Tuesday 31 May 2011

One of the classics in the Dutch day calendar today - a poem by Herman Gorter

The day’s unfolding like a golden rose

The day’s unfolding like a golden rose;
I send my breath out at the window-sill,
there’s scarcely any sound – the fields lie still –
that rises to the blue sky’s vaulted dome.

And in my boxlike room, completely black,
in front of which the pearls hang on the pane,
I pace the floor until I’m stopped again
and quietly muse when dark walls halt my track.

I’ve found it, human happiness, despite
it taking four and thirty years for me
to do so, and much searching failed outright
through tussles, gestures made quite needlessly.
As sure though as the world outside is dressed
in veils of sunlight, I’ve found happiness.

Monday 30 May 2011

An enigmatic poem by the Dutch poet Ida Gerhardt


When I was doing Phaedo with Class Five
I saw the word ψυχή would soon appear:
so I explained to their still childlike ear
why ψυχή meant both ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly’.

While reading out the passage for the class
there was a flurry, and a sudden trace
of light flashed from the window pane through space.
A large-size butterfly was at the glass.

It was a peacock. Everybody saw
the steady purple glow that both wings bore;
the eyes in which an aether-blue burned calm.

Then finally – now resting in his palm –
a boy took it away. Come to no harm,
he said, it had escaped toward the blue.

I say 'enigmatic' because Gerhardt has chosen an unusual rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA CCD DDE. I often have to abandon the repetition of ABBA in translating sonnets, and purists will object to 'five' and 'butterfly'. But I cannot recall a sonnet where Gerhardt ends with a line that does not rhyme with anything earlier. The question is - why? In the original Dutch there are two other words that rhyme, but they are in the lines themselves 'aetherblauw' and 'dagpauwoog':


Ik las de Phaedo met mijn vijfde klas
en in de tekst kwam het woord ψυχή voor:
ik legde, aan ’t nog kinderlijk gehoor,
uit waarom ψυχή ‘ziel’ én ‘vlinder’ was.

Terwijl ik nóg eens de passage las
was er ineens een ritseling, en een spoor
van glanzen kwam, van ’t raam, de ruimte door.
Er zat een grote vlinder voor ’t glas.

Het was een dagpauwoog. En ieder zag
de purperen gloed, die op zijn vleugels lag;
de ogen, waar het aetherblauw in brandt.

Ten laatste – hij zat rustig op de hand –
bracht hem een jongen weg. Onaangerand,
zei hij, was hij ontweken naar het blauw.

PS. A dear friend has just pointed out that the enigma is perhaps self-inflicted. I have been referred to the big Van Dale dictionary and the word ongerijmd (lit. unrhymed). This word has a meaning within mathematics and logic that is most applicable here: a reduction to the absurd. The expression bewijs uit het ongerijmde means 'a proof by means of which one demonstrates that the negation of the postulate leads to an absurdity'. In other words, the lack of rhyme reflects the duality of the word 'psyche' itself.

This makes me think of the Ezra Pound double-take reference:

The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly

since in the culture referred to the butterfly was also seen a symbol of the soul.

PPS. feedback from the dear friend. at a more obvious level, what the butterfly is returning to is 'beyond rhyme or reason', i.e. the infinite. 

Sunday 29 May 2011

A poem published in 1837 for the first time, by the Danish poet Emil Aarestrup


Den Himmel, jeg har henrykt kaaret,
Som Jordens er i Kugler skaaret;
Men de er blændende, ei blaa,
Kun med en svag, en blaalig Aare paa.
De har ei Sol, men vel en Kreds af Rødme,
Der straaler Liv og sprudler Sødme.
Dem ingen Astronom betragter nøie,
Men vel min Drengs det brune Øie.
De dækkes stundom af en Sky,
Snart heelt, snart halvt – men den maa fly.
For Storme har de intet Rum,
Skjøndt bølgende som Havets Skum;
Lynglimt man øiner ikke der -
Kun af mit Kys et Rosenskjær.
Ei Stjerner har de for en natlig Vanker,
Men vel et Hjerte indenfor, som banker,
Og som, naar Alt er Mulm, veileder
Den tro og elskende Tilbeder.


The heavens of my choice impassioned
Like those of earth as spheres are fashioned;
These orbs are dazzling though, not blue –
Pure white but for a vein of azure hue.
They have no sun, although a blushing circle
Sends rays of life, sweets universal.
Astronomers have never scrutinized them,
Whereas my lad’s brown eyes have sized them.
If partly, wholly hid from view
By cloud, it soon must flee anew.
For raging storms they have no home,
Though heaving as the wave-tossed foam;
No lightning flash they ever show –
Just from my kiss a rose-tinged glow.
No stars have they for any nighttime rover,
But, deep within, a guiding heart they cover
Which is, in dead of night, the haven
By this true lover dearly craven.

