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The Presence of the Dead on the Spiritual Path

Presence of the Dead: Lecture Seven: Robert Hamerling: Poet and Thinker

LECTURE SEVEN

ROBERT HAMERLING: POET AND THINKER
Berlin, April 26, 1914

On July 15, 1889, I was standing in the St. Leonhard cemetery near Graz with the writer Rosegger and the sculptor Hans Brandstetter as the body of the Austrian poet Robert Hamerling was lowered into the grave. Note 1 ] Robert Hamerling had been called from the physical plane a few days earlier. He died after decades of unutterable suffering that grew to an unbearable level at the end of his life. Prior to the burial, the body had been laid out in the beautiful Stifting House on the outskirts of the Austro-Styrian town of Graz. The physical form left behind by his great soul lay there, a wonderful reflection of a life of striving to reach the highest levels of the spirit: so expressive, so eloquent was this physical form. It also bore the imprint of the unspeakable suffering this poet had had to endure in his life!

On that occasion a little girl of ten could be seen among the closest mourners. She was Robert Hamerling's ward and had brightened and cheered the poet's last years with the promise of her character. She was the girl to whom Robert Hamerling had dedicated the lines that fundamentally reveal his mood in the last years of his life. Note 2 ] And because they let us see so deeply into Hamerling's soul, please permit me to read you these lines:

To B.(ertha)

Child, like a butterfly harmlessly
Fluttering past the pain-racked invalid,
When having seen me begin the homeward journey,
In the wake of suffering
Do not think of me in your flush of youth:
A fleeting thought is all that you would give;
Nor when happily in love, in marriage or in motherhood:
Your memory would be only a pale reflection in the bustle of your life.
Only at sixty years of age, please think of me:
The poor sick man you saw
Year after year stretched on a bed of suffering,
Who, tortured by unceasing pain,
Spoke little, save laborious groans;
Nothing was he to you and nothing could he be.
At sixty years of age, child, think of him:
Then you will muse on him, muse long,
And late, deep compassion will rise in you
For him then long at rest from suffering.
A teardrop fills your eye as offering
For him long paled in death,
Who nothing was to you, and nothing could be.

It is not necessary to describe the situation of a poet who could write lines that speak so powerfully of his suffering in virtually the entire second half of his life. There was much gossip, even after Hamerling had already been confined to his bed for a large part of his life, and allegations about the sybaritic life the author of “Ahasver” supposedly led. It was even rumored that he lived in a sumptuous house in Graz, and that he had a large number of girls for his pleasure, who had to perform Greek dances day after day and other such things. All these stories were told at a time when illness kept him laid up while the sun was shining outside. He was forced to stay in bed in his small room, knowing that outside the sun was shining on the meadows, on the glorious nature he had enjoyed so much in the brief periods he was able to leave his sickbed.

And this same bright sun was shining gloriously when we accompanied the deceased to his last resting place on July 15, 1889. There are few indeed who lived under such outward constraints and yet were devoted with every fiber of their soul to what is great, beautiful, monumental, magnificent, and joyous in the world.

I remember one time sitting with a young musician in Vienna who was a great friend of Hamerling's. This young man was essentially a poor fellow who soon succumbed to a mental illness. He was deeply pessimistic and never tired of complaining about life. And since he loved Hamerling a great deal, he loved to cite the poet in his complaints about life. On this occasion, the young musician once again wanted to quote Hamerling as a pessimist. As we were sitting together in a cafe, I was able to call for a newspaper that contained a small occasional poem by Hamerling entitled “Personal Request.” I showed it to the young musician.

