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Poetry and the Art of Speech
GA 281

Lecture VI

30 July 1921, Dornach

Today, seeing that from a living grasp of the anthroposophical world-conception there results something for the whole human being, for man in his totality, we would like to put forward something taken from the art of recitation. As I have mentioned already, there is a certain fear in artistic circles, especially among poets, reciters and so on, that everything approaching the conceptual, everything which takes a “scientific” form, is really foreign to art – and actually inimical to the original and vital in it, choking instinctive and intuitive art. And as regards that intellectuality which has arisen in the course of recent centuries of human development this is absolutely the case. Yet this very intellectuality is also connected with an inclination toward what is present in external, physical reality: our very languages have gradually adopted a certain form – what might be called a tendency towards materialism. In our words and their meaning lies something which points directly to the external sense-world. Hence this intellectuality, which possesses only picture-being and is all the more authentic the less it contains of life and reality from man’s inner nature – this intellectuality will indeed have little in common with the primordial vitality that must lie at the root of all art. But the reinvigoration of spiritual life to which Anthroposophy aspires means precisely the reimmersing of intellect in the primordial forces of man’s soul life. The artistic will not then appear in the so-much-dreaded gloom of intellectual pallor; imagination will not be drawn down through Anthroposophy into logic and materialism, but will on the contrary be made to bear fruit. From living together with the spiritual it will be nourished and bear fruit. An enhancement of art is to be hoped for just through its being pervaded by Anthroposophy and the anthroposophical way of thinking – the whole bearing and demeanour of Anthroposophy.

What applies to the arts as a whole we will show today with reference to recitation and declamation. Over the last decades recitation and declamation have been steered more and more into a predilection for endowing with form the meaning-content of the words. A stress on the word-for-word content has become increasingly conspicuous. Our times have little understanding for such a treatment of the spoken word as was characteristic of Goethe, who used to rehearse the actors in his plays with special regard for the formation of speech, standing in front of them like a musical conductor with his baton. The speech-formation, the element of form that underlies the word-for-word content – it is really this which inspires the true poet as an artist. The point must be emphasized: Schiller, when he felt drawn by inner necessity to compose a poem, to begin with had something in the way of an indeterminate melody, something of a melodic nature as the content of his soul; something musical floated through his soul and only afterwards came the word-for-word content, which had really only to receive what was for the poet, as an artist, the essential thing – the musical element of his soul. So we have on the one hand something musical, which as such would remain pure music; and on the other, the pictorial, painterly element to which in declamatory-recitative art we must return. To say something merely as an expression of the prose-content – it is not for this that true poetry exists. But to mould the prose-content, to re-cast it into measure and rhythm into unfolding melody – into what really lies behind the prose-content – for all this the art of poetry exists. We would surely not be favoured with such a mixed bag of poetry if we did not live in unartistic times when in neither painting nor sculpture, nor poetry nor its recitative-declamatory rendering, is true artistry to be found.

If we look at the means by which poetry is brought to expression, which in our case is recitation and declamation, then we must naturally refer to speech. Now speech bears within it a thought- and a will-element. The thought tends toward the prosaic. It comes to express a conviction; it comes to express what is demanded within the framework of conventions of a social community. And with the progress of civilization language comes to be permeated more and more with expressions of conviction, with conventional social expression and to that extent becomes less and less poetic and artistic. The poet will therefore first have to struggle with the language to give it an artistic form, to make it into sornething which is really speech-formation.

In my anthroposophical writings I have drawn attention to the character of the vowels in language. This character man experiences in the main through his inner being: what we live through inwardly from our experience in the outer world finds expression in the vowel-sounds. Occurrences that we portray objectively, the essential forms of the external world, come to expression in the consonants of a language. Naturally, the vocalic and consonantal nature of language varies from language to language. Indeed from the way in which a language deploys its consonants and vowels can be seen the extent to which it has developed into a more or less artistic language. Some modern languages, in the course of their development, have gradually acquired an inartistic character and are falling into decadence. When a poet sets out to give form to such a language, he is called upon to repeat at a higher level the original speech-creative process. [Note 17] In the construction his verses, in the treatment of rhyme and alliteration (we shall hear and discuss examples of these later) he touches upon something related to the speech-creative process. Where it is a matter of bringing inner being to expression, the poet will be drawn, by virtue of his intuitive and instinctive ability, to the vowels. The result will be an accumulation of vowels. And when the poet needs to give form to outward things or events, he will be drawn to the consonants. One or the other will be accumulated, depending an whether something inward or something external is being expressed. The reciter or declaimer must take this up, for he will then be able to re-establish the rhythm between inner being and the outer world. On this kind of speech-formation, on the bringing out of what lies within the artistic handling of speech, the formation of a new recitative and declamatory art-form will largely depend.

We will now introduce a few shorter poems to show how recitation and declamation must be guided by speech-formation.

A Sonnet by Goethe.


Ein Strom entrauscht umwölktem Felsensaale,

Dem Ozean sich eilig zu verbinden:

Was auch sich spiegeln mag von Grund zu Gründen,

Er wandelt unaufhaltsam fort zu Tale.

Dämonisch aber stürzt mit einem Male –

Ihr folgten Berg und Wald in Wirbelwinden –

Sich Oreas, Behagen dort zu finden,

Und hemmt den Lauf, begrenzt die weite Schale.

Die Welle sprüht und staunt zurück und weichet

Und schwillt bergan, sich immer selbst zu trinken:

Gehemmt ist nun zum Vater hin das Streben.

Sie schwankt und ruht, zum See zurückgedeichet;

Gestirne, spiegelnd sich, beschaun das Blinken

Des Wellenschlags am Fels, ein neues Leben.

