Karoline von Günderrode, “Muhammad’s Dream in the Desert”

This poem was published in Günderrode’s first collection of poetry, dialogues and short stories, Poems and Fantasies, which appeared in 1804. Unlike Günderrode’s play Muhammad, the Prophet of Mecca, the poem does not follow Muhammad’s life or use the Prophet as a stand-in for European political figures. Instead, the piece develops Romantic, Christian, and alchemical themes to create an image of a creative genius radically transforming the world.

The original German text can be found here. Please cite me if you share or quote from this translation or my commentary.

The poem “Muhammad’s Dream in the Desert” has little to identify it with the Islamic prophet other than the name itself and, perhaps, the setting in an Arabian desert. At the time Günderrode was writing, the figure of Muhammad was often used as a stand-in for Napoleon or Luther to critique European society and politics, and Günderrode herself used Muhammad this way in her drama Muhammad, the Prophet of Mecca.[1] However, this usage is not evident, or at least not prominent, in “Muhammad’s Dream.” Instead, the poem integrates influences from Early German Romanticism, late eighteenth-century chemistry, alchemy, neo-Platonism, and Christianity, to create a rich set of images describing the remaking of the world.[2]

The poem begins with a common Enlightenment trope of a hot and sluggish Asia, which is in need of refreshment and revitalisation.[3] The Seer is “tired” and “sinks down” onto the sand of the Arabian desert. This initial setting seems to call for a regeneration of the torpid earth, but several verses intervene before Günderrode will show us the world remaking itself (beginning from the seventh verse). I will discuss that apocalyptic vision below; but first, what is going on in verses 2-6, after the Prophet sinks onto the sand?

In verse 2, the Prophet begins to develop insight into the true nature of the universe: he “Will separate the being of things / From deceptive appearance.” This search for “true” knowledge – that is, knowledge of something beyond or behind the everyday world of our ordinary experiences – was a frequent theme in Günderrode’s work. It is the focus of her poems “The Adept” and “The Wanderer’s Descent” and a major theme in her play “Immortalita.”[4]

Günderrode would have intended this claim to be understood in the context of philosophical discussions about knowledge. In the first place, it likely includes a reference to Kant’s distinction between the “phenomenal” world of “appearances” (of individual objects and events), which we encounter in everyday life through our senses and minds, and the “noumenal” world of actual “being,” which is how the world exists “in itself” (unfiltered by our senses and mental processes) and which we can never know. Günderrode is also mobilising imagery of the “lifting of the veil of nature,” which was a prominent trope at the time, including in Early German Romanticism (e.g., in Novalis’ The Novices at Saïs). On this Romantic view, mystical visions can provide glimpses of the world as it exists “in itself” – that is, beyond our ability to grasp with our senses and comprehend rationally. However, the cost of such visions may be madness or death. In Günderrode’s poem, we see the Prophet teetering on the brink of insanity as he experiences “drunken delusions,” vacillating between megalomaniac dreams of power and crushing despair.

Also in the second verse, Günderrode indicates that insight into the true nature of things is to be gained through “contemplating.” Specifically, knowledge of the universe is to be obtained by inward contemplation, or contemplation of oneself: by listening to one’s “heart’s voice” and following one’s “inspiration.” This focus on the subjective experience of the individual, including as a means of coming to know the world, is typical of Early German Romanticism, as well as of the work of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Günderrode studied these thinkers and integrated various aspects of their thought in her work.

However, Günderrode rarely (if ever) borrowed ideas from other writers without significantly modifying them, and “Muhammad’s Dream in the Desert” is no exception. Unlike the doomed protagonists of Romantic and Enlightenment seekers of hidden truths, Günderrode’s Prophet penetrates the “vain shimmer” of appearances and learns what lies behind them. At this point, he experiences existence beyond space and time: he “Skims through space / And all future times.” Since space and time are essential categories that characterise and give structure to all our experiences, this indicates that the Prophet has passed behind the “veil of nature” to perceive the world “in itself.”[5]

