Georg Heym - Extremes of German Expressionism: an ageing, Apocalypse-crazed dropout who sees it as his God-given mission to steal and cut up the Mona Lisa, a sweet moment of memory in a corpse lying opened for autopsy, a released maniac who journeys homeward to murder his wife, the ghastly fate of a crew marooned off New Guinea





 Georg Heym, The Thief and Other Stories, Translated by Susan Bennett, Angel Books, 2011.


"An English-language translation of the complete published stories of Georg Heym (1887-1912). There are seven in all, with subjects ranging from social revolt to insanity, disease to unrequited love. These stories of madness, horror, and a variety of other extreme states, have become classics of German Expressionist prose."

"The tales that Heym wrote in the last year of his life, the most powerful in German literature since Kleist, have a strong gothic flavour and prefigure the great era of the Expressionist film. An ageing, Apocalypse-crazed dropout who sees it as his God-given mission to steal and cut up the Mona Lisa, a sweet moment of memory in a corpse lying opened for autopsy, a released maniac who journeys homeward to murder his wife, the ghastly fate of a crew marooned off New Guinea – the disaffected young writer’s compulsive relationship with his material is reflected in the mesmeric, spellbinding character of these stories, which partake of the violent imagery of paintings of the time. On publication they were compared to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the prose pieces of Baudelaire. In the German-speaking world they have been acclaimed ever since for their power and formal beauty; they deserve to be far better known to the English-speaking reader.
These translations, the only ones in English, first published in 1994, are now distributed by Angel Classics."

‘All these stories portray humans in extremis… studies in madness, isolation and depravity, as well as essays in sickness, pestilence and destruction... All this is presented in Heym’s inimitable style, which combines cool observation with the most striking, lurid imagery. The translation is superb throughout.’ – Choice

"After reading these singularly unpleasant but delicious descents into madness (particularly the title tale, "The Thief", which chronicles in a surreal manner a vicious madman's obsession with the Mona Lisa as the personification of Satan), I realized that Heym's work would be neither easy to find nor readily available at mainstream bookstores. In the tradition of Maupassant, Schopenhauer and Trakl, Heym employs dark poetic atmosphere to reveal the futility of human effort and obsesses over life's horrors (in an entertaining, exhilarating way.) Hallucinatory imagery abounds as Heym's wretched, often deranged narrators commit atrocities, believing themselves to be in another state of being then they actually are (case in point: "The Madman"). I'm thinking that Heym's poetry must be in the vein of Brennan, Leopardi, and the more bleak parts of Dante. These tales, however, are not to be taken in large doses for most. Definitely recommended if you're looking for something discouraging, odd and exciting all at once." - J from NY at Amazon.com

"Georg Heym (1887– 1912) was a German poet and playwright who also wrote one novel. Heym believed in the idea of the “demon city,” which symbolized his repudiation of romanticism in the midst of the rise of industrialism and repressive systems. Still, he lived a wild and passionate life, accompanied by depression and restlessness. In 1910 he dreamed of a death by drowning and two years later fell through the ice while skating." - Adam Mills





Georg Heym, Poems, Trans. by Antony Hasler, Angel Books, 2011.

"January 2012 marks the centenary of the death, by drowning at the age of 24, of one of the major figures of early German modernism – the poet and short story writer Georg Heym, a member of the brilliant ‘Expressionist’ generation that included the painters Emil Nolde, Franz Marc and Wassili Kandinsky and the young poets who were to die in the First World War like Alfred Lichtenstein, Ernst Stadler and Georg Trakl.
Heym’s often explosive and shocking images are contained in verse of strict classical form and metre, giving it a thrilling tension and force. One of his most famous poems, ‘War’, contains the line ‘A mighty city sank in yellow smoke’ – a premonition of the Second World War and beyond, written before the First. Such is Heym’s apocalyptic contribution to the line of ‘city’ poetry from Baudelaire to T.S. Eliot."

"Georg Heym was one of the towering figures of the great age of modern German poetry despite having drowned at the age of 24. A poet of the big city, he takes the tradition to its limits; his dark imagery and horrific visions, conveyed in tight metric forms of inexorable force, foreshadowing the experience of both world wars. Hasler's is the fullest selection to appear in English."


Georg Heym, Poems: A Bilingual Edition, Trans. by Antony Hasler, Northwestern University Press, 2006.

"In cities strange and yet weirdly familiar, women watched by monstrous demons give birth to headless infants, vast gods straddle apartment blocks and gaze balefully out on an urban hell, and the savage giant War dances wildly on the mountains while a mighty city sinks into an abyss. The poet Georg Heym saw what we have all come to see, and it was not long after his death in 1912 that readers heard in him a prophet. These poems rich in images of the city and war, of death and decay, for which Heym is best known, have their place in this book, the first volume of Heym's work to appear in English. But here too are poems haunted by other spirits: sonnets of a chill formal perfection offer vignettes of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath; others are shaped by a rich and strange mixture of classical antiquity and the Gothic macabre; others still, among Heym's later works, are some of the finest love poems and elegies ever to be written in the German language."

