Form in Gryphius

(c) Perypatetik Media

In a recent post I discussed the relationship between the American sentence and the classic meter of pre-modern poetry.

Surely, a counterargument is that metric poetry allowed for much less variety than the seemingly formless, open sentence of prose literature.

In purely abstract terms, that is certainly the case. However, the commercial literary fiction written by professional writers requires an audience for the publishing house to finance the project and for the writer to earn a living. This audience has certain expectations. As I discussed a few days ago, these expectations place severe limitations on contemporary American writers (although less so on their contemporary German and Russian counterparts). You can read more about that at the post above.

Here I would like to draw attention to some instances of diversity within metrical poetry on the basis of Andreas Gryphius.

It would be incorrect to assume that metrical poetry has a uniform meter throughout the work.

The "standard" in Cardenio und Celinde is the Alexandrian imabic hexameter:

Ach leider! diesen Ruhm den ließ ich mich bethören. But oh! Regretfully! This fame bedazzled me. 
Du triffst den rechten Zweck! der Dünckel nam mich ein! You have the right idea! The darkness took me in!
Ich glaubt es könte mir kaum einer gleiche seyn / Believe did I that there could hardly be my equal /
Diß war die erste Bahn die mich von gutem führte: That was the first of paths to lead me from the good:
Das war die erste Gifft die meine Sinnen rührte. That was the first miasma to stir my senses strong.
Kam jemand mir die quer vnd gab sich etwa bloß / If someone crossed my path and challenged me my space
So war die Faust bereit / so gieng die Klinge loß. My fist was clenched already / and the fight commenced.

Within this standard line Gryphius then creates a secondary standard that hews on two iambic trimeters within each line through semantic units of meaning:

X - X - X - // X - X -  X -

In the cited passage you can see this in each verse: "Ach leider! diesen Ruhm" is a semantic unit followed by a dependent clause "den ließ ich mich bethören". In many cases, however, the caesura is only created by the logic of the German language with respect to the meaning expressed. (In the translation I have recreated this, but sometimes allowed for an extra longum at the end of either trimeter.) By establishing such as a pattern within his text, Gryphius is able to subtly highlight or emphasize certain points or views within the text, but less overtly than by abandoning his hexameter alltogther. When that occurs, the text shifts to a framework outside of the narrative: be it a folk song, some discourse or a moral lesson.

The first of these, the folk song, appears in trochaic tetrameter, as we see when Celinde sings in despair:

Fleuch bestürtzter Fürst der Sternen Leave, deposed Prince of Darkness
Meiner Seelen Lust vnd Ruh! Peace and passion of my soul!
Eilt von mir sich zu entfernen. Rush to move away from me.
Himmel steht jhr dieses zu! Heaven it's entitled to!
Vberfällt mich diese Pein! When this pain lays waste to me!
So verkehrt sich mein entseelter Leib in Stein. Then my soulless body turns to stone.

In addition to the resulting variety, Gryphius also implies a distinction between levels of sophistication in society. Likewise, similar to the difference between discourse and narration in contemporary literature, the use of different forms suggests distinctions in authority.

Gryphius also departs from his self-imposed standard when the Reyen (similar to Chorus) comment on the narrative at the end of each act:

Sie reissen (ach!) deß Menschen reine Seel It tears (alas!) the people's own pure soul
Von jhrem Zweck in deß Verterbens Höl From their intent into the rot of hell
Vnd ziehn / die den Gott gab den Himmel ein And wiles them / to whom God heaven gave /
Auß stiller Ruh / in jmmer-strenge Pein. Out of their peace and into pain perpetual.

Idiomatically, this choral passage differs both in terms of meter and semantic units. The meters consists of iambic pentameter, but, at least in this first choral passage, there is no division of the line into semantic units. In fact, the description of evil spreading across the world with the devil is accompanied by explicit dissonance.

Arguably, Gryphius deviated from the standard meter or form no less than our contemporary writers do from subject-verb-object or subject-predicate.

Henry Whittlesey


Andreas Gryphius, Cardenio und Celinde. Translation forthcoming

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