Commentary Magazine

On Lea Goldberg & S. Y. Agnon

The early weeks of 1970 saw the passing of two remarkable Hebrew writers, one, S. Y. Agnon, who had achieved wide international recognition, the other, Lea Goldberg, scarcely known outside Israel. Although in this case one might invoke with real justice the eulogistic formula that their deaths mean the “passing of an era,” they are such incommensurate figures in every respect that they represent the end of two different eras, two vastly disparate cultural experiences. Agnon was the last great Hebrew writer steeped in the religious ambience of East European Jewish life, from which he drew the elements of a distinctive artistic vocabulary, subtly illuminating that ambience in his fiction, making its erosion from within and its demolition from without the imaginative ground of reference for a large, troubled vision of impaired spiritual existence in the modern world. Lea Goldberg, on the other hand, a gifted poet, translator, and scholar-critic, grew up in a secularized European Hebrew milieu, her relation to modern culture was far more cosmopolitan, and Agnon’s anguished problematic of tradition and modern experience remained outside her universe of discourse. The two writers, moreover, are clearly incommensurate in regard to stature as well. Agnon, with his varied and compellingly original literary production, is the undisputed major figure of modern Hebrew fiction, the only Hebrew novelist who can be justly claimed as a modern master. Lea Goldberg, alongside Agnon, would have to be described as “minor,” though an attentive reading of her work may suggest the inadequacy of that term, with its common, regrettable implication of casual dismissal.

Agnon’s earliest stories were published in the first decade of this century, and most of his major work had already appeared in Hebrew by the mid-40’s, but it was not until 1954, with the publication of an essay on him by Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker, that he really began to receive any serious attention in America. Since then, of course, that situation has changed significantly, especially after the award of the Nobel Prize to Agnon in 1966. He is no longer an unfamiliar figure to American readers, and particularly because he has been discussed in these pages several times over the past decade,1 I would here like to consider instead the lesser-known work of Lea Goldberg. Before doing so, however, let me note that with the passage of time more of Agnon and on Agnon is being made available in English. Schocken Books has just issued a collection of his stories2—scandalously, after all these years, it is the first such volume to appear in English—which gives special weight to his expressionist, experimentally symbolic tales, perhaps a welcome change to many American readers who may have had difficulties with the unfamiliar world of erudite piety of his more traditional fiction. One can hope that before too long we will see an English version of his major novel, Just Yesterday, one which will not be the kind of stylistic disaster that I. M. Lask and Misha Louvish, respectively, have perpetrated in their translations of his other two long novels The Bridal Canopy and A Guest for a Night.

Meanwhile, the English reader interested in Agnon can get informed guidance from two recent critical studies, Arnold J. Band’s Nostalgia and Nightmare,3 and Baruch Hochman’s The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon.4 Band’s ambitious book begins with a “cultural biography” of Agnon during the formative years in his native Galician milieu, then offers a synoptic, chronological account of his literary enterprise. It is unfortunately hampered by a cumbersome method of exposition—each individual work is summarized in detail before it is discussed, and at times the dividing-line between synopsis and analysis is not as clear as one would like—but it does present a comprehensive view of Agnon’s oeuvre, and Band has accomplished an important task neglected by Hebrew criticism in carefully sifting through all the versions of Agnon’s stories to establish a precise chronology of his creative development. It was typical of Agnon’s wiliness that he should hide the traces of his own revisions, suppress some published materials altogether, rearrange his collections of stories written over the years as though they had been conceived together as new artistic wholes. Band’s painstaking research has at last cleared the way for an unimpeded view of the writer in his workshop.

Baruch Hochman’s brief study makes a nice complement to Band’s large volume because it is chiefly concerned with certain central discriminations of evaluation outside the purview of Nostalgia and Nightmare. What Hochman offers in essence is an essay on the ironic art of Agnon and its limitations. Precisely for this reason, The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon is probably the most intelligent book anyone has written on Agnon, because Hebrew criticism, even at its anayltic best, has generally been so adulatory that it has failed to raise basic questions about the inherent limits of Agnon’s kind of achievement. If Hochman can be faulted, it must be for unresolved ambivalence: he is fascinated by Agnon’s virtuosity, and on occasion is quite illuminating in describing it critically, but at a number of points he seems driven to put Agnon down with a vehemence that looks excessive in the light of his own astute commentary on Agnon’s art. In any case, The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon brings to bear on Agnon an unusual combination of sensitivity and critical shrewdness, and it is highly recommended as a brief introduction to the Hebrew writer.



