By Megan Reynolds
Although Bertolt Brecht is widely known for his playwriting and theoretical contributions, his skill as a poet cannot be overlooked or undercut simply because of his talents in other forms of writing. Historical events unfolding at the time of his writing, namely World War II, greatly influenced Brecht and his perceptions of humanity as a whole. Periods of exile punctuate Brecht’s poetry, directing the way he not only viewed the world around him, but also the way he interacted with nature. Many of his poems include natural imagery, but natural imagery that he somehow subverts or undermines by placing it in sharp contrast to the modernity of the cities he found himself exiled in or in contrast with the World Wars that dominated thought during much of his adult life. As with many poets, and men in general, Brecht’s connections with nature and home are complicated ones that demand some untangling. While his poetry does reflect political aims, many of which had never been translated into the world of poetry before, Brecht also expresses a desire to find a home, a place of belonging, a desire all people seek as they make their way through this world.
Brecht’s predilection for words began early in life “because his fragile health dictated that he had to be absent from school more often than most, or excluded from group physical activity” (Speirs 201). At a young age, therefore, Brecht already experiences isolation not only from his peers but also from the world around him. He cannot interact directly with nature in the same way that his young classmates can; instead he can observe, a skill he develops throughout his lifetime. One of his earliest poems, “The Song of the Cloud of the Night,” uses a lonely cloud as a simile for Brecht’s own feelings of separation from those around him. Brecht claims that “My Heart is dull as the cloud of the night/ And homeless” (1-2). This solitary cloud, one barely visible in the night sky and therefore often ignored by others, captures his attention precisely because of its rootlessness. A cloud, which could easily travel long distances due to the wind, mirrors Brecht’s own sense of loneliness and invisibility.
In addition to the cloud’s isolation in the sky and from Brecht’s own physical world that remains grounded in the most literal sense of the word, Brecht also indicates feelings of confusion and searching. In the lines, “The cloud in the sky over trees and land/ Who do not know what for” he questions the physical separations between the sky that hovers, out of reach but not sight, and the trees and land (3-4). Why must the cloud remain forever excluded from the land and trees that remain fixed and stable? Brecht answers this question simply by suggesting that the “cloud of the night and the wind are alone” (10). The cloud of the night’s and the wind’s loneliness ostracize them from the physical world below them, a world that, according to Brecht, reflects an inclusive society. Pushed along by the wind, the cloud’s constant movement “connotes the goal-less journey of life as a condition of perennial exile” (Speirs 212). The cloud continues to wander, never finding a stable location on which to firmly anchor itself, just as Brecht feels distinctly homeless due to his role as the consummate observer but not the actor.
Using natural images to represent missed connection crops up in another of Brecht’s poems, “Buying Oranges.” The speaker of this poem stands “surprised and dumb like one who sees/ What he’s been after, right before his eyes” when he finds “Oranges! Always oranges as of old” (4-6). By claiming that the oranges are those “as of old,” Brecht connotes a sense of nostalgia, a remembrance of some lost feeling, possibly a connection to some sense of belonging somewhere in the world itself. His shock at this chance encounter with a larger consciousness of home reflects Brecht’s long-standing search for self in relation to others and the world, a journey for acceptance in society that began in his childhood. Has he finally found what he has been searching for since his youth? A home? A place where he truly belongs? Unfortunately for Brecht, the answer is no. The poem itself begins “In yellow fog along Southampton Street” meaning that Brecht is in London, not his ancestral home of Germany (1). Although Brecht could try and find a home outside of Germany, he would invariably remain foreign, unable to truly connect with the location’s historical past on a personal level. The ending also solidifies Brecht’s alienation and isolation because “At once the bitter truth was all too clear:/ The you are not here with me in this town” (13-14). Without his companion, an unknown individual who may be able to help him settle into a sense of belonging somewhere, Brecht once again finds himself alone to drift without a true home.
As his poetry progresses, Brecht’s feelings of exile and exclusion continue to develop and become more explicit. His poem “Concerning the Label Emigrant” speaks directly to what exactly that very label means. Although he finds in his fellow emigrants a kind of companionship that transcends physical boundaries, their kinship is predicated on their very status as outsiders in a foreign and unwanted place; these emigrants are, in their essence, still homeless. In exile, Brecht longs for the land he once called home, even if he never felt entirely at home in it. He calls the new land he is forced into as an emigrant “Not a home, but an exile” (7). Just as in “Buying Oranges,” Brecht feels the inkling of a connection to something that feels like a home (the oranges, and in “Concerning the Label Emigrant” the other emigrants), but it falls apart. At the end of “Concerning the Label Emigrant” he claims, “But none of us/ Will stay here” (21-22). Exile may force these various emigrants together, but none of them will remain together. Instead, they will, at some unnamed point in the future, disperse, scatter, and float away from each other, still homeless.
