So there you have it. Cool. Perhaps, like a musical theme, a poetic one needs variations, too, to give its all? I am sure there could be many more versions: Perhaps you would like to make this poem your very own by translating it, instead of entrusting it to an old fogey like me?
You first want to know which of my versions is "the correct one"? Oh brother! So you want to know which one of my coat tails to ride on? Well, you see, a translator must be able to exist in different epochs. That is part of his job description.
Poetry, most of it anyway, has a narrative. Just like history. Much of History is His-story. (Nowadays it's an Her and-His story, of course.) But stories, stories they all are. They have to. And while certain things in history rarely change - such as the dates of battles or the names of kings - the way we read and feel epochs changes with the epochs themselves, i.e. with us. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, says the poet, 'the times change and we change with them'. And the words of poems, once written, are similarly pretty firm, but the way you read them and feel them changes with yourself and your time... Compris?
But what if you consider yourself an American and a realist, in history and poetry? Ok, then: How did the Americans read the American-Indian Wars a hundred years ago, and how do they read them now? Because, mind you, what was sayable then is not sayable now - and the other way around. Definitely. It defines American society. See what I mean?
[I could give you a few more examples, but they would become increasingly gruesome and I am much too fond of the good American people to do a thing like that. Besides, Americans are not exclusive in their behavior: I could list other countries that are far worse. I just wanted to make a point about poetry. Or history. Or, really, the malleability of the human brain and the resulting malaise of the human mind.]
So, sorry, you will have to learn German for the sake of wandering through Hesse's fogs. But not only that. You will then have to forget all that the term "German" means to you. I mean, really means. Mean, right? And then, for my part, I shall have to forget Hesse's time and Hesse's personality, not to mention my own. Finally both of us will have to make a stand on Hesse's words (as they now stand). But then, Heureka!, dear Reader, then and only then might we be able to have a productive conversation. One in which we could disprove Hesse's contention that "Each is alone". And what do you figure are the chances for that?
Later (September 2009)
Dear Reader, I must confess to correcting two "copy-paste"-imported typos in Hesse's poem: In the original post, his "licht" was incorrectly cited as "Licht", and his "Dunkel" as "Dunkle". Sorry about that — it was entirely my fault for not checking!
Herr Dipl.-Math. Wolfgang Gleiser fortunately saw the error of my ways and kindly took the time to let me know. I am sending him a big Dankeschön! (Go and do likewise says the Good Book to my cherished readers!)
As I commented earlier on, additions to my webpages usually cause collateral damage, i.e. they induce further comments, if not changes to the translations — and not always for the better, I must admit. But that's the way my cookie crumbles.
What comments? Well, the question came up - it always comes up, doesn't it? - which version I consider the authentic one. Of course, the answer to that is easy: Both!
How that could be when there is only one German version? Well, let me spell it out for you. Read them both, carefully. Then choose the one that's right for you.
Not what you meant? You wanted the "original" Hesse? Then learn German! You wanted the English that is closest to the original Hesse? Well, then you'll have to tell me first what Hesse had in mind at the time he wrote the poem!
Yes, of course you don't know — but neither do I! And Hesse himself might well have answered "Both!", just as I did.
Why? Was he of a split mind? Well, that too. But that wasn't the reason. The reason is much simpler than that — and it applies as well to any great piece of art. Or, for that matter, any great myth.
A great poem is greater than the sum of its words, just as a genuine myth is greater than the sum of its narrative. Poems and myths, and great pieces of art in general, are many-splendored things: Different people experience them differently, they read and see and hear different contents.
And not only that. The same person will experience them differently at different stages of his life and differently even in different environments or situations.
The great poem contains all of these worlds of different content and mood that you read into it. It is of the metaphor, not of the definition. It comes from the dark cavern of the soul, not the smooth white walls of a court of assessment.
That is why one never tires of a great piece of art and why one keeps discovering new meanings in it as time passes and minds change: Art, as they say, is eternal. And this is the way it keeps being eternal.
In fact, you could use this ever-changing appearance as the true yardstick of whether a piece of poetry, or visual art, or music is "true" art. Does it walk with you, ever changing, ever offering new insights, new delights? If you find such a piece, then you will know that it is, indeed, art. And then, like your own true love, it will become your companion for life.
You wonder how I could have made such a grievous error as not checking a poem for its correct wording? Well, I just did. But, listen, then I explained. And then I apologized. And then I added some comments that, I hope, even Hesse from his heavenly abode could welcome with a smile. Because he, more than anybody, would understand.
You see — just to let my light shine a bit through the barrel — I don't need that crutch of infallibility any more. Infallibility is an infantile concept, one that you use only when you still have difficulty walking by yourself.
[Although I must admit, after forty-odd years of teaching chemistry, that here is nothing more difficult or treacherous than to teach first-year students that their beloved teacher (or, for that matter, their expensive textbook) can, and occasionally will, be in error. But that needs to be taught, difficult or not. Even if it has to be by example of my very own suffering...]
So that's all for today, Students! Review Hesse in the light of what you have learned today. And please pick up your corrected pop-quizzes by the door as you leave...