Gottfried Benn: A Biography
Chapter 1: A Garden East of the Oder: 1886–1912
A Garden East of the Oder: 1886–1912
A wound opens
We take from the past only what we need. It is largely a matter of self-definition. In September 1930, Benn wrote the poem “Primary Days” (“Primäre Tage”), where he looked back to his childhood east of the river Oder, evoking the comforting sights and sounds of innocent days. It is a world of wonder, and Benn universalises its import: “a horn sounds, the reed sounds:/ it is the song of the elderberry bush/ out of which mankind soft and mortal flowed”. Benn’s favourite sister, Ruth, appears, engrossed in her games and pastimes. Even the all-potent blue asters are present, blowing in from the garden. And Benn asks himself: “on which suns,/ from which sea turned blue, by which sea cooled,/ did this immutable light begin,/ which reaches backwards and early things caresses?” He presses his memory for answers, but equivocation is all that is forthcoming: “perhaps a transition, perhaps the end,/ perhaps the gods and perhaps the sea”. 1
In his writing, Benn often returned to his childhood, and on each occasion a different picture emerged. In October 1921, he published the short piece “Epilogue” (“Epilog”) in the journal Zukunft. (It would provide the postscript to his Collected Writings (Gesammelte Schriften) the following year). The poet had at last been recognised as a major voice in German letters, and this was his first...
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