Forget Goethe, read Ruckert

One of Germany′s greatest poets died 150 years ago – and today, hardly anyone is familiar with him. But all those years ago, Friedrich Ruckert knew how to integrate refugees successfully. By Christoph Meyer

Essay by Christoph Meyer

Arabic, Persian, Old Ethiopian: Friedrich Ruckert apparently mastered 44 languages and 25 writing systems. He is said to have required about six weeks to learn a new language. His translation of the Koran into German is the only one that is actually readable. Ruckert was a linguistic genius and a poet who, so his fans say, could compete with Goethe. Despite this, he is now all but forgotten.

And this is unfair, given that the man from Franconia, who died on 31 January 1866, had a vision that Germany is desperately in need of, now more than ever: he wanted people of all cultures and religions to learn to get along. His idea was that when people read the poetry of other nations, they gain access to their attitude to life. The foreign culture becomes a part of them.

Each new language learned sets free

A fettered spirit from within me,

To build a bridge from thought to thought

And unlock the world-sense we forgot

He was very aware that not everyone possessed his gift for languages. He therefore worked like a Trojan to translate great works from other cultures into German – in such a way that their poetic character was preserved. This was where Ruckert the poet came into play.

The Koran: more than just a translation

He was not only able to understand the source language intuitively; he also managed to find exact correspondences in his mother tongue. One of the best examples of this is the 112th sura of the Koran. For Muslims, the inimitable style of the Koran is proof that Muhammad really was sent by God. Germans who want to understand that, but don′t speak Arabic, have only one choice: read Ruckert. Where a widely-used English translation of this sura has:

He is Allah, [who is] One

 Allah, the Eternal Refuge,

 He neither begets nor is born

 Nor is there to Him any equivalent

Ruckert uses rhyme:

Gott ist einer

 Ein ewig reiner,

 Hat nicht gezeugt und ihn gezeugt hat keiner,

 Und nicht

ihm gleich ist einer.

The Koran – a multitude of interpretations
Ruckert′s translation of the Koran, published in 1834, was a poetic masterpiece of Sturm und Drang. He focused on the ″lyrical appeal ″ of the Islamic revelation. As the Viennese Orientalist Josef von Hammer-Purgstall wrote in 1811: ″The unique charm of Arabic poetry lies not only in its image and flow but also, and principally, in the consonance of its rhyme – to Arab ears, truly, the song of sirens″

But Ruckert also chooses poetry because it is the oldest form of literature. As the historian Rudolf Kreutner, who is working on Ruckert′s literary estate in Schweinfurt, explains, „Everything passed down before the age of writing was lyrical, because that just made it easier to remember things." Ruckert was convinced that there must be an original myth. A story going back to the early days of mankind, which must be familiar to all people. Global poetry as global reconciliation.

Ruckert didn′t want to be the centre of attention

But it is Goethe, not Ruckert, whom we quote when we need a German advocate for international understanding. Despite the fact that in his "West-Eastern Divan", the Germans′ favourite poet was only able to recreate Oriental poetry based on other people′s translations. The vain man of letters also sold poems by his lover Marianne von Willemer under his own name. Today, he would probably have a debate on his hands and a "Goethe plagiarism wiki" on the Internet.

Friedrich Ruckert, by contrast, did not enjoy being the centre of attention. The 6′ 6" man liked to spend the whole day in his dressing gown. When he appeared at the ceremony for the Prussian "Pour le Merite" order in 1843, he was the only one without a medal of pure gold round his neck, despite having received it just the previous year. When Alexander von Humboldt spoke to him about it, he is said to have replied that his wife had used the precious ribbon to tie her bonnet.

Ruckert came far closer than Goethe to the essence of Oriental poetry and yet maintained a more critical distance from Islam. He took no part in romanticised Orientalism. "Ruckert was well aware that he had grown up and been socialised in Protestant Germany," says the historian Rudolf Kreutner. The poet was open to the foreign culture, but he knew where he stood.

What would Ruckert say today if we asked him how to manage the integration of refugees? Kreutner is certain that "he would demand that each of the two sides engage intensively with the poetry of the other."

But even if hordes of people are not turning to poetry in the face of the refugee crisis, the core of Ruckert′s demand is an imperative to be heeded in all our efforts towards integration. Genuine mutual understanding requires both sides to engage intensively with the culture that is foreign to them, without renouncing their own identity in the process.

Christoph Meyer

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

6000 unpublished poems from Friedrich Ruckert′s later work are still slumbering in his literary estate. Some address topics as current as poisoning by industrially produced food.