4 – Nietzsche as Poet

Nietzsche’s epigrammatic poems continue the same mockery of, and fascination with, the rhythm or tempo of poetry, sprung from a Voltarian self-directed lampooning of the versifier. We find some new advise, however, in “An die Tugendsamen”:

Unseren Tugended auch soll’n leicht die Füsse sich heben,
Gleich den Versen Homers mussen sie kommen
und gehn! 33 page 42 GAY SCIENCE

Why should our virtues be grave? We like ours
nimble-footed:
Even like Homer’s verse, they have to come on! 34 pg. 43

Our virtues, like the cadence of Homeric verse, either plod, jog or roll out, “come and go”, stride, sprint, or in middle or long-distance racing terms, they come on, theykick. In contrast to moral inertia, real writing begins with a roll of composition, when images seem to invent themselves, metaphors burst, incinerating vague paraphrase, academic referencing or chiseled versification. In “Für Tänzer” Nietzsche writes:

Glattes Eis
Ein Paradeis
Für den, der gut zu tanzen weiss. 35 34 46

For Dancers

Smooth ice
is paradise
for those who dance with expertise. 36 pg. 47 GS

The dancer glides over the self-conscious ruminations of “being a poet”, like “being a runner” or “being sincere” into an effortless presto and the composition which makes new metaphor lifts instinctively after years of practice, defies danger and failure to achieve a fleet and fearless– style. The poet-as-dancer skates through self-consciousness as if through a screen of transparencies and chooses precisely what needs be said, not what poetic talent allows an author to express after furious revision.
This poem, however, is also about being wholly consumed in creative fire. For instance, in the poem entitled, “Ecce Homo”, Nietzsche writes:

Ja! Ich weiss, woher ich stamme!
Ungesättigt gleich der Flamme
Gluhe und versehr ich mich
Licht wird alles, was ich fasse,
Kohle alles, was ich lasse:
Flamme bin ich sicherlich! 35

Ecce Homo
Yes, I know from where I came!
Ever hungry like a flame,
I consume myself and glow.
Light grows all that I conceive,
Ashes everything I leave:
Flame I am assuredly. pg. 67

Creation is a self-consuming flame which evaporates in light — without residual self-consciousness. It penetrates to the origins of what one seeks immersed in and summed up by becoming, by continual renovation, by Heraclitean self-overcoming. Through self-making, poeisis, from the incept flame of novelty, from a total immersion in the flux of willing, man or woman is not given, beheld as a ready-to-hand thing in the world, but each of us in-process, each a possible radiance whose light is the mortal flame of eternity. The surrounding darkness is the absence of new light, which freely radiates the void and without which the world would go extinct, extinguish itself in The Twilight of the Idols. In “Sternenmoral”or “Star Morals” Nietzsche writes:

Verausbestimmt zur Sternenbahn,
Was geht dich, Stern, das Dunkel an?

Roll’ selig hin durch deise Zeit!
Ihr Elend sei dir fremd und weit!

Der fernsten Welt gehört dein Schein:
Mitleid soll Sünde für dich sein!

Nur Ein Gebot gilt dir: sei rein! 36

Star Morals

Called a star’s orbit to pursue,
What is the darkness, star, to you?

Roll on in bliss, traverse this age –
Its misery far from you and strange.

Let farthest world your light secure.
Pity is sin you must abjure.

But one command is yours: be pure! pg. 69

The star in its independence pours light into the void, to an otherwise dead universe. Through the distances, to the edges of the spectrum of expressiblity our light may seemed dwarfed by nothingness, a frontier of the heretofor ineffable. Pity, misery, the muck of historical or emotional minaturizing implodes before the magnitude, the former emptiness which creative activity, poeisis, illumines through Der fernsten Welt, the world-window — and becomes space (new stomping, or skating or sprinting ground) as we add room to what we are capable of saying, where we are capable of going with our expression.
The alternative to this pure conflagration (a metaphor we will return to briefly in our epilogue) is to project the creative fire away from oneself unto another agency (God), so as to enshrine the anxiety, reify it, while avoiding the responsiblity only to serve moral self-consciousness. Nietzsche ironically accuses Goethe of having done this in a poem which follows the last line of Second Part of his Faust, in:
An Goethe

Das unvergängliche
Ist nur dein Gleichnis!
Gott der Verfängliche
Ist Dichter-Erschleichnis …

Welt-rad, das rollende,
Streift Ziel auf Ziel:
Not — nennt’s der Grollende,
Der Narr nennt’s — Spiel …
Welt-spiel, das herrische,
Mischt Sein und Schein: –
Das Ewig-Närrische
Mischt uns — hinein! 37

To Goethe

The indestructible
is but your invention.
God, the inelectable
poetic pretension.

