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Why the Dual Principles of Polaritat and Steigerung are Relevant to

the Study of Verbal Patterns that Recur in the Poetry of Goethe and the
German and English Romantics

Anyone nurturing the ambition to write a learned thesis is expected to define the
terms stated in title at outset. Wandering is particularly resistant to being defined, and as
Lord Byron implied by calling all wandering the worst of sinning, it is suspect in the
minds of many people, academicians included. However, derivatives of the verb to wander
cannot be readily ignored by readers of English poetry, still less by those who take an
interest in German poetry in which derivatives of the verb wandern could not be more
prominent than they are. My interest in wandering in the sense I have signified was
originally encouraged by an article written over half a century ago by Professor L. A.
Willoughby entitled The Image of the Wanderer and the Hut in Goethes Poetry. 1In
this Professor Willoughby made no mention of parallel developments on the side of
English poetry or even on the of German Romantic poets in whose works occurrences of
the word Wanderer were hardly less prominent than in those of Goethe.
Professor Willoughby attributed the insistent frequency of the word Wanderer
throughout Goethes poetry and other writings to the power and influence of the collective
unconscious according to its formulation in the Jungian theory of psychology according to
which the libido is engaged in a perpetual quest to achieve unity with the anima, thus
harmonizing the male and female principles that reside in the human psyche. Professor
Willoughby gave no explanation as to why the ubiquitous collective unconscious should
suddenly give rise to the phenomenon constituted by the frequency of the word
Wanderer in Goethes poetry.

L. A. Willoughby, "The Image of the 'Wanderer' and the 'Hut' in Goethe's Poetry"
(Etudes Germaniques, 3, Autumn1951).

Jung took great account of the etymology of crucial words. What can the common root of
the English and German verbs to wander and wandern reveal about the phenomenon of
wandering? This root is shared by the words to wend and wenden (German to turn) and
Wandel (German to change). Acts of changing and turning entail the possibility of
recognizing a distinction between two or more conditions or locations which produces
something analogous to a binary code, simple in principle yet highly complex in effect.
This fact gives rise to the ambivalence of wandering, its positive or negative import
depending on what one turns from and what one turns towards. Both Cain and a pilgrim are
termed wanderers; the former stands for one who turns away from good and the latter is
one who turns toward a spiritual goal. When designating a state of mind wandering ranges
in meaning from signifying madness to the highly poetic.
Many verbs denoting motion can become symbols of mental processes. Wandering may
denote physical movement but at its deepest level it underlies thought and like dreaming
remains in large part inaccessible to inquiry except via a hermeneutic exposition of its


lies at the cusp of manifold antimonies that concern,

philosophy, religion and literature, such antimonies including the relationship between
body and mind, internal and external reality, and, most relevant to the present discussion,
literature and life.
Willoughby traces the use of wanderer and hut imagery to an impulse that springs from the
collective unconscious postulated by C, G. Jung regarding the quest of the libido to find
equipoise in the union with the anima. Harold Bloom sees the same force at work as the
wellspring of Romantic poetry in England which in the view of his close associate Hartman
justifies the term Wanderer as an epithet for the modern self-conscious poet.
In times when church doctrines exerted an overriding influence deviation and with this the
notion of wandering carried preponderantly negative association with sinning and heresy
but in the course of the eighteenth century a strong countertrend reflected by developments
in literature set in. Cain, Ahasuerus or the prodigal son and pilgrimage came to serve the
aesthetic and psychological needs of Goethe and the Romantic poets. Deviation took on a
highly positive association with freedom from literary conventions and it is no accident
that Edward Youngs essay entitled Conjectures on Original Composition (1759)

praising the abandonment of the beaten road shortly preceded Goethes Rede zum
Shakespeares Tag, in which the word Wanderer made its first significant appearance in
Goethes writings, for in this Shakespeare was adulated as the greatest of wanderers (der
grsste Wandrer) on the strength of the sheer range and scope of his dramatic powers and
The figure of Faust incorporated characteristics of the rebellious Cain and the forgiven
penitent who is finally received into eternity as the Wanderer, so named in the final scene
of Faust II. In this case wandering involved more than a flat contrast of contraries but also
a dynamic working towards achieving their reconciliation. Just as in Thomist theology
the felix culpa committed by Adam and Eve in Paradise

