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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. West-East Divan: The Poems, with "Notes and Essays": Goethe's Intercultural Dialogues.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. West-East Divan: The Poems, with "Notes and Essays": Goethe's Intercultural Dialogues. Translated by Martin Bidney. Binghamton, NY: Global Academic Publishing, 2010. Pp. liii+468. $30.95.

Entirely in the ludic mode of the author of the West-ostlicher Divan (1819, revised and expanded, 1827), the American poet Martin Bidney has journeyed east ringing the questing bell of his own caravan, issuing call and response to his brother Goethe and Goethe's adoptive "twin," the fourteenth-century Persian ghazalist Hafiz of Shiraz, in both translation and independent verse. This translation sets a new standard for Goethe's Divan. Set alongside Bidney's wit and concision, the prosody of John Whaley, whose 1974 bilingual Poems of the West and East: West-Eastern Divan [West-ostlicher Divan] (3rd ed., 1998) had greatly improved upon earlier attempts, often feels stuffily overdressed. One of Goethe's sauciest, but wisest, strophes:
   Trunken mussen wir alle sein!
   Jugend ist Trunkenheit ohne Wein;
   Trinkt sich das Alter wieder zu Jugend,
   So ist es wundervolle Tugend.
   Fur Sorgen sorgt das liebe Leben
   Und Sorgenbrecher sind die Reben.

which found its finest musical adequation in Hugo Wolf's lied bacchanal in tipping 6/8 time, becomes a real party-pooper in Whaley's hands:
   To drunkenness all of us must incline!
   Youth is drunkenness less the wine;
   Age may its youth in drinking renew,
   Wonderful virtue so to do.
   Dear life for cares enough will care,
   And the grapes will all our cares repair.

Bidney blows the dust off the bottle, and we rediscover a nice 1819 Goethe that dances idiomatically on the happily tipsy English-language tongue:
   Drunk is what all of us ought to be!
   Youth's being drunk without wine, you see?
   If age can drink itself back to youth,
   That's wonder-virtue, too, in truth.
   Dear life brings worry all the time--
   A worry-breaker is the vine.


This is the tavern scene as Goethe--and Hafiz ("Wine! bring me wine, the giver of mirth!" Hafiz exults in Gertrude Bell's delightful rendering of "From the Garden of Heaven," one of his Divan's early ghazals)--imagined it: the poet's praise of the Qur'anic wine served up in Prophet Saki's overflowing flasks, life's weighty anxieties lifted in the light oenoatmosphere. Gone the ponderous nominal abstractions ("drunkenness"), moralisms ("must incline"), pedanticisms ("so to do"), and archaisms ("all our cares repair"). Enter the naive spirit-consumer in search not of ideas but immediate experience ("drunk"), toasting to jussive verbs (ought to be) and insisting on dialogue with his fellow revelers ("you see?"). The examples could be multiplied.

At 474 pages, this is a brick of a book and includes a good deal more than "only" a translation of Goethe's Divan. For readers not well acquainted with the Divan, it offers a semester's worth of instruction, beginning with a thirty-page scholarly essay on Goethe's relationship with Islam and including reflections on the postcolonialist theory of "Orientalism" of which Goethe has been sometimes unfairly accused. Bidney further offers his own divan in twelve books that imitate and reflect on Goethe, which he calls "Commentary Poems for Goethe's West-ostlicher Divan" (289-468). He "comments" on the first strophe of the drinking song quoted above as follows:
   "Enivrez-vous!" urged Baudelaire--
   Emphatic he, and hortatory--
   "Get drunk!" On what? He didn't care,
   If it but led from gloom to glory.

thereby hinting at an apt connection between Baudelaire and Goethe in their use of provocative, often erotic or ostensibly heretical, themes and the official bourgeois outcry over it. Several of the poems in Baudelaire's 1857 Les Fleurs du mal were famously censored by the Ministry of the Interior, Public Safety division, a condition that held for nearly a century in France; Goethe's Divan was cited in certain quarters as evidence that the seventy-year-old had at last gone senile, a response only somewhat less outraged than at the publication just a few years before of his adulterous, partner-swapping novel Wahlverwandtschafien [Elective Affinities]. Bidney's commentary poems deserve the point that criticism is not only possible in verse but may be, for its closer proximity to the poetic world of the original, equally, if differently, penetrating than the more familiar literary criticism in prose.

Finally, however, the feature that may be most welcomed by students and scholars alike is Bidney's translation--with the collaboration of the late Peter Anton yon Arnim, an Arabic-speaking German journalist with deep appreciation of Islamic thought and culture, and editor of Katharina Mommsen's Goethe und der Islam (2001)--of the "Noten und Abhandlungen" (as "Notes and Essays") that Goethe published together with the poems themselves. Astonishingly, this is their first translation ever into English. The reason they were never before translated is doubdess because they were assumed to be simply explanatory notes (and they are that, in part), and therefore presumably dispensable. Over the past decade or so, however, they have been radically reinterpreted as belonging inherently to a unified verse/prose project. Goethe himself said as much in his introduction to the "Notes and Essays," but traditional genre expectations blocked their proper reception until the advent of intermedial aesthetics. Far beyond consisting of neutral factual annotations of what lies "behind" the poems, the sixty chapters (more than 100 pages in length) that constitute the "Notes and Essays" are not only worthy of critical consideration on their own literary merit; they also demonstrate Goethe intensely at work, in scholarly and personal engagement, with questions of comparative religion, culture, language, and literature. In short, here we see Goethe, already in 1819, involved in the discourse and practice of Weltliteratur, a concept for which he himself is notably credited, but nearly a decade in advance of his actually using it as a terminus technicus.

Bidney's scholarly translation-edition of Goethe's complete prosimetric Divan makes it at last recommendable to all students and teachers of comparative literature, religion, history, and culture. Its appearance is particularly timely in a world teetering once again between fanaticism and reason.

Max Reinhart

University of Georgia
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Author:Reinhart, Max
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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