Ingeborg Bachmann was an Austrian poet and philosopher, born in 1926. Her first book of poetry was published after World War II, and was heavily influenced by the events of the war, including the annexation of her native Austria by Nazi Germany. Bachmann eventually left Germany, living in Rome until she died in 1973.
Bachmann's poem titled “Early Noon,” is softer and less immediate than some of the other works published in the aftermath of war, though still carries a weighty message. Bachmann stayed in Austria throughout the war, and the poem betrays a deep sadness about what has happened to her beloved country.
“Softly,” begins the poem, “the linden grows green in the opening summer.” The setting is indeed gentle, a time of growing, early summer. “Far from cities the dull gleaming moon/ of day flickers.” We are in the countryside, the in-between time when night slowly loses it’s hold and day creeps in.
“Already it is noon:/ already the rays of light stir in the fountain.” The day has snuck in almost unbeknownst. As the moon is flickering in and out of the picture, there is the sense that one could have blinked and missed the transformation, yet at the same time it has been slowly creeping in all around, slow as the growing of the greening linden.
The country has begun to heal itself, slowly and softly, almost escaping notice until the visible signs cannot be ignored. There is a sense of letting go of animosity “the hand, deformed from throwing stones,/ sinks into awakening corn,” as hatred that has deformed its people releases its tenuous hold, a renewed sustenance of both body and spirit is being cultivated. This is the longest stanza of the poem, comprising eight lines, also it has a rhythm of rising and falling, it “grows,” “flickers,” “stirs,” “lifts,” “sinks.”
Except from "Early Noon"
...Already it is noon:
already the rays of light stir in the fountain,
already the battered wing of the fairytale bird
lifts itself from broken glass,
and the hand, deformed from throwing stones,
sinks into awakening corn....
The second stanza speaks of apology, and asks for forgiveness. “Germany’s sky blackens the earth,/ its beheaded angel seeks a grave for its hate.” Germany is seeking to make amends, to bury hatred, “and hands you the bowl of its heart.” The bowl is a vessel like the fountain, it remains to be seen what will fill it, if like the fountain, “rays of light” will stir within, if there can be renewed hope after the apology, or if the apology even has substance, and is not also empty.
There are also only three lines here, the odd number leaving the apology unfinished, it remains to be seen. The next line hangs alone, providing a bit of answer, “A handful of pain is lost over the hill.” The pain has not subsided, but is now hidden, lost out of sight.
Time Heals all Wounds?
The single line provides a dividing line for the second portion of the poem to begin. Here is a jump to seven years in the future. Again the narrator stands by the same fountain, but cautions against looking too deep into it, “for your eyes will swell with tears.”
The passage of time has not erased the pain, and the basin of the fountain now reflects the bowl of Germany’s heart. We now know what fills it, the stuff of grief.
The next stanza speaks to the new political climate, expressing a deep dissatisfaction. “In a house of death,/ yesterday’s hangmen drink/ the goblet dry.” Former war criminals have been pardoned and placed again within positions of power (Lennox), again the eyes must be averted from this sight.
More "Early Noon"
...Take off hope's chains, lead her down
the slope, put your
hand over her eyes--
let no shadow scorch her!
Where Germany's earth blackens the sky,
a cloud looks for words and fills the crater with silence,
before summer hears it call through the thin rain...
Can There Be Hope?
Flash backward in time again, to “already-noon,” here we see the beginnings of a reconstructed nation, yet there is now a hardness to the words. “The flag/ is raised on a thorn,” that which should be a symbol of strength and reclamation is held up by sharpness with the potential of pain. Then, a single line again, “Only hope cowers blinded in the light.” Hope is what is missing in this new version of the future.
The final third of the poem deals with the idea of hope, or lack thereof. Hope becomes personified, and is scorched by the dark new day upon the land. “Let no shadow scorch her!” writes Bachmann. Hope also must have her eyes shielded, for she cannot exist if she sees her surroundings.
The poem dwindles here, four lines to three to a final couplet. In this last couplet we have a final reflection of the early noon of the first. Already it is noon, softly, gently. It has stolen over the land.
But what is revealed here in the end is that it is no joyous new day, full of the promise of rebirth, but rather “the unspeakable” that has crept over and all around. Bachmann’s poem, gentle and elegant as it may be, still echoes a sense of pervasive cultural pessimism.
Role of the Poet
“Early Noon” seeks to address the role of the poet. If Hope cannot bear to look, if the heart cannot bear to look, then who is to do so, and who is to tell of what they see? This is where, says Sara Lennox, the role of the poet comes in for Bachmann.
“Hope is sustained only through the power of the poet’s language to state the truth” (Lennox). Yet Bachmann’s poems were at the time regarded as expression of “timeless universal concerns,” rather than political or representative of the post-war climate, (Lennox) leading the modern reader to consider whether Bachmann in essence failed to articulate “the truth.”
Another interpretation could be that Bachmann’s lines speaking of not looking “too deep,” of covering the eyes, and “eyes sinking to the floor” are actually describing the refusal of her readers to see her poetry as poetry of witness. Bachmann stopped writing poetry a decade after this was published as a political statement (Forche) a possible answer to the conundrum that her poetry of witness fell on deaf ears. How does one bear witness if the world turns a blind eye?
A Poetry of Witness
Yet Bachmann does write a poetry of witness. Despite the “soft” tone of the poem, some of the stanzas maintain harsh assertions regarding politics and nationalism. Again, we are faced with the difficult prospects of both remembering and forgetting the events of war.
Time is sharply fragmented into two separate spaces, early morning and seven years later. There is no in between, yet the poem vacillates between the two. Time also becomes altered as it both creeps and yet occurs suddenly.
The relevance of apology becomes questioned, as does the necessity of “seeing,” or bearing witness. Are words more powerful than silence, asks Bachmann, and can there be hope, and truth within them?
Bachmann, Ingeborg. “Early Noon.” Trans. Mark Anderson. Forche 343-44. Print.
Forche, Carolyn, ed. Against Forgetting. Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.
Lennox, Sara. “Ingeborg Bachmann.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 18 September 2004. Web.
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