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Faust: Still Striving and Straying

Goethe’s Faust: Part I

translated by Randall Jarrell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 296 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Faust

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by Walter Arndt, edited by Cyrus Hamlin
Norton, 626 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Forever striving and forever straying, the role of Faust has been adopted as a historic model for Western man. As an individual bent upon self-realization, and caught up in a devil’s bargain with technological forces, he was ideally cut out to be Spengler’s archetype for the modern mind. His black magic has been detected most recently, according to a poem by Karl Shapiro, in a mushroom cloud arising from Los Alamos. His persisting legend, which began in a Reformation chapbook and inspired a powerful tragedy of the Renaissance, has extended to the musical fiction of Thomas Mann and the cerebral dialogue of Paul Valéry. Other legends, notably those of Prometheus and Don Juan, have dealt with forbidden knowledge and facile seduction. But it was Faust who, upon its reaction from the Enlightenment, became the culture hero of Romanticism. And Goethe’s was the masterwork among the many dramas that reanimated this theme for the Sturm und Drang.

But Goethe cannot be ticketed as a mere Romanticist. True, the First Part of his Faust may be regarded as his major contribution to the movement. Yet, as a product of intermittent endeavors over some thirty years, it was already overlapped by his Weimar Classicism, which would culminate in the Second Part. The latter, almost twice as long as the former, was written more or less consecutively during the last few years of his long and supremely creative life. Without its cosmic resolution the drama is incomplete. Goethe himself managed, nonetheless, to live with that suspense for sixty years. If the final work is an organic whole, it reflects the changing stages of its author’s development. The earliest passage that he composed was the most poignant and untraditional, the domestic episode of Gretchen. Readers—and playgoers even more—have appreciably preferred her “little world” to the imperial allegory and the classical phantasmagoria of the sequel.

These two new translations on my desk—surrounded there by a Faustian gathering of other translations, texts, commentaries, and dictionaries—have been preceded by about fifty versions of Part I and a dozen of Part II. The disproportion accords with a ratio which can also be noted in English versions of Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso. Do translators get tired after the first round, or is damnation more interesting than salvation? That they are perennially drawn to the attempt indicates not only that Faust is there, like Mount Everest, but that earlier efforts to ascend it from abroad have not altogether proved satisfactory. Randall Jarrell appears to have felt this challenge deeply and responded to it during the last phase of his career, which all too prematurely ended eleven years ago. Fragments of his translation have been read aloud and published in periodicals. Now, with a short but important gap filled in by Robert Lowell, it stands complete, so far as it goes.

In a candid and devoted afterword, Mary von Schrader Jarrell explains her late husband’s motivation: “Poets know that when you can’t write your own poetry you translate someone else’s.” Temporarily blocked as a poet by his successful excursions into prose, Jarrell translated Goethe to prime the pump. A strong sense of psychic identification seems to have determined his choice of subject. Such affinities are not necessarily bilateral. It may well be that Jarrell had more in common with the persona of Faust—the romantic Faust of Part I—than with the personality of his creator. After all, both were “intellectuals and professors,” as Mrs. Jarrell points out. Moreover, both could be stylistically characterized in terms of sincerity, curiosity, and irony, along with tension, restlessness, and sentimentality. Jarrell counted on his own lyricism and flair for monologue to serve the undertaking. His talent as a satirical phrasemaker, likewise, might have helped with Mephistopheles.

Mrs. Jarrell’s references to Goethe are somewhat blurry, and she tends to minimize the linguistic problem. Never a German scholar or even speaker, Jarrell obviously worked hard as a conscientious student of his text. Yet a slightly garbled quotation from Schubert’s Winterreise (lyrics by Wilhelm Müller) hardly attests connoisseurship in German poetry. Due allowance must be made, of course, for the possibility of revisions and afterthoughts that was unhappily closed to this translator. Given the license that all translators should be allowed, he is reasonably accurate. Very seldom does he cross the thin line between a circumlocution and a mistake. I would merely interpose a few marginal queries here and there. “Have you gone mad?” is a rather stepped-up reading of “What is the matter with your head [Wo steht dein Kopf]?” And—to cite another monosyllabic example—“I am afraid of you” is not quite the same thing as “You make me shudder [Mir graut’s von dir]”—the heroine’s last sentence.

