Bertolt Brecht Poetry Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2588

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It is important to note that Bertolt Brecht’s creativity as a poet resulted less from any inclination toward introspection than from his desire to communicate with others. Against the prevailing tone of German poetry in the 1920’s, at least as it was represented by Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Stefan George, Brecht’s poetic voice startled and shocked his readers. “These poems [of Rilke and others] tell ordinary people nothing, sometimes comprehensibly, sometimes incomprehensibly,” he wrote in his youth. One of Brecht’s main objections to this style of poetry was that its sense of artistic order hid rather than disclosed the chaos he saw in modern life. For this reason, Brecht eventually came to see rhyme and rhythm as obstructive and to prefer “Rhymeless Verse with Irregular Rhythms,” as the title of an essay in 1939 reads. As basic to Brecht’s poems as their consideration of the reader is his notion of functionality. He first articulated this concept in 1927 when asked to judge a poetry contest which had brought more than four hundred entries. Brecht read them all and awarded no prize. Instead, he acknowledged an unsubmitted poem from a little-known writer, appreciating its simplicity, its engaging choice of topics, its melodiousness, and its documentary value. The notion that “all great poems have the value of documents” was central to Brecht’s thought. Writing poetry was, for Brecht, no “mere expression,” but a “social function of a wholly contradictory and alterable kind, conditioned by history and in turn conditioning it.”

Brecht wrote his poems in, as he called it, “a kind of Basic German.” His sensitivity for the “gestic” power of language was nurtured by his fondness for Luther’s Bible (the term Brecht uses, Gestus, is difficult to render adequately in English: John Willet identifies it with “gesture” and “gist,” attitude and point). At the root of Brecht’s poetry, indeed all of his work, are the notions of clarity (“The truth is concrete” was Brecht’s favorite maxim from Hegel) and functionality. Form, of which Brecht was a master and not a slave, was a means toward an end, that being enlightenment. In tracing Brecht’s poetic development, one can see how the forms and motifs change against the backdrop of these guiding concepts.

One attribute of the term “gestic” is that of performance. Brecht was always concerned with delivery (it is central to his theory of the epic theater), and his early poetry is characterized by its close links with song. Indeed, most of Brecht’s early poems were written to be accompanied by the guitar. Verse and melody often came about simultaneously, the rhythm of the words combining with the flow of the song. It is not surprising that Brecht’s early poems acknowledge such traditional forms as legends, ballads, and chronicles. He was aware that no poet who considered himself important was composing ballads at that time, and this fact, too, may have intrigued the young iconoclast. What drew Brecht to these older poetic forms was their attention to adventure, to nature, and to the role of the heroic individual. Brecht rejuvenated a tired literary tradition by turning to the works of François Villon and Rudyard Kipling. Brecht’s ballads mark a decisive turning point in the history of that genre.

“Song of the Fort Donald Railroad Gang”

“Song of the Fort Donald Railroad Gang,” written in 1916, exhibits Brecht’s youthful keenness for the frontier spirit. It relates the struggle and demise of a railroad crew laying track in the wilderness of Ohio. The portrayal of nature as rugged and indifferent marks a distinct switch for Brecht from the mediocre war poems he had been writing earlier. A common denominator, however, was the element of destructive force. This poem leads, step by inevitable step, through six strophes toward the culminating catastrophe. Initially, nature tolerates the intruders, who can be seen as pilgrims of modern progress pitted against the dense forests, “forever soulless.” With the onset of torrential rains, the tolerance of nature becomes indifference, but the railroad gang forges on. Striking up a song within a song, they take to singing in the night to keep themselves awake and posted of the dangers posed by the downpour and the swelling waters. For them, escape is not an option. Death simply comes, and comes simply, leaving only the echo of their melody: “The trains scream rushing over them alongside Lake Erie/ And the wind at that spot sings a stupid melody.” A stupid melody? What has happened to these modern “heroes”? There are no modern heroes, Brecht answers—and this in the poetic form which traditionally extols them. Brecht debunks their melody, uses the ballad to put an end to the balladesque hero. Death and nature prevail.

“Remembering Marie A.”

