Karoline von Günderrode, “Antiquity, and Modernity”

This unfinished poem by Günderrode contrasts faith and reason; an enchanted world with a safer but less inspiring world of science. The piece has parallels to Novalis’ “Christendom, or Europa,” although it was very likely written before Novalis’ text was published. It is interesting in part because of its consideration of themes that appear in Günderrode’s published work, especially “Letters of Two Friends.”

The three short, rough verses of this poem contrast the outlooks of faith and reason, presented as successive periods of human history. The first verse describes a past era, when the world and the human path within it were understood on the basis of a religious worldview. The second and third verses describe a rational, Enlightened period, presumably Günderrode’s current time, which she presents as more advanced scientifically but as correspondingly disenchanted and spiritually impoverished: “flattened out,” as Joanna Raisbeck describes it. While the second verse presents the accomplishments of reason – the dictates of heaven have been overthrown, while hell has been demolished – the third suggests that these accomplishments have brought with them a diminishment of human experience.

Elsewhere in her work, Günderrode presents the ancient world – ancient Greece, India, Egypt, Arabia, Scandinavia or Ossianic Scotland -, rather than medieval Christendom, as the embodiment of a richer and more spiritually fulfilling time. However, in some pieces Günderrode suggests that medieval Europe was also a period that can be mined for poetic inspiration. In “Letters of Two Friends” (part of the collection Melete), one of the correspondents argues, like Novalis in “Christendom, or Europe,” that Protestantism, with its emphasis on individual piety, has been responsible for a loss of divine inspiration: “Everyone is allowed access to the communion cup, laypersons as well as the consecrated, so that no-one can drink enough to become full of God, and the drops are enough for no-one.” Thus, they suggest, “Let us gaze back to more beautiful days, to what has been.” The writer then asks, partly rhetorically, “does it not seem better to you if I abandon the path of my own poetic production and begin a serious study of the poets of the past and especially of the middle ages?” Interestingly, the first correspondent’s interlocutor responds in the negative, claiming that “The great masters of the ancient world are certainly there to be read and understood” but that “infinite nature will always reveal itself anew in infinite time.” In other words, the times have changed since the great works we’re familiar with were created, but that does not mean that art and poetry are dead.

Günderrode’s draft poem ends abruptly with a blunt, final-sounding statement that seems to signal the death of enchantment, and artistic creativity with it. I sometimes wonder whether, if she had finished the poem, she would have kept the ending like this, or whether she would have resolved it with a third movement similar to that in “Letters of Two Friends.” The poem was likely written fairly early – probably between 1799 and 1802, according to the editor of the critical edition of Günderrode’s works. It is therefore possible that Günderrode’s views developed between writing this draft and composing the “Letters of Two Friends.” Another possibility, since the position of this poem is similar to that of the younger-seeming correspondent in the “Letters,” is that this is Günderrode’s view, while the more positive assessment of the poetic potential of the current age is presented for contrast or consideration, or as a more optimistic perspective for disillusioned young poets to aspire to.

The original German text can be found here. Translations from “Letters of Two Friends” are taken from my forthcoming volume of translations of Günderrode’s works, Philosophical Fragments. Please cite me if you share or quote from this translation and my commentary.

ANTIQUITY, AND MODERNITY

A narrow, rough path, the Earth once seemed.
And over the mountains heaven shines,
An abyss beside them is hell,
And paths lead to heaven and to hell.

But all has now become wholly otherwise.
Heaven is overthrown, the abyss filled in,
And covered with reason, and made comfortable.


Belief’s heights are now demolished.
And on the flat Earth understanding strides,
And measures everything out in fathoms and feet.

FURTHER READING

Licher, Lucia Maria. Mein Leben in einer bleibenden Form aussprechen. Umrisse einer Ästhetik im Werk Karoline von Günderrodes (1780-1806). Heidelberg: Winter, 1996. P.234f.

Raisbeck, Joanna. Poetic Metaphysics in Karoline von Günderrode. PhD Diss. University of Oxford, 2019. P.150f.

A narrow, rough path, the Earth once seemed.
And over the mountains heaven shines,
An abyss beside them is hell,
And paths lead to heaven and to hell.
#Günderrode

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