[We encounter a similar movement and transition in style in the course of this English sonnet:

Devouring time blunt thou the Lyons pawes,

And make the earth devoure her owne sweet brood,

Plucke the keeneteeth from the fierce Tygers jawes,

And burne the long liv’d Phoenix in her blood,

Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,

And do what ere thou wilt swift-footed time

To the wide world and all her fading sweets:

But I forbid thee one most hainous crime,

O carve not with thy howers my loves faire brow,

Nor draw noe lines there with thine antique pen,

Him in thy course untainted doe allow,

For beauties patterne to succeding men.

Yet doe thy worst ould Time dispight thy wrong,

My love shall in my verse ever live young.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616).]

A Ritornello by Christian Morgenstern.

Das Tier, die Pflanze, diese Wesen hatten

noch die un-menschliche Geduld der Erde;

da war ein Jahr, was heut nur noch Sekunde.

Jetzt geht ihr nichts mehr rasch genug von statten.

Der Mensch begann sein ungeduldig Werde.

Sie spürt: ‘Jetzt endlich kam die grosse Stunde:

auf die ich mich gezüchtet Jahrmillionen!

Jetzt brauch ich meinen Leib nicht mehr zu schonen,

jetzt häng ich bald als Geist an Gottes Munde.’

[A series of three-line stanzas with recurring rhymes is a comparatively simple representative of a poetic form that is capable of being extended almost indefinitely. Our first poem is a relatively uncomplicated example; a second shows something of what can be achieved by a poet working within very strict limitations.


The covenant of god and animal,

The frieze of fabulous creatures winged and crowned,

And in the midst the woman and the man –

Lost long ago in fields beyond the Fall –

Keep faith in sleep-walled night and there are found

On our long journey back where we began.

Then the heraldic crest or nature lost

Shines out again until the weariless wave

Roofs with its sliding horror all that realm.

What jealousy, what rage could overwhelm

The golden lion and lamb and vault a grave

For innocence, innocence past defence or cost?

Edwin Muir (1887-1959).

The highly-developed, courtly poetry of the late Middle Ages provides many examples of this type of elaborate and difficult structure. This Balade is a moderately ambitious and very beautiful instance:


Madame, ye ben of al beaute shryne

As fer as bercled is the mappemounde;

For as the cristal glorious ye shyne,

And lyke ruby ben your chekes rounde.

Therwith ye ben so mery and so jocounde,

That at a revel whan that I see you daunce,

It is an oynement unto my wounde,

Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce.

For thogh I wepe of teres ful a tyne,

Yet may that wo myn herte nat confounde;

Your seemly voys that ye so smal outtwyne

Maketh my thoght in joye and blis habounde.

So curteisly I go, with love bounde,

That to my-self I sey, in my penaunce,

Suffyseth me to love you, Rosemounde,

Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce.

Nas never pyk walwed in galauntyne

As I in love am walwed and y-wounde;

For which ful ofte I of my-self divyne

That I am trewe Tristam the secounde.

My love may not refreyd be nor afounde;

I brenne ay in an amorous plesaunce.

Do what you list, I wil your thral be founde,

Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400).]

Poem in form of a Rondeau by Rudolf Steiner.


Im Lichte wir schalten,

Im Schauen wir walten,

Im Sinnen wir weben.

Aus Herzen wir heben

Das Geistesringen

Durch Seelenschwingen.

Dem Menschen wir singen

Das Göttererleben

Im Weltengestalten.

A scene will next be presented from my first Mystery Play, The Portal of Initiation. What we have here is a representation of experiences connected with the spiritual world. One might be tempted to look upon something like this as contrived by the intellect, as though we were going after some sort of “symbolic” art – but that would not really be art at all. What will be spoken here, despite the psychic-spiritual nature of the events, was actually seen, in concrete form. Everything was there, down to the very sound of the words. Nothing had to be manufactured, or put together, or elaborated allegorically: it was simply there. We have attempted to give form to man’s manifold experiences in relation to the spiritual worlds; we have tried simply to give form to soul-forces, to what man can experience inwardly as differentiated soul-forces. Something results from this quite spontaneously, that is not shaped by any intellectual activity. As it is here a matter of purely spiritual contents, it is especially important to realize that it is not a matter of giving information or the prosaic word-for-word content, but of giving form to the actual spiritual contents. On the one hand a musical element will be perceptible – at the very point where one might suspect an intellectualising tendency – and on the other we will have a pictorial element, which must be particularly brought out whenever we are giving form to some kind of event. [Note 18]

From The Portal of Initiation, Scene 7.

MARIA: You, my sisters, at this hour

be once again my helpers,

as you have often been before,

that I may make world-ether

resound within itself.

It shall ring out in harmony

and, ringing, permeate

a soul with knowledge.

I can behold the signs

that lead us to our task.

So shall your work

unite itself with mine.

Johannes, in his striving,

shall through creative deeds of ours

be raised to true existence.

The brothers in the temple

held council

how they could lead him

out of the depths to light-filled heights.

And they expect of us

that we arouse within his soul

the strength for soaring flight.

And so, my Philia, breathe in

clean essence of the light

from wide-flung spaces;

be filled with tones, enticing,

from souls’ creative power,

that you can hand to me

the gifts you gather

from spirit grounds.

Then I can weave them

into the stirring dances of the spheres.

And you, too, Astrid,

beloved mirror-image of my spirit,

create the power of darkness

in streaming light,

that colours may shine forth.

Bring harmony to tonal being

so that world-substance, weaving,

can live and sound.

I can entrust then spirit feeling

to seeking human senses.

