Why memorize a 426-line German poem? Is wounded pride reason enough? A year or so ago, I was speaking with a couple of students about poetry, and I proposed that my generation was the last to learn poems by heart. We do not expect our platitudes to be challenged, certainly not in the way my students challenged mine. With a sly smile, the first student promptly launched into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which he followed up with Neruda’s “Pido Silencio.” His friend then delivered the opening of the Iliad and, after a pause, repeated it in Greek. Pleased at having amazed me, they let me in on their secret: “We’re on the swim team, professor. You have to have something running through your head when you’re underwater.”

The truth is, not since Mr. Germak drilled his eighth graders on the prelude to Longfellow’s “Evangeline” did I have to learn a poem, and that was in 1971. Chagrined, I vowed to make no more pronouncements about the memorization of poetry until I had replenished my own stock. Purely by chance I stumbled upon Schiller’s “Das Lied von der Glocke,” or “The Song of the Bell.” Despite years of college German and a few more at a German school of architecture, I had never heard of this epic about the casting of a bronze church bell. But once I did, a curious pattern emerged. If I mentioned the poem to a German friend seventy or older, he would invariably say “Fest gemauert in der Erden,” the poem’s first line, and start declaiming. If the friend was under seventy, he would invariably say, “My father always used to recite that.”

What was this poem that, once upon a time, every German knew? I found a recording and began listening. I was surprised to discover I already knew portions of it without realizing it. Its terse saws and admonitions long ago entered the language (“Meister muß sich immer plagen,” “Der Wahn ist kurz, die Reu’ ist lang,” etc.). It proved a pleasant accompaniment to morning coffee-making and teeth-brushing, and certain passages began to stick. At this leisurely pace, I committed the poem to memory. As it happened, it took a year.

Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), the poet and playwright, is one of the central figures of German literature. Together with Goethe, whose coffin rests next to his, Schiller helped create that fruitful synthesis of Enlightenment humanism and German romanticism known as Weimar Classicism. Goethe was the son of a lawyer who also studied law, while Schiller was the son of a military doctor who also followed his father’s profession, but only briefly. This gave him an appreciation of technical and physical processes, which is one of the chief interests of “The Song of the Bell.”

Although Schiller did not begin writing the poem in earnest until 1797, he had been planning a work about a bell founder for at least a decade, and had paid repeated visits to bronze foundries. Later he consulted Johann Georg Krünitz’s Oeconomische Encyclopädie, the landmark German encyclopedia of the early Industrial Revolution. The result is that the account of the casting of the bell, which gives the poem its formal structure, is meticulously accurate. Schiller breaks down the process of casting the bell into ten steps between the making of the bronze and the hoisting up of the completed bell. The poem begins with the famous passage of the bell founder contemplating the clay mold, submerged with a trench, into which the molten metal will be poured.

Fest gemauert in der Erden

Steht die Form aus Lehm gebrannt.

Heute muß die Glocke werden.

Frisch Gesellen, seid zur Hand!

Fast immured within the Earth

Baked of clay the mould doth stand.

This day must the Bell have birth;

Cheer ye, workmen, be at hand!

These ten stages in the process of casting the bell have been called the “work passages” of the poem, and they give it its second-person imperative energy. Here the bell founder orders his apprentices to gather dry wood, cook the copper and add the tin, to swing the hammer and break the mold, to hoist the bell, and so forth. But these work passages alternate with longer reflective passages, in which the process of making the bell causes the narrator to muse more broadly on life.

For example, at one point, the narrator spots white bubbles forming in the molten bronze and directs that potash be added. This will help bring impurities to the surface, where they can be drawn away, leaving a pure metal that will ring clear and full—as when it rings to greet the birth of a child. And all at once Schiller is contemplating the breakneck journey from infancy through youth, and the first tremors of love. But even as he ruminates over young love, he is wrenched back to reality by the sight of the ventilation holes of the oven glowing a golden brown.

Later, the master instructs his apprentices to check the mixture so that there is the right proportion of ductile copper and brittle tin. Here again is the leap of thought, for when the hard and soft unite, “when strong and tender merge there is a good sound”—as when two hearts are happily joined. And again the narrator is carried along on an extended reverie about marriage. And so the process continues through the poem, the narrator always thinking more freely and spaciously about the ramifications of the bell. The early stages of the process remind him of human life, but the focus widens inexorably. The dangerous process of pouring the molten metal leads to a meditation on the perils of fire, which in turn leads to the poem’s great set piece, a furious account of the destruction of a town by fire, delivered at breakneck speed.

