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Strange Meetings: Anglo-German Literary Encounters from 1910 to 1960 written by Peter Edgerly Firchow

 

Strange Meetings: Anglo-German Literary Encounters from 1910 to 1960 written by Peter Edgerly Firchow

Overview:

Building upon his earlier book The Death of the German Cousin (1986), renowned author Peter Edgerly Firchow focuses Strange Meetings on major modern British writers from Eliot to Auden and explores the development of British conceptions and misconceptions of Germany and Germans from 1910 to 1960.

While the book does not aim to be inclusive, it casts light on representative places, which will sensitize readers when they encounter similar phenomena in other contexts. The individual chapters highlight particularly significant moments in the problematic relationship between Britain and Germany during the first half of the last century. Firchow focuses on the personal encounter with Germany by Eliot, Lawrence, and Brooke in the years immediately preceding the Great War; on the tragic conflict between vocation and national identity faced by German academics specializing in English literature (especially Shakespeare), as well as by British academics specializing in German literature (especially Goethe), during the First World War; on Christopher Isherwood's formative years in Berlin during the final years of the Weimar Republic; on the appeal of Fascism to British intellectuals and literary figures during the 1930s (especially Yeats, Eliot, and Lawrence); and on the partial and ambiguous post-war reconciliation achieved in W.H. Auden's writings about his life in a German-speaking country from 1957 until his death in 1973. The introduction and conclusion of the book place these encounters in the context of current British views of Germans and vice versa.

"Firchow convincingly shows that for the so-called Thirties Generation of British literary intellectuals, Berlin had become for abrief moment in the twilight of the Weimar Republic what Paris had been for the Lost Generation during the Twenties. This is the indisputable merit of the book. It is a significant contribution to a better understanding of the cultural and intellectual interrelations of the years between the wars. Firchow writes clearly and with eloquence, frequently spiced with erudite humor, demonstrating all the more his magisterial command of the subject."—Hans H. Rudnick, Professor Emeritus, Southern Illinois University

Synopsis:

Building upon his earlier book The Death of the German Cousin (1986), renowned author Peter Edgerly Firchow focuses Strange Meetings on major modern British writers from Eliot to Auden and explores the development of British conceptions and misconceptions of Germany and Germans from 1910 to 1960.

While the book does not aim to be inclusive, it casts light on representative places, which will sensitize readers when they encounter similar phenomena in other contexts. The individual chapters highlight particularly significant moments in the problematic relationship between Britain and Germany during the first half of the last century. Firchow focuses on the personal encounter with Germany by Eliot, Lawrence, and Brooke in the years immediately preceding the Great War; on the tragic conflict between vocation and national identity faced by German academics specializing in English literature (especially Shakespeare), as well as by British academics specializing in German literature (especially Goethe), during the First World War; on Christopher Isherwood's formative years in Berlin during the final years of the Weimar Republic; on the appeal of Fascism to British intellectuals and literary figures during the 1930s (especially Yeats, Eliot, and Lawrence); and on the partial and ambiguous post-war reconciliation achieved in W.H. Auden's writings about his life in a German-speaking country from 1957 until his death in 1973. The introduction and conclusion of the book place these encounters in the context of current British views of Germans and vice versa.

"Firchow convincingly shows that for the so-called Thirties Generation of British literary intellectuals, Berlin had become for abrief moment in the twilight of the Weimar Republic what Paris had been for the Lost Generation during the Twenties. This is the indisputable merit of the book. It is a significant contribution to a better understanding of the cultural and intellectual interrelations of the years between the wars. Firchow writes clearly and with eloquence, frequently spiced with erudite humor, demonstrating all the more his magisterial command of the subject."—Hans H. Rudnick, Professor Emeritus, Southern Illinois University

Excerpt:

