Umbauen, Umgewöhnen, Umdenken: Romanticism as Translation

Umbauen: The Movement Removed

Harry Heuser

Moving within the literary periods charted for us by the cartographers of imaginary landscapes, I am no stranger to alienation; and that the Heimliche(something concealed yet potentially congenial) does not always translate into the Heimische (the homelike) is largely due to the puzzling inadequacy of maps that never quite match the scenery, as well as to the inflexibility of the theoretical apparatus with which scholars are wont to compass the literatures of the past.  Rarely has this feeling of estrangement been more pronounced than during my confrontation with Romantic Hellenism; that is to say, not necessarily with any of the poems claimed to be representative of the movement but with the movement itself as an historical construct, with the tendency of literary historians to reduce poetry to story.  As Shelley argues in this oft quoted passage from “A Defence of Poetry”:

There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other bond of connexion than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.  The one is partial, and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature. . . .  The story of particular facts is a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.  (485)

That poetry can make “familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (487)1 is an experience to be cherished; historians, on the other hand, who are intent upon periodization are apt to store that which they have storied, to shelve it, and thus estrange us from texts upon which they would have us look as upon mere artifacts, as products of their time.  Of course, most readers are desirous to make poetic pieces fit, to contextualize them, not only when encouraged to do so by period-fencing anthologists; but by the polymorphic poems themselves, particularly if, as is the case with many early 19th-century works, they announce themselves as fragments.  Such an engagement supposes, as De Man—once again asking “What is the meaning [. . .] of romanticism?”—suggests,

that Shelley or romanticism are themselves entities, which, like a statue, can be broken into pieces, mutilated, or allegorized [. . .] after having been stiffened, frozen, erected or whatever one wants to call the particular rigidity of statues.  Is the status of a text line the status of a statue? (“Shelley Disfigured” 40-41)

In the minds of imaginative statue-smashers performing their bold acts of disfigurement or animated refiguration, poetry may certainly find its survival; in the hands of scholarly statue-snatchers, however, our literary remains—once they are systematically catalogued and turned into history (Geschichte), all figured out—are reduced to being stacked (auf-geschichtet) and lowered into the archival vaults of cultural anthropology.  Thus, unless prepared to relinquish my imagination, I must meet the proponents of the latter approach with a reproach suggested to me by young Hölderlin: “Was nimmt ihr mir, den nur die Kämpfe retten, / Ihr Weichlinge! mein glühend Element?” (“Der Jüngling an die Klugen Ratgeber”; 15-16).  It does not follow, however, that I am ready to take up the hammer of deconstruction myself.

After all, the challenge of translating the foreign into a home for oneself lies in adapting a mode of reading congenial to the text one seeks to engage, in realizing a “compatibility between literary experience and literary theory” unhampered by a suspicious “compatibility of the aesthetic dimensions of literature with whatever it is that its theoretical investigation discloses” (De Man, “Sign and Symbol” 761-62).  Such concerns appear to have been almost entirely alien to early to mid-twentieth-century scholars, on whose research latter-day readers whose sojourn among the Romantic Hellenists is by choice or necessity but of a short duration may nonetheless feel compelled to depend.  Yet instead of affording shelter to the wayward, those wary or weary of theory, such theory-resistant studies seem as remote to the present as they are to the works they purport to discuss.  Attempting to document that Romantic Hellenism “finds its origin within the neo-classical period itself” (168), Bernard Herbert Stern, concludes:

Romanticism is seen to transmute the neo-classical worship of the ancients into a bulwark for the ‘radical’ ideas of genius, primitivism, liberty, and equality.  Stimulated in embryo by Rome, this romantic attitude is directed toward Greece primarily by the growth of scientific archaeology. . . .  To this scientific approach to Greece, travel literature adds such sentimental elements as the idealization of ancient Greek life and culture, rhapsodies over the beauties of modern Greece, and lamentations over the decay of the Arcadia that was the Greece of long ago and the slavery to which it has been subjected by the Turks.  Aestheticians such as Winckelmann and [William “Oriental”] Jones add to these a further romantic element by reading into ancient Greek art what the travellers have read into the islands of modern Greece.  (166-67)

While modifying Harry Levin’s suspiciously neat cause-and-effect argument that “Romanticism arose as a protest against the neo-classicism into which the humanistic tradition had frozen” (74) by drawing our attention to certain “romantic hellenic strains” in poems written by the “precursors of the romantic movement,” Stern’s approach seems equally enchained by causal relationships against the establishment of which it initially cautions.  Ultimately, both studies seem to express—whether openly or tacitly—an uneasiness or regret about the tendency among poets and thinkers identified as belonging to the philhellenic movement, whatever its temporal boundaries, creatively to transform the literature of ancient Greece, and a yearning instead for the purity of the classics.  Levin ends his survey by remarking:

It has been said that the Greek language was pure because the Greek read and spoke no other.  It may be that this principle can explain the clarity which we find in classical times and the confusion which we see, at present, in our own age.  Whether or not that is true, we may be sure, when we look back to the past, that the Greeks were ever looking forward to the future. . . .  Up to this late day, when we are depending more and more upon that vast tradition of our own which we have accumulated, and less and less upon our inheritance from the more remote past, each successive age has interpreted Hellas anew.  (75-76)

Allotting the movement its place in history, both studies signal a desire to bring clarity and structure into an age that appears to have played fast and loose with the classics.  Thus forced into its boundaries, the age may be abandoned in favor of the purity that distinguished “the more remote past” or—the confused present being not yet classifiable—predicable futurity.  In this they strike me as the bureaucratic, mechanical, formulaic civilization-cripples Schiller deplored in his Briefe über die Ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen: “Der tote Buchstabe vertritt den lebendigen Verstand, und ein geübtes Gedächtnis leitet sicherer als Genie und Empfindung” (34).