"Almost a hundred years since his early death, we now have at last available in English the lyric work of one of the greatest poets of Expressionism, Georg Heym, precursor of Surrealism and powerful prophetic visionary of the catastrophic aspects of the twentieth century. His remarkable poetry comes to us in a superb translation. Antony Hasler transmits the original with astonishing faithfulness and a poetic skill that makes the German poems as effective in English as they are in their original language. Hasler does full justice to Heym's masterful rhythm and startling imagery." - Walter H. Sokel

"The German poet Georg Heym (1887-1912) was an authentic prodigy. Unlike Chatterton or Keats, it should be said, he was a healthy and strapping young man, described by Ernst Rowohlt, his publisher, as looking like a "butcher's assistant". The manner of his early death, drowned with a friend while skating, contributed substantially to the mythology that grew up around him. It is a great thing to have him in English, in the patient and scrupulous translations of Antony Hasler, who has worked on these poems for 20 years.
Of the German expressionists (Benn, Trakl, Van Hoddis, Stadler and others) - the modern generation that arrived just before the first world war, whose equivalent in England I suppose would be the imagists - Heym is much the most literary and, on the surface, the most conventional. The experience of reading this book (most of it in rhymed quatrains) is like reading a 100-page version of "Le Bateau Ivre": catabatic stuff, luscious, ghoulish, macabre. Hasler's notes show just how many of Heym's poems are adaptations of or responses to Baudelaire and Rimbaud. In fact, I don't think I can do a better short description of him than to say that he is like a French poet in German. He uses relatively few words, but it's more like the restrictions of French poetry from Ronsard and Corneille onwards than the electrifyingly reduced vocabulary and construction of Trakl. His 27-stanza "La Morgue" is nothing like the five epochal scraps of Gottfried Benn's debut sequence, Morgue, of 1912, written in an hour, published in a week, and notorious ever since. More typically "German" in Heym is a ready access to the mediaeval world, the sense that the Black Death happened just yesterday.
Among Heym's attributes is a great scenic gift, what Ezra Pound called "phanopoiea", making things visible to the mind's eye of the reader. Many of his poems follow the course of a river or procession, or pan across cityscapes and landscapes: "The blue snow lies upon the level land / that spreads out winter. And the signposts here / show one another, each with outstretched hand, / the violet silence of horizons bare. / Here, on their path into the waste, four ways / have met together. Low, bald rowans crouch / like beggars. Red and gleaming berries gaze / like their dull eyes." ("Winter")
The scene is rendered, as many are, with a gloomy affect; this is what expressionism is. Striking also is the bold compositional use of colour: blue, violet, red. Van Gogh is often mentioned, whose paintings Heym knew and admired. But I think as much of his German contemporaries: for the bombast of some of his early work, the huge (and very popular), apocalyptic canvases of early Max Beckman; and later, for the lurid city poems, the canvases of Kirchner or Schmidt-Rottluff or Nolde ("ocean flecked with yellow"). Often the poems end - again eminently pictorially - with the vanishing point of the horizon.
Heym had a dramatic gift as well, shown to best advantage in robust and atmospheric narrative sonnets that remind me of some of Rilke's (say "The Shako"); I am thinking of poems of Heym's like "Louis Capet", "Marengo" or "Robespierre". He is drawn to moments of violence and intensity, not afraid to write about Savonarola being burned, or the gruesome deathbed murder of a priest, or the guillotining of Louis XIV: "They haul him up, and stretch him on the wood, / head on the block. The blade's whirr cuts the air. / The neck, fast in the hole, spits out his blood." And if that seems too much like monosyllabic guignol, Heym can also be as subtle as the best of them - I think of Rilke, again - as with the poised ending of his "Samson" (the whole poem is only 12 short lines): "All are gone. And a mouse's cry / hangs somewhere above in the air. / And around the steps a rustle / like dogs rushing by." I'm not exactly sure what's happening there, but the raptness is impressive.
Hasler has done amazingly well to get these poems into anything like proximate English forms - and most of the time he matches Heym line for line and rhyme for rhyme. I admire his occasionally venturesome diction, "drear" and "mooncalf" and "blue-thrappled" for one of the many dangling corpses you find in Heym. I like the pert pun on a demon wearing "a crown of horns". There is a little too much predicate-subject inversion, and the heavier than normal use of monosyllables makes a line seem more like a sausage stuffed with mincemeat than something that somebody might actually have chosen to write in English: "Trembling with cold and silent with stark fear / they reach out blindly with their blanching arms." A couple of German homonyms I fancy Hasler has also misread: "grüne Winde" are not (in context) "green winds" but "green weeds" (bindweed, convolvulus), and the "Arme" in the last poem are not "the poor" but just "arms". But given the exquisite difficulty of the task, that's really not much on the debit side. - Michael Hofmann

"It was once memorably stated of Chopin’s late ‘Polonaises’ that they were like the confessions of a man with his throat cut. One might say the same of the poetry of Georg Heym, which, following decades of woeful neglect, is at last made available to us in exemplary translations by Antony Hasler. Heym who died in 1912 in the most dreadful circumstances, aged only twenty four, was an unswerving romantic, an intensely subjective poet who though presenting a rowdy and devil-may-care image on the outside was internally blessed with acute sensibilities and a prolific lyricism. This lyrical greatness became even more significant in his later work, in poems which, profoundly influenced by Hölderlin, have secured Heym a permanent place in the front row of German language poets.
Though Heym is often dubbed an ‘Expressionist’ poet, as with his better known contemporary Trakl, this labels proves far too simplistic.