is the

prerequisite for

redemption so the negative aspect of Fausts aberrant wandering is transcended by the

positive aspect of wandering as a process of healing and reconciliation that culminates in
the union of the libido and he anima, in Goethe words, das Ewig-Weibliche,.
Wandering encapsulates the principle which Goethe ascribed to the relationship between
Polaritat and Steigerung (polarity and ascent to a transcendental level). In the words of
Angus Nicholls in the Erluterung zu dem aphoristischen Aufsatz die Natur: Goethe
contends that out of the attraction and collision of polarities,Steigerung (intensification
and ascent) is achieved, through which the two hitherto divided principles are momentarily
united at a higher level.

Nicholls argues that Goethes concept differed from Hegels

system of dialectics in rejecting any notion that polaric tensions find harmony in some
abstract ideal but rather attributed to these tensions a never ending creative dynamic
acting on the creative mind and imagination as realized by art and literature.
While in the person of Faust the aberrant or centrifugal aspect of wandering is subsumed by
its higher aspect, the same antithesis is shown by the contrast between separate individuals
in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, a work which in the view of Friedrich Schlegel shared with
the French Revolution the claim to being the chief factor that gave rise to the German
Angus Nicholls, The Philosophical Concept of the Daemonic in Goethes Mchtiges
berraschen, Goethe Yearbook 14, ed. Simon J. Richter, Camden House, Rochester NY,
2007. 160.

Romantic movement. A consideration of this aspect of the novel will allow us to extend the
scope of enquiry beyond Willoughbys survey of the Wanderer in Goethes works to
include a discussion of the relationship between Goethes understanding of the role of
poets and that of the Romantics, a question that impinges closely on our study of
The novel tells the story of a group of actors an entertainers who are members of a
Wanderbhne, a peripatetic theatrical company. The leading actor Wilhelm Meister
exemplifies progress and consistency of purpose and underlines what Goethe saw as the
need for poets and artists to fulfil a positive and practical mission in society. By contrast
Mignon, a female troubadour, and the bearded Harfner (Harpist) exhibit aberrant and even
mentally distraught characteristics which were partly responsible for their untimely and
tragic deaths. The novel played a major role in promoting the rise of the German Romantic
movement with the paradoxical outcome that the Romantic poets adopted the word
Wanderer as the epithet chosen to identify themselves as poets and yet rejected the kind
of wandering that Wilhelm Meister stood for, siding with Mignon and the harp player, who
in their view had been unfairly punished for evincing romantic proclivities. Willoughby
also held that the early deaths of the romantic Mignon and the harper showed Goethes
disapproval of their irresponsible behavior and romantic trends. Willoughby placed the
r of romantic in the lower case but clearly an association with Romantic seems to
slipped into Willoughbys thinking. Goethe must have had truly prophetic powers if he
condemn a movement which had yet to come into existence and would do so at his own
instigation. Professor Friedrich Gundolf held that both kinds of wanderer sprang from
within Goethe himself and reflected the dichotomies between the unconscious and
awakened processes of the mind and imagination,

One should not confuse the moralistic

with the aesthetic and psychological aspect of the polarity that adheres in wandering.
Can the scope of this inquiry extend even outside the German-speaking world to poetry
written in English? Jonathan Wordsworth, a descendent of William Wordsworth, draws

Mignon und der Harfner stammen aus einer andren Schicht von Goethes Wesen und
Leben als alle andren Figuren des Meister." Friedrich Gundolf, "Wilhelm Meisters
Theatralische Sendung," Goethe (Berlin, 1916), 345.

attention to a direct link between Goethes poetic dialogue entitled Der Wandrer and the
figure of the Wanderer in William Wordsworths long poem entitled The Excursion.4
Coleridge drew Wordsworths attention to a translation of Der Wandrer in English, the
work of William Taylor of Norwich. In this the German Wandrer is echoed by the
English Wanderer in the title and in marginal pointers to the speakers. In fact Der
Wandrer played a pivotal role in the cultural interchange between English and German
literary developments. It imparted influence and was itself a reflection of English
influences on Goethe, as Goldsmiths The Traveller provided a source of inspiration for
Der Wandrer. In his translation of a poem included in James Macphersons Ossian
Goethe translated traveller as Wanderer with the effect that the same quotation appears
in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers: Morgen wird der Wandrer kommen, kommen,..