Death and nature, along with murder and love, are the elemental themes distinguishing Brecht’s early poems. He was wont to treat these perennial subjects, though, in nontraditional ways. He does this with great effect in what is ostensibly a love poem, “Erinnerung an die Maria A.” (“Remembering Marie A.”), written in 1920 and later included in Manual of Piety. It is more lyrical than the balladesque forms Brecht had already mastered, but it does not get lost in sentimentality. Instead, Brecht achieves a parody of the melancholy youth remembering an early love, and in its attitude it is quint-essential Brecht. What the speaker in the poem actually recalls is less his “love so pale and silent/ As if she were a dream that must not fade,” than it is “a cloud my eyes dwelt long upon/ It was quite white and very high above us/ Then I looked up, and found that it had gone.” Not even the woman’s face remains present for Brecht’s persona, only her kiss, and “As for the kiss, I’d long ago forgot it/ But for the cloud that floated in the sky.” The idyllic atmosphere of the first strophe turns out to be nothing but cliché.

What Brecht does with the element of time in this poem is essential to its overall effect. He establishes an internal relationship on three levels: first, the love affair, located in the past; second, the passage of time, the forgetting which wastes all memory; third, the making present, by means of the cloud, that September day long ago. The tension Brecht succeeds in creating between these different levels has ironic consequences. For one, his use of verb tenses renders as present what is actually narrated in the past tense, while the grammatical past tense functions on the level of present time. The hierarchy of experiences is also switched: the backdrop of nature, the embodiment of everything transitory, can be remembered, while the primary experience (or what convention dictates should be the primary experience)—namely, the relationship between the lovers—falls prey to bad memory. Ultimately, it is a poem about the inconstancy of feeling and the mistrust between people which renders meaningful and lasting relationships problematic. It treats an old theme originally; where others write poems directed toward those lovers in the present, those passed away, those absent, or even those expected in the future, Brecht writes of the lover forgotten.

“Of Poor B.B.”

“I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.” So begins Brecht’s famous autobiographical poem, “Vom armen B.B.” (“Of Poor B.B.”), first written in 1922, later revised when he was preparing Manual of Piety for publication. It was composed during a period when Brecht had his feet mostly in Augsburg and Munich, but his mind mostly in Berlin. The poem marks a turning point for Brecht. He leaves behind the ballad form and takes up the theme of the city. Nature in the raw yields to the irrepressible life of the big city, although neither locus is ever idealized. Written literally while under way (apparently on a train to Berlin), the poem is about where one feels at home, “one” in this instance being no one but Brecht himself. “In the asphalt city I’m at home,” he admits, and he goes on to describe the daily routine of city dwellers, situating himself in their midst: “I put on/ A hard hat because that’s what they do./ I say: they are animals with a quite peculiar smell/ And I say: does it matter? I am too.” The poem is full of cynicism and despair. The poet admits that he is undependable and remains convinced that all that will remain of the cities is what passed through them—that is, the wind: “And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about.” Thematically, the change of emphasis in “Of Poor B.B.” prepares the way for later poems. Formally, the delivery of the poem is less dependent upon melody (song) and relies on the premise of conversation between poet and reader.

“In Dark Times”

Brecht’s poems of the 1930’s reveal a heightened awareness of the function of the poet with regard to his readership. He had made this point quite polemically already in 1927 as the judge of the poetry contest noted above. The poem, he claimed, had functional value. Looking for the functional lyric caused Brecht to seek a new style and idiom. The often-quoted poem “In finsteren Zeiten” (“In Dark Times”), written in 1937 during Brecht’s exile in Denmark, attests his self-conscious task as responsible poet. Brecht imagines what people will later say about these “dark times.” “They won’t say: when the child skimmed a flat stone across the rapids/ But: when the great wars were being prepared for.” History, in other words, will ride along on the backs of the little people—as Brecht makes clear in “Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters” (“Questions from a Worker Who Reads”)—but what remain visible are only the “great powers.” In the face of this adversity, Brecht remarks with chagrin: “However, they won’t say: the times were dark/ Rather: why were their poets silent?”

“Bad Time for Poetry”

Brecht refused to be silent. His “Schlechte Zeit für Lyrik” (“Bad Time for Poetry”), written in 1939, is a personally revealing poem about his own internal struggle to reconcile aesthetic demands with demands of social responsibility: “In my poetry a rhyme/ Would seem to me almost insolent.” Still, as Brecht wrote in his essay on poetry and logic, also from the 1930’s, “we cannot get along without the concept of beauty.” The poem “Bad Time for Poetry” thus concludes:

Inside me contend
Delight at the apple tree in blossom
And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.
But only the second
Drives me to my desk.

