American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Berlin

Poems of Places 7

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From Poems of Places, vol. 17, Germany 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


I’ve spent the past month packing up my father’s library, in preparation for his move to Maine. He and his late wife were historians, both doing their principal work on the holocaust, and the vast majority of the books are on that and related topics. Going through them, I’ve paid particular attention to items that touch on family history: my father is a survivor, born in Berlin, then deported to Łódź with his family, and after that to Auschwitz and other camps. There are a great many books that touch on those places, and I find them evocative even when they don’t pertain precisely to my father’s experience — as in the book shown below, which does not appear to include the Jewish school my father attended in the 1930s.

berlinIn the midst of all this packing and browsing, it occurred to me to look up the family sites in Poems of Places, just to see if anything interesting was there. I’m a big believer in the value of bibliomancy: ever since learning about the medieval practice of using Virgil’s Aeneid as an oracle, I’ve paid attention to randomly chosen text; fortuitous juxtapositions are even better. It’s not that I believe in such oracles, only in the value of exploring their hermeneutic possibilities. I have greater respect for chance than divination; I trust in fortune, not fortunetelling.

juvens1All that said, very few of the places I looked up were represented. There are some evocative poems about Poland in the Russia volume, but none about Łódź or Oświęcim. Nor are there poems in the Germany volumes about the cities of Braunschweig, where my father was briefly a prisoner near the end of the war, or Brandenburg, where the family went to stay in the days after Kristallnacht. I did find a few interesting resonances with other cities, most notably the text below, Longfellow’s sole entry for Berlin.

I have to wonder what other choices Longfellow had, since the poem has almost nothing to do with Berlin, or even with Germany. It concerns a Greek statue from 300 BC commonly known as “The Praying Boy.” Of course, since the Nazis considered Jews a foreign element, I find it fitting that Longfellow’s choice for Berlin should concern an outsider, indeed a refugee, if only a refugee from antiquity. And if this interpretation seems forced, note that the poem itself presents the boy in just this way: as a survivor miraculously pulled from the mass grave of history.

A few minutes with Google unearths the poem’s prior publication in The Monthly Religious Magazine (1862), as well as a later publication in Every Other Sunday (1900), the latter as part of an article on the statue that inspired the poem. Given these pious contexts, it is not surprising that the author, Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, was a minister. A Unitarian minister, part of the broader circle of New England intellectuals that included the Transcendentalists, with whom Frothingham was on friendly terms.

According to Frothingham’s headnote, “The Praying Boy” was dredged from the Tiber at the end of the seventeenth century, an origin central to the poem’s story, though it doesn’t seem to agree with what the curators in Berlin currently say about the statue. Indeed, according to some commentators, the statue is not even a depiction of prayer. They say the boy’s arms are raised because he is carrying a lost object. But whatever the statue’s original meaning, its altered meaning — the very fact that its meaning has altered — only adds to the sense that the bronze is alive, that it’s subject like any actual person to the vicissitudes of time. For this reason, the story of the boy’s recovery from the Tiber is as meaningful as his pose, whether that story is true or merely a myth.

If you look closely at the cover of Jüdische Schulen in Berlin, you’ll see that there’s a tall boy in the center of the crowd with his arms raised in a manner that rhymes with that of the statue. The meaning of the poses is of course different, but the natural gesture of upraised arms makes an evocative parallel, suggesting welcome and fellowship in one case, solitary thanks in the other:
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