is noteworthy that William of Norwich did not choose traveller or a word such as
wayfarer as the English equivalent of Wanderer. Was this for the same reason that
could explain why Longfellow translated Goethes Wandrers Nachtlied as Wanderers
Night-Songs? I will raise this question in due course.
The noun Wanderer that in most cases evokes the image of some pedestrian wayfarer is
prominent in German Romantic poetry as in Goethes The bare title Der Wandrer heads
poems by Friedrich Schlegel and Hlderlin. The word wanderer in English Romantic

does not enjoy such prominence despite a poem entitled The Wanderer by Lord

Byron, Shelleys apostrophe to the moon as bright Wanderer in Lines written in the Bay
of Lerice, and Wordsworths reference to the Wanderer in my Soul in The Tale of the
Wandering Jew. The poetic implication of wandering in English Romantic poetry is
suffused though words derived from the verb to wander. When Shelley lamented the death
of Keats in Adonais (IX) he wrote: ..the quick Dreams, / The Passion-winged Ministers of
thought, /wander not- /Wander no more from kindling brain to brain,.. In non-poetic
language one might say: Keats was no longer able to compose poetry and communicate

Jonathan Wordsworth, The Music of Humanity, New York / Evanstone, 1969.

At a climactic juncture in the novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers Werther quotes a
passage from Ossian in order to overwhelm Lotte with intense passion and thus make her
yield to his unbridled ardor.

his thoughts.
William Blakes contrast between cold earth wanderers and the mental traveller
reflects a somewhat reserved attitude to the kind of wandering he discerned in the poetry of
Wordsworth and Coleridge, an indication that, as in contemporary German poetry, poets
distinguished between what they considered as the greater or the lesser manifestations of
the wanderer (poetry). The Wanderer should therefore never be understood as a poetic
conceit or blanket term. Further evidence that poetic achievement was gauged in terms of
the perceived quality of wandering is to be drawn from passages in Lord Byrons Don
Juan. In Canto XL Byron chides Juan as a youth who wanderd by the glassy brooks /
Thinking unutterable things. Inevitably a reference to Wordsworth crops up a few lines
later. The speaker in The Dedication had already confessed that as one wandring with
pedestrian Muses he could not contend with Southey on his winged steed, alluding to
lines in Book VII, (viii) in Paradise Lost, in which the words flying steed and erroneous
there to wander find a place.

Byron invested wandering with deep significance when it

broached matters of deepest concern to himself, as the last two lines in Canto 3, 70 in
Childe Harolds Pilgrimage disclose: But there are wanderers o'er Eternity /Whose bark
drives on and on, and anchor'd ne'er shall be.
In various instances Byron showed himself to be keenly aware of uses that Milton had
made of the verb to wander in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. We have just noted
that in Book VII of Paradise Lost that the speaker expresses fear that he might be
thrown from the flying steed of inspiration and wander forlorne. Goethe would later
express a similar fear of stalling in flight in Wandrers Sturmlied, which could indicate
that Milton had a premonition of the coming crisis of self-consciousness with which
Goethe and the Romantic poets had to contend head on. It seems probable that the impulse
from Goethe had jolted the cultural memory of the English Romantics so as to remind them

Least from this flying Steed unrein'd, (as once /Bellerophon, though from a lower Clime)
/ Dismounted, on th' Aleian Field I fall / Erroneous there to wander and forlorne.