In other of Brecht’s poems that deal almost exclusively with exile, this feeling of homelessness continues to feel more and more permanent. At the beginning of his poem “Thoughts on the Duration of Exile,” he advises the reader “Don’t knock any nails in the wall,” “Leave the little tree without water,” and “As the whitewash peels from the ceiling/ (Do nothing to stop it!)” (1,5, 13-14). He essentially recommends avoiding any sort of commitment to place, any sort of claiming of the space. Yet claiming space is exactly how one finds what the area they eventually call home is. For Brecht, who “felt literally homeless during his American exile,” home continues to elude him (Hinderer 321). In yet another poem, entitled “Emigrant’s Lament,” Brecht mourns the permanent feeling of impermanence he feels, the feeling that he belongs nowhere. He ends this poem with the phrase “I’m not impertinent, I said: I’m lost” (14). Brecht argues that he is not suborn, that he is homeless not because he does not want a home but because he cannot locate one. As he states quite explicitly, he is lost.
“Emigrant’s Lament,” however, also takes the form of a sonnet indicating that despite his professed feeling of loneliness and confusion, Brecht also feels some sort of tenderness. His lament is for not only the love that “got rid of me,” but also for the feeling that he almost encountered a place he could call home (8). This poem suggests that Brecht had a home, or at least the beginnings of one, that fell apart. He feels more at home in the unspecified past of this poem than in the majority of his other poems directly addressing exile. While “Emigrant’s Lament” hints at the incorporation into society that he so longs for, the ending of “Thoughts on the Duration of Exile” resounds with a pronounced sense of hope and stability. Even though Brecht warns the reader to remain unattached during their period of exile, specifically to “Leave the little tree without water,” that same tree reemerges at the end (5). Unlike what the beginning of the poem would have us believe, the tree at the end remains alive. Brecht draws our attention to it, exclaiming, “Look at the little chestnut tree in the corner of the yard – / You carried a full can of water to it” (25-26). Amidst the pessimism associated with exile, the hopelessness of homelessness, Brecht points out that someone cares for this tree; someone, despite the uncertainty of their situation, planted and waters the tree. This ending suggests not only new life spouting through the bleakness, but also a sense of permanence, the very feeling that Brecht has been searching for.
Unfortunately, Brecht remains the observer in this situation. Unable to finally step out of his role as the outsider, Brecht cannot connect and create a home in spite of his exile. His poetry demonstrates a distinct alienation, one that characterizes Brecht’s writing. His feeling of rootlessness, though, resonates with many who also struggle to find a home and find themselves, which contributes to why Brecht’s poetry continues to captivate to this day. Although he does not arrives at a stable sense of home, he voices the inability to belong and the hopelessness that accompanies that search that readers throughout time and across geographic location associate with. The desire to belong haunts his writing as well as the psyche of people globally. Through his poetry, Brecht stretches out a hand, finally creating a community of lost individuals looking to feel a little less lost together, seeking connection if only through the words of a page.
Megan Reynolds is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She will graduate from Trinity University with a major in English and minors in Creative Writing and Spanish in May 2016. She serves as one of two co-editors for Trinity’s literary magazine, The Trinity Review. Next fall, she will begin graduate school to pursue her doctorate in English. You can learn more at her blog https://meganvreynolds.
Brecht, Bertolt. “Buying Oranges.” Poems, 1913-1956. Ed. John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried. New York: Methuen, 1979. 231. Print.
Brecht, Bertolt. “Concerning the Label of Emigrant.” Poems, 1913-1956. Ed. John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried. New York: Methuen, 1979. 301. Print.
Brecht, Bertolt. “Emigrant’s Lament.” Poems, 1913-1956. Ed. John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried. New York: Methuen, 1979. 306. Print.
Brecht, Bertolt. “The Song of the Cloud of the Night.” Poems, 1913-1956. Ed. John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried. New York: Methuen, 1979. 15. Print.
Brecht, Bertolt. “Thoughts on the Duration of Exile.” Poems, 1913-1956. Ed. John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried. New York: Methuen, 1979. 301-02. Print.
Hinderer, Walter1. “Brecht’s American Exile And His Return To Europe: Experiences Of An Incurable Dialectician.” Germanic Review 89.3 (2014): 315-324. Humanities Source. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Speirs, Ronald. “Mundus Totus Exilium: A Theme In Brecht’s Early Poetry, And Its Consequences.” Amsterdamer Beiträge Zur Neueren Germanistik 85.(2015): 200-220. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
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