Johannes Bobrowski Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Many of Johannes Bobrowski’s poems, as he often stated, have as their central theme the relationship between the Germans and their neighbors to the East, the Slavic peoples. Because he grew up along the river Memel, where these two cultures merge, Bobrowski was particularly sensitive to this issue. From the days of the Order of the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages, the Germans had treated these people very badly, and the history of their relations is marred by war, repression, and murder. Bobrowski the poet recalls these atrocities, lest contemporary Germans forget to atone for their past misdeeds.


To accomplish this goal, Bobrowski uses the concept of Sarmatia, a vague term applied by ancient historians and geographers to the area that he has in mind—namely, the territory between Finland and southern Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea. He populates his Sarmatia with a host of various personages: ancient gods, legendary figures, and historical personalities. Bobrowski thus creates a mythology of sorts in order to come to terms with the German past, but it is not a well-defined mythology, and one can discern its full richness only by studying his poems as a totality.

Thus, when one reads about the ancient gods Perkun and Pikoll in “Pruzzische Elegie” (“Prussian Elegy”), about the great Lithuanian ruler Wilna in “Anruf” (“Appeal”) or in “Wilna,” about the legendary sunken city of Kiteshgorod in “Erzählung” (“Story”), or about Russian writer Isaac Babel in “Holunderblüte” (“Elderblossom”), one confronts only one aspect of Bobrowski’s poetic world. History is treated as myth and myth as history. The reader must be willing to mingle and combine past and present, the real and the fictional, in order to form a coherent concept of the historical development Bobrowski has in mind.