Young Karl Marx as a Poet


By Prof. Desmond Mallikarachchi

Department of Philosophy & Psychology

University of Peradeniya

This article, written as a tribute to Karl Marx

on his 135th death anniversary, briefly presents young Marx’s love and political poetry.

Karl Marx has been respected by his friends and foes alike as a great thinker and enthusiastic and indefatigable explorer into the covert and overt oppressive mechanisms of the rising capitalism of the 19th Century. He wrote extensively and meticulously with a view to providing mankind a beneficial atmosphere for a happy living without being exploited by capitalism. He was not vulgar but a consummated materialist, the fact to which he attested through all his writings since youth. He envisaged a transformation of the society, not through an idealistic programme but via a total revolution in the forces of economic production. Those who were unable to understand his humanist political project presented him as a barbarous materialist who never possessed a creative and aesthetic mind as his only intension had been to assault capitalism with malice and in satanic guise (e. g. Richard Wumbrandt: Was Karl Marx a Satanist?)

But, if one reads Marx’s personal and academic life closely, leaving prejudices aside, he or she would realise that right inside him there had always been a kind-hearted father, beloved husband, joyful friend, penetrative critic, uncompromising debater, humorous and lampoon drama producer and, above all, a lyrical poet. A very few, most notably his fiancée, Jenny, and his father, knew Marx’s potentiality for writing lyrical poetry though it remained as a family affair of little interest to the wider world outside, which however, doesn’t devalue the exceptional ability he possessed for writing lyrical poetry, both emotional and political.

Marx, as a university student at Bonn and Berlin, studied not only history, philosophy and law but also literature and western classics and never lost his admiration for Greek mythology or Shakespeare, disclosing his fervent and unceasing thirst for knowledge. He wrote to his father as far back as 1837, that he had attended lectures of Schlegel (on Homer), Welcker (on Greek and Latin mythology), Bruno Bauer (on Isaiah) and translated extracts from Tacitus and Ovid, in addition to receiving inspiration from German poets such as Schilller and Heinrich Heine. The physical exhaustion Marx encountered as a result of his attempts to comprehend these abstruse disciplines, and the bewildering mental state he had been in due particularly to the fact of living away from home for the first time, he sought some solace in writing lyrical poetry. It is true that his early poetry had been contaminated, understandably of course, with German romanticism but his originality was that he had been sharp enough to perceive the (natural) affinity between the moments of change and the lyric mood, as Prof. S. S. Prawer observes in his work, Karl Marx and the World Literature (1976). As young Marx disclosed his inner poetic-self to his father in the letter he wrote in 1837; "at such (painful) moments ... an individual becomes lyrical, for every metamorphosis is partly a swan song, partly the overture of a great new poem that is trying to find its right proportions amid brilliant colours that are not yet distinct.’

Marx has compressed here the three significant art-fields, i. e. literature, music and the visual arts employing sensibly the words ‘lyrical‘ ‘overture’ and ‘brilliant colours’ respectively to yield metaphors that help him to convey his feelings. Karl Marx’s artistic inspirations were reflected in the dedicatory poems he wrote to his father, entitled Dichtung (German), meaning poetry. The most inspirational verses of the poem run as;

Creator-like, flames streamed,

Purling, from your breast to mine,

High, wide they tongued together

And I nourished them in my breast.

Your image stood bright, like Aeolian sound;

Gently it covered the glow with pinions of love.

I heard murmuring sounds, I saw a gleam,

Faraway skies drifted along,

Emerged to sight, sank down again,

Sank only to rise higher still.

When the inner struggle came to rest

I saw pain and joy concentrated in song. (Marx-Engles Works)

Young Marx, the Romeo, wrote a number of poems expressing his Platonic love to his fiancée Jenny, who subsequently became his life partner.

Jenny, if I may boldly say

That we have lovingly exchanged hearts,

That our glowing hearts beat as one,

That one and the same stream agitates their waves, (Marx –Engles Works 1. (20 48-50)

But alas! all I want is tears

All I want is that you should listen to this song,

That you should transfigure and adorn it-

Then it may darkly die away into nothingness (Marx-Engels Works EB 1. 615)

Young Marx’s later poems reveal a desire for combining poetry with the concept of action/praxis as attested by the following two poems among many.

Therefore let us dare all,

Never pause, never rest,

Let us never sink into dull silence,

Into willing nothing and doing nothing.

Let us not walk, in brooding anxiety,

Under the yoke that weighs us down:

For longing and desire

And action- these remain to us in spite of all. (Marx-Engels Collected Works. 1)

Young Marx demonstrated his talents not only in lyrical poetry but also in prose. He had almost completed a humorous novel, entitled, The Scorpion and Felix, of which only a fragment now survives, but as professor Prawer rightly observes, it was an attempt to speak of political matters in a literary form. This is also evident from the poems he composed immediately before he switched over from composing lyrical love-poetry to formulating a political programme based on materialist philosophy. One of his philosophical poems, entitled, Human Pride, demonstrates his premonition of the concept of alienation, which played a central role in his later philosophical works. He lyrically exposes how the buildings of a city vitiate humanness of city-dwellers while ruthlessly destroying the human pride and ingenuity of the very (human) architects who brought the buildings into being.

Young Marx wrote a good deal of poetry among which the poems entitled, Feelings (dedicated to his childhood sweetheart and later wife Jenny von Westphalen), The Minstrel, Night Love, Song of the Sirens, Song of a Boatman on the Sea, The Despairing Man’s Prayer, and On Hegel and a few others stand out and survive to this date. While writing poetry he developed a critical approach to the retrogressive and repressive ideologies and realised, in the process, that the time had come to put an end to composing lyrical poems and, hence, devoted the rest of his life until his death, in 1883, to formulating a political programme to redeem mankind from exploitation and oppression; that project, in my belief, is Karl Marx’s monumental epic.

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