The Sonnets of Lea Goldberg

By Yeglin, Ofra | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The Sonnets of Lea Goldberg


Yeglin, Ofra, Hebrew Studies Journal


The sonnet, the only genre that has existed in every European literature since its birth, from the thirteenth century to Romantic poetry, Modernism, and Post-Modernism (Italian, French, English, German, Russian, and also Hebrew), is a poem of a precise and rigid exacting style, fused together with the carpenter's glue of poetic artistry. So much "glue," in fact, that Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), the forefather of the German poetic tradition so admired by Lea Goldberg (1911-1970), explained in one of the two sonnets he wrote around 1800 ("Das Sonnet"), that his poems, like sculptures, are carved from that which is complete, organic, and natural (the tree itself) and do not require an artificial craftsmanship that retains only a distant echo of the actual thing. (1)

This study examines the sonnets of Lea Goldberg: Upon Middle-Eastern soil, she brought to fullest fruition the resonant melodiousness of this European form. Filled with the force of a mighty emotion and actually experienced content, none of the other classical forms which Goldberg made accessible to the Hebrew language (such as elegy and terzina) ever became as popular.

Her many sonnets, (2) and most significantly, the twelve sonnets of the cycle "The Love of Theresa de Meun" (1952-1955), defined, so it seems, the poetic portrait of the poetess (3) and has determined the reading of Goldberg as the poetess of love:

   This unrelenting curse with which I am cursed,
   The innocent call it Love--
   Oh, if you knew how I've sunk, how low,
   How contemptible in its suffering is my soul. (4)

In her introduction to the cycle, Goldberg played a literary game of hide and seek--claiming that the poems were written (and burned) by a sixteenth century French poetess, who fell in love with her son's young Italian tutor:

   Teresa de Meun was a late 16th century French noblewoman. When she
   was about 40 years of age, she fell in love with the young Italian
   tutor of her children, and wrote 41 sonnets to him. When the young
   Italian left her house, she burned the poems and entered a nunnery.
   Only the memory of her poems remains--a legend told by generations
   to come. (5)

The age, "about 40," and the number of sonnets, "41," are alluding to Goldberg herself at the time. The rest of the details: fifteenth or sixteenth century, France, aristocracy, young Italian beloved, and the legendary seclusion in a monastery, or a home, all suggests one or two historic figures: Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554), a young noble Italian sonneteer mentioned by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) in his first "Duino Elegies" (1912-1922), as the symbol of an unfulfilled love (6), and Louise Labe (1524-1566), a French Petrarchan sonneteer (translated into German by Rilke), Goldberg's subject in one of her later essays. (7)

This historic, scintillating invention, based on Goldberg's exceptional knowledge of European literature (and love of Rilke, her favorite poet), did not prevent her readers from identifying the "fictional" poetess with the twentieth century author and engraved in their minds a wrong impression of a bittersweet saddened poetess, who restrains her personal experience and sorrow in poetic structures.

The poetry of Goldberg is, indeed, of a character and style that every Hebrew reader knows by heart. A character which was accurately defined by Benjamin Harshav as "tranquil, homey, and Lea Goldberg's." (8) Indeed, in all of her literary occupations--poetry, plays, short stories, novels, children's books, criticism (of literature, drama, and plastic arts), essays, research and translations--there is that "homey" echo, exceeding the bounds of each category and uniquely identified as Lea Goldberg's only.

In the case of her poetry, this familiar echo was tailored, perhaps, from the routine meter and rhythm, the precise genre and rhyme, the musical harmony, her Modern Hebrew lexicon (not deeply rooted in former Jewish lexicons), a complete (non-modernist) syntax, phrases that are hardly surprising, and the limited collection of themes. …

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