World wheel, while rolling on,
skims aim on aim:
Fate, says the sullen one,
fools call it a game.

World game, the ruling force,
blends false and true:
the eternally fooling force
blends us in too. 351 Gay Science

Ironically, when the flames of Hell have been avoided, it is impossible to interpret either God or Goethe as the poet. Is God the poet’s creation or is the poet’s God’s? Does the poet take something of his own being from a fictitious God or does God steal something from the poet? Is God the creator of illusion or is He made by the maker who disclaims his authorship, who is lost in self-delusion, the poet-fool? Is the Maker made, and in turn does the illusion make the poet? The poem satires the baroque play of the wheel of fate and misery, where now it is impossible for any truth to emerge, for any goal to exceed accident. And yet this ends up all being part of world wheel where accident cannot be an argument for falsity, yet blends it and us into one phenomenon. One ends up wondering: just who is the fool? But the poem also has a fatalistic over and undertow, suggesting aht all of us, poet, God, Goethe and fool, are ground into the same (sad?) mixer, or blender — and caught in the same wheel of fate.
The poem, “Nurr Narr! Nur Dichter!” (“Only a Fool! Only a Poet!”) added to the fourth book of Thus Spake Zarathustra* is perhaps the best example of how Nietzsche considers poetry to be Janus-faced — one Dionysiac truth and the other falsehood and foolishness. This poem, however, assumes that the poet who is “talking only gaudy nonsense/climbing around on deceitful word-bridges” does so as an enemy to static “statues of truth”, that his sleek, darting movements and his avoidance of “temples” and daylit images of God are part of his rejection of attenuated values.
voll Katzen-Mutwillens
durch jedes Fenster springend
husch! in jeden Zufall,
jedem Urwalde zuschnüffelnd,
dass du in Urwäldern
unter buntzottigen Raubtieren
sündlich gesund und schön und bunt liefest,
mit lüsternen Lefzen,
selig-höhnisch, selig-höllisch, selig-blutgierig,
raubend, schleichend, lügend liefest … 39

*These poems are also part of Dithyrambs of Dionysius which Nietzsche composed over the last six years preceding his breakdown and are not really different in style from the prose of Zarathustra. Hollingdale, in his introduction to his English translations of the book is quite right in experimenting by moving some of the more lyric passages in Zarathustra to the left side of the margin and giving them “poetic” linebreaks with the same result. On the whole, the Dithyrambs seem less successful than Nietzsche’s tighter, conventional poetry. But to survey them is to realize the extent to which Nietzsche composes in alternate styles, in what lamely is now called vers libre. Also these poems contain evidence that Nietzsche’s concept of poetry is expanding, while they are arguably — since they are so similar to the expressive language of Zarathustra — a kind of commentary on Zarathustra as a work of poetry. 38

full of cat’s wantoness,
leaping through every window,
swiftly! into every chance,
sniffing out every jungle,
that you may run,
sinfully healthy and gaudy and fair,
in jungles among gaudy-speckled beasts of prey,
run with lustful lips, happily jeering, happily hellish, happily blood-thirsty, preying, creeping, lying … (pg. 25)

The phenomenon of the poet is also the play between the obvious and the yet-to-appear fertility of the hidden. The creative leap and sinewy catlike or eaglelike quickness is contrasted with the obtrusive solidity of the already arrived “truths” of the herd. Instead of the Wagnerian actorhere, though the falseness or foolishness attributed to the poet by unnamed philistines is a skillful mask, a necessary cunning:
And so,
Also
adlerhaft, pantherhaft
sind des Dichters Sehnsüchte,
sind deine Sehnsüchte unter tausend Larven,
du Narr! du Dichter! 40

Thus, eaglelike, pantherlike,
are the poet’s desires,
are your desires under a thousand masks,
you fool! you poet! … (pg. 27)

The dual character of truth becomes, in a sense, reified; it becomes history. Poetry, as it is described in Aristotle’s Poetics, is more profound for Nietzsche than history. To create new truths, one must assume that what one is inventing, making-up, that which is yet only envisioned, is more true than what exists. How foolish this appears to the serious-minded, the miserably literal-minded! Their static given, their status quo , is only a prelude. Power is the energetic upsurge out of non-being, it is truth’s becoming. Already arrived truth is already attenuated, passing-out-of-being; its appreciation now a matter of idolatry. It is now sacrosanct, a “faith”; and its power can only be that of brute force or moral control, as the Dionysiac procession, that is, as the temporal flux in its constant coming-to-be through human creativity, through risk and ingenuity, passes or prowls the philistines by.
In “Von der Armut des Reichsten”, (Of the Poverty of the Richest Man”) for instance, Nietzsche writes as if poetry and happiness offer a different kind of truth:

