The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche – Preface to the Second Edition

The First Edition of The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche was published by Fire & Ice Publishing in 2004.

Preface to the Second Edition

Oh, you wretches who feel all this, who, even as I, cannot allow yourselves to speak of man’s being here for a purpose, who, even as I, are so utterly in the clutch of the Nothing that governs us, so profoundly aware that we are born for nothing, that we love a nothing, believe in nothing, work ourselves to death for nothing only that little by little we may pass over into nothing – how can I help it if your knees collapse when you think of it seriously? Many a time have I, too, sunk into these bottomless thoughts, and cried out: Why do you lay the axe to my root, pitiless spirit? – and still I am here.

 Hölderlin, from Hyperion[1]

That we are still here – and we chose to remain here – amid this apparent nothing – that is the dilemma that the poet-philosopher Nietzsche shares with his childhood hero Hölderlin.  It is the honesty of Hölderlin’s poetic response to the shattering dilemma of existence which spurs on Nietzsche’s own confrontation with the pitiless spirit of time, with the suffocating horizon that encroaches upon this moment of feverish – and ecstatic – life.  The honesty of Nietzsche’s own poetic response expresses his deep affirmation of a world without pity – and his struggle to bear the greatest weight of the eternal recurrence of the same.

The response intimates his attempt to face this axe that lacerates the root of our being – though not to fall down as a heavy tree, nor to sink into the delusion and sickness of escape – but to fly into the joy of the sky and to perch upon the mountain amid the ice of honesty and truth.  It is this creative response that is documented in Nietzsche’s poetics of becoming – his courage to face the terrible truth of being, his resistance to the all-too-human, and his convalescence toward the heights of health in the wake of the apparent nothing that surrounds us.

Since the publication of the First Edition of The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche, there has been increasing interest in the more obscure and unknown aspects of Nietzsche’s creative work and life.  The American release of the First Edition was celebrated on April 23, 2005 with Transfigurations: Nietzsche’s Poetry & Music, the Inaugural Event of the Nietzsche Circle at New York’s Deutsche Haus, during which, in conjunction with the Nietzsche Music Project, such luminaries as Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei, David Kilpatrick, and Friedrich Ulfers recited Nietzsche’s poetry in German and English.

In my own recent work on Nietzsche’s poetics, I have continued to attempt to deepen our appreciation of the specific significance of poetry for Nietzsche, and, more generally, of the relationship of poetry (and literature) and philosophy.  I have explored the insights expressed in the Preface of the First Edition in ‘The Wreckage of Stars: Nietzsche and the Ecstasy of Poetry’[2], ‘The Body of Sublime Knowledge: The Aesthetic Phenomenology of Arthur Schopenhauer’[3], ‘Zarathustra and the Children of Abraham’[4], and in my edited collection of essays, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Before Sunrise.[5]  The release of this latter work was celebrated in November 2008 with the International Conference on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra at the University of Wales, Lampeter in the United Kingdom.

A usual response to the First Edition – as with Nietzsche’s prolific, though seldom heard, musical composition – was one of surprise, if not astonishment.[6]  Many – even if they had never read them – seemed to know about Nietzsche’s philosophical writings – especially his The Birth of Tragedy and Untimely Meditations – and his later aphoristic works, such as Human, all too human, Daybreak, and Beyond Good and Evil, works written after his break with Wagner.  Nietzsche was a precocious and prolific writer from the time of his childhood, with extant essays, poetry, and surprisingly enough, drafts of autobiographies from the earliest years.  Yet, the thought that he wrote poetry as poetry – and did so throughout his entire creative life – has provoked a curious reaction of disbelief.

Of course, the fact that Nietzsche wrote poetry has been quite well known from his published works, not to mention the monumental poesy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Yet, as he is regarded as a philosopher, such poetic expression has been seen by many readers – especially in the wake of the so-called ‘analytic revolution’ – as an idiosyncratic flourish of ornamentation that has been met either with a patient indulgence, or with a dry all-too-knowing smile.  Nevertheless, the overwhelming importance of poetry to Nietzsche from his juvenilia to the peak of his maturity was not known, much less suspected, even by many of the most widely versed of his readers – including scholars of Nietzsche’s ‘serious’ philosophical works.