Georg Heym was born in 1887, the son of a Prussian military officer. His relationship with his father was unfulfilling and remained unresolved until his death, and his mother failed to understand her son’s burgeoning vocation. Like the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, Heym had little time for his teachers and academia, and was scathing in his contempt for the establishment in general. Highly volatile and with a surplus of rude vitality, the young Heym led a restless bohemian existence in Berlin, chasing an endless stream of girls with disturbing excesses of passion. He suffered chronic mood swings, and, craving decisive change, entertained notions of escaping to far-flung lands or indulged in suicidal fantasies. His thoughts were inscribed in a remarkable diary, sadly not yet translated into English. Antony Hasler summarises thus: ‘His diaries show continuing melancholy and turbulence, and a highly fertile dream life which he records with merciless detachment.’
To begin with, Heym tried his hand at drama but his efforts were snubbed by publishers. However, after getting a chance to read his work at the fashionable Neuer Club in Berlin, presided over by Jacob Von Hoddis and a regular haunt for the likes of Karl Kraus, Else Lasker- Schüler and Gottfried Benn, his incendiary poems soon began to appear in journals and a first collection Der Ewige Tag was published in 1911. As Patrick Bridgwater affirms in his valuable biography, every single one of Heym’s many heroes was a thorough romantic and/or revolutionary. As early as 1905 Heym declares a deep fraternal bond with Hölderlin, this is extended in 1908-9 to Kleist and Büchner, uncompromising romantic spirits who died young. In this respect, Shelley and Keats were also to draw the young Heym’s gaze. Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine all followed. Büchner’s drama Dantons Tod aroused Heym’s fascination for

the French Revolution. In the poem ‘Robespierre’, one of a series on this theme, Hasler manages to retain the original rhyme scheme and produce something which reads convincingly in English without resorting to jarring embellishments. Although assonance has had to be drafted in, it sits comfortably alongside the full rhymes.
Robespierre


He bleats, but in his throat. The bland eyes stare
into the tumbril’s straw. Sucking, he draws
the white phlegm through his teeth from chewing jaws.
Between two wooden struts a foot hangs bare.


At every jolt the wagon flings him up.
The fetters on his arms rattle like bells.
Mothers hoist their children up, and yells
of cheerful laughter cross the rabble’s top.


Someone tickles his leg. He does not see.
The wagon stops. He looks up. At the end
of the street he sees the last black penalty.


Upon the ash-grey brow the cold sweat stands.
And in the face the mouth twists fearfully.
They wait for screams. But no one hears a sound.

This shocking poem exhibits details of the real visually enhanced by the imagination, and it is this revelatory synthesis which is surely crucial to Heym’s vision. We are there with Robespierre (and Heym?) in the tumbril and feel acutely the supreme terror of his fate. Thus details like the ‘tickling of a leg’ or the ‘cheerful laughter’ drifting over the rabble hold the most mordant significance.
Like Baudelaire who seems to be eerily present in the above poem, Heym farms a no-man’s land between the disquieting image based on truth and subjective lyrical impulse. Following Kirchner, perhaps his painterly brother, Heym sought the concealed truths of the metropolis in ferment, the sprawling moloch of Berlin. Poems like ‘The Fever Hospital’, ‘The Morgue’ and ‘The Slums’ are relentless in their morbid delirium. Heym seeks to distil the mayhem, pretension, emptiness and diabolism of the modern city. His most famous poems such as ‘The Demons of the City’ and ‘War’ are vessels for metaphorical abandon, crammed with apocalyptic images, and reminiscent of the scenes of skeleton-supervised human carnage in Brueghel’s famous painting ‘TheTriumph of Death’. It is not surprising to learn that Heym, essentially a visual poet, revered Van Gogh, Munch, Kubin and Rops, poet-painters who shadow each other in their visionary excesses.
Hasler understands that Heym’s power is forged through the combination of haunting image and the melody scored by his remorseless iambic pentameters. Once a translator has placed his wheel in the tramline so to speak and adopted a formal rhyme scheme, it proves impossible to deviate and he/she must continue until the end. For many translators a spectacular crash is inevitable. In these translations one senses genuine poetic sensitivity at work, not just the tricks of a canny craftsman. And as has been demonstrated, where he does not manage to rhyme convincingly he compensates with a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of intuitive assonance. In all respects Hasler’s patient labour serves as an invaluable lesson to any prospective translator of poetry.
Heym’s language is breathless and forever in a frenzy of motion.
Forests ‘rise and climb’, dusk ‘rushes upwards’, the sea ‘gulps’. Heym takes the moon as a symbol again and again. In one poem alone he comes up with eight different metaphors for the moon. In another the moon ‘lifts up its swinging lamp’, or ‘monstrous moons heave themselves stifflegged over the rooftops’, ‘before his eyes a green half moon leads dances…’ Behind the frantic symbolism, Heym’s single unifying theme is death, and, like Trakl, he is overwhelmingly impelled towards morbid imagery. Trakl’s mournful cry that ‘All roads lead to blackest carrion’ also resonates in the poetry of Heym. Michael Hofmann has referred to this ghoulish preoccupation as a ‘typically Germanic mixture of bleakness and luridness, a frail, self-imperilled, insatiable nature; and a poetry dwelling obsessively on death and decay, narrowly and culpably athognomic’.
But Heym, again like Trakl, can also surprise with a wave of serenebeauty or tenderness. This is most evident in a remarkable short prose piece ‘The Autopsy’ included in the wonderful collection of short stories also published by Libris. Although a man’s corpse is seized on by doctors and systematically violated by chisels, scalpels and hammers, the flame of love still burns somewhere deep within, and the corpse recalls tender moments with his beloved amidst the gruesome hacking and sawing. The result is a minor masterpiece. Such deliberate incongruity also pays off in the poem ‘The Dead Girl in the Water’, in which the corpse of a girl floats out on the tide from the city. The imagery created here by Heym is both sumptuous and harrowing. Here are three consecutive stanzas.
The body wallows up, inflates the dress
as if it were a white ship in the wind.
The lifeless eyes stare up, enormous, blind,
into a sky of cloud-pink rosiness.