Personal Request

Say that I write bad verses,
Say that I steal the silverware,
Say I'm a rotten German
Because my diet says I can't eat Jews
And Slavs for breakfast;
Or that I betray our Austria
Because I sing the praise of Bismarck.
Say that I'm stricken with grief because
Praise for me is sadly lacking,
Slandered I am basely on occasion —
But I ask one thing only:
Do not say that I'm a pessimist,
That the last word in my singing
Belongs to blasé-modern
Stupid, dull unhappiness with living!
What? The poet is a pessimist
Because he makes complaining noises?
Just because the world is lovely
And life seems so charming to him
He would painfully regret it
If his part he were to forfeit.
If you call pessimists all persons
Who complain, then pessimistic
Is the man from whom a cry
Escapes while he is at the dentist!
Everything the critics say, believe them,
Except that I'm a pessimist!
I hate this word. To me it smells
Rather like its final syllable. Note 3 ]

These words characterize Hamerling's attitude and show that he lived in greatest pain (he wrote as much to Rosegger) at the time of writing this poem “Personal Request.” He wrote to Rosegger: “I am not worried about becoming a pessimist, but I do fear going mad or becoming an imbecile, as sometimes I can manage only a few minutes respite from the never-ending pain!” Note 4 ] The man who began his poetic career with words truly sounding like a lifetime's program was worried about going mad or becoming an imbecile, but not about becoming a pessimist. For when Robert Hamerling sent his first major poem, “Venus in Exile,” out into the world, he gave it the motto:

Go on your way, a holy messenger,
And sing in joyful tones
Of the dawning day,
Of the realm of beauty to come.

That was his attitude throughout his life. We must recall one very memorable scene if we want to fully understand Hamerling's unique nature. A few months or weeks before his death, he moved from his flat in Graz — where he lived on the street then called Realschulstrasse; now it is Hamerlingstrasse — to a small summer house, called Stifting House, situated in a secluded area on the outskirts of the town. Two servants had to carry the invalid down; his flat was three floors up. Several times he almost fainted. But on either side of him he had a parcel tied up with a broad ribbon, which went round his neck like a stole; they contained the wrapped manuscript of his last work, The Atomistic Will. Note 5 ] This was characteristic of the way this poet lived and of what he loved. He did not want the manuscript of this philosophical work to leave his hands for even a minute! He was so ill that two servants had to carry him down; yet he had to hold on to the thing that filled his life. So he was carried down and taken out to Stifting House in the most beautiful sunshine, sighing, “Oh, what pleasure to ride like this; if only I were less ill, less ill!”

The soul and spirit at work under these physical conditions remained open to all that is great and beautiful, all that is filled with spirit in the world. It worked out of the wellsprings of greatness, beauty, and spirituality in such a way that we cannot really be surprised by his attitude to pessimism. We cannot be surprised to see in Hamerling's spirit living cosmic evidence that the spiritual forces in us can triumph over material and natural forces, however obstructive they may be, in every situation.

Fifty-nine years earlier, that is in 1830, Robert Hamerling was born in Austria in an area called Waldviertel. Note 6 ] Because of its special natural configuration that region is eminently suited — and was probably more so then than now when it is crisscrossed by railroad lines — to concentrate the soul inwardly if it is awake and to deepen the soul. The Waldviertel region is basically a backwater of civilization, although someone was born and lived there in the first half of the nineteenth century who was also widely known in Austria this side of the river Leitha. He has probably been forgotten by now, and at most continues to live in the memory of the people in the Waldviertel, in numerous folk legends. I have to add that I often heard tell of this person's fame because my parents came from the Waldviertel area. Thus, I could at least hear about the remnants of his peculiar fame, which is characteristic of the atmosphere of cultural isolation in that region. This famous person was none other than one of the “most famous” robbers and murderers of the time, namely, Grasel. This Grasel was certainly more famous than anyone else who came from the Waldviertel region.