Strange Meetings

ANGLO-GERMAN LITERARY ENCOUNTERS FROM 1910 TO 1960
By Peter Edgerly Firchow

THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS

Copyright © 2008 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1533-4


Chapter One

Sunlight in the Hofgarten

ELIOT, LAWRENCE, AND BROOKE IN PRE-1914 MUNICH

A Poetic and Geographical Surprise: T. S. Eliot in Munich

In what is still the most complete of the Eliot biographies, Peter Ackroyd's T. S. Eliot: A Life (1984), there is only a single brief mention of the young Eliot's stay in Munich in the summer of 1911, as follows: "Then in the summer of this year he travelled to Munich, where he completed 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'" (45). Some few pages further on, Eliot's stay of about four weeks in the Hessian university town of Marburg receives a little more attention, a full paragraph's worth, not a great deal either but still indicative of Ackroyd's apparent belief that Marburg was more important or at least less insignificant in Eliot's life-perhaps because he had gone there officially, as it were, to study philosophy or because he was forced to cut short his stay to avoid being overwhelmed by the events of August 1914. Whereas in Munich he had merely lingered as a tourist who happened to have an interesting manuscript in his suitcase.

Not that Ackroyd is in any way unusual in dismissing Eliot's visit to Munich in a few unmemorable words. T. S. Matthews, for example, ignores Munich altogether while devoting a good deal of space to the immediately preceding period in Paris. Herbert Howarth, who speculates that Eliot may have read Hofmannsthal for the first time in Munich, attributes no other significance to his stay there (1964, 195). Of the major Anglo-American studies of Eliot's life and work, only James E. Miller's controversial T. S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land (1978) suggests that Eliot's experience of Munich is worthy of any sort of fuller discussion. (Of Miller, more in a moment.) As for Eliot himself, none of his letters from Munich survives or, at any rate, none is included in his second wife's still incomplete edition of his correspondence.

Munich, then, appears to have left little impression on Eliot, whose personal and poetical geography is generally restricted to Britain, France, Italy, and America. But if this is so, then why does "The Waste Land" virtually open with an unmistakable evocation of prewar Munich:

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, And went on in the sunlight, into the Hofgarten ... (1958a, 37)

Of these lines Miller writes that, "curiously, Eliot changed Königsee, near Berchtesgaden, to Starnbergersee (Wurm lake), near Munich. Possibly Munich's Starnbergersee and Hofgarten are closer to the actual experience: the rain shower and sunlight are all suggestive of happiness and fruition and fulfillment, not only in nature, but personally and creatively: it was in Munich that summer that Eliot completed 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' a poem in a basic sense about a man who cannot love women" (1978, 66).

This is substantially what Miller makes of Eliot's summer in Munich. The young poet, it would appear, was happy there-happy in the realization of his allegedly homosexual love for Jules Verdenal (whom Eliot had earlier met in Paris, who was subsequently killed in the Great War, and to whom Prufrock and Other Observations was later dedicated), a love that finds its negative reflection in a dislike of women. It was also a fertile time, for there his extended labor on his first major poem finally reached a happy misogynistic end. Hence he recalls Munich and surroundings later as a pleasant prewar memory.

Miller's more elaborate view of the private and public significance of Eliot's Munich experience still leaves a number of questions unanswered. For instance, there is no attempt to address the important-and surely very curious-question as to why "The Waste Land" should begin in Munich rather than anywhere else. Whatever Munich may have meant for Eliot personally, publicly its prewar reputation in Britain was ambiguous at best. On the continent only Paris surpassed its reputation (or notoriety) as the capital of sexual license and bohemianism. Hence, it is surely significant that Paris had been Eliot's last stop on the way to Munich; and significant too, for that matter, that cities of any description seem to have exercised a powerful aphrodisiac effect on the young Eliot, as when he refers mysteriously in a letter to Conrad Aiken in late 1914 to "one of those nervous sexual attacks which I suffer from when alone in a city" (1988, 75). It was also to the environs of Munich that the pregnant but unmarried Katherine Mansfield was hurriedly packed off by her upper-middle-class mother in the summer of 1909, and it is to Munich that E. M. Forster's impulsive Helen Schlegel escapes when she finds herself in similar embarrassing circumstances that same summer (Tomalin 1988, 68-69; Forster 1973, 248, 276). And, of course, by 1922 (the year of the publication of "The Waste Land") there was added to these ambiguous public associations the further opprobrium of Munich's involvement in the Great War, as well as in a Soviet-style revolution in the immediate postwar period.

