Review of The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche (First Edition)

Review of The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Friedrich Nietzsche, First Edition, Translated by James Luchte and Eva Leadon, Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Issue 35/36, Spring/Autumn, 2008, pp. 204-207

Reviewed by Peter D. Murray

This collection ranges from the poetry of Nietzsche’s youth (1858) to that of his late sanity (1888). It contains all of Nietzsche’s well-known poems—those from The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and Dionysus Dithyrambs—as well as other published poems such as the Idylls of Messina not used in ‘Songs of Prince Vogelfrei’. These are included with more aphoristic pieces in sections entitled ‘Lyrics’ and ‘Sayings’. The book finishes with a selection of numbered fragments and notes from 1882-1888 gathered together under the title of ‘Through the Circle of Dionysian Dithyrambs’.

The first section takes us from the youthful works of a fourteen year old (1858) to the more complicated work written about the time of Nietzsche’s enrolment at university (1868). It ignores a number of other verses which appear in the Juvenilia and which date back to around 1854. The youthful poems begin with a tone often suitably melancholic in a boy already obsessed with Germany’s spiritual heroes. They include brief expressions of elation and more sombre, longer pieces, often dealing with regretted lost relationships with friends, the loss of his father, and perhaps also his baby brother. The latter relationships are treated at some distance, which is understandable considering both died when Nietzsche was a child. Some poems also show an interest in an almost mystical relation with nature and life that often appears in his later works. There is a mention of “the Unknown God” who will figure strongly in his later work. We are reminded that at fourteen Nietzsche first refused to observe his and his pastor father’s religion, denying the value of the past, and rejecting the possibility of a future in the church, certainly the career envisaged by his family. Perhaps the most interesting early poem is ‘Now and Formerly’ which reflects on past happiness and a present weariness that morbidly dwells on death. The ennui borders on self-indulgence and indicates that the Romanticism Nietzsche would later deplore had taken a firm hold in the teenage boy.

The second section of the collection, entitled ‘Lyrics’, puts together a number of later poems including ‘On High Mountains’ from BGE and poems appended to other works. Many of these poems are immediately impressive for their strength, and it is striking to have them collected together. It is remarkable that almost all the mature poetry was written in early 1882, when Nietzsche had finished Daybreak and was beginning GS, and as he remarks later, during his trip to Sicily. One can speculate that such a journey was more suitable for writing poetry, or perhaps that GS was already being planned with the prelude in rhyme, in which case it was a conscious decision.

It is not clear why Nietzsche embarked on the voyage from Genoa to Messina on 1 April, 1882. He presumably made a somewhat spontaneous decision to visit the Graeca Magna; to visit the heroes of his youth. He probably sailed via the Aeolian Islands, as Stromboli is mentioned in the notes. His imagery concerning the sea, the islands, volcanoes, and the south is all taken from this voyage. The repeated use of such imagery as ‘the ridge between two seas’, the ‘fishermen with golden oars’ and ‘the Blessed Isles’ also indicate Nietzsche’s obvious delight, and that he was lucky with the weather.

When he arrived in Messina, Nietzsche reports swimming in the Straits and it is clear that the Odyssey is on his mind. There is an upsurge in his Romanticist delight in the Ancient world, tempered somewhat by reflection in the poetry and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The sight of Etna dominating eastern Sicily; of Taormina; of the harbour at Syracuse, and conjectures on Empedocles at Agrigento, all of these must have had a profound effect. Nietzsche is, famously, or for some, infamously, missing for two weeks until his return to Messina, and it is suggested that some of his more bawdy images are also drawn from this time—a somewhat convenient theory, it must be said. Still, it is amazing that there is no report; no signature discovered in a small pension beneath Etna, overlooking the sea. Nietzsche ended the trip when he was summoned by Paul Rée from Messina to Rome to meet Lou Salomé round about 24 April, and while it is unlikely that he didn’t mention the details of the trip, no information seems to have survived.

Perhaps there is a reference in IM to a secret of some sort. If we examine ‘In the South’ we find only a reference to Homer’s wine-dark sea and a suggestion that the poem was written en route. The other poems seem to offer just as little, and it must be remembered that Nietzsche later suggested that they were Provencal. The verses were to become a submission to International Monthly Review, which has been referred to as an anti-Semitic journal, and they were published in June, 1882 and appear in notebook 28, KGW VII3, Autumn, 1884. Of the eight poems published six were reused with changed titles in the ‘Songs of Prince Vogelfrei’, an appendix to the second edition of GS in 1887.

‘In the South’ ends with a line which in German is “‘Die Wahrheit’ hiess dies alte Weib…,” literally ‘The truth’ was called this old woman”, as the translators have it. However, this leads to a criticism of a certain literality in the translating in general. Kaufmann’s “The name of this old hag was Truth” is possibly worse but it does preserve Nietzsche’s rhyme and rhythm. However, it must be said that Nietzsche’s rhythm here is quite simple—rhyming couplets as much as anything, perhaps modelled on Attic tragedy. The later poems are indeed more dithyrambic, which is to say, more like free verse with a basic accented/unaccented rhythm, the tick-tock that he ridicules in ‘The poet’s profession’. Another problem occurs in ‘To new seas’. The last two lines of the first stanza reading “Offen liegt das Meer, ins Blaue/Treibt mein Genuesser Schiff”, literally translates as something like “Open lies the sea, into the blue/Tracks my Genoan ship.” In this collection this becomes “Often lay the blue sky/Pursued by my longing grip.” while Kaufmann has “Without plan, into the vast/Open sea I head my ship.” Any criticism must accept that translating Nietzsche’s poetry is notoriously difficult, and as Kaufmann points out, a balance must be struck between form and content. Nonetheless, he is roundly criticized in Nietzsche-Studien for his failings in ‘The song of a theocritical goatherd’. Despite all effort, the meaning will inevitably be altered in any case to all but those who can interpret the translation in the light of the German idiom.

