The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

“Schubertiana,” a poem whose title refers to nineteenth century Austrian composer Franz Schubert, consists of five numbered stanzas of varying length. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 5 contain from six to ten lines each; the central stanza, stanza 3, is conspicuously shorter, having only two lines. The poem is written in free verse, but, with the exception of the last two, the lines are extraordinarily long.

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The poem begins with an evocation of New York City: its skyscrapers, teeming crowds, fast-paced life, squalor, and occasional violence. The poet, speaking in the first person, moves without transition to an intuitive observation: “I know too—without statistics—that right now Schubert is being played.” Not only is Schubert’s music being played somewhere, but it is more real to someone, the poet asserts, than anything else—more real than the giant city, its masses, or its misery. The musical performance is certain, even without empirical evidence.

The second stanza abruptly shifts the scene and focus. The biological foundation of all life is evoked in a reference to the physiological structure of the human brain and the swallows’ return from South Africa (Transvaal) to Europe, or, perhaps more specifically, to Sweden, to precisely the spot where they had nested the year before. Against the background of the wonderfully intricate structure of the human brain and the seeming miracle of swallow navigation, Schubert, “a fat young man from Vienna, called ‘the little mushroom,’” is described as such a consummate musician that he could encompass the signals of an entire life in a few ordinary chords of a string quintet and get a river to flow through the eye of a needle.

This string quintet is the bridge to the third and fourth stanzas. While the quintet plays, the poet walks home through a humid forest, falls asleep, passes weightlessly into the future, and knows that plants have thoughts, that the mind permeates all life. The fourth stanza describes the various kinds of trust that are necessary in the contemporary world: trust in the natural world, in social institutions, and in the equipment of daily life. Yet none of these merits the trust universally placed in it. The quintet, though, testifies that something, though never clearly and directly identified, is worthy of human trust.

Only the fifth and final stanza deals entirely and specifically with music. While a Schubert piano duet plays, its true heroic character is noted. This, however, is not the music for people who are not true to themselves or try to set a price on everything. The long, sinuous melodies in all their developments and varying modulations do not reflect or accompany those who forsake, betray, or compromise themselves or human nature.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

Although the poem is about Schubert’s music, it does not make use of devices that traditionally have been associated with lyric musicality. Even in the original Swedish, there are no strong rhythmic patterns, concentrated repetitions of sounds, or especially euphonious combinations of sounds. The language is, in fact, rather colloquial. One way of looking at the poem’s musicality is, however, in terms of the description of Schubert’s music in the last stanza. There his melodies are described as long—as opposed, for example, to the short and concentrated rhythmic motifs often found in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven—and as remaining themselves through all changes, modulations, and developments.

The same could be said of the structure of the poem. The lines of “Schubertiana” are extraordinarily long, resembling the long melodic lines in Schubert’s work. They have, moreover, no parallel in Tomas Tranströmer’s other poems, except his well-known collection östersjöar (1974; Baltics, 1975), which was published shortly before “Schubertiana.” The underlying structure of each stanza is also similar to Tranströmer’s description of music that remains fundamentally itself even though undergoing many changes. In each stanza, the poet speaking personally describes an experience or perception—New York City, the physiological structure of the brain and the swallows’ miraculous return, the walk through the forest, the question of trust, and the playing of the piano duet—followed by his understanding of the remarkable way in which Schubert’s music relates to these extremely diverse situations. Although the situations change, the basic pattern remains the same: Personal experience or insight is juxtaposed to an important aspect of Schubert’s music. Since the musicality of this poem is not strongly linked to the sounds of the original Swedish—although there are, to be sure, connections—the musicality can well be seen and understood in translation.

Another reason the poem works so well in English is that its basic strategy is one of comparison, particularly unexpected, even surprising, comparisons. After emphasizing the massive size, the frenetic lifestyle, the chaos, and the brutality of New York City, the poet, without preparation or transition, makes the startling observation that he knows intuitively that someone is performing Schubert. It should be noted that Schubert is best remembered for his extraordinary gift of melody and his rich, evocative harmonies embodied in his songs (Lieder, in German) and works for small ensembles or solo instruments. These small-scale chamber works, which are so melodically and harmonically rich, are abruptly juxtaposed to and astoundingly encompass in their own way the sprawling, chaotic city. Similarly, the incomprehensible complexity of the brain and the swallows’ astounding migration over thousands of miles are contrasted to a few simple chords of the string quintet into which the signals of an entire life are distilled. It is the string quintet that, in the shortest and most contracted stanza of the poem, accompanies and stands in stark relief against the disquieting yet seminal insight that mind is not unique to humankind but pervades all the natural world. In the fourth stanza, Tranströmer points out that in order to live daily life without sinking through the earth, great trust must be placed in many aspects of the ambient world. Yet, this trust that is so necessary is unmerited in comparison to the trust that the music of a Schubert quintet invites—trust that is compared to the banister that leads through the dark. In the last stanza, the playing of a simple Schubert duet is juxtaposed to the awareness and understanding of the integrity of the music and the personal integrity that it demands.

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Themes