Article Index


Siegfried de Rachewiltz





What’s in a name ?

A rose by any other... ?

The story has been told before, but from a slightly different angle.

As far as I am concerned, it began in the summer of 1946, when I was first conceived (of). At that time my mother was entertaining the thought of making a living for herself and her future family by learning how to carve intaglios from Herr Bacher and - partly inspired by Ronald Duncan’s Diary of a Husbandman- by running a small but self-sufficient household based on the lactation and fertility of a single cow.

The cottage in Gais, which was going to house this enterprise, stood at the foot of a somber and rather uninspiring castle (as castles go in the South-Tyrol), Schloss Neuhaus, first mentioned in 1248 as castrum novum. After the war, nobody seemed to quite know who the owner of this semi-abandoned manor was. The last owner had been Count Cäsar Strassoldo-Grafenberg, who had bought it from Johann Graf Thun in 1924. The Strassoldos were ancient nobility from Gorizia/Görz and their lineage could boast of captains, crusaders, diplomats, bishops, and even some learned literati. They were loyal supporters of the Habsburgs and supplied them with sundry generals and even a governor: Michael Strassoldo was governor of Lombardy and brother-inlaw of Fieldmarshal Radezky. In 1939 they must have opted for Germany, which would explain why Schloss Neuhaus was “acquired” by the Ente Nazionale per le Tre Venezie in 1942. Founded originally in 1919 as the Istituto per la Rinascita Agraria, this governmental agency during the era fascista was in charge of managing property that had been expropriated from foreign nationals or acquired from those Tyroleans who had opted for the Reich in 1939. (In 1957 Count Strassoldo was allowed to “buy back” Neuhaus, which he promptly resold to a Swiss dentist).

Having received some vague permission to inhabit the shady stronghold, my parents in spe moved into Neuhaus just in time for a solitary celebration of the first post-war Christmas of 1946.

As with all castles, there were legends and vague reminiscences that came with the place. These my mother diligently reported back to E.P., a “captive audience” if ever there was one.

This is how a chimerical Margarete von Taufers found her way into the Cantos. But Neuhaus’ claim to fame was that at some point a celebrated Minnesänger had supposedly sojourned there. In those days, this could have only meant Walther von der Vogelweide, a name that everybody in South-Tyrol knew - not for having read him but because, after an overenthusiastic scholar had set forth the totally fictitious theory that Walther was a native Tyrolean, local patriots had turned him into a symbol of the South-Tyrol’s age-old Germanic heritage and in 1889 had raised a monument to him in Bozen’s main square, henceforth named Waltherplatz. In 1896 the Italian patriots had countered with a statue of Dante in Trent. One of the measures taken by the fascist regime in its attempt to turn Bolzano into a bullwork of italianitá was to remove Walther’s staute to a neighbouring park in 1935 and to change the square’s name into Piazza della Vittoria. Of course, when Italy switched sides and German troops took over the north in 1943, the square was once again named after the German minstrel: “Das heiss(t) Waltherplatz” (Canto 83), as E.P. was told when making his way through the desolate city with his daughter in September of that year.

Then came Pisa, the bug house and all the rest: the news that his daughter was going to live in Walther von der Vogelweide’s castle (whose coat of arms was a bird in a cage) elicited an enthusiastic response from the caged panther:

“Dearest Child – Fact of its being Walther’s castello excited me almost to air mail !”

And he added instructions on how to turn the castle into a cultural haven for poets and musicians: he would dispatch Gerhard Münch and Basil Bunting to the precincts, with the latter assigned to take care of the gardens.

Walther von der Vogelweide: for E.P. that meant Longfellow (a distant relative), whose poem about Walther and the birds singing over his tomb his mother Isabel had probably read to him as a child. It also meant Synge, whose prose translation of a song of Walther’s he may have known via Yeats. But most of all it meant Ford Maddox Ford, whose rendition of Unter den Linden he had praised back in 1913, when reviewing his Collected Poems: “Mr. Hueffer has also the gift for making lyrics that sing, as for example the “Tandaradei” more or less after von der Vogelweide.” (At some point Ford claimed to have knocked off the translation when he was only twelve years old)

"Ciao Cara,” E.P. wrote his daughter, “Dear old Fordie wd./ have been excited about it being Walter’s old castello = too bad he died before he had a chance to invent 1066 misstatements on the subject.”

In this case, one misstatement more or less would not have made much of a difference. When it came to German poetry, E.P. didn’t feel that there was much that was absolutely essential to his canon of Kulchur: of the Middle Ages, he retained only “Morungen, Wolfram and von der Vogelweide” as part of his Teutonic paideuma. He acknowledged Goethe’s “fine” and “unapproachable” lyrics – “they are as good as

Heine’s and von der Vogelweide’s” – but the latter two were the only ones that seem to have elicited any real enthusiasm or translation on his part. As it turned out, Walther (in Ford’s version of Unter den Linden) was the only German poet to make it into Pound’s Confucius to Cummings (along with Martin Luther !)

