storms whistle?
Do worms bristle?
Are the owl's
Heard from steeples?


It is the hangman's rig's
end that groans, constricts
like the wallop
in full gallop
of the worn-out, knackered mare
that chafing for the water licks
(still, maybe, far-off from there).

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for the contribution!