Brecht’s Poetry: Angry or Evil?
Your spectator is sitting not only
In your theatre, but also
In the world.
‘I live in dark times,’ Brecht said, but he liked to believe the darkness would end. In the poem containing those words, written in the 1930s, he apologises to ‘those born after’, saying that
Hatred, even of meanness
Makes you ugly.
Anger, even at injustice
Makes your voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the land for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly
‘Could not be friendly’ is a discreet but painful understatement, a too amiable hint at horrors. Dark times mean not only that terrible things happen to the world and to us but also that we have had a hand in the terrible things. In a remarkable late poem Brecht imagines a loved landscape has changed, suddenly let him down. But it hasn’t changed. He has remembered where he is in moral time.
The white poplar, a famous local beauty
Today an old hag. The lake
A bowl of slops, don’t touch it!
The fuchsias among the snapdragon cheap and showy.
Last night in a dream I saw fingers pointing at me
As though at a leper. They were worn by work and
They were broken.
There are things you don’t know! I cried.
Knowing I was guilty
The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine
W.W. Norton, December 2018; 1312 pages
We don’t have to apologise for our times. We can gloat over their darkness, become the pointing fingers. This, I take it, is the implication of a much earlier epigram:
In the dark times
Will there be singing?
There will be singing.
Of the dark times.
Or there could be silence. Brecht covers this ground too.
They will not say: when the nut tree shook in the wind
But rather: it was when the housepainter trampled the workers.
They will not say: when the child skimmed the flat pebble over the rapids
But rather: when the ground was being prepared for great wars.
They will not say: when the woman walked into the room
But rather: when the great powers united against the workers.
But they will not say: the times were dark
But rather: why were their poets silent?
There is something clunky and too correct about the party line here – the house painter was far more ecumenical in his trampling – but the prophecy of the final question is eloquent and looks forward to the title of a Heinrich Böll novel: Where were you, Adam? Where were we when the unfriendliness got out of control?
‘Is there no grace, no credit,’ Brecht writes in a 1921 diary entry, ‘is there no one who does not believe in our sins, who thinks better of us than we ourselves do?’ The answer is probably no, but one implication of the cry is that we might try to be this person for others. Brecht’s plays and poems perform this role with a kind of stealthy splendour. Surely no other writer was ever so patient, funny and astute about human frailty. There is a sort of puzzle here, though, that we need to dispose of. Isn’t he just letting everyone else off the hook so he won’t have to hang there himself? There are moments when this seems to be what is happening. Brecht’s announcement that ‘in me you have someone you cannot count on’ sounds like a blank ethical cheque, an advance abolition of the need for forgiveness. But these moments are remarkably rare. Hannah Arendt says one of Brecht’s ‘great virtues’ was that he ‘never felt sorry for himself – hardly ever was even interested in himself’. The person he called ‘poor B.B.’ feels like a character in one of his plays, and we hear the confessional note only in poems like the one I quoted, about the altered white poplar, and the last but one piece in the Collected Poems:
And I always thought the very simplest words
Would be enough. If I say what is
Every heart will surely be lacerated.
That you will go under if you don’t fight back
Surely you must see that?
It is perhaps worth having Michael Hamburger’s version here, just to hear a slightly different lilt:
And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.
Brecht is attentive to all kinds of weakness and forms of helplessness that he doesn’t have, and the ones he does have tend to make him an expert rather than a hypocrite, the man who will never cast the first stone. We remember too that the cry in the diary was not an address to an individual conscience but a dream of other, kinder minds.
‘The Infanticide Marie Farrar’ tells us that the sentenced woman shows ‘the frailties of all creation’ and the poem’s refrain, repeated nine times with very slight variations, runs: ‘But you, I beg of you, contain your wrath for all/God’s creatures need the help of all.’ The chorale that ends The Threepenny Opera – the music is Kurt Weill’s affectionate parody of Bach – makes the same recommendation: ‘Combat injustice but in moderation.’ In these and many other lines we hear the voice of the Protestant who grew up in a largely Catholic world, and who kept not the faith of his parents but his own form of fidelity to dissent. Brecht always knew how to catch the fakery in religious and social piety, but also knew what a genuine, secularised care for others might look like. ‘Don’t give up on your own kind’, he says; and praises doctors and nurses ‘who/Remember their obligation to those who/Have a human face.’