In their insistence upon historical placement of literature-turned-evidence and their resistance to creative thought, both scholars seem to play Mahmud opposite an Ahasuerus of fiction who has difficulties conveying that

Thought / Alone, and its quick elements, Will, Passion, /Reason, Imagination cannot die; / They are, what that which they regard, appears, / The stuff whence mutability can weave / All that it hath dominion o’er, worlds, worms, / Empires and superstitions—what has thought / To do with time or place or circumstance? (Shelley, Hellas 795-802)

Theirs (the critics’) is a history of facts; his (Shelley’s) is a history of the spirit.  For to him “Greece,” as Earl R. Wasserman puts it, seems indeed to have been

but one local habitation of the eternal Hellenic spirit, not the country to which it is limited.  As it was for Hegel, history for Shelley is the universal development of Spirit, and geographical countries only house the successive stages of its evolution.  (375)

The attempt of fact-gatherers to fit everything unter einen Hut (under one hat), as the Germans say, by way of containing poetry and prose within more or less narrowly defined historical periods based upon certain discernible features of the works under scrutiny results in a uniformity of critical writing neither artistically inspired nor intellectually inspiring.  To patch together whatever may be culled as serviceable evidence from the scrap heap of literary history by arguing the changes in poetry to be mere responses to political or socioeconomic developments seems decidedly old hat; to sew such patches up with a few, coarse rhetorical stitches makes said hat not just unappealing, but virtually inaccessible to the head (lest we should find it tolerable to consider ourselves sewn right into the mind-muffling cloth); to place this artifact, for want of better usage, into a display case marked “The Untergang of the Argument in the West” would seem its deserved fate—were it not so remarkably common as to render such means of conspicuity altogether superfluous.

After all, any number of chronicled events—the discovery of Herculanaeum (1738), the pillaging of the Acropolis under Lord Elgin (1801-5), or the Greek War of Independence (1821-9)—may be shown to have “hellenized the current of ideas in the age” (Stern 166); and any number of 18th-century writings, publications as diverse as Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums(1764), Chandler’s Travels in Asia Minor (1776), or Barthelemy’s Les Voyages du jeune Anacharsis en Grece (1788) may be drawn upon to illustrate such apparent hellenizations.  If only the French Revolution had been fought out among the ruins of Athens, if only Werther had expired there—we could have stored and storied the movement in a far more orderly fashion.

While I am not quite stubborn enough to resist Geschichte altogether, to ignore, for example, that Winckelmann’s attraction to Greece was a response to the blindness and intellectual poverty he believed to have been the affliction of his age, and that his Geschichte, in turn, influenced many of its author’s contemporaries (or those alive during the time of his spectacular demise), I cannot but feel more at home when discovering the alleged father of Romantic Hellenism—or a cleverly crafted simulacrum of him—removed from his age, translated instead into a chapter of the artistically anachronistic Renaissance in which Pater praises Winckelmann as one who “remodels his writings with constant renewal of insight,” who “seems to realise that fancy of the reminiscence of a forgotten knowledge hidden for a time in the mind itself,” and whose works, according to Goethe, “are a life, a living thing, designed for those who are alive—ein Lebendiges für die Lebendigen geschrieben, ein Leben selbst” (125).  And although I have failed, for now, to feel this passionate about the life pulsating in Winckelmann’s writings, I nonetheless envy Pater not only for having traced, but for having thus transfused it.  Translating imaginatively, Pater, too, “participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not” (Shelley 483).

Pronouncing Winckelmann’s style to be like a “Kunstwerk der Alten,” Herder refuses to ponder the origin of Winckelmann’s thought outright:

Geworden sei er, wo oder wie er wolle, mit Mühe oder von selbst, in einem Griechen oder in Winckelmann; genug, dass er durch diesen auf einmal, wie eine Minerva aus Jupiters Haupt, dastehet und ist.  (Killy 188)

How necrotic, by comparison, are the generalizations encountered in historical surveys, where we find the fluidity of thought congealed into cubes of meaning, life petrified as if it had suffered the sight of Medusa.  Timothy Webb, responding to the difficulties in periodization by arguing that Romantic Hellenism “should be seen as part of a continuum” (ix), fashions an anthology of English, French, and German prose whose very title—English Romantic Hellenism: 1700-1824—he realizes to be in need of “some explanation” (ix).  Yet the only “explanation” provided is that the anthologist has chosen to redraw the boundaries (separating the “continuum” from the Renaissance and the Victorian age), boundaries that, due in part to the awkward title, seem remarkably arbitrary.  And while Webb’s valuable compilation of “views which are often radically opposed” (31) purports to illustrate that the “image of Greece was constantly refined, revised, refuted or reinterpreted,” its editor still feels compelled to proclaim such contrasts “emblematic,” positing that “Greece remained a rich imaginary matrix either as an ideal toward which one might aspire or as a false example which must be repudiated: it was a mirror in which the age could see itself” (32).

