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Night Wave

I have always loved Benn's poem Welle der Nacht (Wave of Night), contained in his collection called Statische Gedichte (Static Poems). Benn died in 1956, so his works will not be in the public domain for quite some time. The Clarendon German series put out selected poems in 1970 and Plutarch Press published a collection of poems in 2003 that cover the period from 1937 to 1947. Continuum's German Library series has a volume on Benn (Prose, Essays, Poems).

“Welle der Nacht” is deceptively simple, reads easily in German, but presents a few difficulties when prepared for English.

The poem has been interpreted in print already (Schramm, Moritz, “Gotfried Benns ‘Welle der Nacht’—absolute Dichtung?,” in: Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 120 (2001), S. 571–589) and Benn's interest in classical motifs and forms have likewise been commented upon (see: Hugh Ridley, “Gottfried Benn's Orpheus' Death”).

“Welle der Nacht”

Welle der Nacht —, Meerwidder und Delphine
mit Hyacinthos leichtbewegter Last,
die Lorbeerrosen und die Travertine
weh'n um den leeren istrischen Palast.

Welle der Nacht —, zwei Muscheln miterkoren,
die Fluten strömen sie, die Felsen her,
dann Diadem und Purpur mitverloren,
die weiße Perle rollt zurück ins Meer.

—Gottfried Benn

Let us begin with as little poetic artifice as possible just to capture the main elements:

Wave of night —, whales and dolphins, // with Hyacinth's lightly moved burden // the laurel roses and the travertines // sway around the empty Istrian palace. //

Wave of night —, two mussels carried along, // the tides carry them, from the cliffs, // then diadem and purple also lost, // the white pearl rolls back into the sea.

One might as well tranform Welle der Nacht not to Wave of Night but to the more standard Night Wave

Because Last comes at the end of the line, it makes sense to consider possible translations so as to remain flexible with regard to that with which it must rhyme. It means burden, and thus also weight, tax, load, or charge.

Later in the second stanza we have strömen, recognized as a cognate of stream, but used transitively in English we don't usually thing of the verb stream as “push through a current,” though it is becoming more common, perhaps, with streaming media online, whereas here the sense is of the tides as a force that have the mussels (clams, oysters) caught in their grip.

Words like Travertine and Diadem are the same in English and German but in neither are they common, the former being a type of limestone, the latter a type of crown (headdress, tiara, coronet). What marks Benn's poetry, in this period at least, is how specific his word choice is; he does not—or not only—choose obscure words (and only rarely archaic) but rather precise words, individual instances and not categories.

Meerwidder is an interesting choice, a compound of sea and ram, a type of whale, yet he does not use Wal or Walfisch, the latter which is also a star constellation. erkoren comes from the past participle of erkiesen, to choose, and appears mostly—historically—in expressions about being chosen to lead, chosen for a position, born and chosen; the mit provides a togetherness, being selected along with other things, and in this case the muscles are merely carried along, caught up in. It's possible Benn chose it simply to fit together poetically with mitverloren, with and lost (miterkoren und mitverloren).

On page 528 of Modern Language Notes (Vol. 72, No. 7, 1957) Leo Spitzer reviews (“A New Synthetic Treatment of Contemporary Western Lyricism”) Hugo Friedrich's Die Struktur der modernen Lyrik (1956), and in the process comments upon Friedrich's interpretation of Benn's poem:

For example, Friedrich infers (p. 129) from the final line of Gottfried Benn's poem “Welle der Nacht”: “die weisse Perle rollt zurück ins Meer” that since no pearl had been mentioned before, rather a general movement of rolling, the definite article is meant to be “a phonetic sign of the absolute movement” (of the rolling back) and to give this “determinant” an “indeterminate,” mysterious connotation. But if we consider the whole stanza [...] we see the forward rolling movement (“miterkoren”) embodied in two (worthless) shells, while we lose to the receiding waves “diadem and purple” as well as “the white pearl”—the idea obviously being that the wave takes back much more than it brings to the shore. “Diadem and purple” are the insignia of past grandeur (of the Istrian palace now vacant, mentioned in stanza 1—the whole poem is centered on the wave-like passing of majesty)—a grandeur climaxed by the final mention of the white pearl. “Diadem and purple” are in this context as unexpected (or mysterious) as the pearl. The definite article that accompanies the latter, just as in expressions like ‘the best, the top,’ may thus be considered as the article of superlativity (the final position of the pearl also serves the visual effect of whiteness in the night).

It is worth mentioning that Hugo Friedrich's comments about Benn's poem are to be found on page 160 (not 129) of the 1985 edition of Die Struktur der modernen Lyrik, which runs to 331 pages, not the 214 of the 1956 edition.

—January 28 2007