Nevertheless, it has become clear from the panorama of his poetic expression that it is poetry (and music) that continued to absorb Nietzsche’s energies as the topos for his inexorable attempts, as Safranski intimates in his Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, to self-configure – to incorporate and express – his deep insights into his own lived existence.[7]  Indeed, in his review of the First Edition of The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche, Peter Murray clearly specifies the importance – though often the seeming reluctance – of poetic expression for Nietzsche,

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.[8]

Nietzsche said of himself, in the opening lines of Daybreak, that he is a subterranean man, excavating the depths of human experience in his creative work. As I have recently argued, Nietzsche’s poetic expression is no mere supplement, nor an attempt to appeal to the baroque aspects of thought which exceed logical, mathematical and scientific expression.  Indeed, as I have argued, it is through poetry – and especially Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that not only does Nietzsche attempt to overcome the ‘theoretical man’ as indicated in The Birth of Tragedy (a work that should have sung), but also to enact his own personal resistance to the spirit – or spirit-less-ness – of his – and our – timely age.

It is through poetry – and music – that he not only descends into the depths of existence so as to gain a glimpse of truth in her own domain, but also to open up – and hold open – a creative space for his own convalescence as one who has tirelessly attempted to overcome the nihilism of the Platonic-Christian epoch.  That which is disclosed through his poetry, moreover, is the secret narrative of his own development as a thinker, as a poet-philosopher of becoming.

As is to be expected, his earliest poetry – before the death of God – resembles and enacts a dialogue with his own early influences such as Hölderlin and Goethe.  However, as the years are traversed, and his confidence as a poet comes to fruition, there is a marked maturation of his poetic insight and expression which is not merely a footnote to his philosophical work, but intimates the hidden Nietzsche – his wild desires and exuberant feelings of freedom and joy, such as those expressed in ‘Dionysos Dithyrambs’, in which he clearly gives expression to his ecstatic sensibilities of flight beyond the human-all-too-human.

Indeed, with the later – and last – poetry, it is clear that Nietzsche has overcome the reluctance of the gift/poison of his poetic tick-tock which he laments – and at which he laughs – in his poem ‘The Poet’s Profession’.  This is all the more the case as – with the growing confidence of his life as a poet – that he is not only setting forth his insights in the form of poetry, but is also engaging with other poets amid the poetic strategies of echoes, replies and tributes to other poets, as is the case with Hölderlin, his enduring love, and Hafis, the great Persian poet from Shiraz.

This Second Edition of The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche has been released not only in response to the enthusiastic reception and reviews of the first edition, but also in order to improve the depth and precision of the first provisional attempts.  The most obvious change to the Second Edition is the inclusion of the German text side by side with the English translation.  Excepting the German rhyme schemes in some of the earlier poetry, the compositional style and structure of the German original has been replicated in the English, moreover, so as to facilitate a comparison between the two texts – and scrutiny of the translation itself.  There have also been new translations of significant amounts of the first edition renditions, not only through new readings, but also in response to suggestions by the various readers of the First Edition.  Of course, there is still much work to do in the overall project of facilitating the reception of Nietzsche’s poetry to the English-speaking world, but it is hoped that this present effort will aid future efforts to allow us to comprehend the depth of significance of the title of poet-philosopher.

Damascus, Syria


[1] Hölderlin, Friedrich (1990) Hyperion and Selected Poems, translated by Eric L. Santer, New York: Continuum Publishing.  This quotation serves the argumentation of the Preface to the Second Edition in its disclosure of the situation of provocation for the poetic response that Nietzsche enacts in his poetics of becoming.

[2] ‘The Wreckage of Stars: Nietzsche and the Ecstasy of Poetry’, Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics (New York, 2007)

[3] ‘The Body of Sublime Knowledge: The Aesthetic Phenomenology of Arthur Schopenhauer,’ Heythrop Journal, Volume 50, Number 2, pp. 228-242 (Spring, 2009)

[4] ‘Zarathustra and the Children of Abraham,’ Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, Volume 20, pp. 195-225 and The Agonist, Volume 2, Number 2 (2009)

[5] Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Before Sunrise, Editor, Continuum Publishing, (October, 2008)

[6] My own initiation into the music of Nietzsche took place, ironically, in a church in Tampa, Florida in 1993 with a performance given by John Bell Young.

[7] Safranski, Rüdiger (2002) Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, translated by Shelley Frisch, New York and London: W.W. Norton Books.

[8] Murray, Peter (2008) ‘The Peacock and the Buffalo: the Poetry of Nietzsche’ (Review), The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Issue 35/36, Spring/Autumn 2008, pp. 204-207.

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