Fort, fort ihr Wahrheiten,
die ihr düster blickt!
Nicht will ich auf meinen Bergen
herbe ungeduldige Wahrheiten sehn.
Vom Lächeln vergüldet
nahe mir heut die Wahrheit,
von der Sonne gesüsst, von der Liebe gebräunt –
eine reife Wahreit breche ich allein vom Baum. 41

Be gone, be gone, truths
of gloomy aspect!
I want on my mountain
no acid fretful truths.
Golden with smiles
let truth approach me today,
made sweet by the sun, made brown by love,
ripe truths alone do I pluck from the vine. (pg. 69)

The ripe truth, rather than the infertile self-consciousness of “ungeduldige Wahrheiten”, presents us with a choice of truths. Truth is not a simple given plateau upon which all perceptual appearances follow level from one static source. One chooses, one makes truth as well, just as one accepts or rejects what is given according to what one values. True poetry — if we are free to use such a phrase — is a first truth — an emerging truth half made and half pure metaphor:

– Still!
Eine Wahrheit wandelt über mir
einer Walke gleich –
mit unsichbaren Blitzen trifft sie mich.
Auf breiten langsamen Treppen
steigt ihr Glück zu mir:
Komm, Komm, geliebte Wahrheit! 42

– Soft!
A truth passes over me
like a cloud –
strikes me with invisible lightnings.
On broad slow stairways
its happiness climbs up to me:
come, come, beloved truth! (pg. 71)

The struggle between truths — what is rising and what is falling — what is ascending and what is decaying or dying — the strife or eris proceeds as the unmasking of what is decadent, reactive poetry and what is rising, active, Dionysiac poetry. Naturally a sense of guilt or self-ridicule arrives when one finds oneself pursuing the reactive. This theme is expressed in “Zwischen Raubvogeln”:

Jetzt –
einsam mit dir,
zwiesam in eignen Wissen,
zwischen hundert Spiegeln
vor dir selber falsch,
zwischen hundert Erinnerungen
ungewiss
an jeder Wunde müd,
an jedem Froste kalt,
in eignen Stricken gewürgt
Selbstkenner!
Selfstthenker! 43

Now –
alone with yourself,
twofold in self-knowledge,
amid a hundred mirrors
false before yourself,
amid a hundred memories
uncertain,
wearied by every wound,
frozen by every frost,
choked in your own net,
self-knower!
self-hangman! (pg. 43)

This element in Nietzsche’s poetry is easily misunderstood and easily confused with a second, possibly romantic theme of solitude (Einsamkeit) which we will discuss below. Misunderstood because Nietzsche was rather a self-hangman himself and he turned to poetry for relief with gallows humor. But in considering the former, this forlorn or self-chastising resistance to reactivity, we may note that influence of yet another theme, that of the relation the eris between philosophy and poetry. Here, then is the full passage from “Nurr Narr! Nur Dichter!”:

Nurr Narr! nur Dichter!
Nur Buntes redend,
aus Narrenlarven bunt herausredend,
herumsteigend auf lügnerischen Wortbrücken,
auf Lügen-Regenbogen
zwischen falschen Himmeln
herumschweifend, herumschleichend –
nur Narr! nur Dichter! …

Das — der Wahrheit Freier? …
Nicht still, starr, glatt, kalt,
zum Bilde worden,
zur Gottes-Säule,
nicht aufgestellt vor Tempeln,
eines Gottes Türwart:
nein! feindselig solchen Tugend-Standbildern 44

Only a fool! Only a poet!
Talking only gaudy nonsense,
gaudy nonsense from a fool’s mask,
climbing around on deceitful word-bridges,
on mirage rainbows,
between false skies,
hovering, creeping –
only a fool! only a poet …

That — the wooer of truth? …
Not stiff, stiff, smooth, cold,
become an image,
become a god’s statue,
not set up before temples,
a god’s watchman:
no! enemy to such statues of truth (pg. 25)

