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Jean Gebser’s Winter Poem


ALTHOUGH JEAN GEBSER would consecrate his life’s work to the ‘phenomenology of awakening’ (Bewußtwerdungsphänomenologie), he was first and foremost a poet. His first works were works of poetry. He translated works of poetry. His first study focused on the renowned Bohemian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. It is thus no surprise that his perceptions of the process of consciousness mutation came about first and foremost through reflections on the shifts in the structure of poetic language, first perceived in his own time directly through his engagement with contemporary poets and poetry. Such reflections sparked a study on the significance of Rilke’s work (Rilke and Spain) and the philosophy of language (The Grammatical Mirror). That all of this was not a mere phase of his youth, but a consistent current in his life, is attested to by the fact that the period leading up to the publication of The Ever-Present Origin was marked by a series of his most mature and revealing poems: The Ariadne Poem (Das Ariadnegedicht), The Winter Poem (Das Wintergedicht), The Poem of the Dead (Das Totengedicht), The Rose Poem (Das Rosengedicht) and The Island Poem (Das Inselgedicht).

Among these works, the one which stands out for singular attention is undoubtedly the Winter Poem (Wintergedicht, 1944). As Rudolf Hämmerli—the German editor of Gebser's collected works— notes: ‘The Winter Poem, which he set down on 14 November 1944 in three-quarters of an hour without making a single correction, was for him the poetic expression [Fassung] of The Ever-Present Origin’. ‘Poetic language’ he adds, ‘works through all of Gebser’s philosophical writings and is the guarantee by which the reader can concretely experience what is not able to be fixed or grasped conceptually’.

What follows is a draft translation of the Winter Poem, which I made on the occasion of the 47th International Jean Gebser Society Conference (New York, 2017). A fully revised version of the translated text is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming edition of Gebser’s selected poems, to be published by Rubedo Press. Please join the Rubedo Press mailing list for updates about our forthcoming Gebser translations.

Aaron Cheak, PhD

The Winter Poem (1944)

By Jean Gebser

Translated by Aaron Cheak



Now at last the first snow falls
like a blanket upon dim powers.
Keep the fire alive now
and do not disturb the sleep
of roots and seeds.
Let nature, who loves to hide, who conceals herself
and who left you behind,
let her pass, and go even further from her:
out beyond the clarities,
out beyond the pure, invisible air:
What was once water, the fathomless dwelling of all dark voices,
And found peace:
A twofold sleep now lies in all things,
where [before] there was merely dreamsleep,
and once the year renews, the pale moons
no longer find a response from the ponds
upon which they shone.—

White winds and white woods,
white sky and white mountain,
even the white houses, which under their white rooves,
almost appear grey against so much white.
And then the sun.
A single white sun.

Soft shadows,
clearly define the contours
of bough, branch, and thicket:
No longer in abundance,
yet each one uniquely
this, that, or the other;
Exact outlines sketched with precision,
against a backdrop of sky and snow:
Like hairline cracks shooting through an old glass.

The weaving streets of transience,
are enmeshed with the dregs of toil.
And cool is the forewarning to life
concealed in the gentle traces,
which fades from the first abundant clarity,
with a mute cry
pathless in blind despair.   

So this is winter:
no longer facing the visible
revealing the invisible.
Now it is here, silent as hoarfrost
Looming, frozen and destitute,
over the snowladen lands
of dawn and evening.




Who speaks of the future?
Who qualifies it
to say:
‘It will be’?
Look without
and see within yourself:
It [already] is.
Moonlike, the voice waxed
in earthliness,
and every actual waking day
a piece of anguish
broke out of dark fate
broke out of heavy heritage
and one blind shard or another
broke forth and became knowing.
For knowing is no longer fate.
We were here:
How painfully beautiful that new year was,
how exuberantly full that summer,
how free from contradiction that one autumn.
What was, is;
and now it is entirely within you,
as long as you know what once was.
But who speaks of the past?
Only shadows fade;
the residues remain.
So release the mirror of the past,
Let the future go:
Visible things are inessential.
Winter insists,
Winter knows.
Winter is powerless,
yet unassailable.
But power and force never have a future,
a blind, black duration of assault,
which at the very worst can kill.
Winter however is bright,
it is white darkness.
So in spite of all darkness, awaken!
When else, if not in winter,
will you triumph?
The white slopes of the mountains
contain the reflection
of an invisible lustre,
of which they say:
‘Look, it will be!’
But winter says to you,
it is.




