Gottfried Benn Benn, Gottfried - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Gottfried Benn 1886-1956

German poet, essayist, and novelist.

One of the major poets of German Expressionist movement, Benn is widely considered one of the of the most important German poets of the twentieth century. Benn's poetry frequently draws from his experiences as a physician, evoking imagery of disease and decay. His early volumes of poetry, Morgue (1912) and Fleisch (1917) draw from his clinical association with death and the human body. Benn was a controversial figure in terms of his political sympathies, and throughout his life was simultaneously accused by Nazis of being anti-German and accused by others of being a Nazi sympathizer.

Biographical Information

Benn was born in Mansfeld, Westprignitz, Germany, on May 2, 1886. His father was a German and a Lutheran minister, and his mother was from French-speaking Switzerland. From 1905 to 1912, Benn studied medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm Akademie, which trained physicians for the armed forces. In 1914, he married the actress Edith Brosin, and later adopted her son from a previous marriage. Their daughter, Benn's only child, was born in 1915. During World War I Benn served as an army physician in a hospital for prostitutes located in Brussels. In 1917, after the War, Benn set up a private practice in Berlin, specializing in skin and venereal diseases. The first of a series of tragic deaths of his close female companions occurred in 1931, when a friend committed suicide by jumping out of a window, immediately following a telephone conversation in which Benn had attempted to talk her out of killing herself. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Benn was initially in favor of Nazism. In 1934, however, upon becoming aware of violent acts perpetrated by high-ranking members of the Nazi party, he became an outspoken critic of Nazism. Accordingly, Benn was criticized by the government and his works banned from publication. Upon being proclaimed a Jew, Benn did not hesitate to prove his non-Jewish identity through official documentation. However, because of ongoing suspicions that he was Jewish, Benn's medical practice suffered, and in 1935 he chose to rejoin the armed forces as an army physician. Nonetheless, he remained embroiled in political controversy throughout the 1930s. In 1938, his first wife having died, Benn married Herta von Wedemeyer, who was twenty-one years younger than he. In 1945, shortly after the German surrender to the Allies, she committed suicide. In 1946, he married Dr. Ilse Kaul, a dentist, who was also considerably younger than he. He retired from medical practice in 1953. On July 7, 1956, at the age of seventy, Benn died of spine cancer. Since his death, critics and biographers have striven to make sense of the complicated evolution of Benn's political sympathies, resulting in ongoing disagreement over the implications of the poet's relationship to Nazism.

Major Works

Benn's first volume of poetry, Morgue und andere gedichte (Morgue and Other Poems) was written in response to his experiences in an autopsy course, where he dissected cadavers. It includes clinical descriptions of flesh in various stages of decomposition, as well as local Berlin slang mixed with medical jargon, written in unrhymed or loosely rhymed free verse. As its title indicates, Benn's second volume, Fleisch, continues in this vein. Benn's next three poetry volumes were Schutt (1924), Betäubung (1925), and Spaltung (1925). The poems of this series are characterized by themes of mystical visions and the primordial human condition. Unlike the earlier volumes, these poems are written in classical rhymed verse. In 1936, in honor of Benn's fiftieth birthday, a collection of his poetry, Ausgewählte gedichte, 1911-1936 was published. Statische Gedichte (1948) includes works written between 1936-1947. In 1949, Trunkene Flut, a collection of his more recent poems, was published. Benn's next two poetry volumes were Fragmente (1951) and Destillationen (1953). The last volume of Benn's poetry to be published during his lifetime was Aprèslude, in 1955. Collections of his poetry in English translation include Primal Vision (1960), Selected Poems (1970), and Prose, Essays, Poems (1987). In addition to poetry, Benn wrote numerous essays and several novellas. His autobiography, Doppelleben, was published in 1950.

Critical Reception

Throughout his literary career, and for half a century after his death, Benn has been considered one of the most important German poets of the twentieth century, and a major poet of German Expressionism. However, although Benn was never a staunchly political person, his literary reputation, both during his lifetime and since his death, has always been embroiled in controversy over his political sympathies. He was attacked from all sides of the political spectrum. John Mander quotes Benn as stating that he had been “publicly labeled a swine by the Nazis, an imbecile by the Communists, an intellectual prostitute by the deomocrates, a renegade by the emigrants, and a pathological nihilist by the religious.” Critics generally agree that, although there is some development in his style, Benn's poetry remained essentially uniform and static during some forty years of publication. His early poetry, such as the first volume, Morgue, was immediately embraced by the avant-garde and German Expressionists. It was also, however, harshly criticized as offensive to the predominantly romantic literary sensibilities of the time. During the inter-war years, Benn was often banned and frequently discouraged from publication, due to hostilities toward his poetry on the part of Nazi authorities. After the World War II, he received renewed recognition as a great poet, but was also compelled to defend himself against charges of being a Nazi-sympathizer, based on his early pro-Nazi statements (made during the years 1933-34). By the time of his death in 1956, however, Benn was recognized internationally as one of the greatest German poets of the twentieth century, and an important figure in the German Expressionist movement.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Morgue 1912

