Learning a new language in old age is said to be good for the brain and the memory, so in my mid-’70s I took up German. I didn’t want to learn tourist or business German, I wanted to read poetry. I find it easier to remember poetry than prose, and could still recall odd snatches of Goethe that had come my way when doing an O-Level way back in the fifties. Maybe I could add some Rilke or some Hölderlin to my memory bank? I’d long wanted to read them. About thirty years ago, I found myself at dinner sitting next to a cultural attaché from the Goethe-Institut and talking to him about this very vague wish. I was just making polite conversation, but a day or two later in the post a handsome bilingual volume of Michael Hamburger’s translations of Hölderlin arrived. It’s the Routledge and Kegan Paul edition, Poems and Fragments, dated 1966, bound in dark blue and maroon leather, with copper foil lettering. I was touched and impressed by this thoughtfulness, and occasionally, in my then very busy life, I would open the volume, which I kept by my bed, and read a few lines. There was one fragment that enchanted me, four lines that I would read again and again and learned almost by heart:
Die Linien des Lebens sind verschieden,
Wie Wege sind, und wie der Berge Grenzen.
Was hier wir sind, kann dort ein Gott ergänzen
Mit Harmonien und ewigen Lohn und Frieden.
The lines of life are various; they diverge and cease
Like footpaths and the mountains’ utmost ends.
What here we are, elsewhere a God amends
With harmonies, eternal recompense and peace.
But I never got much further than that. More years passed, and eventually I reached an age where time seemed more spacious, not to say at times boring, and I felt in need of a pastime more stimulating than jigsaws and quick crosswords. (“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” John Berryman, “Dream Song 14.”) So I thought, once more, of German. I had long ago and hopefully acquired a second hand copy of Teach Yourself German and an excellent, large, indexed Collins dictionary, but I never got very far with them: my greatest success had been composing the sentence “Ich habe meine Brille verloren” while on a lecture tour of the Rhineland for the British Council. (It was a very successful sentence: a sympathetic bespectacled caretaker wearing friendly brown overalls found my glasses tucked away under the lectern on the lecture room podium where I had left them, an hour earlier. He snatched them from under the nose of a professor in full flow.) I knew I wouldn’t stick to my task without external discipline, but I couldn’t find a suitable class to attend. There were conversation classes available, but I didn’t want to converse. I wanted to read. I had enjoyed my Oxford continuing education courses on Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, but there didn’t seem to be any language courses on the same level.
I asked friends for advice, and was put in touch with a Ph.D. student in Oxford for private lessons. I told her I wanted to read the poems of Rilke, and she understood at once what I needed. The first poem we did (which she later told me was the poem that made her want to study German when she was still at school) was “The Panther.” Such happiness it gave me. She read it aloud to me, and then we went through it, word by word. I realize now how well chosen it was for a beginner.
Sein Blick ist von Vorübergehen der Stäbe
So müd geworden, das er nichts mehr hält.
I learned it, almost, and I could hear it pacing in my head, like the panther in its cage.
We moved on, through various sonnets, and then she herself moved on, to another university farther north, and handed me over to a Ph.D. friend. On I went with my new mentor, through more and more ambitious Rilke, through passages from the Duino Elegies, then back to Hölderlin, then on to the fin-de-siècle sadness of Stefan George and the despair of Georg Trakl. We discovered Ingeborg Bachmann and Else Lasker Schuler. We explored the anthology Deutsche Lyrik, and I learned how to pronounce the word “Lyrik” in German—not at all how I’d been saying it in my head. We dipped into some very lively Heine, who had hitherto been just a name to me, dimly associated with Matthew Arnold and romanticism. He wasn’t at all what I had expected. She introduced me to the poetry of Brecht, which was a revelation. I hadn’t known he was such a fine poet, though I knew his plays quite well. I loved the swagger of “Ich, Bertolt Brecht, bin aus den shwarzen Waldern… ” and the lyric melancholy of “An jenem Tag im blauen Mond September.” It still fortifies me up to say to myself “Ich, Bertolt Brecht, bin aus den shwarzen Waldern.” I, Bertolt Brecht, from the black forests come … He is cheering me on.
