Bertolt Brecht, ‘To those born later’

For some reason I was thinking of a poem by Bertold Brecht (1898-1956), the great German playwright and poet of the 20’s to 50’s: “An die Nachgeborenen” (something like “To Those Born Later”). I found it on (wait for it) the internet, and decided to blog it in English (my rough translation, but I hope it’ll do).

The poem is more like a series of three connected poems, written in Denmark in 1939, having gone into exile to escape the fascist regime (and before he left the USA in the early 50’s, fed up with McCarthyism).

Brecht, a fierce Marxist poet and playwright, was once asked which book had influenced him most. He said: “You’ll laugh… it’s the Bible.” Not surprisingly, this poem strikes me like a psalm of lament.

~~~~~

Bertold Brecht

To Those Born Later

I

Truly, I live in dark times
Naive words are dangerous. A forehead without wrinkles
indicates lack of sensitivity. One who laughs
just hasn’t received
the dreadful news.

What are these time when
a chat about trees is almost a crime
because it incorporates silence about so many evil deeds!
Is the one who walks calmly along the road
out of reach now for his friends
who are in trouble?

It is true: I am just earning my living
But believe me: that’s just accidental. Nothing
of what I do entitles me to eat my fill.
I was saved by accident. (Once my luck runs out, I am lost.)

They tell me: you just eat and drink! Be glad of what you have!
But how can I eat and drink if
what I eat I take away from the those who hunger, and
My glass of water is what’s lacking for the one who is dying of thirst?
And still I eat and drink.

I would like to be wise, too.
The old books say what’s wise:
To keep away from the struggles of the world and to spend the short time
without fear
Also, to live without violence
repay evil with good
not to fulfill your longings, but to forget
is what is said to be wise.
All that I cannot do.
Truly, I live in dark times!

II

To the cities I came at the time of chaos
when there was hunger.
Among the people I came at the time of rebellion
and I rebelled with them.
Thus passed the time
that was given to me on earth.

I ate my food between battles
I slept among murderers
I loved heedlessly
And I watched nature without patience
Thus passed my time
that was given to me on earth.

The roads lead to the morass of my times
Language betrayed me to the butcher.
I was able to do so little. But the rulers
would sit more safely without me, that I hoped.
Thus passed my time
that was given to me on earth.

Strength was limited. The goal
was far away
It was clearly visible, even though for me
virtually unreachable.
Thus passed my time
that was given to me on earth.

III

You who will emerge on the surface of the floodwater
in which we drowned
remember also
when you speak of our weaknesses
the dark times
whom you escaped.

Walking as we were, changing countries more often than our shoes,
through the wars of classes, desparate
where there was only injustice and no rebellion.

Yet we know:
Hatred of baseness too
contorts our features.
Anger about injustice too
makes the voice hoarse. O we
who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
were ourselves unable to be friendly.

But you, when the time comes
when a human being is a helper to human beings
commemorate us leniently.

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