Fleisch 1917

Schutt 1924

Betäubung 1925

Spaltung 1925

Ausgewählte gedichte, 1911-1936 1936

Statische gedichte 1948

Trunkene flut 1949

Fragmente 1951

Destillationen 1953

Aprèslude 1955

Primal Vision 1960

Gesammelte werke [eight vols.] 1970

Selected Poems 1970

Prose, Essays, Poems 1987

Doppelleben (autobiography) 1950

Joachim H. Seyppel (essay date 1954)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Renaissance of German Poetry: Gottfried Benn,” in Modern Language Forum, Vol. 39, No. 2, December, 1954, pp. 115-25.

[In the following essay, Seyppel discusses Benn's place in the history of German poetry, focusing on the poet's “trance-poetry,” which addresses metaphysical concerns and the irrational mind.]

When the delicate question “What is important in contemporary German literature?” is raised, two names immediately come to mind: Ernst Jünger and Gottfried Benn. They were prominent even before World War II. While Ernst Jünger, the prose writer, represented the more traditional, “classical,” formalistic literary style, the lyricist...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poet of Nihilism,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 26, 1961, p. 326.

[In the following review of Primal Vision, the Times Literary Supplement provides an assessment of the English translations of Benn's poetry, concluding that some of Benn's craft is lost, even in the best translations.]

At the age of twenty-six Gottfried Benn made his mark in 1912 with the shocking realism of Morgue. By the time of his death in 1956 he was established, after a remarkable comeback, as an extreme champion of what he cryptically called Artistik, poetry of the “free word—the word that yields no tirades … and no commentaries; that produces...

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Ulrich Weisstein (review date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Primal Vision, in Symposium, edited by E.B. Ashton, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1961, pp. 151-55.

[In the following review, Weisstein criticizes the editor of the collection Primal Vision for its omission of important poems, and its clumsiness and inaccuracy of translation. Weisstein, however, admits that Benn's poetry presents some insurmountable difficulties to any translator, and confirms that this first volume of English translations is an important introduction of Benn's poetry to English language readers.]

The publication of [Primal Vision] can well be regarded as a literary event; for with it a representative selection from...

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Frank Wood (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn's Attic Triptych,” in Germanic Review, Vol. 36, No. 4, December, 1961, pp. 298-307.

[In the following essay, Wood traces the roots of Benn's poetry in ancient Greek culture, focusing on Benn's “triptych” of poems entitled “V. jahrhundert.”]

One interesting aspect of Benn's work that has not received the attention it deserves is his relationship to the classical heritage of antiquity and to the part this plays within the framework of his post-Nietzschean nihilism and his poetics based thereon. The topic is important not only for its bearing on Benn's poetry (and I am concerned here only with the poetry) but also for the light it...

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Hunter G. Hannum (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “George and Benn: The Autumnal Vision,” in PMLA, Vol. 78, No. 3, June, 1963, pp. 271-79.

[In the following essay, Hannum compares two “autumnal” poems, one by Benn and one by Stefan George, and discusses differences in each poet's use of nature imagery.]

Komm in den totgesagten park und schau:
Der schimmer ferner lächelnder gestade ·
Der reinen wolken unverhofftes blau
Erhellt die weiher und die bunten pfade.
Dort nimm das tiefe gelb · das weiche grau
Von birken und von buchs · der wind ist lau ·
Die späten rosen welkten noch nicht ganz ·
Erlese küsse sie und flicht den kranz
Vergiß auch diese lezten astern nicht...

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Hunter G. Hannum (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn's Music,” in Germanic Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, May, 1965, pp. 225-39.

[In the following essay, Hannum discusses the musicality in Benn's poetry, and suggests that he is as much a Romantic poet as he is an Expressionist.]

                                        “… eine Erde
aus Nihilismus und Musik.”(1)

To the reader who is familiar with Gottfried Benn primarily as the poet of Morgue, a series of sharply cynical poems depicting the decay of the human body and its society written during the hey-day of Expressionism, it may come as a surprise to hear that Benn's poems, taken as a whole, are among the most musical in...

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Ian Hilton (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn,” in German Men of Letters, Volume III, edited by Alex Natan, Oswald Wolf, 1968, pp. 129-50.

[In the following essay, Hilton traces the development of Benn's poetic style in relation to other modern German poets.]

Gottfried Benn was born on May 2, 1886, in Mansfield, Westprignitz, the son of a Lutheran pastor and a Swiss-French mother. His early upbringing was in this Lutheran environment. Relations with his father, whom he greatly respected, later became strained over the agonising death from cancer of his mother. He had been sent to the University of Marburg to study theology and philology, but his heart was more in medicine and soon he...

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Anne Paolucci (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Benn, Pound, and Eliot: The Monologue Art of German Expressionism and Anglo-American Modernism,” in Review of National Literature, Vol. 9, 1978, pp. 10-24.