Despite echoing the words of Schlegel’s reflections about “Universalpoesie” which alone “kann gleich dem Epos ein Spiegel der ganzen umgebenden Welt, ein Bild des Zeitalters werden” (Killy 648), the anthologist, even when concluding that the “fascination of Romantic Hellenism is in its endless variety” (Webb 31), signals not an acceptance of the continuum, but a desire for its enclosure as past, as documents being distinctly of their time.  Such generalizations are remote from Schlegel’s expressed hopes for the ewig Werdende:

Andre Dichtarten sind fertig und können nun vollständig zergliedert werden.  Die romantische Dichtart ist noch im Werden; ja das ist ihr eigentliches Wesen, dass sie ewig nur werden, nie vollendet sein kann.  Sie kann durch keine Theorie erschöpft werden, und nur eine divinatorischer Kritik dürfte es wagen, ihr Ideal charakterisieren zu wollen.  Sie allein ist unendlich, wie sie allein frei ist und das als ihr erstes Gesetz anerkannt, dass die Willkür des Dichters kein Gesetz über sich leide.  Die romantische Dichtart ist die einzige, die mehr als Art und gleichsam die Dichtkunst selbst ist: denn in einem gewissen Sinn ist oder soll alle Poesie romantisch sein.  (Killy 648)

Fortunately, a decidedly “divinatorischer” Schlegel, declaring romantic poetry to be “nie vollendet,” also becomes its preserver as he, in his own delicious “Willkür,” refuses to conceive of the nascence of anthologists who, by employing inductive reasoning in documenting the “endless variety” of Romantic Hellenism, only emphasize the movement’s pastness and thus blast themselves out of existence.

Such ironies notwithstanding, I have forced myself to address the problem of generalization without seeking refuge in the habit (Gewohnheit) of confining my discussion to a single ode or urn.  And as much as I abhor the thought of donning the universal hard hat in order to excavate any number of verses from 18th-century and early 19th-century poetry that may be argued to express philhellenic sentiments by alluding to ancient Greece, its landscapes, its architecture, or its deities, it ought not to be supposed that I will sit back and let Momus survey other critics’ findings.  

What caught my attention when I read the remarks by Stern with which I chose to open my discussion were the phrases “to transmute,” and “reading into”; the latter expression occurs frequently in Stern’s survey, but remains largely unexplored.  When referring, to James Thomson’s Liberty, for instance, Stern speaks of a “tendency by Thomson to read into ancient Greece what he believes ought to have existed there”:

Because he really knows little of ancient Greece factually, he envelops it with a sentimentalized attractiveness, the source of which is within himself.  Greece has become, in his hands, a symbol of a spirit and an emotion much broader than the culture which he is describing.  In this sense his description is romantic.  (121)2

Merely fishing for snippets of poetry, I almost ignored the expression due to its commonness (Gewöhnlichkeit); now it shall assist me instead in getting used to a different mode of reading (umgewöhnen).  What is this tendency of “reading into” that Stern claims to be so prevalent among the poets he chooses to include in his survey, this tendency so vital to Romantic Hellenism, this tendency Stern so entirely lacks?

Umgewöhnen: The Model Remodeled

The phrase “reading into”—and this is how I choose to make it legible—suggests not only that the poet thus criticized engages in an act of interpretation by bringing to a text—ancient Greece, apparently—something not already dwelling within it, but also that this infiltration is a reading failure precisely because something is assumed to be lodged within “Greece” that the poet has overlooked.  More often than not this act of “reading into” is alleged to be the result of the poet’s ignorance (“Because he really knows little of ancient Greece factually”) or all-engulfing sentimentality (“an emotion much broader than the culture which he is describing”).  Levin, for example, who pronounces Keats “the laureate of bric-a-brac,” points out that the poet knew the classics only second hand, did not read Greek, and “preferred to look back to the golden age in the literature of his own people, rather than to follow the classical tradition.  He says little of Homer and a great deal about Chapman” (67).

Undoubtedly, those sublunary readers who are eager to point to Keats’ ignorance will glean little from the Balboa/Cortez confusion of “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” a moment in which Erinnerung manifests itself as a mode of translation.  “It is a commonplace,” remarks Michael Aske, “that Keats’ knowledge of ancient Greek was negligible” (34); yet I cannot but agree that this apparent ignorance, as Aske argues, is a “false problem,” since “[c]lassical Greece does not present itself as a language to be mastered, or a text to be edited, but as a supreme fiction, an ideal space that might yield a host of fine poetic imaginings” (35).