And you, O sturdy Luna,

you are as firm within

as is the living heart

that grows within the tree;

join with your sisters’ gifts

the image of your own uniqueness,

that certainty of knowledge

be granted to the seeker.

PHILIA: I will imbue myself

with clearest essence of the light

from worldwide spaces.

I will breathe in sound-substance,


from far ethereal regions,

that you, beloved sister, with your work

may reach your goal.

ASTRID: And I will weave

into the radiant light

the clouding darkness.

I will condense

the life of sound,

that glistening it may ring

and ringing it may glisten,

that you, beloved sister,

may guide the rays of soul.

LUNA: I will enwarm soul-substance

and will make firm life-ether.

They shall condense themselves,

they shall perceive themselves,

and in themselves residing

guard their creative forces,

that you, beloved sister,

within the seeking soul

may quicken certainty of knowledge.

MARIA: From Philia’s horizons

shall stream forth joyfulness.

The undines’ power

of ever-changefulness shall rouse

a sensitivity of soul,

that the awakened one

can then experience

the world’s delight,

the world’s despair.

From Astrid’s weaving

shall spring forth love’s desire.

The airy life of sylphs

shall stir up in the soul

the urge for sacrifice,

that he, the consecrated one,

revive and quicken

those who are sorrow-laden,

those who are joy-entreating.

From Luna’s strength

shall stream forth firmness;

the power of fire-beings

can actively create


so that the knowing one

can find himself

in soul-life-weaving,

in world-life-breathing.

PHILIA: I will entreat the spirits of the worlds

that they, with light of being,

enchant soul feeling,

that they, with tone of words,

charm spirit hearing,

that he whom we must waken

may rise

upon soul paths

to heavenly heights.

ASTRID: I will guide streams of love,

that fill the world with warmth,

into the heart

of him, the consecrated one,

that he can bring

the grace of heaven

to earthly work

and mood of consecration

to sons of men.

LUNA: I will from primal powers

beseech both strength and courage,

and will imbed them deep

within the seeker’s heart,

that confidence

in his own self

may be with him

throughout his life.

He shall then feel himself

secure within himself.

And he shall pluck

each moment’s ripened fruit,

to draw from them their seeds

for all eternity.

MARIA: With you, my sisters,

united for this earnest work,

I shall succeed

in what I long to do.

There penetrates the cry

of him, who’s been so sorely tested,

into our world of light.

Trans. Ruth and Hans Pusch.

When we come to the sonnet it is, of course, to be taken for granted that a sonnet does not arise from the intention to compose a sonnet, but by necessity from the working out of inner experiences. It is evident that the sonnet tends toward something visual or pictorial that lives in the language – we have an experience which is in some way twofold. Such an experience presents itself, and we wish to give it a form, such as appears in the first two strophes. But we are then thrown into a contradiction of inner experience. The second strophe confronts the first wave, so to speak, like a counter-wave. And in the last two strophes we feel the contradictions that govern the universe. The human heart and the human mind strive for a unison, a harmonious association, so that they may resolve in harmony what found expression in discord and overcome the material dissonance through the spirituality of harmony. This is manifested even in the rhyme-scheme of the first two strophes and in the linked rhymes of the concluding strophes. In as far as there is not such a necessity of inner experience, a sonnet cannot arise; for it must manifest itself even down to the rhyme-scheme as a picture-form. And now, the musical element infiltrates this pictorial form: a musicality that depends principally on vowel sounds, and on what enters the vowel from the consonant – for every consonant has its vowel-element. This gives what one might call musical substance to the primarily pictorial form taken by the sonnet. What is present within the sonnet, shaping it, is metrical and, in the art of speaking, metre is brought to expression specifically through recitation: something the Greeks managed to bring to a certain eminence. The Greeks lived in the metre; that is to say, in the plastic element of the language. If, on the other hand, we look at what comes to us from the Nordic or Central European, Germanic tradition, we see how into the plasticity of speech there enters something musical from within. Here we have something which streams out more from the will, more from the personality whereas with the Greeks everything flows from metrical clarity of vision. With the Greeks it was primarily the art of recitation that attained a certain peak, whereas among the Germanic peoples it was declamatory art, drawing on the musical principle and flowing into themes and rhythms and cadences, which stirred into activity. And whereas in recitation we have to do with something in speech that in one sound broadens, in another makes ‘pointed’, forming it pictorially – in musicality we have what endows language with a melodic quality. It is in fact something like this that we can see in the sonnet and its treatment in the several regions of Europe. We can see how the declamatory united with the recitative, how the Germanic later united with the Greek feeling for measure. [Note 19] It is of some importance for us to realise the musical as well as the plastic quality inherent in speech-formation, for us to learn to introduce into declamation and recitation something which essentially leads us from what has significance for the senses to what is moved by the spirit. For this, it is once again necessary to have a feeling for poetic form as such – the form of a ritornello or a rondeau, for instance. This does not in truth make for a poetry wanting in thought; it simply expresses thought, not through abstractions, but through its productive creativity. If it is to adapt itself to forms created in this way, the art of speaking must be restored to a life in the actual waves of speech – the recitative with its pure formation; and the high or low intonations, the melodic forms of declamation. And if a dramatic touch has to be added, as in the scene you have just heard, which dealt with purely spiritual experiences, the intellectual significance or literal meaning must be completely overcome, completely transformed from a literal communication of prose fact into actual speech-formation. We thus have in immediate presentation the same experience as when in a prose piece we pass from prosaic understanding to a vision of what is represented in the prosaic. The pleasure of the prosaic is indirect: we must first understand, and through understanding we are then led to visualisation. This entails from the first something inartistic, for the aesthetic quality lies in immediacy. The art of speech-formation must have direct expression. What is actually presented (and not an intellectual imitation of it) must show itself and be given form. In our times we often see so-called poets working up intellectual imitations, rather than those immediate responses which make themselvesfelt in speech-formation. Goethe, who expresses so beautifully a living apprehension of tranquillity – a tranquillity preceding that of sleep – gives it utterance in these lines:

Über allen Gipfeln

Ist Ruh;

In allen Wipfeln

Spürest du

Kaum einen Hauch;

Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.

