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Why the Dual Principles of Polaritatand Steigerungare Relevant to the Study of Verbal Patterns that Recur in the Poetry of Goethe and the German and English Romantics

Anyone nurturing the ambition to write a learned thesis is expected to define the

terms stated in title at outset. Wandering is particularly resistant to being defined, and as

Lord Byron implied by calling all wandering the worst of sinning,” it is suspect in the

minds of many people, academicians included. However, derivatives of the verb to wander

cannot be readily ignored by readers of English poetry, still less by those who take an

interest in German poetry in which derivatives of the verb wandern could not be more

prominent than they are. My interest in wandering in the sense I have signified was

originally encouraged by an article written over half a century ago by Professor L. A.

Willoughby entitled “The Image of the “Wanderer” and the “Hut” in Goethe’s Poetry.” 1 In

this Professor Willoughby made no mention of parallel developments on the side of

English poetry or even on the of German Romantic poets in whose works occurrences of

the word “Wanderer” were hardly less prominent than in those of Goethe.

Professor Willoughby attributed the insistent frequency of the word ”Wanderer”

throughout Goethe’s poetry and other writings to the power and influence of the collective

unconscious according to its formulation in the Jungian theory of psychology according to

which the libido is engaged in a perpetual quest to achieve unity with the anima, thus

harmonizing the male and female principles that reside in the human psyche. Professor

Willoughby gave no explanation as to why the ubiquitous collective unconscious should

suddenly give rise to the phenomenon constituted by the frequency of the word

“Wanderer” in Goethe’s poetry.

1 L. A. Willoughby, "The Image of the 'Wanderer' and the 'Hut' in Goethe's Poetry" (Etudes Germaniques, 3, Autumn1951).


Jung took great account of the etymology of crucial words. What can the common root of the English and German verbs to wander and wandern reveal about the phenomenon of wandering? This root is shared by the words to wend and wenden (German ‘to turn”) and Wandel (German “to change”). Acts of changing and turning entail the possibility of recognizing a distinction between two or more conditions or locations which produces something analogous to a binary code, simple in principle yet highly complex in effect. This fact gives rise to the ambivalence of wandering, its positive or negative import depending on what one turns from and what one turns towards. Both Cain and a pilgrim are termed wanderers; the former stands for one who turns away from good and the latter is one who turns toward a spiritual goal. When designating a state of mind wandering ranges in meaning from signifying madness to the highly poetic.

Many verbs denoting motion can become symbols of mental processes. Wandering may denote physical movement but at its deepest level it underlies thought and like dreaming remains in large part inaccessible to inquiry except via a hermeneutic exposition of its aftereffects. Wandering lies at the cusp of manifold antimonies that concern, philosophy, religion and literature, such antimonies including the relationship between body and mind, internal and external reality, and, most relevant to the present discussion, literature and life.

Willoughby traces the use of wanderer and hut imagery to an impulse that springs from the collective unconscious postulated by C, G. Jung regarding the quest of the libido to find equipoise in the union with the anima. Harold Bloom sees the same force at work as the wellspring of Romantic poetry in England which in the view of his close associate Hartman justifies the term “Wanderer” as an epithet for the modern self-conscious poet.

In times when church doctrines exerted an overriding influence deviation and with this the notion of wandering carried preponderantly negative association with sinning and heresy but in the course of the eighteenth century a strong countertrend reflected by developments in literature set in. Cain, Ahasuerus or the prodigal son and pilgrimage came to serve the aesthetic and psychological needs of Goethe and the Romantic poets. Deviation took on a highly positive association with freedom from literary conventions and it is no accident that Edward Young’s essay entitled “Conjectures on Original Composition(1759)


praising the abandonment of the beaten roadshortly preceded Goethe’s “Rede zum

Shakespeares Tag,in which the word “Wanderermade its first significant appearance in

Goethe’s writings, for in this Shakespeare was adulated as the greatest of wanderers (der

grösste Wandrer) on the strength of the sheer range and scope of his dramatic powers and


The figure of Faust incorporated characteristics of the rebellious Cain and the forgiven

penitent who is finally received into eternity as the Wanderer,so named in the final scene

of Faust II. In this case wandering involved more than a flat contrast of contraries but also

a dynamic working towards achieving their reconciliation. Just as in Thomist theology

the felix culpa committed by Adam and Eve in Paradise is the prerequisite for

redemption so the negative aspect of Faust’s aberrant wandering is transcended by the

positive aspect of wandering as a process of healing and reconciliation that culminates in

the union of the libido and he anima, in Goethe words, das Ewig-Weibliche,.