For the original manuscript, go to here

Friday 27 May 2011

A May 28 entry in '1001 POEMS' by the Danish writer Klaus Høeck

        i cannot see the
        main lines any more
they are disappearing like
        the tracks in the field
        that the tractor fol
lowed when the wheat was given
fertilizer they hide them
        and the season - i
        have reached the age when
life has gained in beauty and
        in fullness but has
        lost its direction

Tuesday 24 May 2011

An unofficial national anthem - "The Danes' True Song" by Kai Hoffmann


On 8 June 1940, Aksel Schiøtz recorded ‘Den danske sang’ (The Danes’ True Song), a setting of Kai Hoffmann’s poem (1924) by the composer Carl Nielsen (1926). At the piano was Herman D. Koppel. The recording is slow, majestic, almost pompous in tone. For a snippet, go to here.

On 25 July 2007, an article in the Danish newspaper Information by Kristian Villesen has the title ‘Carl Nielsen’s songs are not Danish’. He argues that if Carl Nielsen’s music is perceived as being ‘genuinely Danish’, it must be for non-musical reasons, for there is no such thing. Karen Vestergård, the co-author of their dissertation ‘Den danske sang’, is also quoted: ‘The concept of the national [in CN’s songs] is a later addition. It is not the work in itself but the use of it and the cultural context of which it is a part that create the feeling of Danishness.’

Possible cultural contexts here are the reunification with Denmark of Southern Jutland of 1922, which made Danish hearts beat proudly, and the outbreak of World War II, which set many a Danish heart racing for other reasons.

It is very difficult to listen to Schiøtz’s recording over 70 years later without feeling he is going ‘over the top’. But what of the poem – what does it actually say?

It has all the staple ingredients of Danish songs: a blond girl, blue sea everywhere, beech trees, waves breaking on shores, and a proud past rich in sagas. That is only the first verse. After a contrast between the various regions – Denmark is a country of great variety – the emphasis is then on customs having become milder over the centuries. Now, however, there is a call to arms – art and battle still call for steel. The best way of tempering the soul is to return to the source – Bjarkemål.

I doubt if many Danes have the faintest idea of what Bjarkemål is. Den Danske Ordbog and Ordbog over det danske Sprog (the two largest Internet sources) both draw a blank. It takes Wikipedia to uncover that it is a modern Danish/Norwegian spelling of Bjarkamál, an Old Norse poem from around the year 1000. The main reason it is referred to is perhaps that King Olav had the poem recited to rouse his outnumbered army the morning before an important battle. In this song there is, then, a call to mental battle reminiscent of the call made in Denmark after their great territorial losses of 1864 to the Prussians. The famous quotation ‘For every loss a replacement is to be found, what is outwardly lost must be inwardly won’ made in that context comes from the Danish writer J.P. Holst. The British equivalent is when people sing ‘I shall not cease from mental strife’ at the last night of the Proms.

The last stanza adds the dimension of the heart. The language of the heart is verse and song, so that the true Danish song is when the heart speaks freely. After invoking the nightingale and the lark, two birds Danes feel close emotional ties with, the song takes in both town and countryside, present and past in a final triumphant assertion that Denmark will thrive for generations to come.

A brilliant musical setting by Nielsen, as by Elgar in the British example. But the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of Hoffmann’s poem is somewhat overpowering. The strange thing is, even as a non-Dane, that when I sing this song with Danes, it makes a very strong emotional impact on me. I forget the actual words for the overall optimism of Denmark past, present and future. Mere propaganda – or genuine Danishness?

(For a side-by-side dual language version go to here)

The Danes’ True Song

The Danes’ true song is a young blond maiden
who hums contented in Denmark’s land,
a child is she of the sea-blue kingdom
where beech trees listen as waves meet strand.
The Danes’ true song, when it’s deepest ringing,
with sounds of bells, sword and shield will soar;
the strains of sagas towards us winging
that tell of Denmark in days of yore.

All Zealand’s charm, Jutland’s strong dominion,
the mild and hard in the same refrain,
must both be sung should our real opinion
of us and ours be made clear and plain.
And customs mellow with time’s rephrasing,
but art and battle for steel still call:
the altar fire where our soul’s set blazing
burns at its brightest in Bjarkemål.

So Denmark, sing, let the heart speak freely!
for heart’s true language is verse and song,
from nightingales we can learn this clearly,
from larks o’er meadows with call so strong.
And wind’s wild ballad breaks loose its tether,
the mighty lay of the waves is sung;
from city pavement and moorland heather
the song shall rise up, both glad and young.

Kai Hoffmann (text 1924), Carl Nielsen (music 1926)

Monday 23 May 2011

Poem from the collection 'Cinnamon Fingers' by the Flemish poet Stefan Hertmans

Onion fingers

You cut them gently as if alive,
First crosswise and then the rings
But it hurt there
Where the skin could touch yours.

We don’t have to talk now
You had just said.
Your eyes sting but it does not
Staunch the words.

I smelled too, shredded red
The juice still in the fingers
That I had laid on your hands.

