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Herman Hesse’s “The Poet”(“Der Dichter”)Translated from the German by Eric Grunwald

It is said that in his youth, the Chinese poet Han Fook was inspired by an incredible passion to learn all things and perfect himself in all things belonging in any way to the art of poetry. He had at that time, when he still lived in his home town on the Yellow River, at his request and with the help of his parents, who loved him tenderly, become engaged to a girl from a good family, and the wedding was now soon to be set for an auspicious day. Han Fook was then some twenty years old and a handsome youth, modest and well-mannered, schooled in the sciences and despite his youth already well-known among the men of letters of his town for many superb poems. Without being exactly rich, he was expected to receive a comfortable inheritance, which would be further enhanced by his bride's dowry, and as this bride was also very beautiful and virtuous, nothing seemed to be missing from the young man's happiness. Nevertheless he was not fully content, for his heart was filled with the ambition of becoming a perfect poet.

Thus it happened that on an evening on which a festival of lights was being celebrated on the river, Han Fook strolled alone on the opposite bank. He leaned against the trunk of a tree that bowed over the water, and saw in the surface of the river a thousand lights swim and flicker, he saw on the boats and rafts men and women and young girls greeting each other and shining in festive gowns like beautiful flowers, he heard the faint murmuring of the lamp-lit water, the sound of women singing, the buzzing of the zither and the sweet notes of the piper, and over all of them he saw the bluish night suspended like the vault of a temple. The young man's heart pounded as he, a solitary observer, as it was his wont to be, contemplated all of this beauty. But however much he longed to go over and take part and enjoy the party in the company of his bride and friends, he nevertheless desired far more ardently to absorb all of this as a keen observer and reflect it in a completely perfect poem: the blue of the night and the play of the light on the water, as well as the joy of the revelers and the longing of the silent observer who leans on the trunk of the tree over the bank. He felt he could never again be completely light and cheerful of heart at any celebration or any other pleasure on this earth, that in the midst of life he would also remain lonely and to some degree an observer and stranger, and he felt that among so many others, his soul alone was so constructed that he would have to feel at once the beauty of the earth and the secret longing of the stranger. He became sad about this and pondered the issue, and the conclusion he reached was this: that a true happiness and deep satisfaction would only be granted him when he some day succeeded in reflecting the world so perfectly in poetry that in these reflections he possessed the world itself, purified and immortalized.

Han Fook hardly knew if he was still awake or had fallen asleep when he heard a soft noise and saw standing next to the trunk of the tree a stranger, an old man in a purple robe and with a venerable mien. The young man stood up straight and greeted him with the greeting befitting the aged and the distinguished. But the stranger smiled and spoke several verses in which all that the young man had just felt was expressed so perfectly and beautifully and in accordance with the precepts of the great poets, that the young man's heart stood still with astonishment.

"Oh, who are you," he cried, bowing deeply, "that you can see into my soul and speak more beautiful verses than I have ever learned from any of my teachers?"

(story continues)

Full story appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of The MacGuffin.