Voices In The Night: The Prison Poems Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited and translated by Edwin Robertson
As someone who is a fan of the writings and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man quite a bit like myself in some alarming ways , I found this book to be quite a revelation. For one, it should be noted that this book is a bit short, about 120 quarto pages, and its contents are not very lengthy. This is a great book, though, in the way that it reflects how a brave man coped with a long period of time in prison in a period of increasing hopelessness about his own survival. The works are devotional, frequently reference stories in the Bible, and are immensely revelatory in terms of the state of mind of Bonhoeffer during his time in prison, as well as his skill as a poet. Coming from someone who reads far more than my share of bad religious poetry , this is solid religious poetry, even if the author himself sometimes wrestles with the write rhyme and meter and has somewhat irregular meanings, and even if this is reading poetry in translation, which is by no means a straightforward and obvious task.
The contents of this book are well-organized and the editor has done an excellent job translating this material and presenting it in a thoughtful fashion that does honor to the author’s intents and situation. There are only a few poems included–apparently Bonhoeffer was not a prolific poem but he was clearly a skilled one. The poems are included in chronological order of writing, and have the following English titles: Loss, Success And Failure, Who Am I?, Christians And Others, Voices In The Night, Stages On The Way To Freedom, The Friend, The Death Of Moses, The Sacrifice Of Jonah, and By Kindly Powers Surrounded. The last of these poems has been turned into a hymn in more recent decades but it was not originally meant that way. The poems all include their title in German and English, as well as a commentary by the editor, and some notes on how the poem was difficult to translate because of the lengths of lines or the rhyme scheme used by Bonhoeffer or his irregular meter. Clearly, these are not poems being written in leisure, but were rather the result of intense suffering and reflection, and they show it.
This book is clearly a worthwhile one to read, and it presents a side of Bonhoeffer that many people are unaware of, namely his side as a reflective poet. Prison and isolation certainly would likely sharpen whatever introspective and moody tendencies someone had, and if prison is a rare experience for most people, certainly the prison of loneliness and isolation is far more familiar. Most of these poems were written to friends, but some of them were also directed to Bonhoeffer’s young fiancé, and some of them were even prompted by his own concerns about his relationship with her and her well-being. He seemed to doubt that she would understand the many layers of his complex writings, and these poems are certainly deep and evocative, but one thinks that she understood him quite well and loved him anyway. We should all be so fortunate in that regard, even if the poems dwell somewhat morbidly on death and failure and loss, and the impending reality of judgment. A man in his place can be expected to think as Bonhoeffer did, but few would be so eloquent in their searching self-examinations as he was, and that makes for a worthwhile if unusual collection of fine poetry, one of which has even been turned into a hymn by contemporary Lutherans.
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