Nor does Miller-or Ackroyd or anyone else for that matter-make anything of the fact that Eliot completed "Prufrock" in Munich. At most they only rehearse the fact that he did so. But it seems obvious that one should at least raise the question of a possible connection between that city and "Prufrock," even if only to dismiss it as of no consequence. Admittedly, the idea does seem ludicrous on the surface: Prufrock's physical and mental meanderings in the poem are so obviously identified with the cityscape of turn-of-the-century Boston that it seems absurd to link it with any other place (except of course Dante's hell). Nevertheless, at the close of the poem there may be an important connection with Germany that was triggered by Eliot's Munich sojourn. The mermaids with their long hair and preoccupation with combing it; their lovely, superhuman song; their ironic disregard of Prufrock: all of these suggest not merely a link with the Wagnerian Rhine maidens-one that anticipates their subsequent reappearance in the guise of the analogous Thames maidens in "The Waste Land"-but they also seem to allude ironically to the siren of Heinrich Heine's famous poem "Die Lorelei," whose song and hair are also emphasized. The irony lies, of course, in Prufrock's being ignored by the mermaids. Heine's fisherman, by contrast, is very much the object of the Lorelei's attention. Traveling down the river of life, the fisherman is lured to his watery death by the voice of the imagination, as represented by the Lorelei, but Prufrock is returned to death-in-life when the voices of reality shatter his world of imagination. For Eliot it is the human voices that make us drown, not the imaginary ones.

But even if we accept the Wagner/Heine intertext, its presence is at best the result of Eliot's Munich experience rather than a rendering of that experience itself. In Eliot's poetic oeuvre, only "The Waste Land" provides actual traces of that experience, filtered though it is through the persona of Marie. As Miller points out, the original manuscript version of the poem reveals a later substitution of the Starnbergersee for an earlier Königsee-a lake located high in the Alps near Berchtesgaden and the Austrian border (Eliot 1971, 6-7). Inevitably, one wonders why. Miller's argument that Eliot wished to focus the locale more closely on Munich seems plausible enough within its limits, but it still does not account for the original reading of Königsee. In the more obvious (as well as more important) literary context, however, it seems fairly clear that Eliot's motive must have been to point the reader to the "König" ["king"] in Königsee-to link, in other words, the geography of the opening section of the poem with the explicit thematic and mythological background of the Fisher King. But if so, why did Eliot change Königsee to Starnbergersee in revision? Because he feared the allusion was too obvious? Perhaps so, though in making the change it looks like he also lost an integrating connection between Marie and those mountains where she supposedly feels free, and lost too a link with the "decayed" mountains of Part V, where the questing knight (in one of the major interpretations of the poem) hears though he does not yet speak the words that will eventually restore the Fisher King to health. What then did Eliot gain in return for these losses? Miller's answer-a tighter, more personal, happier geographical frame of reference-does not appear to have been a particularly good bargain.

Besides, there is a further problem, evident to anyone who has actually been to Munich, namely, that the distance between the Starnbergersee and the Hofgarten, though undoubtedly much smaller than the distance between the Königsee and the Hofgarten, is still quite considerable-a distance of a little less than twenty miles to be precise. As a matter of geographical fact, it is now and was in Eliot's time physically impossible to see the Starnbergersee from the Hofgarten, or even vice versa. Yet Marie tells us that summer surprised her and her unnamed companion(s) as it came suddenly over the Starnbergersee,

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. (1958a, 37)

Only a semicolon divides the rain from the implicitly sheltering colonnade in the Hofgarten, where Marie drinks coffee in the ensuing sunlight. The two places are treated as contiguous. Almost as if to insist on this geographical anomaly, Eliot specifically mentions the colonnades, referring to the arcades that enclose the Hofgarten in Munich. Inevitably, one wonders what Eliot's point here might be. To confuse his readers, perhaps, as befits a prematurely old possum? To conflate space, as he notoriously compresses time, for symbolic and allusive effect? Or for some better-or at least other-reason?