In Agnon’s death one inevitably senses the palpable gap in shared imaginative life when the unique energy of genius is cut off. On a more modest scale, the death of Lea Goldberg leaves a still space of felt absence in Israel because in her life she was so much a cultural presence there, and because her life marked a moment in culture that now seems irrevocably past, both in Israel and everywhere else. As I have intimated, she was not what one would call a commanding figure, but she managed to become a necessary one. She translated from half a dozen languages with grace and precision, everything from Petrarch and Shakespeare to Tolstoy and Brecht; she wrote children’s poetry and stories with a warmth and lively inventiveness that have delighted a generation of young Hebrew readers; she initiated the study of comparative literature as an academic discipline in Israel; and, surely most important, one can say with some confidence of her what one would venture to say of very few contemporary poets anywhere—that she has written a good dozen poems, perhaps twice that many, which will continue to give pleasure in another hundred years.

Born in Kovno three years before the outbreak of World War I, educated there in one of the Hebrew gymnasia that were the last great institutional flowering of the Hebraist movement in Eastern Europe between the two wars, Lea Goldberg went on to study in Berlin and then in Bonn, where she received a doctorate in Semitics just as the reign of barbarism descended in 1933. Two years later she arrived in Tel Aviv, beginning adult life again in the unfamiliar white glare of an utterly new physical and cultural landscape—“it seems if you just turned your head,” she would write later in a poem on Tel Aviv, 1935, “your hometown church would be floating out in the sea.” At once she entered into the bustle of Tel Aviv literary activity, bringing with her a deep sense of at-homeness in European culture rare among the typically autodidact Hebrew writers of her generation and beyond the reach of the native generation that followed.

The movement of modern Hebrew literature, beginning in Enlightenment Germany and moving in stages eastward across Europe, had been conceived initially as part of a cosmopolitan vision of European culture: Hebrew was to emulate, but not slavishly imitate, the exemplary achievements of the various modern literatures and thus take its place in the creation of a new reasonable world of mutually respecting, civilized peoples. The vision, to be sure, was historically naive, and in any case the performance of Hebrew writers generally reduced the grand ideal to a pathetic slogan, but the ideal was not entirely a contemptible one for all that. Lea Goldberg, through her location in history, her personal peregrinations, her literary gifts, was one of the last people in a really advantaged position to translate into credible fact this vision of a Hebrew renaissance intimately and intricately associated with the whole varied range of European high culture.

In her memoir of the remarkable Viennese Hebrew poet, Avraham Ben Yitzhak Sonne (the friend of Hermann Broch, Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil, and others), Lea Goldbery wryly observes, “Listening to him, I would sometimes think, that’s the way our intelligentsia ought to talk, if we had a Hebrew-speaking intelligentsia.” This is just what she herself was—not exactly a literary intellectual in the American sense, not really an academician, and certainly not a “lady poet,” but an authentic member of a Hebrew-speaking intelligentsia that existed more as an ideal than as a cultural fact. “Intelligentsia” may suggest, among other things, a self-conscious class of intellectuals impelled by a sense of social commitment or explicitly political identity, and of these qualities there was no lack among the European-born Hebrew literati. In Lea Goldberg’s usage, however, the term also implies urbanity—in fact, she later invokes the English word to characterize Sonne—and few Hebrew writers have possessed that faculty of cultivated, discriminating discourse as she did.



The virtues of her literary criticism, and its limitations, are precisely those of good conversation. The beginning of her essay on Chekhov is exemplary: “It is hard to talk about Chekhov. Perhaps harder than about any other writer. He was so careful with the use of words, hated every superfluous word; and in speaking or writing about him there is a sense of uneasiness: one can hardly stint words, but in their profusion, many will seem superfluous.” As an unaffected admission of critical humility before the mastery of the artist, this is perfect, and the ease of clear statement itself illustrates the interchangeability of writing and speaking that the writer assumes in her passing reference to them here. The essay that follows, like most of Lea Goldberg’s criticism, is in keeping with this beginning—sensible, informed, persuasive, but finally less than illuminating. For all her literary intelligence and her minute knowledge of criticism and scholarship in the various Western languages, she seemed to shrink with a kind of aesthetic reticence from the spinning of theories, the erecting of systems of interpretation, the deployment of elaborate apparatuses of technical analysis, all those studied strategies and devices through which critics achieve, or aspire to, “brilliance.” If as a result her criticism often merely restates aptly what an intelligent reader could more or less see for himself, it has the compensating virtue of continuously preserving the notion of both literature and criticism as modes of humanistic discourse. The frequent, thoroughly natural use of the first person plural in her criticism is a clue to its distinctive quality: her “we” is not of the authoritative editorial variety, nor is it a rhetorical ploy to implicate the reader in the attitudes and conclusions of the writer, but, quite simply, it is spoken on behalf of all us human beings for whom and about whom another human being—Chekhov, Tolstoy, Boccaccio, or whoever the case may be—wrote a work of art to make some abiding sense of our shared human condition.



