The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht

Michael Wood writes:

Your spectator is sitting not only\ In your theatre, but also\ In the world.

‘I live in dark times,’ Brecht said, but he liked to believe the darkness would end. In the poem containing those words, written in the 1930s, he apologises to ‘those born after’, saying that

Hatred, even of meanness\ Makes you ugly.\ Anger, even at injustice\ Makes your voice hoarse. Oh, we\ Who wanted to prepare the land for friendliness\ Could not ourselves be friendly

‘Could not be friendly’ is a discreet but painful understatement, a too amiable hint at horrors. Dark times mean not only that terrible things happen to the world and to us but also that we have had a hand in the terrible things. In a remarkable late poem Brecht imagines a loved landscape has changed, suddenly let him down. But it hasn’t changed. He has remembered where he is in moral time.

The white poplar, a famous local beauty\ Today an old hag. The lake\ A bowl of slops, don’t touch it!\ The fuchsias among the snapdragon cheap and showy.\ Why?\ Last night in a dream I saw fingers pointing at me\ As though at a leper. They were worn by work and\ They were broken.\ There are things you don’t know! I cried.\ Knowing I was guilty

We don’t have to apologise for our times. We can gloat over their darkness, become the pointing fingers. This, I take it, is the implication of a much earlier epigram:

In the dark times\ Will there be singing?\ There will be singing.\ Of the dark times.

Or there could be silence. Brecht covers this ground too.

They will not say: when the nut tree shook in the wind\ But rather: it was when the housepainter trampled the workers.\ They will not say: when the child skimmed the flat pebble over the rapids\ But rather: when the ground was being prepared for great wars.\ They will not say: when the woman walked into the room\ But rather: when the great powers united against the workers.\ But they will not say: the times were dark\ But rather: why were their poets silent?

There is something clunky and too correct about the party line here – the house painter was far more ecumenical in his trampling – but the prophecy of the final question is eloquent and looks forward to the title of a Heinrich Böll novel: Where were you, Adam? Where were we when the unfriendliness got out of control?

(LRB 21 March 2019)