Albert Steffen as Lyric Poet
Translated by Olin D. Wannamaker.
Upon those who admire the writings of Albert Steffen he has
bestowed a lyric gift. We must say a “gift,” for
whoever has found in this poet the earnest searcher into the
riddles of human destinies who wills, through striving
formative power, to reveal mysteries of the world in the nature
of the soul, had a longing for this most personal
communication. He must be grateful for the gift.
booklet is small in the number of its pages. The gift is great.
For cut of a fullness of heart and soul one here bestows
gifts who has much to say of such a nature as enriches the life
which receives it. It is good for all who receive it, but one
alone could give it just as it is — Albert Steffen. For
that which everyone. should behold he beholds with an utterly
personal artist's eye.
first impression may be strange. For Steffen really lives in
realms of feeling which are his own wholly personal possession.
But one can quickly come to feel at home in these realms. For
the dwelling place in which the poet Steffen molds the world in
his special way is permeated through and through with warmth of
heart and is filled with genuine goodness. Steffen's
images are often brought up from very deep mines, but they have
been shaped by a man who never loses his living artistic sense
in the depths of his thinking.
Steffen often confronts world problems in whose presence others
become philosophers. He remains the artist. Others draw all
sorts of rounded lines. Steffen makes a few strokes and creates
many angles. The whole is then more pictorial than the rounded
forms of the others. Many remain on the surface lest they
should become lyric brooders. Steffen frequently descends to a
great depth below the surface, but there he can speak with such
penetration that all brooding vanishes for the listener.
Steffen's compositions arise from that region of the soul where
one beholds cosmic mysteries and feels human riddles. But the
spirit who there ventures often into abysmal depths in vision
and in feeling, and often soars aloft to the stars,
remains the molder of images, the creator of tones, is
never misled into the coldness of mere ideas. Steffen paints in
words. The words have colors. And the colors work like those of
paintings which have outlived the centuries and still
Steffen strides through nature likewise seeing and feeling. And
nature reveals through him her spirit beings. In this
revelation there is wisdom — tragic wisdom, wisdom filled
with goodness, wisdom that wakens love, wisdom that is unveiled
to the interpreter of riddles who, while interpreting, is
wholly filled with the power of the poet, and in molding forms
is wholly sustained by the artist's serene enthusiasm.
Steffen descends into the depths of the soul. He brings up
pictures which are like copies of the beings of nature —
of a nature not seen with the eyes and without whose
accessibility to fantasy the world seen with the eyes would be
a deception. These pictures of spirit-nature are sharply
outlined, but their outlines are drawn, not by the intellect,
but by the human heart.
the presence of these images, one often has the feeling that an
unknown power in the poet has compelled nature to yield them,
and that, once this power had set them there, Steffen drew
Steffen, the poet, never stands alone. He is always
surrounded by a world. He does not utter only his own
feelings. When he expresses his own feelings, he causes one to
sense always an immeasurable world around him. His images often
give the impression at first of having been taken out of empty
space; then, when one has fully understood the images, they
acquire a background. Then they reveal a world, whereas at
first, they seemed to manifest only themselves. Frequently they
are like human beings who are at first very reserved but later
emanate a love-bestowing warmth. It will sometimes seem as if a
poem of Steffen's were an assertion of defiant willfulness, and
this seeming willfulness holds one fast. But one then finds
that the seeming willfulness is a veil concealing
devotion to truth such as can be attained only through
purification of soul.
Steffen's lyrics frequently have their source in the
mountains; but, as offspring of the mountains, they have
wandered through the plains, like brooks that become rivers.
They still bear within them their mountain birth, but on the
plain, which gives them stillness, they mirror the sun and they
magically create there also for the soul of one who enjoys them
the reflected moonlight and the stars. They whisper
riddles of nature, and the whisper becomes to the ear a
tender poem, Felicitas, penetrates to the heart as if
awaking emotions which stream out into cosmic space. One
is in the quiet chamber and yet in the expanse of the universe;
a child of man with his suffering and yet a creature of the
wenn ich in der Nacht
von bangem Traumgesicht
wie leicht der Leib zerbricht,
wenn immer schwerer lasten Angst und Wahn,
ich weinen muss ob meiner dunklen Bahn:
Lauf ich zum Fenster schnell,
die Sterne anzuschaun,
wie scheinen sie so hell,
dann darf ich doch vertraun,
ich weis es ja, dass mich an Kindesstatt
der Sternenhimmel angenommen hat.
when I in the night,
By fearful vision waked,
Reflect with doleful fright
How fragile bodies break,
My heart o'erburdened with the dream and fear
I must bewail my road of life so drear.
To open window then
I run the stars to view,
How brightly they do shine,
And so, with faith renewed,
I know in truth that they have taken me,
The starry heavens, as their own child to be.
how deep the reverent devotion that speaks from Steffen's
lyrics! It is a reverence that dares to brood because, in
brooding, it never loses touch with the heart. It is a piety
that dares to give form to that which evokes the deepest
reverence, because in molding this into form it preserves
always the inner quality of prayer.
Ich geh durch rote Aecker:
es schläft der Keim.
Ich geh durch grüne Saaten:
es sprosst der Halm.
Ich geh durch goldne Felder:
es reift der Korn.
Ich find den Müller
und der Müller spricht:
Die Erde is der Angesicht
Und “wer mein Brot verzehrt,
der setzt den Fuss auf mich.”
Ich knie nieder,
und er reicht der Speise,
dass ich mich sättige
auf meiner Erden-Reise.
through brown-red acres:
The germ still sleeps.
I walk through greening earth:
The shoots appear.
I walk through golden fields:
The grain grows ripe.
I find the miller
And the miller speaks:
The earth is the countenance
Of the Son of Man.
And “he who eats my bread
He sets his foot on me.”
I kneel me down,
And he hands me food,
That I be sated
On my earthly road.
Such is the mood which fills the heart with experiences drawn
from the realm of the eternal in the human soul. The personal
is elevated to the level of the impersonal, not to be lost in
this but to find itself in its truth and its essential being.
And this finding has its reflection in Steffen's lyric poetry
itself. The poet feels himself to be in the stream of cosmic
being, and he says:
* * *
Sprache formt Schicksal,
gemäss den Lauten,
streng oder milde.
Näh oder Ferne vom ewigen Urwort Bestimmt meine Freiheit
In accord with the sounds,
Stern or mild.
Nearness or farness from primordial Word
Determines my freedom and need.
who hears such words from the poet soul of Steffen senses that
in him destiny searches for the secrets of language in order to
shape life's need as “stern or mild,” and in the
freedom of the spirit to give meaning to existence.
When Steffen carries his pain to “bush or tree” in
order to make the trees his teachers in peace of soul, his
feeling is then revealed in the strictness of the sonnet form,
and one has the feeling that what is said can be revealed in
this form alone. The compositions of this kind in
Weg-Zehrung (Bread of Life) are like the
receiving of the form by the poet, who finds peace in this for
his emotion, which, without this form, would tend to strive
outward into the infinite.
fact, however, that in Steffen emotion also can bear its own
measure within itself is evident when, in soaring upward from
the personal to participation in the experience of the World
Being, he expresses himself in the form of the hymn, and
likewise when he finds the possibility of imparting himself in
such a way that silence, while the heart is full, is forborne
only to the very least degree.
Du blickst so irr,
O sag's, o deut's.
Thou seem'st so lost,
So void of hope,
But why, but why?
Oh tell me, explain!
Christus in mir —
Ist es so schwer.
Er geht herum:
Ich bin sein Kreuz.
To Christ in me —
It is so hard.
He moves about:
I am His Cross.