On this day ini 1749 one of my best friends was born. I try to find a way to celebrate this event every year but this year? I have no idea. Maybe just this post.
I think anyone who reads has a favorite author and they are favorites for probably infinite reasons. I met Goethe at exactly the right moment in my little trajectory around the sun. It was accidental. It was 1998 and I had taken a class to the library for a scavenger hunt at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA. I had been invited to visit a friend in Italy (another story) that Christmas, but I didn’t know much about Italy. I was wandering around the stacks for a useful book about Italy while my students worked. I found a big surprise, Goethe (whose work I had never read) had written about Italy. The book was Italian Journey. I went to the desk and learned I couldn’t check it out without an ID card. I didn’t then have one. One of the librarians, seeing what I wanted, checked it out for me.
I went home, read Italian Journey over the weekend, and fell in love on every page. Who WAS this man?
I took Goethe with me everywhere I went after that, either in the form of some book or other or in my mind.
Once on a plane from Salt Lake City (a plane change point from Billings, MT) to San Diego, I sat by a little boy. He was playing a video game. When I sat down and got settled, he asked if I had a pen he could borrow so he could keep score. I did so I handed it to him. I was traveling (as I did for a long time) with Conversations with Goethe (Gespräche mit Goethe) which is the book compiled by Goethe’s end-of-life secretary, Johann Peter Eckermann. I opened my book as the plane took off and started to read. In a little while the kid — who later told me he was 7 years old — touched my arm and said, “Do you want to have a conversation?”
Of course I did. Talking to kids is great. It was a wide ranging talk that involved learning that this kid was fascinated by WW II and thought German engineers had designed cool planes because of the rotary engine. I learned he’d been staying at his grandparents (a-HA) but then I learned why. His brother had been killed in a car accident only a few months before and his mom was devastated. The family was on its way to Mexico for the New Year and maybe to help his mom recover. I said I was very sorry. “Me too,” the little boy said. Then, “Have you been to Germany?”
“Only barely,” I said. “I have friends in Switzerland and we went to a couple towns on the border.”
“Can you speak German?” he asked me.
“I want to learn German.”
“It’s a great language,” I said. “My favorite writer was from Germany.” I showed him my book.
Then I thought about this kid’s mom and how smart this kid was. “German’s a lot like English,” I said. “I bet if I wrote something for you, you could guess some of the words.”
We had a huge supply of cocktail napkins on which I’d been drawing WW II airplanes and he’d been identifying them. I took a new one and wrote:
Alles geben die Götter, die unendlichen,
Ihren Lieblingen ganz,
Alle Freuden, die unendlichen,
Alle Schmerzen, die unendlichen, ganz.
The kid was incredibly brave compared to a lot of people and fearlessly went at it. “I see ‘all’ and ‘end’.”
“Wow,” I said. “What if I tell you sometimes ‘t’ is ‘d’ in English?”
“Is that god?”
“It IS like English. What does it mean?”
I wrote my simple translation on the back of the napkin and handed it to him. He read it thoughtfully with great respect. Then I showed him how the words of Goethe’s poem in German corresponded with the words in English so he could see the relationships.
“Can I give this to my mother?” he asked. “She needs it.”
“It’s yours,” I said.
We all got off the plane in San Diego. I knew I’d been deeply privileged that day.
You can hear the poem recited in German here. It’s lovely
More or less: All is given by the eternal gods to those they love, whole. All joy, unending. All sorrow (suffering), unending, whole.
I’m not a German scholar so this isn’t a very artistic translation. People argue about the meaning of words (schmerzen, freuden, unendlichen, Götter) but I don’t want to. I know I’m not the king of this stuff. I also know that words have connotations in their own languages that are often untranslatable. BUT I think the whole meaning — Ganz! — of this poem is clear in every language, even in a primitive translation like mine.
I taught a summer literature class one year. On the first day one of the students said, “I hate poetry. Are you going to make us read it?”
I laughed and said, “It’s a literature class. What do you think?”
Of course I talked of Goethe during that class. A couple of years later she showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”
“Well there’s a bag in the department office for you. I can’t believe they didn’t give it to you.” We went together and she handed it to me. “I found it at a yard sale.”
It is the most amazing book. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1871 compilation of poetry by European writers starting with the Anglo/Saxons. Inside is a scattering of maple leaves. There are thousands of poems and poets in that book, from the Middle Ages to Longfellow’s own historical moment, but of them all the frontispiece is…