When his daughter complained about how cold it was in Walther’s castello, he consoled her with the poet’s own verses:

“Uns had diu Winter geskaded über al /Heide und Walde syn alle nu kal”

(Quoting from memory, val became kal, though both make sense)

Finally, when the news was broken that he would soon be a “grandpa” and he was asked to suggest a name for his grandchild, the answer was unequivocal:

“There is obviously only one name, d.h. Walter, in them surroundings !”

And upon learning of my arrival:

“Evviva Walther !     
Canzone degli Uccelli. Da tagte es.     
And it has put out of head most of whatever else was to say.”

The “canzone” in question referred not only to Jannequin’s “Chanson des oiseaux” (Canto 75), but probably also to the legend set to verse by Longfellow, according to which Walther’s fame was kept alive by the birds about his tombstone, which in his last will and testament he stipulated should be fed even after his death.

My father was meanwhile spinning his own ancestral fantasies, eventually deciding to name his firstborn after the Longobard king Sigifredus, and thus granting Walter only second place in the long slur of names that would encumber my passport and other personal documents for years to come.

No need here to go into the feud that ensued between my grandmother and my parents over this decision: it lasted over half a century, with both E.P. and Olga always insisting on calling me Walt(er) and nothing else.

BUT, if anything, it should have been Oswald.

The one and only Minnesänger ever to reside in Schloss Neuhaus was Oswald von Wolkenstein, who assumed the lordship of the castle around 1420.

How was it that E.P. remained in the dark about Oswald ?

The medieval world, as re-discovered and largely re-created by German romanticism, could accomodate Arthurian legends and marvels, the bloody battles between cross and crescent of the Carolingian cycle, and the sound and fury of the Nibelungen. Walther von der Vogelweide, on the other hand, composed masterful poems on different varieties of Minne, wrote scathing songs against stingy patrons and papal claims to worldly power and, while denouncing the demise of Christian values and ideals, left us the most charming pastorelle ever written, “Unter den Linden.” But what came after Walther was, to a large extent, epigonal and cliché-ridden imitation.

Oswald, a quattrocento contemporary of François Villon, appeared on the scene at the waning of the Middle Ages. He felt cheated out of his inheritance on various accounts: first, because the age into which he was born did not put great stock in his rights and privileges as a nobleman – ladies were more attracted to burghers with fat purses than to blue blood – and second, because he had been literally shortchanged by his father, who in his will had left him a third of a run-down castle on a remote rock, with all the legal and illegal entanglements that came with it.

Oswald therefore set out to make his fortune elsewhere - as a knight, envoy, diplomat and drinking companion of powerful protectors, like King (and later Holy Roman Emperor) Sigismund, whom he served during the Council of Constance that ended the Papal Schism and whom he accompanied on his “crusades” against the Hussites in the Kingdom of Bohemia. The fact that Oswald was a gifted singer and songwriter certainly contributed to his popularity in the noble and perhaps sometimes not so noble circles that he frequented – but he never sang or composed for a living. Not having to curry the favor of patrons, he remained remarkably free to perform for family and friends whatsoever he damn pleased. It was out of his own pocket that, toward the end of his life, he commissioned scribes from the Augustinian priory of Neustift near Brixen to copy down both his poems and their accompanying music in an expensive parchment codex which was not rediscovered until 1800 in Vienna by a friend of Klopstock’s and translator of Ossian.

But it was only in recent years – with the sytematic study of his life and work having begun in the 1970s – that Oswald’s genius as poet and composer was fully recognized. The main reason that he therefore lay outside of E.P.’s ken was that international scholarship had by and large ignored him, that none of the anthologies of medieval German poetry available to Pound included any of his poems and, most of all, that no congenial translations of his work were available.

Sero therefore - too too late - came the well-intentioned gift by Wieland Schmied who, prompted by H.C. Artman, in 1960 translated into modern German and published a selection of sixteen of Oswald’s poems – Der mit dem einem Auge - dedicated to “il miglior fabbro”.

How ironic that the one late medieval poet who had breathed life into poetic genres that in his time had become stale cream-puffs and who had regenerated German by infusing it with a new, experimental vocabulary drawn from his Tyrolean vernacular and from the many lingos and languages he had picked up in his travels across the known world; how ironic that the one composer who had revolutionized German songwriting by introducing polyphony and fusing the various musical styles he had encountered in his journeys; in short, how ironic that the first truly “modern” poet in German literature should have escaped E.P.’s attention.

The castle that his family had inhabited and where his mother had died was not “Walther’s castello” but in fact the home of a poet who like few before him had turned his life into art, his biography into song - whether it be in the persona of the belligerent swashbuckler, the lusty lover, the doting husband, the merry carouser, the rueful sinner, the prudent politician, or the world-weary old man.

The following selection of Oswald in English has been undertaken by my old friend Richard Sieburth in homage to E.P.’s (and Paul Blackburn’s) versions of the troubadours - and, more specifically, to mark the auspicious 90th birthday of Pound’s daughter Mary. The melopoiea of these translations speaks to our contemporary ear, giving us an Oswald somewhere between the cadences of a Bob Dylan and the raw urgencies of rap. The originals and their numberings are taken from the standard Klein edition.