Gretchen indeed gets treated cavalierly. She is “impudent” rather than “pert [schnippisch]”; her hand is “disgusting” and “raw,” not “filthy [garstig]” and “rough [rauh].” Since rhyme is very casually observed, the need for bringing in extraneous items should have been reduced. Why, then, is the same un-Goethean metaphor superimposed upon abstract expressions twice in the opening lines of the “Prologue in Heaven”: “thunderous footsteps” for “thunderous movement [Donnergang]” and “tranquil footsteps” for “gentle conduct [sanfte Wandel]”? What we have here is more acceptable as a personal trot than as a poetic equivalent. The claim of speaking plain English is generally made good, though archaism occasionally creeps in (e.g., “many a…”). More often the speech veers toward a vernacular extreme. Only an American undergraduate would be asked, “What have you elected for your major [Was wählt ihr für eine Facultät]?” And when Valentin uses the expressive term Schwadronieren for soldiers’ empty boasts, it is grossly cheapened by the reduction to “crap.”

Robert Frost spoke too harshly when he declared that poetry is what gets lost in translation. Yet something has got to give, some variable is bound to be disregarded, in a process where a sequence of meanings has to be extracted from its sound pattern and rematched with a wholly different set of sounds. And when the two languages involved are German and English, George Steiner’s question becomes highly pertinent: “Why are German versions of Shakespeare consistently so much better than English versions of Goethe?” Some basis for the answer, to be sure, is that Shakespeare wrote mainly in blank verse while Goethe widely varied his rhyme schemes, and that English happens to be much less fecund and flexible in rhyming than German. Among the many meters of Faust, the characteristic measure is Knittelvers, which Goethe developed from the carnival plays of Hans Sachs—loosely iambic tetrameters, somewhat irregularly rhymed with alternating masculine and feminine endings. The quatrain that states Faust’s wager with Mephisto offers a memorable instance:

Werd’ ich zum Augenblicke sagen:
Verweile doch! du bist so schön!
dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen,
dann will ich gern zugrunde gehn.

The most popular of the older translations, that of Bayard Taylor, keeping to the conventions of nineteenth-century diction, does not stray far from the text, though it achieves its rhymes by a little embroidery along the edges:1

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, linger still! thou art so fair!”
—then bind me in thy bonds undying,
my final ruin then declare.

Jarrell’s rendering, condensed to three taut lines, is plain enough but not very memorable (every minute has sixty seconds, and waiting is not quite the same thing as staying):

If ever I say to any minute:
“But wait, wait! You are so fair!”
Throw me in chains, then; then I’ll gladly perish.

The other new translator, Walter Arndt, preserves the meaning while almost catching the original meter:

If the swift moment I entreat:
Tarry a while! you are so fair!
Then forge the shackles to my feet,
Then will I gladly perish there!

It is worth turning back a little, at this conjunction, to the thoughtfully crafted translation of Louis MacNeice, which perhaps comes closest to Goethe here and elsewhere.2 Though it skips over the alternate rhyme, it catches the double beat of the feminine cadence. It even dares to address the personified instant with the second-person singular pronoun (the metaphorical connotation of Augenblick is an irretrievable loss, which three of these four renderings try to offset by introducing an adjective):

If ever I say to the passing moment,
“Linger a while! Thou art so fair!”
Then you may cast me into fetters,
I will gladly perish then and there.

