Harp & Altar
POETRY
Donald Breckenridge

Oisín Curran

Heinrich Heine
translated by Peter Wortsman
from The Harz Journey

Zachary Mason
from The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Derek White
from Marsupial

Leni Zumas

from The Harz Journey
Heinrich Heine

I stopped at the Inn of the Krone at Klausthal. There I was served spring green parsley soup, violet blue cabbage, a slab of roast veal massive as the Chimborazo in miniature, as well as a kind of smoked herring called Bückinge named for the man who invented it, Wilhelm Bücking, who died in 1447, and who’s confection was so prized by Charles V that in the year 1556 the latter traveled from Middelburg to Bievland in Zeeland just to visit the grave of this great man. How splendid is the taste of such a meal when the pleasures of the palate are spiced by the knowledge of such historic references as these! Only my coffee was spoiled when a blabbering young man sat himself down at my table and swaggered so atrociously that the milk went sour. He was a young traveling salesman with twenty-five brightly colored vests and as many golden signet and engagement rings, broaches, etc. He looked like a monkey who had donned a red coat, convinced by the saying: “Clothes make the man.” He knew a whole lot of riddles by heart as well as anecdotes, which he always cited at the least appropriate moment. He asked me what was new in Göttingen and I told him about a decree issued by the academic senate just prior to my departure, prohibiting the excision of dogs’ tails at a penalty of three Talers, the reason being that mad dogs hold their tails between their legs during the dog days of summer and they can thus be distinguished from the sound dogs, a distinction which would not be possible if the beasts in question were tailless. After lunch I set out to visit the mines, the silver loads and the mint.

In the silver loads, as so often in life, I failed to find the silver shimmer. I did much better at the mint, privileged to watch them make money. I have never succeeded in doing so myself. On such occasions, all I’ve ever been able to do is watch, and I’m convinced that if coins rained down from heaven all I’d get would be holes in my head, while the Children of Israel would gather the silver manna with a merry mien. With a feeling of mingled comic awe and wonder I admired the newborn coins, took one just emerged from the mold in my hand and said to it: “Young coin! What fate awaits you! How much good and evil will you reap! What vice will you foster, what virtue compromise? How much will you be loved and then again reviled! How much revelry, pimping, lying and murder will you insti­gate! How long will you pass restlessly between clean and filthy hands, for how many centuries on end, till, sin-sick and weary, you’re finally called back among your kind in the lap of Abraham, to be melted down, refined and recast to find a new and better being.”

I found the descent into the two best Klausthal mines, the Dorothea and the Karoline, very interesting, and I would like to describe the experience in some detail.

A half hour’s walk outside the city, you happen upon two big blackish buildings. There you are immediately received by miners. They are dressed in dark, generally steel-blue-colored, wide jackets hanging down over the belly, pants of more or less the same color, a wrap-around leather smock tied in the back, and a small green felt cap, completely rimless, like a lopped-off bowling pin. The visitor likewise dons the same attire, except for the leather smock, after which he is taken in hand by a foreman, who lights his pit lamp and leads him toward a dark opening resembling a chimney sweep’s hole, climbs down to chest level, instructs the visitor to keep a tight grip on the ladder, and bids him follow fearlessly.

The descent is, in fact, a risky business, but being as yet ignorant of the workings of the mine, you are initially oblivious to the real danger. The fact that you are obliged to pull off your clothes and slip on this dark prison-like apparel already gives you a curious feeling. And now you are supposed to sink to your hands and knees and climb down, and the dark hole is so dark, and God knows how long the ladder is going to be. Yet, soon you realize that the rungs leading down into the black abyss do not belong to a single ladder but rather comprise a series of fifteen to twenty ladder joints, each of which leads to a tiny platform on which you can stand and in the midst of which a new hole leads down to a new length of ladder.

I first climbed down into the Karolina (the filthiest and most cheerless Miss Karolina that I have ever met). The ladder joints are muddy and wet. And down you go, from one length of ladder to the next, the foreman in the lead, and the fellow keeps telling you: “It isn’t really dangerous, you just have to make sure to grasp the rungs firmly, and don’t look down at your feet, and don’t get dizzy, and for God’s sake, don’t step on the side board, where the whirring cable is just now hoisting up the vats of ore, and where just two weeks ago a careless fool fell down and unfortunately broke his neck.”

There is a bewildering hubbub and hum of activity down below; you are forever bumping against beams and cables hoisting up vats of hammered ore and buck­ets of water that has seeped out of the rock. Sometimes you also happen upon hollowed-out corridors, called stollen, in which you can glimpse the growing piles of ore, and where the lonely miner sits all day, laboriously hammering the lumps of ore out of the wall.

I never did get down to the very bottom, where, as some say, you can already hear the Americans crying, “Hurrah, Lafayette!” on the other side; between you and me, as far down as I got seemed deep enough for me—what with the unceas­ing rumble and whirl, the ghastly grind of the machinery, the subterranean drip drip drip, water trickling everywhere, terrestrial vapors rising from the depths, and the pit light flickering ever more faintly in the lonely night eternal. It truly was stupefying, harder and harder to breathe, and only with great effort did I hold fast to the slippery rungs of the ladder.

