Michael Hamburger Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hamburger, Michael 1924–

Hamburger is a German-born English poet, translator, and critic. Hamburger has achieved a solid reputation as a poet; in addition, he is the outstanding translator and interpreter of German poetry for English readers. His collected translations of Hölderlin and Hugo von Hofmannsthal are considered definitive. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev, ed.)

[It] is the combination of poet and critic which makes the special interest of Mr. Hamburger's book [Reason and Energy]. Whether he is analysing Hölderlin's "Patmos" or the fifth Hymn of Novalis, Kleist's Die Marquise von O … or Büchner's Woyzeck, or the hysteria of the German Expressionists, it is a poet's preoccupation with their characteristic use of language which provides the insight and the illumination.

At first sight the poets assembled between these covers seem strange bedfellows, and one may well ask what they have in common. The answer is implied in the title—Reason and Energy—taken from an aphorism by Blake which states that "without Contraries there is no progression." All these German poets were the victims of—and were often obsessed with—contraries and contradictions, dichotomies and dualisms….

It is clear that none of these poets ever gets any farther by his "progression" through contraries. And from the Novalis motto which also stands sponsor to his book, it is doubtful whether Mr. Hamburger would have wished them to. He evidently has little liking for the real "progress" through contraries made by the one great German poet who, like Blake, knew this to be a law of existence and acted on the knowledge throughout his life and work—Goethe. From the essay on Hölderlin it might even seem that Mr. Hamburger envisages contraries being resolved, not by accepting them, but rather by denying or abandoning them. But in all fairness it should be noted that the unity of his book is "a theme discovered in retrospect, rather than a thesis driven towards a foregone conclusion," and this, as we know from similar collections of essays brought under a single head, does not always make for clarity of argument at every point….

An important contribution to Hölderlin scholarship is Mr. Hamburger's interpretation of "Friedensfeier," for the discovery and identification of which he was mainly responsible….

[Mr. Hamburger] is not only poet and critic but scholar as well, and these three often warring persons seem in him to live in harmony. The outward and visible signs of their fruitful collaboration are the accurate and poetic translations with which he is able to set the seal on his critical interpretations.

"Studies in German Poetry," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1957; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2883, May 31, 1957, p. 337.

M. L. Rosenthal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Hamburger is an English poet of recent German ancestry, a fact that makes it easy to understand the unhappy historical consciousness that marks his work. The title of his book, "Weather and Season," seems rather commonplace—until one realizes the importance in it of the two poems, "Homage to the Weather" and "In a Cold Season." The former of these is a beautiful evocation of remembered moments in many places, summoned up by the sudden appearance of bees—"a tide, high tide of golden air"—in a garden. The other is a poem about Eichmann, and about the poet's grandmother who perished in Nazi Germany. The range of Mr. Hamburger's work lies between these extremes.

He is an exquisitely...

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John Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hamburger writes honestly, without fudging his feelings, but he has admitted into [Travelling] too many poems that are simply dull. His ironies tend either to lack sharpness (as in a poem on the erroneous bombing of friendly villages in Vietnam) or to be unconvincingly high-pitched (as in the pessimism about the consumer society in 'Report on a Supermarket'). The fact that his perception and criticism in these poems is so unfailingly right does not guarantee their impact on the reader. Yet Hamburger is a poet who blossoms marvellously when he has found the convincing images.

All is saved by those poems which show that he has found them, poems like 'Observer', 'The Cello' or 'For a Family...

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M. B. Benn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The second edition [of Reason and Energy: Studies in German Literature] contains only one essay that is quite new: a comparative study of Milton and Hölderlin entitled 'The Sublime Art'….

'The Sublime Art' has the merit of dealing with two poets whose likenesses and differences are sufficiently interesting to make a comparative study worth while. And it has the further merit of focussing attention on Samson Agonistes and Empedocles, works which are genuinely comparable. But it is unfortunate that Hamburger should have chosen to base his interpretation on the second version of Empedocles. Few firm conclusions can be drawn from the extant brief fragments of this...

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Russell Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is shameful to be curt with Michael Hamburger, but I feel his Real Estate suffers … from its travels. It is the fairly depressive constancy of Hamburger's personality that is emphasised by the movement, not the variousness of moods and worlds. The phrase 'Ah well' came somewhere in the book, but it could have come everywhere. A possible exception might have been the long philosophical poem 'Travelling', which Hamburger has been working up to this definitive length for some years; but by now, the title-term seems to me to have become over-loaded with meanings—and the one that suffers the worst damage is that condition of swishing weightlessness of spirit which I suspect the poet most highly prizes. (p....

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Glauco Cambon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The miscellaneous pieces about British and German authors contained in Art as Second Nature: Occasional Pieces 1950–74] are more than just crumbs of an intellectual banquet, and one remarkable trait is the extent to which they penetrate their respective topics in depth, within the generally very narrow compass allowed by literary journalism. Quick sharp probings they are, and it is no wonder that Hamburger should turn out to be so frequently quotable in a book that introduces itself to us in the demure guise of a miscellany. He is of course a poet, as the short unpretentious self-analysis called "A Writer on his Work" reminds us and as any reader of his translations from Hölderlin knows…. (p. 663)


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Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Reality] is Michael Hamburger's theme, and he seriously confronts it in his title poem [in Real Estate] about almost but not quite buying an old house where the 'pure idea of dwelling' seems 'too real for us to meddle with'. All through this book Hamburger explores the endemic dilemmas of the bourgeois poet: what to have, what to dream about, what to kill, what to keep in the garden? This is a thoughtful book by a poet who is more personal than philosophical. (p. 487)

Anne Stevenson, "Snaffling and Curbing." in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Anne Stevenson). Vol. 98, No. 2530. October 13, 1977, pp. 486-87.∗...

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