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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Greetings From Angelus

Gershom Scholem

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To purchase Greetings From Angelus

Title: Greetings From Angelus
Author: Gershom Scholem
Genre: Poetry
Written: (Eng. 2003, rev. 2018)
Length: 149 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Greetings From Angelus - US
Greetings From Angelus - UK
Greetings From Angelus - Canada
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Richard Sieburth
  • With an Introduction and Notes by Steven Wasserstrom
  • Previously published (without the translator's Afterword) as The Fullness of Time (2003)
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the original German texts facing Sieburth's English translations

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Our Assessment:

B : fine little collection; useful supporting material

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/6/2018 Adam Kirsch
Publishers Weekly . 1/7/2003 .
The Threepenny Review . Fall/2018 Erica X Eisen
TLS . 27/2/2004 Jeremy Adler
World Lit. Today . 5-6/2018 Peter Constantine

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gershom Scholem wrote strong poetry" - Publishers Weekly

  • "Arguably the largest departure from Scholemís more familiar writing is the directness and certitude that characterizes so much of the poetry in the volume. (...) Also immediately striking to readers acquainted with the authorís broader oeuvre is the deep formal conservatism of his verse. (...) Translator Richard Sieburth wavers in his approach to capturing the feel of Scholemís verses in English. (...) As it stands, a rather one-dimensional notion of artistic faithfulness preserves structure at the expense of style. (...) That the poems are not, ultimately, of remarkable literary quality is both true and in some larger sense irrelevant." - Erica X. Eisen, The Threepenny Review

  • "(A)n excellent bilingual selection (...) containing all the best-known pieces and several lesser ones. Sieburthís versions are lucid, sensitive, forceful and always attentive to the originals. Wasserstromís incisive commentary provides the ideal context. (...) As a German poet, Scholem remained tied to the idiom of Goethe, Heine and (occasionally) Rilke. But there are also more quirky strains, evident in the echoes of Morgensternís nonsense poetry." - Jeremy Adler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Scholemís voice is strong, and what surprises in his poetry is that the poems are in fact highly distilled critical responses to, and interpretations of, ideas and texts. (...) Richard Sieburthís deep understanding of Scholemís thought, and his masterful re-creation of Scholemís rhythms and rhymes, reflect the inner workings of these original German poems. Sieburthís translations offer a fascinating insight into the thoughts and literary sensibility of one of the great minds of the twentieth century." - Peter Constantine, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gershom Scholem's poetry is incidental, casual work, with many of the poems he wrote just meant for friends or a small circle; apparently, only two were published during his lifetime and, as translator Richard Sieburth notes in his new Afterword: "Scholem never considered his verse composition to be a major part of his oeuvre". In his Introduction Steven Wasserstrom reports that: "some forty-five" are found in Scholem's archives; this bilingual collection gathers twenty-one of the poems, written between 1915 ('To Theodor Herzl') and 1967 ('To Ingeborg Bachmann') -- with a twenty-second, "a comic piece of doggerel" from 1972, the last verses he wrote, snuck into the notes (albeit only in English translation).
       A third of the chronologically presented poems date to 1918 or before -- like many, Scholem apparently going through a (somewhat) poetic phase in his youngest days. His most famous -- probably only famous -- poem is the title-piece, dedicated to close friend Walter Benjamin, with its subject Benjamin's Paul Klee painting, Angelus Novus (about which Benjamin also wrote, and which he willed to Scholem, who wound up having it hanging on his walls much longer than Benjamin ever had). It's a nice picture-poem -- arguing also: "Ich bin ein unsymbolisch Ding / bedeute was ich bin", which Sieburth translates as: "I am an unsymbolic thing / I mean what I mean" (though the more straightforward 'I mean what I am' would seem more apposite).
       Among the more interesting pieces is 'The Official Abecedarium', an amusing alphabetical sequence of quatrains (double couplets) going through (mostly) great philosophers from A to Z (and beginning: "Anfangs war zwar das Apriori" ("In the beginning was the a priori")). While elsewhere Sieburth is rather half-hearted in trying to (re)capture Scholem's rhyme-scheme, he does try to follow it strictly here. This leads to (considerably) looser translations -- and the occasional embellishment. So, for example, in the first verse:

Argumentiert mit Hilfe des
Ältesten Aristoteles
Made his casuistry equiprobable
With the help of old Aristotle.
       Occasionally the would-be rhymes are even more strained and forced -- but in a few places Sieburth actually pulls off something better than Scholem, as in:
Gabirol war ein großer Mann
Selbst Gobineau erkennt das an.
       Which Sieburth slyly turns into:
Ibn Gabirol was a hero to his age
Even Gobineau agrees he was a credit to his race.
       (Not a great rhyme, but probably worth it.)
       Many of the poems are from the period when Scholem was very much in Benjamin's orbit, and are a neat complement to that period and their relationship -- friendly as well as intellectual -- and provides some insights into their mutual interests and preöccupations. So also poems are titled: 'With a Copy of Walter Benjamin's 'One-Way Street'' and 'With a Copy of Kafka's Trial'.
       There are also some fine verses on Scholem's own inner struggles -- "I'm not fighting for any 'cause,' / all I'm fighting for now is me" --, and/or reflections on the times. 'With a Copy of Walter Benjamin's 'One-Way Street'' nicely concludes:
In alten Zeiten führten alle Bahnen
an Gott und seinem Namen irgendwie.
Wir sind nicht fromm. Wir bleiben im Profanen,
Und wo einst "Gott" stand, steht Melancholie.

In days of old all roads somehow led
to God and his name.
We are not devout. Our domain is the profane
and where "God" once stood, Melancholy takes his place.
       An the obsessive kabbalist also gets his due:
I threw myself into ancient books.
I was awestruck by their signs.
I spent too much time alone with them.
       As Steven Wasserstrom notes in his Introduction, Scholem's: "poems are both stylistically and substantially old-fashioned". As such, however, they are decent -- and Scholem has good fun with some of them, and manages honest emotion in others. If on the margins of his work, these poems nevertheless are a welcome addition to those edges, and certainly of interest, including biographically.
       Sieburth's translations are solid, though his indecisiveness regarding how faithful to be to Scholem's rhyme schemes can be frustrating. Scholem's rhymes impose an order, and Sieburth's looser take on them -- sometimes following them, sometimes changing up the rhyme schemes (so different lines rhyme), as well as the often forced not-quite-rhymes -- muddle that. That said, there are a few bright spots where Sieburth's embellishments definitely add to Scholem's verse.
       Wasserstrom's Introduction and Notes, as well as Sieburth's Afterword (the only addition to the volume from its previous incarnation, as The Fullness of Time (2003)) are informative and helpful, supplementary material that doesn't overwhelm the text(s) while providing additional information of interest.
       All in all a nice little volume -- and it is certainly good to see such a collection of Scholem's verses (and to have the German originals included with the translation ...).

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 February 2018

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Greetings From Angelus: Reviews: Gershom Scholem: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gershom Scholem lived 1897 to 1982.

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© 2018 the complete review

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