Platen's retreat: on the poetics and ethics of memorizing ballads.
Likening the flow of poetic language to that of water seems to be as old as thought about poetry itself. The ancients variously understood the flow of the voice, poetic prosody, and the flow of poetic inspiration to be like the course of a river. Virgil's third Eclogue ends with an exhortation to "claudite iam rivos, pueri; sat prata biberunt" ("close the floodgates, boys; the meadows have drunk enough"; 50 (1))--the canal locks must be closed lest poetry's endless stream inundate already sated fields. Dante in turn greets his Virgil at the outset of the Inferno as "quel Virgilio e quella fonte che spandi di parlar si largo fiume" ("that Virgil, that fountain which spreads forth so broad a river of speech"; 30, 31). The Cyrenean poet Callimachus (second century BC) extended the likeness even further than Virgil : he compared baggy epics to huge rivers heavy with sediments, while good poetry was a short clear stream still close to its spring (Jones 55). In Roman thought what Cicero termed the flumen orationis ("river of speech") or flumen verborum ("river of words"; 316) was becoming so commonplace that it barely functioned as a metaphor anymore--it simply became another word for oration (Van Hook 12). In the eighteenth century, Batteux's Principes de la litterature similarly opined that "tout discours est un ruisseau qui coule" ("all discourse is a flowing stream"; 5: 102). The hermeneut's job consisted to some extent in arresting that implacable flow, ushering it into new channels, straightening out its meanders and plumbing the depths "beneath" the undulations. Quintilian, in his Institutio Oratoria (ca. 95 AD), suggested that "channeling" the imposing flow of rhetorical discourse in rivos facilitates "crossing" that flow ("qualibet transitum praebent"), that is, comprehending the text (5.13.13).
This article explores one particular poet and one particular poem obsessed both with the implacable flow of poetry, and what it means to get to its bottom. The poem belongs to a genre that, from the moment it rose to prominence at the beginning of the nineteenth century, placed great emphasis on the "river that flows"--the ballad. August von Platen (1796-1835), one of the masters of the genre, hot only seized the metaphor of the river-like flow of poetry, but understood the poetic effects of this metaphor as an important benchmark for the fate of poetry in the modern age. For Platen the ballad's emphasis on flow in the wake of Burger's Lenore proved "die Moglichkeit einer melodischen Wirkung der deutschen Sprache" (10:123). The fact that the ballad managed to recreate the melodious effects of classical form in a modern vernacular vouched for the very possibility of harmonizing classical and autochthonous forms of poetry. Platen himself turned to the semantic field of water whenever he outlined his requirements for poetic language. In a note in his diary recording the composition of a poem, Platen expresses the hope "dass die Hexameter, und besonders die Pentameter fliessend und ohne fehl sein sollten" (Tagebucher 2: 53). In a short epigram entitled "Gerechte Rache," he describes how "seine Hexameter wogen," and how his "mannlicher Geist," in an allusion to the primordial waters of Genesis, "auf dem Pentameter schwebt!" (4: 203).
Even in the context of a genre whose meter strove for a "melodische Wirkung," however, Platen's "Das Grab im Busento," written in 1820, stands out, since it deals so explicitly with a flowing river and its poetic powers. The poem imitates the flow of the river Busento, utilizes the river metaphor to describe its own sonorities, and makes the river its real protagonist. What is more, its imitative flow gave the poem a peculiar afterlife: "Das Grab im Busento" quickly became one of the most frequently memorized poems of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, drilled into the heads of Gymnasiasten throughout the Kaiserreich and beyond. It is a poem about the transmission of historical memory intended to be itself readily memorized, that is to say to participate in this process of transmission. But the historical memory contained in the poem turns out to be more complicated than those imperial pedagogues who made their students memorize it might have thought--and sois what the poem thinks we transmit through its memorization. Nineteenth-century pedagogy often opposed memorizing a poem's flow and analyzing it. Platen's "Grab im Busento" draws on this opposition, but plays off those "melodious effects" that invite us to tarry with the poem's surface against those other effects that draw us into its depths. Platen's ballad both describes and performs a poetic burial, in which the poem's one solid object, the king's dead body, is dissolved into the literal flumen and the metaphoric flumen cantionis:
Nachtlich am Busento lispeln, bey Cosenza, dumpfe Lieder, Aus den Wassern schallt es Antwort, und in Wirbeln klingt es wieder! Und den Fluss hinauf, hinunter, zieh'n die Schatten tapfrer Gothen, Die den Alarich beweinen, ihres Volkes besten Todten. Allzufruh und fern der Heimath mulsten hier sie ihn begraben, Wahrend noch die Jugendlocken seine Schulter blond umgaben. Und am Ufer des Busento reihten sie sich um die Wette, Um die Stromung abzuleiten, gruben sie ein frisches Bette. In der wogenleeren Hohlung wuhlten sie empor die Erde, Senkten tief hinein den Leichnam, mit der Rustung, auf dem Pferde. Deckten dann mit Erde wieder ihn und seine stolze Habe, Dass die hohen Stromgewachse wuchsen aus dem Heldengrabe. Abgelenkt zum zweyten Male, ward der Fluss herbeygezogen: Machtig in ihr altes Bette schaumten die Busentowogen. Und es sang ein Chor von Mannern: Schlaf' in deinen Heldenehren! Keines Romers schnode Habsucht soil dir je dein Grab versehren! Sangen's, und die Lobgesange tonten fort im Gothenheere; Walze sie, Busentowelle, walze sie von Meer zu Meere! (1: 28)
Platen's poem closes by linking two kinds of flow: that of the river and that of the Gothic song, which corresponds to that of the poem itself. It is the story of a watery burial told in a limpid cadence clearly evocative of the river Busento itself. Nary a nineteenth-century discussion of the poem fails to dwell on the poem's "fast liedartig" cadences, which "streifen so sehr an die Musik an, dass sie auch komponiert sind" (Bartel 434). But, when it comes to the poem as well as to the song it depicts, melodic flow is a means to an end: the nineteenth century understood the rhythm of the ballad form as a way of orally transmitting cultural and historical memory. For the writer Willibald Alexis (1798-1871), the ballad preserved a function that had attached to poetic rhythm at the beginnings of human culture: "rhythmische Satze und Verse, welche das Andenken der Vorzeit oder einer in derselben aufgefundenen Wahrheit erhalten sollten" (11). This is a function that "Das Grab im Busento" invokes explicitly by making the "Busentowelle" an extension of the Goths' "Lobgesange." The poem both relies on a propulsive cadence and reflects what the flow of "Busentowelle" and "Lobgesang" might accomplish--namely, to carry forth memory, but also to hide from memory.
