Yeah, but your poetry, dude…
As a socialist with a somewhat inconsistent commitment to Marxist orthodoxy, I’m often asked to what degree I will defend old Karl, and there’s no easy answer. For example, I’m sympathetic to central planning, though I have my doubts for its real-world potential under our current technology. I wrestle with the labor theory of value, but also find myself unable to mount a suitable critique. But if you’re just asking if there’s anything about Marx I find completely indefensible, hey, I can assure you that his terrible schmaltzy love poetry keeps me safe from the sin of idolatry.
We are talking about some terrible, corny, super-earnest high school boy in love stuff here, and I’m not the only one that finds Marx’s deepest affections majorly cheesy. In Edmund Wilson’s landmark history of socialist thought To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, he has this to say of Marx’s mooning romantic overtures to his future wife.
In the summer of Karl’s eighteenth year, when he was home on his vacation from college, Jenny von Westphalen promised to marry him. She was four years older than Karl and was considered one of the belles of Trier, was much courted by the sons of officials and landlords and army officers; but she waited for Karl seven years. She was intelligent, had character, talked well; had been trained by a remarkable father. Karl Marx had conceived for her a devotion which lasted through his whole life. He wrote her bad romantic poetry from college.
If that sounds a little blunt, it should be noted that Marx himself acknowledge that his love poetry was mawkish. Here are some of my favorite lowlights from one of his many volumes dedicated to Jenny—this one actually called, The Book of Love:
Jenny! Teasingly you may inquire
Why my songs “To Jenny” I address,
When for you alone my pulse beats higher,
When my songs for you alone despair,
When you only can their heart inspire,
When your name each syllable must confess,
When you lend each note melodiousness,
When no breath would stray from the Goddess?
’Tis because so sweet the dear name sounds,
And its cadence says so much to me,
And so full, so sonorous it resounds,
Like to vibrant Spirits in the distance,
Like the gold-stringed Cithern’s harmony,
Like some wondrous, magical existence.
See! I could a thousand volumes fill,
Writing only “Jenny” in each line,
Still they would a world of thought conceal,
Deed eternal and unchanging Will,
Verses sweet that yearning gently still,
All the glow and all the Aether’s shine,
Anguished sorrow’s pain and joy divine,
All of Life and Knowledge that is mine.
I can read it in the stars up younder,
From the Zephyr it comes back to me,
From the being of the wild waves’ thunder.
Truly, I would write it down as a refrain,
For the coming centuries to see—
Yeah, you’ll notice a lot of his works use her name. It’s a bit like going through a middle schoolers notebook and reading the same name over and over in swirly cursive with little hearts. This one actually has the exact same title.
Words—lies, hollow shadows, nothing more,
Crowding Life from all sides round!
In you, dead and tired, must I outpour
Spirits that in me abound?
Yet Earth’s envious Gods have scanned before
Human fire with gaze profound;
And forever must the Earthling poor
Mate his bosom’s glow with sound.
For, if passion leaped up, vibrant, bold,
In the Soul’s sweet radiance,
Daringly it would your worlds enfold,
Would dethrone you, would bring you down low,
Would outsoar the Zephyr-dance.
Ripe a world above you then would grow.
Translation: Girl, I am so into you.
LOVE IS JENNY, JENNY IS LOVE’S NAME. MY WORLD
Worlds my longing cannot ever still,
Nor yet Gods with magic blest;
Higher than them all is my own Will,
Stormily wakeful in my breast.
Drank I all the stars’ bright radiance,
All the light by suns o’erspilled,
Still my pains would want for recompense,
And my dreams be unfulfilled.
Hence! To endless battle, to the striving
Like a Talisman out there,
Demon-wise into the far mists driving
Towards a goal I cannot near.
But it’s only ruins and dead stones
That encompass all my yearning,
Where in shimmering Heavenly radiance
All my hopes flow, ever-burning.
Okay, I’m gonna stop short on that one because it goes on for about 1000 more lines and every single one of them sounds exactly like all the others. It’s like, dude, we fucking get it.
So if you’re single and living in dread of having no sweetie for Valentine’s Day, just remember—love makes syrup of even the greatest minds.
Thanks to Ross Wolfe