Once the Prophet had reached behind the veil of appearances, he attempts to see the future and, specifically, what will come of his own plans and efforts to implement his will. But, rather than obtaining answers, his questioning initiates a vision of an apocalyptic conflagration of the earth and its remaking in a new form. The seventh verse (beginning “He speaks it”) introduces Günderrode’s description of the destruction and remaking of the world. The Prophet watches as “the earth / Quakes, the sea / Sublimates” and “Flames blaze from rocky chasms.” The stars as well as the earth are set into violent motion and conflict, until the whole world is destroyed by fire, which “consumes everything earthly.”[6]

In this part of the poem, Günderrode uses hermetic and alchemical imagery, blended with ideas from late eighteenth-century chemistry, to portray the remaking of the world. Rather than being annihilated, the world that is “consumed” by fire is transformed into “clouds” and then “light.” The word Günderrode uses is “sublimates”: a weighted term in both chemical theory and German philosophy (the term became especially famous in the work of Hegel). The German verb this translates (aufheben) can also be translated as to cancel, override, dissolve or elevate. The burning of the world transforms earthly substances into a pure blaze of light which, Günderrode implies, is a higher or more spiritual form of matter. In the penultimate verse, a mysterious “voice” explains that this resulting pure light-material[7] will merge with the “eternal primal light”: a metaphor for the divine.[8]

Günderrode’s adaptation of alchemical and neo-Platonic ideas becomes clearer in verse 11. Awakening from his apocalyptic vision, the Prophet wonders “whether a god / Of the chain of being now awakens.” The idea of the chain of being, or the Great Chain of Being, originated with the ancient Greeks, especially the neo-Platonists, and in medieval Europe developed into a concept of the universe as organised hierarchically with God at the top, followed in order by angels, human beings, animals, plants, and finally rocks and minerals at the bottom. Each of these levels could be further divided into hierarchically ranked categories (for example, mammals were seen as higher in the category of animals than molluscs). In alchemy, the supposed connection of all beings in a continuous hierarchy, like links in a chain, was seen as justifying the idea that one kind of being could be transformed into another. In this poem, Günderrode’s use of language of sublimation, materials being consumed, and repeated sinking and rising movements suggests that she may be depicting this sort of transformative transition between levels in the hierarchy of being.

Lastly, at two points towards the end of the poem Günderrode uses Christian terminology to connect the Prophet’s activities to the creative force of the divine – that is, specifically to God’s creative word. In the second-last line, the Prophet cries “Only let there be light!” (in German: Das Licht nur werde!), referencing God’s creation of the earth in Genesis 1:3 (“Let there be light”; in German: Es werde Licht!). Similarly, the seventh verse, which ushers in the vision of the remaking of the world, begins with the phrase “He speaks it” (in German: “Er sprichts”). In these places, Günderrode is deliberately identifying the Prophet’s speech with the word of God, which forms a new world out of the void (or, in the Prophet’s case, out of the old world). Linking back to the second and third verses, in which the Prophet’s “spirit” and “divinity” guide his inner contemplation, it seems that Günderrode is presenting the inspired individual as developing (through introspection and the resulting penetration of the veil of nature) the creative power of a God.


[1] Christmann 2005, 212; Ezekiel 2016, 18, 123f.; Licher 1995; Raisbeck 2019, 94.

[2] Christmann (2005, 176) also suggests the influence of ideas from Hemsterhuis and Fichte on the poem, and Solbrig (1987, 18) identifies a further influence from Herder.

[3] For the use of this trope by Günderrode and Goethe, see Hilliard 1997. There are obvious colonialist overtones in the associated ideas that (a) the heat of Asia and Africa made people torpid and, correspondingly, stupid, unhealthy and lazy, and (b) Asia had fallen from a state of former glory as the torch of civilisation passed to Europe.

[4] These three pieces will all be available in English translation with commentary in my volume on Günderrode’s work, Philosophical Fragments (forthcoming with Oxford University Press).

[5] Cf. Günderrode’s prose poem “An Apocalyptic Fragment,” which also describes a vision of the reality that lies behind appearances and which involves a disruption to the normal experience of time.

[6] Günderrode’s play Udohla includes similar imagery of a violent and fiery apocalypse, after which the world can be remade. For discussion of the role of revolution and the apocalypse in revitalising the world, and its importance in Günderrode’s philosophy, see Ezekiel 2022 [preprint 2020].

[7] In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, “light-material,” or “luminous matter” (German: Lichtstoff) was thought to be a substance that emits light. Later, this theory was shown to be incorrect and “luminous matter” is now understood to be an imaginary substance. 