That the given text, “Greece,” is not necessarily restricted to literary models in Stern’s discussion becomes clear in the statement that “[a]estheticians such as Winckelmann and Jones add . . . a further romantic element by reading into ancient Greek art what the travellers have read into the islands of modern Greece” (167).  How else, one wonders, are travellers to experience the foreign if not by importing (whether declaredly or clandestinely) their thoughts, feelings, and expectations—the affective fallacies of international tourism? After all, is there meaning autochthonous to landscapes for poets to unearth? And if a poet like Thomson truly enveloped Greece “with a sentimentalized attractiveness, the source of which is within himself,” are we to assume the romantic coverlet to have been produced by an internal loom (histos), rather than being woven out of the common threads of “archaeology, travel to Greece, and Greek-inspired aesthetics” Stern claims to have been so instrumental in fashioning Romantic Hellenism (118), a loom hidden yet nonetheless accessible after scholarly disinterment by any dull spoiler of literary criticism deaf to the curse of intentional fallacy?

I decided, therefore, to appropriate “reading into” as a phrase expressive of the act of translation, of imaginative transgression, of infiltrating what Shelley calls “the storehouse of examples to everlasting time” (488).  Yet before substituting one word-garment for another, before shrouding the process of transmutation, transposition, reenactment, re-presentation, double interpretation, or paraphrase into yet another metaphor, I ought to clarify, perhaps, what I mean when I use the word “translation” in this context.  In After Babel, George Steiner provides this serviceable survey of the “three classes” of translation:

The first comprises strict literalism, the word-by-word matching of the interlingual dictionary, of the foreign-language primer, of the interlinear crib.  The second is the great central area of “trans-lation” by means of faithful but autonomous restatement.  The translator closely reproduces the original but composes a text which is natural to his own tongue, which can stand on its own.  The third class is that of imitation, recreation, variation, interpretative parallel.  It covers a large, diffuse area, extending from transpositions of the original into a more accessible idiom all the way to the freest, perhaps only allusive or parodistic echoes.  (253)

It is the third class of translation to which I am referring here, since it is in this “diffuse area” in which the Romantic imagination made a home for itself, from the Bridge Narration of Thomas Chatterton, the impostor-poet, in honor of whose death most of Albion’s great Romantics displayed their poetic hatbands, to Sartor Resartus, Carlyle’s self-conscious, label-repellent mock-translation.

Indeed, as translation gained complexity in both theory and praxis, the efficacy of fidelity was questioned even by those who engaged in the art.  Thomas Taylor, for example, remarked that

where languages differ so much as the ancient and modern, the most perfect method, perhaps, of transferring the philosophy from the one language to the other, is by a faithful and animated paraphrase: faithful, with regard to retaining the sense of the author; and animated, with respect to preserving the fire of the original; calling it forth when latent, and expanding it when condensed.  Such a one, will every where endeavour to improve the light, and fathom the depth of his author; to elucidate what is obscure, and to amplify, what in modern language would be unintelligibly concise.  (Webb, English Romantic Hellenism 185-86)

Less prosaically, Shelley, commenting on the “vanity of translation” in his Defence of Poetry, suggests:

[I]t were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet.  The plant must spring again from its seed or it will bear no flower—and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel.  (484)

According to this view, instead of trans-planting the “creations” of another poet, the translator, far from being enslaved by the original, must himself become the planter who brings about the blossoming of his own creations.  And even though critics such as Denis Donoghe argue that “[a]llusion is not translation” since “its relation to the original is opportunistic rather than representative” (248), the act of translating or version-making or “reading into” may indeed be one of bold appropriation, rather than one of mere approximation, self-serving, rather than servile.  Perhaps the translator, too, is a traveller “Whose tale is only of himself” (Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 3, 199), anxious to relate the encounters with the foreign, the experience of linking, fusing, or transposing antiquity and modernity—the challenges of bearing the curse of Babel.

Stern’s survey of the precursors of Romantic Hellenism includes several passages that, if hardly remarkable for their intellectual complexity, nonetheless touch upon the act of translation.  The poet-speaker of Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of Imagination, for example, following the “Genius of ancient Greece” (1.567), describes his mission thus:

From the blooming store, / Of these auspicious fields, may I unblamed / Transplant some living blossoms to adorn / My native clime: while far above the flight / Of Fancy’s plume aspiring, I unlock / The springs of ancient wisdom! while I join / Thy name, thrice honour’d! with the immortal praise / Of Nature; while to my compatriot youth / I point the high example of thy sons, / And tune to Attic themes the British lyre.  (1.595-604; qtd. in Stern 135-66)3

Yet the speaker has already summoned quite a number of “Genii, who conduct / The wandering footsteps of the youthful bard” (1.25-6), among them “Indulgent Fancy!” busying herself on the “fruitful banks / Of Avon” (1.10-11), as well as “Fiction,” who “blends and shifts at will, thro’ countless forms, / Her wild creation” (1.14; 17-18).  The process of imaginative translating, in nuce, is described as a liberal—and liberating—act of culling and concocting; and although Dr. Akenside’s physic may indeed contain a few pinches of bottled Hellas, the spice of the erudite, critics eager to classify this frothy melange are urged to hold their tongue.