Typically, there are no run-overs in these quotations; Goethe was sparing in his use of enjambment. His syntactic unit was the single line, which often takes on a sententious or proverbial inflection. Consider the Lord’s pronouncement which later becomes the key to the tragedy: “Es irrt der Mensch, solang’ er strebt.” This is rendered fairly closely, though not very gracefully, by Professor Arndt: “Man ever errs the while he strives.” Jarrell’s alexandrine formulation sounds more colloquial, but it sounds too much like Robert W. Service: “A man must make mistakes, as long as he keeps trying.” The tone of incantation, so essential to the play, is harder to attain without regular rhymes and repeated phonemes. There are times when Jarrell goes out of his way to avoid a rhyme. Once, for a wonder, two German-English cognates suggest a perfect—if inelegant—one, in the scene “At the Well” (stinkt/drinkt). Mr. Arndt is literal and apt:

It stinks!
She’s feeding two now when she eats and drinks.

It should be added that he echoes MacNeice, as MacNeice echoes Taylor. Translation is, to some extent, a cumulative enterprise; and those who wish to improve upon the weaknesses of their predecessors are justified in building upon the strengths. Jarrell, by deliberately inverting, breaks away from that consensus:

It stinks!
Now when she eats and drinks, she’s feeding two.

Most of Jarrell’s lines move toward a kind of free blank verse, which in English drama is haunted uncomfortably by the ghost of Shakespeare. The avoidance of rhyme is particularly noticeable in the Garden Scene, where it lent a note of mock-symmetry to the pairing off of the lovers. Without it some of the epigrams seem less than epigrammatic, and it comes and goes erratically in the songs. Arndt’s version of Gretchen’s ballad, “The King of Thule,” can be sung to the existing music—unlike Jarrell’s. Arndt’s treatment of her lament at the spinning wheel runs nearly word-for-word, and (except for changing a future to a present tense in the third line, and dropping out the first-person pronoun) it is exactly the counterpart of MacNeice’s:

My peace is gone,
My heart is sore;
Can find it never
And never more.

Here, where again the German could ease the rhymer’s dilemma (schwer/nimmermehr), Robert Lowell—filling in for Jarrell—turns away capriciously from the obvious solution (can he have been acting on the conceivable assumption that Poe’s raven has used up “never-more”?):

My peace is gone,
My heart is sore,
I never find it,
I never find it.

It does not follow, therefore, that the translator’s freedom from the constraints of rhyme invariably brings him closer to the linear purport of the author’s language. Barker Fairley, the dean of living Goethe scholars, has given us a Faust in English prose which seeks to convey the ideas as idiomatically as possible by transposing quite freely.3 Metrically faithful, Arndt has produced a tour de force, without deviating farther from Goethe’s substance than Jarrell. He has girded himself for this achievement by his rhyming version of Pushkin’s Evgeni Onegin, which drew down upon him the Olympian wrath of his literalistic rival, Vladimir Nabokov. As with Nabokov, English is not the first of his various languages—a fact which betrays itself in both writers only through self-conscious virtuosity. Arndt makes a spirited defense of rhyme, which is convincing so far as Goethe’s aesthetic effects are concerned, but leaves Arndt sweating with the other translators when it comes to Englishing those effects.

Thus he goes through too much trouble in calling Faust the Lord’s “serf”—rather than “servant [Knecht]”—simply to gain a dissonant jingle with “worth” and “earth.” On the other hand, with his “Prelude in the Theater” (would it not, more precisely, be “on the Stage”?), Lustige Person is presented literally as “Merry Person,” which does not carry its theatrical overtones, whereas the spontaneous idiom would have been “Clown” or “Comedian.” “Paradisiac lucence” for Paradieseshelle cannot be technically faulted, though it would sound appropriate only on the lips of an archangel. There are passages where one is reminded of Ben Jonson’s remark about The Faerie Queene: “Spenser writ no language.” Spenser fabricated a marvelous style, but it was eclectic and artificial. Like him, Arndt devises coinages to suit his needs (“perpent,” “hexendom”), and rises to the many occasions for wordplay. Nimble and ingenious consistently, if sometimes stilted or circumlocutory, he is at his best with patter, comic scenes, and grotesquerie.