In his later years, Hamerling wrote about the Waldviertel area, and I want to read you just a few lines from what he said about his native region where he lived for the first ten or fifteen years of his life, because I believe these words can throw much greater light on Hamerling's nature than any academic characterization. He writes:

I do not know how much the construction of a railroad skirting the Waldviertel area has affected the latter's isolation from the world. In 1867, the appearance of a stranger still created quite a stir there. If such a person came along on foot or by coach, the oxen plowing the fields came to a halt and turned their heads to gawk at the new apparition. The farmer made one or two feeble attempts to drive them on with his whip — but in vain, and finally, he did likewise, and the plow rested until the stranger had disappeared behind the next hill or forest. That, too, is the image of an idyllic atmosphere! Note 7 ]

Hamerling's life and personality are an example of a soul growing out of and beyond its environment, and of an individuality's development. He was the son of a poor weaver. Since they were completely impoverished, his parents were evicted from their home at a time when Hamerling was not yet capable of even saying “I.” His father was forced to go abroad while his mother remained in the Waldviertel area, in Schonau, with the young boy. There the child experienced the beauties of the Waldviertel region. A scene from that time remained always in his memory of an experience he believed actually gave him his own being. The seven-year-old boy was going down a hill. It was evening, and the sun was setting in the west. Something came toward him, golden, out of the golden sunshine, and Hamerling describes what was shining forth in the golden light as follows:

Among the most significant memories of my boyhood, but also most difficult to convey, are the often strange moods that passed through my soul when I was a roaming boy. In part they came from the moment's lively impressions and stimulation, usually from nature around me, in part they were waking dreams and premonitions. Speaking about himself, the mystic Jakob Böhme used to say that the higher meaning, the mystical life of the spirit was awakened in him miraculously at the moment when he was dreamily absorbed in gazing at a pewter bowl sparkling in the sunlight. Note 8 ] Perhaps every spiritual person has a pewter bowl like Böhme's as the origin of his real inner awakening. I vividly recall a certain evening when I was about seven years old. I was going down a hill, and the sunset shone toward me like a miracle, a spiritual vision. It filled my heart with an unforgettably strange mood, with a presentiment that today seems to me like a calling, reflecting my future destiny. In high spirits, I hurried toward an unknown destination; yet, at the same time my soul was filled with a melancholy that made me want to cry. If that moment could have been explained out of the surrounding circumstances, if it had not been so completely unique, it would surely not have remained so indelibly in my memory. Note 9 ]

Thus, in the poet's seventh year the poetic and spiritual muse drew near. At that time, the seed for everything that was later to become of this soul was laid into it from out of the cosmos, so to speak. The nice thing is that Hamerling ascribes his poetic calling to such an event, as if it were a miracle the cosmos itself performed on him.

Because of his parents' poverty, the boy had to be educated at the Cistercian monastery of Zwettl. Note 10 ] In return for his school lessons, he had to sing in the monastery choir. At that time, Hamerling was between ten and fourteen years old. He formed a close relationship to a strange personality at the monastery, namely, Father Hugo Traumihler, a person completely given over to mystical contemplation and a strict ascetic life. At that time the boy already possessed a thirst for the beauty of the cosmos and an urge to deepen his soul. You can imagine that he was inspired by the inner experiences Father Traumihler described from his inner contemplation of the secrets of the heart and soul. He was a mystic of a very elementary, primitive kind who nevertheless made a deep impression on Hamerling's soul.

But it is impossible to talk about the poet Hamerling without mentioning what was such a great part of his longing: the longing to be a great human being. When he returned on a trip to the Waldviertel long after he had left the area, people who knew that he came from there asked him what he wanted to be. Note 11 ] But although he was already well past twenty, Hamerling had not thought about what he wanted to be. This realization brought it home to him that at that age you cannot avoid the question “What do you want to do?” The only thing he could tell himself was: “Well, I cannot really tell them what I want to be, because they would not understand. For when I am asked what I want to be, I want to answer: I want to become a human being!” So sometimes he said he wanted to be a philologist or an astronomer or something like that. People could understand that. But they would not have understood that someone who had finished his studies might intend to become a human being.

