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The Poets Word and its Contexts: A Preamble



A Propostion that Verbs of Motion (to travel, to wander and to progress, etc.)
Are Part of the Fabric of Thought, Underlie Much Poetic Imagery and Spur
Major Advances in the Literary Domain

The word preamble (from the Latin ambulare (to walk) reminds us how metaphors based
on references to bodily movement constitute the very fabric of our thinking processes.
When using the words progress and digress we are usually unaware that the abstract
notions they signify go back to the Latin word meaning to step. The received metaphors we
employ daily also lie at the root of poetic imagery and even provide the initial stimulus for a
major new development in the history of literature, as in the case we now consider.

In 1771 Goethe, then in his early twenties, declared his allegiance to Shakespeare as "the
greatest of wanderers" in the Rede zum Shakespears Tag "(Speech on Shakespeare's Day"),
essentially a highly effusive polemical manifesto that might be described as a declaration of
emancipation from traditional literary conventions and norms, particularly those governing
drama according to the rules based on the Aristotelian "Unities." Shakespeare is depicted as
a titanic figure in which Prometheus and the folkloric giant in seven-league boots coalesce,
forming the central sustained image that informs the entire speech. The striding giant not
only represented the universal scope of Shakespeare's imagination as manifested by his
dramas and poetry but also marked the debut of an era in which the word Wanderer gained
unparalleled prestige and resonance, first in Goethe's poetry and later in the works of the
German Romantic poets and even in those of Wordsworth and other English poets.

The phenomenon of wandering in such terms as those outlines above, while not ignored
altogether, has not been awarded the attention it so clearly deserves in academic books and
critical articles. Those scholars who have recognized in the Wanderer a matter of central
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importance in their respective articles on Goethe and the English Romantic poets agree that
the phenomenon is rooted in the quest of the libido to achieve union with the anima as
defined in the theories of Sigmund Freud and G. C. Jung, theories for which Goethe himself
secured the foundation. For want of a commonly accepted belief in the muses of ancient
Greece or a similar source of direct divine inspiration, it is only by taking recourse to
consulting Freud and Jung on the nature of the subconscious or collective unconscious that
we can find a sufficiently broad basis for exploring the possibility that the phenomenon of
wandering transcends the barrier between the English and German languages. Here it is also
pertinent to reflect on the fact that notable translations of the word Wanderer in Goethe's
poetry by William of Norwich and Longfellow retain the identical form: "wanderer."

While any verb denoting physical motion may become a metaphor for a mental or
imaginative process, the root meaning of to wander in English, and wandern in German is
"to change" or "to turn" and thus denotes an abstraction with no necessary implication of a
physical bodily movement. Hence its pivotal function and implication, its power t o imply
interrelationships and the very principle of reciprocity especially in the question of the
body-mind relationship. We can go further to recognize in wandering a dialectic force able
to reconcile or unite the very oppositions wandering also brings to mind, especially in
naming allegorical figures traditionally associated with the wandere,r on one side Cain and
the Wandering Jew, and on the other the image of a pilgrim on a spiritual journey through
life. The same figures provided Goethe and the Romantics with a stock of indispensable
images and terms of reference irrespective of any poet's personal religious beliefs, which in
many cases did not accord with the official doctrines of Christianity.

In their articles devoted to the subject of "the Wanderer" Geoffrey H. Hartman recognizes
that the wanderer or wandering Jew poses a central motif in English Romantic poetry
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while Professor L. A. Willoughby has noted that the Wanderer / der Wandrer is the central
image in Goethe's poetry.
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However, Hartman only considers the wanderer as a symbol of

1
Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Romanticism and 'Anti-Self-consciousness"', Romanticism and
Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom,New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1970,. 46-56.
2
L. A. Willoughby,. "The Image of the 'Wanderer' and the 'Hut' in Goethe's Poetry,"
Etudes Germaniques, 1951, 3, Autumn 1951
.
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a purely internal mental process while Willoughby infers from Goethe's frequent use of the
word Wanderer that there is an inseparable connection between Goethe's creative writings
and the course of his life. Hartman ignores that the verb to wander implies the interaction of
mental and bodily motions. This Willoughby accepts but fails to relate the issues
surrounding the Wanderer in Goethe's works to the general phenomenon of wandering
evident the works of Romantic poets and a poetic tradition that embraces works by
Shakespeare and Milton.