Warte nur, balde

Ruhest du auch.

[Compare Shelley, “Evening. Ponte a Mare, Pisa.”

The sun is set; the swallows are asleep;

The bats are flitting fast in the grey air;

The slow soft toads out of damp corners creep,

And evening’s breath, wandering here and there

Over the quivering surface of the stream,

Wakes not one ripple from its summer dream. ]

There is complete accord between the feeling for the summits and the tree-tops and what goes on in our own heart. A harmony lies in the sounds, in the very word-formation, so that what is mediated to us through the outer world sounds again – especially if we really listen to the poem – in the word- and speech-formation. All our experience of the outer world has passed over into the speech-formation itself. That would be the ideal of true poetry: to be able to present an experience received from outside in the very treatment of the language. The mere repetition of external experience, simply trying to express external experience in words – this is not poetry. The art of poetry only arises when something experienced in the outer world is reconstituted out of the life of the human soul in terms of pure speech-formation. [Note 20]

We can observe this in a truly artistic poet like Goethe, when he feels the need to recreate an identical prose-content out of a different mood and feeling. From living with the Gothic and the mood it transmitted to him, from the feeling let us say for the pointed arches striving upwards, which he felt most deeply in his appreciation of Strasbourg Cathedral, Goethe had gained at the beginning of his time in Weimar a sensibility which, when given poetic form, became something like inner declamation. Thought and feeling took such a form in him that we can experience directly in speech-formation something also to be found in contemplating a Gothic cathedral. We can see something striving upwards, something unfinished, in a Gothic cathedral; and this was Goethe’s mood in Weimar when he conceived his Iphigeneia. Driven by a deep longing for the fulfilment of his poetic disposition, Goethe set out, but in the course of his journey south he was gradually overcome by another mood – by a longing for measure. Faced with the Italian art that confronted him there, he felt a kind of echo of Greek art. He writes to his Weimar friends: I suspect that the Greeks created their works of art in accordance with the very laws by which nature proceeds.” Looking at the Saint Cecilia, at Raphael’s works, the essence of metre became clear to him; and this became an inner recitation. He no longer felt the form of his first Iphigeneia to be a personal truth: he forged his play anew, so that we now have a Nordic and a southern Iphigeneia. Any consideration of the Nordic Iphigeneia must treat of it in terms of declamatory art, where it is preeminently the vowels that hold sway and that give form in the sounding of speech. In the Roman Iphigeneia recitation must predominate: what is relevant here is the plastically formed presentation of experience in a speech-formation comparable to the presentation in Raphael’s work. In two short passages we shall now compare the two versions of Iphigeneia and have before us what goes on in a poet when he really lives in aesthetic form and has to recreate his artistic forms out of inner necessity. Recitation and declamation must strive to follow poetry such as this.

In the first instance, therefore, we will present the Gothic-German Iphigeneia as Goethe originally conceived it – the Weimar Iphigeneia. [Note 21]

[Blake’s earlier poetry was strongly influenced by Romantic interest in northern “Bardic” verse, and something of its powerful declamatory nature can still be felt in this “Introduction” to Songs of Experience:

Hear the voice of the Bard!

Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;

Whose ears have heard

The Holy Word

That walk’d among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed Soul,

And weeping in the evening dew;

That might controll

The starry pole,

And fallen, fallen light renew!

‘O Earth, O Earth, return!

Arise from out the dewy grass;

Night is worn,

And the morn

Rises from the slumberous mass.

Turn away no more;

Why wilt thou turn away?

The starry floor,

The wat’ry shore,

Is giv’n thee till the break of day.’

William Blake (1757-1827.]

And now Goethe wished to introduce into these verses something fundamentally alien to the north. These verses express what I have just claimed as emerging straight from the whole mood living in Goethe. It can be said, of course, that anyone who does not enter into the genuinely aesthetic will lack the deep sense of necessity that Goethe felt in Italyof forging his favourite subject, Iphigeneia, anew. Not only was he subject in Italyto impressions of what he regarded as Greek art, but the sun there has a different effect. A differently coloured heaven arches over us, and the plants struggle up from the earth in a different way. All this made its mark on Goethe, and we can trace how in every line he is again compelled to rewrite and adapt the substance of his Iphigeneia to a quite different mood. It was Hermann Grimm who first showed a really sensitive understanding for these matters. In his lectures on Goethe he stressed the radical difference between the German and the Roman Iphigeneia, demonstrating how Goethe transformed what at first lived in the dimension of depth, so to speak – where there is a tendency to make the tone too full, too bright, or too dull, in order to achieve a spiritual expression of the literal prose content; he showed how Goethe transformed this into something that lives in the plane of speech, as it were, in the metre, and how he tried to introduce into his Iphigeneia the symmetry he believed himself to have found in Greek art.

