Poetry 1933 -1947

This section contains poems that Brecht wrote during his long exile in Scandinavia and the USA.

 

It begins with To Posterity (An die Nachgeborenen), a poem from 1934-1938 that is widely thought to be one his best from this period.  A man who had few illusions in his twenties has even less as he approaches middle age in the run up to WWII.

 

 

 

 

Click on title for German orginal

 

To Posterity

To Posterity

I

Truly, I live in dark times!
The simplest word is foolhardy.  A smooth brow
Betokens callousness.  He who laughs
Has merely not heard
The terrible tidings.

What sort of times are these  - where
A conversation about trees comes close to crime,
Because it contains a silence about so many misdeeds?
How is it that the man quietly crossing the road
Can no longer be reached by his friends
Who are in trouble?

It is true, I still earn my keep,
But believe me, that is just by chance. Nothing
Of what I do, gives me the right to eat my fill.
Fortunately, I have been spared. (If my luck runs out, I’m doomed.)

They tell me, eat! drink!  Be glad you have enough!
But how can I eat and drink if
I’m taking what I eat from a hungry man, and
Taking my glass of water away from a thirsting person?
And yet, I eat and drink.

I would truly like to be wise.
The old books tell me what is wise;
To refrain from the strife of the world and spend
One’s short time without fear,
To manage without violence,
Repay evil with kindness,
Not to fulfill one’s wishes, but let them go
Is considered wise.
All of this, I can not do;
Truly, I live in dark times!

II

I arrived in the cities at the time of disorder,
When hunger was the order of the day.
I arrived among men at a time of turmoil
and was outraged along with them.
Thus passed my time
that was granted me on earth.

I ate my food between the battles,
To sleep I lay down among murderers
I took love heedlessly
And watched nature without patience.
Thus passed my time
That was granted me on earth

The roads all led into the swamp in my time.
My language betrayed me to the Butcher.
I did make much headway.  But those in charge
sat more securely without me, that much I hoped for.
Thus passed my time
That was granted me on earth.

My powers were small.  The goal
Lay off at great distance.
It was clearly visible, even
If hardly achievable for me.
Thus passed my time
That was granted me on earth.

III

You, who will emerge from the flood
In which we went under
Recall
When you speak of our weaknesses
Our dark time
That you managed to evade.

We went on changing countries more often than our shoes
Through the warfare of the classes, desperate
Because all there was was injustice and no outrage.

At the same time we know
That hatred against meanness
Distorts one’s facial features.
And that anger against injustice
Makes one’s voice hoarse.  Alas, we
Who wanted to prepare the soil for kindliness
Could not be kindly ourselves.

But you, when the time finally comes
When all men help their fellow men
Remember us
With charity.

 

(1934-1938)

 

Click on title for German original

 

The Hope of the World

I

Is oppression as old as moss around ponds?
The moss around ponds is not avoidable.
Perhaps everything I see is natural, and I am sick
And would be rid of what can not be gotten rid of.
I have read the songs of the Egyptians, of the people who
Built the pyramids. They complain about their burdens
And asked when the oppression would stop.
That was four thousand years ago.
Oppression is probably like moss and unavoidable.

II

If a child runs in front of a car, we drag him
Back onto the sidewalk. It is not only the good person who does this, for whom
A monument is erected. Anyone would drag the child back away from the car.
But here, there are many out in front of cars and lots
Of people walk on by and do nothing of the kind.
Is it because there are so many who suffer?  Would we no longer
Help them because there are so many?  We help them less.
The good people walk on by as well and are afterwards
As good as they were before they went walking on by.

III

The more there are who suffer, the more natural appears their suffering.
Who can prevent the fishes in the sea from getting wet?
And the sufferers deal out this bitterness to each other,
And create shortages of goodness towards each other.
It is terrible that man accommodates himself so readily
To existing conditions, not only to the suffering of others,
But to his own as well.
Everyone who has thought about these wrongs, declines to invoke
The sympathy of the one for the other. But the sympathy
Of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable.
It is the hope of the world.

 

Click on title for German original

 

My Time of Riches

For seven weeks of my life, I was rich.
From the proceeds of a play I acquired
A house set in extensive grounds. I had
Gazed at it for many weeks before I moved in. At various times of the day
And at night as well, I went by to see how
How the old trees stood in the early light of dawn
Or the how the pond with the mossy carp lay, mornings,
Or to see the hedges in the full sun of noonday,
The white rhododendron bushes in the evening, after the vesper bells.
Then I moved in with friends. My car
Stood under the fir trees.  We looked around us: from no point could we
See all of the borders of the garden, the incline of the lawns
And small stands of trees, blocked the sight of the hedges.
The house, too, was lovely.  The stairs were made of fine wood, expertly worked,
Broad, flat treads with well proportioned landings. The off-white rooms
Had paneled wooden ceilings.  Massive iron wood stoves
Of the most delicate shape bore embossed images of peasants at work.
Leading into the cool vestibule with the oaken benches and tables
Were massive doors, their brass handles
Were not just any ordinary sort, and the stone pavers around the brownish house
Were smooth and sunken somewhat from the footsteps
Of previous inhabitants. What pleasurable proportions!  Every room different
And each the very best! And how they all changed with the time of day!
The change of the seasons, a sure delight, is something we did not experience, for
After seven weeks of genuine riches we left the property, soon
To flee over the border.
The loss of this property was something I felt very deeply and I am happy
To have experienced it. To go through my grounds, to have guests,
Pore over plans for the house, like others of my profession before me
Pleased me, I have to admit.  Nevertheless, the seven weeks seemed enough for me.
I went without regret, or with little regret.  Writing these lines
I already had to strain to recall it all.  If I ask myself
How may lies I would have been prepared to tell to keep this property
I know that it was not many.  Therefore, I hope it was not a bad thing
To have had this property.  It was no
Small thing, but there
Is more.