What is?
Only winter?
Its whiteness?
Perhaps a white wisdom?
How it hurts, in wintry days, that simple word:
And that other word, too:
For is there respite from colour in the twilight?
Is there respite from terrestrial visibility
in the snowfields of an evening sky?
in the snowfields of an evening earth?
What makes your heart falter
and want to say: evening-land?
So many questions, you see.
And yet:
With each question we only ask
after ourselves.




The answer is also winter.
(And each answer
is the redemption of the preceding word)—
Take it as a likeness, [a simile]
of that final light, which yesterday night
appeared upon the highest mountainside:
who wanted to distinguish:
was it the earth’s last lamp light?
Or was it the first star?
The shining winter sky
is close enough to touch;
and you too are this sky.
No reason to distinguish.
For all the stars flow through your veins.
No reason to hearken after
the echo of ancient myths,
for the angel nested long ago
deep in your heart, in its way
and brushed the hair from our brows:
for the dream of moon and earth has melted away,
since it knew heaven;
knew it once and for all.




What winter shows you,
is the reconciliation
of heaven and earth;
and the concurrent loss of recompense,
of what had only just been gained:
from the majority, and from the others.

But listen, too,
and hear this above all,
through a clear, pure air,
which for all invisibilities,
and all ineffabilities,
is sluggish
Hear the call
—Like no other—
which comes to you from beyond the sky,
which now, since winter carefully brought
the lunar,
the earthly,
and even what is beyond them
brought them carefully to rest—
hear the call, which
from beyond the starry firmament
knows itself, and knowing, turns to you:

It is the west’s, the evening land’s
white hour:
it is its final knowing, or wisdom.
For the earth, however
and for humanity
is it a first original foreshadowing.
And one day this
will be raised up
as a new standard.




This is no wonder.
Wonder is for the blind.
Nothing had ever been so sober,
So all wonder fell away, and it was wonderful:
like it is in the overlapping distances,
like it is in winter’s white expanses
for what is riper than that fruit
and does not need to bloom,
what imperishably,
prepares itself,
so that here and there,
faultlessly, without fathoming,
neither wound nor wonder,
it secludes itself:
strewing astonishment,
a seed without ground
without fruit,
without fear,
a solitary,
crystalline tone,
concealed in transparency,
the realm of the angel soars above,
completely noncommittal,
yet beyond indifference,
for from this vantage,
everything that happens here,
seems to the angels
equally valid; of no essential difference:
nothing follows anything else,
For all things: our concerns, our cries, our laughter,
have one single significance.
of fleeting duration,
and their silent accumulation
slowly tips the scales from the realm of the stars
into trans-stellar equilibrium: an equilibrium beyond the stars

And all this:
Moon-waning death
And earth-bearing life,
are but empty and brittle concepts
of appearance and being,
of becoming and passing
(for even the stars fade away):

Look, things and appearances
exist all at once,
rightly and correctly—

Is all this an illusion?
In any case it is an exchange
like everything.

What were once teardrops,
were transformed into crystals,
what was once laughter,
now resounded from the skies:
no wonder,
that the unified region
of life and death,
became real,
and in recognising this
—ah, what a singular fragrance,
what a severe tenderness—
in recognising this, it conferred
that distinct measure of quality,
the intimacy of love:
that voiceless voice
looming from the invisibilities,
that the white winter
renders perceptible
even beyond all visibility,
even beyond white day and white night,
even beyond known space,
and known time.