. Goethe and the Romantics did not arrive at a common intellectual formula with which to
meet their needs but their overall strategy was much the same; they persevered in the
practice of their art finding their staying power in exploiting the qualities and dynamics of
language itself. As Frederick Nims once noted, a traveler may be an isolated symbol and a
mountain may be the same but should the traveler take but one step towards the mountain,
an allegory results spontaneously irrespective of any authorial intention.
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Furthermore, to
wander is more than any verb able to denote such actions as walking or roaming for it is
imbued with a treasury of associations some of which I have mentioned

The uncertainties and angst that beset the generation of poets to which Goethe and
Romantic poets belonged exposed a crisis stemming from a questioning of language itself
and this crisis appears most poignantly in poems in which the word Wanderer enjoys great
prominence and significance. The Wanderer which we encounter in the form of a word
that appeared in the titles of Goethe's early poetry was not a conventional tag or poetic
device. It betrayed Goethe's awareness of tensions and dichotomies affecting him
personally. For this reason he withheld Wandrers Sturmlied from publication until virtually
obliged to do so decades after its composition. The tensions in question were not
exclusively personal but reflected the turmoil of an age that fittingly earned the title of
Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress"), originally the title of a play set in the midst of the
American Revolution. The turmoil and disquiet which reached their climax at this time
were not only of a political and social character for they exposed a general crisis that
involved questioning the basis of religion, philosophy and not least the essential nature of


3
Frederick Nims, Western Wind, an Introduction to Poetry, New York. 1983, 20


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language, after all the medium and vehicle of all thought, and it was poets naturally enough
who were acutely and forcibly aware of this fact. A sense of the desolation experienced by
poets during this period comes over most strikingly in Hoelderlin's "Dichterberuf" (Poet's
Vocation), particularly in the closing lines that voice the poet's consolation in the
contemplation of God's absence (Fehl Gottes) implying that poets now had to fulfill their
divinely appointed task by working on their own initiative and discovering the innate value
of their poetic medium without external props. This meant exploring the innate
potentialities of language through perseverance and dedication

Leading philosophers in the eighteenth century lauded progress as the principle that should
guide humanity toward the future course of civilization in the belief that discoveries in
science and technology would automatically induce the betterment of the world. The
language of the modern world, the Marquis de Condorcet pleaded, should be precise and
mirror accurately the insights of philosophy based on scientific discovery. Words should
have a clear and precise meaning.
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In such a climate it is no surprise that "all wandering" is
declared by Lord Byron to be the worst of sinning in Don Juan and the wandering in
question meant deviating from a logical and chronological account of events.
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Thomas
Love Peacock wrote in his essay The Four Ages of Poetry (1820) that poetry was a
development that had taken place during man's infantile state at the dawn of history and had
little place in the advanced modern age. To this Percy Bysshe Shelley took great exception
and defended the poet's prophetic vocation despite his rejection of formal religion.

One concomitant of secularization was the demystification of language, a process intimated
in the opening scene of Goethe's Faust Part I, in which Faust pores over the task of
translating a portion of the New Testament. He confronts the task of finding the most fitting
German word for the Greek logos. He rejects the traditional word ("Wort") in favor of deed
("Tat"), a decision which Leon Trotsky would endorse in a statement on literature in the

