This elegant little volume is a centennial tribute to Hellenist, poet and educator Vera Lachmann (1904-1985), a German émigré to America who fled the Nazis in 1939.1 The title is from the last line of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “The Walk” (“Der Spaziergang”): “And Homer’s Sun: Behold! It is the same that shines for us.” The book consists of two essays by Lachmann, several of her poems — in German, with English prose translations — and her translations of fragments from epic, lyric and dramatic poets. The CD has fragments of her fireside recitations, given at Camp Catawba, the North Carolina retreat she founded, where young people could immerse themselves in the culture of the Greeks by hearing her voice around a campfire. This book is a memorial to a passionate advocate, and teacher, of Greek culture.
There is first-hand evidence here for the transmission of Hellenic thought to American students, through the lens of early twentieth-century German classical scholarship and Romanticism. But such an analysis would likely be something other than what Lachmann would have wanted, for she was not a scholar but a poet, and less a student of the Greeks than one who reveled in their culture and brought its enchantments to young people. Her own published work was three volumes of poetry.2 Editor Charles A. Miller — also the book’s publisher — describes her approach to education as “felt learning,” and her own poetry as “learned feeling.” (17) This captures both her debt to the German Romantic tradition as well her path in life, which took her to emotional interaction with Greek culture rather than the travails of scholarship.
Miller’s introduction, “Vera Lachmann, Hellenist,” is a concise (29 pages) portrait of Lachmann and the formative influences on her. Born in Berlin in 1904 “on the high plateau of German philhellenism,” she was drawn to the classics not by the lectures of Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, which she attended at the University of Berlin, but rather by the earlier excitement of Helen Hermann, her instructor at a progressive school, Odenwald.3 “How she could tear down the curtain and introduce us to other worlds!” she wrote of her teacher and mentor. (1) Lachmann was deeply involved with the German Romantics — Goethe, Wolfram, and lesser known figures such as Friedrich Hölderlin and Stefan George — and Miller describes how she was “tugged in two directions for both a philosophy of life and a career by which she could live that philosophy out.” She made her choice with a decision not to complete the second dissertation required for university teaching, but to open a school in 1933 for Jewish children who were excluded from public schools, run from her apartment and co-directed by Hermann. She fled to America in 1939.
After short teaching stints at Salem College, Bryn Mawr and the Yale German Department, she taught classics at Brooklyn College from 1948-1974. Despite her influence on students (Miller quotes several), her emotionalist “felt learning” did not lend itself to academic advancement. She was most distinguished by her purchase of 18 acres of land in the mountains of North Carolina, and the establishment of Camp Catawba, a retreat for students that may have been modeled on Odenwald. Miller paints a wonderful picture, starting in Chapter One, “Homer,” of nights around the campfire, of young people inspired by listening to Lachmann not only recite Homer but also embellish the tales as a personal storyteller. It is an added bonus to enjoy Lachmann’s own voice on the CD, as her young charges heard her. Following a reading of Odyssey 8.83-95, when Demodicus sings at the feast given by the Phocians, she draws the text into vivid immediacy:
And then he started singing, of all subjects, about the wooden horse and the fall of Troy. Now — can you understand that? — when Odysseus heard this, that something he had lived through, that was part of his life, had already become a subject for literature, for a song, for an entertainment among other people — that was a very strange sensation. He put his cloak over his head and quietly cried. I can understand that very well — I don’t know whether you can. Some things I have lived through have already become subjects for drama or for history or for a movie. And I can’t really stand hearing it. And it moves me strangely — and that was the way Odysseus felt. He just cried. (26)
Lachmann’s own emotive connections were not only to the death of Helen Hermann at Auschwitz — which she learned of after the war — and the suicide of her friend Erica Wiegand, but also to the death of her older brother, Erich Lachmann, fighting for Germany at the front in August, 1914. In her poetic diptych to Erich, the first sonnet is set in Flanders, but the second is in Iliad 16, the burial of Sarpedon. Despite such morbid themes and their profound effect on her, Lachmann’s own favorite poet was Pindar — sampled in Chapter Two “The Poets,” with fragments of Pindar, Sappho, Alcman, Simonides, Ibycus — precisely because he is the poet of praise. We hear her read two fragments of Pindar, and three by Lachmann herself, in German as always. Excerpted here, and performed to music on the CD, is her “Dankender Preis” (“Thankful Praise”):
Singst du, Pindar,
Stroemt wie des Obestes ein Duft
Aus der Schale, wo der Pfirsich
Samten schlummert Trauben.
Pindar when you are singing … a fragrance streams as from fruit in a bowl where the peach velvetly slumbers under grapes.