"Das Grab im Busento" deals with two moments of remembrance, which are diametrically opposed in their particular parameters. There are, for one, the "Lobgesange," to some extent identical with the ballad itself and explicitly likened to the Busento's waters. The "Busentowelle" is to carry the song from ocean to ocean; the melodious flow of water and song ensures the transmission of the memory of King Alarich and his early end. If the first moment of memorization comments on the poem's form, the second moment of memorization is central to the poem's plot: the burial of Alarich itself. Here the Goths make their king deliberately unavailable to memory, remove him from the world of memorialization, and do so yet again by the flow of the river. The Busento's waves (and the poem that mimics their flow) are both a means of spreading memory, and of making a thing unavailable for recovery, for memory. The poem tells the story of this unavailability, and thus stages the concealment of the beloved body, as an object of both poetic reflection and desire. This it does almost by necessity, since the boy king, young and beautiful, is the only concrete person the poem ever presents us with--otherwise, the poem's cast of characters consists of whispering waves, shadowy Goths, and their echoing song. Among these impersonal, disembodied, and diffuse folk, the king's dead body is starkly concrete, the most "real" character the reader encounters in the poem. Add to this the fact that Platen makes his Alarich much younger than his historical counterpart and gives us intimations of his physical beauty, and the dead boy king casts a disturbing allure over the poem's otherwise shadowy proceedings. We are to understand the song as but an ersatz for a now-invisible body, a body we are asked to understand as a potential object of our desire.
The strange double position occupied by the poem's flow, the way it makes visible and conceals, removes from language and brings into language, speaks to the contradictions of the ballad form itself. It is likely that Platen burdens his poem in this way to test and interrogate a form that was, at the time he wrote "Das Grab im Busento," increasingly becoming the primary way in which Germans experienced and received poetry. "Das Grab im Busento" plays with the opposition of transmission and concealment, passive reception and critical dissection when it comes to both the king buried underneath the river Busento and the ballad that tells his story. Passive surrender to cadence and flow, and its opposite, hermeneutic intervention, were central terms in the ballad's meteoric career in the nineteenth century more generally, and Platen's poem is in dialogue with the ideology that would crucially inform that career.
Memory and the Ballad Form
When Goethe posited the ballad form as the "lebendiges Urei" of all the elements of poetics, he also suggested that this kind of poem "nur bebrutet werden darf," rather than, say, cracked open (Goethe 432). If the ballad was a more fully integrated poetic form, an archaic throwback to a time before poesy split into "drei Grundarten," its unity rendered it at once more robust and more fragile than those "Arten" that descended from it. Its unity testified to its secure anchorage in the everyday life of the Volk (Goethe locates it among the "Sanger" of a preliterate culture), but at the same time rendered it highly vulnerable to dissection--it is poetry that tolerates only gentle "bebruten."
Nineteenth century nationalism's preference for instinctual and unspoken community over Gesellschaft, which required mediation or interpretation in order to communicate, quickly claimed the ballad form for itself. One was not supposed to bring too much critical force to bear on these poems (to channel their waters, to speak with Quintilian), and there wasn't much to be gained by it if one did. There is something in the sonic and narrative organization of ballads that ensures that these poems don't require interpretation, and, indeed, they are not conducive to interpretation.
The immediacy that supposedly characterized the transmission of balladry was seen to derive in no small part from the form's tendency towards straightforward rhythm, cadence, and rhyme. When Platen insisted on the "melodische Wirkung" of the ballad, the historical dimensions of melody extended beyond the possibility of recuperating (antique) totality under modern circumstances, and to the preservation of oral forms in literary culture. Samuel Taylor Coleridge encapsulated the Romantics' sense of the ballad's relationship to orality when he wrote that "before the introduction of writing, metre [...] possessed an independent value as assisting the recollection, and consequently the preservation, of any series of truths or incidents" (69-70). But it was not meter alone that imbued the ballad with its "value as assisting the recollection." When the first German ballads arrived on the British Isles, audiences were "electrified," according to Walter Scott, because the translations "boldly copied the imitative harmony of the German" (564), which they similarly understood as markers of the form's origin in oral traditions. The German ballad of that era trafficked almost obsessively in "imitative harmony": galloping horses, whispering brooks, howling winds--they all were lovingly encoded into the rhyme scheme, the rhythm and the cadence of the individual stanzas.