The lilac water gently rocks and swells,
the wake stirred by the water-rats, who man
the white ship. Now it drifts serenely on,
writhing with grey snouts and with dusky pelts.


In bliss the dead girl rides the outward draw
of wind and tide, her swollen belly heaving,
big, hollowed out, all that the rats are leaving.
It murmurs like a grotto as they gnaw.

and the German of the first of those stanzas:

Die Leiche wälzt sich ganz heraus. Es bläht
Das Kleid sich wie ein weisses Schiff im Wind.
Die toten Augen starren gross und blind
Zum Himmel, der voll rosa Wolken steht.
A return to Hölderlin in 1912 and an upsurge of controlled lyrical power delivered new shorter-line poems of greater range and emotional reach. Works like ‘Autumn Tetralogy’ and ‘Umbra Vitae’ are considered perhaps the pinnacle of Heym’s achievement, whilst ‘Your Eyelashes, Long’ is a love poem of considerable depth and emotive power. But soon after this, tragedy struck and Heym was gone. In 1910 he had noted in eerie detail a dream he had of his death by drowning. On a winter’s day in 1912 this dream was to become a ghastly reality, when on a skating expedition on the Havel with his friend Ernst Balcke, the two fell through the ice and were drowned." - Will Stone

"...Such were the egos involved in the Neue Club and the philistinism of their opponents, it became known as the “Café Megalomania.” As with Die Brücke, such personalities could not stay amiable for long and, after a brief run of acclaimed nights, the Neue Club broke up publically and dramatically when Van Hoddis tried to usurp Hiller’s “eternal presidency” and threw him out of his own group. The Neue Club split into Hiller’s Gnu and Van Hoddis’ Neopathetische Cabaret. It was as part of the latter that Georg Heym appeared. He’d been previously introduced to the Neue Club by Simon Guttmann, having recited him his almost-Futurist urban poem ‘Berlin I’ from memory. His performances at the evenings (one of which was dedicated to his work alone), earned him critical derision in the press but brought him to the attention of the publisher Ernst Rowohlt, who released his book Der ewige Tag (The Eternal Day). Heym had made a name for himself. He became known for his Jacobin pretensions, modelling himself on Danton and the poètes maudits, his personality “half bandit… half angel” in Emily Ball-Hennings’ estimation but most of all he became known for his poetry. In his juvenilia, he wrote on various subjects – love poems, nocturnes, autumnal pastoral poems, elegies on Hölderlin and Villon, aubades on suicides and convicts, French revolutionary dramas, momento moris, subversions of religious rituals, some haunting, some exotic, some of bottomless romantic joy, some of bottomless dread, some clumsy, hyperbolic, adolescent.
For all their similarities, Heym’s passionate, expletive-strewn temperament differed from Van Hoddis’ more reserved nature but Heym followed and expanded upon his friend’s baleful visions. He began with urban melodramas that mix abject pathos with unintended bathos (fever hospitals, blind men, crippled children, morgues, misery loaded onto misery) but, following Van Hoddis, made the leap to something beyond pastiches of desolation, which is where his genius comes in, particularly in his later work. Georg Heym somehow managed to prophesise the coming cataclysms of war, not just that they would happen but how they would happen, the scale of it. Less than a decade after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Heym was writing of visions that mirror the aerial bombardment of cities and the fire-bombing of civilian populations from the sky. Though a single bomb had been ineffectually dropped onto the city of Venice from a hot-air balloon in the previous century, what Heym had foretold was effectively a novel idea. He pre-empted military theorists by several years. His visions were demonic, depersonalised, grotesque, extravagant. Something would finally happen to the stultifying society he grew up in. The skies would suddenly become dangerous. No-one and nowhere would be entirely safe. The poet floats above the burning streets and recounts what occurs with the merest hint of delight.
In ‘War’ Heym like some angel of death watches, “A mighty city sank in yellow smoke / slipped in silence into the abyss’s throat… withering the farthest night his firebrands rain / pitch and fire down on the cities of the plain.”
In ‘The God of the City,’ he describes “like the blue scent of incense, factory-fumes / and grime of smokestacks rise towards his feet…. a sea of fire cracks / along a street. And the thick glowing smoke / devours it until a late day breaks.”
With ‘White Haired, On Barren Plains,’ he makes an astonishing declaration that seems to suggest the Fall of Imperial Russia to a violent Marxism rabble, “and on rebellion’s sea, red, like a star, / atop its pole the Tsar’s head rocking higher.”
Again and again, images of annihilation, the poet viewing it all from the altitude of zeppelins or bombers. In ‘The Demons of the Cities,’ “Upon the rooftop sea their shadow sways… the broken housetop washes red with flame. / they straddle it, and hurl like midnight cats / towards the firmament their frenzied scream… earthquakes surround their hooves with fires alight / and through the womb of cities blasts the thunder.”
In his most famous poem ‘Umbrae Vitae’ the auguries continue, “meteors slithering with fiery snouts / round jagged towers mark a baleful track // and rooftops bristle with astrologers / who thrust huge telescopes into the sky…” “the ships hang all disconsolate and rot / all scattered, and not a current moves…” “the trees no longer change with seasons / and die eternally when seasons end.” (Trans, Anthony Hasler).
Something terrible was indeed coming. It would be the a quarter of a century before history caught up with Heym and the horrors of the grim rollcall of Guernica, Warsaw, Nanking, the Blitz, Manila, Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought his baroque visions of slaughter into unimaginable reality.
Heym would be spared having to witness any of this by virtue of being dead. Around the time he was introduced to the Neue Club, he’d written of a troubling dream in his diary in which he was shuffling along on the ice of a frozen lake and a woman called to him and told him “Quick, turn back, the ice is breaking up,” but he kept going, momentarily walking on water before plunging into the murky waters, barely making it to the shore as tentacles of kelp threatened to drag him down. A personal premonition perhaps or just a coincidence. In the winter of 1912, the poet went skating with his friend and fellow poet Ernst Balcke on the Havel. At some point, the ice began to crack and Balcke fell through and became trapped beneath the ice. Heym attempted to save him but fell through and once in the water could not pull himself free. He held on for half an hour desperately calling to woodcutters on the shoreline who could not make it safely across the treacherous floe in time. Their corpses were hauled out in frozen tableaux several days later.
Though they would put together a tribute night for the departed at the Neopathetic Cabaret and publish many of Heym’s unpublished poems and his novella The Thief, the remnants of the Neue Club would soon dissipate. Van Hoddis never recovered from the news and had the first of a succession of mental breakdowns shortly after. The next thirty years of his life he would spend in psychiatric hospitals, briefly, periodically escaping and resurfacing in cultural circles until psychotic episodes and outstanding warrants would drive him back into care. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and rarely, if ever, wrote again. He was murdered by the Nazis at Sobibor death camp mid-1942, along with 500 of his fellow patients and nursing staff of the Jewish sanatorium where he’d stayed." - Darran Anderson