In order to characterise what Goethe experienced in artistic speech, therefore, it becomes necessary to work from the declamatory into the recitative when producing his Roman Iphigeneia – the recitative which, as we have said, the Greeks brought to perfection. [Note 22]

[To a much greater extent than Goethe, Blake consistently reworked his poetry into ever different forms as he matured and changed as a poet. By the time he came to write “Night the Ninth” of The Four Zoas he had extended his range to include a classically derived pastoral verse with a much more recitative quality. The visionary scene from the earlier “Introduction” appears again there – though after a more thorough metamorphosis than was the case with Goethe’s play. This is The Four Zoas ix, 386-409:

And thus their ancient golden age renew’d; for Luvah spoke

With voice mild from his golden Cloud upon the breath of morning:

‘Come forth, O Vala, from the grass & from the silent dew,

Rise from the dews of death, for the Eternal Man is Risen.’

She rises among flowers & looks toward the Eastern clearness,

She walks yea runs, her feet are wing’d, on the tops of the bending grass,

Her garments rejoice in the vocal wind & her hair glistens with dew.

She answer’d thus: ‘Whose voice is this, in the voice of the nourishing air,

In the spirit of the morning, awaking the Soul from its grassy bed?

Where dost thou dwell? for it is thee I seek, & but for thee

I must have slept Eternally, nor have felt the dew of thy morning.

Look how the opening dawn advances with vocal harmony!

Look how the beams foreshew the rising of some glorious power!

The sun is thine, he goeth forth in his majestic brightness.

O thou creating voice that callest! & who shall answer thee?’

‘Where dost thou flee, O fair one? where doth thou seek thy happy place?’

‘To yonder brightness, there I haste, for sure I came from thence

Or I must have slept eternally, nor have felt the dew of morning.’

‘Eternally thou must have slept, not have felt the morning dew,

But for yon nourishing sun; ’tis that by which thou art arisen.

The birds adore the sun: the beasts rise up & play in his beams

And every flower & every leaf rejoices in his light.

Then, O thou fair one, sit thee down, for thou art as the grass,

Thou risest in the dew of morning & at night art folded up.’

William Blake.]

It may be that in the case of an artist like Goethe, we shall find what it is that flows over into form only if we can understand with full intensity how, when he himself spoke his Iphigeneia, tears would roll down his cheeks. Goethe found his way from the Dionysian – to use the Nietzschean expression – into the Apollonian, into metrical form. Because the Greeks in their soul-life stirred the will to this metrical formation, they achieved something in this Apollonian realm, and of this Nietzsche felt that here art is exalted above outer sense-reality. He felt that art could elevate us above the pessimism of a humanity confronting the tragic in the immediate reality of physical perception. What holds sway here as the inner, the essentially human – though conforming to measure and the Apollonian principle – this was what particularly attracted Goethe once he had entered this element, and induced him to attempt the creation of something in Greek metre, in an inwardly recitative-declamatory style rather than his former purely declamatory one.

We will now give an example, from Goethe’s “Achilleis”, of the aesthetic form that Goethe conceived after he had sunk himself in the metrical, inwardly recitative style of the Greeks. [Note 23]

[In their attempts to recapture the feeling of the original Greek some translators have been driven to adopt a hexameter verse, as in this rendering of Odyssey VI, 85ff:

Now when at last they arrived at the beautiful stream of the river,

Here the perennial basins they found where waters abundant

Welled up brightly enough for the cleansing of dirtiest raiment.

So their mules they unloosened from under the yoke of the waggon,

Letting them wander at will on the bank of the eddying river,

Browsing on clover as sweet as the honey, and then from the carriage

Bearing within their arms to the deep dark water the garments

Cast them in trenches and trod them in rivalry one with another.

So, when the raiment was washed and was thoroughly cleansed of the dirt-stains,

All on the shore of the ocean in order they spread on the shingle

Where it is washed by the tides of the sea as they sweep to the dry land.

There did they bathe and anointing themselves with the oil of the olive

Set them adown to the midday meal on the bank of the river,

Leaving the garments to dry on the beach in the glare of the sunlight,

Now when in food they had fully delighted, both she and her maidensj

Casting aside their scarfs with a ball they betook them to playing,

White-armed Nausicaa with the choral melody leading.

E’en as descending a height moves Artemis, darter of arrows,

Either on Taygetus long-ridged or on huge Erymanthus,

Taking delight in the chase of the boar and of timorous roe-deer,

Whilst all around her the daughters of Zeus, who beareth the aegis,

Nymphs of the woodland, play – and Leto sees it rejoicing;

Even as over the rest uplifting her brows and her forehead

Easily known in her beauty she stands, though fair be the others,

Thus shone forth in her beauty the maiden amidst her attendants.

Now when at last it was come to the moment of homeward returning,

After the mules were yoked and folded the beautiful garments,

Other was then the device of the grey-eyed goddess Athene,

E’en that Odysseus awaking and seeing the fair-faced maiden

Her might follow as guide and reach Phaeacia’s city.

Seizing the Ball, at the maiden among her attendants the princess

Flung it, but missing the maiden it fell in a bottomless eddy.

Piercingly all of them shrieked; and godlike Odysseus, awakened,

Sat straight up and pondered thereon in his heart and his spirit:

‘Ah me! what is the folk whose country I now am arrived at?

Dwell here savages wanton and wild, despisers of justice?

Have they a love for the stranger and hearts that revere the immortals?

Lo, how piercing a cry as of maidens ringeth around me,

Nymphs peradventure that dwell on precipitous summits of mountains,

Or by the fountain springs of the rivers and leas of the lowlands;

Else, maybe, I am near to a folk of articulate language.

Nay, go to, I will test for myself this matter and view it.’

Trans. H.B. Cotterill.]

