The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

“Difficult Times” is a short (nine lines), unrhymed poem, written in free verse with an irregular rhythmic pattern. Using the first person, Brecht makes it clear that it is he who is speaking directly to the reader.

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The first image is of the speaker standing at his desk and looking out the window, presumably ruminating during a lull in his work. There is a hint of restlessness implied in this action. As he looks into the garden, he vaguely discerns an elderberry bush (“elder tree”). He sees red and black shapes that remind him of such a bush that existed in his childhood home in Augsburg. The poem’s last four lines concern indecision and the fact that he would need to put on his glasses in order to see the tree clearly. He “quite seriously” debates with himself whether to go from the desk to the table to get his spectacles, thus enabling him to see “Those black berries again.” The poem ends without stating whether he decides to get his glasses, but the fact that it does not say that he does implies inaction.

The reason or reasons why the speaker is living in “Difficult Times” are not explicitly stated in the poem. However, the poem was written very late in Brecht’s life, and the indecision, inability to see well, and perhaps even the physical difficulty of going from one part of the room to another obviously reflect the difficulties of advancing age. (In another late poem, “Things Change,” Brecht refers to himself as both a young man and “an old man forgetting his name.”) In addition, Brecht may be implying that both personal regrets and the political situation in Europe have made the times difficult. As an exile from his native land, Brecht had moved from place to place, changing countries of residence, as he once put it, “more often than I changed shirts.” He had had several wives and numerous mistresses (sometimes simultaneously), so that difficult memories and personal regrets would seem inevitable.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

In his many essays about the style and function of poetry, Brecht spoke of writing in “Basic German” and of using what he calls the gestich form. In Brecht’s Selected Poems (1947), edited by R. H. Hays, this is explained as “slightly formalized speech rhythms with certain forced pauses produced by arbitrary line divisions to preserve a calculated emphasis.” The gestich form is evident here. This form includes the notion that the poem when read aloud should follow the “gesture” of the reader—as an actor would deliver lines of dialogue in a play. Brecht also cited his desire to avoid traditional poetic forms with many layers of hidden meanings which would make them less intelligible to the “folk” for whom he is writing. As Hays notes, Brecht’s work, including this poem, “lacks sensuous decoration and uses images with economy in the service of the idea.”

Despite Brecht’s stated intentions not to employ layers of hidden meanings, traditional poetic devices, and symbols in his poetry, the very nature of the genre makes such a course difficult. Poetry is a form in which “shorthand” language is used to express ideas and meanings which would require in prose more length, more detail, and more explication. Brecht uses symbolism in “Difficult Times.” The desk indicates the work of writing, and the eyeglasses a potential aid in seeing one’s situation and life more clearly. The elderberry bush (also known as the tamarind) also has symbolic biblical and folkloric connotations. In The Magic Garden (1976), by Anthony S. Mercante, two entries are notable, and both are tragic. First, it is said that the wood from the elder was used to construct the cross on which Christ was crucified. Second, as the legend goes, Judas Iscariot, although he had been forgiven by Jesus, was so distraught over his act of betrayal that “he saw a tamarind tree, tall and beautiful. Then the Devil entered his mind and he took a rope, made a noose, and hanged himself from the tree, which became short and twisted.”

These negative images connect in an ironic way to the poet’s childhood memory of the elder tree. As a child, Brecht was presumably innocent, trusting, and relatively happy. Then, as a young man, by his own account, his experience as a medical corpsman in the German army reinforced what he had decided in 1916 about patriotism and armed service: “[T]he statement that it is sweet and an honor to die for the Fatherland can only be rated as propaganda.” By the end of World War I he had joined the many young men of his generation in their disillusionment, distrust of government, and hatred of armed conflict. Now, forty years later, the world had endured an even bloodier war; still the prospect of permanent peace was as distant as ever.

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