Esquisse d'un tableau From Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet,
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historique des progrs de l'esprit humain (Paris: Masson et Fils, 1822), 27985, 29394, 303-
5.
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The regularity of my design / Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning (Don Juan,
Canto 1, VII.)
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fullness of time.
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Goethe and the Romantics found themselves in a period when it was too
late to rely on the intervention of a muse and too early to consult the theories of Freud and
Jung. The frequent use of words derived from the closely related verbs to wander and
wander helped them to tide themselves over in a period of uncertainty for among its other
associations such words evoked traditional notions concerning a supernatural source of
inspiration which Milton condensed into the Muse and the Holy Spirit in the opening lines
of Paradise Lost. In the seventh book of the same work the speaker betrays a fear that
without the inspirational assistance of Pegasus, his bid to ascend to the celestial sphere will
fail and see him topple to earth "there to wander and forlorn." (PL, VII.12-20) Byron
alluded to this passage in his mocking reference to Southey in the eighth stanza of the
Dedication to Don Juan, Essentially the same dread of stalling in flight for lack of divine
support is expressed in Goethe "Wandrers Sturmlied." Shakespeare, described by Goethe as
"the greatest Wanderer of all," anticipated Goethe and Novalis by associating the wanderer
with the night and the power to explore the elements of nature and again anticipated Goethe
and the Romantics in identifying Cinna the Poet as a wanderer in Julius Caesar (III, 3).
Goethe and the Romantics tapped the potential of words derived from wander and wandern
with regard to their ability to recall the motif of pilgrimage and in so doing rebutted the
concept of progress entertained by proponents of secular rationalism. A linkage between
progress and pilgrimage appears in the very title of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and it
is surely to the sustained metaphor of a pilgrim's journey through life that this novel owes
its fame, denied to other works by John Bunyan based on a static metaphor. Goethe evoked
the association of wanderer and pilgrim in Werther's outcry "I am but a wanderer, a pilgrim
on earth's journey."
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While in Don Juan Byron described the hero's life in terms of ever
widening circles reminiscent of the circuitous structure of Dante's Divine Comedy, the
sustained metaphor of pilgrimage informs Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, lending shape and
coherence to this poem in which uses of the verb to wander are highly poignant. The use of
any verb of motion infuses dynamic but to wander does more: it shapes and fosters
harmony and rounded completion.

6
Leon Trotsky, "The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism," Literature and Revolution
(Russian version published in 1924), tr. Rose Strumsky.Ann Arbor: 1960.

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, "Am 16 Junius. Ja wohl bin ich nur ein Wandrer, ein Waller auf der Erde." (On 16
th
June.
"I am but a wanderer, a pilgrim upon the earth").
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The course of history has exploded the facile notion that scientific and technological
progress ensures the general amelioration of the human condition and with its demise Love
Peacock's assertion that logically constructed prose had rendered poetry redundant and
obsolete. However, wandering still seems to be the worst of sinning in the minds of critics,
scholars and even poets. Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom share Peacock's view that
poetry has outlived its effectiveness as a vital form of language, but for a quite different
reason. As a result of the process Bloom calls "internalization" poetic language allegedly
lost its connection with external realities, be they biographical, historical or religious in
nature, Words become labels for nonverbal components of poetry, symbols, quasi-music
effects and images. As Ezra Pound put it, words are like numerical notations with their
limited ability to define one value whereas images are "|algebraic" in that they denote
variables.
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Juriy Tynjanov has explained why words can achieve just that power of infinite
variation if seen as the point where many contextual planes intersect. His theories are to be
examined in due course.
It is one thing to find fault with current schools of literary criticism, quite another to
construct a basis for contending with a phenomenon such as wandering. The essential area
of research and inquiry to be explored lies in the study of language and the most promising
avenue of exploration was laid down by Ferdinand de Saussure and subsequent logocentric
theories concerning the relationship between general language and the language of poetry.
For me this recognition came somewhat late in life. My readings in the works on Dylan
Thomas led me to an interest in Robert Browning's poetry. I detected in "Fern Hill" an
undeniable allusion to the motif of the Pied Piper and then felt drawn to a close reading of
Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." The apparently simple narrative contrasted starkly
with the obscurity of Dylan Thomas's works. Beneath the smooth surface of Browning's
poems I sensed complexities and even the possibility of cryptic messages. A section of this
book reflects my interest in the figure of Pied Piper, which also fits into my understanding
of wandering. As a student of German at University College London I enjoyed the
privilege of studying under the guidance of Professor Elizabeth Wilkinson and Leonard
Forster. At that time Professor Wilkinson was one of the most renowned experts on Goethe
in the world and even today I remember her explication of "Wandrers Nachtlied" during a

8
Pound, Ezra, "Vorticism," Fortnightly Review (Sept. 1914).

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tutorial. However, my interest in Goethe's poetry was aroused many years later when
attended a seminar on Goethe's poetry at the University of Texas at Austin supervised by
Professor Christopher Middleton, a reputed poet, translator and scholar. The term paper I
wrote on "Wandrers Sturmlied" prompted my interest in the wider ramifications of the
figure of the Wanderer in Goethe's poetry. Intuitive hunches did not prove sufficient to cope
with the issues with which I had to deal within the framework of my formal studies.
However, the brilliant instruction of the Late Franticek Galan set me on path the that
eventually led me to a logocentric method of textual analysis which I developed in the
course of private research.