Two of W. H. Auden’s most famous poems, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan 1939)” and “September 1, 1939,” appear in his 1940 collection Another Time, in the third and final section of the book. Both poems feature famous and controversial lines; in his Yeats elegy we find the line, “For poetry makes nothing happen,” and in “September 1, 1939” is the line “We must love one another or die,” which he later amended to “we must love one another and die,” though he also tried to suppress the poem entirely. Between these two famous poems is another elegy, this one for a German poet, playwright, and revolutionary. The poem, “In Memory of Ernst Toller (d. May 1939),” renders Toller’s death passive, even fated:
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand: They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
Allegedly, shortly before his death, Toller told writer Robert Payne, “If ever you read that I committed suicide, I beg you not to believe it.” Auden’s poem implies that Toller was part of something larger than a single life, entreating Toller to “lie shadowless at last among / The other war-horses who existed till they’d done / Something that was an example to the young.”
Ernst Toller, born in 1893 in what is now Poland, was part of the German Revolution. For six days he was president of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, a socialist state that nationalized the mining industry and instituted an 8-hour work day. Toller’s government was usurped by the Communist Party and, shortly thereafter, brought down by right-wing forces, including several people who would later join the Nazi Party. The Weimar Republic was established in the aftermath of these events. For his role in the revolution, Toller was sentenced to five years in prison, where he wrote many of his most famous works. He was later exiled from Germany by the Nazis and died, allegedly by suicide.
The publication of Vormorgen: The Collected Poems of Ernst Toller, translated by Mathilda Cullen, is cause for celebration, especially since it is so beautifully done and features so much additional material, including Auden’s elegy for Toller which opens the book. Fourteen pages of elucidating notes follow the poems, and the book ends with a short interview with Cullen about her translation process and philosophies. Together, the book is an impressive object and though The Operating System makes all of their projects available as digital downloads, Vormorgen is worth holding, carrying around, marking up, and passing along to others.
Vormorgen opens with a section called “Poems of the Imprisoned,” a sequence of sonnets that is dedicated “To the nameless dead of the German Revolution.” The opening poem of both the sequence and the book, “Sleepless Night,” recalls Auden’s “we must love one another and die,” though Toller isn’t so moralizing. Toller writes,
We're all tied to the same stake of fate, We're all united by the creature's thousand year torment,
We're all spun darkly through the tides. Oh, fuck set borders! People hate without choice! You, brother Death, will lead us into unity.</pre></div><p>He seems to say we’re in this life together and we can recognize it or not, but we will all die in the end.</p><p>As thrilled as I am to have access to so much of Toller’s work, it’s the second section of <em>Vormorgen</em> that most excited me. Translated by Cullen as “The Book of Swallows,” this is a book-length free verse poem about freedom, imprisonment, death, love, empire, and the necessity of revolution to beget further revolution. All inspired by a pair of nesting swallows. The poem opens with the following note:</p><div class="preformatted-block"><label class="hide-text" contenteditable="false"></label><pre class="text"> Hatched 1922・Written 1923 Correctional Facility Niederschönfeld <em>In 1922 Two swallows nest In my cell</em></pre></div><p>From there, the poem swoops and dives like a bird flying, often impressionist and philosophical.</p><div class="preformatted-block"><label class="hide-text" contenteditable="false"></label><pre class="text"> The animal is more sacred than man. Amen. The flower is more sacred than animal. Amen. The earth is more sacred than flower. Amen. But the most sacred is the stone. Selah. Selah. Selah</pre></div><p>The poem is filled with lines and stanzas that often stopped me short. I find myself wanting to quote whole pages here.</p><div class="preformatted-block"><label class="hide-text" contenteditable="false"></label><pre class="text"> Come to me you prisoners: Prisoners imprisoned by prisoners . . . On this night The swallows sleep in my cell.</pre></div><p>The titular swallows become a metaphor for what Europe and the world could be: ignorant of borders, working together in love to raise their young—young who, together, learn to fly and leave the nest.</p><div class="preformatted-block"><label class="hide-text" contenteditable="false"></label><pre class="text"> The siblings learn from their brave brother That it helps to have patience! And a few days later the old and young Still romp about outside. In buoyant games the young learn flight's Festive art . . . They don't come home in the evening.</pre></div><p>It’s a remarkable and triumphant poem, all the more so for the circumstances of its making. “Ah, who would willingly / Enter a / Prison cell?” Toller asks.</p><p>I don’t think Toller expected his poetry to “change the world.” He already knew that revolution was the only mechanism for change and that poetry was simply one way to record the struggle. Yes, yes, “poetry makes nothing happen”—but Auden’s line is often stripped of its context:</p><div class="preformatted-block"><label class="hide-text" contenteditable="false"></label><pre class="text"> For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its saying where executives Would never want to tamper; [. . .]</pre></div><p>Toller’s poetry survived the prison he was kept in (“the valley of its saying”) and the fascists he fought against, as well as those who exiled him (the “executives”). Poetry like Toller’s endures.</p>