Brecht was born in Augsburg in 1898 and grew up there. He moved to Berlin in 1924, already something of a celebrity. The huge success of The Threepenny Opera in 1928 was not anticipated by anyone, but was unmistakable. Lotte Lenya, writing later about those days, said ‘Berlin was swept by a Dreigroschenoper fever. In the streets no other tunes were whistled.’ There were other fevers around, though, and in 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire, as Kuhn and Constantine tell us, Brecht and his Jewish wife, Helene Weigel, left Germany. Several years of exile followed, principally in Denmark and the United States, and it is possible that exile didn’t really end when both of them returned to Berlin. Brecht was a devout communist but not much of a party man, and famously mocked the East German government’s response to a 1953 revolt in these terms:
would it not
Be simpler if the government
Dissolved the people and
Elected another one?
And although he regularly defended the workers against all their enemies, his deep sympathy was with a certain kind of heroic disorder, as evoked in the wonderful poem ‘The breaking up of the ship, the Oskawa, by her crew’. The ostensible argument concerns the poor wages of the sailors, but what is shown is their recklessly reprehensible behaviour, the glorious slack they allow themselves. ‘Since the wages were bad’, we read,
We felt the need to drown
Our troubles in alcohol, so
Several cases of champagne found
Their way into the crew’s quarters.
The ship gets lost a few times but finally makes it from Hamburg to Rio. It sets off again with a new cargo (of meat) and the old crew. Negligence causes a fire, the dynamos won’t work, the meat goes bad, the engines are ruined by an inept use of salt water, various attempts at repair fail and the ship limps back to Hamburg – it has to be towed from Holland – and is scrapped. The last words of the poem are
Any child, we thought
Could see that our wages had
Really been too niggardly.
Kuhn and Constantine tell us that ‘less than half of [Brecht’s] output of poems was published by the time of his death in 1956,’ and every description of the opus sounds dizzying. The 1976 selection of translations edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim contains ‘roughly five hundred poems’, while a German collected edition of 1967 has ‘approximately one thousand items’. The new book tells us that the latest complete works includes ‘more than two thousand poems’, of which ‘over twelve hundred’ are translated here.
I don’t know whether these numbers in themselves suggest variety or the possibility of a lot of repetition. Brecht’s style and diction are pretty consistent, witty, idiomatic, often close to ordinary speech, never far from the song or the ballad. The literary forms he uses are very diverse, though, and I’m not sure I can name them all. Among them are narrative poems, lyrical meditations, fables, aphorisms, maxims, instructions, polemics, parodies, satires, handbooks, elegies, songs from plays, sonnet sequences, prose reflections and an imitation of a book of devotions. I was delighted to see in this book a connection I didn’t know Brecht had made: one of the lines from the song celebrating the dark skills of Mack the Knife (‘Is not asked and does not know’, in Eric Bentley’s version) is attached to Göring.
In the house …
Lived a certain Mr Göring
Who knew nothing, or wasn’t asked.
There is a lot of formal travel between a cryptic, slightly self-mocking portrait like this one:
Wandering this way and that
Kept no note of my hither and thither
Don’t know where I left my hat
Nor the previous seven either
and the unprotected sweep of
Everything was beautiful on that sole evening, ma soeur
After it never again and never before –
True: all I was left with then were the great birds
That in the dark sky when evening comes are hungry.
Similarly, it’s good stretch from the quiet anger of this image of support for the Nazis:
Knowledge is cultivated too. Out from the libraries
Step the slaughtermen.
to this intimate evocation of the grief of mothers for their soldier sons:
And the years go by. He is not dead.
He will never die. It is only that he’ll never come back.
A coffee pot stays full and empty a chair.
And they save him a bed and they save him bread
And they pray for him and when they lack
Always they entreat him to come home here.
Haunting narratives include that of the dead soldier who is dug up and sent back to war on the grounds that when recruits are needed death is only a form of malingering, and that of the children’s march in Poland which ends in their disappearance, their only legacy a message tied around a dog’s neck:
Please help us, we are lost.
We can’t find the way anymore.
We are fifty-five, the dog will lead
You to where we are …
The writing was a child’s.
Peasants read it aloud.
That was a year and a half ago.
The dog hungered and died.
Brecht was a great believer in doubt; it was a form of faith for him. But he could be harsh on easy doubters:
Their only action is vacillation.