To his verse-text of the total work, Cyrus Hamlin has added lucid and informative footnotes, a succinct commentary, a substantial amount of historical background, and a selection of criticism, both contemporaneous and contemporary. The reader in a position to take full advantage of that compendious apparatus ought really to have some first-hand acquaintance with German literature. Conversely, it is fair to say that students in the field will find this a useful volume. A comparison with Jarrell’s book, wholly apart from stylistics, raises two general questions. No notes are provided with the latter. Hence a good many intelligent readers will find the drama unintelligible at many points. The puns (on “Faust” and “fist” at one point), the Latin (not always correctly transcribed), the allusions to forgetten literary antagonists, the jargon of alchemy, virtually the whole of the topical Walpurgis Night’s Dream—Why include them if they go unexplained? Do not the three introductory sections have less to do with Part I than with Part II?

This leads directly to my second question, which has been firmly answered by Henry Hatfield in his excellent critical introduction to Goethe: “One cannot understand Faust I without reading the second part.”4 Faust need scarcely have invoked the cosmos in order to seduce a naïve girl. His ultimate significance is framed by his adventures in “the great world,” and especially by the outcome of his compact. Part I by itself may be considered more fragmentary than an arrangement of both parts which leaves out some opaque or digressive episodes. The MacNeice translation covers about 8,000 of the play’s 12,000-odd lines, and the abridgments are clearly marked. Since it was commissioned by the BBC for the Goethe bicentennial in 1949, it has stood the test of effectual performance. Though MacNeice did not know a great deal of German, he had line-by-line advice from Ernest Stahl, a perceptive critic of German poetry. The quality and readability of MacNeice’s verse is self-evident. To take one sampling:

I am not like the gods—that I too deeply feel—
No, I am like the worm that burrows through the dust
Which, as it keeps itself alive in the dust,
Is annulled and buried by some casual heel.

There is no smell of the thesaurus here, nor is there much variance from the exact sense and the word order of Goethe:

Den Göttern gleich’ ich nicht! zu tief ist es gefühlt.
Dem Wurme gleich’ ich, der den Staub durchwühlt;
dem, wie er sich im Staube nährend lebt,
des Wandrers Tritt vernichtet und begräbt.

Arndt, in his turn, adheres awkwardly to the German in his first line, compounding the inversion and retaining the weak passive, then divagates in the second and third, and recovers effectively in the fourth:

Not like the gods am I—profoundly it is rued!
I’m of the earthworm’s dust- engendered brood,
Which, blindly burrowing, by dust is fed,
And crushed and buried by the wanderer’s tread.

Jarrell, except for a second line that parallels MacNeice (plus half of the first), strays farther from his source than the others, yet has assumed no personal control of his material:

I am not like the gods! I know it too well;
I am like the worm that burrows in the dust,
Feeds on the dust—and the foot of the traveler
Crushes and buries it, there in the dust.

Goethe, who enthusiastically welcomed the French version of Faust by Gérard de Nerval, would no doubt have made some mellow comment to his confidant Eckermann, could he have foreseen the perpetual strivings of his English translators. An experienced translator himself, he dramatized the predicament when his hero gropingly rephrased the exordium of Saint John. His belief in poetic universals was shared by the great succession of English poet-translators: Chaucer, Spenser, Dryden, Pope, Coleridge, Shelley, Yeats, Pound. It is gratifying that recent American poets have been involving themselves in this responsibility—many for more positive reasons than that of unblocking their voices. Mrs. Jarrell refers to three of her husband’s contemporaries who have been similarly engaged: Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Fitzgerald. But Racine was not as happily matched with Lowell as Molière was with Wilbur, while few among them have dedicated themselves to the task as arduously as Fitzgerald has to the Greek tongue and the Homeric world.

