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Elbe Swans and Other Poets

The Meeting at Telgte

by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Helen and Kurt Wolff, 147 pp., $9.95

The date is 1647—or perhaps Herr Grass would prefer to say 1647/1947. The meeting of German poets at Telgte, between Osnabrück and Münster, takes place while the Thirty Years War is drawing to a close, three years before the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, and during the period of prolonged negotiations. The 200 states and sees which constituted the Germany of that era are devastated. The war which began as the culmination of the Counter-Reformation has fanned out into a multiplicity of wars, not all of them between Catholics and Protestants, some between co-religionists. For many years:

The military lineup of the contending parties was not determined by religious allegiance: Catholic France, with papal approval, had fought against Spain, the Habsburgs, and Bavaria; the Protestant Saxons sometimes had one and sometimes the other foot in the imperial camp; a few years earlier, the Lutheran Swedes had attacked the Lutheran Danes. In deep secret Bavaria was bargaining for possession of the Palatinate….

Some armies had mutinied, others had changed sides. Luckily for the rest of Europe, England was much taken up with civil war. “The thing that hath been tomorrow is that which shall be yesterday,” runs the first sentence of Günter Grass’s novel; and this Europe resembled’ much the world of sides constantly changing sides within a setting of unceasing war which Orwell foresees as the state of the world in 1984. 1647/1947/1984 then.

In 1947, under the sponsorship of the German writer Hans Werner Richter, a group of German writers held meetings to discuss the state of German literature and the German language after Hitler, in a Germany whose cities were heaps of ruins. Herr Grass invents in The Meeting at Telgte a parallel for Richter’s meeting—a projection back into the past—which, he certainly manages to persuade us, might well have taken place. A meeting of German poets “to rescue their cruelly maltreated language and to be near the peace negotiations. There they would sit until everything, the distress of the fatherland as well as the splendor and misery of poetry, had been discussed.” The writers who met were overwhelmingly of the Protestant persuasion; the members of Hans Werner Richter’s group were overwhelmingly pro-Western (there were no writers from the Soviet zone).

The Meeting at Telgte contains none of the ambitious devices of Herr Grass’s earlier novels. There is none of the symbolic machinery of tin drum or flounder drawing the strands of the characters and their narrations together. Instead, at the center of the novel there is a featureless, anonymous, timeless “I”—the author as abstract tricentennial witness.

The narration is in appearance a straightforward account of what was discussed, of poems read at meetings. The writers consider form, subject matter, language. The poet August Buchner, professor of poetry at Wittenburg, Prince Hamlet’s university, talks about dactyllic measures. Siegmund von Birken reads a chapter from his manuscript of German Rhetoric and Poetic Art, in which he draws up directions for the treatment of characters in poetic drama: children should speak childishly, old people wisely, women chastely and gently, heroes bravely and heroically, peasants crudely. This view is repudiated by the realists, one of whom—Christoffel Gelnhausen—remarks that on an occasion when he met the devil at a crossways, this gentleman was most soft-spoken.

Although this book has a very crowded canvas, no detail seems irrelevant. It is a powerful historic construction built round one piece of historic invention, like Schiller’s apocryphal confrontation between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots in Mary Stuart. Poets are lights signaling to one another across black distances; so the discussions between them which Günter Grass invents are implicit in their consciousness of one another’s work. The Meeting at Telgte fits comfortably into what is plausible as history.

The dominating character here is undoubtedly Christoffel Gelnhausen, an undisguised portrait of the poet and fiction writer Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, with a certain degree of self-portraiture by the ebullient Günter Grass himself thrown in. Grimmelshausen was author of the famous picaresque narrative Simplicissimus, about the Thirty Years War. An extension to this was the story Courasche, “a paper monument to a sturdy and unstable, childless yet inventive, vulnerable and embattled woman, manmad in skirts, manly in breeches, making the most of her beauty, a woman both pitiable and lovable.” The Brechtian Courasche, here called Libuschka, landlady of the Bridge Tavern at Telgte where the poets meet, has a long-standing impassioned relationship with Gelnhausen, compounded in equal proportions of love and hatred.

Gelnhausen is the embodiment of the violence and rhetoric of the soldier-adventurer-troubadour produced by the time; and he rough-hews the circumstances surrounding his fellow poets during the time of their meeting. Drawn together by the magnetism of poetry in times of chaos, in response to the invitation of the most paternally benign of their number, Simon Dach, they have booked rooms at Oesede but, having got there, they find their quarters already commandeered by a contingent of Swedes. Gelnhausen, who arrives with his troop of soldiers of the emperor, evicts a bunch of merchants from the Bridge Tavern and, at first to their shock, installs his colleagues there. In this action, he displays, as always, rhetorical panache:

When the merchants asked for a written statement justifying their eviction, Gelnhausen drew his sword, called it his goose quill, asked to whom his first missive should be addressed, and added that in the name of the emperor and his adversaries he must urgently—by Mars and his ferocious dogs!—request the departing guests of the Bridge Tavern to observe the strictest silence concerning the reason for their sudden departure.

Gelnhausen also makes a raid with his troops on the local citizens in order to provide the poets—who have been living for days on barley soup—with a banquet of five geese, three suckling pigs, and a fat sheep. The poets consume all this but when they come to hear how it was obtained, they consider the possibility of putting Gelnhausen on trial before an extempore court of honor. Of course this plan evaporates in words. Some poets are conservatives, some moderns, some professors and academics. They belong to various associations which have delightful names: German-minded Association, Order of Elbe Swans, Fruit-Bearing Society, Pegnitz Shepherds, Cucumber Lodge, Upright Society of the Pine Tree. Names more colorful than Beatniks or Hippies.