Umbra Vitae


The people on the streets draw up and stare,While overhead huge portents cross the sky;
Round fanglike towers threatening comets flare,
Death-bearing, fiery-snouted where they fly.


On every roof astrologers abound,enormous tubes thrust heavenward; there are
Magicians springing up from underground,
Aslant in darkness, conjuring to a star.

Through night great hordes of suicides are hurled,Men seeking on their way the selves they've lost;
Crook-backed they haunt all corners of the world,
And with their arms for brooms they sweep the dust.

They are as dust, keep but a little while;And as they move their hair drops out. They run,
To hasten their slow dying. Then they fall,
And in the open fields lie prone,


But twitch a little still. Beasts of the fieldStand blindly around them, prod with horns
Their sprawling bodies till at last they yield,
Lie buried by the sage-bush, by the thorns.


But all the seas are stopped. Among the wavesThe shops hang rotting, scattered, beyond hope.
No current through the water moves,
And all the courts of heaven are locked up.


Trees do not change, the seasons do not change.Enclosed in dead finality each stands,
And over broken roads lets frigid range
Its palmless thousand-fingered hands.

They dying man sits up, as if to stand,Just once more word a moment since he cries,
All at once he's gone. Can life so end?
And crushed to fragments are his glassy eyes.


The secret shadows thicken, darkness breaks;Behind the speechless doors dreams watch and creep.
Burdened by light of dawn the man that wakes
Must rub from grayish eyelids leaden sleep.


Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton




Judas


Torment's curl leaps above his brow,In which winds and many voices whispering
Swim by like waters flowing.


Yet he runs by his side just like a dog.And in the mire he picks up everything saying said.
And he weighs it heavily. And it is dead.


Ah gently in the swaying eventideThe Lord walked down over the white fields.
It was him the corn-ears glorified.


His feet were small as flies
In the shrill gleam of golden skies.

- Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton


The Dissection by Georg Heym




"The Poet Who Dreamed in Light Blue
PART ONE – The Author
Juggler (The Surface and Beneath) by Heather Wilcoxon, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art
In cities strange and yet weirdly familiar, women watched by monstrous demons give birth to headless infants, vast gods straddle apartment blocks and gaze balefully out on an urban hell, and the savage giant War dances wildly on the mountains while a mighty city sinks into an abyss. (in Georg Heym’s Poems,bilingual edition, translated from the German by Anthony Hasler, 2006, Northwestern University Press.)
Georg Heym’s works are an enthralling mixture of classical German lyricism and arresting visions of urban dysplastic images à la Metropolis. The city of Berlin, under the domination of the City God (Der Gott der Stadt), is the theater of Gothic horrors — visions of war and death where the romantic macabre walks hand in hand with images taken from Greek myths.  Heym is also known for the formal beauty of his sonnets, which place him amongst the greatest poets of the German tradition. Heym was saluted as the first expressionistic poet, a decade before Expressionism became the dominant artistic trend in post-WWI Germany.