Their favourite phrase: it’s not yet certain.
So granted, when you praise doubt
Do not praise
The doubt that is despair!
What use is doubting to him
Who cannot make up his mind!
This example leads us to what is perhaps a good place to end these illustrations. Brecht loved the idea of reversible logic, because it leaves the reader or spectator with no option except thinking. In one poem he mentions a shelter for the homeless in New York:
The world is not changed by this …
But a few men have a bed for the night
The next stanza says
A few men have a bed for the night …
But the world is not changed by this
A later poem, this time quoted in full, repeats the move:
Everything changes. You can
Begin anew with your very last breath.
But what has been, has been. And the water
You once poured into the wine, you can
Never drain off again.
What has been, has been. The water
That you poured into the wine, you can
Never drain off again. But
Everything changes. You can
Begin anew with your very last breath.
Kuhn and Constantine rather sniffily say they are not ‘fond of translation theory and leave it to others to describe our practice, as they wish’. Of course any established academic pursuit is fair game for scepticism, but it seems a little defensive to suggest you don’t care how your work is described or couldn’t find any such description interesting. In fact these new versions hold up very well to close study, especially in matters of rhyming, usually the downfall of translators. Where there are questions they concern not correctness or fidelity but intriguing matters of interpretation. One of the tasks of the translator, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, apart from helping us to read texts we couldn’t otherwise approach, is to show what different languages allow their speakers to do with words – and also what those languages do not allow.
A good case arises with Brecht’s short poem ‘The mask of the angry one’, or is it ‘The mask of evil’?
On my wall hangs a Japanese carving
Mask of an angry demon, lacquered in gold.
Feelingly I observe
The swollen veins at his temples, hinting
What a great strain it is to be angry.
Here is what H.R. Hays (1947) has:
On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.
The German text is:
An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk,
Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.
Mitfühlend sehe ich
Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend
Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.
We might say, if we are being theoretical, that ‘feelingly’ is a bit too literal for mitfühlend, which is just the Germanic form of ‘sympathetically’; but that ‘hinting’ gets us closer than ‘indicating’ does to the indirection of the idea. Still, the real point of division (and of this comparison) obviously lies in the word böse, which also appears in the poem’s title. It signifies ‘mean’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘cross’ or ‘evil’, depending on context and intention. When Kafka uses it in his aphorisms (‘Evil is what distracts’; ‘Evil knows about good, but good knows nothing of evil’) ‘evil’ clearly works best, and we can back up this sense with the memory that ‘Der Böse’ is also a name for Satan, the Evil One. The proximity of the word in the poem to ‘demon’ might lead us to prefer Hays’s version. But then with Brecht we may not want the theological dimension of Kafka’s claim, and if we’re in an atheistic mood, we can think he just means ‘very very bad’. In any case, the word certainly also means ‘angry’.
The situation becomes more delicate when Rilke, in the ‘Fourth Duino Elegy’, uses the word to say what he doesn’t understand about the mild manners of children who die young.
Murderers are easy
to understand. But this: that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, can hold it to one’s heart
gently, and not refuse to go on living,
leicht einzusehen. Aber dies: den Tod,
den ganzen Tod, noch vor dem Leben so
sanft zu enthalten und nicht bös zu sein,
For the phrase ‘nicht bös zu sein’ we need something that catches the sulkiness the children don’t have, and the literal ‘not to be angry’ used by C.F. MacIntyre, for example, won’t do the trick. I think Stephen Mitchell’s ‘not refuse to go on living’ is too metaphysical for these youngsters, but it does give a measure of what Rilke is getting ordinary language (and behind it the image of the behaviour of ordinary children) to do.
So with Brecht, angry or evil? We can guess at what Brecht meant, and if he was around, we could ask him. His response might settle things for some of us. But there is no way of making the word on the page not have, for a given reader, any or all of its meanings in current (or even ancient) usage. Kuhn and Constantine speak eloquently of the ways in which Brecht’s poems ‘are never just the servants of his politics … they exceed his engagement in the particular and necessary cause.’ And they are not entirely the servants of Brecht himself. As the above examples show, translators have to make choices on the behalf of writers, and even in the original language the reader may have a long sliding scale of options.
[Essayist Michael Wood is a editorial board member of, and a regular contributor to, the London Review of Books, He says he lives in dark times, but tries to shine a little light here and there.]
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