Gorter's Bright Light


Following his epic debut masterpiece May in 1889, Herman Gorter continued to expand the boundaries of poetry. May is a dense and metaphysical, idea-filled tour de force by which Gorter tried to make eternal what was transient. In his Verses of 1890, he once more tried to record and unify his love for both nature and women. This time, however, he explored a much more sensitive and incidental approach. Every poem in Verses is an instance of feeling that expresses itself in words, that explores and exposes itself under the bright light of the unity he seeks. As Gorter let his feelings write his poems, he reshaped the rules of rhyme, rhythm, language and meaning in the process. 

It makes Gorter's work after May quite impossible to translate. Take for example one of Gorter’s most crisp and engrossing odes to love. Its simple words powerfully express a vulnerable clumsiness we all can recognise. In English, quite literally, the poem could read:

You stand there oh so very still
With your hands, I have this will
To tell to you such a sweet thing,
But I don't know what thing.

Your sweet shoulders are so beautiful,
The light surrounding you thaws all,
Warm, warm, warm - a still adorning
Of warmth, as I make yearning. 

Your eyes they are as blue
As clear water, if only you
I could be for a wee moment,
But I can't, I stay me own and
I don't know what it is, that thing
I want to tell to you - it was some thing.

But such translation cannot fully represent the original: 

Gij staat zoo heel, heel stil
met uwe handen, ik wil
u zeggen een zoo lief wat,
maar 'k weet niet wat.
Uw schoudertjes zijn zoo mooi,
om u is lichtgedooi,
warm, warm, warm - stil omhangen
van warmte, ik doe verlangen.
Uw oogen zijn zoo blauw
als klaar water - ik wou
dat ik eens even u kon zijn,
maar 't kan niet, ik blijf van mijn.
En ik weet niet wat 't is wat
ik u zeggen wil - 't was toch wat.

The Dutch word wat translates both to something and what thing. The repeated refuge Gorter seeks in this single, simple word reveals exactly how inadequate he feels: Gorter cannot bend his language to express even that basic feeling of love he needs to share. 

Following Verses, Gorter would walk still different routes to capture the bright light of his ideal of unification. He tried rationalism first, then added the challenge of including also his love of equality, his hopes for the Marxist revolution, in Lyrics (Liedjes) and Pan.

To translate Gorter beyond May, another level of translation and clarity of vision is required. Only then can the essential Gorter be made complete in English and can a more complete insight be shared, into the journey of this magnificent poet. 

This autumn, Arimei Books will be proud to be sharing that insight with you!


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