I translated the short-short story “Die Dissektion” — in fact a poem of six hundred words packed with images so strong they hurt — for The Weird, and I fell in love with the author.
Two (very different) innovative authors and their similar upbringing
I recently translated one of Gustave Flaubert’s juvenile short stories, “Quidquid volueris”[1]. As I was trying to establish the first publication date, I found an uncanny resemblance between Flaubert and Heym’s formative years. There is no similarity between the two authors’ works in terms of the aesthetic of their writing, but both Flaubert and Heym tackled themes ahead of their times.
Flaubert unleashed a storm of criticism after the publication of his scandalous (for the time) novel Madame Bovary. The public outrage dragged him to court, and the author was condemned for describing the antics of a young housewife in search of evasion. A long, suggestive scene was censored (a case of too much showing instead of telling). As for Heym, his works were less known outside the literary circles, but had the larger public read about his headless infants and monstrous demons, he would have surely been branded unhinged and dangerous.
Heym was born in 1887, a year before Flaubert died; nevertheless, his family context – upper middle class – resembles Flaubert’s, and both authors received a classical education (high school classical teaching remained consistently the same across Europe until the late twentieth century). I wondered whether these ingredients were needed to obtain an individual who would later bring new themes to literature, breaking with the past.
Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner
Recipe for a Modern Poet (or “Bake Your Own Georg Heym”)
Take a well-to-do but sine nobilitate family and mix with lackluster results in school. Add an authoritarian and irascible father and a loving, sentimental mother. Sprinkle with blank, monochord verses later labeled as “juvenilia.” Encourage the subject to marinate in passionless high-education studies, preferably Law.
Your Heym-dough will seek solace in epic deeds (drinking, dueling, whoring and getting kicked out of several schools), and he will chant the fearless protagonists of past revolutions, thus cutting his poetic teeth on grand plays imbued with classical German lyricism.
Despite the stiff theatrical production produced in this early period, it is crucial that you do not skip this step: later on your poet will have to express his internal turmoil in perfectly formed verses.
At some point, your poet-dough may be exposed to the influence of the Nietzsche yeast. He may write in his diary that he longs to realize the Übermensch ideal in his own person (1906). Do not panic and do not take the dough out of the oven; a story will spurt from this idea: “The Madman,” in which madness is depicted as a form of ultimate salvation. Because madmen are above ordinary laws, insanity entails the most perfect form of freedom, as illustrated by the final image: the madman soaring like a bird high above reality.
If the previous procedure is correctly applied, the blooming author, disappointed with his contemporaries, will join a club of think-alike youths (it will be Der Neue Club, The New Club, in Berlin, 1910). Inspiring meetings will simmer in a café that should preferably sport an ironic name (the Neopathetische Cabaret or Neo-Pathetic Music-Hall). If you keep the fire going, the group leader, Kurt Hiller, will salute your artist as an expressionistic poet, which will brand him a true precursor; Expressionism — a creative movement in pre-WWI Germany fostering the idea that art’s purpose is to express the subjective feelings of artists — will be at its zenith during the 20s.
The baking is going well. You should now be satisfied to see the subject’s first poems appear (the same year, 1910) in the radical magazine Der Demokrat, and the first collection, Der ewige Tag (The Eternal Day), will be published in 1911, to be favorably reviewed by the famous poet Ernst Stadler. Given the positive critiques, your lyrical dough will decide to abandon his career in Law.
Meanwhile, let a resonant, clichéd tragedy, Atalanta, find its way into print (1911) and do not despair but look at your creation through the oven glass: the dough is now golden.
Take your poet out of the oven, for he is baked.
And from now on things become very, very serious, albeit for a very short time.
The new poet displays both an exquisite sensibility and a tormented spirit. A few poems, like his tragedies, are inspired by the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath, but with more elegant results; others are haunted by classical myths and Gothic tropes; others still, from his later years, are widely considered some of the finest love poems ever written in the German language.
You have in fact created one of the most characteristic voices of German literature.
Too soon did he go
In contrast with his morbid visions, Georg Heym is known for his exuberant good health and stocky appearance. A friend says Georg makes him think of a butcher boy, and everyone thinks our romantic author a force of nature. But Heym dies young, at twenty-four years of age. In 1910, he had noted down a dream in which he advanced hesitantly across a kind of thin “stone slab,” which turned out to be a sheet of ice  (Hasler, op. cit.). Uncannily, Heym drowns during a skating expedition on the ice of the Havel River, in 1912. At his funeral, friends dance around his casket, declaiming Hölderlin (a major German poet, 1770 – 1843).
I do not know which verses were chosen to bid the young poet adieu, but here is a poem Georg wrote in 1905, in memory of Hölderlin:
To Hölderlin
And you, too, you are dead, son of the springtime
You, whose life only resembled
blazes shining in the night’s basements
where men forever look for
conclusion and liberty.
You are dead. For they have foolishly reached
for your pure flame
to put it out. For these beasts have always
hated the sublime.
And, as the Moirai
plunged into infinite pain
your spirit which faintly trembled,
God wrapped into a cloth of darkness
his virtuous son’s tortured head.
One of Hölderin’s poems that influenced Heym:
From “In Lovely Blue” (In lieblicher Blaue)
Translated by by George Kalogeris
Like the stamen inside a flower
The steeple stands in lovely blue
And the day unfolds around its needle;
The flock of swallows that circles the steeple
Flies there each day through the same blue air
That carries their cries from me to you;
We know how high the sun is now
As long as the roof of the steeple glows,
The roof that’s covered with sheets of tin;
Up there in the wind, where the wind is not
Turning the vane of the weathercock,
The weathercock silently crows in the wind.
Hölderlin’s style is more descriptive, more classical, compared with Heym’s verses, but we can recognize the theme that will find an echo in Heym’s formal sonnet “Reverie in Light Blue,” which you will find below, with the original text and my translation.
A collection of poems, Umbra Vitae, is published posthumously (1912), followed by a collection of short stories, Der Dieb (The Thief, 1913, English translation by Susan Bennet: The Thief and Other Stories, 1994, Libris, first published April 1985), and a collection of sonnets, Marathon (1914).