[8] Or, perhaps, a secularisation of the divine as a physical element.


MUHAMMAD’S DREAM IN THE DESERT

In the midday blaze
Where no cooling breeze
Refreshes the desert sand,
Where, hot, kissed only by the simoom,
A grey crag greets the clouds,
There the Seer sinks down tiredly.

His spirit, here contemplating,
Will separate the being of things
From deceptive appearance. 
He will invoke the future’s spirit,
Hear his own heart’s voice,
And follow his inspiration.

Here takes flight the divinity
That delusion lends him,        
The vain shimmer scatters.
And he to whom the peoples look,
Fanned only by palms of victory,
Is encircled by the dark night of tribulation.

The Seer’s dream
Skims through space
And all future times;
Now, in drunken delusions, he tastes
The bliss of successful plans,
Then sees his downfall.

Horror and fury
Struggle in alternating spate
In innermost life;
Surrounded, he cries, by doubt alone!
May resolve breathe out its life!
Before regret and failure punish it.

The divinity’s might
Rends the night
Of destiny, before my gaze!
It lets me see the future,
Do my flags wave, victorious?
Does my law rule the world?

He speaks it; then the earth
Quakes, the sea
Sublimates into clouds,
Flames blaze from rocky chasms,
The air, filled with the smell of brimstone,
Sluggishly lets the tired shaking rest. 

In wild dance,
The corona entwines
The errant stars, the heavens;
The ocean roars in its foundations
And in the earth’s deepest gorges
The elements dispute.

And concord’s bond,
That mightily entwined
The forces, it seems undone.
The clouds’ veil sinks from the air
And from the abyss the fire rises
And consumes everything earthly.

In turbid spate
The blaze rises,
Yet it burns ever purer,
Till from it arises, bright, a sea of light
That reaches, blazing, to the stars
And seethes pure, and bright, and radiant.

The Seer awakens
As if from the grave’s night
And, amazed, feels that he lives.
Awoken from death’s horrors,
He fearfully awaits whether a god
Of the chain of being now awakens.

Down from the stars
Down to the Seer
A voice now resounds:
“You saw here embodied
What will befall all things
You saw here the history of the world.

The force drives
It works and creates,
Stirring inexorably;
What is impure is consumed,
Only the pure, the light-material, endures
And flows to the eternal primal light.”

Now night sinks
And gleaming dawns
The morning in his soul.
Nothing more, he cries, shall vanquish me!
Only let there be light! May that be my struggle,
Then my deeds will be immortal.


REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

Christmann, Ruth. Zwischen Identitätsgewinn und Bewußtseinsverlust. Das philosophisch-literarische Werk der Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806). Frankfurt: Lang, 2005. p.175f.

Ezekiel, Anna C., ed. and trans. Poetic Fragments, by Karoline von Günderrode. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016.

Ezekiel, Anna C. “Revolution and Revitalisation: Karoline von Günderrode’s Political Philosophy and Its Metaphysical Foundations.” British Journal of the History of Philosophy (forthcoming 2022; preprint available online 2020).

Hilliard. K. F. “Orient und Mythos: Karoline von Günderrode.” In Frauen: MitSprechen. MitSchreiben. Beiträge zur literatur- und sprachwissenschaflichen Frauenforschung. Ed. Marianne Henn and Britta Hufeisen, 244–55. Stuttgart: 1997.

Licher, Lucia Maria. “‘Du mußt Dich in eine entferntere Empfindung versetzen.’ Strategien interkultureller Annäherung im Werk Karoline von Günderrodes (1780-1806).” In ‘Der weibliche multikulturelle Blick.’ Ergebnisse eines Symposiums. Ed. Hannelore Scholz and Brita Baume, 21-35. Berlin: 1995.

Raisbeck, Joanna. Poetic Metaphysics in Karoline von Günderrode. PhD Dissertation. University of Oxford, 2019.

Solbrig, Ingeborg. “The Contemplative Muse: Caroline von Günderrode, Religious Works.” Germanic Notes 18.1-2 (1987): 18-20.


“The Seer awakens
As if from the grave’s night
And, amazed, feels that he lives.
Awoken from death’s horrors,
He fearfully awaits whether a god
Of the chain of being now awakens.”

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