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 high school (I literally found it on a shelf; it certainly wasn’t assigned). 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. From “Waking at Night” (part of a collection I gathered to study how people spend their wakeful hours):
Bush and meadow, field and tree, stand in their self-sufficient silence. Each belonging wholly to itself. Each deep in its own dream.
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.
But he also projects, expands, and extends himself generously. From this inquieted soul comes surprisingly extroverted expression. American novelist Marilynne Robinson once wrote that loneliness creates a communion, a “truer bond among people than any kind of proximity.”
Hesse spoke to me from solitude, as he speaks to all. From his 1901 poem “Do You Know This Too?”:
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?
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.
The poetry of Marianne Moore (a contemporary of Hesse but continents apart) is a thoughtful collection read in tandem.
She projects a heroic effort to care, to pay attention, that could be a response to Hesse’s outstretched need. I wish they could have met.
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.
It also dances beautifully with the contemplative self-acceptance laid out in Kakuzo Okakura’s 1906 The Book of Tea. The great 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.