Hermann Hesse

The Seasons of the Soul

“The excessive emphasis on the fast-paced instant way of life is undoubtedly the most dangerous enemy of joy.”

The exquisite The Seasons of the Soul is a carefully selected anthology of Hermann Hesse’s (1877 – 1962) poetry translated into English and illuminatingly introduced by Ludwig Max Fischer, professor of German and comparative mythology.

The soul, love, inspiration, the mysteries of nature, the unknowable divine, time and the stages of life are the major agents in Hesse’s world and are as relevant today as when he distilled them from his life experience. As an active witness in turbulent times, Hesse retained individual integrity while acting with social consciousness toward the pressing issues of society.

Few authors resonate with me as greatly as Hesse has. I found Steppenwolf in our high school library. I carried it everywhere.

It felt achingly familiar: a rupture of self, restless anger, and loathing and a need for shameful solitude. One after another, his novels spoke to me deeply in low, urgent tones of things no one else mentioned.

To read Hesse’s poetry—his most clear expression of being—is to feel his hope, his desire for peaceful surrender to words, time, and certainly nature. He is astoundingly present in his words.

Bush and meadow, field and tree,
stand in their self-sufficient silence.
Each belonging wholly to itself.
Each deep in its own dream.

Clouds float by and stars stream light
as if appointed as higher sentinels
and the mountain with its steep ridges
towers above, dark, tall, and distant.

from “Walking at Night”1

Rainer Maria Rilke, born three years before Hesse, urged us to seek life’s answers within. Hesse similarly tilts his gaze inward and shuffles his demons.

Portrait of Hermann Hesse by Ernst Wurtenberger, 1905. Featured in Hesse's "Seasons of the Soul" in the Examined Life Library..
Hermann Hesse, 1905, by Ernst Würtenberger.

Perhaps he is so present, almost as if he whispers to us, because he projects, expands, and extends himself generously through every word. “Only I am alone with anguish and grief” the poem continues. From this inquietude comes surprisingly extroverted communion, more than express his own sorrows, Hesse tries to reach ours. American novelist Marilynne Robinson once wrote that loneliness creates a communion, a “truer bond among people than any kind of proximity.”

Hesse’s writing certainly spoke to me from solitude.

Do you know this too?
You are in the middle of a cheerful party,
When a sudden stillness takes hold of you,
And you hastily have to leave the happy hall.

Back in your bed you lay awake
like someone suffering from a sudden heartache.
The fun and laughter disappear like smoke
And you break into tears: do you know this too?

from “Do You Know This Too?”

Hesse is masculine but vulnerable, solitary but feminine. His idea of love is to be consumed. “I wish I were a flower,” he writes of love, “And [you] picked me as your own and held me captive in your hand.” There is much here for the soul, the mind, and the beautiful, hidden self.

When the days turn gray
and the world looks cold and unkind,
your tentative, tender, timid trust
is then thrust back on itself.

When there is no further way forward
and your old life has lost its luster
your faith will find new paths
to new heavens never dreamt of.

What was foreign and hostile to you,
you will find nested in your inmost center.
You give your destiny another name,
throw your arms around it.

Whatever seemed to beat you down,
now shows its friendship freely, provides inspiration,
serves as a guide, as a messenger,
to call you always toward greater heights.

from “Fateful Days”

The poetry of Marianne Moore (a contemporary of Hesse but continents apart) is a thoughtful collection to read in tandem. She projects a heroic effort to care, to pay attention, that could be a response to Hesse’s outstretched need.

Companion Hesse’s vital verse with 2,000-year-old essays on the interconnectedness of all things from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius or with Emerson’s Transcendental philosophy that nature unites and uplifts us.

Jungfrau mountain range, Swiss Alps. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Hesse’s poetry also dances beautifully with the contemplative self-acceptance laid out in Kakuzo Okakura’s 1906 The Book of Tea. The Japanese scholar writes: “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.” Oftentimes, I think Hesse had no other purpose.

Hermann Hesse © The Examined Life