Fire, Schiller warns, is beneficent if tamed, but terrible when it escapes its fetters, for the “elements hate the work of mortal hands.” The tempo is helped along by the natural German tendency for internal rhymes, which grow denser as the action grows tenser. As the fire flares along the streets, the tempo quickens, bursting into double-time as it reaches its apogee:

Pfosten stürzen, Fenster klirren,

Kinder jammern, Mütter irren,

Tiere wimmern

unter Trümmern;

Alles rennet, rettet, flüchtet,

taghell ist die Nacht gelichtet;

Posts are cracking, windows clinking,

Children crying, mothers shrinking;

Beasts are lowing

’Neath the ruin;

All are running, saving, flying;

Clear as day the night is glowing;

George P. Maurer’s 1840 translation renders the sense and emotion, but of course no English rendition can do justice to the hard, tumbling consonants of the original. These shifts in meter are one of the pleasures of “Die Glocke,” which is not one of those bonsai plants hobbled into an unvarying meter. The verses vary in length and meter, and hasten or slacken according to the matter at hand. In one of the poem’s most poignant passages, the narrator compares the casting of a bell underground to the planting of seed that will later sprout into glory, and then is reminded of the more valuable seed that is the coffin committed to the earth, which also blossoms into a greater glory. And at once the narrator hears the sound of the bell ringing for the beloved wife.

Von dem Dome

Schwer und bang

Tönt die Glocke


From the dome

Sad and slow

Tolls the bell

The knell of woe.

One of the unexpected pleasures of reciting “Die Glocke” aloud is to discover how nimbly Schiller coordinated rhythm and melody. Here the long mournful vowels echo the dong-dong of a funeral knell. This may be the passage that inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells,” which is a kind of condensed version of Schiller’s poem, pared down only to the varied occasions for the tintinnabulations of the bell.

The poem ends as the bell founder commands his apprentices to assemble and to christen the bell “Concordia” before hoisting it aloft. As he does, he reminds them that the bell speaks only of eternal and solemn things, that it itself is heartless and without pity, but that it gives voice to otherwise silent fate. The final line is an injunction that its first peal be to peace, an ardent wish in 1799. So the poem concludes, having won an enormously spacious scope out of the tiniest, precisely observed technical ambit.

The parallels that Schiller sees between the making of the bell and the course of human life—or of human society—are not coincidental resemblances or metaphysical conceit; they are the expression of the interlocking nature of all things. The ultimate sense of the poem is of the wholeness of the universe, of small wheels rotating within large wheels, all proceeding harmoniously according to a divine order. It is easy to see that Schiller’s poem would appeal to American Transcendentalists, who, like Emerson, viewed the world in quasi-religious pantheistic terms. In fact, the most important translation of the poem was made by Emerson’s friend the Rev. William Henry Furness, the Unitarian minister and father of the celebrated Philadelphia architect. Furness translated the entire poem in 1849, no small task given its intricate internal rhymes (and not altogether successfully, for Schiller pushed it to the mouth-tormenting limits of German consonants).

We can date with precision the removal of “Das Lied von der Glocke” from the German canon. In 1966 Insel-Verlag, the prestigious German publisher, brought out a new edition of Schiller’s poetry that omitted it along with several of his other popular works. No explanation was offered for the removal. The editor of the volume was Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a leading figure of the German Left. The omission outraged Germany’s literary world, and Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the influential literary critic of Die Zeit, challenged it in a thoughtful review.

To be sure, Reich-Ranicki conceded, “Das Lied von der Glocke” was not Schiller at his best. But he was hardly the only poet whose fame rested on his second-tier works; the same was true of Heine and Rilke. Would one therefore purge Heine’s “Die Lorelei”? Readers ought to be able to consult the poems from which Germans had extracted life maxims for more than a century, which permeated the language as only the Bible did. Without these poems, Schiller’s literary reputation was incomprehensible. Instead of revising it, Enzensberger had opted to “liquidate” it.