It should come as no surprise that in mentally more stimulating verse the translating process, an experience which undoubtedly “involves one of the most complex intellectual challenges known to mankind” (Nida 155), is portrayed as being considerably more intricate than a mere tuning of “Attic themes” to the “British lyre.”  Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, for example, as Jennifer Wallace suggests, does not only “re-write and re-define Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound but . . . is also concerned with the process of such a transformation” (150):

Just as the monologue initially directed to Jupiter in the first act is widened to include Ione, Panthea, Asia and the chorus, so the single voice of Aeschylus is diffused through many voices from classical Greek inheritance.  The multiple Greek sources transmit alternative stories and alternative “energies,” dissolving fixed boundaries of genre and language through their own narratives of transformation and translation.  (167)

This apparent boundary-crossing, expressed so often in the motif of the wandering poet leaving his “alienated home / To seek strange truths in undiscovered lands” (Alastor 76-77), has been argued to suggest that “most of Shelley’s myth,” as a Bloom-induced Webb puts it, “arises not out of the desire to follow a literary convention of mythologizing, but out of a direct personal experience, a living relationship with the world of nature” (The Violet in the Crucible 68).  Yet the notion of mythmaking seems ill-suited to account for the creative process that is translation, an act in which myth is not so much made, but made over, as seemingly familiar mythological figures are estranged from the ancient origins to which their names inevitably point.  As Goethe’s Prometheus, positively refusing to acknowledge the divine origins of which he is reminded by Merkur, exclaims in indignation: “Was Vater! Mutter! / Weisst Du, woher du kommst?” (Killy 160).  And whereas word-furnishers like Akenside who are committed to myth-import, to “Transplant some living blossoms” of antiquity into Albion’s gardens show little interest in examining the mythological soil, thought-cultivators like Shelley, convinced that the “plant must spring again from its seed or it will bear no flower” explore said soil more closely, perceiving it to be, in the words of Schelling, the “Urstoff” in which the “gemeinsame Wurzel der Poesie” (Killy 677) lies embedded.

In his version of the Prometheus myth Shelley has the forethought of responding to the “burthen of the curse of Babel” by liberating the Titan who “gave man speech” (Prometheus Unbound 2.4.72).  Convinced of the power of his gift, Prometheus, more moved by the words of Hercules, than by his actions (3.3.4-6), rejoices in the thought of returning to the womb of language, the cave that is a “simple dwelling” (3.3.22) where “lovely apparitions” (3.3.49)

Shall visit us, the progeny immortal / Of Painting, Sculpture and rapt Poesy / And arts, though unimagined, yet to be. / The wandering voices and the shadows these / Of all that man becomes, the mediators / Of that best worship, love, by him and us / Given and returned. . . .  (3.3.54-60)

The origins, to which Shelley, the translator, returns here are neither an idealized ancient Greece, nor its myths, but something akin to Benjamin’s reine Sprache.  As Benjamin posits in “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers”:

In dieser reinen Sprache, die nichts mehr meint und nichts mehr ausdrückt, sondern als ausdrucksloses und schöpferisches Wort das in allen Sprachen Gemeinte ist, trifft endlich alle Mitteilung, aller Sinn und alle Intention auf eine Schicht, in der sie zu erlöschen bestimmt sind.  Und eben aus ihr bestätigt sich die Freiheit der Übersetzung zu einem neuen und höheren Rechte. . . .  Jene reine Sprache, die in fremde gebannt ist, in der eigenen zu erlösen, die im Werke gefangene in der Umdichtung zu befreien, ist die Aufgabe des Übersetzers.  (19)

As the result—and not in spite—of the liberties he took with the original, Shelley has fulfilled the task (Aufgabe) of the translator: in releasing (erlösen) Prometheus from the drama of Aeschylus, Shelley has redeemed (erlöst) the original, thus bringing about its survival (Überleben).

Another—and decidedly other—translator’s response to the “curse of Babel” can be found in Hölderlin’s “Die Wanderung,” at the center of which, as Rüdiger Görner points out,

ist die Skizzierung einer babylonischen Sprachverwirrung unter den wandernden Völkerstämmen von einst, aus der sich beinahe eine Konfrontation ergeben hätte, die jedoch von der Natur rechtzeitig entschärft wurde. . . .  (71-72)

Unlike Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, therefore, which affords the translator to conceive of reine Sprache in an extra-Babelian realm, Hölderlin’s “Die Wanderung” seems to reject such a concept as it subjects its poet-figure to the post-Babelian confusion of languages.