A new world opened to me with these poems. It’s sad that so few English readers know this world, and that the learning of languages is in such steep decline. One of the reasons given is that GCSE language courses are too demanding, and neither schools nor pupils want to risk the lower grades that might result. I suppose that might well be true. Learning a language is hard. I remember as a small child reading my way through the worthily pedagogic volumes of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which had some sections with little illustrated stories in French, and being dismayed to find that every single word had to be learned, separately, and that the syntax didn’t always reflect the meaning. This is from the story of the kitten that fell down the chimney, as it appears in the Encyclopaedia:
First line: French. C’est un petit chat, dis-je. Il a peur. Puis-je lui donner du lait?
Second line: English. This is a little cat, say I. He has fear. May I to him give some milk?
As we say it in English: It is a kitten, I say. He is frightened. May I give him some milk?
I studied these banal little tales as though they contained some hidden mystery. I longed to read and speak French, but I could see it was going to be a long haul.
I had hoped, as did Jude in Jude the Obscure, that there might be some key to the code, some easy way of converting one language into another. As a young man Jude sends off for a grammar from Christminster and is deeply disappointed by the two thin, soiled, thirty-year-old volumes that arrive. He had thought that “a grammar of the required tongue would contain, primarily, a rule, prescription or clue, to the nature of a secret cipher, which, once known, would enable him, by merely applying it, to change at will all the words of his own speech into those of a foreign one.” But he learns that “every word in both Latin and Greek was to be individually committed to memory at the cost of years of plodding … This was Latin and Greek, then, was it this grand delusion! … he wished he had never seen a book, might never see another, that he had never been born.”
Jude perseveres, lonely and against the odds, and learns his Latin and his Greek, though to little avail. I had more help at school, and was very well instructed in French, reaching a level where I knew I would always be able to read Racine and Baudelaire, even if I couldn’t face tackling the long texts of Balzac and Zola in their own language. I tried once to make my way through Balzac’s Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes, with its untranslatable, magnificent title, but was defeated by the richness of the vocabulary. I simply couldn’t read fast enough to get the hang of the story.
I knew my forays into German were never going to be successful without supervision and interaction, and I enjoyed my one-on-one tutorials. But I hadn’t the patience for the memorizing, the repetition, the revision. I wasn’t a very perseverant student, but I enjoyed looking for words in the dictionary, and grappling with the structure of composite nouns, and struggling to make sense of the poems by myself, and writing out lists of vocabulary in the sumptuous dark green marbled notebook which my daughter had given me for my birthday. One Christmas I requested Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage as a gift from my grandchildren, and spent many hours looking up phrases and trying to remember them. Some of them were startlingly but charmingly useless: I learned, for instance, the subtle difference between the plurals of Die Strausse (ostriches) and Die Sträusse (bunches of flowers). Looking through my annotated Hammer now, I am struck by the sadness of the words and phrases that attracted my attention. Fremd meaning alien, An Einsamkeit sterben meaning to die of loneliness, der Qual meaning pain or sorrow. Etwas ist faul im Staate Dänemark … Like Rilke, I liked the word irgendwo. I’m not quite sure why—it had a vagueness, a yearning about it. Somewhere, some place, anywhere. Yonder. Irgendwie is good, too. So wie der Staub, der irgendwie beginnt und nirgends ist… Just like the dust which seems to come from nowhere (Rilke, Neue Gedichte).
And there were less fearful words to which I was drawn, words that do not exist in English. Geschwister, I loved. It is a plural noun, meaning brothers and sisters. We use the word “siblings,” but it is not plural and collective, and it is not elegant. It smells of neologism and sociology. Geschwhister is poetic. Here is the ending of Rilke’s fourteenth sonnet to Orpheus, “Behold the Flowers”:
Oder er bliebe vielleicht; und sie blühten und priesen
ihn, den Bekehrten, der nun den Irhrigen gleicht
Allen den stillen Geschwistern im Winde der Wiesen.
That last line whispers of a meadow of flowers rustling in the wind together. The poet says the flowers are silent, “stillen,” but we hear them whisper in the line of the verse. Silently whispering. Edward Snow, perhaps Rilke’s most sympathetic translator, avoids the English word “siblings,” which others have reasonably adopted, and gives us, more beautifully, “all the quiet brothers and sisters in the meadow’s wind.”