[In the following essay, Paolucci discusses the poetry of Benn in relation to other major poets of German Expressionism.]

The Expressionist poet … does not represent, he forms anew. … The world is there. It would make no sense to repeat it.

Kasimir Edschmid, “On Poetic Expressionism” (1917)1

We are all Expressionists today: people who want to shape the outside world from within themselves....

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Brian Holbeche (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn's ‘Karyatide’ in the Context of His Early Poetry, “in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, May, 1980, pp. 96-110.

[In the following essay, Holbeche discusses the poem “Karyatide,” concluding that it represents an important stage in the development of Benn's early poetry.]

Although Gottfried Benn's ‘Karyatide’ (p. 45),1 published in 1916, has been one of the most frequently anthologized and discussed of all his poems, it is symptomatic of the persistent tendency of Benn criticism to concentrate on individual poems or to group them in largely synchronic structural or thematic categories that it has...

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Mark Ritter (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Unfinished Legacy of Early Expressionist Poetry: Benn, Heym, Van Hoddis and Lichtenstein,” in Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner, J. F. Bergin Publishers, Inc., 1983, pp. 151-56.

[In the following excerpt, Ritter discusses the influence of Benn's expressionist poetry on later poets.]

“The heritage of Expressionism is not yet over, for it has not yet even been started.”1 With these typically cryptic words, Ernst Bloch attempted to put an end to the famous “expressionism debate” in 1938.2 There is one group of Expressionists for whom the term “unfinished...

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Angelika Manyoni (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Das Gedicht aus Worten, die Sie Faszinierend Montieren’: Gottfried Benn's Conception of Poetic Montage,” in German Life and Letters, Vol. 36, No. 4, July, 1983, pp. 329-46.

[In the following essay, Manyoni discusses Benn's unique use of the technique of “montage” in his poetry.]

In view of the significance Benn's practice of poetic montage demonstrably held for the younger generation of poets in West Germany, it would have been of value to us had he offered a more detailed exposition of his understanding of montage than he appears to have done. Among his numerous and often repetitive utterances on ‘Artistik’ and ‘the modern poem’, explicit...

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Arnd Bohm (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Aspects of Floral Imagery in Gottfried Benn's Poetry,” in Carleton Germanic Papers, Vol. 14, 1986, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Bohm discusses the significance of references to flowers throughout Benn's poetry.]

Ich muß nun wieder
meine dunklen Gärten begehn

“Lebe wohl—”

To talk of flowers when discussing Gottfried Benn may seem slightly eccentric, whether because such approaches seem quaint in the light of contemporary literary criticism's abstractions, or because other issues might seem more pressing in the case of this poet.1 An answer to both reservations can only be that the theme was...

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Brian Holbeche (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn's ‘Palau,’” in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 312-23.

[In the following essay, Holbeche discusses the importance of Benn's poem “Palau” in the development of his early poetry.]

Of all Gottfried Benn's major poems ‘Palau,’1 originally entitled ‘Rot’ and published as the second poem of the ‘Schutt’ cycle in Der Neue Merkur in April 1922, has probably fared worst at the hands of the critics. Although no longer neglected in favour of other twenties poems of considerably less artistic value and historical interest, it is consistently...

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James Rolleston (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Double Time, Double Language: Benn, Celan, Enzenberger,” in his Narratives of Ecstasy: Romantic Temporality in Modern German Poetry, Wayne State University Press, 1987, pp. 133-74.

[In the following excerpt, Rolleston discusses the influence of German Expressionism on poetry during the period 1920-1970.]

It is becoming possible to view the period roughly from 1920 to 1970 (the lifetime of Paul Celan) as essentially closed, historically describable. Celan's extraordinary poetic enterprise, so wholly and desperately logical while in process, is unimaginable now; its cultural premises have ceased to exist. The question remains whether or not one can say...

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Edward Timms (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Treason of the Intellectuals?: Benda, Benn and Brecht,” in Visions and Blueprints: Avant-garde Culture and Radical Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Europe, edited by Edward Timms and Peter Collier, St. Martin's Press, 1988, pp. 23-32.

[In the following excerpt, Timms discusses Benn's controversial political orientation during the era of Nazi Germany, and the influence this had upon his poetry.]

Treason of the Intellectuals defines the norms against which we may assess the polarisation of political sentiment in Germany. The test case is provided by Gottfried Benn (1886-1956). Benn was one of the most influential figures in the Expressionist...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Exner, Richard. A review of Poèmes, in Comparative Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1959, pp. 86-90.

Offers a critical assessment of Poèmes, a collection of Benn's poems translated into French by Pierre Garnier. Discusses the difficulties faced by translators of Benn's poetry

———. An obituary of Benn. Books Abroad 30 (Fall 1956): 397.

A brief overview of Benn's literary career and his relationship to German politics.


Block, Haskell M. “Contextual Values of Silence in Modern Poetry.”Proceeding of the 10th Congress of the...

(The entire section is 629 words.)