Since the initially threatening confusion has been turned into a pacific exchange of weapons, “Vertauschten sie Waffen” (line 52), words, “Vertauschten das Wort auch” (54), and wedding vows, the offspring of this fruitful and holy post-Babelian conjugal bond, thus enabled to engage in the act of translation, yearns to celebrate anew the very moment of bonding (Bündnis):

Wo aber wohnt ihr, liebe Verwandten, / Dass wir das Bündnis wiederbegehn / Und den teuern Ahnen gedenken? (61-63)

The movens behind the Wanderung is not to commemorate, but to consummate the union, to turn storied past into poetic present:

Gedenk ich, o Ionia, dein! doch Menschen / Ist Gegenwärtiges lieb.  Drum bin ich / Gekommen, euch, ihr Inseln, zu sehn. . . .  (86-88)

According to Derrida (who is translating Benjamin’s “Aufgabe”—”in itself,” as Richard Sieburth suggests, “a `translation’ of Hölderlin” [241]—while being translated by Joseph F. Graham),

a translation espouses the original when the two adjoined fragments, as different as they can be, complete each other so as to form a larger tongue in the course of a sur-vival that changes them both.  For the native tongue of the translator, as we have noted, is altered as well.  Such at least is my interpretation—my translation, my “task of the translator.”  It is what I have called the translation contract: hymen or marriage contract with the promise to produce a child whose seed will give rise to history and growth.  (191)

Eager to flee from the German mother he failed to win (lines 92-93), the poet woos instead the heavenly daughters of Greece whom he invites into his presence:

Bin ich zu euch, ihr Grazien Griechenlands, / Ihr Himmelstöchter, gegangen, / Dass, wenn die Reise zu weit nicht ist, / Zu uns ihr kommet, ihr Holden! (99-102)

The desired union, however, turns to dream as the cross-over itself does not seem to come about as planned; instead, the Wanderung may lead to a surprising realization:

Zum Traume wird’s ihm, will es einer / Beschleichen und straft den, der / Ihm gleichen will mit Gewalt; / Oft überrascht es einen, / Der eben kaum es gedacht hat.  (113-17)

It is an “Überrascht-Werden,” as Görner concludes, “von einem eigenen Gedanken” (line 73).  To be sure, both eigenen and Gedanken are not only appropriate, but richly suggestive here, even though Görner does not join Hölderlin in his linguistically ludic pursuits.  As the intention of commemorating a wedding of the past (Gedenken) is translated into thoughts (Gedanken) of consummating the union anew, the boundaries of what one owes and what one owns in the process of translation become blurred.  In the provocative phrase “Die eigene Rede des anderen” (45), the concepts of external ownership (Eigentum) and innate characteristic (Eigenschaft) are fused; they refuse to cancel each other out, even after words are vertauscht, after the translator has appropiated the original.  

Antoine Berman suggests that “Die Wanderung” “sings the experience [epreuve] of the foreign and the attachment to what is one’s own simultaneously” (163).  It is a Graeco-Swabian song of joy and agony, of frustrated plans and hoped-for surprises—a translator’s reminder that “das Eigene muss so gut gelernt sein wie das Fremde,” and that nothing is more difficult than the “freie Gebrauch des Eigenen.”4  It is a strangely familiar song.

Umdenken: The Translator Translated

When the translations of Romantic Hellenism are considered primarily as artifacts bridging the gulf between ancient Greece and Romantic England (or Germany), the poets covering this chasm are seen as setting over it (“ihn übersetzend”), rather than sitting over it (“sich über ihn setzend”), slyly concealing, stubbornly belaboring, or anxiously brooding.  It is the consideration of the latter approach that afforded me to explore the experience of translation without forcing me to decide exactly which two points are being bridged in the process—and why (even though it may position the critic wishing to get between poet and gulf somewhat awkwardly).  Yet, as Benjamin asks, “Gilt eine Übersetzung den Lesern, die das Original nicht verstehen?” (9), immediately dismissing the notion.  Nor is a translation reserved for the critic who does understand the original, that is, one who claims to be familiar with the language and culture of ancient Greece to which the translation, the work labeled “Romantic Hellenism,” is argued to lead.

If, as the label “Romantic Hellenism” suggests, the Romantic modifies the Hellenic, the artistic principles underlying such acts of modifying or version-making or translating deserve to be explored as such.  Instead, critics pondering the philhellenic still prefer discussing the ostensible ends of poetry, rather than its means, thereby emphasizing polemic rather than philologic aspects, movens rather than mode.  Michael Erkelenz, for example, recently inquired: “How, precisely, did Shelley adapt Persians and to what end? Why did he respond to the war by writing a classical Greek tragedy?” (313).  And Mark Kipperman, instead of trying to meet the poet in the “inneren Raume und der inneren Zeit der Vorstellung und Empfindung” of the “in sich freigewordene, nicht an das äusserlich-sinnliche Material zur Realisation gebundenen Geistes” (Hegel 123), still prefers to consider that “[i]f Hellas is filled with atemporal ideals, they had timely urgency for Shelley” (151).5

In this respect, the works subsumed under “Romantic Hellenism” continue to suffer the fate of translations that are mainly read as articles of international “Wechseltausch,” as Goethe once referred to them,6 as artifacts in the service of history, always pointing to their origins (Hellenic) while belonging to the culture of the receptor language (Romantic).  And while I don’t wish to deny that my attraction to bridge-sitting, rather than bridge-crossing, is at least in part due to my own negligible knowledge of the Hellenic, my reluctance to designate the points at which the past of ancient Greece and the present of Romantic England (or Germany) connect in the verse of Shelley, Keats, or Hölderlin also enables me to address the claims that the works of Romantic Hellenism are nostalgic.