As Coleridge's remark makes clear, the ballad's imitative cadence was informed not just by a particular poetics, but also by a theory of cultural memory and its transmission. Unlike meter, which in modern vernacular languages often required going against both the grain of everyday language and its onomatopoetic power, "melody" or "imitative harmony" was immediately accessible. Pace Quintilian no one had to reroute their flow into canals in order to understand these poems--anyone could hear Wilhelm's horse galloping through Lenore, or the slinking of the bucket-wielding broomsticks in Der Zauberlehrling, or the whispering flow of the Busento in Platen's poem. Like the fairy tale, the Lied, and Wagnerian Stabreim, the ballad was supposed to have risen from a deep wellspring of Germanic authenticity rather than the persnickety rulebooks of classicist aesthetics. For Coleridge, Alexis, and Platen, the highly memorable flow of the ballad constituted a relic of a time when ballads were passed along orally, or were in turn used to pass along news, folklore and history--"Geschichte und Poesie waren uranfanglich eins; erst mit der Ausbreitung der Schrift trennten sich beide" (Alexis 11). The speaker's memorization of the poetic flow was identical with the "recollection, and consequently the preservation," of the events recounted in it. The fact that its "imitative harmonies" allowed the ballad to be easily memorized and transmitted thus amounted to an "orality effect" that convinced readers that the form had once been an organic part of everyday life, of the history of the Volk and of popular culture (see McLane).
But even as its authenticity was fetishized, the ballad's link with the Volk was always ambivalent. After all, the Kunstballade was meant to at least partially divest itself from the mnemonic aspects of the Volksballade (its ease on ear and mouth); it was meant, to some extent, to resist easy memorization. It is rather ironic that it was mostly Kunstballaden that wound up furnishing the objects of memorization for generations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germans. This irony finds its expression in a telling anecdote Freud relates at the outset of his Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens (1907). After debating with "ein jungerer Kollege" about the forgetting of poems, the colleague volunteers to have himself tested. "Er wahlte 'Die Braut von Korinth,' welches Gedicht er sehr liebe und wenigstens strophenweise auswendig zu konnen glaube" (Freud 15). The first stanza goes off without a hitch, Freud reports. But by the beginning of the second stanza the young colleague gets into trouble. Freud compares the text his friend recites with the actual text of Goethe's poem and the two differ as follows. The young colleague recites the following stanza:
Aber wird er auch willkommen scheinen, Jetzt, wo jeder Tag was Neues bringt? Denn er ist noch Heide mit den Seinen Und sie sind Christen und--getauft.
The actual stanza reads:
Aber wird er auch willkommen scheinen, Wenn er teuer nicht die Gunst erkauft? Er ist noch ein Heide mit den Seinen, Und sie sind schon Christen und getauft.
The trouble Freud's "young colleague" runs into while trying to recall the stanza's second line ought to be familiar to anyone who has struggled to recite a poem memorized years ago. It is clear that the colleague still remembers the original line's cadence, namely that it was a question; he also gets the overall rhythm and line length right (for instance substituting the stress-unstress sequence of "jeder" for "teuer"), though he disrupts the poem's actual (and rather complicated) meter. Most centrally, however, although he has already successfully recited the poem's first stanza, he supplies a line that does not follow the original's rhyme scheme, one of the few uncomplicated aspects of Goethe's "Braut von Korinth." The two psychoanalysts decide that the interpolated rhyme pertains to the young colleague's preoccupation with professional rejection, which led him to repress the line in which the Jungling is forced to "teuer" "die Gunst erkauf[en]."
The most interesting meta-theoretical aspect of Freud's investigation of memorization in this passage is that he and his young colleague treat Goethe's rather idiosyncratic poem as a constant rather than a variable. They are interested in the external material the young colleague supplied, rather than in the way that that supplied material ran afoul of Goethe's text, where it was inserted, and how it fits with the larger poem. In pursuing a "Psychopathologie" of our mental operations, Freud and his colleague are concerned with how the human unconscious can influence recall; that such recall will also depend on its object is naturally of lesser interest to them. But the object of recall is particularly remarkable in this case--the young colleague picks hot just any arbitrary object for his recitation test, but a highly peculiar one: "Die Braut von Korinth" is a uniquely hard poem to memorize. Goethe's ballad is set in classical Greece, even though it utilizes its classical setting to tell a profoundly Gothic tale (Williams 107). This generic doubleness renders the poem's form similarly complex: the meter is highly varied, mixing pentameter, tetrameter, and adding lines in trochaic trimeter, giving the poem a vaguely classical cadence, and one exceedingly rare for a ballad. The rhyme scheme follows up the traditional ABAB stanza with an uncanny appendage in the shape of three more lines (ABABCCB). Goethe also tends to maintain each line as a semantic unit, such that each line introduces new information at least semi-independent of the information in the previous one.
The result is a poem starkly removed from the sing-songy catchiness of most (if by no means all) ballads of the era. More to the point: far from a parapraxis, the young colleague's misremembering is actually an entirely appropriate way of engaging with Goethe's poem. We are not meant to memorize "Die Braut von Korinth"--doing so does not bring out something intrinsic in the ballad, but rather ignores resistances that are very much the poem's own. Memorizing ballads was a prime form of interacting with this part of the canon (to the point that Freud's colleague naturally turns to a ballad to test his memory rather than, say, to a soliloquy), but the canon was not always or not entirely amenable to this kind of appropriation. The possibility of memorization was both anchored deep in the ideology of the ballad form, but insofar as the Kunstballade sought to divest itself from popular sources, it also had to take a more nuanced position vis-a-vis the possibility of memorization.