“Liquidate” was an odd choice of word, but Reich-Ranicki was on to something. Having begun his literary career in Communist Poland, he sensed that there was something ideological behind the purge, and indeed there was. This became clear with Enzensberger’s justification for his action, published in Die Zeit as “Festgemauert aber entbehrlich” (“Fast immured but dispensable”). Here he praised Schiller’s technical account of the bell casting for its extreme economy of diction and technical knowledge, even as he faulted the reflective passages for their “interminable proverbs,” “listless rhymerie” (Reimerei), and “non-committal ideology.” For Enzensberger, it was an extreme drop in quality between these two components of the poem and Schiller’s inability to unite them that caused the failure of the poem.

What particularly enraged Enzensberger was what he called the “placarded triviality” of the adjectives with which Schiller adorned his throwaway characters. Thus we hear only of the modest maiden, proud youth, faithful mother, peaceful citizen, and so forth. But these figures were meant as types, not individuals, and they were not meant to have strongly drawn personalities. Just as Millet refrained from showing the faces of his mighty gleaners and sowers, and Corot those of his industrious stone-breakers, the figures are generalized so as to stand for the whole. Enzensberger knew that, and one suspects that the real root of his hostility lay elsewhere.

The most explicitly political passage of “Die Glocke” comes near the climax, when the bell founder breaks the clay mold and allows the bronze bell to shine forth. Here Schiller warns that only the master, with his wise hand and judicious timing, can break the mold. Otherwise the molten alloy might gush out with hellish violence. And just as no beautiful form can emerge if raw forces are allowed to run unchecked, no happy social order can form if the people are permitted “to free themselves.” There follows Schiller’s explicit reference to the French Revolution.

Freiheit und Gleichheit! hört man schallen;

Der ruh’ge Bürger greift zur Wehr;

die Straßen füllen sich, die Hallen,

und Würgerbanden ziehn umher.

Da werden Weiber zu Hyänen

und treiben mit Entsetzen Scherz;

noch zuckend, mit des Panthers Zähnen

zerreißen sie des Feindes Herz.

Schiller’s savage alliteration does not carry over into English translation, although Furness conveys its note of frenzied hysteria:

“Equality and Freedom,” howling

Rushes to arms the citizen,

And bloody-minded bands are prowling,

And streets and halls are filled with men;

Then women to hyenas turning,

On bloody horrors feast and laugh,

And with the thirst of panthers burning,

The blood of hearts yet quivering quaff.

Schiller was writing in 1799, when horror and disgust at the French Revolution was at its zenith. But for Enzensberger this passage alone was enough to discredit the poem, a paean to bourgeois morality on the one hand and on the other a warning against letting the people “free themselves.” He cited it in his essay without comment, letting it speak for itself.

In the end, Insel-Verlag published another Schiller anthology which included the poem, but the damage had been done. Two years later, Enzensberger resigned a fellowship at Wesleyan University to protest the Vietnam War and spent the next year living in Cuba.

We speak of learning poems by heart, not by mind, for once we have fully absorbed them they are much like our heartbeat, a rhythm we feel within. And when we unscroll “Die Glocke” from within, rather than reading it from the page, we experience it in palpable physical terms. We become the bell founder and bark his brisk orders, then turn away to muse on their ramifications, only to be wrenched back as the bronze begins to bubble. Schiller reinforces this movement, which darts and flits like living thought, by sharp changes in meter. The reflective passages are iambic, the stress landing on the even syllables in a steady reassuring rhythm. But as soon as the bell founder speaks to his apprentices, he shifts to trochaic meter so as to stress his orders—cook the copper, check the mixture, etc.

It may be that intelligent reading makes us write better but that learning poetry makes us speak better. A memorized poem has a way of lingering in your ear, asking you if this thought could not have been expressed more tersely, or that phrase more musically. But such is the utilitarian justification, and we can do better.

It is dispiriting that contemporary arguments for memorizing poetry invariably treat it as a means to an end, e.g., to improve creativity or delay senescence. But this is to ignore the matter of pleasure; we do not eat the feast for the antioxidants. To own a poem completely is like owning a painting; it can be pulled out and examined with delight at any moment. “Die Glocke” may well be a bourgeois platitude, as Enzensberger sniffed, but then again so are most of the works of the Dutch masters. And so I have added to the gallery of my mind a new and bulky canvas, for my own delectation and anyone who can spare sixteen minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 16
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