Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Up Goethe's Path

Zalman Shneour, who died on February 20, 1959, a contemporary of the Yiddish novelists Sholem Asch and I. J. Singer, was one of the major figures in modern Jewish literature. A prolific writer, the author of more than sixty volumes of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry and prose, he was at home in both languages.

Shneour, who was born in the Russian town of Shklov in 1887, was a member of a noted Hasidic family; his ancestor, Shneour Zalman of Lodi, was the founder of the rationalist movement within Hasidism known as Habad. After leaving Shklov he lived in Berlin, Warsaw, Vilna, Zurich, Geneva, Paris, London, and (after 1945) New York and Israel.

Shneour never achieved the international reputation outside of Jewish literature that one might expect from the strength of his writings. Only three of his novels were translated into English, and they had an indifferent success. (A French translation of his historical romance dealing with the Napoleonic period was greeted with more enthusiasm.) In 1946, Shneour’s novels with a Shklov locale were dramatized and produced on the Yiddish stage by Maurice Schwartz.

Perhaps this talented writer met with general indifference because of the very qualities that set him apart from his contemporaries; his was a markedly individual voice, lyrical and violent, speaking in praise of heroic attitudes in an anti-heroic, socially-minded, ironic age.

“Up Goethe’s Path” is from the Hebrew volume of verse, Hezyonot, published in Berlin in 1923. My translation of another excerpt from the same book, “Death of the Flowers,” was published in COMMENTARY in May 1946.—Jacob Sloan

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And the path winds wild and free as we go up from Torfhaus
Joined by a fickle brook running on ahead,
Now golden in the sun, now ravine-shadowed-blue,
Dozing in loose sand, or singing among stones.

Goethe walked this path when he was deep in Faust,
Climbing from Mount Brocken to the Witches’ Altar.
This squirrel’s forebear stood dumb at the poet’s silence,
A branchy deer froze like a dry tree.

Then he reached the peak. Once there, he cast
His intellectual net over cities and states.
Generations’ doubts gave him soul-selling Faust,
Germany Gretchen, the golden innocent.

The Scandinavian countryside yielded Walpurgis Night,
Compounded of thunder, songs, lightning, and black magic;
All he took from Leipzig was one wine cellar,
From the pagan treasuries, Mephistopheles.

Out of the Greek plays he sucked honey chorus,
The contest between God and Satan out of the Book of Job.
Centuried artists sowed the field of Faust
For him to come along and pick a single grain.

And all these worlds at random, alien elements,
Gathering, he tied in a knotty form.
Linking the torn pieces of the immortals,
He passed whistling by, like a man crossing a bridge.

“I swear,” he must have thought as he went up this path,
“I am the one for whom jubilees have toiled,
Scientific donkeys, histories and faiths—
All have died and rotted to manure my shoots.”

“Every hill’s a world. One world’s enough for us!”
That’s the ant heap’s wisdom—but the eagle’s different,
And the man of intellect. They two go laughing upward:
Mountain and abyss all the same to them.

I walk Goethe’s path, Faust hovering above me,
Mount Brocken appearing, the path growing wilder.
All the foundations are ancient. Where are the new to come from?
I am impatient to rise, and cannot see the peak.

I search the side of the path; maybe the poet dropped
Some hint of the new combinations he formed when he went up alone.
Ponderous Germans galore have threshed here; but perhaps
One slight clue has escaped for the future artist.

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