German Lyric Poetry vs. French

—If the best French lyric poetry of modern days has indisputably a charm of refinement and delicate beauty all its own, the best of the German has an inveterate earnestness and a depth of feeling that endear it to all who have really come into its world. One does not so often say of it, “ How exquisite ! ” “ How beautiful! ” but if there be in any one’s pocket-book some long-treasured scrap of verse, well worn now at the fold and edges, the chances are that if it is not English — written, I mean, on English soil — it is German.

Not only does the time-spirit work his special wonders, giving to one epoch the ballad, to another the drama, to another the subjective lyric, but the placespirit, as well, has always wrought his own characteristic marvels. Each continent, and island, and mountain rampart, and valley basin, has had its particular dippings in the sea and liftings into the air, its glacier-ploughing and meteor-sowing, not in vain. The result is that each spot produces its own flowers and its own weeds in literature. So, if no German could ever have written Béranger’s rollicking " Je suis vilain et tres vilain, — Je suis vilain,” or Hugo’s Le Cimetière d’Eylau, or De Vigny’s Le Cor, or De Musset’s Le Poëte, or Coppée’s Intimités, or Les Epreuves of Sully Prudhomme, it is equally certain that no Frenchman could have written Freiligrath’s “ O lieb’, so lang du lieben kannst! ” or Hartmann’s Seit Sie Gestorben, or Grün’s Der Letzte Dichter, or any poem of Goethe’s or Schiller’s.

It would be difficult to say just what this essence is which exists in one and not in the other. We vaguely feel the difference, rather than distinctly perceive it. The persistent earnestness of the German poem is one thing. The French lyric may be serious enough, and even sad; but we feel it to be a passing mood, or a mood that surely will pass, in time. The German poem appears to go down, for foundation, to a sense of the permanent and essential seriousness of all human existence. It is written against a background that reflects a “ sober coloring ” upon all its feeling. The French lyric may be “a thing woven as out of rainbows,” but not on this “ ground of eternal black.”

The contrast in the two views of nature is very marked. The French poet sees a thousand delicate shades that the German misses. Is there a German equivalent for the nuance of the French perception and feeling ? But the everyday, obvious scenes of nature, its massive aspects and forces, the things that every man encounters, — these the German poet renders again with a full heart.

Perhaps the best topics on which to feel the difference are those two immemorial inspirers of song, war and love. When the German poet sings of war, it is with the solemnity of Körner’s Gebet Während der Schlacht. When the French poet sings of it, it is with the “ Gai! Gai! ” of Béranger. In the one, you hear the heavy tread of men, a dull, regular beat, which, after all, is not very distinguishable to the ear, as to whether it be an advancing column or a funeral march. In the other, you hear only the bugles ringing, and shouts of enthusiasm and excitement.

In their treatment of love there is even sharper contrast. The German word liebe has quite a different, atmosphere of suggestion from the French amour. The German poet sings of love and home ; you feel that there is at least a possibility that the passion of to-day will outlast the year, or the years. Constancy is one of its very elements. When the French poet sings of love, it is very delicate, rosy, beautiful, but we do not hear of home. When his mistress is past her youth, we ask ourselves, will she be thus loved and sung ?

There is another side, certainly. It is only the German side that I am just now undertaking to defend, and it is easy to fall into the advocate’s fault of ignoring the opposite point of view. The truth is, it is a good thing that we have both these literatures. Both strains of music are a delight: the deep, steady, human tones of the German ’cello, and the brilliant, vibrant, penetrating notes of the French violin.

The German poetry has certainly less variety than the French; but it speaks of life, and is not life, in its depth and essence, something of a monotone ? Seek variety as we may, there is but one winter, one summer, in the year. There is but one sort of friendship, one species of abiding love, one ultimate close to all our comedies or tragedies.

Let me not be understood to imply that the French poet is never in earnest, never elemental and hearty in his feeling. It is too easy to make these partial statements sound universal, and therefore manifestly unjust. Skillful as so many of the French are in writing what merely makes the hour pass delightfully, there are some who know how to enrich it as well. There is no national literature that furnishes too many of those magicians who not only fillip the hour-glass, but make it run pure gold.

A source of frequent injustice to the German lyric poets is the abominable English translation that is usually fur-

nished with German songs. If they contain sonorous syllables, fairly suited to the voice, it is all that seems to be required by the publishers of music ; any beauty or sense is permitted to evaporate in passing from one language to the other. I was struck by a new instance of this, only yesterday, in the Polish songs of Chopin. One of them was rendered so badly that I thought I might venture to give here another version, imperfect as it is, and not yet tried with the notes: —


“ Away! Let not mine eyes, my heart, behold you! ”
It was your right to choose; I heard you say,
“Forget! We must forget!” Love might have told you
’T was vain. You could not, more than I, obey.
As the dim shadows down the pastures lengthen,
The further sinks the day-star’s fading fire,
So in your breast will tender memories strengthen,
Deeper and darker as my steps retire.
At every hour, in every place of meeting,
Where we together shared delight and pain,
Yes, everywhere will dear thoughts keep repeating,
“ Here, too, his voice, his look, his touch, remain! ”

And since I have given a German lyric, it might not be amiss to close with a French one, of which I have tried to give some hint, at least, in English, — a sonnet from the new volume of Sully Prudhomme : —


Poor wretch! that smites, in his despair insane,
The tender mouth for which he has no bread,
And in some lonely spot, ere it be dead,
Covers the little corse, yet warm, ill-slain:
So I struck down dear Love for being born !
I smoothed the limbs, and closed the eyes, and lone
The darling form was left, ’neath ponderous stone;
Then, at my deed dismayed, I fled forlorn.
I deemed my love was dead indeed, in vain !
Erect he speaks, close by the open tomb,
Mid April lilacs even there in bloom,
With immortelles his pale brow glorified :
“ Thou didst but wound ; I live to seek her side;
Not by thy hand, not thine, can I be slain ! ”