In 1924, Kurt Wolff publishes the collection of poems compiled by Heym’s literary group Der Neue Club: Umbra Vitae, including forty-seven xylographs by Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner.
After the poet’s untimely death, enthusiastic readers will find echoes of cataclysmic prophecies in his work, as in “Mit weissem Haar in den verrufnen Orten” (With White Hair, on Barren Plains), which foreshadows 1917. The poem describes the suffering of the enslaved working class in the mines of cold Russia. When night comes, the slaves dream of a head perched on top of a pole, riding the agitated waters of a “rebellious sea,” and it is the Czar’s head…

The City’s God
Georg Heym expressed the despair and solitude of urban life.
Fascinated by death, he was obsessed with the modern phenomenon of the metropolis: in his view the triumph of technology was destined to explode and unravel into apocalyptic involution. Nothing will change the city’s fate. Living in the city is unnatural.
In “Der Gott der Stadt” (The God of the City), sprawling cities kneel to Baal, who straddles blocks of buildings, his belly glowing red in the setting sun, and millions cower in the streets, booming their music made of praises and terror, while factory fumes and grime of smokestacks rise in the air towards the giant’s feet. And the elements themselves, perverted by the god, stare at the crushed humanity, sending tempests and seas of fire cracking on the asphalt.
We can read here the influence of a Belgian poet, Emile Verhaeren (1855 – 1916), one of the founders of Symbolism. In “L’âme des Ville” (The City’s Soul, in Les villes tentaculaires, Tentacular Cities, 1895), Verhaeren writes:
Un air de soufre et de naphte s’ exhale,
un soleil trouble et monstrueux s’ étale;
l’ esprit soudainement s’ effare
vers l’ impossible et le bizarre;
crime ou vertu, voit-il encor
ce qui se meut en ces décors,
où, devant lui, sur les places, s’ élève
le dressement tout en brouillards
d’ un pilier d’ or ou d’ un fronton blafard
pour il ne sait quel géant rêve?
An air of sulfur and naphtha exhales,
a hazy and monstrous sun expands;
the mind suddenly staggers
towards the impossible and the weird;
crime or virtue, can one still glimpse
something that moves in this decor,
where, right ahead, in each plaza, soars
the blurred height
of a golden pillar or a bleary pediment
for who knows what gigantic dream.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist film Metropolis