Problems with translations mean we can barely touch the depth of poems where Nietzsche is concerned with communication per se. This is a repeated theme of the mature poetry, other previously untranslated elements of which are drawn together in a section entitled ‘Sayings’. As the title suggests these ‘sayings’ are not of the calibre of other work. They come from Notebook 28 which puts together a number of poetical works along with plans for a collection with titles such as ‘Songs of Zarathustra’ and other variants. Another possible source is a number of poems, some dated, occurring in KGW VII1, 1 [101]. There are also some corrections that give an insight into the nature of the poetical notebooks, occurring in KGW VII 4/2. They show that the poems were worked on, though at what stage is uncertain. The sayings are followed by the more familiar poems and quips published in GS and DD, which warrant little comment except to say that they read well in the new translation and benefit from their surroundings in this volume.

Another important source is Book 20=WII10a, Summer 1888 in KGW VIII1, 353-381, which furnished the bulk of the final section, ‘Through the Circle of the Dionysian Dithyrambs’. This section comprises 120 short poetic pieces that are ordered in terms of subject matter, rather than in the order they appear in the notebook. The collection is furnished with a vague reference to KVIII 379-403, which leads one in the right direction despite the incorrect page numbers. Some of the fragments are to be found in Book 28 (31, 34, 36, 44, 49, 52, 88, 103 and a couple of titled poems on the last page. Some of these passages seem to be taken from poems called ‘Die Bösen liebend’ 28[20], ‘Die Weltmüder’ 28[22], and ‘Jenseits der Zeit’ 28[23]. Other fragments seem to have been amalgamated from the material in Book 20 – 18, 39, 41, 80, 94, 114, 115, but the sources of these are quite probably variations occurring elsewhere. Given that this volume is designed to bring together Nietzsche’s poetry, more rigorous referencing would have been helpful.

The title of the collection is taken from Z 2, ‘On the Poets’, where Zarathustra criticizes the poets in a manner that is typical. This theme is taken up in the preface where Nietzsche’s critical attitude towards poetry and the aspirations of the poets is juxtaposed with the actuality of Nietzsche writing poetry. It seems that the critique is based on the assumption that poetry, considered in a fairly strict sense, is fundamentally flawed by its Romanticist belief in its own capacity for communication, and in its unique relation to the infinite. This point of view could be seen as a somewhat wistful reflection of Nietzsche’s early enthusiasm for Holderlin and the notion of the poet ‘standing bareheaded beneath heaven’s thunderstorms’. This position is complicated by the notion of the poet needing to be elected as the spokesperson for the people. There is a quite political notion of the poet’s role that Nietzsche attributes to Empedocles, and uses as the model for Zarathustra’s relation to the people, a role which he would circumscribe in Z 4 to the model of the “dying gift”, and would reject elaborating upon in the planned Z 5. This notion of the role of the poet also evokes the vision of the “twilight of the gods” and their banishment from Europe due to the loss of spirituality in a secular, scientific Europe. Only through the people calling for a poet can the gods return and interpose themselves between humanity and technology, as Heidegger suggested.

Self-criticism is the fitting theme of much of Nietzsche’s poetry, casting doubt on the usefulness of poetic work. In this respect it is interesting to compare Nietzsche’s ‘The poet’s profession’ with Hölderlin’s ‘The Poet’s Vocation’ which would indicate that Nietzsche’s earlier views had changed considerably by this time. Hölderlin embraces the theme of the poet as the servant of Bacchus, whereas Nietzsche seems to suggest that his poetry is a dubious habit picked up in youth, which he should have grown out of but enjoys too much. Indeed his whole rhetoric concerning songs and singing could be an attempt to justify this pleasure. This ambivalence balances the exhortatory nature of much of Nietzsche’s other writing—that which is often found to be ‘affirmative’. However, I would like to suggest that it is in the poetry that the affirmative vision is actually formed. The uncertainty expressed in the poetry, coupled with a certain pleasure at the deprecation of self and other, is a more valid expression of the requirement for hesitancy and caution that Nietzsche associates with Dionysus than his more strident pronouncements; an expression of the openness which allows the sky to become reflected in the poet rather than become the subject of the poet’s vision. It might appear that there is a fine line between lying “still as a mirror” beneath the “azure bell”, and being the spokesperson of the gods, but Nietzsche’s evocation of uncertainty as the basic response to his openness to life differs markedly from the certainty of Hölderlin’s response, and Heidegger’s interpretation of the poet. Rather than channelling the truth of God or being, the ambivalent role of the philosopher-poet leads to the possibility of an understanding of will to power as being fundamentally a means of negotiating with the resistance to interpretation.

This collection is highly recommended. It gives the reader a good insight into this aspect of Nietzsche’s work, one that was obviously very important to him. It is inspiring to read the collection and for me it evoked a place where perhaps we all should go—to the south and the islands blessed by heavenly and earthly powers; an unfathomable, wine-dark sea and sudden drenching storms; with Etna, now benign, flecked with snow and in “beautiful blue”. Above the muted coast no-one moves, everything flickers in the heat. It seemed like a world of becoming, but it was only a siesta.

Independent Scholar

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