Everything is real to varying degrees.
And yet there is truth,
which is sometimes graspable
if it is perceivable.

And O how the words of children
carried upon the wind just now,
O how they resound for me;
And as I absorb them,
Only now do they speak to me:

‘I’m going home now’.

To the child, mother means peace
or bread and anguish:
a silent, unknown presence,
unthinkingly attached to the earth.

Yet that man there,
Who stands carefully at the edge of the street,
where he melts, apprehensively, into the gutter, and struggles,
on that street whose name is tonight, or perhaps, early tomorrow morning:
never again will he emerge from the night-constricted
springs of his heart:
a spiralling downfall
through the brain’s labyrinth
into one’s own nameless abyss.

And that old woman,
who timidly, through the destitution wrought by age,
holds the entire wealth of her heart
in her hardened hands,
hands which still pray—
and she calls that heaven,  
ah, and final salvation.
Hope and homecoming,
mourning a happily misunderstood bliss.

 So they all go home:

The owners, the owned,
and those who also want to own:
All bound
none free,
and all
in one way or another, lost
to life, or to death.

They all go through winter
and forget
the potential:
they forget
the winter’s clarity of their own hearts:
And they are distributed among ancestors
who vanish,
and there are so many,
so the harsh, clear air brings them
the brilliant premonition
of possible freedom,
but they pass it by unknowingly.

How closely to each foot
and to each hand,
how closely to every heart
does this threshold run,
the threshold which dissolves
everything on this side
and everything beyond:
where our bonding with the outermost heavens,
opens bright, hyperwakeful

In the realms of that child,
that man,
in the realms of that old woman
courage is required,
and it will even be a courage to say no.
(Later they will fetch the others,
perhaps after thousands of years).

In the complete bondedness
(if there can even be an ‘in’)
all that remains is the sacrifice of this two-fold courage:
the strict humility,
which endures,
where nothing else resists,
since everything has been cleared
from the scales.

Desire and deprivation,
do not exist,
yet are constantly present.

The dark realm of death and the soul:
the exquisite realm of waking life,
exquisite yet expensive,
for it costs everything
and so;
the bright realm of sky and sublimation,
is a necessary conquest,
operating above,
complement and fulfilment,
where nothing more responds
to recognition.

Spring, summer, and autumn too,
Felt, done, and known;
A picture, a flower, a star,
An innerness, an outerness, a togetherness;
Rest, movement, and realisation;
Sleep, dream, and waking:

All this is thoroughly present
and despite being intertwined at all times
is also completely differentiated
with every breath.

But above all that,
and beyond,
(you can also say: within all that,
it makes no difference):
[above all that, and within all that]
there is the realm-that-is-no-longer
the supra-wakeful realm.




But see too the poverty of knowing:
In order to testify to something inexpressible,
We even take the likeness [simile] from realms,
which are barely even contained by the unsayable:

At the most, language converges,
the word is multivalent, ambiguous, with double-meanings

Within sound, lies feeling
Within name, lies image
Within table, lies thingness
And in concepts, at last, lies comprehension.

But what rests behind all this?

Forget the magical flexibility
of all this flourishing, which blooms through

Do not project any of your words,
Nor your memories, which also fade,
For already, with each name
that we give to things
we take a part of their reality away from them.
And each name, each word,
is unfathomable.

But at the right time, in the good hour
language will correspond
with what is intended,
which is to say:

not with the word’s dark origin
which knowledge clarifies,
but in its compass, its vicinity:
in the shimmer,
which, because it still visibly vibrates around every word,
renders perceivable,
what this supra-wakeful wisdom knows.

beyond the fountains, rivers, and stars
the poet’s task
to face the entire contents [of word, language]
and accordingly
it is an honest, soundless state of no-longer-speaking.

So soundless is winter,
white time.
let the similitude that made you its sanctuary
the likeness that took refuge in you from the invisible image,
let it be gentle with you.
Hide your face.
Keep the poem secret.
The angel came.
And with it came also the realms beyond.

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