Jarrell, who subjected himself in his earlier writing to a stricter technical discipline, proved an admirable translator of Rilke on at least one occasion, “The Olive Garden.” Probably this belated publication of his Faust manuscript can best be justified by the thematic interest it may hold for readers of his own allusive poetry. Goethe figures confronting Napoleon in “An English Garden in Austria”; Faust’s wager is turned upside down in “A Conversation with the Devil.” Lamenting that “I don’t know enough German,” in “Deutsch durch Freud,” Jarrell invokes Goethe as “my own favorite daemon,” and characterizes his phrasing as “very idiomatic, very noble; very like a sibyl.” He is fascinated throughout with that theme of flight which animates the soaring quest of Faust, and which is condemned but unchecked when it encounters the operatic fall of Euphorion. Above all, there remain a certain mood and a certain focus that Goethe’s poetico-philosophical drama must have mirrored and reinforced for Jarrell.

The mood is that of the modern intellectual weary and suspicious of intellectualism, impatient with the limits of the dry-as-dust academy and eager to face the immediacies of sensory experience: the mood of Faust leaving his Gothic study to mingle with the Easter crowd, join the drinkers at Auerbach’s tavern, and regain his youth in Gretchen’s arms. When Jarrell wrote,

The blacked-out tree
Of the boy’s life is gray
On the tangled quilt,

he undoubtedly was recalling Mephisto’s counsel to the Student (after a dialogue which has illustrated and parodied Faust’s inaugural soliloquy on the hollowness of book-learning):

All theory, my friend, is gray—
The golden tree of life is green.

Goethe’s running contrast between the Word and the Act, which is rather similar to Bergson’s dichotomy between mental abstraction and natural flux, oscillates through Jarrell’s poems continually. Yet almost as many of them are situated in tranquil libraries as upon fighting planes. “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” herself trapped and caged, cries, “change me, change me!” In “Gleaning” there is a girl inside the old woman who gasps out, “More, more!” It will be noticed that both of these Faustian heartcries are uttered by women.

For the recurrent focus is centered on “Woman,” the title and subject matter of a longish, explicit, and sensitive meditation. There is an observation in that poem,

Men’s share of grace, of all that can make bearable,
Lovable almost, the apparition, Man,
Has fallen to you,

which parallels the resolving lines of the untranslated Second Part, where it is promised that undescribable ends will be ultimately accomplished for both sexes through the upward progression of eternal womanhood:

Das Unbeschreibliche,
Hier ist’s getan;
Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

One of Jarrell’s high notes, not unrelated to his innate masculinity, is a feminine pathos which extends from the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier to the little black child, Lady Bates. This may help to explain why he was more interested in Part I than in the further adventures of Faust, and why—in spite of some verbal obstructions—he seems to have empathized most fully with Gretchen. It is not surprising to be told by Mrs. Jarrell that his favorite episode was the Dungeon Scene. Dramatically it constitutes the climax of the whole play, and one of the greatest scenes in the world’s repertory, even outdistancing in some respects its Shakespearean prototype, the two mad scenes of Ophelia. The poignance of Goethe’s half-crazed heroine compulsively re-enacting the deaths of her child and her mother, and gradually recognizing and finally spurning Faust to confront by herself the prospect of execution and the promise of redemption, needed no more than a simple and supple presentation to bring out the emotions that responded to it at Jarrell’s public readings.

Letters

Out of Print February 17, 1977

Justice to Faust February 3, 1977

  1. 1

    Bayard Taylor, Goethe’s Faust: The Prologues and Part One, revised and edited by Stuart Atkins (Collier Books, 1963). Bilingual edition. A companion volume comprises Professor Atkins’s presentation of Taylor’s Part Two, but does not include the German text.

  2. 2

    Goethe’s Faust: Parts One and Two, an abridged version translated by Louis MacNeice (Oxford University Press, 1961).

  3. 3

    Goethe’s Faust, translated by Barker Fairley; illustrated by Randy Jones (University of Toronto Press, 1970).

  4. 4

    Henry Hatfield, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (Harvard University Press, 1964). Paperback edition (New Directions, 1963).

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