Antike und deutsche Dichtung is the first volume of the three-volume series Antike und Neuzeit and a part of a larger series of books which fall under the umbrella of Heidelberger Studienhefte zur Altertumswissenschaft. These books are intended to “give a concise, systematic presentation for individual areas of antiquity, with examples of relevant text interpretation, as well as an introduction based on carefully selected source and bibliographical information to convey the current state of research.” Volumes 2 (Antike und europäische Literatur) and 3 (Weltdichtung in Raum und Zeit von Vergil bis Borges) have already been published as well. Von Albrecht himself would like to “awaken a love for language and literature and convey some of the joy of discovery that makes dealing with classical authors so refreshing” (7). His love for antiquity is apparent and shines through the entire volume. Not for beginners, von Albrecht’s erudition, which is both broad and deep, demands a capable knowledge of the ancient and modern poets. The reader should possess a familiarity with the Romantics, Ovid, Shakespeare, Music Theory and much else in order to get the most out of von Albrecht’s theses. The scope of the book is wide in terms of works, time, and genres covered. The earliest of the “modern” poets is Paul Gerhardt (1607 – 1676) and the latest is Durs Grünbein (1962 – ). Von Albrecht writes easily about Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, the Modern and the Contemporary, and also several genres including epic, lyric, drama, elegy, and satire.
The book consists of a foreword, nine clearly organized chapters, and an index. Almost every chapter is dedicated to a specific poet, with the exception of chapter 5, which is focused on the theme of poetry and rhetoric. In the absence of an introduction, the foreword gives us a brief overview of each chapter and poet. Each chapter is self-contained with its own endnotes. The chapters are not linked through a specific theme, but, rather, they are a collection of new and previously given papers. That being said, the themes of “the Self” and “antiquity as a mirror” are important from the beginning. It is not the goal of this book to be exhaustive and comprehensive, but one noticeable lacuna is the paucity of poets from the time of the Second World War and the post-war period. Brecht’s Der gute Mensch von Sezuan is mentioned as a parody of the antique deus ex machina and in comparison to Paul Gerhardt, but there is nothing that really bridges the gap between Rilke and Ransmayr.
Recent research in Classical Reception is not concerned with general themes, but rather specific problems or ideas which facilitate a deeper analysis of the relationship between antiquity and modernity. For example, von Albrecht writes about Goethe in juxtaposition to Herder’s critique of Ovid. Naturally, there is discussion about Dichtung und Wahrheit and the second part of Faust, but all within the theme of ancient literature as a mirror to self-awareness. Von Albrecht explains that antiquity is not, and should not be, a prison for the modern author, but rather a means of emancipation and a greater sense of place for the individual.
For chapter 2, von Albrecht places C.F. Meyer in the context of life in the 19th century, incorporating Meyer’s own life, education, and contemporaries. When Meyer was young, classical literature was very fashionable, but he was much more drawn to the German writers. A turning point came during a stay in Rome in 1858, where he discovered a “living antiquity” which he could not find in any book, giving him a sense of “historical consciousness.” Despite the trend of Realism at the time, Meyer asserted that one, with love, could find a soul in the material, and poeticize the mundane.
Chapter 3 begins with a citation from Meister Floh, in which George Pepusch and Dörtje Elverdink turn into blooming cacti. This excerpt is central to the discussion of Hoffman’s fairy tales, especially Der goldne Topf and Meister Floh. Metamorphosis is not unique to Ovid, and von Albrecht must then explain how Hoffmann is specifically influenced by him. To this end, von Albrecht provides excerpts from Ovid in order to compare literary design and narrative structures and practices. Hoffmann uses terms similar to Ovid’s, and Hoffmann’s transformation of the subjective and the objective is, according to the author, “good Ovidian technique” (76). A further similarity is that of wordplay. Both writers use double senses of words to place a psychological trait in the physical realm, thereby illuminating the transformation allegorically and ironically.
Von Albrecht includes the entire poem “An Ovid” by Grillparzer. He writes about not only general ideas, but also the text itself, giving us a deeper reading in order to elucidate specific ideas and word selections. Grillparzer appears distant, unhappy, and banished, writing about his own loneliness, in what von Albrecht calls an “inner exile.” Grillparzer was born to loneliness in the extreme form of a basic sociological and psychological experience of the 19th century: the isolation of the writer (108). Ovid was banished from Rome, but Grillparzer felt separated from everyone. Lonely, but not alone, he came from the Sturm und Drang generation that Goethe considered to be “sick”. Both Grillparzer and Ovid began in a cosmopolitan city that had an educated and open-minded audience: Ovid in Rome, of course, and Grillparzer in the Viennese theater tradition. Ovid then moved away, outwardly, from his audience, Grillparzer inwardly. The second part of this chapter is about Pushkin who, like Ovid, was a political exile on the Black Sea. He was born in Moscow in 1799, so contemporary with Goethe and Grillparzer. After a long review of Pushkin’s “An Ovid,” von Albrecht brings Grillparzer back into conversation, again asserting the aspect of poetry as a mirror of a new generation, Grillparzer’s toleration of, and Pushkin’s realistic answer to the Romantic (120).