The commitment to civilized discourse may also explain something about the nature of Lea Goldberg’s poetry, which, written with the fullest awareness of the labyrinthine obliquities and bold discontinuities dominating modern poetic idiom, remained always direct, lucid, almost deceptively simple in form. She was a devoted student of the French, German, and Russian Symbolists, but the only poet close to the Symbolist movement she noticeably resembles is Verlaine, with his melodic orchestration of assonance, alliteration, and rhyme, his attachment to stanzaic forms, and the general attitude toward style he announced in his famous Art Poétique: “Take eloquence and wring its neck.” Modern Hebrew poetry, freighted with allusion, rising against a vast background of biblical high style, had characteristically cultivated grand effects, pathos, passion, and prophetic rage, while Lea Goldberg brought to Hebrew verse a subtle sense of beauty in small words and small things, a gracefulness and even playfulness of style. Here, for example, is a little poem called “The Alley,” one of a series of evocative vignettes of Lithuanian provincial life grouped together under the general title, From My Old Home. I have tried to offer in my translation some equivalent for the witty interplay of rhythm and rhyme in the original.

The alley is narrow.
Pail bumps pail.
A girl’s laughter.
Scarlet ribbon-tail.

Flitted past,
Barefoot best.
Gray stone

I do not mean to imply that poetry for Lea Goldberg was in any way a flight from the horrors of history or the pain of adult life into a world of pretty little things. On the contrary, one senses in the quietly stated beauty of her brief lyric poems a certain tough strength precisely because that ordered beauty stands in tense relation with a dark background of chaos, ugliness, suffering. If she shows great fondness, at times to an excess, for the legacy of imagery of Romantic poetry and traditional folksong—setting suns, lonely birds in the sky, blossoming cherry trees, the murmur of strummed instruments—these traditional properties often seem freshly perceived and surprisingly persuasive because the poet has rediscovered them, somehow through inner struggle has won back from the chaos of modern experience the recurrent objects of eternal beauty. Blood-madness and death wait in the shadow of the flowering cherry tree, which is why we are ready to believe that the tree—“a white storm of florescence”—is really there for the poet, not simply an easy invocation of literary tradition.

In this regard, Lea Goldberg’s single ventures into drama and fiction, her play, The Mistress of the Castle, and her novel, That Is the Light, make explicit a pattern that is implicit, or has already been worked through psychologically, in the best of her poems. The fictional settings and imaginative modes of the two works are very different: the play deals with a young survivor of the Holocaust during the immediate postwar period in a manner that tends toward melodrama and quasi-allegorical schematization, while the novel, incorporating more obviously autobiographical elements, is a subdued realistic account, rendered from the protagonist’s point of view, of a 1931 summer spent at home in a Lithuanian town by a troubled young girl who has been off studying in Berlin. Yet the underlying movement of plot in the play and the novel is essentially the same. In each case, a sensitive girl, not yet come of age, has been confronted by the adult world with personal and historical facts of terror that tempt her to choose madness—seen as a virtual suicide—rather than adult life. In each case, the protagonist finally resolves, in the words of the novel, that “our lives will be life . . . in utter defiance of all the makers of history who torture children and murder their parents.” Interestingly, in each case it is a piece of poetry—in the play, a children’s song, in the novel, a remembered line from Moses Ibn Ezra—that the protagonist clings to as a talisman to help her out of the nightmare of violated childhood into a hoped-for world of light.

The simplicity, then, of Lea Goldberg’s language represents in part an almost ascetic avoidance of any stylistic intimations of sublimity or profundity or exaltation that have not been fully earned by the poet through her experience. Her own art poétique is spelled out in this passage from a late poem, “On Myself,” where musings on the nature of the poetic act—a recurrent concern in her verse—merge with self-revelation:

I have no hard words—
Valves of hallucination.
My images are
Transparent like church windows
Through which
One can see
The changing of light in the sky
And the falling
Like dead birds
Of my loves.

The apparent incongruity of the metaphor in the second line here is purposeful, ironically expressing a suspicion that poems with grand visionary qualities use language as an ingenious mechanical apparatus to produce what may finally be trick effects. The poet’s own imagery, by contrast, has the simple function of stained glass, to let in the plain light of day, only coloring and patterning what is “out there” with the significant forms of a traditional art. (One thinks of George Herbert’s “Church Windows.”) The controlled statement of personal loss in these lines is typical of Lea Goldberg at her best: avoiding the sentimentalism of self-pity and the extravagance of self-dramatization, she expresses pain in a way that is at once chastened and almost blunt, depending for its strong effect only on its final placing and on the plummeting rhythm of the last words.