As a poet anxious to mediate classical meter and a Romantic emphasis on the nation, Platen was uniquely aware of this tension at the heart of the Kunstballade. In an early text he heaped scorn on the "frisierte Vaterlandssanger" for their pretensions to a new orality. "Jene alten Barden Teutonias, denen ihr nachstreben wollt, besangen die Schlachten und Siege ihrer Helden," but uncritically resurrecting their craft resulted only in ridiculousness--the moderns may still produce ballads, "aber es ist keine Braut von Korinth" (11: 118). "Das Grab im Busento," by contrast, seeks to synthesize the metric sophistication of "Braut von Korinth" with the mnemonic ease of the "old bards" that others attempted to emulate so poorly. The poem employs a highly regular trochaic tetrameter, a classical meter that Platen imported into German with a skill unmatched by others. At the same time, the poem relies heavily on Scott's "imitative harmony," and it is, unlike "Die Braut von Korinth," an exceedingly easy poem to memorize. It thus seeks to harmonize those elements in the ballad form that solicit memorization and those that frustrate it. And the poem's ending at once celebrates the memorializing function of the ballad and its potential for stymieing such memorialization. Platen was well versed in the subject: that the "wogen" of his meters made his poems easy fodder for memorization was something that Platen fully realized, but he was also himself passionately devoted to appropriating the poetry of others in this way. He resolves in his diaries in 1818 "in jeder Sprache, die ich verstehe, zwei poetische Stucke auswendig zu lernen und sie stets zu repetieren"--starting with Hamlet's famous soliloquy (Tagebucher 2: 130). Indeed, this is how he seems to have internalized Hafis's poetry, especially the Ghazals (Tagebucher 2: 461). If "Das Grab im Busento" is extremely solicitous of the powers of human memory, that solicitousness was something the poet very much intended. Indeed, it appears that he was acutely aware of memorization's ideological charge. Platen's poem invites its reader to let the waves carry him, and insists that letting oneself be carried means abnegating a certain kind of understanding.
Memorization became if anything a more dominant a way of appropriating the canon in the decades after Platen's death. The memorization of poetry attained particular importance in the pedagogy of the German Empire, and when it came to poetry the stock repertoire was actually quite limited (Luke 364). The Domgymnasium in Naumburg an der Saale, for instance, whose headmaster Prof. Dr. Albracht provided parents with an exhaustive Ubersicht uber die absolvierten Pensen for Easter 1893, gives us a glimpse of the poems the Gymnasiasten of the fin-de-siecle were expected to have under their belt. "Auswendig gelernt sind," Prof. Dr. Albracht begins, and lists about twenty poems--only one of them, Friedrich Schiller's Siegesfest, is not a ballad (Jahresbericht). If teachers, headmasters and imperial functionaries had a clear preference for ballads, they further favored ballads either staged in a classical setting (Schiller's "Kraniche des Ibykus" and "Die Burgschaft") or those that retold historical events. Psychological ballads (like those of Annette von Droste-Hulshoff), ballads in fairy tale settings, or gothic ballads were entirely missing--and while Freud's young colleague dutifully turns to Goethe when he decides to test his memorizing mettle, the German Empire's charges were primarily treated to Schiller ballads, while those of his famous friend were almost entirely absent.
What did Prof. Dr. Albracht and his teachers hope to gain through this memorization? The terms in which nineteenth-century pedagogy tended to understand memorization mirror those that "Das Grab im Busento" deploys with respect to its "main character" Alarich and his memory. Prime among these is a supposition that informs childhood education to this very day: memory was passive, while understanding was active, and rote memorization did nothing to aid understanding, as children were drilled to repeat sequences of German, Latin, Greek, and chemical or binomial formulae with little or no insight as to what they signified. The defenders of memorization seem to have reasoned similarly, but insisted that in some cases understanding a poem was simply not as important as knowing it by heart. They attributed value to the mere Uberlieferung of information, absent any serious hermeneutic intent. Truly grasping Uberlieferungen did not require trying to understand them, but rather surrendering to the meanings they supposedly carried independent of critical intervention.
This exact case was made by the conservative pedagogue Karl Georg von Raumer (1783-1865) in the 1840s; the way he made it also points to the provenance of this manner of legitimating memorization, namely the liturgical role of memorization and knowing by heart. I f we shouldn't make children memorize something that they hadn't fully grasped before, Raumer argued,
so durften [wir] freilich weder den kleinen iutherischen Katechismus noch Bibelspruche und geistliche Lieder auswendig lernen. Wir haben es hier grossentheils mit Geheimissen des Glaubens zu thun, welche der Verstand des lingsten Menschenlebens nicht ergruindet. [...] Es ist eine eben so gutige als weise Einrichtung unsres treuen Gottes, dass er uns im Gedachtnis eine geistige Vorrathskammer verlieh, in welcher wir Samenkorner fur die Zukunft aufbewahren konnen. (34)
Understanding might one day follow from memorization, but it did not have to precede memorization.
Other conservative education scholars even suggested that understanding was actually detrimental to memorization, and that what we would today call a "close reading" of a poem should be avoided, if students were to successfully commit a poem to memory. In his book on the craft of teaching, Albrecht Goerth, headmaster of the higher and middle girls' school in Insterburg, East Prussia, recommends having children memorize poems "in guter Auswahl und recht grosser Anzahl," but suggests "den Inhalt gar nicht zu besprechen" (78). To some extent this came with the territory: often enough young people were simply given the assignment to memorize "a poem" from a particular selection and many such poems likely went undiscussed in the classroom. Insofar as discussing the poetry before recitation was necessary at all, it should be limited only to "Wort- und Sacherklarungen, die Metaphern inbegriffen," and leave aside "alles unnutze Klugeln, namentlich jede moralische Nutzanwendung" (78). This sort of rationale, as much as a young nation's obsession with imagining its own history, seems to have stood behind the preference given to historic ballads often dealing with heroic individuals--they were widely regarded as unambiguous, straightforward narratives and clear moral lessons, thus requiring no Klugeln before thirty-five tenth-graders were set loose on them.