Wandering encapsulates the principle which Goethe ascribed to the relationship between

“Polaritat” and “Steigerung” (polarity and ascent to a transcendental level). In the words of

Angus Nicholls in the “Erläuterung zu dem aphoristischen Aufsatz die Natur”: Goethe

contends that out of the attraction and collision of polarities,’Steigerung’ (intensification

and ascent) is achieved, through which the two hitherto divided principles are momentarily

united at a higher level.” 2 Nicholls argues that Goethe’s concept differed from Hegel’s

system of dialectics in rejecting any notion that polaric tensions find harmony in some

abstract ideal but rather attributed to these tensions a never ending creative dynamic

acting on the creative mind and imagination as realized by art and literature.

While in the person of Faust the aberrant or centrifugal aspect of wandering is subsumed by

its higher aspect, the same antithesis is shown by the contrast between separate individuals

in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, a work which in the view of Friedrich Schlegel shared with

the French Revolution the claim to being the chief factor that gave rise to the German

2 Angus Nicholls, “The Philosophical Concept of the Daemonic in Goethe’s ‘Mächtiges Űberraschen’,” Goethe Yearbook 14, ed. Simon J. Richter, Camden House, Rochester NY, 2007. 160.


Romantic movement. A consideration of this aspect of the novel will allow us to extend the

scope of enquiry beyond Willoughby’s survey of the “Wanderer” in Goethe’s works to

include a discussion of the relationship between Goethe’s understanding of the role of

poets and that of the Romantics, a question that impinges closely on our study of


The novel tells the story of a group of actors an entertainers who are members of a

Wanderbühne, a peripatetic theatrical company. The leading actor Wilhelm Meister

exemplifies progress and consistency of purpose and underlines what Goethe saw as the

need for poets and artists to fulfil a positive and practical mission in society. By contrast

Mignon, a female troubadour, and the bearded Harfner (Harpist) exhibit aberrant and even

mentally distraught characteristics which were partly responsible for their untimely and

tragic deaths. The novel played a major role in promoting the rise of the German Romantic

movement with the paradoxical outcome that the Romantic poets adopted the word

“Wandereras the epithet chosen to identify themselves as poets and yet rejected the kind

of wandering that Wilhelm Meister stood for, siding with Mignon and the harp player, who

in their view had been unfairly punished for evincing romanticproclivities. Willoughby

also held that the early deaths of the “romantic” Mignon and the harper showed Goethe’s

disapproval of their irresponsible behavior and romantictrends. Willoughby placed the

rof romanticin the lower case but clearly an association with “Romantic” seems to

slipped into Willoughby’s thinking. Goethe must have had truly prophetic powers if he

condemn a movement which had yet to come into existence and would do so at his own

instigation. Professor Friedrich Gundolf held that both kinds of wanderer sprang from

within Goethe himself and reflected the dichotomies between the unconscious and

awakened processes of the mind and imagination, 3 One should not confuse the moralistic

with the aesthetic and psychological aspect of the polarity that adheres in wandering.

Can the scope of this inquiry extend even outside the German-speaking world to poetry

written in English? Jonathan Wordsworth, a descendent of William Wordsworth, draws

3 Mignon und der Harfner stammen aus einer andren Schicht von Goethes Wesen und

Leben als alle andren Figuren des Meister." Friedrich Gundolf, Theatralische Sendung," Goethe (Berlin, 1916), 345.

"Wilhelm Meisters


attention to a direct link between Goethe’s poetic dialogue entitled Der Wandrer and the

figure of the Wanderer in William Wordsworth’s long poem entitled The Excursion. 4

Coleridge drew Wordsworth’s attention to a translation of Der Wandrer in English, the

work of William Taylor of Norwich. In this the German Wandreris echoed by the

English “Wanderer” in the title and in marginal pointers to the speakers. In fact Der

Wandrer played a pivotal role in the cultural interchange between English and German

literary developments. It imparted influence and was itself a reflection of English

influences on Goethe, as Goldsmith’s The Traveller provided a source of inspiration for

Der Wandrer. In his translation of a poem included in James Macpherson’s Ossian

Goethe translated “travelleras Wanderer” with the effect that the same quotation appears

in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers: “Morgen wird der Wandrer kommen, kommen,

is noteworthy that William of Norwich did not choose “traveller” or a word such as

5 It

wayfarer” as the English equivalent of “Wanderer.” Was this for the same reason that

could explain why Longfellow translated Goethe’s “Wandrers Nachtlied” as “Wanderer’s

Night-Songs”? I will raise this question in due course.

