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Poetry and the Art of Speech
GA 281

Lecture IX

29 March 1923, Stuttgart

Permit me to turn now to a consideration of something that might be couched in more learned terms – though then I should need more time. I should like to make a point about the art of poetry by means of an illustration. It must, however, be more than an illustration: it should point to the reality. Everyone whose sense for true knowledge can extend to the artistic will grasp what I mean.

We refer to the Fall of Man. We speak of how man broke away from those regions he inhabited while still under the direct influence of the Godhead, where the Godhead still held sway in his will. It is true that we speak of the Fall of Man as a necessary preparatory stage of freedom: but we also speak of the Fall in such a way that, to the extent that he became man forsaken by God, man lost that divinely inwoven strength in the interweaving of his words. We refer to the Fall of Man because we feel that there is something in our present thoughts that was not there for the humanity of primordial times. At that period there was still to be found in the weaving and undulating of human thoughts the presence of a divine-spiritual potency. In thinking, man still felt that God was thinking in him. With the attainment of human independence, especially in its preparatory stages, came about what we call the Fall of Man. But humanity was forever longing to return to its primal innocent state. Particularly when man felt himself raised into the super-sensible, in a sacred, but also in an artistic experience of exaltation, he felt that this was simultaneously a reversion to the primal innocent state. And when Homer says:

Sing, O Muse, of the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles

this is an invocation of the time when man lived at a cosmic level, and had immediate access to the world of the gods, being himself a psychic-spiritual entity. All this corresponded, indeed, to the reality. And in art man saw a vivid reminiscence of that primaeval period of innocence. This takes us right into the details of art – and especially poetry, which is interwoven so intimately with human experience.

Let us now survey a later time. Let us look, for example, at the time of our own poets. Their inclinations are toward rhyme: Why? It is because man, if he were to weave and live artistically and poetically with the divine-spiritual in the original state of innocence, would have to adhere to the syllable, and its quantity, metre and weight. But he cannot do this. Man has passed from the uttering of syllables in his primal state, to the fallen condition and the speaking of words, where he is drawn to the outer physical world of the senses. To create poetry means to long for a return to primitive innocence. We have still to “chant and sing” in the time of the Fall, but we have, so to speak, to do penance. We must go through with the transition to the word and the prosaic; but we have to do penance, and this we do in terminal rhyme and organization in stanzas. If we go back to ancient times, however, when mankind lived in closer proximity to the primaeval innocent state, things were quite different – at least as regards many peoples, particularly the Germanic peoples. They did not at first return to the primaeval state of innocence with a chanting of end-rhymes and strophic organization, in penance for the prosaic word. They drew to a halt before the word and, before the word came into being, they diverted their sensitivities in the direction of the syllable; they did not return to the primaeval state of innocence through an atonement, through an expiation, as it were, but retained a vivid memory of it in their alliterations.

Alliterative poetry expresses man’s yearning to stop at the syllable and not proceed to the word, to hold on to the syllable and, in uttering it, to achieve the inner harmonies of a poetic mode of speech. We might say that alliteration and terminal rhyme are comparable in the sphere of sensibility to the recollection of the state of innocence that we have in alliteration; and that they represent an atonement or expiation for the Fall into the word, through terminal rhyme and stanzaic organization.

It is indeed the case that art and poetry take to themselves all-embracingly whatever is universally human. This is why it is so congenial to return to the age of Nordic poetry. Here we see the poetic urge of a people wishing to attest man’s recognition of his divine-spiritual origin through not proceeding from syllable to word, but holding on to the syllable in alliteration.

In the nineteenth century Wilhelm Jordan tried, as you know, to revive alliteration, when our language had advanced far beyond all possibility of reverting to the earlier state of innocence. From a certain point of view it is indeed a praiseworthy undertaking, provided one is always conscious of the fact that it was an attempt to raise a sacred treasure at a time when man had been long alienated from the gods. This attempt by Wilhelm Jordan is still informed by a good – indeed by the best of aesthetic intentions: an understanding of how to conduct art to the universally human. I was myself still able to hear how Jordan wanted his alliteration spoken; in particular, I have heard it done by his brother. All the same, I think it best to speak the alliteration only in so far as it is still appropriate to our more advanced language. This was attempted, too, in the field of recitative art as cultivated over the last decades by Frau Dr. Steiner. She will therefore endeavour to give you an example from the poems of Wilhelm Jordan, showing how alliteration holds its place in the whole field of poetic creation, and how we must try (in terms of either declamation or recitation) to interpret the alliterative poet. Though it may seem a trifle impertinent to say so, we shall not find what is wanted along the lines followed by Jordan’s brother. We must defer more to the genius of the language, rather than to a poetic intention – albeit an extraordinarily well-meaning one – which does not always accord with the genius of the language. I refer here, of course, not to the poetry, but to the brother’s way of reciting. On the other hand it does show how much strength – how much primaeval strength, as Johann Gottlieb Fichte once said of the German language – still remains in the German language today, if one knows how to handle it. What emerges with particular force in this poem is just how much of that primaeval strength Wilhelm Jordan could wrest from the language with his alliteration. And in these hard times, the still unharnessed strength of the language, notably in Central Europe, can prove a comfort to us – a comfort in that it fills our hearts with the conviction that whatever external or material fate may befall Central Europe, the German spirit will not wither away; the German spirit still holds its reserves of original, archaic energy and primordial power in readiness, and when the right moment comes it will find them. [Note 31]