While this manner of proceeding would likely provoke apoplexy in American readers reared on generations of close reading in its various historic guises, Goerth's understanding of these poems to some extent followed their self-understanding as outlined above. In the specific case of "Das Grab im Busento," Karl Storck's late nineteenth-century Deutsche Literaturgeschichte, described the poem's formal construction as "einfacher und deshalb auch volkstumlicher" (358). It was a ballad's proximity to oral Volkstum that made it intuitively comprehensible and easy to remember. Ballads were conceived as imitations of popular styles that were less aesthetic products in their own right than vehicles of transmission for news, history, and moral lessons. Just as a listener on a medieval marketplace, or around a highland hearth, was supposed to glean the popular ballad's meaning without intervention on the bard's part, so teacher Goerth provided his charges with a treasure trove of oral history, which they could commit to memory and meditate on at their own leisure. Platen similarly linked memorization and authentic German culture: "Kommt, ihr Knaben, schuttelt den Schulstaub von euch, und lernt statt romischer Vokabeln das Gedicht eurer Vater auswendig!" To repeat the "Gedicht eurer Vater" inside (Platen was referring specifically to the Nibelungenlied) meant to re-hear what the ancient Germans heard around the campfire, to return Germanic orality to the modern age: "Wir wollen lauschen jenen herrlichen Thaten, denen das Ohr unsrer Vater lauschte!" (11: 155).
As we saw, the ease with which the ballad could circulate and be memorized constituted, for Platen as for Goerth, a return to oral tradition. Children didn't need to know much about the time in which the ballad was set, or about the form's historic or generic antecedents--all they needed to do was follow the ballad's mellifluous cadences, which would lead them to the origins of their nation and Volk. Ballads were a form that had sprung spontaneously from the Volk, and could be just as spontaneously grasped. Because its undulating cadence made for easy memorization on a practical level, and suggested that it spoke of and from the very origins of German nationhood and literature on an ideological level, "Das Grab im Busento" became a veritable mainstay in the era's classrooms. When Goerth singles out Platen's poem as particularly well-suited for memorization, he picks up both on its poetic simplicity and on the fact that it functions well without previous introduction: "Da ist nur zu erklaren, resp. zu wiederholen, wer Alarich war, und wie er mit seinem Gotenheere nach Cosenza in Suditalien gekommen" (78). Goerth's opinion that Platen's ballad required little explanation seems to rest on more than just the poem's straightforward construction and plot, and ultimately on its ease on voice and memory.
While Goerth's pedagogical assessment postdates Platen's poem by nearly a century, Platen was aware of the fact that the ideology of memorization distinguished between repetition and understanding, and that it tended to favor simple revocalization over the attempt to approach national poetry through Klugeln. This was a fact the poet seems to have confronted with some ambivalence: again and again, he noted in his diaries when he met someone who had memorized several or even many of his poems, sometimes as a sign that that someone appreciated his genius, sometimes with a tinge of annoyance. In 1834 his friend Fugger introduced the poet to a general's wife in Munich, "eine Dame, die aile meine Gedichte auswendig zu wissen scheint und sich unaufhorlich mit denselben beschaftigt. Von meinen ubrigen Werken schien sie keine Notiz zu nehmen" (Tagebucher 2: 955). Here, then, the poet treats memorization as a replacement for "real" engagement with the poet's work--it is "Beschaftigung," rote and devoid of comprehension. While "Das Grab im Busento" turns the ballad's attempt at a restitution of oral tradition into its central plot point, that plot suggests something else as well: the river carries the song of Alarich, but it also hides the physical Alarich beneath its waves.
Memory and Concealment
For the nineteenth-century readers of "Das Grab im Busento" there seems to have been nothing hidden underneath the poem's implacable phonetic stream, but when Friedrich Gundolf lauded Platen's "Wohllaut und Wortwahl" (78), he and his coreligionists in the George-circle must have been aware that the very placidity of the waters masked hidden compartments in the depths. The poem's story tells us as much, staging a scene of disappearance, erasing even the traces of that scene, and then working to get the reader to doubt whether there ever really was such a scene: the Goths bury their leader and reroute the river over his grave to preserve his memory and his legend from the meddlesome "Romans" who might exhume and desecrate him. The "Busentowelle" invoked at the poem's close is thus as much about the passing-on of memory as it is about its dispersal. At the same time, the ballad's plot undercuts the idea that one could fully entrust oneself to the ballad's flow in a way that would bypass the need for interpretation. The poem's final line may exhort its reader to tarry with the flow of the waves, to follow them out to sea, but the ballad's plot tells us that this is to some extent a piece of misdirection from the beautiful king in shining armor buried beneath its flow.
Platen's prosodic choice, a trochaic tetrameter, is both essential to that misdirection, and represents a tipping of the poet's hand. As indicated above, a trochaic tetrameter is a rather counterintuitive meter for a ballad, precisely because its regularity can be inanimate and unsettling. Classical trochaic tetrameter, unlike its German form, which since Gottsched had been a heroic meter, was a comedic one instead. The Greeks had turned to this meter for humor, because they regarded its uniform flow as slightly ridiculous. It was also usually a choral meter, and not surprisingly did not seem to lend itself to the fantasy subtending all Romantic ballads, that of a lone skaldic bard singing to a rapt audience. While most of the great ballads of the nineteenth century provided the basis for any number of musical settings for one singer, most of the song settings of Platen's poem were not set for single voice, but choral arrangements, most prominent among them a setting for men's chorus by Johann Baptist Zerlett (1859-1935).