When Rilke wrote those lines, he must have thought that peace had come to him, might come to him. But it hadn’t, it didn’t.
I didn’t learn very easily, and there’s so much that I haven’t retained, but it was an adventure. Another friend, a musician who has been patiently studying Italian for years, sent me a book of Lieder, with bilingual texts, because, as he rightly assured me, they were linguistically and philosophically less challenging than Rilke. I enjoyed them, and encountered old favorites. “On wings of song I’ll bear thee” had been on one of the very few gramophone recordings that my grandparents possessed. But I had been right to think that Rilke was what I needed. Poetry is a companion in sorrow.
Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre er hinter
Dir, wie der Winter der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
Dass, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.
Sei immer tot in Eurydike—
…Be in advance of all parting, as if it were
Behind you like the winter, just now going by.
For among winters there’s one so endlessly winter
that, wintering, your heart will win through.
Be forever dead in Eurydice—
(Translated from the German by Edward Snow.)
That was a poem that I read with my daughter in hospital in her penultimate illness, the one we thought she might survive. I hadn’t known then that we would be needing it so soon, so sadly. Einer so endlos Winter… Nor had I then known that she had written a poem for me, which she had asked her friends to save for me and send to me after her death. It is a villanelle, written some years ago, in which she imagines my death. I don’t know if she noted the resemblance when we read the Rilke together in hospital. As I hadn’t yet read her poem, I couldn’t have noted it. Her poem begins:
You, who have not died, lend me your pre-imagined ghost
To prepare the art of losing…
I still have not died. But she has. And everything I write and think returns to her.
While she was ill, and I no longer had the time or the heart to arrange German poetry lessons, I was introduced by my son to Duolingo, a basic language-learning app that confronted all the subjects that Rilke and Hölderlin neglected: supermarket trolleys, air tickets, mustard, shower gel, trousers (which Duolingo anglicized as “pants”), football teams, hospitals. The culture section concerns itself largely with sausages and beer and the phenomenon of the Oktoberfest. These basic lessons were a kind of company, and they kept me occupied in hospital waiting rooms, and on the bus and on the tube. Duolingo’s English is not always wholly accurate, and as it invites suggestions and corrections, I sent a few in, as I knew my son had done. These were for the most part ignored, but I was gratified to receive, months after my submission, an acknowledgement that “That is not a fitting answer” was an acceptable translation for “Das ist keine passende Antwort.”
Yes, Duolingo was my friend. I even liked the German voice that spoke to me when I was alone and nobody else was listening, the voice that asked me to transcribe its words. At least somebody was speaking to me. I was lonely, and I knew an even greater loneliness, a terminal loneliness, was coming toward me. I knew I wouldn’t know how to stay alive through this so endlos Winter.
German is a fine language for grief. By chance, the LRB-sourced house sitter who looked after our house in Somerset during the first months of 2019 was a poet, and a translator from the German, with a strong affinity with melancholy. Will Stone calls himself my poet concierge. He sent me his excellent Pushkin Press translation of the poems of Georg Trakl, Surrender to Night. Trakl is a classic poète maudit. Will and I cannot find a contemporary German phrase for that, though the Germans had plenty of them. (He tells me verfemter dichter is sometimes used, but it doesn’t have the ring and knell of the French.) There is something calming about surrendering to the night. How strange are Trakl’s tones and images: vivid colors, asters and mignonettes, sunflowers and violets, blackbirds and wild fowl, wells and fountains and chestnut trees, gleaners and children playing on the green. Mourning and corruption, strange skies. “In the corn the stern scarecrows turn.” A pastoral world, a world already vanishing, the end of an era. A break between the old world and the new. You wouldn’t think Trakl would die in the First World War, and so unpleasantly. But so he chose to do.
I think my relationship with the German language and with German literature has now faltered to a standstill. I retain a few phrases. These fragments have I shored against my ruins. I heard somebody say on the radio the other day that now that we have Brexit coming, we don’t need to learn any foreign languages. My German has not been utilitarian. It has been a language of mourning and of loss. And in that, there has been comfort.
Margaret Drabble is a novelist and critic. She has published nineteen novels, most recently The Dark Flood Rises (2016). A selection of her daughter Rebecca Swift’s poems, A Suitable Love Object, will be published in May 2020 by Valley Press.