This is How Bruegel…

It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that when Goethe made his long-planned jaunt to Italy in his late thirties he only had one thing on his mind. For sure, sex was on his mind: he was interested in bringing back sexual desire into literature, and he his interest was not purely theoretical. The fruits of his journey, his Erotic Poems and The Venetian Epigrams, touch upon love and desire – frustrated or satisfied – describing episodes from Goethe’s own affairs. But Goethe being Goethe, that is one of the greatest thinkers and writers of his age, he could never quite stop thinking about other weighty subjects – the cultural inheritance of the ancient world, the place of Christianity in the modern world, the distinction between high and low culture and – as poem below shows – the meaning and nature of art. Within the Venetian epigrams there is a series of epigrams focussing on a group of street dancers, in particular the youngest of their troupe, Bettina. Goethe thought that the distinction between high and low art was largely a North European construction, and felt that in Italy culture was something that all classes could  – and did – participate in. In the poem he elevates street acrobatics to the same status as great painting and poetry, and – in one aspect at least – hints that it can even supersede it.


This is how Bruegel, capriciously, darkly, with forms interwoven,

In an inferno of gloom, troubles and puzzles our gaze;

This is how Durer subverts our brains when they’re perfectly normal

With men and monsters, with weird apocalyptical shapes;

This is how poets who sing about Sphinxes and sirens and centaurs

Rule us with curious thoughts, tease and astonish our ears;

This is how dreams afflict anxious sleepers, who seem to walk forwards,

Seem to be clutching at things, things all in flux and afloat;

This is how sweet Bettina confuses her limbs to confound us;

But then she gladdens our hearts, landing once more on her feet.

(Trans. David Luke, from Goethe’s Erotic Poems, Oxford University Press)


Goethe is writing about how certain art seem to trouble our senses and, as certain dreams do, seem to throw into doubt our fixed ideas about the world. This is the art of dissonance and discomfort, in great contrast, we can suppose, to the kind of classical art that means to construct something great and create order out of a chaotic world. Bruegel is familiar to some for his earthy panoramas of everyday life, but also – inspired by Hieronymus Bosch – painted more fantastic and disturbing scenes. This painting, ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ seems to match the opening lines of the poem, as dark and disturbing as it is capricious and grotesque:

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Fall_of_the_Rebel_Angels (from Wikipedia)

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (Image from Wikipedia)

Dürer created some similarly grotesque images: Goethe is referring to his series of woodcuts ‘The Apocalypse’. Perhaps the phrase ‘subverts our brains’ refers to the propagandistic power of such images. One of the images was called ‘The Whore of Babylon’, a Biblical term of abuse that Christian sects would throw at one another, but in particular at the Catholic church:

The Whore of Babylon, smb museum, Berlin

The Whore of Babylon, smb museum, Berlin

Poetry too – in particular epic and fantastical poetry is supposed but Goethe to be able to ‘rule’ us through its effect on our senses. The lines about dreams, meanwhile, seem almost to foreshadow 20th Century, and particularly Freudian, conceptions of the fragmentary nature of consciousness, especially in dreams. Goethe is comparing the arts he has mentioned to dreams, in their discombobulating disorienting effect.

Goethe comes last to the young dancer, and finds this same quality in her dance as in the painted, poetic and dreamt landscapes mentioned, but with a crucial difference:

This is how sweet Bettina confuses her limbs to confound us;

But then she gladdens our hearts, landing once more on her feet.

Having disturbed our senses, and having in the process cast light on darkened corners of our souls, Bettina shows us all along that these disturbed forms had nothing otherworldly about them after all, but were merely the confabulations of the human imagination – and in her case, the human frame, which  – unlike the other arts mentioned – she brings back into equilibrium when she has finished.


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Filed under Art, Poetry

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