Chapter Three “The Dramatists” reveals Vera Lachmann staging dramas at Camp Catawba: Chekhov, Molière and Schiller, as well as Aeschylus’ Persians, Aristophanes and Sophocles. Lachmann translated Philoktetes into English, her only translation of a drama (of which this book provides only a snippet). Miller reports, with explicit disappointment, that “few poetic or even distinctive passages can be found in her translation.” The possibility that her work might work better in an oral presentation than in silent reading is suggested by the one snippet that is provided, which allows an actor to cry out the syllables of Sophocles himself: “It kills me child! I am devoured, child! Papai! Appappapai! Papappapappapappapai!” as Philoktetes begs to have his foot hacked off. (46)
Lachmann’s dominant focus remains on the theme of place. Chapter Four “The Geography of Greece” (with fragments of Pindar, Solon, Bacchylides, Archilochos, Anacreon) is drawn from her unfinished manuscript “Greek Places and Greek Poems.” Under Lachmann’s care, poetry becomes a motivation to visit Greece, and, for those unable to do so physically, a way to make the journey without leaving one’s home. A special treat here is a small watercolor by Lachmann, from above the agora in Athens, looking upon the Temple of Hephaistos behind the Church of the Apostles. Her poems to Athens, Delphi, Mycenae, Orchomenos and the Aegean reflect her deep conviction that the Greeks portrayed the transcendent by faithful rendering of that which is immediately before them. In “Abschied von Attika” (“Farewell to Attica”) she writes:
Marmormutter! Muss ich mich von dir wenden,
Attike, du grosse? In deinen Furchen
Marble mother, must I turn away from you, great one, Attica? In your furrows songs sleep.
Vera Lachmann’s choice of a career as a teacher and poet was nearly perfect; her one article project, in 1969, was an effort swamped in misery. Chapters Five and Six are two of her essays. Chapter Five, “The Bow and the Lyre: A Fragment by Herakleitos” is an address to the Honors Students of Brooklyn College, a very short (three and a half page) translation and analysis of a fragment of Heraclitus, used beside the passage in Odyssey 21 where Odysseus “feels the bow in his hands.” Thesis, antithesis and synthesis are her defining paradigm: “In the two instruments, the bow and the lyre, the ingenuity of man has forced recalcitrant ends together, in the bow for pain, in the lyre for joy.” (71) Given the metaphor, Lachmann affirms the place of Heraclitus in a literary tradition, all the while introducing a daring new thought, that the only constant is change. What is important here is of course the record of how such ideas were communicated to university students over nearly three decades.
But it is Vera Lachmann’s essay in Chapter Six, “Lyrics of the Greek Landscape,” written as an introduction to her unpublished book, that provides the closest equivalent to her own theoretical understanding of poetry (in 14 pages). Her focus is on the view of nature the poets embraced, so radically different from our own (“so much does the town seem to be grown from the soil. Both [a house and a stream] seem a part of nature,” 74); the places they lived in (“With its merciless contrast of rich and poor, with its thrills of entertainment and politics, its ethnic turmoil, noise, dirt and crime, Alexandria was a city in the modern sense,” 75); the poet as individual (“To achieve this the lyric poet of ancient Greece adopted, as lyric poets have since, a stance of arrogance,” 76); “the inviolable relationship between god and place” (80), and the use of simile and epithet. But most of all it is the locale that is important to Vera Lachmann. Her poetry becomes a motivation both to visualize Greece and to visit the Marmormutter, by uniting the general with the concrete, the sublime with the physical, and the divine with a pastoral hillside.
There are many technical questions that arise from reading Vera Lachmann. To mention just one, just how should we take the poets’ representations of places? On the one hand, she tells us that they “speak of places whose significance is, however, legendary; although the poets would not have put it this way, the places are a mix between fact and fiction.” (78) On the other hand, “contemporary readers should also not take the theomorphic representation of scenery or the polis as a literary device.” What is the purpose of fictional places if not literary devices? But to analyze her this way misses the point. In her world it is the emotional experience that is the key to appreciating Greece not the nuances of scholarship or technical expertise.
Charles Miller, who is not a classicist but clearly a philhellene, deserves credit (and an order) for this self-published book. In his words, the book “is intended to exemplify and preserve the memory of a person who touched the lives of many others and helped shape their minds and their spirit.” There are a few typos — kuroi for kouroi (76), Arcagas for Acragas (84), “form Horace to Keats” (85) — and I do wish the CD selections had been organized in the same order as they appear in the text, but these are minor quibbles. One can hope that this little volume gains a reading from classicists, and that a fuller treatment of Vera Lachmann’s life — and the illumination it can shed on the transmission of classical culture into the present day — can be brought to fruition.
1. The volume is available from Charles A. Miller, Trackaday, 280 Strickler Ln., New Market, VA 22844. The audio CD contains readings, in Greek and English, from Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Pindar, Sappho, Alcman, Ibycus and Solon; and a musical setting by Tui St. George Tucker of a poem in German, in praise of Pindar, by Vera Lachmann. Poems by Vera Lachmann include: Awakening in Athens; The Parthenon; Morning in Olympia; Castalia: The Spring at Delphi; Aegean Ship; In Eressos; Evening in Mycenae; Farewell to Attica.
2. Her poetry was published by Castrum Peregrini Press of Amsterdam as Golden Tanzt das Licht im Glas / Golden Dances the Light in Glass (1969), Namen Werden Inseln / Names Become Islands (1975), and Halmdiamanten / Grass Diamonds (1982). Miller’s Notes and Acknowledgements include helpful references to Vera Lachmann’s poetry in other works.
3. Miller quotes Lachmann’s friend since student days, Friedrich Solmsen, on Wilamowitz: “hardly anything he said led to an appreciation of Sophocles’ poetry, of his characters, his view of life or whatever it was that set him apart from Aeschylus and Euripides.” (2) From Solmsen, “Wilamowitz in His Last Ten Years,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 20.1 (1979), 89-122, p. 107.