Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten.
Mir blassen durch das dunkel die gesichter
Die freundlich eben noch sich zu mir drehten.
Und bäum und wege die ich liebte fahlen
Dass ich sie kaum mehr kenne und du lichter
Geliebter schatten rufer meiner qualen
Bist nun erloschen ganz in tiefern gluten
Um nach dem taumel streitenden getobes
Mit einem frommen schauer anzumuten.
Ich löse mich in tönen • kreisend • webend •
Ungründigen danks und unbenamten lobes
Dem grossen atem wunschlos mich ergebend.
Mich überfährt ein ungestümes wehen
Im rausch der weihe wo inbrünstige schreie
In staub geworfner beterinnen flehen:
Dann seh ich wie sich duftige nebel lüpfen
In einer sonnerfüllten klaren freie
Die nur umfängt auf fernsten bergesschlüpfen.
Der boden schüttert weiss und weich wie molke.
Ich steige über schluchten ungeheuer •
Ich fühle wie ich über letzter wolke
In einem meer kristallnen glanzes schwimme
Ich bin ein funke nur vom heiligen feuer
Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme.
Stefan George, 1907
This poem is used as the text of the fourth movement
of the String Quartet no.2
(1907-8) by Arnold Schoenberg
, possibly the most notorious
piece of chamber music
of the last century. (Sung by a soprano
, who unexpectedly enters - somewhat as the chorus do in Beethoven's 9th symphony
- into a medium which had previously been purely instrumental
.) The third movement text is Litanei
), and while the two poems have in common a precise form with highly-structured metre
and rhyme scheme
s, they are very different in expression and emotional effect.
Stefan George's innovations aimed at renewing poetic German language are fully in evidence here. The sparse, unconventional punctuation and the typography (no capitals for nouns) are the most obvious signs, but the use of vocabulary is also unexpected, paradoxical and disorienting - on which, see my translation notes. In contrast to the radical austerity of Litanei (simple vocabulary, simple declarative grammar, end-stopped lines), Entrückung has long, grammatically complex thoughts that spill over several lines (enjambement) and even connect one tercet with another. The feminine rhymes tend to send the reader on from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, maintaining a flowing rhythm.
The emotional state of the poem's protagonist is projected onto the strange phenomena occurring around him (or her, although George's circle tended strongly to the masculine). Rather than "I feel weird", he says "I feel air from another planet". The "friendly faces" and "trees and lanes" are the last real objects we see: from then on, the journey is in the metaphysical and metaphorical realm. And it is quite a rollercoaster ride, in contrast to the fixed and steadily intensifying desire for redemption of Litanei.
We start with alienation from familiar and comforting objects; then in mid-sentence the subject addresses a second person, "You light beloved shadow - summoner of my torments -" who, judging by the strong and conflicting emotions he or she arouses, can only be the object of a love-affair. The third tercet is a drama in itself: although only the dark embers of love remain, madness, rage, and conflict are recalled (note the assonance of tapped alveolars, or for those who are not Gritchka, note the t,d, sounds of "dem taumel streitenden getobes"), and also a strange quasi-religious awe, a shiver at the final apprearance of the beloved.
Then suddenly something sweeps the subject off his feet: sounds, swirling, weaving, inarticulate but intense, overpowering but invigorating - the "great breath". "(Unreasoning) thanks" and "(unnamed) praise" have religious overtones: it is almost as if he had been taken up to heaven, despite the secular nature of the poem. But the way to bliss is not straightforward: we are knocked down into the dust with fervently crying and pleading women, described by the paradox of frenzied consecration - another word with religious connotations.
Again through an agency beyond his control, the protagonist rises through the mists into a truly heavenly region: huge sun-filled expanses, mountains, canyons. After the darkness and murk of the beginning of the poem, suddenly everything is brightness and sparkle; after the physical and moral efforts of fighting and prayer, suddenly it is easy to stride over canyons and swim among the clouds. The first sensation in this strange journey was that of sound; what takes him away now is the sight and scent of the rising vapours ("Dann seh ich wie sich duftige nebel lüpfen"); finally, feeling how he is swimming above the last clouds, the sense of touch also buoys the traveller up.
At the end of this highly contrasted series of scenes and emotions comes the mystical apotheosis or absorption of the subject into a deity - not God as such, but a "holy fire", a "holy voice". Again George uses the physical and sensual as images or embodiments of his idea.
The atmosphere of the poem is reminiscent of Richard Wagner's so-called Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde - actually the Verklärung (transfiguration) at the end of the opera, where Isolde sings of her beautiful but deluded vision of her dead lover, then apparently sails away on a wave of exhilarating abstractions into a world unconnected with reality. However George, great poet that he is (and that Wagner wasn't), provides a much more concrete and evocative vision of such an interior journey, and almost lets us believe
that we can survive in this Elysian thought-world.
Following the relatively earthbound incantation of Litanei, this poem is a radical progression entirely suited to Schoenberg's final steps away from the influence of tonality, steps which happen precisely in the final movement. The first line "Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten" (I feel air from another planet) became a symbol of the drive towards Expressionism and away from the obvious and reassuring elements of art. The last, "Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme" (I am only a booming of the holy voice), should also be remembered, since neither George nor Schoenberg wanted just to be "new-fangled", but they believed sincerely in the emotional values of their art which bound it to the masters of the past.
Below is my translation, achieved with much head-scratching, and advice from Apatrix, Siobhan and Zarkonnen. I have not heeded LaylaLeigh's plea to "make it go away". The title is already difficult - it could be Rapture, Transport, Exaltation, Ravishment, Ecstasy - none of which quite fit the required mood, due to the bathetic Anglo-Saxon tendency to ridicule such mystico-emotional concepts. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth tercets are particularly obscure, with multiple possible meanings and ambiguous, elliptical grammar verging on incoherence.
"Wehen" normally means "labour-pains" but in the grammatical context here it is likely a noun formed from wehend, blowing or gusting; however it also has connotations of "Weh" and "wehe", balefulness or woe. (The same ambiguity is exploited in the opening sailor's song in Tristan und Isolde.) Since English does not have a word for a baleful gust of wind, I have transferred the "painful/woeful" aspect to the preceding adjective, which in German just means "vehement". Later on, "umfangen" normally means to surround, but this is incomprehensible in context: the clear expanse cannot "surround" (on) the mountains. This odd
inversion may be a new rhetorical device, or just deliberate obscurity. And the "bergesschlüpfen" are themselves mysterious - this newly-created word should mean slippery or slip-worthy parts of mountains. I give up...
I feel air from another planet.
The faces that just now turned themselves smiling
To me are fading through the darkness.
And trees and lanes that I loved so sallow
That I hardly recognise them and you light
Beloved shadow - summoner of my torments -
Are now quite extinct in deeper glows
- After the madness of contending rages -
To appear with a pious shiver.
I dissolve into sounds • circling • weaving •
Of unreasoning thanks and unnamed praise
Abandoning myself desireless to the great breath.
A harrowing gust knocks me down
Into a frenzy of consecration where fervent cries
Of dust-prostrated prayer-women are pleading:
Then I see how fragrant mists lift themselves
Into a sun-filled clear expanse
That only borders on the furthest mountain-slides.
The ground trembles white and soft as whey.
I stride over immense canyons •
I feel how over the farthest cloud I
Swim in a sea of crystalline splendour -
I am only a spark from the holy fire
I am only a booming of the holy voice.