(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

With love and joy, departure and death as her prevalent themes, it seems safe to say that Ingeborg Bachmann stays well within the conventions of poetry. Nor is her message novel; after all, the end of the world has been proclaimed many times before in poetry. Bachmann tells her readers solemnly that “the great cargo of the summer” is ready to be sent off and that they must all accept the inevitable end. Time is only borrowed, if one is to believe the ominous title of her first collection of poems. The titles of many of her poems are ciphers of farewell: “Ausfahrt” (“Departure”), “Fall ab, Herz” (“Fall Away, Heart”), “Das Spiel ist aus” (“The Game Is Over”), “Lieder auf der Flucht” (“Songs in Flight”). Indeed, Bachmann’s poetry constitutes a “manual for farewells,” as George Schoolfield has put it.

Images of night, darkness, ice, and shadow abound in Bachmann’s verse. Upon closer inspection, however, one also discovers an entirely different set of images: warmth, summer, sunlight, plant growth. While all these images may look conventional at first glance, one soon discovers that Bachmann has a very private mythological system and that most of her images have meaning only within that system. Many critics have attempted to decode Bachmann’s verse; perhaps the most persuasive reading is that of Hans Egon Holthusen, who sees two basic attitudes reflected in Bachmann’s poetry. One must agree with his diagnosis that there is a tension between hope and despair or joy and anguish in the fabric of nearly every poem by Bachmann.

Die gestundete Zeit

Bachmann’s “dark” or “negative” images are ciphers for what Holthusen calls her “elegiac” consciousness (in contrast to her “panegyric” consciousness, as reflected in her “positive” imagery). Images of ice, snow, cold, or barren landscape represent restricting elements in life, such as the impossibility of communication between lovers. Particularly in her first volume, Die gestundete Zeit, Bachmann frequently writes about the coldness of time. The poem “Curriculum Vitae,” for example, evokes a winter landscape. In it, life is imaged as a quest for a path laid between ice skeletons. Even in Bachmann’s love poems, there are repeated images of snow, ice, and cold.

Such imagery must be related to Bachmann’s worldview. Although there are those who see her poems as reflections of a blurry Weltschmerz trimmed in beautiful language, her pessimism was earned by experience and reflected a concrete historical situation. Bachmann herself protested frequently against the mere culinary enjoyment of her poetry. Rather, she wanted her poems to be understood as a reaction to the unprecedented horrors of World War II.

“Early Noon”

This intention is clear in “Früher Mittag” (“Early Noon”), a major poem of her first collection. In this poem, there are numerous references to Germany’s recent past. Having been offered a platter on which is displayed the German heart, Bachmann’s lyrical traveler opens the heart, looks inside, and reflects on what he finds: Germany’s misuse of idealism and its efforts to disguise the past with what George Schoolfield has called the “simple heartiness of the beer-garden.” Fragments of a song by Franz Schubert and a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, cherished treasures of the German musical and literary heritage, are interspersed with Bachmann’s lines reminding the reader, all too painfully, of the aesthetic component of the German mind. In their context, these quotations sound like parodies, for Germany, in the poem, is...

(The entire section is 1492 words.)