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13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 3:00pm

The metaphysical beauty of Ludwig Steinherr’s Light Song

By George Szirtes

Splendid masterpiece of the omnipotent hand of the immortal gods: grand luminary, whom my ravished eyes behold, shining with ever-new lustre. From the summit of this towering hill that rears to heaven its lofty head, glowing with thy sparkling rays; – O Sun! at thy first aspect, I hail thee with rapture, and consecrate to thee this trifling homage.

So begins the Abbé de Reyrac’s 18th-century Hymn to the Sun, as translated by OB Esquire in 1782. We note the easy acceptance of a multiplicity of gods and move on through the full, inventive, rhapsodic 108 pages of his hymn, in the course of which we witness a major thunderstorm “whose redoubled claps, shook, during the night, the foundations of the earth” and rushed “with a bellowing noise, through that vast chain of mountains” to end in the morning when, “The sky was never more serene; nature never appeared more beautiful.”

There is a body of writing – often religious, often mystical, often rhapsodic – in praise of light and the golden disc, as the ancient Egyptians called it. Pharaoh Akhenaten, supposedly the author of “The Great Hymn to Aten”, declared the sun god to be the only god.

The hymn, or paean is much rarer in modern poetry. Who, after all, would it be addressed to? And how might we offer praise without irony? Can there be light without darkness? Is it, perhaps, true that light, like happiness, writes white?

The German poet Ludwig Steinherr goes about it a different way, by attending to light in its particular effects on particular things, not in some heavenly realm, but, in among other places, Munich, the city where he lives, with “the washing machine humming/fingers folded round the coffee cup/for prayer/while all around us the school buses head out…”. But light is not only in the familiar domain of home, it is also in the technology that can locate unborn children in pregnant mothers and, synaesthetically, “croon light into their ears”. It is in St Theresa’s ecstasy, in computer games, in the “ballet of pedestrians/upon Champs-Élysées at nightfall”.

Steinherr’s Lichtgesang/Light Song, translated and prefaced by Paul-Henri Campbell, is a single long poem unlike anything I have read recently. The book is bilingual and the translation successfully carries the momentum and detail of the original. Behind the poem rise the figures of Hölderlin and Rilke, but it dances on its own light feet from place to place, religion to religion and text to text, without vacant grandiosity. Its mysticism is grounded in close observation and a readiness to move from a rhetorical pitch to the possibility of its own failure:

All my thoughts concerning you are                               
so I might as well talk gibberish:
How lonesome you were before you
     made us!
Like an ageing shoe salesman in a new
Like a new pupil in the frosty dorm at
     the boarding school!
Like a bug cooped up in a box!

The figure “you” being addressed there is light itself, a version of Aten:

Light – wayward strand of hair sticking
     up from a child’s head
Light – incandescent run in a silk
Light – silver trail left by a snail on a
     freshly printed newspaper

The translation retains something of the text’s foreignness. It feels its way in English gingerly, but the fact that it is never quite at home – and never relaxes into a tradition –makes it always a little startling.

What to do with this unusual thing? How to read its more ecstatic or odd moments, such as that “light, enormous tiny light” that is “like chocolate placed on my pillow by the maid”?

The poem is, in some ways, a record of journeys undertaken, to London, to Paris, to Carolina, to Rome, to Africa and to Egypt and the Nile. But it is not a travelogue. It is an attempt to gather together striking visual and sensory impressions glimpsed in passing – moments that enter the metaphysical level. The light, like Rilke’s angel, is both “beautiful and terrible”, stripping and setting things on fire. Steinherr ends the poem with his own wife’s shoulders “gleaming forth from the blanket”.

It is a remarkable experience being shuttled through both minutiae and the monumental as perceived through a shower of incidentals. William Blake, Robert Southwell, Thomas Traherne and Christopher Smart would understand it. We should try. 

Lichtgesang/Light Song by Ludwig Steinherr (Translated by Paul-Henri Campbell) is published by Lyrikedition 2000 (40pp, £11.90)

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This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes