Johannes Bobrowski Analysis

Other Literary Forms

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Although Johannes Bobrowski is remembered primarily for his poetry, he did publish two critically acclaimed experimental novels: Levins Mühle: 34 Sätze über meinen Grossvater (1964; Levin’s Mill, 1970) and Litauische Claviere (1966; Lithuanian pianos). He also wrote several short stories, which are collected in the following volumes: Boehlendorff und andere Erzählungen (1965; Boehlendorff and other stories), Mäusefest und andere Erzählungen (1965; festival of the mice and other stories), and Der Mahner (1967; I Taste Bitterness, 1970). Working as a reader at an East German publishing house, he had the opportunity to edit books by others, including collections of legends and poetry. Recordings of several of his poems are available.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Johannes Bobrowski belonged to that generation of East German poets who matured late artistically, since their creative development was interrupted by the events of World War II and the founding of a new state. When Bobrowski finally published his first slender volumes in the early 1960’s, they caused a great deal of excitement in both East and West Germany, for he was recognized as a major talent. His thematic concerns were new and provocative, and his unique style, based in part on classical German modes yet stripped to the bare linguistic essentials, was rich in metaphor and allegory. For his poetic accomplishments he was awarded the prestigious prize of the Group 47 in 1962, a prize given only to the most promising new authors in the German-speaking world. In the same year, he won the Alma-Johanna-Koenig Prize in Vienna. For his novel Levin’s Mill, he was awarded the Heinrich Mann Prize of the East Berlin Academy of the Arts and the international Charles Veillon Prize from Switzerland, both in 1965. He was posthumously granted the East German F. C. Weiskopf Prize in 1967.

Together with Erich Arendt and Peter Huchel, Bobrowski is credited with giving a new direction and inspiration to East German poetry, which until his time was rather bogged down in the principles of Socialist Realism and the Brechtian tradition. Bobrowski showed his own generation and younger, emerging poets that artistic integrity and genuine creativity and diversity...

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Poems of Honor and Remembrance

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Not all Bobrowski poems deal with Sarmatia. A few treat the themes of love and death, not with any specificity, but in general philosophical terms. Two other categories, however, must be discussed in greater detail. The first contains poems written in honor or in memory of other artists with whom Bobrowski feels some affinity, such as François Villon, Joseph Conrad, Dylan Thomas, Marc Chagall, Johann Georg Hamann, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Gertrud Kolmar, Friedrich Hölderlin, Else Lasker-Schüler, Nelly Sachs, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Christian Domelaitis, and Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. These “portrait poems” are not biographical or artistic summaries, but rather impressions of the artists or their lives. Bobrowski merely takes one aspect or feature of the artist and explains why he admires it or considers it important for his work. Thus, in the poem “An Klopstock” (“To Klopstock”), Bobrowski praises Klopstock’s notion that one must recall the past and atone for former transgressions. (Bobrowski considered Klopstock to be his “taskmaster,” both stylistically and thematically.) In “Hamann,” he praises the eighteenth century poet for collecting and preserving ancient tales and legends. (Bobrowski was greatly influenced by Hamann while still in school and felt that Hamann’s life’s goals were similar to his own. He had been collecting material for years for a monograph on Hamann but was unable to complete it...

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Nature as Symbol

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Because of his emphasis on man’s relationship to nature through language, and because he believed that man’s harmony with nature, which was somehow lost in the past, must be regained in order to save the human race, Bobrowski’s work has often been referred to as nature poetry. This description is valid only to a certain extent. It is true that Bobrowski does employ a great number of recurring nature motifs in his poetry, most frequently rivers, birds, trees, fish, stones, wolves, light, and darkness. These motifs, however, are not an evocation of nature per se. They do not merely conjure up the beauty of landscapes to be admired and enjoyed, but rather they function as symbols within the overriding thematics of the poem. Although they have varying connotations, Bobrowski generally uses these motifs to connect man to nature and to show how man is part of the natural historical process. The objects of nature remain constant throughout historical change, says Bobrowski, and so, too, does man’s soul. If man can rid himself of the barbarous acts of war and violence and return to his primeval natural state, he will have reached his ultimate goal. This strong concern for the human and communal element is what sets Bobrowski’s poems apart from traditional nature poetry.