Well, much could be said about the development of Hamerling as a poet and, above all, about the unfolding of three things in his soul. The first he later described in The Atomistic Will by saying that the Greeks called the universe “cosmos,” a word connected with beauty. Note 12 ] That, to him, was characteristic of the Greek spirit, for his soul was filled with the beauty that resonates throughout the universe. And his heart's desire was to see humankind in turn permeated by that beauty; that was what he wanted to express in poetic form. So everything in him strove toward beauty, toward the beauty-filled world of the Greeks. Yet he saw so many aspects of life that cast a pall over the beauty intended by nature. For him beauty was identical with spirituality. He would often survey everything he knew about Hellenism and then look with sadness at modern culture, the readers of his poetry. He wanted to write poetry for this modern culture in order to fill it with sounds that would encourage people to bring beauty and spirituality back into life, and thus return happiness to life on earth. Hamerling found it impossible to speak of a discrepancy between the world and beauty in human life. He was inspired by the belief that life should be infused with beauty, that beauty should be alive in the world, and from his youth on he would have preferred to live for that alone. It was like an instinct in his soul. But he had met with much that showed him the modern age must struggle through many things that frustrate our ideals in life.

Hamerling was a student in 1848. He was a member of the liberation movement and was arrested by the police for this “great crime” and given a special punishment, as happened to many who had been part of the liberation movement in Vienna at that time. If they went beyond what the police thought permissible, they were taken to the barber where their hair was cut as a sign that they were “democrats.” These days you no longer risk having your hair cut just because you hold liberal views — progress indeed! The other thing not allowed at that time was the wearing of a broad-brimmed hat. This again was taken as a sign of liberal views. One had to wear a so-called “topper,” a top hat, which had full police approval.

Hamerling had to put up with this and much else. Let me just mention one more event as a small indication of how the world treated the great poet; I believe it leads to a much better characterization than an abstract description. The event I am referring to happened when Hamerling had concluded his years at university and was about to take his teaching examination. He had good grades in Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Indeed, he received excellent grades on his Greek and Latin. But if we read further in his report card, we find that although Hamerling claimed to have read some grammar books, his performance in the examination did not indicate a thorough study of the German language. This was said of the man who has enriched the German language so immeasurably through his unique style!

I would like to draw your attention to another experience Hamerling had. In 1851, he became acquainted with a family and one evening was invited to stay for a party. He would have gladly joined them, but he could not stay. Then the daughter of the family had a glass of punch sent over to his student quarters. What were his feelings then? He suddenly had the urge to take pencil and paper, and he felt himself transported into another world. At first he saw images of world history, presented as if in a large tableau. Then these images were transformed into a chaos of blossoms, rot, blood, newts, golden fruits, blue eyes, harp music, destruction of life, the thunder of cannons, and quarreling people. Historical scenes alternated with blossoms and salamanders. Then, as if crystallizing from out of the whole, a pale, serious figure with penetrating eyes appeared. At the sight of this figure, Hamerling came to. He looked at the piece of paper. The paper, blank before the vision, had written on it the name Ahasver and below, the outline for the poem “Ahasver.”

Hamerling's interest in everything that moves the human soul to its heights and depths was of rare profundity, and combined with a drunkenness with beauty, so to speak. That is why the ten years he spent teaching high school in Trieste on the glorious Adriatic and taking his vacations in neighboring Venice may be described as a happy time for him. He got to know Venice so well that years later he still knew all the nooks and crannies and little alleys where he had walked many times on beautiful evenings. There he saw radiant nature and southern beauty, for which his soul had such a yearning. This southern beauty blossomed in “Greeting in Song from the Adriatic.” Like his early works, this poem shows Hamerling's extraordinary talent. It was followed by “Venus in Exile.” Hamerling conceived of Venus not only as the embodiment of earthly love, but as the bearer of the beauty that rules and holds sway in the cosmos, a beauty that is in exile as far as modern humanity is concerned. Robert Hamerling's longing as a poet was to liberate beauty and love from their exile. Hence the motto I read to you:

Go on your way, a holy messenger,
And sing in joyful tones
Of the dawning day,
Of the realm of beauty to come.