Verhaeren’s verses — rhymed in the original French — strike me as overwrought and melodramatic. Still, these images inflamed the imaginations and influenced many artists of the time.
In Heym’s poems, however (and it is the difference between mere imagination and genius), the chill, perfectly stylized form frames and contains the vivid images, distancing the reader. The distance and “monumentality”, in John Holfson’s words, quoted by Hasler (ib.) make, by contrast, the excesses of Heym’s apocalyptic visions even more horrific.
Heym was a unique figure in the pre-war poetic landscape. His aggressive images set him apart as more than a mere harbinger of Expressionism. Georg Heym was the first poet to use the stylistic epitomes that would later become the movement’s most characteristic tropes.
Blood Red and Powdery Blue
On one side, the bleeding images of apocalyptic cities, on the other, soft landscapes of waters blending with the sky. Nature, when left to her own devices, embroiders the world with harmony.
Träumerei in Hellblau (Reverie in Light Blue)
Alle Landschaften haben
Sich mit Blau gefüllt.
Alle Büsche und Bäume des Stromes,
Der weit in den Norden schwillt.
Blaue Länder der Wolken,
Weiße Segel dicht,
Die Gestade des Himmels in Fernen
Zergehen in Wind und Licht.
Wenn die Abende sinken
Und wir schlafen ein,
Gehen die Träume, die schönen,
Mit leichten Füßen herein.
Zymbeln lassen sie klingen
In den Händen licht.
Manche flüstern, und halten
Kerzen vor ihr Gesicht.
Here is my take (as usual, not so literal):
All the expanses of land
Are filled with blue as are
All the bushes and trees of the river
That swells in the north afar.
Blue countries of clouds,
Sails scattered white,
The shore of the sky in the distance
Sprinkled in wind and light.
When the evening falls
And we close our eyes,
Lovely dreams tiptoe
With winged feet inside.
The cymbals they let clink
In their hands that glimmer.
Many whispers, and then shadows
Before your face they flicker.
PART II: Translating the Untranslatable
The hardest part of doing this translation
German is such a romantic language. Reading German authors like Heym or Rainer Maria Rilke (although the latter was Bohemian-Austrian), I often wonder if Romanticism, and particularly expressionism as a literary style, could only be invented by author who wrote in that particular language of Gothic ascent. In English, at least contemporary English, an ornate style can easily teeter on the banks of the purple sea, but the best romantic style flows so beautifully in German. As I translated “The Dissection,” I faced the difficulty of dealing with a prose that was so formally perfect in the original that the mere idea of “transporting” it into another system of references seemed iconoclastic to me.
Translating is making decisions, and sometimes the text lures the translator into the easy path, which is the most obvious translation of a word with multiple meanings. It is particularly difficult with German, which is a highly polysemous language. Still, the translator should resist the sirens of “first-level” or “most-common” meaning.
The strongest example of the above, and the most difficult translation decision in this text was the passage:Die Ärzte traten ein. Ein paar freundliche Männer in weißen Kitteln mit Schmissen und goldenen Zwickern.
The most obvious translation is: The doctors entered. Several amicable men in white gowns with duelling-scars and gold-rimmed pince-nez.[2]
But I wondered, why the duelling-scars ?
The translator explains in the footnote #5: ‘”Schmiss”: “duelling-scar”. Traditionally, many male university students belonged to fraternities known as “Studentenverbin– dungen”. The members of a fraternity usually drink together
and engage in duelling. The scars resulting from the wounds received were considered a sign of bravery and boldness.’
This translation is plausible, given that Heym himself engaged in duels during his university years. Moreover, in one of his diary entries, he used “Schmissen” in a figurative way, referring to his heart with dueling scars.
On the other hand, the structure of the phrase in weißen Kitteln mit Schmissen indicates that “Schmissen” may refer back to “Kitteln” (gown, which I rendered with the more modern “coat”). How did the doctors’ white coats sport dueling scars? Did the frat boys carry out their dueling deeds in their surgeons’ gowns? It seemed more logical, and simpler, to me, to use the other meaning of “Schmiss”: rent, a hole in fabric.
I translated the sentence:The doctors entered. A few friendly men in white coats with rents and gold-rimmed pince-nez.
Suddenly, the passage made more sense, even though the explanation based on duels was more romantic.
And the final version became:The doctors entered. A few friendly men in frayed white coats and gold-rimmed pince-nez.
Those who have haunted hospitals wearing white, like I have, will recognize the much-washed coats that fray at the cuffs and hems…
But then again, the author may have wanted to imply both meanings: the down-to-earth frayed coats, and the remainders of ancient duels on the faces of the doctors, now older and wiser (because they wear glasses for near vision).
A short-short, a poem in prose
Translating a very short story is more difficult, given the relative weight of the words. Georg Heym was a poet above everything else, and the first expressionistic poet, at that: the use of images, and particularly colors, as vehicles of emotions is the foundation of the story itself. Colors serve to create similitudes and transitions from the gritty reality of the dissection table to the dream that forms in the dead man’s head, as a resonance of the doctors’ hammering on his skull.
Splendid reds and blues” sprout on the dead man’s body. Why “splendid”?  The colors of decomposing flesh announce new life more than decay, and the wonderful colors foreshadow the explosion of reds in the second part of the story, the memory of a past love in summer: poppy fields; the man’s lover “a flower of flames;” and a billowing dress as a “wave of fire in the setting sun.”
The contrast between the doctors, who were “friendly” a minute before, but now resemble “hideous torturers, blood flowing on their hands as they” dig “ever more deeply into the frigid corpse and” pull “out its innards, like white cooks gutting a goose.”
It is a poem, and every word carries a strong meaning.
Repetition as a style
To get across the author’s intent, I had to keep certain repetitions: in a six-hundred-fifty-seven-word story (a little more than two standard-manuscript pages), there are ten occurrences of the word “white.” It is typical of Heym’s style, as you can see in the poem “Reverie in Pale Blue.” In my translation of the poem I did not keep the repeated words as they did not have the same effect in English, the words being in too close proximity. In “The Dissection,” though, repetition could and was used to render as much as possible of the original style.
In Heym’s work, repetition serves two purposes: first, it creates a contrast, as the same word is used in a gruesome and then a lyrical context; second, repeating a word accentuates the rhythm of a sentence with an obsessive insistence.
In other places, in a variation around the sentence structure, the same word is found in a different position. A paragraph begins with Die Ärzte traten ein. And, in the next paragraph, the beginning is Sie traten an den Toten.
The word “traten” is a counter-example, as I made the decision of using two different translations because the repetition added little in English:
Die Ärzte traten ein. (“Traten” means, generically, “to join,” but the meaning changes in different contexts. The most logical translation was “The doctors entered.”)
Sie traten an den Toten (They stepped up to the dead man.)
How this story influenced me personally
The Dissection” influenced my writing directly. It was one of those famous multiple repetitions that inspired me:
In front of the large window, opened a wide sky filled with small white clouds that swam in the light, in the silent afternoon, like small white gods.
I liked the sound of this sentence so much I used a similar repetition as I was largely rewriting a story that was published in the magazine of my high school when I was fourteen (my first published story ever).  And the restyled story, “The Hand,” appeared in the #358 issue of Weird Tales (August 2011), edited by Ann VanderMeer.

[1] For the anthology edited by Rick Claw, The Apes of Wrath, forthcoming in March 2013 from Tachyon Publications.
[2] Arlene Elizabeth Sture, Georg Heym’s Der Dieh: Ein Novellenbuch. Five Short Stories in English Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, 1-1-1979, McMasters University." -
 Gio Clairval

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