<= 2009.11.17

2009.11.19 =>

How can you get too old to write about deserts?

There was a bit from Goethe in Italy that rang the alarm bells:

Täglich wird mir’s deutlicher, daß ich eigentlich zur Dichtkunst geboren bin, und daß ich die nächsten zehen Jahre, die ich höchstens noch arbeiten darf, dieses Talent exkolieren und noch etwas Gutes machen sollte, da mir das Feuer der Jugend manches ohne großes Studium gelingen ließ.

This is the W.H. Auden/Elizabeth Mayer translation:

I realize more clearly every day that I was really born to be a poet, and that in the next ten year, which are all, at most, that I shall be allowed to work in, I must cultivate this talent and produce something good. The time when the fire of youth enabled me to accomplish things without much study is now over.

And here is the newer translation by Robert R. Heitner:

It becomes clearer to me daily that I was really born for literature, and that for the next ten years, which is as long as I still expect to work, I should develop this talent and still produce something good, inasmuch as, thanks to the fire of youth, I once had some success even without great effort.

Explaining that fire of youth hinges in part on rendering the compact German da. Heitner bloats it out to “inasmuch as” and suggests that Goethe sees future work as some kind of recompense for his early success; Auden and Mayer lose the subordinate construction and make explicit Goethe’s implication that the time of easy accomplishment is over. He’s wrong on the timeline—he’ll have forty-four more years to work—but what’s on his mind?

He’s thirty-eight years old. Prior to leaving for Italy he’s spent eleven years working for the Duke of Weimar and gotten cash and prestige out of it; he’s also seen the fount of inspiration stopped up. He can do a lot of things and he’s being paid for the wrong ones. The fire of youth is what allowed him to dash off Werther between workdays at the Imperial Chamber Court; he doesn’t have that any more. He can’t do so many things at once. He gets tired, he loses the thread. A complicated life is built around him and he can’t hold it at arms’ length. On his birthday he vaguely asks his boss for an indefinite leave, slips away in the middle of the night and doesn’t come back for two years. To avoid discovery he pretends, ludicrously, that his name is “Filippo Miller.”

I didn’t conduct my twenties with foresight, and I suppose if I’d gone early enough to work for a duke I too could be retired in style. But that isn’t the usual way of things, where you get no terminus and the reward for doing five things at once is a list of five other things to do. I used to handle it better. Now I feel tired and slow; the devil wants me to put the drafts away, have a glass of wine and go to bed. The fire is probably steadier these days, but it needs tending, and I don’t trust the lackey I’ve hired to watch it while I’m away.

“I didn't conduct my twenties with foresight” is a nice piece of poetry, though...


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2009.11.19 =>

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