Commentary Magazine

Gedichte aus den Jahren 1908-1945, by Franz Werfel

Franz Werfel’s Poetry
Gedichte Aus Den Jahren 1908-1945.
by Franz Werfel.
Privately Printed by the Pacific Press, Los Angeles, 1946.
Distributed by Mary S. Rosenberg,
New York. 167 pp. Cloth, $5.00. Half-leather, $6.00.


Franz Werfel was a bad author and a great poet. This is rare enough in itself. But even rarer is the deep connection between the two.

His novels and plays show neither the spontaneous purity of a genuinely naive nature nor the achieved purity of an artistic conscience. They are full of guilt and betrayal. Certainly they do not belie the effervescent talent that he possessed, the impulse and joy of the born story-teller. Just as in his social intercourse, there are moments in Werfel’s epical and dramatic works when he relaxed completely and gave himself up to his flowing gift, when he forgot and lost himself, and therefore found himself, exposing the childlike basis of his nature and its prankish exuberance. At such moments he told his story well—impulsively, wittily, colorfully, even dramatically. On the whole, however, he remained trapped between the spontaneity of the involuntary personal statement and the mental exertion of the work of art.

These books of his are full of effort, but it is a false and shallow effort, never turned exclusively toward the object, never in any higher sense disinterested; it is an effort not so much toward a constantly more intensive truth as toward extensive and often cheap effects. Werfel wrote historical novels and plays by preference. But whereas every genuine artist feels costumes to be a burden rather than a vehicle, and tends to get rid of the imaginative associations called up by the names and scenic effects of a costume play in order to clear the way for a profounder accuracy, Werfel was much more inclined to accept the easy help offered by the scenic clichés of the theater. In the style of his characters, situations, and dialogue, all too much of that exaggeration, overheating, over-lubrication, and anticipation of effect is to be discerned which constitutes the very nature of showmanship. And even those spots where he attained to a true contact with with life were often spoiled by the emphatic and sentimental coloring given to the whole

In the persons and experiences of, say, Bernadette and Verdi, Werfel doubtless penetrated to the truth in all its sharpness and fathomlessness—but what good was it? These characters stand between theater decoration and a minor cast of dignitaries, contrasts, and conflicts that are probably entertaining, gripping, and, on the level of everyday appearances, even striking: they carry us along while we read and even stir up all sorts of problems inside us; yet they leave behind a feeling of shame, as if after deceptive, wasteful pleasures. This is because of the bad taste and the bad conscience with which these books are written.

All one has to do is read the unhappy prefaces to the Verdi and Bernadette books to see the primal sin of the Werfel opus in its full clarity. The preface to Verdi says that the author’s years of hesitation before putting this novel down in writing were caused by the hero of the story himself: “He, who was in terror of the public, who called newspapers the scourges of our time, who branded the posthumous publication of letters an injustice, who (according to Rossini) ruined all his opportunities in Paris because he disdained to make calls, the man who lived inaccessibly upon his estate—should he not refuse to figure as the principal personage in a novel?” This explanation is either untrue in general or an affectation. Verdi, one of the most famous and most performed composers of the 19th century, belonged irretrievably to the public; biographies of him were published, memoirs concerning him, and his letters—Werfel himself put them out in German. And whether or not Werfel wrote a novel about him could hardly have further effect upon such a public existence. If it is granted, however, that one might have such an exaggerated feeling of delicacy toward a much venerated individual, then this feeling of delicacy ought to prevent one from making a fuss in a preface about the fact that one cannot in the end surrender to it.

Even worse is the announcement of that pledge which, according to another preface, moved Werfel to write The Song of Bernadette. A pledge is a very serious private circumstance and anyone who took it as seriously as it deserved would feel some natural shyness about making it the sensational lead-horse of a new books.

Statements such as these are enough of themselves to demonstrate what ruins the whole style of Werfel’s stories: a lack of that ultimate honor and honesty which are the premise of genuine artistic devotion.

I do not say all this in order to denigrate Werfel; I say it in order to do him the honor of applying that same high standard which he himself set in another part of his work, the only valid and pure part: that is, his poetry. How, in actual fact, could one ever evaluate the greatness of his poetry without seeing at the same time the inadequacy of his activity as an author? Indeed it is from this very inadequacy—and that, above all, is why I must expose it—that the greatness arises. Not only is Werfel’s prose degraded by his poetry; in a certain sense the prose, in its turn, conditions his poetry: Werfel knew about his profound failures, knew about the badness with which he handled his great gifts, knew about his weaknesses, his lies, his sins. And the settling of accounts with himself, the ordeal he experienced in the painful recognition of his defections—it is this, exactly this, that is the source of his genuine creation. In many of his poems, the greatest, he pursued the experience of his personal defection to the very bottom of the human condition, to the point of a Job-like complaint and accusation lifted up on the part of the mortal creature.

The poems reveal his inner history: that lovable childlike quality, that openness to the world, that “friendship with the world” which lay in the depths of his nature, and the weaknesses, the abandonment to all temptations that are connected with these qualities; the urge towards union, towards communication, towards mutual effect, and the inevitable experience of the bounds separating person from person, of the impotence of speech, of being along with oneself. The best pieces in the book at hand—in which Werfel, this time with a sure and strict glance, really collected his finest poems—are direct personal statements, save for a few exceptions such as the masterly poem “Der Dirigent.” And the salient motifs are all connected with the experience of the self. Childhood, with its warm, all-enveloping background of home, plays a mighty role; the poet’s whole life is penetrated by it. Completely original also is Werfel’s urge towards the Other, his extension of himself through the world, his dispersion and his loss of himself in the world. And then there comes abruptly the breaking off, the rejection and the withdrawal back into himself, the struggle for a human hold on waking reality, and the sweetness of self-surrender: sleep, sleeplessness with its specters of guilt, sickness—not only personal, acute sickness, but also the lifelong one, the “sickness unto death.” It is only a step from the child to death. What is lacking is the man that he never became, and just this is the most affecting of all traits in this person.

