Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. West-East Divan: The Poems, with "Notes and Essays": Goethe's Intercultural Dialogues

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. West-East Divan: The Poems, with "Notes and Essays": Goethe's Intercultural Dialogues. Translated by Martin Bidney. Binghamton, NY: Global Academic Publishing, 2010. Pp. liii+468. $30.95.

Entirely in the ludic mode of the author of the West-ostlicher Divan (1819, revised and expanded, 1827), the American poet Martin Bidney has journeyed east ringing the questing bell of his own caravan, issuing call and response to his brother Goethe and Goethe's adoptive "twin," the fourteenth-century Persian ghazalist Hafiz of Shiraz, in both translation and independent verse. This translation sets a new standard for Goethe's Divan. Set alongside Bidney's wit and concision, the prosody of John Whaley, whose 1974 bilingual Poems of the West and East: West-Eastern Divan [West-ostlicher Divan] (3rd ed., 1998) had greatly improved upon earlier attempts, often feels stuffily overdressed. One of Goethe's sauciest, but wisest, strophes:

   Trunken mussen wir alle sein!
   Jugend ist Trunkenheit ohne Wein;
   Trinkt sich das Alter wieder zu Jugend,
   So ist es wundervolle Tugend.
   Fur Sorgen sorgt das liebe Leben
   Und Sorgenbrecher sind die Reben.

which found its finest musical adequation in Hugo Wolf's lied bacchanal in tipping 6/8 time, becomes a real party-pooper in Whaley's hands:

   To drunkenness all of us must incline!
   Youth is drunkenness less the wine;
   Age may its youth in drinking renew,
   Wonderful virtue so to do.
   Dear life for cares enough will care,
   And the grapes will all our cares repair.

Bidney blows the dust off the bottle, and we rediscover a nice 1819 Goethe that dances idiomatically on the happily tipsy English-language tongue:

   Drunk is what all of us ought to be!
   Youth's being drunk without wine, you see?
   If age can drink itself back to youth,
   That's wonder-virtue, too, in truth.
   Dear life brings worry all the time--
   A worry-breaker is the vine.


This is the tavern scene as Goethe--and Hafiz ("Wine! bring me wine, the giver of mirth!" Hafiz exults in Gertrude Bell's delightful rendering of "From the Garden of Heaven," one of his Divan's early ghazals)--imagined it: the poet's praise of the Qur'anic wine served up in Prophet Saki's overflowing flasks, life's weighty anxieties lifted in the light oenoatmosphere. Gone the ponderous nominal abstractions ("drunkenness"), moralisms ("must incline"), pedanticisms ("so to do"), and archaisms ("all our cares repair"). Enter the naive spirit-consumer in search not of ideas but immediate experience ("drunk"), toasting to jussive verbs (ought to be) and insisting on dialogue with his fellow revelers ("you see?"). The examples could be multiplied.

At 474 pages, this is a brick of a book and includes a good deal more than "only" a translation of Goethe's Divan. For readers not well acquainted with the Divan, it offers a semester's worth of instruction, beginning with a thirty-page scholarly essay on Goethe's relationship with Islam and including reflections on the postcolonialist theory of "Orientalism" of which Goethe has been sometimes unfairly accused. Bidney further offers his own divan in twelve books that imitate and reflect on Goethe, which he calls "Commentary Poems for Goethe's West-ostlicher Divan" (289-468). …


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