Thus an angel once visited me
While you feverishly slept,

And on the fire a pan
That gleamed for years with evening light.

Enlighten us, Muse,
Shred our lives,

Embrace me, you,
Your fingers smell
And they tremble.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Poem from the collection 'Sahara in my hands' (1992) by the Danish poet Morten Søndergaard

Time is a bald woman
hammering her head against the walls
spitting out stones over the marble floor
of a white hospital.
No one can remember
when or why they came.
There is a smell of disinfectant
deep in the shadows, and some people
lie strapped to metal beds
in the dark and listen.
Amongst the sounds
that still keep them awake
the tapping of the
blind man’s stick can be heard
against the slate roof.

Monday 16 May 2011

A poem by the Dutch poet
Joop Leibbrand

Spirit level*

I was just lying outside, thinking of
nothing but myself, one of those bottomless
days when you think could be I’ll
experience not being there any more.

I saw the dragonfly on my foot without
feeling it, its wings lifted the colour
of its own weight, gossamer proof of
god’s existence, the cat ate it every evening.

Then there was the resistance of a simul-
taneous second one, identical. On smooth bearings
the head turned, the small eyes twitched.

My legs tensed up from carrying
so much attention, from so much equi-
librium that you cannot stand outside.

* The Dutch word 'libel' can mean both 'spirit level' and 'dragonfly'.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Animal poem by the Dutch poet Eddy van Vliet


My tread was heavy. Earth,
grey and greasy, dragged me downwards.
Disquieting, my lack of objection.

The potatoes lifted, corn threshed.
Branch reached to its final leaf.
Life seemed to have abandoned the hills.

It lay coiled within the muscles
of the hare. In his approaching bound,
which, once taken, propelled as by a
tornado, constantly gained speed.

Did an ambush lie in wait?
Fate of the self-contained nomad, routed
up into the constellation of his name.
I prayed, not knowing to whom or what.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

A much-loved poem, often sung, by the 19th century Danish poet B.S. Ingemann

The Sun that in the East Does Rise

The sun that in the East does rise
Drapes clouds with golden gown,
O’er seas and peaks it sails the skies,
O’er countryside and town.

It comes from that fair coast so bright
Where Paradise once lay;
It comes with joy and life and light
To great and small alway.

It brings to us a greeting fine
From Eden’s rising dawn,
Where stood the Tree with fruit sublime,
Where Life’s pure fount was born.

It greets us from Life’s home afar,
Where God’s light did abound
O’er Bethlehem with that bright star
The East’s Wise Men once found.

And with God’s sun comes from the East
A distant heavn’ly glow,
A glimpse of Paradise’s coast,
Where Life’s great orchards grow.

And all the stars from near and far
Bow as East’s sun gains height:
It seems to them so like the star
O’er Bethlehem that night.

You sun of suns from Bethlehem!
May thanks and praises rise
For every glint from Light’s true home
And from your Paradise!

Monday 2 May 2011

A third poem by the German early-baroque poet Theobald Hock

After experience comes knowledge

I who when young have sadly
Spent many early years
On sampling all too gladly
Love’s joys and bitter tears,
No trial left in arrears,

I who the very nature
And usages of love
Her virtue and her stature
Have felt within me move
Raw bliss and woe have proved,

I who have ne’er tried fleeing
Love’s battle and her school,
Have grasped her inner being,
How Venus and her rule
Can blow one hot and cool,

I who have writ empassioned
Of love and love’s sweet dart,
And well-turned rhymes have fashioned
On woman’s loving art
Of which I’ve been a part,

I who with view impartial
Love’s false, unbridled ways
Her jealousy so martial,
Distrust and grief’s dismay,
Have gazed at day by day,

Must now of worldly spite, of
Its faithlessness and worse,
Its noise and wealth’s sad blight, of
Its arrant folly’s curse
Write poems hard and terse.

Must now deride at leisure
From morning until noon,
A world of such strange measure,
Its form so warped and skewn
Which disappears so soon.

Now will I talk of warfare
And life at court recall,
Of housekeeping and childcare
Of masters and servants all
Now I’ve the time withal.

Show no one fear or favour,
Seek truth both pure and clear,
From honesty ne’er waver
Live justly without fear
And, blessed, all things revere.

Though Momus will but chatter
And say: What’s that to me!
I’m quite another matter
To blame myself would be
The sole reward I see.

The one who feels I’m drawing
Too close should mend his ways!
Law honest men finds boring,
The cat but on mice preys,
Fate orders all that strays.

The one who shuns good tidings
Had better block his ears!
Like charmed snakes cease their slidings
Rest will the honest cheer
Should the right time appear.

And no one can live blameless
Be just to all, I own.
Both high and low are shameless,
their godlessness well-known:
Do good, fear God alone!

Not even God Almighty
Could all mankind be nigh,
Not while on earth, and slightly
Less often can he try,
Now that he reigns on high.