The modern biographers worry

This poem is by a modern American poet of German origin, Lisel Mueller. It is an interesting take on whether we can put historic people in a modern context, and whether historical research can match the power of the imagination.

Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann
The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

Lisel Mueller, “Romantics” from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1996 by Lisel Mueller. Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press.
Source: Alive Together: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1996)
From <;

It is an evocative poem which begins by speculating whether biographers or historians can really understand the passion of the relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann in the nineteenth century. The poem evokes the futility of biographers trying to figure out the true nature of the relationship between this famous couple – a futility compounded by their approach of putting it in modern terms, when the nineteenth century had a completely different sensibility. In fact, the biographers’ question cannot be answered – we cannot read the minds of the two lovers. The poet then outs forward an alternative imagined description of the couple’s love, in which their music acts as the inspiration. This imagined relationship is just as valid as the biographical speculation.

So the poem says we can reconcile the uncertainties of intellectual analysis through artistic interpretation and, in so doing, create more art. It’s a bit like the portrait painter who creates a view of the subject which takes on an independent existence with its own artistic validity, independently of the person who is the original subject.

I particularly like the description of nineteenth century love in the middle of the poem. Maybe it was so…
The Poetry Dude


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