The noun Wanderer that in most cases evokes the image of some pedestrian wayfarer is

prominent in German Romantic poetry as in Goethe’s The bare title Der Wandrer” heads

poems by Friedrich Schlegel and Hölderlin. The word “wanderer” in English Romantic

poetry does not enjoy such prominence despite a poem entitled The Wandererby Lord

Byron, Shelley’s apostrophe to the moon as “bright Wanderer” in “Lines written in the Bay

of Lerice,” and Wordsworth’s reference to the Wanderer in my Soul” in “The Tale of the

Wandering Jew.The poetic implication of wandering in English Romantic poetry is

suffused though words derived from the verb to wander. When Shelley lamented the death

quick Dreams, / The Passion-winged Ministers of

thought, /…wander not- /Wander no more from kindling brain to brain,

of Keats in Adonais (IX) he wrote: “

” In non-poetic

language one might say: Keats was no longer able to compose poetry and communicate


4 Jonathan Wordsworth,

The Music of Humanity, New York / Evanstone, 1969.

5 At a climactic juncture in the novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers Werther quotes a

passage from Ossian in order to overwhelm Lotte with yield to his unbridled ardor.

intense passion and thus make her


his thoughts.

William Blake’s contrast between “cold earth wanderers” and “the mental traveller”

reflects a somewhat reserved attitude to the kind of wandering he discerned in the poetry of

Wordsworth and Coleridge, an indication that, as in contemporary German poetry, poets

distinguished between what they considered as the greater or the lesser manifestations of

the wanderer (poetry). “The Wanderer” should therefore never be understood as a poetic

conceit or blanket term. Further evidence that poetic achievement was gauged in terms of

the perceived quality of wandering is to be drawn from passages in Lord Byron’s Don

Juan. In Canto XL Byron chides Juan as a youth who “wander’d by the glassy brooks /

Thinking unutterable things.Inevitably a reference to Wordsworth crops up a few lines

later. The speaker in The Dedication had already confessed that as one “wand’ring with

pedestrian Muses” he could not contend with Southey on his “winged steed,alluding to

lines in Book VII, (viii) in Paradise Lost, in which the words “flying steed” and “erroneous

there to wander” find a place. 6 Byron invested wandering with deep significance when it

broached matters of deepest concern to himself, as the last two lines in Canto 3, 70 in

Childe Harolds Pilgrimage disclose: But there are wanderers o'er Eternity /Whose bark

drives on and on, and anchor'd ne'er shall be.

In various instances Byron showed himself to be keenly aware of uses that Milton had

made of the verb to wander in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. We have just noted

that in Book VII of Paradise Lost that the speaker expresses fear that he might be

thrown from the flying steed of inspiration and wander forlorne.Goethe would later

express a similar fear of stalling in flight in Wandrers Sturmlied,which could indicate

that Milton had a premonition of the coming crisis of self-consciousness with which

Goethe and the Romantic poets had to contend head on. It seems probable that the impulse

from Goethe had jolted the cultural memory of the English Romantics so as to remind them

6 Least from this flying Steed unrein'd, (as once /Bellerophon, though from a lower Clime) / Dismounted, on th' Aleian Field I fall / Erroneous there to wander and forlorne.


that the verb to wander had played a significant role in their native tradition. Take Shakespeare’s choice of the words derived from the verb to wander.

In Julius Caesar there is a line which implicitly associates the Poet Cinna with the act of wandering from his home only to meet his death at the hands of a mob which confused him with Cinna the Conspirator before recognizing their error and commenting that the poet deserved his death anyway on account of his bad verses.Cinna had experienced a prophetic dream in which Caesar appeared to him saying that they would dine together. Here we find an indication that wandering implied the ideal concord between poet and emperor in keeping with the Petrarchan ideal of the union of the two laurel crowns. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream wandering appears at its most felicitous in its embodiment in Puck, that merry wanderer of the night,which is understandable in the light of the theory of Jung that the ancient wanderers in mythology and classical epics represent solar wanderers as symbols of the quest of the libido to achieve union with the anima.

