Michael Hofmann's compelling new translations, focussing mainly on the late works, reveal Benn's journey from early high-brow pessimism to a late 'sadness of the unfulfilled'
"And here he cited Benn, Ernst Jünger," declares the narrator of Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love in a discussion of "creative nihilism, Götterdämmerung's toy theatre." It is not the first time Gottfried Benn (1886–1956) has been on Hill's mind in recent times. Having praised Simone Weil on poetry and politics in "A Postscript on Modernist Poetics", Hill attacks TS Eliot's "inane" treatment of Benn in "The Three Voices of Poetry", an essay whose glossing over the German's Nazi sympathies strikes Hill as an exercise in emollient humbug.
Introducing his compelling new translations, Michael Hofmann too picks up on Eliot's 1953 essay, along with references to Benn in John Berryman and Frank O'Hara, but insists that "Benn can scarcely be said to exist in the English-speaking world." There was a study-cum-translation, EB Ashton's Primal Vision in 1958, and that's more or less it. Readers trying to place Benn in the modern German canon (to which Hofmann's Faber Book of 20th-century German Poems is an invaluable guide) might want to think of him as occupying a midpoint between Stefan George's aristocratic symbolism and Bertolt Brecht's adventures in highbrow lowlife.
Early Benn is the consummate poet‑expressionist: like the boy in The Pickwick Papers, he wants to make your skin crawl, and turns a poem called "Beautiful Youth" into a gothic tale of a nest of rats living inside a girl's chest. Perhaps only someone who has lived through the 1890s can make getting drunk sound such an intellectual feat ("the nausea that exercised / your medulla oblongata all day / is allayed in a fog of alcohol"), while a poem about a rapist and murderer who combines his criminal activities with membership of a bowling club ("wasn't that reasonable / and in keeping with Pithecanthropus erectus") may remind Anglophone readers of another highbrow pessimist, Peter Reading.
Benn viewed biography with contempt: "Herkunft, Lebenslauf – Unsinn" ("background, CV – tosh!"). Still, the charge sheet is not so easily disposed of. "Human existence was futile, progress a delusion, history a bloody mess," runs Hofmann's summary of Benn's political outlook. In 1933 he persuaded himself that the Nazis were an association of pessimistic aesthetes like himself, and took a year to see the error of his ways. Poems from this period are thin on the ground in Hofmann's selection, but the postwar "Expressionist!" is a biting response to his experience of denazification:
They won't stamp a medal with your mug shot
the way the Greeks did for Sappho;
if they failed to beat your brains out, that already
is accounted actionable and treason, in Germany!
Hofmann has always gamely defended garrulous late Robert Lowell, and shows a similar fondness for Benn's spätwerk, allocating five sixths of this book to work produced after his 50th birthday. Approaching Benn's later work, Hofmann floats the theory that the "poems themselves" have become old, stoical, plaintive and flaccid. A second reference point suggested by Hofmann are the retrobottega poems of Eugenio Montale's late period, but a third might be the saturnine last pages of Hofmann's own Selected Poems, whose cadences he echoes here:
a long time rowing in the galleys,
incapable of watching the shore
or following the seagulls
all ship's belly
of the higher life. ('Here are
the beech trees in September')
If Benn now sounds like Hofmann, it may be because the Hofmann he resembles was partly created by Benn to begin with: the Möbius strip of translation comes full circle.
Introducing his 1921 Collected Works, Benn wrote a splendid anti-blurb: he would be "ashamed" of his poems if he was "still alive"; they are "no document worthy the name; I would be astonished if anyone were to read them". Benn's late poems are remorseless, and glow with the "untriumphant sadness of the unfulfilled". For Yeats, the poet was never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sat down to breakfast, but if we substitute "three pints of Würzburger Hofbräu" for "breakfast", Benn is more or less always that bundle of incoherence, as Hofmann points out.
Not for Benn Yeats's monuments of unaging intellect, then, but at best "positively fur-lined" griefs and irritabilities. These are poems of a departure lounge, perched on the edge of their seat as Benn begs us to "stay by me", but "maybe not all that much longer". Soon, he fears, he will be as extinct as the "little Hawaiian bird" of "1886" used to line feather coats for the royal family. "Fragments 1955" provides a melancholy audit before closing Benn's account. There have been "30x endured agonies at the dentist's", "4x shed tears beside open graves", and an insurance policy "to be certain of being buried".
In her recent Yeats and Modern Poetry, Edna Longley expends much energy on the problematic status of the word "international" in critical discourse today. Much of the time, she argues, it amounts to little more than a self-inflating bid for attention from the academy. Amid so much fake internationalism, however, it is all the more important to salute Hofmann's unimpeachable efforts for a more truly cosmopolitan understanding of poetry. Osip Mandelstam described Acmeism as "nostalgia for world culture", and if this phrase has any meaning today, it means work as desolately majestic and indispensable as these translations.
• David Wheatley's A Nest on the Waves is published by the Gallery Press.