Above all they are concerned with language, questions of dialect, Low German or High German. They themselves illustrate the fragmentation of language in Germany.

Though he had been living and teaching mathematics in Danish Zeeland ever since Wallenstein’s invasion of Pomerania, Lauremberg expressed himself in his native Rostock brogue, and Rist the Holstein preacher answered him in Low German. After thirty years of residence in London, the diplomat Weckherlin still spoke an unvarnished Swabian. And into the predominantly Silesian conversation, Moscherosch mixed his Alemannic, Harsdörffer his peppery Franconian, Buchner and Gerhardt their Saxon, Greflinger his Lower Bavarian gargle, and Dach a Prussian kneaded and shaped between Memel and Pregel.

The younger poets in their hay loft contrive to bed down with the tavern’s maid servants, changing sleeping partners between dreams. And there is always talk of war and its horrors:

How when Breisach was besieged homeless children were butchered and eaten. How in places where order had been put to flight, the mob set themselves up as masters. How the most flea-bitten yokels swaggered about in city finery. And everyone knew of highwaymen in Franconia, in Brandenburg, behind every bush.

On the outskirts of Telgte, corpses, swollen and putrescent, float down the river Ems, sometimes coupled together in grotesque parody of the love-making of the poets with the maids in the hay loft.

The poems they write portray destruction in language of lamentation: “O, empty dream whereon we mortals build….” “Everything went sour. Horror clouded the mirrors. The meanings of words were reversed. Hope languished beside the silted well. Built on desert sand, no wall stood firm.” This is the burden of the poets’ songs at Telgte while they go on with their meeting, eating, and love-making. On one level this book is an ironic comment on poets.

Each of the guests comes to Telgte with his life story as part of his luggage. And the narrating “I” is very good at following these up. With the skill of Brueghel or Teniers painting an immense canvas of villagers in their surroundings, each distinct in appearance and involved in his own particular idiosyncrasies, Grass keeps his characters distinct in their behavior, beliefs, and circumstances. Simon Dach, convener of the meeting, a father-figure who regards the poets as his children, is depicted as in a portrait by Hans Memling. The pietistic Paul Gerhardt, who prays for the schism-torn world and for his colleagues, stands slightly apart from the rest. Perhaps the most moving portrait of many is that of Heinrich Schütz, the great composer of mostly religious music (cousin of the poet Heinrich Albert), who comes uninvited to the meeting in order that he may hear poets read their works, with a view to setting these to music. With his austere listening and judging appearance, he awes the poets, and pains them when he observes that Italians provide much better texts than the clogged German rhetoric: witness Maestro Rinuccini’s libretti written for Monteverdi. Schütz seems a portrait by Albrecht Dürer.

The poets are convinced that it is their duty as practitioners of their art to produce a manifesto: an overwhelmingly moving appeal to the great powers, its princes, to make a lasting peace which will not lead to further war. It must begin with a throbbing reminder of the ruinous condition of the nation—“Germany, the most glorious empire in the world, is now bled white, devastated and despoiled.” The poets must stand above the disputing parties, claiming that they alone represent the true Germany.

However, as happens with artists when they go into public affairs, they fall back on those very attitudes of partisanship that they deplore in statesmen. When the manifesto prepared by two of them was read out to the assembled poets:

As was to be expected, Gerhardt took exception to the special mention of the Calvinists. Buchner criticized the over-sharp condemnation of Saxony. Such “scribbling,” said Weckherlin, would neither move Maximilian to take a single step against the Spaniards, nor spur the landgravine of Hesse against the Swedes.

In politics, each poet is a representative of the local interests of his region. At the end, partly as the result of the intervention of Schütz, they produce a high-minded, ineffectual document, based on awareness of their dignity as artists, an appeal “to all parties desirous of peace not to scorn the preoccupations of the poets, who, though powerless, had acquired a claim to eternity.” Shakespeare expressed the same despair at the powerlessness of art (in Sonnet 65):

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Günter Grass tells home truths about poets in their behavior and their personalities, as applicable to 1947 as to 1647. Perhaps the famous vanity of poets lies in their assumption—and their letting themselves be flattered by the same assumption in others—that they display in daily life the same qualities of discrimination and idealism as are revealed in their poems. But of course there is a disjunction between the poet as man in his life and as man in his poems. The fact is that someone who happens to write poems may have the character he realizes there only when actually writing them—if then. He is indeed only intermittently a poet, much less a perambulating personification of his poetry. At other times he may be an insurance executive or a thug.

There is a wonderful description in Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar of Goethe waking from a dream of Greece and being for a few moments identical with his poetry—imagination and genius incarnate—before he resumes the garb of the great bureaucrat and dictator of taste at court. In Grass’s book too there are glimpses of one or another of the poets alone with his inspiration, the glory and the horror and the boredom. Yet with all the debates about prosody and other matters going on here one feels more informed than enlightened about the nature of poets and poetry. Oh for a touch of Virginia Woolf, I found myself sighing at intervals, wading through so much clanking of tankards and brawling in taverns and taking of maidens in the straw. I am quite glad not to be a poet living in the seventeenth century.

Nevertheless this is a brilliant entertainment and there is much to be grateful for. In the end we are at any rate reminded that despite the bustling rhetoric of poets, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Here also is a nobly consoling demonstration that “It survives…a way of happening, a mouth,” an assertion which Grass’s drawing on the jacket, of a hand holding a quill pen and emerging from a mass of rubble that looks like broken thumbs, emphatically demonstrates.

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