The term “nostalgia,” Taminiaux reminds us, is derived from a 17th-century medical term created by combining the Greek words “nostos” (return) and “algos” (suffering) so as to translate the word “Heimweh” (73).  Yet if we see this poetic bridge as the dwelling place, the temporary home of its artificer, not merely as the means of transporting the poet from the present into a past, actual or imagined, the notion of nostalgia itself seems remote.  It is for this reason that I have perverted the title of Heidegger’s etymological excursion “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” in which Heidegger explores the essence of dwelling.  Establishing the relationship between “bauen” (to build) and “wohnen” (to dwell) by reminding us that “bauen” can be traced back to “bin,” the first person singular of “sein” (to be) (147), and that wohnen has its Gothic origins in “wunian,” meaning resting or being at peace (149), affords Heidegger to view the bridge as “Gebäude” (building), a place of dwelling.  It is a dwelling—and a way of thinking about the essence of dwelling—Heidegger concludes, that has to be learned anew: “Die eigentliche Not des Wohnens beruht darin, dass die Sterblichen das Wesen des Wohnens immer erst wieder suchen, dass sie das Wohnen erst lernen müssen” (162).

Heidegger, once again pondering Hölderlin’s expression “. . . und dichterisch wohnet der Mensch . . .” in an essay thus titled, applies this thought to poetry as well:

Das Dichten erbaut das Wesen des Wohnens.  Dichten und Wohnen schliessen sich nicht nur nicht aus.  Dichten und Wohnen gehören vielmehr, wechselweise einander fordernd, zusammen.  (202)

I have tried to render my own learning experience by reshaping the state of Wohnen into the activity of Umgewöhnen, the process of getting used to, of feeling comfortable with something else.  Unlike Umbauen (rebuilding) and Umdenken (rethinking), Umwohnen is ungrammatical.  At any given moment in time, one either dwells somewhere or one does not.  Umgewöhnen, on the other hand, captures the ongoing process of shedding the habitual, of discovering one’s own thought in the foreign, and of facing the challenge of the “freie Gebrauch des Eigenen.”  This, to me, is the task of the translator.

Poetry deserves more translators and fewer cataloguers.  It appears that the works labeled Romantic Hellenism (and I have sustained the capital letters in recognition of the label, not as a sign of my unequivocal acceptance of its denoting a literary movement—or worse, a cultural phenomenon—as defined by certain mid-20th century critics) are frequently subjected to classical or neo-classical standards; they are reviewed as translations, transliterations, or transmutations of an original they inevitably fail to capture: ancient Greece.  This may account for the mocking tone that pervades Levin’s study and the self-satisfaction found in Stern’s; galumphing through the age, Stern reminds us that the poetry under scrutiny

is, of course, escapist in nature.  It is obvious that the poet uses the alleged freedom of Greece merely as a symbol of his own desire . . . .  The idealization of hellenic culture in such poetry is founded not upon study and knowledge, but upon uncritical emotions aroused by the playing of the imagination upon the remains of a past civilization.  (5)

And although Levin urges his readers “not make the mistake of judging romantic Hellenism from the neo-classical viewpoint,” since, he argues, “[i]t is doubtful if the neo-classicists always had a sounder apprehension of the classics than their romantic Hellenist successors” (74), it seems that such readings of certain canonical works by 18th-century and early 19th-century authors that may be deemed philhellenic were too often judged precisely by the soundness of their apprehension of the classics.7

If Übersetzen is bridging, too little attention is paid to the bridge as an artistic structure, and too much to the points it is argued to connect.  And even if I take my hat off before the scholars of literature—hellenic, romantic, or romantic-hellenic—I still cannot stand hat in hand.  Instead, I feel compelled to fling it into the ring shaping itself on the waters under the bridge.


1. As Novalis puts it: “Die Kunst, auf eine angenehme Art zu befremden, einen Gegenstand fremd zu machen und doch bekannt und anziehend, das ist die romantische Poetik” (Killy 646).

2. Commenting on the epode to “Ode of Fear,” Stern writes that William Collins “is the romantic hellenist who reads into Greece what is really within himself” (145), rendering Collins virtually indistinguishable from Winckelmann who, according to Stern, was soon to begin “reading into Greek art what is really a desire within himself” (92).

3. Another example stems from William Mason’s “Elegy to the Rev. Mr. Hurd,” prefixed to Caractacus (1759):

Bring then to Britain’s plain that choral throng; / Display thy buskin’s pomp, thy golden lyre; / Give her historic forms the soul of song, / And mingle Attic art with Shakespear’s fire.  (qtd. in Stern 155)

4. Words from Hölderlin’s often quoted letter to the poet Casimir Ulrich Böhlendorff, dated 2 Dec. 1801 (2: 927).

5. For an alternative perspective on language and history—one in keeping, I sense, with Shelley’s model of history—the reader may wish to consider William A. Ulmer’s “Hellas and the Historical Uncanny.”  As Ulmer argues, “Hellas cannot sanction critical readings which, reversing the trajectories of displacement, restore the text to history as its determining but occluded truth” (611).

