If not the greatest German poet of the 20th century, Gottfried Benn is in many ways the most representative. From the succès de scandale of his first brief collection, Morgue (1912), to the ill-advised flirtation with Nazism in the early 1930s and the postwar revival of the 1950s, Benn’s writing career spanned the formative decades of modern Germany. His lifelong work as a doctor – specialising in venereal and skin diseases – furnished him with a scientist’s scepticism about the metaphysical yearnings of modernity, yet he too shared these yearnings, as his quietly aching poetry amply attests. Less philosophically inclined than Rilke, more immediately accessible than Celan, Benn is among the most genially engaging of all the major German modernists. Why, then, has he struggled to gain a readership in the English-speaking world?
Michael Hofmann’s answer is that he has been inadequately translated. Despite influential champions, including T S Eliot and John Berryman, few sustained versions of Benn’s verse have appeared in English; unlike Brecht, as Hofmann ruefully remarks, he’s not even unpopular. He is certainly not the easiest of poets to translate, not so much because of any syntactical difficulty but rather on account of his tone, a laconic, smart-casual form of address that risks seeming slight when rendered into English. A further challenge is to avoid flattening out the differences between his early, expressionist idiom and his later, more meditative work. And which poems are most likely to appeal to those reading him in English? In an oeuvre that contains such a range of styles and periods, how to select?
Hofmann’s solution is to concentrate on the ‘shocking early’ and ‘weary late’ periods. Certainly few debuts have shocked as much as Morgue, the little pamphlet published when Benn was just 26. Although Hofmann does not include all nine of the poems in the original sequence, his versions of the first three give an ample sense of the sober, almost offhand manner in which the young coroner-poet sets flowers and beauty alongside corpses and postmortem surgery. In one poem, for instance, we are led to believe that the ‘beautiful youth’ is a young girl, only to learn that it refers to the rats living inside her dead body, nibbling on her entrails. The obvious comparison is with the ugly beauty of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857), but Benn’s idiom is more medical than classical, shocking precisely in its sobriety.
These early poems introduce a technique typical of Benn’s work, namely the expressionist synecdoche. While it is perhaps most obvious in poems such as ‘Express Train’ or ‘Night Café’ (‘Mossed teeth in pimple face/Waves to incipient stye’), across this selection the technique emerges as an echo of the autopsy theatre, where the human condition is reduced, quite literally, to its bare bones. The concentration on physical parts paradoxically becomes metaphysical, the immortal longings of mortality.
Beyond the ironic, disillusioned tone, these longings form the defining quality of Benn’s poetry. From the traditional German yearning for ‘mendacious/Southern happiness’ to the modern elegy for pre-modern simplicities – ‘O that we might be our ancestors’ ancestors’ – an abiding note of atavism underlies Benn’s view of 20th-century consciousness. Indeed, the broader perspective afforded by this cross section of poems suggests that his very sense of art derives from a dissociation of sensibility: ‘the counter-happiness, the intellect’ diagnosed in ‘Never Lonelier’ contrasts with the ‘sensuality and joy’ of the later poem ‘Encounters’. Art, observes Benn in ‘Syntax’, emerges as ‘a priapism of form at the expense of content’ – Dionysian intoxication is the only refuge of disenchanted modernity. If the double life of the poet and doctor implies a Cartesian division of body and mind, the poem is the pineal gland, reconciling sensation and sentiment.
Benn’s later work – for which Hofmann reveals a marked preference – betrays an increasing preoccupation with the irrecuperability of time. ‘It’s only the ephemeral that’s beautiful’, he writes in ‘No Tears’. This most Romantic of sentiments defines the autumnal mood of the late poems, where the ‘coagulates of the twentieth century’ – art and politics, diplomacy and daily life – mellow into the melancholy of old age. Despite Benn’s triumphant re-emergence after the war – in 1951 he became the first author to be awarded the newly founded Büchner Prize – his late work resonates with the same memento mori as the early Morgue, only this time in a register more meditative than medical.
That Michael Hofmann is equal to both the early expressionist and the late lyrical idiom is testament not only to his talent as a translator but also to the extent to which his own poetic style seems to have been honed by Benn’s example. Certainly there is much more to Benn than the poems included here – particularly in the middle years – and his political interventions remain controversial, however great the artistic achievement. With Hofmann’s elegant edition, however, this most German of poets may yet find an English audience.