22 March 2013

Hamburg-Klopstock calling Goethe! Come in Goethe!

If the Duke continues to drink himself to the point of illness then he will succumb to that illness, and will not live long, instead of, as he claims, strengthening his body with the drink ... The Duchess may continue to suppress her current discomfort, due to her very manly way of thinking. But this discomfort will turn into sorrow. And will she be able to suppress that? Luise's [the Duchess's] sorrow! Goethe! -- ... ”

So wrote Hamburg poet Friedrich Klopstock to Goethe in Weimar in 1777. At that time, Klopstock was still seen as the fatherly head of all German language writers. Like Günter Grass today, he had many detractors who enjoyed the sport of mocking him, and yet nevertheless enjoyed a huge status. Goethe, 28 and already a famous writer, was making news with his rugby-player-after-five-pints sort of behaviour together with his patron & close friend the Duke of Weimar, Karl August. They slashed around themselves show-offishly on the market place with big whips, jumped on their horses, and rode through the villages playing sadistic practical jokes on the locals, knowing these people had no means of redress against such actions. Klopstock gets to hear of this in Hamburg and is incensed, it undermines his ideal of the poet as someone who rises on the sublime above all such iniquities. He also feels responsible, seeing Goethe as a promising but errant relative of the family of poets which he presides over. And so the letter continues:

Goethe! -- no, do not drape yourself in that glory, you do not love her as I do .... Up to know the Germans have been right to complain about their rulers, because these rulers haven't wanted anything to do with you scholars (=writers). Your friendship with the Duke takes him straight away out of that category. But if you continue to dance with the Duke to this old tune, there's no limit to the excuses the other rulers would have to make in their defence, [for not being interested in writers], if it actually one day will have happened, that thing which I fear most?”

Klopstock asks Goethe to show the letter to the Duke too. Whether Goethe did this or not we don't know, but we do know that he only answered two months later, in a tone of clear refusal: “Do spare us such letters in the future”, adding casually that he'd have no time at all for himself if he responded to all such letters and warnings.

Klopstock didn't like this not very veiled insult at all: “And as you even threw my letter into that category of 'such letters' or 'such warnings' – you express yourself as strongly as that ­-- my letter, containing the proof of my gift of friendship, then I declare you not worthy of that gift I gave you.” i The break between the two of them was final.

Goethe treated many people badly; and his response to Klopstock shows him as a careerist, understanding art as a career-ladder and the necessity of shoving people off the top of that ladder, to make way for himself. Or, as Yeats puts it in his poem, The Fisherman: “The beating down of the wise / And great art beaten down.” If you translated Klopstock's name literally into English you would get Knock-stick. Knocking his stick at Goethe didn't help Klopstock.

For those of you out there who want to get more into the Klopstock feeling, come along to the annual Hamburg "Poetry Slam in a Church" event, to be staged  in what's known as the Klopstock-Kirche - the Christianskirche in Altona - where you can even see Klopstock's tomb. My Writer's Room colleague Hartmut Pospiech is hosting the evening (around the 3rd weekend in June.) My biggest question is whether Hartmut will allow sexually explicit or explicitly political poetry in the church - and how the vicar will respond. The fact that this is my biggest question seems proof of an infantile part of my mind, concerned with scandal & smut, a quality of mind that Goethe hung onto for a long long time, well into his late thirties.

i For the original German version of the quotes from the letters from Klopstock & Goethe, and for the historical background to the above post, please see: Friedenthal, Richard. Goethe. Sein Leben und seine Zeit. Piper, 1996, Munich. p.190 – 191.

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