There are times when Nietzsche’s attack on himself as poet or on what he has projected as the situation of the poet reveals an intense struggle and self-frustration over not being able to decide between the two disciplines. Nietzsche is, in many senses, a half-breed. At the same time he recognizes within the Wagnerian attempt to synthesize the arts a decadence which gives to all the mixed arts a dramatic, false mask of despair which is part self-aggrandizement, part self-publicity. For each art suffers, each art is compromised, and is created by an impure dilletantish knack for publicity and herd revenge. The mask could hide the inability, the inauthentic resistance to choose to affirm one’s fate, and this could explain the merciless and self-conscious self-chastisement of “Nur Narr! Nur Dichter!”
As the enemy of the “statues of truth”, however, the poet dialectically wages the same battle as the philosopher. The ferocity to make truth, to “pounce on lambs” to destroy reactive sentiment, pries open new human experience. It provides a bridge through metaphor beyond what Nietzsche wished to contemplate philosophically: a philosophy of the future. Hegel’s metaphor, “The Owl of Minerva sails at dusk” would both augment and pollute Nietzsche’s horizon. Philosophy follows poetry in that what is merely possible is first suggested and envisioned by poetry and it is up to philosophy to account for new truths after their metaphoric discovery. Thus philosophy is wed existentially to the embodiment of what poetry projects, suggests or “bridges” as a vanguard of actuality. Philosophy, then, in Nietzsche’s sense, is far from being retrospective. Not a dusk but a dawn. This is why Nietzsche’s philosophy is more influenced by poetry than Hegel’s, whose Owl of Minerva, or wisdom follows retrospectively, follows the past. As we shall see, Nietzsche’s image is not the owl but the pheonix, who rises from ashes to pure flame and creates the meaning for what was a mere image, a seeming prematurity, a dawn.
For all of Nietzsche’s work against romantic sentiment, much of his poetry is romantic or late romantic, ripe with longings, tears and yearnings for individual transcedence. The drums of Sturm und Drang, of self-conscious dramaticism, intolerable in another poet, for Nietzsche, sometimes pound with conceptual heavy-handedness. But the poems which reach their mark and deserve a place in the history of German — and world literature — seem characterized by an extreme, even an expressionist form of solitude.
Plainly, the poems are so desperately lonely that they painfully cry out for friendship. Consider, for example these lines from “Aus Hohen Bergen”:

Der Freunde harr’ ich Tag und Nacht bereit
Der neuen Freunde! Kommt! ‘s ist Zeit!’s ist Zeit! 45

Looking all day and night, for friends I wait:
For new friends! Come! It’s time! It’s late! 245 BGE

One is forced to realize that poetry functioned for Nietzsche as a compensation for his own radical seclusion. His poetry contains many of the same faults but also the strengths inherent in the kind of poetry that he critiques. Nietzsche was both a philosopher who outraged the “lovely goddess” and the solitary who desperately longed, perhaps begged for her. Also, Nietzsche chides himself, when he speaks of the poet as liar and actor for he versifies much of the same romantic vein as thos who he objects so strenuously.
Nietzsche’s best poem, the “Gondola Song” or “Venice” condenses nearly all of the themes of his life and concept of poetry in a few lines. He writes in Ecce Homo: “When I seek another word for music, I always find only the word Venice. I do not know how to distinguish between tears and music — I do not know how to think to happiness, of the south, without shudders of timidity.” 46
The Venice into which Nietzsche condenses so many of his aspirations is delicately controlled music, a limpid sound nearly matching the image of dusk in the surface of the water. These spectral lights touched invisibly by the “presence” of an absent Other to whom he calls in the brown night, reaching through song without expecting a reply, sensing at the bridge their two worlds shudder slightly in “meeting”, remain but drops on the surface of existence, a quivering attunement which suggests that the enigma of life can never be exhausted, for it ends in solitude:

An der Brucke stand
jungst ich in brauner Nacht.
Fernher kan Gesang;
goldener Tropfen quölls
uber die zitternde Flache weg.
Goldeln, Lichter, Musik –
trunken schwamms in die Dämmrung hinaus …

Meine Seele, ein Saitenspiel,
sang sich, unsichtar berührt,
heinlich ein Gondellied dazu,
zitternd vor bunter Seligkeit.
– Hörte jemand ihr zu? 47

At the bridge I stood
lately in the brown night.
From afar came a song:
as a golden drop it welled
over the quivering surface.
Gondolas, lights, and music –
drunken it swam out into the twilight.

My soul, a stringed instrument
sang to itself, invisibly touched,
a secret gondola song,
quivering with iridescent happiness.
– Did anyone listen to it?