Brecht seldom mentioned Hitler by name, preferring to call him only “the house-painter,” ridiculing Hitler’s artistic pretentions.

“Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao-Tê-Ching on Lao-tzû’s Road into Exile”

To appreciate Brecht’s aesthetic sensitivities, one must realize that he saw the felicitous poem as one in which “feeling and reason work together in total harmony.” For Brecht, too, there was no distinction between learning and pleasure, and thus a didactic poem was also cause for aesthetic pleasure. The sensual pleasure derived from knowledge is an important aspect of the title figure of Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei (1943; The Life of Galileo, 1960). What to do with knowledge and wisdom was another question which, for Brecht, followed inevitably. He answered it in his poem “Legende von der Entstehung des Buches Taoteking” (“Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao-Tê-Ching on Lao-tzû’s Road into Exile”) written in 1938 and included in the Svendborg Poems.

This poem is a highly successful combination of Brecht’s earlier fascination with legends, the balladesque narrative, and the aesthetics of functional poetry. It relates the journey of Lao-tzû, “seventy and getting brittle,” from his country, where “goodness had been weakening a little/ And the wickedness was gaining ground anew” (a topic of immediate interest to the exile Brecht). Brecht does not puzzle over Lao-tzû’s decision to leave; it is not even an issue. He states simply: “So he buckled his shoe.” (One recalls Brecht’s line that he had “changed countries more often than shoes.”) Lao-tzû needs little for the journey: books, pipe, and bread (note here the relation between knowledge and sensual pleasure). After four days, he and the boy accompanying him come across a customs official at the border: “‘What valuables have you to declare here?’/ And the boy leading the ox explained: ‘The old man taught’/ Nothing at all, in short.” The customs official, however, is intrigued by the boy’s modest assertion that the old man “‘learned how quite soft water, by attrition/ Over the years will grind strong rocks away./ In other words, that hardness must lose the day.’” The official shouts to them before they are able to move on and requires them to dictate what it was the old man had to say about the water: “‘I’m not at all important/ Who wins or loses interests me, though./ If you’ve found out, say so.’” The old man obliges him (“‘Those who ask questions deserve answers’”), and he and the boy settle down for a week, the customs man providing them with food. When the dictation is finally done, “the boy handed over what they’d written./ Eighty-one sayings.” This is the wisdom of Lao-Tzû, for which posterity has been grateful, but Brecht is quick to point out that “the honor should not be restricted/ To the sage whose name is clearly writ./ For a wise man’s wisdom needs to be extracted./ So the customs man deserves his bit./ It was he who called for it.”

Brecht’s return to rhyme in this poem is consistent with its ballad form. Where rhyme no longer sufficed for what was to be said, Brecht applied his theory of rhymeless verse with irregular rhythms. He had already used this style occasionally in the 1920’s but mastered it fully in the poetry of the 1930’s and 1940’s; the form corresponded to Brecht’s perception of a society at odds with itself, and it dominated his later lyrical writings.

Buckower Elegies

Brecht’s later poetry tends to be at once more intimate and more epigrammatic than his earlier work. This late style is best illustrated in his last group of poems, the Buckower Elegien (Buckower Elegies), written in 1953. The poems are concise evidence of Brecht’s fascination with the fragmentary nature of the lyric, which he viewed as an appeal to the reader. Many of the poems mimic the open form of the riddle, with a strong central image, as in “Der Radwechsel” (“Changing the Wheel”). In six brief lines, Brecht observes how a driver changes a wheel. He voices his own dissatisfaction with his course in life (“I do not like the place I have come from./ I do not like the place I am going to”). Brecht characteristically leaves this poem open toward the future: “Why with impatience do I/ Watch him changing the wheel?”

The critic Joachim Müller has written that “In all its phases and in all its forms, Brecht’s poetry is neither exclusively subjective confession, nor simply an agitator’s call to arms; every confession becomes an appeal to human activity, and every appeal, however it may alienate us by its satire or its polemics, springs from the deep emotion of a rational heart that sees all conditions in the world dialectically and that always sides with what is human against every inhumanity.”

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