I did not suffer any so-called panic attack, but, strangely enough, down in those subterranean depths, I suddenly remembered my experience last year, at about this time, of a storm on the North Sea, and right then and there it felt cozy and pleasant to recall the ship tossing to and fro, the trumpeting winds blasting away, and in the midst of it all the sailors kicking up a merry row, and everything bathed in God’s fresh, open air. Yes, air!

Gasping for air, I climbed the several dozen ladder lengths back up to the sur­face, and my guide led me through a narrow, very long passageway blasted through the mountain to the Dorothea Mine.

It is airier and fresher here, and the ladders are cleaner but also longer and steeper than those in the Karolina. My spirit grew more buoyant here too, especially as I once again noticed scattered traces of life. Faint glows shifted about in the distance; miners with their pit lights soon emerged to the surface with the greeting, “How ya doin’?,” and with the same reply from us, they climbed on. Like a friendly, quiet, and at the same time, torturously enigmatic memory, they flitted by with their profoundly lucid expressions; the somberly pious, somewhat pallid faces of these young and old men eerily lit in the shimmer of the pit light, and the faces of men who have worked a shift in dark, lonesome mine shafts and now longed for the dear light of day, and the eyes of wife and child.

My cicerone himself was a sterling fellow of pure and simple German nature. With a deep sense of satisfaction, he showed me the very spot where the Duke of Cambridge dined with his entire entourage during his visit to the mine, and where the long wooden dinner table still stands today along with the big silver ore stool on which the Duke sat. “This table will stay standing here as an eternal souvenir of the occasion,” said the good miner, and with fire in his voice he recalled the many festivities they celebrated back then: how the whole mine shaft was decked out with lanterns, flowers and wreaths; how a mine musician played the zither and sang; and how the dear, delighted, portly Duke drank round after round. And he swore that many miners, he himself, in particular, would gladly lay down their lives for the dear portly Duke and the entire House of Hanover.

I am always greatly stirred to see how this feeling of fidelity expresses itself in such simple syllables. It is such a lovely sentiment! And it is such a truly German sentiment! Other nations may be more nimble and witty and pleasure-loving, but none is so faithful as the German nation. Did I not know that fidelity was as old as the world, I’d say a German heart had invented it. Good old German fidelity—that’s no newfangled flourish. At your courts, oh you German lords, they ought to sing again and again the Song of Faithful Eckart and the evil Burgundian, who had his henchmen kill the children of the former, whose fidelity to the latter did not lag thereafter one iota. You have the most faithful subjects among all nations, and you err if you believe that the sensible old reliable dog might suddenly have gone mad and snapped at your sacred heels.

Like good old German fidelity, the little pit light led us safely and soundly, with hardly a flicker, through the labyrinth of shafts and pits; we climbed up out of the steamy night eternal, and the sunlight was beaming—“How ya doin?”

Most of the miners live in Klausthal and in the adjoining little mountain hamlet of Zellerfeld. I visited a fair number of these valiant folk, was welcomed into their modest cozy lodgings, and listened to a few of their songs, which they sang to the sweet accompaniment of the zither, their favorite instrument. I had them tell me old mountain fairy tales and also rattle off their prayers, which they liked to recite in unison before climbing down into the dark pit, and I prayed along with them. An old foreman even proposed I stay with them and become a miner and when, nevertheless, I took my leave, he bid me deliver greetings to his brother who lives not far from Goslar and give many kisses to his dearly beloved niece.

As static and quiet as the life of these people might appear, it is still a truly ani­mated existence. The trembling ancient crone seated in the cozy nook between the big cupboard and the warm oven, herself as old as the hills, may have already been seated there for a quarter century, and her thinking and feeling were defi­nitely intertwined with every corner of this oven and every hand-carved notch and crevice of this cupboard. And cupboard and oven are alive, for a human being imbued them with a piece of his soul.

It is only through such a deeply contemplative life, through such an immediate rapport between man and his surroundings, that the German fairy tale could come into being, for its uniqueness consists in the fact that not only animals and plants, but also seemingly altogether lifeless things have the capacity to speak and act. For only such contemplative, harmless folk, cloistered away in their forest cottages, in that still, secret, cozy corner of these low mountains, could fathom the inner life of such things. To them, these objects have acquired an essential, consequent character, a sweet mingling of whimsical caprice and pure human impulse. And so in their wondrous yet seemingly self-evident way, do fairy tales portray them: the needles and pins escaping from the tailor’s pincushion only to get lost in the darkness; the drowning blades of straw and lumps of coal determined yet to ford the stream; a bickering shovel and broom that willfully fling themselves from the landing; the propositioned mirror that naturally reveals the face of the loveliest lady; and even a drop of blood that bursts into speech, dark and fearful words of sympathy and foreboding.