For Platen, the trochaic tetrameter's extreme evenness seems to ally the implacable churning of the poetic rhythm with the flow of the water itself. This equation is both a matter of Scott's "imitative harmony" and a matter more metaphysical. The poem's final image, of the river's waves carrying the sound of the Visigoth's song, suggests that the king's memory survives not in the shape of a statue, a marked grave or a body, but rather in rippling and dissipating waves. The poem is just as depersonalized and disembodied as the young king's memory. Similarly, the traditionally choral implications of trochaic tetrameter serve to disperse and render less concrete the vocality of the poem. The "song" the poem allies itself with is thus explicitly placed on the side of the concealing flow, the poem's single concrete "object," the king's dead body, is successfully hidden by the end. The ballad's meter is both distractingly perfect and emphatically inanimate; it, too, tells the story of a concealment and dispersal--there once was a singular subjectivity, an individual body here, but it has been hidden and dissolved.
Why would Platen's poem both perform and tell the story of this misdirection? Platen wrote "Das Grab im Busento" in Erlangen, "une petite ville assez pitoyable" ("a small, rather pitiful town") where he had moved from Wurzburg in October of 1819 and where he round himself "sans amis, sans aucune connaissance, tout-a-fait abandonne" ("without friends, without any acquaintances, totally abandoned"; Tagebucher 2: 329). The reason for his relocation was a compromising love letter he had sent to a fellow student at Wurzburg, Eduard Schmidtlein. The object of his affections had recoiled from Platen's "schimpfliche Schreiben," and had added "dass ein jeder so tun musste, der diesen Ausfluss grasslicher Verdorbenheit lesen wurde" (cited in Detering 101). This phrase seems to have made Platen fear that Schmidtlein might make the letter public. His "exile" in the "ville assez pitoyable" was thus a move to conceal his "Verdorbenheit," to cover, protect, and keep private his personal life. Not long after Platen's arrival in Erlangen another budding relationship (with Hermann Freiherr von Rotenhan) foundered on the shoals of this "Verdorbenheit," an experience that led to Platen's writing of "Das Grab im Busento."
Platen's first journal entry from Ansbach on March 28, 1819, recounts the following episode: the moment he arrived in Ansbach, Platen sent a letter to Schmidtlein (whom he calls "Adrast" in his diaries [see Mucke]), justifying himself and bitterly protesting Schmidtlein's treatment of him. Rather certain that the other man would refuse to accept the letter, or read it if he did, Platen memorized the content of his letter and reproduced it in full in his diary. Even if Schmidtlein were to read it, Platen requested that he make the missive disappear: "Ich habe ein Recht, Sie zu bitten, dass Sie den Brief, den Sie vielleicht nicht einmal beantworten werden, verbrennen, sobald Sie ihn lasen" (Tagebucher 2: 238). Memorization thus becomes the only trace of a text that has to disappear; only the passivity of memory can safeguard the scandal that, were it to remain a physical letter, might yet be exposed to the cruel light of analysis. Schmidtlein seems to have obliged and until Platen's diaries were published in the early 20th century, the words of the letter were lost to history. Safekeeping and memory, intrusion and interpretive disturbance--these were the overriding themes of "Das Grab im Busento"; and for the Platen of the early 1820s, they seem to have had to do with matters of privacy and sexuality.
Few recent analyses of the poem have proceeded without remarking on the irony that its reception diverged so thoroughly from the situation that gave rise to it. As Germany's national and imperial project consolidated in the course of the nineteenth century, Platen's cry of lament was increasingly understood as a historical ballad extolling Germanic Kameradschaft and self-sacrifice against the pettiness of the "Romans" of the world. In this transformed understanding the poem became one among many novels, poems, and quasi-scholarly treatises that sought to understand Germany's new national role and mission by telling stories of noble Germanic tribesmen and the decadent Romans they overran. If the stock repertoire of ballads usually memorized consisted of long history-poems describing historical, preferably medieval scenes, heavy on pomp and action and light on psychology, it is perhaps not surprising that the origin of "Das Grab im Busento" as a poem of love and loss came to slide out of view in such company. Often the Lehrplane of the Second Empire place the poem not in the German classroom, but rather in history lessons, almost as a primary document of ancient Germanic tribal customs and burial practices. While the poem's martial reinterpretation became canonic, Platen's homosexuality, spelled out for all to read in Heinrich Heine's infamous attacks on the poet, was universally ignored in the Kaiserreich and after. Even after Platen's diaries and letters were published in the early 1900s and 1910s, at which point the biographical basis for many of the famous historical poems should have been evident, Platen scholarship danced around the issue for another half-century.
By that point, however, there emerged the opposite tendency: to understand Platen almost entirely in light of the highly revealing letters and diaries, and the poems as almost direct abreactions of the poet's inner torment as evidenced in those letters and diaries. They saw Platen as essentially at the mercy of homoerotic impulses, which he sought (unsuccessfully) to repress or sublimate in his poetry. Hubert Fichte, in a seminal essay on Platen, wrote that the poet "musste sich [...] nicht nur mit der Transfiguration von Natur in Kunst herumschlagen, sondern mit der Transfiguration von verachteter Natur" (36). But at least in the case of "Das Grab im Busento," Platen disturbs not with involuntary insights into the failed sublimation of "verachteter" desire, but rather with an almost teasing alteration between disclosure and concealment that Heinrich Detering characterized as "das offene Geheimnis" (79). In Platen's case this "open secret" is perhaps more open than in others: the poem's historical garb is both chosen carefully enough to license the decades of misreading the poem received, and pulled away sufficiently to give the reader (or memorizing student) a glimpse into an elusive and fragile nugget buried under the poem's sparkling, efficient flow.