Poetic Minimalism

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Bobrowski’s symbolic treatment of nature is only one aspect of his laconic style. The most striking feature of his poetry is the reduction of the linguistic material to an extreme minimum. Frequently, lines consist of merely a word or two each, and the length of the line is very irregular. Bobrowski often employs sentence fragments consisting of a single word, and longer syntactic units are usually broken up into several lines, interrupting the semantic flow.

The breaking of the poem into small phrases gives primacy to the individual word and lends the poetic message an aspect far different from what it would possess were it written in prose or even conventional poetic style. The free rhythms are sometimes fairly regular, so that the reader is often reminded of the odes and elegies of previous centuries. Bobrowski’s concentrated and abbreviated style demands the active participation of the reader, who must fill in the missing material and make the appropriate associations and connections, a process similar to that through which one tries to remember events of the distant past. Such a difficult procedure tends at times to weaken the thematic impact of the poem, but as Fritz Minde points out in an article on Bobrowski, the poems can indeed be decoded with the help of published biographical and historical material; their difficult construction mimics the deformed and incoherent structure of reality.


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In Poetry in East Germany, John Flores suggests a method by which this decoding can be performed. He believes that most of Bobrowski’s poems have three parts or stages. In the first, or introductory, part, the author relies chiefly on nouns, employed in an uncertain, staccato fashion. He is setting the mood for the poem by using the naming process described above. The reader is uncertain and somewhat confused. In the second stage, spatial and temporal connections begin to appear. The style is more reflective and narrative, and nouns are linked with verbs. The thematic thrust of the poem begins to take shape. In the final stage, the staccato mode is reintroduced, but here the verb prevails. The author unleashes his thoughts and ideas in a torrent of words. These thoughts have been building in intensity throughout the poem, and they all come together in the end in a desperate cry for recognition.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The difficult and cryptic nature of many of Bobrowski’s poems raises the question of his place in literary history. Was he a true member of the avant-garde, a forerunner of or participant in the reductive “linguistic” movement of contemporary German poetry? No, he did not use language as a collection of building blocks devoid of meaning. Instead, he can be seen as part of the movement toward radical reduction of language that began around 1910 with the expressionists in Germany and that insisted on a language free of all decadent cultural encrustations. Such a purification of language became all the more necessary after the abuses of the Nazi years. At the same time, however, Bobrowski went beyond this essentially negative program, offering in his verse substantive arguments in favor of a new and better world.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Bridgwater, Patrick. “The Poetry of Johannes Bobrowski.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 2 (1966): 320-334. A critical study of Bobrowski’s poetic works.

Flores, John. Poetry in East Germany: Adjustments, Visions, and Provocations, 1945-1970. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971. A history and critical analysis of poetry in postwar East Germany including the works of Bobrowski during this period. Includes bibliographic references.

Glenn, Jerry. “An Introduction to the Poetry of Johannes Bobrowski.” The Germanic Review 41 (1966): 45-56. A brief critical assessment of Bobrowski’s poetic works.

Keith-Smith, Brian. Johannes Bobrowski. London: Wolff, 1970. Introductory biography with selected poetry and prose in English translation. Includes bibliography.

Scrase, David. Understanding Johannes Bobrowski. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Critical interpretation and brief biography by a specialist in German and Austrian art and literature. Includes bibliography.

Wieczorek, John P. Between Sarmatia and Socialism: The Life and Works of Johannes Bobrowski. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1999. Examines the chronological development of Bobrowski’s ‘Sarmatian’ works and places them within the context of a biography of his career.