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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Albert Steffen as Lyric Poet
GA 36

Translated by Henry B. Monges

Upon those who admire the writings of Albert Steffen he has bestowed a lyric gift. We must say a “gift,” for whoever has found in this poet the earnest searcher into the riddles of human destinies who wills, through striving formative power, to reveal mysteries of the world in the nature of the soul, had a longing for this most personal communication. He must be grateful for the gift.

The booklet is small in the number of its pages. The gift is great. For cut of a fullness of heart and soul one here bestows gifts who has much to say of such a nature as enriches the life which receives it. It is good for all who receive it, but one alone could give it just as it is—Albert Steffen. For that which everyone. should behold he beholds with an utterly personal artist's eye.

The first impression may be strange. For Steffen really lives in realms of feeling which are his own wholly personal possession. But one can quickly come to feel at home in these realms. For the dwelling place in which the poet Steffen molds the world in his special way is permeated through and through with warmth of heart and is filled with genuine goodness. Steffen's images are often brought up from very deep mines, but they have been shaped by a man who never loses his living artistic sense in the depths of his thinking.

Steffen often confronts world problems in whose presence others become philosophers. He remains the artist. Others draw all sorts of rounded lines. Steffen makes a few strokes and creates many angles. The whole is then more pictorial than the rounded forms of the others. Many remain on the surface lest they should become lyric brooders. Steffen frequently descends to a great depth below the surface, but there he can speak with such penetration that all brooding vanishes for the listener.

Steffen's compositions arise from that region of the soul where one beholds cosmic mysteries and feels human riddles. But the spirit who there ventures often into abysmal depths in vision and in feeling, and often soars aloft to the stars, remains the molder of images, the creator of tones, is never misled into the coldness of mere ideas. Steffen paints in words. The words have colors. And the colors work like those of paintings which have outlived the centuries and still remain.

Steffen strides through nature likewise seeing and feeling. And nature reveals through him her spirit beings. In this revelation there is wisdom—tragic wisdom, wisdom filled with goodness, wisdom that wakens love, wisdom that is unveiled to the interpreter of riddles who, while interpreting, is wholly filled with the power of the poet, and in molding forms is wholly sustained by the artist's serene enthusiasm.

Steffen descends into the depths of the soul. He brings up pictures which are like copies of the beings of nature—of a nature not seen with the eyes and without whose accessibility to fantasy the world seen with the eyes would be a deception. These pictures of spirit-nature are sharply outlined, but their outlines are drawn, not by the intellect, but by the human heart.

In the presence of these images, one often has the feeling that an unknown power in the poet has compelled nature to yield them, and that, once this power had set them there, Steffen drew their forms.

Steffen, the poet, never stands alone. He is always surrounded by a world. He does not utter only his own feelings. When he expresses his own feelings, he causes one to sense always an immeasurable world around him. His images often give the impression at first of having been taken out of empty space; then, when one has fully understood the images, they acquire a background. Then they reveal a world, whereas at first, they seemed to manifest only themselves. Frequently they are like human beings who are at first very reserved but later emanate a love-bestowing warmth. It will sometimes seem as if a poem of Steffen's were an assertion of defiant willfulness, and this seeming willfulness holds one fast. But one then finds that the seeming willfulness is a veil concealing devotion to truth such as can be attained only through purification of soul.

Steffen's lyrics frequently have their source in the mountains; but, as offspring of the mountains, they have wandered through the plains, like brooks that become rivers. They still bear within them their mountain birth, but on the plain, which gives them stillness, they mirror the sun and they magically create there also for the soul of one who enjoys them the reflected moonlight and the stars. They whisper riddles of nature, and the whisper becomes to the ear a familiar language.

A tender poem, Felicitas, penetrates to the heart as if awaking emotions which stream out into cosmic space. One is in the quiet chamber and yet in the expanse of the universe; a child of man with his suffering and yet a creature of the starry worlds.

Oft, wenn ich in der Nacht
von bangem Traumgesicht
emporgeschreckt, betracht,
wie leicht der Leib zerbricht,
wenn immer schwerer lasten Angst und Wahn,
ich weinen muss ob meiner dunklen Bahn:

Lauf ich zum Fenster schnell,
die Sterne anzuschaun,
wie scheinen sie so hell,
dann darf ich doch vertraun,
ich weis es ja, dass mich an Kindesstatt
der Sternenhimmel angenommen hat.

Oft when I in the night,
By fearful vision waked,
Reflect with doleful fright
How fragile bodies break,
My heart o'erburdened with the dream and fear
I must bewail my road of life so drear.

To open window then
I run the stars to view,
How brightly they do shine,
And so, with faith renewed,
I know in truth that they have taken me,
The starry heavens, as their own child to be.

And how deep the reverent devotion that speaks from Steffen's lyrics! It is a reverence that dares to brood because, in brooding, it never loses touch with the heart. It is a piety that dares to give form to that which evokes the deepest reverence, because in molding this into form it preserves always the inner quality of prayer.

Ich geh durch rote Aecker:
es schläft der Keim.
Ich geh durch grüne Saaten:
es sprosst der Halm.
Ich geh durch goldne Felder:
es reift der Korn.
Ich find den Müller
und der Müller spricht:
Die Erde is der Angesicht
des Menschensohnes.
Und “wer mein Brot verzehrt,
der setzt den Fuss auf mich.”
Ich knie nieder,
und er reicht der Speise,
dass ich mich sättige
auf meiner Erden-Reise.

I walk through brown-red acres:
The germ still sleeps.
I walk through greening earth:
The shoots appear.
I walk through golden fields:
The grain grows ripe.
I find the miller
And the miller speaks:
The earth is the countenance
Of the Son of Man.
And “he who eats my bread
He sets his foot on me.”
I kneel me down,
And he hands me food,
That I be sated
On my earthly road.

Such is the mood which fills the heart with experiences drawn from the realm of the eternal in the human soul. The personal is elevated to the level of the impersonal, not to be lost in this but to find itself in its truth and its essential being. And this finding has its reflection in Steffen's lyric poetry itself. The poet feels himself to be in the stream of cosmic being, and he says:

Die Sprache formt Schicksal,
gemäss den Lauten,
streng oder milde.
Näh oder Ferne vom ewigen Urwort Bestimmt meine Freiheit und Not.

Speech forms destiny,
In accord with the sounds,
Stern or mild.
Nearness or farness from primordial Word
Determines my freedom and need.

One who hears such words from the poet soul of Steffen senses that in him destiny searches for the secrets of language in order to shape life's need as “stern or mild,” and in the freedom of the spirit to give meaning to existence.

When Steffen carries his pain to “bush or tree” in order to make the trees his teachers in peace of soul, his feeling is then revealed in the strictness of the sonnet form, and one has the feeling that what is said can be revealed in this form alone. The compositions of this kind in Weg-Zehrung (Bread of Life) are like the receiving of the form by the poet, who finds peace in this for his emotion, which, without this form, would tend to strive outward into the infinite.

The fact, however, that in Steffen emotion also can bear its own measure within itself is evident when, in soaring upward from the personal to participation in the experience of the World Being, he expresses himself in the form of the hymn, and likewise when he finds the possibility of imparting himself in such a way that silence, while the heart is full, is forborne only to the very least degree.

Du blickst so irr,
so hoffnungsleer
warum, warum?
O sag's, o deut's.

Thou seem'st so lost,
So void of hope,
But why, but why?
Oh tell me, explain!

Christus in mir—
Ist es so schwer.
Er geht herum:
Ich bin sein Kreuz.

To Christ in me—
It is so hard.
He moves about:
I am His Cross.