Paradigmatically, Peter Bumm, Platen's most recent biographer, calls the reception of "Das Grab im Busento" a "Missverstandnis": "eine historisch verkleidete Liebesklage erschien dem Publikum als dichterischer Beitrag zum deutschen Nationalismus" (232). While Bumm is certainly right that the nationalistic reading that made "Das Grab im Busento" a perennial favorite of the Lesebucher of the German Empire requires exquisite critical blinders, turning "Grab" into a historical ballad is not exactly a misunderstanding. This is not just a poem that is "historisch verkleidet," as Bumm would have it, it is also a poem about history, about the transmission of knowledge and remembrance--hardly something that is true for most love poems. And yet "Das Grab im Busento" is precisely that, a history poem about desire and a love poem about historical memory. Given this unusual mixture, cast in a form as explicitly popular as the ballad, it is little wonder that "Das Grab im Busento" was easily and frequently misinterpreted. By embedding and encoding the personal within the historical, and then turning encoding and embedding into historical indices, Platen both seduces the reader into misinterpretation and then reminds him of the fact that he is missing something.
What Bumm and others discount is that the poem's strange double career has its origin in the text itself and is in many ways solicited by it: the way in which "Das Grab im Busento" dissolves its one recognizable object into an ever more ethereal ensemble can be read (a la Bumm) as a chillingly lonely and lifeless lament for that lost body, or one can read it as the joyous sacrifice of the individual body to the greater group, as the dead Alarich is dispersed into the "Gothenheer" and its patriotic songs. At the heart of the poem's disappearing act lies a Kippfigur, and those who drafted "Das Grab im Busento" into a project of German chauvinism emphasized (by and large correctly) the same aspects of the poem that most forcefully raise the issue of homoeroticism. Conversely, the dominant nineteenth-century reading, in which the king's body is simply dispersed into the community of mourners, could not readily account for the mournful specificity with which the poem endows Alarich. The insistence that Alarich died "allzu fruh," that he was "fern der Heimat," and that he still had his "Jugendlocken," makes it clear that Alarich matters as more than just a token of a community. There is an individual story, and a profoundly alienated one at that, being buried here by a faceless mob, and the "Heldenehren" of which that mob sings give no account of this part of the individual.
Indeed, while the poem traffics in such seemingly universal Romantic shibboleths as yearning, youth, and exile, Platen's use of these tropes is comparatively specific--this dead boy's youth, his exile and his yearning for Rome do not represent features of human existence as such, they are unique to this individual. In particular, Platen's poem deploys homelessness differently than many Romantics who tended to "transcendentalize" such homelessness. Gundolf claimed that Platen was incapable of "echtes Heimweh" (39) for the world of antiquity (as opposed to Goethe and Holderlin), but Platen's yearning and exile are not signs of generalized nostalgia for an antique plenitude; they instead feed on a quite actual threat of exile and of public scandal. Platen felt "Heimweh" because of the episodes with Schmidtlein and Rotenhan, not on account of metaphysics. From the very beginning, Platen connected his "homelessness" to his homosexuality, well before he was effectively exiled on account of it.
In a sonnet entitled "Es sehnt sich ewig dieser Geist ins Weite" (1826), the poet writes: "Doch wer aus voller Seele hasst das Schlechte, / Auch aus der Heimat wird es ihn verjagen, / Wenn dort verehrt es wird vom Volk der Knechte." In Platen's work, homelessness is almost invariably connected to Vertreibung, to being chased out by a "Volk der Knechte" or the "schnode" Romans of "Das Grab im Busento." Of course, the historic Alaric was chased nowhere, he died in the pursuit of conquest, but Platen's insistence that he died "allzu fruh und fern der Heimat" (though the historic Visigoth king was well near forty by the time he died in Cosenza) seems to integrate him into this narrative of expulsion from the Heimat by the "Volk der Knechte." It is the Romans with their "schnode Habsucht" who drive the Visigoths to bury their leader under the river.
The infamous outing by Heinrich Heine, the so-called "Platen-Affare" that precipitated the poet's semi-voluntary exile from Germany and ultimately delivered him to the same fate as befell Alarich, was still a few years in the future at the time Platen wrote "Das Grab im Busento." Nevertheless, fear of this kind of publicity clearly subtends the poem and its desire to protect a beautiful tragic corpse from the viciousness of a nattering populace. If the poem does bear the traces of such fear, however, they are owed to a very canny game on his part with insight and concealment. By insisting on questions of Heimat and by making Alarich into a boy king of sorts, Platen actively invites the reader to make the connection both to homoeroticism and to the fate its revelation might (and ultimately would) force upon the poet himself.
But while male beauty and its tragic fate are very much on the surface of the poem, it actually tells the story of their submersion. The beautiful boy and his exile are, by the poem's end, at the bottom of the Busento, as the king's loyal servants express their hope that the grave may be "unversehrt." As noted before, the poem mixes its preoccupation with remembrance with terror about the possible violation of the deceased's memory. The story told in "Das Grab im Busento" is primarily one of concealment--not of remembrance but of the disabling of remembrance. Alarich's men honor his memory not by erecting a memorial, but rather seek to insure that no reminder exists, save the one they know to be hidden beneath the waves. Not only do they seek to make Alarich unavailable to memorialization, they seek to prevent his unavailability from being noticed. Alarich is not only handed over to forgetting, his forgetting is in turn forgotten. Not for nothing does their burial method (placing the dead king on his horse and setting both into a hole in the ground) resemble nothing so much as an equestrian statue. Indeed, it seems surprising that the German Kaiserreich, with its well-documented and enduring predilection for equestrian statues did not notice the telling strangeness of building someone a statue underwater.