With such poetry Goethe tried to find his way back to Hellenism. He believed himself, as he felt at a certain period of his life, nearer to the original source of poetry than he could ever have been had he not gone back to the Greeks. We have to look at Goethe’s instinctive artistic life, when he sought Greek metre and what the Greeks had formed plastically in inner recitation. As with the other art-forms, true poetry was to be sought where the fountain-head of art sprang more abundantly – in primitive humanity, in unaccommodated man and his inner experience, not yet shrouded by the thick veil of materialistic civilisation. In Greek, we can observe the measured flow of the hexameter; we observe how the dactyls are formed. What do we really have in this verse-measure? Now we must remember, speaking more theoretically, how something lives in man which strives inwardly toward a certain rhythm or harmony of rhythms.

Let us take, on the one hand, the breathing-rhythm: in a normal person of average age, about 18 breaths per minute; while in the same space of time we have 72 pulse-beats, four beats coinciding with each breath. This is an inner harmonising of rhythms in human nature. Let us picture the four pulse-beats taking place in each breath and consider their ratio, their harmony with the breath. Let us bring the first two pulse-beats together into one long syllable, and the remaining two pulsebeats into two short syllables. We then have the verse-measure underlying the hexameter. We can also produce the hexameter for ourselves by examining the harmony of the four and the one: the first three feet and, as the fourth, the caesura – all being related to the one breath. What is formed in this way we derive from man’s own being: we create out of man’s being, embodying in speech an expression of human rhythms. Now the fourfold rhythm of the blood can, of course, struggle with the unitary breathing-rhythm, separating and reuniting as they strive toward harmony. They separate in this or that direction, and then flow together again. In this way are revealed the several forms of verse and prosody. But each time it is an overflowing of what lives in man himself into speech. In the formation of Greek metres man unfolds his own being; something of man’s most intimate morphology comes to his lips and forms itself into speech. Here then lies the mystery: the Greeks strove for vocal expression of the most intimate, even organic life of man’s rhythmic system.

Goethe felt this. The Greeks by their very nature (and let us not misunderstand this) were striving after thought. Not for mere abstract thought, but something that led them away, through thought, into concrete speech-formation – the pictorial that is active in man. For what occurs in man through the confluence of the blood- and breathing-rhythms is transmitted to the brain and transformed into thought-content. The process is even vaguely recognisable in prose. This is really thought that has been stripped of everything that lay hidden in Greek recitative metre. The Greeks spoke of the music of Apollo’s lyre, meaning man himself as a work of art: a rhythmic being in the harmony of his breathing- and blood-rhythms. Here are uttered unfathomable cosmic mysteries which tell us more than any prose language can.

Into all this sounds the will. As we turn to the north we meet once more with the declamatory. The general inclination of Nordic language, Nordic speech-formation, is to make the will predominant. It is mainly breathing which lives in Greek rhythm (being closer to thought than the blood-circulation), but the experience of blood-circulation was rightly regarded by ancient spiritual researchers as the immediate expression of human personality, the human ego. And this is what lives in the Nordic treatment of speech. Here we see how the blood-rhythm strikes in and the breathing rhythm recedes. We see in addition how the blood-rhythm is connected with the mobility of the entire man. Looking back, we see how in the Nibelungenlied Nordic man could sense the wave-beat of his blood, instigated by a will-impulse and then subsiding into thought: in this way alliteration comes into being. We begin with a will-impulse, which then strikes up against the form, like a wave building up and then subsiding again into the repose of rhythm. This was felt as something constituting the whole man. Whereas the Greeks wanted to penetrate inwards into the breathing-system, Nordic man was inclined towards depth of personality and the life of the blood-rhythm. Nordic-Germanic poetry is spiritualised human blood. Here the will lives and gives itself form. We must imagine the will-working of Wotan, moving on waves of air or welling up in man as blood and forming the human personality. [Note 24]

The primal element of will, the human being as a whole, finds expression in Nordic-Germanic poetry. We can see this welling-up and surging in the epic Nibelungenlied. And even in more recent times, Wilhelm Jordan has tried to imitate the alliterative style, such as lived in Nordic declamation, and has tried in the speech-formation of his own epic to restore to life the things I have described. What lives in Jordan’s Nibelunge, therefore, we must not simply declaim by extracting and stressing the prose content. Rather, there must sound forth that wave-motion drawn from the inner nature of man. In Wilhelm Jordan’s alliteration, these Wotan-waves must sound forth as they did when he himself recited them. This he actually did; those who were still able to hear him will know how he tried, through a declamatory verse-technique, to draw out what is latent in alliteration.

We shall conclude by giving an example from the beginning of the Nibelungenlied, where the Nordic element (as opposed to Greek metre) is in evidence. This will strike a contrast to what Goethe, particularly in his later years, received from Greek culture. From there he derived the finest quality that lived in him, while yet wishing to unite it, together with the Nordic, into a single whole.

And finally, a short passage of alliterative verse from Wilhelm Jordan’s Nibelunge – his attempt at a re-creation of ancient German poetry.

From The Nibelungenlied.

I. Äventiurde

Uns ist in alten maeren wunders vil geseit

von heleden lobebaeren, von grôzer arebeit;

von freude und hôchgezîten, von weinen unde klagen,

von küener recken strîten möget ir nu wunder hoeren sagen

Ëz wuohs in Buregonden ein vil edel magedîn,

daz in allen Landen niht schoeners mohte sîn,

Kriemhilt geheizen, diu wart ein schoene wîp;

dar umbe muosen dëgene vil verliesen dën lîp

Der minneclîchen meide trüejen wol gezam:

ir moutten küene recken, niemen was ir gram.

âne mâzen schoene sô was ir edel lîp:

der juncfrouwen tugende zierten anderiu wîp.

Ir pflâgen drî künige edel unde rîch,

Gunther unde Gêrnôt die recken lobelîch,

unt Gîselher dër junge, ein waetlîcher dëgen;

diu frouwe was ir swëster, die helden hetens in ir pflëgen.