If we accept Willoughby’s thesis that collective unconscious causes verbal patterns to well up anywhere within the ambit of its influence, we may conjecture that the association of wanderer” and nightin A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the title of one of Goethes most celebrated poems is no coincidence. “Wandrers Nachtlied” has secured its place in the anthology of German poetry as the prime example of exquisite lyricism and short verse. Longfellow’s translation of the poem’s title as Wanders Night-Songsstrengthens the argument that for poets writing in English and German the words Wandrer and wanderer are not only similar in appearance but constitute a unity as one word, a conclusion to which William of Norwich’s translation of Der Wandrer had already pointed.

True, in terms of a dictionary, to wander and wandern are not exact equivalents, but in order to specify if the word “Wandereris to be translated as wayfarer, pilgrim, migrant or hiker, one requires a clear context by which to single out the appropriate equivalent among a range of possibilities. In the case of Wandrers Nachtliedit is no easy matter to correlate the word “Wanderer” with an overriding theme to be found in the body of the two poems that share the title of Wandrers Nachtlied.In neither is there a reference to a journey or a geographic destination, nor anything that might point us to a dramatic figure or persona as in the case of Der Wandrer. The second poem could be treated as a nightscape


viewed by a nocturnal traveller but for this supposition there is no conclusive evidence. The Wanderer could be treated as a pilgrim though life like Werther if one hears an echo of the Lord’s Prayer in the first poem but such an interpretation does not exhaust all possibilities presented by the poem. No particular meaning of this word has precedence over any other. The question of finding the exact English equivalent of the German word Wanderer is in any case one that might arise in the area of nonliterary prose for here a reader or listener ascertains the one meaning of each word that accords with an overall message or plain narrative. No such closure pertains to words in poetry as here understanding the immediately obvious meaning of a word is but the beginning of an ever widening exploration of its deeper meanings, associations and resonances, which in the case of wandering ultimately reveal facets of the creative imagination .

Only the word wandererin English comprehends the range of associations conveyed by the title Wandrers Nachtlied.Here its multivalence is its virtue. In as far as wandering is predicated on the representation of a journey or excursion, its centre of interest does not lie so much in the respective itinerary itself as in what takes place at a decisive turning point along the way (cf, Wendepunkt) instilling a moment of insight and recognition, be this inspired by a spellbinding nightscape, the breathtaking view of a host of golden daffodils or the perception of beautiful sea-serpents by the light of the moon. Wandering is primarily about the impulse to reconcile contraries and antitheses, hence its intimate involvement in acts of perception that mediate between the inner mind and the physical world with its hills, trees and daffodils.

From a linguistic point of view “Wandrers Nachtlied” shows that the shorter the poem is, the denser and more vibrant become the few words that compose it, as the reader is commensurately less distracted by any product of the word, such as a certain unambiguous meaning, a reference to some person, thing or subject. For this reason a section of this study is devoted to the language theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and the findings of Juri Tynjanov based on de Saussure’s distinction between the two aspects of language termed langue and parole. The specific occurrence of a word retains its connection with the unity that combines all words of like meaning and appearance, from which it follows that a word set within a poem occupies the midpoint of several contextual planes beginning


with the narrow semantic context that the mind of a reader or listener instinctively seeks and concluding with the context set by literary tradition and even by the scope of the receptive mind itself.

What does all this this mean for the course of discussion throughout the rest of this study?

A comparison of those critics who have noted that a central significance attaches to the

word wanderer will serve to confirm that the scope of wandering encloses instances of words derived from the verbs wandern and to wander in German and English literature. There follows a survey of critical theories concerning the nature of poetic language and the foundation of textual criticism. A major section of the book contains studies of poems and

literary works in which derivatives of the verbs to wander and wandern are found. This study continues from where Willoughby left off, though in a more rigorous and systematic manner, The scope broadens to include poems which treat archetypal figures that can be meaningfully identified as wanderers for reasons that will have emerged from earlier

analyses. Finally a position will be taken on the issues concerning basic relationships such

as that between literature and life; wandering, as I argued earlier, is about fundamental

relationships including the most basic one of all, that of the unconscious and conscious portions of the mind.