(Circa 1934)

 

Note: this house was on the Ammersee, a lovely lake in Bavarian.  It stayed in Brecht's possession until 1953.

 

Click title for German original

 

Ulm 1592

Bishop, I can fly
Said the tailor to the bishop.
Just watch me try!
And he climbed up with these things
That looked like a pair of wings
Up on the great high church roof
The bishop just walked on.
That’s all just one big lie
A man is not a bird
A man will never fly
Said the bishop of the tailor.

The tailor is a different sort
Said the people to the bishop.
It was a taunt.
His wings split into pieces
And he smashed all his bones
On the churchyard’s hard stones  
Let the bells sound loud!
It was all one big lie
A man is not a bird
A man will never fly
Said the bishop to the crowd.


(Circa 1934)

 
 

Click on title for German original
 

Germany

O Germany, pale mother!
How you sit besmirched
Among the nations
Even among the sullied
You stand out

The poorest of your sons
Lies beaten to death.
When his hunger was great
Your other sons
Raised their hand against him.
The word is out.

With their hands raised thus
Raised against their brother
They go about insolently before you,
And laugh in your face
This is well known.

In your house
They roar out their lies
But the truth
Has to be suppressed.
Isn’t this so?

Why are you praised by all the oppressors, but
Accused by the oppressed?
The exploited
Point their finger at you but
The exploiters praise the system
That was devised in your house!

And all the while, they all see you
Hiding the hem of your garment, that is bloody
With the blood
Of your dearest son.
Hearing the speeches that come from your house, they laugh
But those who see you, reach for their knives
As at the sight of a robber.

O Germany, pale mother,
How your sons have battered you
That you sit among the nations
A mockery or a horror.

(1933)



 

Click on title for German original

 

ON GERMANY

 

You friendly forests of Bavaria, you cities of the Main Valley,
You Rhon with your stands of spruce, you shady Black Forest,
You, you shall remain.
Thuringia’s red mining heaps, spare shrubs of the Mark Brandenburg and
You, black cities of the Ruhr, strewn with cranes, why
Should you not stay as well?
And you, too, Berlin, city of many cities,
Busy above and below your asphalt streets, you can remain and you
Hanseatic harbors remain, and Saxony’s
Teeming cities, you stay,  and you cities of Silesia,
Blanketed in smoke, with an eye to the East, you remain as well.
Only the dregs of generals and Gauleiters
Only the factory owners and stockbrokers
Only the junkers and proconsuls should clear out.
Heaven and earth and the wind and that which human beings have created
Can remain, but
The vermin of the exploiters, that
Can not remain.

 

(1939) Brecht writes this poem at the beginning of the war.

 
 
 

Click on title for German original

 

 

On the Death of a Fighter for Peace

         To the memory of Carl von Ossietzky

He who did not surrender
Has been beaten to death
He who has been beaten to death
Did not surrender

The mouth of this warning voice
Has been stuffed with dirt.
The bloody episode begins.
Whole battalions are tramping
Atop the grave of this friend of peace

Was the battle therefore in vain?

 

If he who was beaten to death did not fight alone,

The enemy
Has not yet prevailed.  

 

(1938)

 

Carl von Ossietzky was a couageous journalist, who died after being beaten in a Nazi prison.  He was a pacificist, who opposed the secret re-arming of Germany by covert military units in the run-up to the Nazi regime.

 

 

The Doubter, Brecht's touchstone scroll, which he and his co-workers kept before them throughtout their travels.  Kao Chi-pei, early Ching-dynasty, turn of 17th century.

Click on title for German original

The Doubter

Always when we
Seemed to have found the answer to a question
One of us untied the string of the old rolled up Chinese scroll
Hung on the wall, so that it unfurled and
The man on the bench, who doubted deeply
Became visible.

I, he told us,
Am the Doubter, I doubt that
The job has been done, that has devoured your days:
If what you say, said in a worse way, might still have value for some?
If you have said it so well that you have not
Depended on the truth of what you are saying.
If it is so ambiguous that it may lead to every conceivable error;
For all this you bear responsibility. It can be explicit as well,
And remove contradiction from matters; but is it too explicit?
If it is, then what you say is useless, your work lifeless.
Are you really in the river of experience? In accord with
Everything that is? Will you ever be? Who are you?
To whom are you speaking?  Who finds what you say worthwhile?  And also:
Does it make the reader sober?  Can it be read in the morning?
Is it relevant to matters at hand?  Are the sentences that you have read aloud
Actually useful, or at least worth contradicting? Can they be confirmed?
By experience? What experience? But above all,
Always, always above all: What does one do,
If one believes what you say? Above all, what does one do?

We pondered, as we looked with curiosity at the doubting
Blue man on the scroll, looked at each other

And started all over again.  

 

(1937)