In the best sense, I would say, they were sought by the poet who wished to enter again into the poetic innocence of former times through a revival of alliteration. Let us now conclude with a performance of an alliterative poem. [Note 32]

[Modern English efforts in alliteration are largely confined to reproducing in contemporary language the older sagas and poems. This is another version of Beowulf, and our extract is the climactic episode of the slaying of Grendel:

From the stretching moors, from the misty hollows,

Grendel came creeping, accursed of God,

A murderous ravager minded to snare

Spoil of heroes in high-built hall.

Under clouded heavens he held his way

Till there rose before him the high-roofed house,

Wine-hall of warriors gleaming with gold.

Nor was it first of his fierce assaults

On the home of Hrothgar; but never before

Had he found worse fate or hardier hall-thanes!

Storming the building he burst the portal,

Though fastened of iron, with fiendish strength;

Forced open the entrance in savage fury

And rushed in rage o’er the shining floor.

A baleful glare from his eyes was gleaming

Most like to a flame. He found in the fall

Many a warrior sealed in slumber,

A host of kinsmen. His heart rejoiced;

The savage monster was minded to sever

Lives from bodies ere break of day,

To feast his fill of the flesh of men. But he

was not fated to glut his greed

With more of mankind when the night was ended!

The hardy kinsman of Hygelac waited

To see how the monster would make his attack.

The demon delayed not, but quickly clutched

A sleeping thane in his swift assault,

Tore him in pieces, bit through the bones,

Gulped the blood, and gobbled the flesh,

Greedily gorged on the lifeless corpse,

The hands and the feet. Then the fiend stepped nearer,

Sprang on the Sea-Geat lying outstretched,

Clasping him close with his monstrous claw.

But Beowulf grappled and gripped him hard,

Struggled up on his elbow; the shepherd of sins

Soon found that never before had he felt

In any man other in all the earth

A mightier hand-grip; his mood was humbled,

His courage fled; but he found no escape!

He was fain to be gone; he would glee to the darkness,

The fellowship of devils. Far different his fate

From that which befell him in former days!

The hardy hero, Hygelac’s kinsman

Remembered the boast he had made at the banquet;

He sprang to his feet, clutched Grendel fast,

Though fingers were cracking, the fiend pulling free.

The earl pressed after; the monster was minded

To win his freedom and flee to the fens.

He knew that his fingers were fast in the grip

Of a savage foe. Sorry the venture,

The raid that the ravager made on the hall.

There was din in Heorot. For all the Danes,

The City-dwellers, the stalwart Scyldings,

That was a bitter spilling of beer!

The walls resounded, the fight was fierce,

Savage the strife as the warriors struggled.

The wonder was that the lofty wine-hall

Withstood the struggle, nor crashed to earth,

The house so fair; it was firmly fastened

Within and without with iron bands

Cunningly smithied; though men have said

That many a mead-bench gleaming with gold

Sprang from its sill as the warriors strove.

The Scylding wise men had never weened

That any ravage could wreck the building,

Firmly fashioned and finished with bone,

Or any cunning compass its fall,

Till the time when the swelter and surge of fire

Should swallow it up in a swirl of flame.

Continuous tumult filled the hall;

A terror fell on the Danish folk

As they heard through the wall the horrible wailing,

The groans of Grendel, the foe of God

Howling his hideous hymn of pain,

The hell-thane shrieking in sore defeat.

He was fast in the grip of the man who was greatest

Of mortal men in the strength of his might,

Who would never rest while the wretch was living,

Counting his life-days a menace to man.

Many an earl of Beowulf brandished

His ancient iron to guard his lord,

To shelter safely the peerless prince.

They had no knowledge, those daring thanes,

When they drew their weapons to hack and hew,

To thrust to the heart, that the sharpest sword,

The choicest iron in all the world,

Could work no harm to the hideous foe.

On every sword he had laid a spell,

On every blade; but a bitter death

Was to be his fate; far was the journey

The monster made to the home of fiends.

Then he who had wrought such wrong to men,

With grim delight as he warred with God,

Soon found his strength was feeble and failing

In the crushing hold of Hygelac’s thane.

Each loathed the other while life should last!

There Grendel suffered a grievous hurt,

A wound in the shoulder, gaping and wide;

Sinews snapped and bone-joints broke,

And Beowulf gained the glory of battle.

Grendel, fated, fled to the fens,

To his joyless dwelling, sick unto death.

He knew in his heart that his hours were numbered,

His days at an end. For all the Danes

Their wish was fulfilled in the fall of Grendel.

The stranger from far, the stalwart and strong,

Had purged of evil the hall of Hrothgar,

And cleansed of crime; the heart of the Nero

Joyed in the deed his daring had done.

Trans. C. W. Kennedy.