Christian Morgenstern Essay - Critical Essays


Morgenstern himself considered his serious lyrics paramount in his poetic oeuvre, although he is best known for his humorous poems. He has been compared to contemporaries such as Stefan George, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom he shared a sense of poetic mission and a certain melodiousness of verse. Morgenstern’s poetry is considerably less complicated both linguistically and metaphorically than Rilke’s, although it expresses emotion sincerely. Only a few of his serious poems have been translated into English, and German audiences were more receptive to his grotesque humor than to the expressions of his religious convictions or metaphysical thought. Although Morgenstern considered his light and provocative verse to be Beiwerke (minor efforts), it is in this area that he anticipated trends that were later exploited more extensively in Dadaism and concrete poetry. He experimented with visually and acoustically innovative techniques, presented a satirical view of a philistine society in his verse, and playfully created new and sometimes nonsensical word constellations that appear to mock both the advocates of a poésie pure and the efforts of those who, thirty years after his death, attempted a reconstruction of his poetry with ciphers and absolute metaphors. Satire, religious fervor, humor, and mysticism found in Morgenstern an expressive spirit.

The Gallows Songs

Christian Morgenstern’s frivolous verse is the foundation of his fame, notwithstanding his protestations. His most popular collection was The Gallows Songs, which ran through fourteen editions in his lifetime and by 1937 had sold 290,000 copies. Critics persisted in reading hidden meanings into these witty lyrics, so that he felt compelled to render mock explanations in Über die Galgenlieder (1921; about the gallows songs). The first group of these whimsical lyrics were composed when Morgenstern was in his twenties. On the occasion of an outing with some friends, they arrived at a place referred to as Gallows Hill. Being in a bantering mood, they founded the “Club of the Gallows Gang,” Morgenstern contributing some frivolous poems that another of the group later set to music. These poems obviously attest Morgenstern’s lighter side, and no attempt should be made to imbue them with a depth that they do not have and that was not intended, yet it will not detract from the reader’s pleasure if the spirit of innovation and the subtle humor that pervade them are pointed out.

Morgenstern’s raw material is the sound, the structure, the form, and the idiomatic usage of the German language. The nineteenth century saw an abundance of grammarians and linguists who attempted to regulate and explain linguistic phenomena and to limit expression to precisely defined and carefully governed modes of communication. Morgenstern perceived this approach to be hopelessly dull, “middle-class safe,” and philistine. A degree of arbitrariness is an essential element of language, and he proceeded to point this out by confusing the complacent and satirizing the pedants. He accomplished this on the semantic, grammatical, and formal levels in his poems. In “Gruselett” (“Scariboo”), he created what has come to be known as a nonsense poem:

The Winglewangle phlutters
through widowadowood,
the crimson Fingoor splutters
and scary screaks the Scrood.

By arranging essentially meaningless words according to a familiar syntactical pattern within the sentence and by adding a number of adjectives and verbs that stimulate lexical memory, Morgenstern coerces the reader into believing that he has grasped the sense of what has been said. It must be pointed out here that most of the translations of Morgenstern’s poems have not been literal and have frequently deviated greatly from the original in order to preserve a semblance of the poet’s intention (the use of puns, untranslatable idioms, grammatical constructions not found in English, and so on).

“The Banshee”

Proper inflection, punctuation, and use of tense also come under attack by Morgenstern, who freely admitted that his teachers had bored and embittered him. His poem “Der Werwolf” (“The Banshee”) reflects the eagerness, gratitude, and eventual disillusionment of the pupil, as well as the futility and uselessness of that which is taught by smug grammarians. When the banshee requests of an entombed teacher, “Inflect me, pray,” the teacher responds:

“The banSHEE, in the subject’s place;
the banHERS, the possessive case.
The banHER, next, is what they call

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