Language does not deceive and does not let itself be deceived. Let one compare the style of Werfel’s epic works with that of his poetry. They are hardly reconcilable. The prose is careless and flat and often suffers from inexcusable slips. The lyric poetry is concise and specific, firm and fast, and of a new and deep power of illumination. The prose is second-hand, it was faded and obsolete from the first day he began writing it. The lyric poetry will always retain its original freshness: i.e., the sphere of emotions it won by and for itself.

These differences spring from the fact that the public is absent from Werfel’s lyrics. The individual, the suffering individual, is alone with himself—which is the precondition of all true poetry. The individual digs down into himself and comes up with new content that has never yet seen the light of day, content drawn from strata of the soul where that which is most intensely personal goes over into the universally human. Because he is alone with himself, the poet is honest. And because he is altogether honest, his great powers of expression can develop freely. Only new content, just discovered for the first time, can create a new, completely direct language. Aside from slight reminiscences of the early Rilke—and these only in respect to melody—no foreign influences are to be detected even in Werfel’s youthful poetry.

Werfel did not see and did not suspect, let alone penetrate with his thinking consciousness, the epic conflicts of our time, the problems of social life or of the interaction of individual and society, of the horizontal world, so to speak—in any case he was a bad thinker by and large. But what did preoccupy him in his innermost were the vertical problems, the depth problems of the self, the frailty, yes, the brittleness of personal existence, the encroachment of death, the transcendence of memory, the limits of speech. Problems, spiritual urgencies such as are awake today in all serious minds—these too occupied him in his innermost, and he gave them a metaphorical form that in its spectral buffoonery and in its tendency to allegory is often reminiscent of the lyric poetry of the German baroque period. Those most personal and most moving poems in which Werfel surrendered himself completely to the extremest remorse, and from this remorse won the truest poetic momentum, come very close in fact to the outpourings of sin and repentance of the baroque poets: thus the “Gestammel in elfter Stunde” (“Stammering at the Eleventh Hour”). It is here we find the core of Werfel’s poetry:

Ich muss die Brust mir schlagen,
Mich wider mich anklagenl
Oh Gott, hr, was ich lalle:
—Ich field in ede Falle,
Ich heuchelte Erbarmen
Nicht einen Tag lang lösen.
Ich heuchelte Erbarmen
Und übersah die Armen.
Ich zeigte Glut und Wärme,
Doch war das nur Geschwärme.
Mein Klima war der Winter,
Frost, Stroh und nichts dahinter.
Versprochen hiess gebrochen,
Im Ich lag ich verkrochen
Wie unter Federbetten.
Gleich alien Erz-Koketten
Missbraucht’ ich noch die Reue,
Dass ich mich meiner freue.
So reim ich hier und leire,
Damit ich selbst mich feire,
Um wichtig mich zu machen
Vor Dir als Feig’ und Schwachen.
Anschmeissen und Anbiedern,
Das ja, doch was erwidern,
Wenn Du zum Ernst Dich wendest,
Und einen Blick hersendest?
Was werd ich dann noch haben
Von alien guten Gaben,
Die ich bis auf die letzte
Beim Teufel lngst versetzte?
Vielleicht blieb von dem Gute
Nur die und die Minute,
Wo ich mich Dir im Weinen
Ekstatisch durfte einenl
Wo ich, ein All der Wonnen,
Verdienstlos, war durchronnen
Vom Hymnus: “Heilig—Heilig.”
Da war ich dein!—Dieweil ich
Noch wahnte, dass ich glaube,
Lag langst ich schon im Staube.
Ich habe im Besitze
Nur diese kurzen Blitze.
Sie sind die letzten Gulden,
Die meine Laster nicht stahlen.
So kann ich Dir nur zahlen
Die Schuld mit meinen Schulden.

(I must beat my breast, make accusation against myself! Oh God, hear my babbling:—I fell into every trap, I could not free myself from evil for so much as a single day. I feigned pity and overlooked the poor. I showed warmth and ardor, but it was only affectation. My climate was winter, frost, snow, and nothing behind it. To promise meant to break my promise, I lay hidden in my ego as though under a feather quilt. Like all arch-coquettes, I even misused my remorse, taking delight in myself. Thus I rhyme here and sing so that I can celebrate myself, in order to make myself important in your eyes as a coward and a weakling. To cling and to intrude, yes, but what can I answer when you turn yourself to earnestness and send a glance at me? What will I have left then of all the good gifts which I pawned, to the last one, with the Devil long ago? Perhaps there remained a goodness only this or that moment when I was able to join myself ecstatically to you, weeping! When I, a universe of bliss, was pierced by the hymn: “Holy, Holy.” Then was I yours!—While I still had the illusion that I believed, I already lay long in the dust. I have in my possession only these short gleams. They are the last coins that my vices have not stolen. So I can pay my debt to you only with my own debts.)

By metaphysical impulse Werfel was a Jew, but in his need for salvation he was in truth a Christian, one might indeed say almost a Russian Christian: for it was only through sin, only driven along by sin, that he could attain to completely purified expression.



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