if only i were a whale (charlotte stieglitz)

i hardly ever read in german these days, but i just picked up a nice, pale linden green volume titled charlotte stieglitz – gedichte und briefe (edited by franz josef görtz) – poems and letters by charlotte stieglitz. i must have found the book when we were helping my grandmother move out of her house and into an apartment, because i am sure i did not buy it. so it has been sitting patiently in one of the cardboard boxes that constitute my bookshelves, waiting for its day to come.

a portrait of charlotte
from an article in die gartenlaube, (germany’s TLS of the 1800s)
(image found at wikimedia commons )

i confess that charlotte was a complete stranger to me, so after reading the handful of poems and before reading the letters, i did some looking up. charlotte stieglitz was born in 1806 in hamburg. at age 22 she married the unsuccessful, possibly manic-depressive poet heinrich stieglitz. 

on december 29, 1834 she sent her husband to spend the evening at a concert, washed herself, put on a clean white night dress, wrote a letter, went to bed and stabbed herself with a dagger she had bought as a bride (some accounts say it was her wedding gift to her husband, which would add yet another symbolic layer to her act). in her letter she explains her conviction that the sorrow and suffering caused by her death would make him a better poet. the irony here is that her husband became known because of her suicide, but she ultimately received more public attention (and does to this day). the woman who passionately cast herself as the poet’s muse instead became more of a poet in everyone’s eyes than he ever did. 

here is one of her poems, first in the original (german) and then in translation (by yours truly) just to give you an idea of what it’s like – and here again we have irony because i don’t really believe that poetry can be translated effectively – layers and dimensions are lost and new ones are added and interpretation must take place in any translation – but i am just doing it for the sake of sharing and giving you a rough idea. so bear with me. 🙂

Ein andrer Liebhaber

zum Hackebrett


Wär’ ich doch ein großer Walfisch,

O Du meines Lebens Lust,

Jeden Tag ‘nen Wasserschwall frisch

Brächt’ ich, Kühlung Deiner Brust.


Wär ich nur ‘ne kleine Katze,

O Du Herzens-Sonnenschein,

Strecktest Du nach mir die Tatze,

Blinzt’ ich mit den Äugelein.


Ja, zugleich wär’ Bär und Basse,

Katz und Maus ich, Seel’ und Leib,

Wünschtest Du mich so zum Spasse,

So zum süssen Zeitvertreib.

here my translation – note that the original has a consistent abab cdcd efef rhyme scheme, which does not work in translation. also note that the apostrophes in the original in several places make the line sound more colloquial than in my translation attempt. in some cases they are just there to get the rhythm of the line right though. 😀 again, this does not make it into the translation. anyway, here goes:

another lover,  

to accompany the dulcimer*


if only i were a large whale

o you joy of my life

every day a fresh burst of water

i’d bring, to cool your bosom


if only i were a little cat

o you heart-sunshine

if you reached your paw toward me

i would blink my little eyes


yes, at the same time bear and boar

cat and mouse, i, soul and heart,

if this your desire was

to sweetly pass the time

the whale image got me. i think it’s great. charlotte was writing this with her tongue in her cheek, i bet. it certainly isn’t in keeping with the stuffy biedermeier mindset for a young woman to wish to be a whale. bear and boar are equally unfeminine, although the cutesy little kitten blinking its eyes at the beloved as the beloved reaches out towards it breaks that pattern. i think it is this inconsistency that got me interested. i am not quite sure yet what to make of charlotte. 

the six poems in this volume (the letters make up the bulk of the book) are full of pathos, wordless, patient, suffering love, almost morbid, a lust for life and death in equal measure. repeatedly, charlotte speaks directly to her poet, whose muse she tries so hard to be, she portrays herself as a child who everyone thinks is too young to know of love, but – as she says – is prematurely wise in these things. she has strong convictions about how relationships work, what her mission in life is, and how she can, if not must, support heinrich. 

the letters are much the same, the voice here is clearly the same as in the poems and many ideas show up again in more detail, with more explanation. i feel like i am eavesdropping, and i wonder how she feels about people reading her private correspondence. at the same time, it feels like a whole different world – in her letters, she uses the formal (Sie) to address her own sister, but uses the informal (Du) to address her brother and her beloved. 

it also got me thinking about how communicative (or potentially communicative) we are today. in her letters she asks, for example, her brother to send her greetings and best wishes to mutual friends when he next writes to them, but also explains that she will not ask him to greet certain other friends from her since she has not written to them in over two years and she would be ashamed to send her greetings before she has written herself. 

her letters, especially those to her beloved, are so immediate, so full of the present moment – she is speaking to him, she can hear herself telling him the things she is writing or see him read the words as she composes her letters of encouragement, caution and advice, and her many testimonies of her love for him. she writes him as if she was writing an email today, asks many questions and writes as if she expects an immediate response – just that her letters took at least one, two days (weather permitting) to reach the addressee, rather than two seconds. 

i have not finished this book yet, but will do before the year is out. with christmas craziness, i have not received a single actual christmas card (mind you, i did not send any myself this year, since i was all wrapped up in getting my grad school applications ready… think that might have something to do with it?!) or even much email the past few weeks, so reading someone else’s mail might be just the ticket. 

further reading (these are kind of a note to self… i stumbled across them and they look interesting): 

  • over her dead body – death, femininity and the aesthetic, by e. bronfen. (book)
  • respectability and deviance – nineteenth century german women writers and the ambiguity of representation, by ruth-ellen boetcher joeres. (book)

* in the 19th century, after enjoying some popularity in the 18th, the hackebrett / hammered dulcimer was mainly played in homes and pubs rather than for higher audiences / in concert, as far as i understand it.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. Pingback: letters to a young poet (rilke) | Outside of a Cat

  2. Pingback: Of the Amours of Bosvil and Galesia (Barker) | Outside of a Cat

  3. Pingback: reading other people’s mail (stieglitz) | Outside of a Cat

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