Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Jakob van Hoddis: The End of the World


Hats fly off the pointy heads of citizens,
Shouts and screams shriek in the wind,
Roof-builders fall to the ground and and break in half,
And—so one reads— floodtides are rising along the coast.

The storm is here, wild seas leap ashore,
Crushing thick dikes.
Most everyone has caught cold.
Trains fall from the bridges.

This early poem by Jakob von Hoddis, his most famous, dates from 1911 and is seen by many as a tocsin for the expressionist era in German literature. What is innovative stylistically is the accumulation of separate images which don't seem to follow one another logically, but which taken together form an intelligible whole. The painting by Meidner illustrates the same principle.

Thematically, the poet stands apart from the apocalyptic events he has read perhaps in a newspaper or magazine, and his ironic stance is reinforced by contrasting these calamities with the mundane reactions of the bourgeoisie, whose nerveless reaction to the approaching end of the world is to lose their hats in the wind and catch cold. So you might read the poem as a critique of sensationalist journalism and its effect on a benumbed or stupified public.

It is interesting that because of the mixed metaphors, one hardly notices that the poem is cross-rhymed: abba, abab. The poet plays also with alliteration, as in the phrase dicke Dämme zu zerdrücken.

Jakob van Hoddis was the pseudonym of Hans Davidsohn, born of a Jewish family in Berlin in 1887. He died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. Here is the poem in German:


Dem Bürger fliegt vom spitzen Kopf der Hut,
In allen Lüften hallt es wie Geschrei.
Dachdecker stürzen ab und gehn entzwei
Und an den Küsten – liest man – steigt die Flut.

Der Sturm ist da, die wilden Meere hupfen
An Land, um dicke Dämme zu zerdrücken.
Die meisten Menschen haben einen Schnupfen.
Die Eisenbahnen fallen von den Brücken.

The painting is by Ludwig Meidner, Apokalyptische Landschaft, 1913.

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