In “Spuren der Rhetorik in antiker und in neuzeitlicher Dichtung,” von Albrecht promotes the pair of terms “poetry – rhetoric” as a fruitful polarity. For some literary critics, “poetry” threatens to become a synonym for “good”, while “rhetoric” becomes a synonym for “bad” or “mediocre.” Here is an example – and there are many – when von Albrecht critiques the critics. He argues that “the terms ‘poetry’ and ‘rhetoric’ are on different levels and should not be played off against each other (160).” To support his argument, he quotes Plato’s Gorgias (502c), in which Socrates calls poetry a kind of rhetoric. Here von Albrecht carefully reviews lyric, dramatic, and epic texts. For poetry, he uses Gerhardt’s famous poem ” Geh aus, mein Herz, und suche Freud.” He carries this theme through comparisons with Francis Bacon, Aristotle, Girolamo Fracastoro, Cicero, and back to Gerhardt’s rhetorical education under August Buchner, “the much loved and revered professor of poetry and rhetoric” in Wittenberg (145). Such is an example of von Albrecht’s erudition. He easily weaves through different texts, time periods, and ideas, but still writes clearly and precisely. Direct comparison of Ovid and Voltaire demonstrates a recurring theme of the modern poets going much deeper thematically than those in antiquity (149). For rhetoric in drama and epic poetry, von Albrecht uses Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Lucan’s Pharsalia. Rhetoric is quite “truly at home” in drama and epic, he says. In these art forms, people interact primarily through dialogue (160).
Chapter 6 compares Hölderlin and Horaz. Horace tried to create a reverent mood with his listeners through his favete linguis, as does Hölderlin (169). Hölderlin’s patriotic lyric poems, especially Friedensfeier and “An die Deutschen”, are similar to the sixth Roman Ode of Horace, in which Horace holds up the mirror to his people (171). Both use the same themes: nature, the hope for the people turning back, self-restraint, and the need to remain silent in order not to betray any mystery.
For Rilke’s fifth Duino Elegy, von Albrecht explores the idea of “carpet/rug” as a symbol of space and setting. It is unique to focus on such a specific symbol in this book, but serves capably as a demonstration of a different approach to Classical Reception. The carpet is a motif that represents meetings between heaven and earth. In antiquity and also in German romanticism, a carpet is part of the “holy wedding.” Von Albrecht cites the wedding carpet of Dionysus and Ariadne, found in Aeschylus, and also the one that appears in the 14th book of the Iliad as Hera seduces Zeus and a carpet of flowers sprouts from the floor. Where the heavens meet the earth is also a boundary between life and death, the visible and invisible, and here we find similar examples in Trakl’s Helian and Tjutčev’s “Day and Night” (день и ночь). For Rilke, the carpet motif in the elegy relates to changes and movements in active human life.
Ransmayr retells the Metamorphoses in the novel Die letzte Welt (1988) with a surreal vision. Von Albrecht argues that the reconstruction of ancient works should not be judged in terms of fidelity to their models, but rather appreciated, and even enjoyed, with regard to the deviations from them. A fundamental difference between Ovid and Ransmayr lies in the narrator’s attitude according to von Albrecht: Ovid enjoys the colorful surface of life; he writes with obvious comfort and a great sense of humor. Ransmayr is quieter as an author and appears to be self-contained. Ransmayr does not concern himself with the specific details of Ovid’s work, but with the magnitude of the Ovid phenomenon and its importance for the history of the poetic self-image. This applies in particular to the relationships between spirit and power, and nature and art (209).
Durs Grünbein: Nach den Satiren starts with “Ein Betrunkener nachts an der Via Appia.” As a satirical poet, Grünbein is naturally compared to Juvenal. A specific excerpt is one of Grünbein’s restless night on account of poverty: ” Dass man viel Geld braucht, um nur ruhig schlafen zu können” (220) as compared to Juvenal 3, 235-236: “magnis opibus dormitur in urbe“. For Grunbein as for Ransmayr, the goal is not a literal restoration of the ancient world. For Grunbein as for Ransmayr, the goal is not a literal restoration of the ancient world. On the contrary, von Albrecht asserts again that antiquity is a mirror, and often the modern author looks deeper than his ancient counterpart (214). In fact, when von Albrecht discusses other genres, he repeats that Grünbein is more profound than Juvenal and Horace. In Grünbein’s poetic world, Greece and especially Rome form a facet within the general presence of past, present, and future in individual consciousness (223).
At the end of chapter 9 there is a short epilogue, not just for Grünbein, but the whole book. Here von Albrecht repeats ideas from the foreword: Literature builds bridges between different epochs, between different disciplines, between subject and object, and between great authors. Altogether, this is an extraordinarily useful book. Von Albrecht’s diverse approach to antiquity and vibrant enthusiasm for his subject provides a prime example for students of classical and modern literature.