Ein rîchiu küneginne frou Uote ir muoter hiez;

ir vater dër hiez Dancrât, dër in diu erbe liez

sît nâch sîme lëbene, ein ellens rîcher man,

dër ouch in sîner jugende grôzer êren vil gewan.

Die hërren wâren milte, von arde hôhe erborn,

mit kraft unmâzen küene die recken ûzerkorn.

dâ zën Burgonden sô was ir lant genannt.

si frümten starkiu wunder sît in Etzelen lant.

Ze Wormze bî dëm Rîne si wonten mit ir kraft;

in dienten von ir landen vil stolziu ritterschaft

mit lobelîchen êren unz an ir endes zît.

si sturben jaemerlîche sît von zweier frouwen nît.

Die drî künige wâren, als ich gesaget hân,

von vil hôhem ellen; in wâren undertân

ouch die besten recken, von dën man hât gesaget,

starc unt viel küene, in scharpfen strîten unverzaget.

Daz was von Tronege Hagene, unt ouch dër bruoder sîn

Dancwart dër snëlle, von Metzen Ortwîn,

Die zwêne marcgrâven, Gêre unt Eckewart,

Volkêr von Alzeie, mit ganzem ellen wol bewart,

Rûmolt dër küchenmeister, ein ûzerwelter dëgen,

Sindolt unde Hûnolt; dise hërren muosen pflëgen

dës hoves unt dër êren, dër drîer künige man.

si heten noch manigen recken, dës ich genennen nienen kan.

Dancwart dër was marschalc; dô was dër nëve sîn

truhsetze dës küniniges von Metzen Ortwîn.

Sindolt dër was schenke, ein waetlîcher dëgen;

Hûnolt was kameraere: si kunden, hôher êren pflëgen.

Von dës hoves êre unt von ir wîten kraft,

von ir vil hôhen wërdekeit unt von ir ritterschaft,

dër die hërren pflâgen mit freuden al ir lëben,

dësn künde iu ze wâre niemen gar ein ende gëben.

In disen hôhen êren troumte Kriemhilde,

wie si züge einen valken starc, schoene unt wilde,

dën ir zwên’ arn erkrummen; daz sie daz muoste sëhen,

irn kunde in dirre wërlde leider nimmer geschëhen.

Dën troum si dô sagete ir muoter Uoten.

sine kundes niht bescheiden baz dër guoten

‘dër valke, den du ziuhest, daz ist ein edel man;

in enwëlle got behüeten, du muost in schiere vloren hân.’

‘Waz saget ir mir von manne, vil liebiu muoter mîn?

âne recken minne sô wil ich immer sîn;

sus schoene ich wil belîben unz an mînen tôt,

daz ich von recken minn sol gewinnen nimmer nôt.’

‘Nune versprich ëz niht ze sêre,’ sprach ir muoter dô.

‘soltu immer hërzenlîche zër wërlde wërden vrô,

daz kümt von mannes minne; du wirst ein schoene wîp,

ob dir got gefüeget eins rëhte guoten ritters lîp.’

‘Die rede lât belîben, vil liebiu frouwe mîn;

ëz ist an manigen wîben vil dicke worden schîn,

wie liebe mit leide ze jungest lônen kan;

ich sol sie mîden beide, sone kan mir nimmer missegân.’

Kriemhilt in ir muote sich minne gar bewac.

sît lëbete diu vil guote vil manigen lieben tac,

daz sine wësse niemen, dën minnen wolde ir lîp

sît wart si mit êren eins vil wërden recken wîp.

Dër was dër sëlbe valke, dën si in ir troume sach,

dën ir beschiet ir muoter. wie sêre siu daz rach

An ir naehsten mâgen, die in sluogen, sint!

durch sîn eines stërben starp vil maniger muoter kint.

[Langland’s Piers Plowman is among the masterpieces of the English “Alliterative Revival” of the fourteenth century. This extract is from the C-text version, Passus IX, 152-191:

A Brytonere com braggynge a-bosted Peers al-so;

‘Wolle thow, ne wolle thow we wolleth habbe oure wil,

Bothe thy flour and thy flessh fecchen when ous lyketh,

And make ous myrye ther-myd maugre ho bygruccheth!’

Peers the plouhman tho pleynede to the knyght,

To kepe hym and hus catel as covenent was bytwyne hem:

‘Awreke me of these wastours that maken thys worlde dere;

Thei counte nat of cursing ne holy kirke dreden;

Ther worth no plente,’ quath Peers ‘and the plouh ligge.’

Curtesliche the knyght then as hus kynde wolde,

Warned Wastour and wissed hym betere,

‘Other ich shal bete thy by the lawe and brynge the in stockes.’

‘Ich was nat woned to wirche,’ quath Wastour and ich wolle nat now bygynne,’

And let lyght of the lawe and lasse of the knyght,

And sette Peers at a pese pleyne hym wher he wolde.

‘Now, by Crist,’ quath Peers ‘y shal apeyre yow alle!’

And hopede after Hunger that herde him at the ferste.

‘Ich praye the,’ quath Peers tho ‘pur charite, sire Honger,

Awreke me of these wastours for the knyght wol nat.’

Honger hente in haste Wastour by the mawe,

And wrang hum by the wombe that al waterede hus eyen.

He buffated the Brutener a-boute the chekes,

That he loked lyk a lanterne al hus lyf after.

He bet hem so bothe be barst neih hure guttes,

Ne hadde Peers with a peese-lof prayede hym by-leve.