that the verb to wander had played a significant role in their native tradition. Take
Shakespeares choice of the words derived from the verb to wander.
In Julius Caesar there is a line which implicitly associates the Poet Cinna with the act of
wandering from his home only to meet his death at the hands of a mob which confused him
with Cinna the Conspirator before recognizing their error and commenting that the poet
deserved his death anyway on account of his bad verses. Cinna had experienced a
prophetic dream in which Caesar appeared to him saying that they would dine together.
Here we find an indication that wandering implied the ideal concord between poet and
emperor in keeping with the Petrarchan ideal of the union of the two laurel crowns. In A
Midsummer Nights Dream wandering appears at its most felicitous in its embodiment in
Puck, that merry wanderer of the night, which is understandable in the light of the theory
of Jung that the ancient wanderers in mythology and classical epics represent solar
wanderers as symbols of the quest of the libido to achieve union with the anima.
If we accept Willoughbys thesis that collective unconscious causes verbal patterns to well
up anywhere within the ambit of its influence, we may conjecture that the association of
wanderer and night in A Midsummer Nights Dream and the title of one of Goethes
most celebrated poems is no coincidence. Wandrers Nachtlied has secured its place in
the anthology of German poetry as the prime example of exquisite lyricism and short verse.
Longfellows translation of the poems title as Wanders Night-Songs strengthens the
argument that for poets writing in English and German the words Wandrer and wanderer
are not only similar in appearance but constitute a unity as one word, a conclusion to which
William of Norwichs translation of Der Wandrer had already pointed.
True, in terms of a dictionary, to wander and wandern are not exact equivalents, but in
order to specify if the word Wanderer is to be translated as wayfarer, pilgrim, migrant or
hiker, one requires a clear context by which to single out the appropriate equivalent
among a range of possibilities. In the case of Wandrers Nachtlied it is no easy matter to
correlate the word Wanderer with an overriding theme to be found in the body of the two
poems that share the title of Wandrers Nachtlied.

In neither is there a reference to a

journey or a geographic destination, nor anything that might point us to a dramatic figure or
persona as in the case of Der Wandrer. The second poem could be treated as a nightscape

viewed by a nocturnal traveller but for this supposition there is no conclusive evidence.
The Wanderer could be treated as a pilgrim though life like Werther if one hears an echo of
the Lords Prayer in the first poem but such an interpretation does not exhaust all
possibilities presented by the poem. No particular meaning of this word has precedence
over any other. The question of finding the exact English equivalent of the German word
Wanderer is in any case one that might arise in the area of nonliterary prose for here a
reader or listener ascertains the one meaning of each word that accords with an overall
message or plain narrative. No such closure pertains to words in poetry as here
understanding the immediately obvious meaning of a word is but the beginning of an ever
widening exploration of its deeper meanings, associations and resonances, which in the
case of wandering ultimately reveal facets of the creative imagination .
Only the word wanderer in English comprehends the range of associations conveyed by
the title Wandrers Nachtlied. Here its multivalence is its virtue. In as far as wandering is
predicated on the representation of a journey or excursion, its centre of interest does not lie
so much in the respective itinerary itself as in what takes place at a decisive turning point
along the way (cf, Wendepunkt) instilling a moment of insight and recognition, be this
inspired by a spellbinding nightscape, the breathtaking view of a host of golden daffodils or
the perception of beautiful sea-serpents by the light of the moon. Wandering is primarily
about the impulse to reconcile contraries and antitheses, hence its intimate involvement in
acts of perception that mediate between the inner mind and the physical world with its
hills, trees and daffodils.
From a linguistic point of view Wandrers Nachtlied shows that the shorter the poem is,
the denser and more vibrant become the few words that compose it, as the reader is
commensurately less distracted by any product of the word, such as a certain unambiguous
meaning, a reference to some person, thing or subject. For this reason a section of this
study is devoted to the language theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and the findings of Juri
Tynjanov based on de Saussures distinction between the two aspects of language termed
langue and parole. The specific occurrence of a word retains its connection with the unity
that combines all words of like meaning and appearance, from which it follows that a
word set within a poem occupies the midpoint of several contextual planes beginning

with the narrow semantic context that the mind of a reader or listener instinctively seeks
and concluding with the context set by literary tradition and even by the scope of the
receptive mind itself.
What does all this this mean for the course of discussion throughout the rest of this study?
A comparison of those critics who have noted that a central significance attaches to the
word wanderer will serve to confirm that the scope of wandering encloses instances of
words derived from the verbs wandern and to wander in German and English literature.
There follows a survey of critical theories concerning the nature of poetic language and the
foundation of textual criticism. A major section of the book contains studies of poems and
literary works in which derivatives of the verbs to wander and wandern are found. This
study continues from where Willoughby left off, though in a more rigorous and systematic
manner, The scope broadens to include poems which treat archetypal figures that can be
meaningfully identified as wanderers for reasons that will have emerged from earlier
analyses. Finally a position will be taken on the issues concerning basic relationships such
as that between literature and life; wandering, as I argued earlier, is about fundamental
relationships including the most basic one of all, that of the unconscious and conscious
portions of the mind.