If there is an element of starkness in her late work that does not entirely typify the earlier poems, her poetic style on the whole is nevertheless spare, understated, at some weaker moments perhaps too given to easy musicality and obvious conventional imagery, but for the most part orchestrating avowedly traditional materials with exquisite tact. Thus, at the beginning of one of her reminiscent poems about the Lithuania of her childhood: “Servant girls singing like guitars,/Barefoot, with the setting sun.” There is no effort to surprise here, nothing of the typically modern tendency to give individual images and words a quality of violent autonomy, no element in this line and a half that is not drawn from the repertory of familiar poetic tradition. Yet the elements are adjusted together to achieve a finely luminous effect, producing the kind of total poetic phrase that lingers in the ear of the imagination.

What makes this poetry, however, more than a judicious synthesis of traditional materials is the faculty of immediate vision it clearly exhibits. It is a quality easier to see in the poetry itself than to describe, so I will offer two final examples to illustrate how the imagination seems to perceive poetic objects directly rather than labor to contrive them into poetry. The first poem is called “Night”:

The sky sways in the wind,
Like a tree shaking its leaves
Stars shake,
Green and damp
And their scent—wild grass.

The sky sways in the wind—
And we below
Behold the flowering:
Now, now . . .
Did you hear?
In the skytop
The rustling of stars is dis-

Most poems which, like this one, pursue a single metaphorical comparison from beginning to end have the effect of turning the comparison into a conceit, or, at any rate, clearly represent the “elaboration,” as we say, of a central metaphor. Here, the perception of stars as leaves—with its double suggestion that the vault of the sky is within hand’s reach and, disturbingly, is shaken by the same winds that sweep the unstable earth—seems rather an immediate experience, not consciously elaborated but followed from moment to moment; so that “Did you hear?” near the end is not a rhetorical affectation but a cry that springs from the immediacy of what is seen.

My last example is somewhat more complicated. One of a group of poems with the Rimbaudesque title, “Illuminations,” its two stanzas would appear to stand in a relation of parable and meaning, but that relation is not made explicit, and each remains an independent moment of revelation, overlapping the other, extending its possibilities of implication.

Across one of the hills
Flies an orange bird
Whose name I do not know.
But the olive trees know her,
The wind, pursuing her, sings:
Your home is here.

In the eyes of a small Arab girl
At the edge of the village in ruins
An orange bird flutters
Whose name I do not know.

This is one of those rare instances in which ultimately political facts have been transmuted into the fuller and more subtle mode of meaning of poetic statement. The lines linger over the ambiguities of estrangement and belonging; express the speaker’s troubled sense of unnavigable distance between herself and the bird, the landscape, the Arab girl; encompass suffering in an almost painterly image of beauty—the bright bird against the somber gray-green of the olive trees—that does not prettify the suffering but, on the contrary, reveals it more sharply, leads us to ponder its enigmatic intimations.

Lea Goldberg was herself heavily burdened with the awareness of how difficult it is to go on with poetry in a world that brutally violates every object of poetic desire and every image of poetic order. Many of her late poems are meditations on silence (“All my psalms were slaughtered./ All my words/ Were killed./ Even the name of this stone on my mouth/ I cannot pronounce”); and in fact during the last four or five years of her life she virtually stopped writing poetry. This is another facet of the affinity she felt for Avraham Ben Yitzhak Sonne, whose minuscule production is the purest example in Hebrew literature of a movement toward écriture blanche, actually ending in a beautiful hymn to wordlessness. In this connection, there is one especially unsettling passage in Lea Goldberg’s book on him. Commenting on Nietzsche’s poem, “On the Bridge in Venice,’” which ends with the words, “Hörte mir jemand zu?,” Sonne observed to Lea Goldberg: “Poetry seeks an echo but no longer finds it. That question-mark after the cry remains unanswered. From this point, the debacle begins. Language has had its day, behind it there is nothing more.” The debacle has indeed begun. It is hard to imagine a serious poet now who does not feel compelled in one way or another to ask himself Nietzsche’s question, whether there is anyone to listen to him, and the fear that it is all over with language itself cannot be very far from any of us.

Language, however, no matter how we blunt it, maim it, degrade it, prostitute it, remains the uniquely human invention, and therefore poetry, as the most complex expressive ordering of langauge, remains an indispensable human activity. It is suggestive that the major poet of the Israeli war generation, Yehuda Amichai, recalls in a poem on Lea Goldberg’s death that during the Negev campaign of 1948, he carried with him everywhere in his battle-pack a pamphlet edition—battered, held together with scotch tape—of From My Old Home. What Lea Goldberg’s poetry has meant to many Hebrew writers and readers is itself testimony to the tough persistence of this most fragile form of human discourse.




1 Robert Alter, “The Genius of S. Y. Agnon,” August 1961; Edmund Wilson, “The Invisible World of S. Y. Agnon,” December 1966; Baruch Hochman, “Agnon's Quest,” December 1966; Gershom Scholem, “Reflections on S. Y. Agnon,” December 1967.

2 Twenty-One Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, 287 pp., $650.

3 University of California Press, 563 pp., $15.00.

4 Cornell University Press, 260 pp., $6.95.

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