Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Prison Poems”
And he was a poet.
A few weeks after the end of World War II in Europe, a then 33-year-old Baptist minister named Edwin Robinson in London attended a local memorial service for a German minister he had never met or even heard of. The minister was Bonhoeffer, and what Robinson heard began a lifelong interest in Bonheoffer’s life and faith. Robinson published a number of books, biographies, translations and articles on Bonhoeffer, and in 1998 translated and published Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prison Poems, originally entitled after one of the poems in the small collection, Voices in the Night.
Only 10 poems comprise the collection. And they present a different if complementary picture of the man who was hero to many and a martyr to his faith, and who opposed what was certainly the greatest worldly evil of his time.
In these 10 poems, Bonhoeffer describes his fears, his loneliness, the heart ache and heart sickness of life in prison. And in these poems he clings to his faith and to God, even when he questions and debates and weeps. From “Voices in the Night:”
Stretched out upon my prison bed,
I stare at the empty wall.
Outside, a summer evening,
regardless of me,
goes singing into the country.
Softy ebbs the tide of the day
on the eternal shore…
In the stillness of the night,
Only footsteps and shouts of the guards,
A loving couple in the distance, stifled laughter.
Can you hear nothing else, you sluggish sleeper?
I hear my own soul totter and tremble…
Separation, loneliness, realizing that life continues outside the prison wall and the isolation of that realization, these are what occupy his mind in this poem and others.
In “Who Am I,” he contrasts how his guards describe him – composed, contented, confident, unconcerned and proud – with what he’s experiencing within – troubled, homesick, “Like a bird in a cage, / gasping for breath, as though one strangled me…” The attitudes of the guards serve as a further isolating influence, as if life in a cell and a prison wasn’t already isolating enough.
In “The Friend,” Bonhoeffer writes an intimately beautiful birthday poem to one of this closest friend, concluding with these lines:
At half past one, the silence ended at last,
I heard the siren’s cry, all danger past.
In that I have seen a kindly omen thereby,
that all danger will surely pass you by.
His generous heart, even confined with a prison, reaches out, speaking of the beauty of a friendship with someone he knows he will not likely see again.
These are all quiet poems, poems of meditation and thinking, poems of sadness and fear and yet also poems of faith, including the last one in the collection, “By Kindly Powers Surrounding:”
And shouldst thou offer us the bitter cup, resembling
sorrow, filled to the brim and overflowing,
we will receive it thankfully, without trembling,
from thy hand, so good and ever-loving.
This is the very human Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commending his spirit into the hands of God. This, and these other poems, teach us the simple humanity of faith.