But Hamerling's soul could not sing of the “dawning day, / Of the realm of beauty to come” without looking into all the dark recesses of the human soul. The vision of Ahasver shows what Robert Hamerling saw in those recesses. It continued to stand before his soul until he found the poetic form for the personality of Ahasver. Ahasver became the thread running through human life as the personification of an individuality who wants to escape life but cannot. This individuality is then contrasted with that of Nero in Rome, a man always seeking life but unable to find it in sensual saturation and therefore eternally searching.

We can see how life's contradictions confronted Hamerling. This becomes even clearer in his poem “The King of Sion” where he describes a person who wants to bring spiritual salvation from lofty heights to his fellow human beings but falls prey to human weaknesses in the process, to sensuality and so on. Hamerling was always reflecting on the proximity of opposites in life, and he wanted to give this poetic form. Greece arose before his soul in the form to which he wanted to restore it. In Aspasia, he described the Greece of his imagination, the country of his yearning, the world of beauty, including the negative aspects such a world of beauty may also bear. In the form of a three-part novel, Aspasia became a wonderful poem about cultural history.

Robert Hamerling was not understood, as I learned when I met a man in a godforsaken place whose eyes burned with resentment and whose mouth had an ugly expression. I do not mean physical ugliness, of course; physical ugliness can actually radiate beauty of the highest degree. This man was one of the most vicious critics of Aspasia. In comparison with the beauty-filled poet, that man appeared to be one of the ugliest men, and it was clear why his bitter soul could not understand Hamerling.

All of Robert Hamerling's endeavors were of this order. There would be much to tell if I were to recount the whole of his progress through history. He sought to deal with Dante and Robespierre, ending with Homunculus, in whom he wished to embody all of the grotesqueness of modern culture. There would also be much to tell if I were to describe how Hamerling's lyrical muse sought to find the reflective sounds permeating his works in the beauty and colors of nature and in the spirit of nature. Again, there would be much to say if I wanted to give you even just an idea of how Hamerling's lyrical poetry is alive with everything that can comfort our souls regarding the small things in the great ones, or how his poems can give us the invincible faith that the kingdom of beauty will triumph in the human soul however much the demons of discord and ugliness might try to establish their rule. Hamerling's soul suffered in life; yet in the midst of the deepest, most painful suffering, his soul could find joy in the beauty of spiritual activity. His soul could see the discords of the day all around, and yet could immerse itself deeply in the beauty of the night when the starry heavens rose above the waters. Hamerling was able to give meaningful expression to this mood.

I wanted to describe briefly, by means of a few episodes out of Hamerling's life, an image of Robert Hamerling as a poet of the late nineteenth century who was filled with an invincible awareness of the better future of humanity because he was steeped completely in the truth of the beauty of the universe. At the same time, he was a poet who could describe how the spirit can be victorious in us over all the material obstacles and hindrances to our spiritual nature.

It is impossible to understand the poet Hamerling without reference to his lifelong effort to answer the question: How do I become a human being? Everything he created has human greatness, though not always poetic excellence, for Hamerling's stature as a poet is a consequence of his human greatness. When he saw disharmony in life, Hamerling always felt an invincible urge in his soul to find the corresponding harmony, to find the way in which all things ugly must dissolve into beauty when we look at them rightly.

In conclusion, I want to read you a small, insignificant poem typical of Hamerling. In conception and thought it belongs to his early years, but it does characterize the mood, albeit in primitive poetic simplicity, that accompanied him throughout his life:

The Lion and the Rose

On a deep red rose
The angry lion trod
His paw caught fast the thorn
Of this delicate bud.

His paw swelled large;
In angry pain he died.
Refreshed, the red rose drank
The early morning dew.

Be the delicate ever so delicate,
The rough ever so rough,
That which is fragile, gentle, pure —
Beauty, triumphs over all. Note 13 ]

This mood — we can see it in everything he wrote — accompanied Hamerling through his life:

Be the delicate ever so delicate,
The rough ever so rough,
That which is fragile, gentle, pure —
Beauty, triumphs over all.




Last Modified: 02-Aug-2018
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