Schubertiana Analysis
by Tomas Tranströmer

Start Your Free Trial

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Download Schubertiana Study Guide

Subscribe Now

“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.

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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,049 words.)