‘Nietzsche begins, as many young poets do, with himself, albeit a rather glorified notion of selfhood…’
If you’ve read Thus Spoke Zarathustra or some of Nietzsche’s more aphoristic works, you’ve probably noticed that he had a particular fondness for poetic formulations and lyrical prose. What you might not know, however, is that Nietzsche wrote almost three hundred poems and aphorisms, which are collected here in their entirety for the first time in German and English (and nicely laid out on opposite pages, so you can check the translation if you are willing – or able). From the tender age of fourteen until just before his mental collapse in 1889, Nietzsche wrote poems about, well, rather Nietzschean things: paths, God, animals, sickness, classical themes, mountains, with a bit of misogyny thrown in for good measure (“Lovelier is a woman,/More interesting – is the man!”). While the poems may not be altogether surprising in either their style or content to those familiar with his oeuvre, this collection adds an intriguing dimension, a rather attractive companion-guide if you like, to Nietzsche’s better-known writings on aesthetics and language. (Perhaps the less said about Nietzsche’s attempts to compose music, however, the better. Even Nietzsche’s friend, Hans von Bülow, described his works as an “aberration in the realm of composition”).
Nietzsche begins, as many young poets do, with himself, albeit a rather glorified notion of selfhood: “I stand naked on a cliff/And the fabric of night clothes me/I gaze down from this naked height/Upon blooming meadows./I see an eagle float/And with youthful zest/Strive into golden streams/rising in the eternal glow” (“I stand naked on a cliff”). Nietzsche’s favourite animal, and the one that recurs most in these poems is the eagle – which reminds us of the birds of prey who feel little compunction in eating the delicious lambs in his later On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). Even in the early works, there are nevertheless moments of precocious philosophical thinking on display here and there: “How lovely to embrace/the world in universal pressure./And then to write a/New note about the universe” (“The sweet dreams flee”).