For the very same reason, our life in childhood is so infinitely full of meaning—childhood, that time when everything is equally important to us, when we hear it all, see it all, and take it all in with the same equanimity. It is so unlike adulthood, when we become more intentional, dwelling on the particular, having cashed in the clear gold of contemplation for the paper money of dictionary definitions, gaining in life experience what we lose in the deep luster of looking.

Now we are grownup, noble folk; we keep changing apartments—the maid cleans up daily and changes the arrangements of the furniture as she sees fit, those tables and chairs in which we take little interest, since they are new and Hans will in any case hock them to Isaac tomorrow. Even our clothes remain strange to us, and we hardly know how many buttons are attached to the jacket we are wearing this very minute. We do, after all, change clothes with such frequency that no single garment maintains any lasting connection with our private and public per­sona. Why, we can hardly still remember what that brown waistcoat looked like, the one that used to draw so much laughter and on whose broad stripes the dear hand of an old flame so sweetly lay!

The old woman seated between the old cupboard and the warm oven had on a flowery skirt of outmoded pattern, the wedding gown of her late beloved mother. Her great-grandson, a blond, twinkly-eyed little boy dressed up as a miner, sat at her feet, counting the flowers on her skirt. She must already have told him many a story of this skirt, many serious, enchanting stories that surely the boy will not soon forget, stories that will waft back into memory, when, soon enough, as a grown man, he will have to entertain himself while working alone in the dark night of the Karolina mine, stories which he will perhaps recount when his beloved grand­mother is long since dead and he himself, a silver-haired, weary ancient, will sit in the circle of his grandchildren, in the cozy nook between the big cupboard and the warm oven.

I stayed over a second night at The Krone Inn, where, among other guests, the Hofrat B. from Göttingen had also checked in. I had the pleasure of paying my respects to the old gentleman. As I re-inscribed my name in the register and leafed through the entries for the month of July, I also found the much-cherished name of Adelbert von Chamisso, the biographer of the immortal Schlemiel. The innkeeper told me that this gentleman arrived on a day of indescribably wretched weather conditions and departed in weather just as bad.

The following morning I once again had to lighten the load of my knapsack, disposing of a pair of boots, whereupon I put one foot in front of the other, and set out for Goslar. Before I knew it I was there. All I remember is that I ambled uphill and downhill again, looking down upon many a lovely mountain meadow; the silvery brook water surged by, sweet birds of the wild twittered, the various kinds of green trees were bathed in the dear sun’s golden light, and the silken blue canopy of heaven overhead was so transparent you could peer deep into the holiest firmament, where the angels sit at God’s feet studying in the features of his face the deep bass of the song of creation. But I still stumbled in the veil of my dream of the night before which I could not expunge from my soul. It was the old fairy tale of the knight climbing down into a deep well, at the bottom of which an enchanted princess lies locked in a deep sleep. I myself was the knight and the well was the dark Klausthal mineshaft, and suddenly I was surrounded by the shimmer of many lights, from holes in the side of the shaft sprightly little dwarves came rushing out, their faces furious, swiping at me with their short swords, blasting shrill notes on their horns, so that more and more reinforcements kept coming, and their fat heads kept wagging something awful. It was only when I struck back and the blood flowed out that I noticed that what I hit were, in fact, the red blossoming tops of the long-bearded thistle flowers that I’d hacked off with my hiking stick on the high road the day before. Then I managed to scare them off and I entered a splendid hall; there in the middle of the room, standing stock still and silent as a column and draped in white, was my dearly beloved; and I kissed her on the mouth, and I swear I felt the blessed breath of her soul and the sweet flutter of her beloved lips. It was as if I heard God cry out: “Let there be light!”—And the blinding ray of eternal light beamed down from above; but at the very same moment night fell again, and everything melded together into the chaos of a wild and wanton sea. A wild and wanton sea! Over the raging water charged the fearful ghosts of the dead, their white shrouds fluttering behind them in the wind; and behind them, egg­ing them on with the crack of his whip, ran a Harlequin in dappled duds, and the Harlequin was me—and suddenly, out of the deep dark waves sea-monsters reared their misshapen heads and lunged at me with outstretched claws and, roused by terror, I opened my eyes.

What a shame that even the finest fairy tales can occasionally be spoiled! Actu­ally, once he’s found the sleeping princess, the knight is supposed to cut out a piece of her precious veil; and when, through his audacity, the princess’ sleeping spell is broken and she is once again enthroned in the palace on her golden settee, the knight must come to her and say: “Fairest princess, do you know me?” And then she replies: “Bravest knight, I know thee not.” Whereupon the latter shows her the piece he cut out of her veil that fits exactly in the garment’s gap, and they fall into each other’s arms in a warm embrace, and the trumpets blast, and the nuptials are celebrated.

It is, alas, my own particular misfortune that my dreams of love seldom lead to such a happy ending.

 

Translated from the German by Peter Wortsman

 

 

This selection appears with the permission of Archipelago Books, whose publication of Heine’s Travel Pictures was released in April.