“Poets are routinely and shamefully used by their society to have a culture,” wrote Alice Notley as she was describing the life of her friend Steve Carey, “to have a culture at all.” She went on to add that Carey was “the product of society’s use of him”. He was dead. As soon as you read this you remember that part of the earth from Cyprian Norwid’s grave was transported from France to Poland one hundred and eighteen years after his death and buried in a crypt under Wawel Cathedral along with sixteen kings, two saints, a cardinal, a general, the Queen Jadwiga who lived from c. 1373 to 1399, the Queen’s daughter who lived for three weeks, and Adam Mickiewicz. Whatever else you may say about the United States, they have not shifted the remains of Steve Carey. Let’s say something nice about Max Richter, Jean Paul’s son, who resisted his father’s constant lectures about respecting poets, when “someone” (tr. Eliza Lee, Life of Jean Paul Richter, 1850) asked him what they would do if his parents died and he answered first, “We would weep,” but then “We would go out a little into the street,” pushing back (I say) against the initial desire to sound poetically moved and instead rethinking himself into a prosaic reaction, refusing the temptation to borrow his intelligence from poetry, in spite of his father, who, when his characters in The Campaner Thal, 1797, tr. Juliette Bauer, reached an elevated point in the Pyrenees, brought out a dictionary of contemporary poetic bliss and said that they “looked again towards the heavens, lo! all its stars were gleaming, and in place of rose-woven wreaths, the mountains were clad in extinguished rainbows, and the giant of the Pyrenees was crowned with stars instead of roses.”
The characters in Campaner Thal have been discussing the likelihood of immortality as they climb the mountain – what does Kant think about it? – and God? – is Uranus populated by nuns who like the dark? – until they reach the summit, where the scenery joins their imaginations to create a complementary argument for a mutual and comprehensive appreciation of the subject that has been skewing them.
[I]n this moment it was with each of our enraptured souls as if from its oppressed heart earth's load had dropped away; as if from her mother's arms, the earth were giving us, matured in the Father arms of the infinite Creator; as if our little life were over! To ourselves, we seemed the immortal, the exalted. We fancied that our speech of man's immortality had been the prophecy of our own, as with two great and noble men.
In the preface to the story Jean Paul has already told us that “Poetry alone reconciles the past to the future, and is the Orpheus's lyre which commands these two destroying rocks to rest,” so now, here, poetry is landscape; poetry is in the appreciation of landscape, the sublime knowledge that the stars, heavenly burners, are also substitute roses.
A hot air balloon is nearby and why not. The character Gione, longing to match her physicality to her mind’s desire for beautiful solitude, mounts to the stars in the basket alone. Just near the beginning of the story (many pages ago) she appeared to die; her devastated friend Karlson wrote a poem “entitled, Grief without Hope, which declared his disbelief, for he had never broken the Ambrosia, whose delights a trust in immortality affords. But just that strengthened his enfeebled heart, that the muses led him to Hippocrene's spring of health.” Miraculously Gione recovered and her fiance could respond to Karlson’s gift of the poem with a letter to let him know that he’d read it to the person he thought was deceased. Out of this miasma of events she had become “the immortal one,” a nickname that seems respectful, playful, and awestruck. Richter, or so the legend goes, wrote his first worthwhile book after he’d had a vision of his own death at the start of November in the year 1790, a destructive upset that killed off the earlier self who had advocated against ornate writing. “The writer who produces many comparisons, who composes in an ornamented style, appears to me to have little depth,” he had written in 1779. His American translator Eliza Lee points out the joke. “The passage in which Paul speaks of florid and ornamented writing is remarkable, as he condemns a style that was afterwards so singularly his own.” He was saved to make poetry: saved, rescued, hooray: he lived until he was sixty-two. Max died at nineteen. Ha ha, we laugh.