Dr Nicola Thomas is Lecturer in German at the University of Bristol. Here, she talks about stumbling across a lesser-known landmark in Black German history.
I’ve just started a new job at the University of Bristol, and I was asked to update the first-year poetry reader over the summer. Over the years, colleagues at Bristol (past and present) have worked hard to introduce marginalised voices to the curriculum, via their research interests in nineteenth-century women’s revolutionary writing, working class poetry and women writers of the Baroque period. I knew that my new colleagues would share my firm view that the first-year curriculum should cultivate an awareness of how power and politics shape language, literature and culture across the ages.
While researching my revised reader, I stumbled across a reference in an article by William Abraham to a poem by the pioneering Black German philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo. Abraham mentions “a poem in German, in pure iambic meter, written by Amo and attached to a dissertation by Moses Abraham Wolff presented in 1737 [at the University of Halle]”. A quick round of further Googling revealed that although the library, archive and website of Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg makes no mention whatsoever of its connection with Amo, a copy of Wolff’s dissertation – a medical treatise – is accessible online via the Wellcome Collection in the UK.
There, at the end of this dusty PDF, I found a facsimile of what is probably the first poem ever written in German by a Black person, composed by Amo in 1737 to congratulate his student on the successful defence of his dissertation:
Dein aufgeweckter Geist im klugen meditiren,
Und unermüdter Fleiß im gründlichen Studiren,
Hoch Edler, macht daß Du in der Gelehrten Orden
Ein Stern, ein Heller Stern, der ersten Größe worden,
Der immer heller wird in neuer Ehren-Schein.
So einen großen Lohn giebt Weißheit ihren Söhnen.
Genung. Vom Himmel muß die Lust die ungemeyn
Dich und die Deinigen in Lauter Segen kröhnen!
I was delighted to find a poem by a German writer of colour from before the twentieth century: from centuries before May Ayim, Audre Lorde and Philipp Khabo Koepsell; before Zehra Çirak, Zafer Şenocak and Yoko Tawada. Amo was a man of African origin who had been assimilated into the mainstream of German Enlightenment culture, and this is the only surviving text in German by him that we know of. It is a poem of congratulation and patronage to mark his student’s achievement and passage into intellectual maturity. The poem praises Wolf’s brilliance and hard work, comparing his ascent to new intellectual heights with the arrival of a new star in the firmament, with honour and esteem presented as the fruits of wisdom – before ceding the stage to the addressee via the word ‘Genung’ (‘Genug’ in modern German) and offering an unequivocal blessing.
Through the poem, Amo performs not only his patronage of (Jewish) student, but also his mastery of German poetic form via the use of alexandrines (iambic hexameter). The use of alexandrines links Amo’s poem with a long tradition of versification in Europe, and with the conventions, established some hundred years earlier by Martin Opitz, for the use of this prestigious French form in the German language. The poem also adheres to contemporary conventions of rhetoric, combining formal apostrophe with a slightly contrived extended metaphor. Specialists in the Frühaufklärung debate about the secularisation of the universities, in which Amo was an active player, would undoubtedly be able to prise further subtexts from the religious circumlocutions of the final couplet, not to mention the link between Geist, the stars and celestial wisdom.
Upon reading this poem, two things struck me: first, that it was remarkable that this text, undoubtedly a landmark in German literary history, was so difficult to find and so little known. To my knowledge, it has never been anthologised or taught in a university in the UK or Germany.
Secondly, and not unrelatedly, it is not a ground-breaking or exceptional poem. Let’s be clear: it’s by no means the worst piece of occasional verse written in the eighteenth century – but how well would it stand up to scrutiny in a first-year reader alongside the ‘greatest hits’ of German verse? How would I teach it to a class of sceptical first years?
This question goes to the heart of many of the issues we worry about when it comes to teaching texts which are not, to use David Damrosch’s term, part of the ‘hypercanon’. If a text belongs to the hypercanon, its aesthetic merits are taken for granted. Texts from beyond the hypercanon are required to earn their place on the curriculum by being ‘good enough’ to be read alongside Goethe and Schiller. Not only does this presuppose (quite falsely!) that the hypercanon is formed exclusively of works whose objective artistic brilliance is beyond reproach, but it also leaves no room for experiments, literary oddities, or works of broader cultural importance – in other words, for those texts which are interesting without being beautiful.
As a poetry specialist, I care deeply about the beauty of poetry and am not shy about discussing it: I want to communicate the pleasure I get from poetic language to my students so that they can share it. But judging Amo’s text against a vague standard of poetic value – the idea that poetry is only interesting if it produces giddy transports of aesthetic pleasure in a certain kind of reader – seems totally unproductive. After all, I also care deeply about how poetic language can destabilise mainstream ideas of value, expanding the horizons of what it is possible to do with and through words.
If I were teaching this poem to a class of first years, I’d want to use the text to practice their skills in metrical analysis. We’d perform a formal scansion task together, and then discuss what it means for someone with Amo’s outsider/insider status to write in alexandrines, comparing Amo’s use of the form to other near-contemporaneous examples of German poetry. What makes for good, or bad, use of the form? Is it about sticking to the rules, or having permission to break them? Who has that permission, and why? What, for example, would students make of Amo’s rather contrived syntax across lines 6-7: a deliberate, virtuoso manipulation of sentence length for rhythmic effect, or an attempt to force the metre which falls somewhat flat? All of these, of course, are ways of talking about the poem’s force and significance: its wider ‘meaning’ as a text which – merely by existing – reveals that poetic form is shaped by, and is a way of shaping, history and culture. Amo’s poem, it seems to me, is a singular and fascinating example of how language can expand the horizons of the possible; and, as such, it clearly belongs on a first-year poetry course.