Another one of Platen's poems, written in February 1820 (Tagebucher 2: 366), and thus immediately after "Das Grab im Busento," plays the same game of concealment in plain sight. Platen begins it by insisting that the poem's addressee (i.e., Rotenhan [Tagebucher 2: 366]) "erforsche mein Geheimnis nie," while drawing all the more attention to the existence of such a secret:
Erforsche mein Geheimnis nie, Du darfst es nicht ergrunden, Es sagte dir's die Sympathie, Wenn wir uns ganz verstunden. (2: 74)
In fact, Platen bases this poem around a very similar dynamic as "Das Grab im Busento": true understanding (of a person, in this case) requires a lack of knowledge. Digging for the "secret" is a sign not just of a lack of sympathy, but a lack of understanding. Sympathy and understanding are matters of concealment, of letting sleeping dogs lie; it is clearly the same desire for sympathetic opacity that lies behind the Visigoths' burial of their beloved leader. But where "Erforsche mein Geheimnis nie" does not specify the medium of this sympathy-inspired opacity, "Das Grab im Busento" makes that medium its main topic--the mellifluous whisper of the river itself.
If the Goths' diversion of the flow is something of a poetic act, it is one performed to prevent what Quintilian characterized as the basic hermeneutic act: channeling and digging. After all, the Goths pursue this forgetting of forgetting in order to ward off diggers: "Keines Romers schnode Habsucht soll dir je das Grab versehren." The Romans threaten to violate Alarich's grave, trying to lay hold of that body and his "stolze Habe"; their "Habsucht" is hermeneutic insofar as it seeks to concretize (into a particular body and its physical accoutrements) a king the poem is seeking to render ethereal. The legend cancels out the physical body and its physical location. Alarich needs to be forgotten lest diggers know where to start shoveling. That the Romer would do what the Goths did--dig another riverbed, re-route the flow, dig down in the "wogenleeren Hohlung"--means that the Goths fear not some unprecedented act on the part of the Romans, but rather the repetition of their own actions. The poem tells us of an act of diverting and channeling language but tells us that that act must not be repeated.
"Das Grab im Busento" thus suggests that this flow, which conceals the beloved body and which is so central to the poem's ethics, is simply the flow of the lyric itself; the poem's way of making-opaque is precisely the beautiful flumen orationis itself. "Erforsche mein Geheimnis nie" hints at something similar at its resolution:
Was um mich ist, errat mich nicht, Und drangt und druckt mich nieder; Doch, such ich Trost mir im Gedicht, Dann find ich ganz mich wieder! (2: 74)
Here, then, the poem simply offers surcease from the coldness and the lack of understanding of the outside world (the "Volk der Knechte"); it is neither a way of communicating the self, nor is it a way of concealing it. "Das Grab im Busento," on the other hand, makes the latter link rather clearly: the flow of poetry, like the flow of water, is a means of enforcing an ethical engagement with a lost object, that is to say one based not on probing or digging, but on a sympathy built on not fully penetrating it.
The effort of channeling and directing the flow of poetic language is thus not a matter of expressing biography, personality, subjectivity, or even just voice, but rather of concealing all of them as much as possible. The "Habsucht" to be thwarted is nothing other than the attempt to exhume biographical or embodied concreteness from its grave beneath the melodic flow of balladic form. "Sympathie," on the terms of the contemporaneous "Erforsche mein Geheimnis nie," means to submit to, or to remain in the thrall of, the pellucid poetic flumen, and not to channel or reroute its waters. If "Das Grab im Busento" stages the dissolution of the solid object of mourning into a potentially infinite poetic flow of mourning song, then the reader is exhorted to forget understanding and to stop probing "underneath" the concreteness of the sonic flow--to memorize in Goerth's sense. We are exhorted, on ethical rather than pragmatic grounds, to read the poem without probing, to memorize its surface flow rather than diverting the flow for purposes of digging. In opposition to Virgil's image of the poem's floodgates having to be closed, lest it pour endlessly, Platen's poem ends with a call for precisely such endless proliferation.
Here, then, the mnemonics of the ballad form are seemingly turned on their head: Rather than aiding memorization and thus memory (as in the idea of a Moritat or Volksballade passed from fairground to marketplace and from town to town), "Das Grab im Busento" seduces its reader into memorization in order to preserve its watery grave from, rather than for memory. This may well be what Freud's discussion of Goethe's "Braut von Korinth" points towards: in the Kunstballade, memorization stands in an almost antagonistic relationship to the poem, it goes against the grain of the poem. Only the failure of memorization reveals the poetic flow's unconscious. That flow, in Platen's case, is alluring and seductive, but it also manages to be unsettling. Platen, like Goethe, chooses a meter that does not exhaust itself in onomatopoeia, but rather draws attention to its artifice--what Gundolf called Platen's false "Heimweh."
Gundolf of course assumes that Platen imitates antique form because he seeks to get back in touch with a kind of plenitude associated with antiquity. But as we have seen, Platen's poem actually relies on a disconnect between modernity and antiquity: it resurrects the antique flumen orationis without regard for the fact that its preconditions are lacking in modernity. This disconnect registers in the rhythm of the poem, which manages at once to be comfortingly flawless and to arouse suspicion by dint of its flawlessness. According to the ideology of the German ballad in the early nineteenth century, the ballad reunited the different lyric arts into the Urei of poetry. "Das Grab im Busento" by contrast showcases the fact that it is partial, that the very perfection of its trochaic flow hides a lack, another dimension that the poem itself has removed beyond recovery, and that nevertheless beckons from beneath the waves of discourse. In this way the generations of memorizing Gymnasiasten did not "misunderstand" the poem, they followed its dynamics and respected the fact that, with Alarich lost, all we have are the waves of the Busento.
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(1) All translations from the German, French, and Latin, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.
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|Title Annotation:||August von Platen|
|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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