One answer may be found in the persona of Marie, who, as has long been known, is based on Marie von Larisch, Countess Wallersee-Wittelsbach. According to Valerie Eliot, the lines describing Munich and environs, as well as the following ones describing her childhood memories of excursions in the mountains with her cousin the archduke, reflect a conversation Eliot had with her, a conversation that presumably took place either at the time of his visit to Munich in 1911 or else possibly in Switzerland in 1919 (1971, 126). George Morris noted as long ago as 1954 that there were striking parallels between the opening section of "The Waste Land" and Marie von Larisch's My Past, a sensationalist work of autobiography that, though published in 1913, was completed as early as 1900. (If it ever took place, Eliot's conversation with Larisch may have been carried on in English, which Marie seems to have spoken well enough at least to check the ghostwritten original English of the book, produced by Maude Mary Chester ffoulkes.) In his brief discussion, Morris focuses primarily on two aspects of Larisch's book: the double suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Mary von Vetsera in January 1889 at Mayerling, which, oddly enough, he does not connect with the love-death motif in either "The Waste Land" or Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; and the drowning of King Ludwig II in the Starnbergersee, which he only cursorily links with the "death-by-drowning" motif (1954, 231-32).

Though Morris's instinct was obviously right in associating Larisch's autobiography with Eliot's Marie, it nevertheless needs to be said that in the poem there are no direct verbal echoes of Larisch's book. At most there are occasional similarities, as when Larisch remarks that she was happy to escape with her children from her boring husband to her cottage up in the Bavarian Alps (Larisch 1913, 89). Eva Hesse's claim that Eliot must have known Larisch's book (as well as having known her personally), for otherwise the connections between the two works would be little short of miraculous, is not borne out by a close reading of the two texts-nor, for that matter, is her further claim that Eliot met Larisch in the summer of 1914 while on his way to Marburg (1973, 108). (There is a remote possibility the meeting may actually have taken place in London, where Larisch stayed briefly in late 1912 on the occasion of the impending publication of My Past [Larisch 1934, 249].) According to Richard Parker, who, however, cites little supporting evidence, "it does seem most likely that Eliot met the Countess when in Munich in the summer of 1911 (when he was 22 and Countess Larisch 53). It is also possible, but not as likely, that he met her when he was in Germany in the summer of 1914 when the war broke out. It seems extremely unlikely that he met her after the war when the Countess was struggling to survive the terrible upheaval and inflation of the post-war period" (Parker n.d.).

William Empson, on the other hand, does not deal with the possibility of a personal meeting at all, and seems a little too skeptical in doubting the influence of the book altogether "because not one phrase from the book is echoed in the poem" (1984, 189). It is true that such resemblances as do exist are never exact parallels, as is evident when the mountains in the poem are explicitly associated with happy memories of Marie's childhood, not with her maturity. Nor does Larisch's autobiography have anything to say about going south in the winter or reading much of the night.

What is more, there is no trace in the book of anything like sledding with her cousin the crown prince, whom, according to her accounts in both My Past and the later Her Majesty Elizabeth (1934), she knew only fleetingly as a girl, recalling chiefly his "annoying habit of pulling my long braids when we were children" (1934, 13). The real period of her association with him was during the months and weeks immediately preceding his suicide at Mayerling. Besides, Larisch refers to Rudolf using the (correct) title "crown prince" rather than "archduke." As the only son of the reigning emperor, Rudolf alone was entitled to such a designation; his successor, the ill-fated Franz Ferdinand, and his brother Karl Franz Josef (who eventually became emperor in 1916) were, however, both archdukes, that is, sons of the emperor's brother, the archduke Karl Ludwig. The distinction is important, since, as the niece of the empress Elizabeth of Austria, Larisch had several cousins who were archdukes but only one who was the crown prince. Which of these cousins is she referring to in the opening paragraph of "The Waste Land"? While it is impossible to answer this question with complete certainty, it seems likely that it should be Ferdinand rather than Karl or Rudolf.

Ferdinand, after all, is the "king" whose death precipitates the debacle of Western civilization in 1914; and his name too establishes a suggestive link with the Tempest motif that runs through much of the poem. Which is not to say that Rudolf and Karl may not also figure obliquely in this complex pattern of historical, mythical, and literary allusion. The archduke, as with most of the other characters in the poem, wears many faces and speaks in many tongues.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Strange Meetings by Peter Edgerly Firchow Copyright © 2008 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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