Honger, have mercy of hem,’ quath Peers and let me yeve hem benes;

And that was bake for bayarde may be here bote.’

Tho were faitours a-fered and flowen to Peersses bernes,

And flapten on with flailes fro morwe til evene,

That Honger was nat hardy on hem for to loke,

For a potful of potage that Peersses wyf made.

An hep of eremites henten hem spades,

Spitten and spradde donge in despit of Hunger.

Thei corven here copes and courtepies hem made,

And wenten as workmen to weden and mowen;

Al for drede of here deth such dyntes yaf Hunger.

Blynd and brokeleggede he botnede a thousande,

And lame men he lechede with longen of bestes.

Preestes and other peple to Peers thei drowen,

And freres of alle fyve orders al for fere of Hunger.

William Langland (c.1331- ?).]

From Die Nibelungen.

“Hildebrand’s Homecoming”, Canto 17:

Schon drängten sich draussen mit dröhnenden Tritten

Zu jedem der Tore der Krieger tausend;

Schon hob sein Hifthorn der Hunnenkönig,

Um Sturm zu blasen. Doch stumm noch blieb es.

Ob sein Herz auch zermalmt war, er musste horchen,

Und gramvoll beseufzte die grosse Seele

Verloren Grund begrabener Hoffnung

In des stolzen Germanen Sterbegesang:

‘Erwacht! In den Wolken

Ist Waffengerassel.

Erwacht, es gewittert,

‘Als wieherten Rosse.

Walkürien kommen

Zum Kampf geflogen

In glänzenden Brünnen,

Von Brautlust glühend.

Sie lenken herunter

Die luftigen Renner,

Um Tapfer zu kiesen

Mit tötendem Kuss.

Erwachet! Es warten

Die Wodanswölfe,

Es rufen die Raben

Ihr Mahl zu rüsten.

Um der Seele die Pforte

Zum Sonnenpfade

Weit aufzuschliessen,

Ist Eisen geschliffen.

Das Leben ist Schlaf nur,

Erlösung der Schlachttod.

Erwachet zum Sterben,

Und Sterbend erwacht.

Erwachet! Es winken

Von Walhalls Schwelle

Die erkorenen Gäste

Des Götterkönigs.

Da lebt ihr in Leibern

Aus Licht gewoben;

Da ist Kampf nur Kurzweil

Und Wunde Wollust.

Da labt das Gedenken

Erduldeter Leiden,

Da schildert ihr scherzend

Der Niblunge Not.’

Wilhelm Jordan

[In the absence of any modern English attempt to restore alliteration in its full-blooded form, there may be a certain interest here in the following piece. The chiming effect of the alliterations serves in this instance rather to embellish and lend spice to the recitative flow of the verse, not aspiring to become the ordering principle of the poem:


Naked they came, a niggling core of girls

Maggoting gaily in the curling wool

Of morning mist, and careless as the lark

That gargled overhead. They were the root

Of all that writhing air, the frothing rock

Of that grey sea in whose vacuity

Footless they stood, nor knew if it or they

Were moving now. Yet, even as they gazed,

Cave after cave of light calved out of gloom,

As on they glided through the muddling veils

Roof rose on roof, laugh laddered into laugh

Into the motionless meadow, clear as stone,

Interminably domed.

Nothing supernal here; only cow-parsley:

Any place was convenient velvet,

And everwhere was peace, pin-drizzled by

Bird-song; the bay bare lake a gong

Unbruised. Easy at the sea’s edge the rocks

Breathed up and down.

The Inland hills stood still

Like hoardings to be stared at. Happy place!

And happy happy day! How giddily then

They sleeked along the sand with smoking heels.

Some frayed off with fountain-fling of arms

To play and plunge, staccatoing the water

And some more slowly followed, picking the deep flowers

Out of the fume and underdrone of bees: green-kneed

They rose and fell in waves delightedly: new sights

Consumed them; new mites and motes of smell

Held and incensed them: crumbs of booty glowed

In every foot-dent, eiderdowntrodden.

And all among them moved the moon-like cows

Grazing light tracks across the long night-grass.

But look! the Bull! indubitably bull,

Elbowing slowly through the obeisant herd,

Blazing and bellowing. His massy head,

Laden like a dahlia, dallied and swung,

And his vast eye slid to and fro as sharp

And glaucous as sea-holly, salting all

Their thoughts with suddenness. They hardly knew

What most to admire; but most his hub of power

And circumambience of gentleness

Delighted them. Arms curved and craved to stroke

His milky sides, insidiously veined

With watery blues and bloody ivyings.

But how describe him? words can only add

To lightning the thunder’s redundancy.

He was most godlike and most temperate.

Slow, slow, slow, with bubble-pause and slide

He paced before Europa there, and she

As if with shivering drew her shoulders now

Shyly about her, yet she shivered still.

Never did shadow so shimmer with midges

As she with switherings. Should she go?

Or no? Body and soul see-sawed in her.

As slowly the swan comes forward, in advance

Bearing its bellying tray of effusive plumes,

Yet backward rears its head and huffs its glance

As if it fended off its offering that presumes:

Swollen with slowness and undertowed by longing

It grows on the water, close, thundery, and thronging,

Till suddenly beside us, without fuss,

Immense it blossoms like a cumulus –

So slowly rose Europa, slowly she

Opened her fan-like self and mounted him

And spread her valances.

O how his reticence reined and trounced him then,

Lifting his feet into flounces of flight

And ratchet-edges of agitation,

Chawing each gentle step. To have and to hold –

How he would love to have but feared to hold

Her who as srnooth as metal sat and smiled.

And how his silver slaverings flowed, and now

His chattering hooves danced under him like stones....

W. R. Rodgers]