It has now been more than a month since my last Waste Land post. Eeep! I was planning to devote more time to them this Lent but so far have been distracted by other things. I’ve been sitting on this post for far too long so I’m just going to throw it up even though I don’t feel like I’ve said much.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
This eighth line marks a distinct turn in the poem. And not only the obvious one from winter to summer; but also a turn of tone and of speaker. It always surprises me a bit. (get it? surprises?) The first seven lines are so elevated. They exist in a kind of no-man’s land of poetic abstraction. The subject of the first sentence is “April” of the second sentence is “Winter” and there is no clear referent for the direct object, “us” so that it feels like a sort of generic “us”. But the “us” in line eight doesn’t feel generic at all. We aren’t sure who it is that was surprised by the summer; but we know where they were: Munich. The Starnberger See is the Bavarian capital Munich’s nearest lake. We aren’t sure who they are, this group of people who stopped in the colonnade and then moved on into the Hofgarten; but those actions are much more specific and rooted in a particular here and now.
Suddenly we’ve gone from death into the midst of life. We are no longer contemplating the cruelty of April and the paradox of winter. Now we are glimpsing a group of people, surprised by a summer shower, taking shelter, talking and drinking coffee. This is cosmopolitan, multi-lingual Europe of the upper class, if you’ll pardon a glance ahead to the line about “the archduke my cousin” The commentaries I’ve seen spend time trying to pinpoint the identity of the speaker. Is she a particular Marie? A member of the Bavarian royal family? Is her cousin the archduke Rudolph whose life ended in an apparent murder-suicide or is he Franz-Ferdinand whose assassination precipitated the first World War? I’m not sure I care very much about the speculation. Is there just one speaker here or are there several? In any case Marie is the first of many speakers in the poem. Or if you will return to the original title and the idea of “doing the police in different voices”, she is the first of many “voices” that the poem puts on.
The line in German here translates as: “I’m not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, a true German.” It is the first of many lines in the poem that are untranslated from a variety of languages. (I don’t really count the epigraph and dedication, where an untranslated quotation raises few eyebrows.) Are the foreign languages there to merely seem impressive, erudite, and Continental? Is Eliot just showing off? Are they meant to be confusing and obfuscating? I don’t think so. Are they pointing to something more? Do they serve to heighten our awareness of fragmentation? Do they have something to say about the fragmentation of the literary tradition? About the increasing rootlessness of a modern people who no longer feel connected to their own history and traditions? Do they point to the Tower of Babel?
I’m still not sure what to make of this passage and the one immediately following. I have more questions than answers. One of the things that I am sure this project will highlight for me is exactly how fragmentary my own grasp of the poem is. There are many lines and passages that fit nicely into my mental map of the poem but there are many irritating bits that refuse to fit. It’s like one of those jigsaw puzzles with thousands of pieces. you always have a little pile at the side of the table that you aren’t sure what to do with.
What do you make of this bit of summer? Of Marie and the Hofgarten and the German speaker?
Photo credit: Hofgarten by siegertmarc, on Flickr