6. In a letter to Thomas Carlyle, dated 20 July 1827, Goethe describes the translator’s position in this business (“Geschäft”) as one distinguished by influence, prestige, and power:

Und so ist jeder Übersetzer anzusehen, dass er sich als Vermittler dieses allgemein geistigen Handels bemüht, und den Wechseltausch zu befördern sich zum Geschäft macht.  Denn, was man auch von der Unzulänglichkeit des Übersetzens sagen mag, so ist und bleibt es doch eins der wichtigsten und würdigsten Geschäfte in dem allgemeinen Weltwesen.  (Norton 19)

7. Only fairly recently have critics expressed the need to “distinguish between critics’ idealism and Shelley’s,” for instance, feeling “less anxious to condemn Shelley’s utopian language as escapist” (Kipperman 150).

Works Cited

Akenside, Mark.  The Poetical Works of Mark Akenside.  William Pickering, 1843.

Aske, Martin.  Keats and Hellenism: An Essay.  Cambridge UP, 1985.

Benjamin, Walter.  Gesammelte Schriften.  Ed. Tillman Rexroth.  Suhrkamp, 1972.

Berman, Antoine.  The Experience of the Foreign.  1984.  Trans. S. Heyvaert.  State U of New York P, 1992.

De Man, Paul.  “Shelley Disfigured.”  Deconstruction and Criticism.  Ed. Harold Bloom, et al. Continuum, 1979.

—.  “Sign and Symbol in Hegel’s Aesthetics.”  Critical Inquiry 8, Summer 1982, pp. 761-75.

Derrida, Jacques.  “Des Tours de Babel.”  Difference in Translation.  Ed. and trans. Joseph F. Graham.  Cornell UP, 1985, pp. 165-207.

Donoghue, Denis.  “Translating in Theory and in a Certain Practice.”  Warren 244-57.

Erkelenz, Michael.  “Inspecting the Tragedy of Empire: Shelley’s Hellas and Aeschylus’ Persians.”  Philological Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 3, 1997, pp. 313-37.

Görner, Rüdiger.  “Wanderung zwischen den Extremen: Hölderlins Sinngebung des Exzentrischen.”  Text & Kritik.  Sonderband, 7/97, pp. 62-73.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.  Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I.  Werke in 20 Bänden.  Ed. Eva Moldenhauer und Karl Markus Michel.  Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 1986.  Vol. 13

Heidegger, Martin.  Vorträge und Aufsätze.  Neske, 1954.

Hölderlin, Friedrich.  Sämtliche Werke und Briefe.  Ed. Günter Mieth.  2 Vols.  4th ed.  Carl Hansen, 1984.

Keats, John.  The Poems of John Keats.  Ed. Jack Stillinger.  Harvard UP, 1978.

Killy, Walther.  Zeichen der Zeit: Ein deutsches Lesebuch.  Vol. 1.  Frankfurt: Fischer, 1962.  2 Vols.

Kipperman, Mark.  “History and Ideality: The Politics of Shelley’s Hellas.”  Studies in Romanticism, vol. 30, no. 2, 1991, pp. 147-68.

Levin, Harry.  The Broken Column: A Study in Romantic Hellenism.  Harvard UP, 1931.

Nida, Eugene. A.  Toward a Science of Translating.  Brill, 1964.

Norton, Charles Eliot, ed.  Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle.  Macmillan, 1887.

Pater, Walter.  The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.  1873.  Ed. Adam Phillips.  Oxford UP, 1986.

Schiller, Friedrich.  On the Aesthetic Education of Man.  Trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby.  1967.  Clarendon P, 1982.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  Shelley’s Poetry and Prose.  Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers.  Norton, 1977.

Sieburth, Richard.  “The Guest: Second Thoughts on Translating Hölderlin.”  Warren 237-43.

Steiner, George.  After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation.  Oxford UP, 1975.

Stern, Bernard Herbert.  The Rise of Romantic Hellenism in English Literature: 1732-1786.  1940.  Octagon, 1969.

Taminiaux, Jacques.  Poetics, Speculation, and Judgment: The Shadow of the Work of Art from Kant to Phenomenology.  Trans. and ed. Michael Gendre.  State U of New York P, 1993.

Ulmer, William A.  “Hellas and the Historical Uncanny.”  English Literary History 58, 1991, pp. 611-32.

Wallace, Jennifer.  Shelley and Greece: Rethinking Romantic Hellenism.  St. Martin’s, 1997.

Warren, Rosanna, ed.  The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field.  Northeastern UP, 1989.

Wasserman, Earl R.  Shelley: A Critical Reading.  Johns Hopkins, 1971.

Webb, Timothy.  English Romantic Hellenism: 1700-1824.  Barnes, 1982.

—.  The Violet in the Crucible: Shelley and Translation.  Clarendon, 1976.

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