Reading: Beautiful Youth by Gottfried Benn

German poet Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) supported Hitler when he came to power, but changed his mind after the ‘night of the long knives’. Still, he was naive enough to join the Wehrmacht, where some officers respected his disaproval of the regime. I don’t care too much about the details, but it wasn’t pretty. The nazis, by the way, called his earlier poetry “degenerate and homosexual”. Much of that poetry was inspired by his work as a pathologist in 1912-1913. For our anthology, I picked a poem called “Schöne Jugend”, that was rendered in English by Michael Hofmann:

Beautiful youth
The mouth of the girl who had lain long in the rushes
looked so nibbled.
When they opened her chest, her esophagus was so holey.
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
they found a nest of young rats.
One little thing lay dead.
The others were living off kidneys and liver
drinking the cold blood and had
had themselves a beautiful youth.
And just as beautiful and quick was their death:
the lot of them were thrown into the water.
Ah, will you hearken at the little muzzles’ oinks!

This poem has probably been dissected plenty of times. My first impulse upon reading such lines is to see some symbolism: The girl’s body is society that is rotten and the rats are the dark elements feasting on it, that are ultimately purged in an act of barbarism that seems inevitable. Given that this was written before World War I, the great war that everybody ‘saw coming’ but nobody believed would actually happen, what do you think of this kind or reading? I think such dialectics of barbarism, where the killing of ’the youth’ is done to save the image of society – was absolutely perverted by the nazis. You can’t say this kind of things ‘after Auschwitz’ I say with a nod to Adorno.

The dramatic last line benefits from the use of “hearken” but can’t mimic the original “Ach, wie die kleinen Schnauzen quietschten!” Here is the entire poem in the original German:

Der Mund eines Mädchens, das lange im Schilf gelegen hatte,
sah so angeknabbert aus.
Als man die Brust aufbrach, war die Speiseröhre so löcherig.
Schließlich in einer Laube unter dem Zwerchfell
fand man ein Nest von jungen Ratten.
Ein kleines Schwesterchen lag tot.
Die andern lebten von Leber und Niere,
tranken das kalte Blut und hatten
hier eine schöne Jugend verlebt.
Und schön und schnell kam auch ihr Tod:
Man warf sie allesamt ins Wasser.
Ach, wie die kleinen Schnauzen quietschten!

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