Gottfried Benn was born in 1886 in the village of Mansfield, between Berlin and Hamburg. He grew up in another village, Sellin in Neumark, in what was then East Prussia, part of present-day Poland. He died in 1956 in Berlin. He was the oldest son, grandson, and great-grandson of German Protestant ministers. His mother, however, was of French Swiss birth. During the course of his life, he made much of the fact of this mixed parentage, and attributed his intellectual tensions to what he once called his “half-breed melancholy.”

Benn wanted a career in medicine, but his father, who could not afford to send him to medical school, persuaded him to study theology and German philology instead. Benn complied for two years, first at Marburg, and then in Berlin. He nonetheless found a way into the career of his choice, enrolling, in 1905, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Academy of Army Medicine. After serving as a military doctor in World War I, he set up a private practice in Berlin as a doctor of skin and venereal diseases (commonly combined as a medical specialization in Germany). He closed his practice and re-entered the military in 1935, shortly before he was blacklisted by the Nazis.

Benn’s first book was a small collection of poems entitled Morgue (1912), a succès de scandale in the Expressionist mode. These poems, which draw on his experiences as an intern working with terminally ill patients and dissecting cadavers, are characterized by explicit, naturalistic detail. “Labor Room” (“Saal der Kreissenden Frauen”) dates from this collection. Although he never altogether abandoned his origins, after about 1919 Benn turned away from the more extreme aspects of his early Expressionism. “Jena,” published in 1926, illustrates a very different style that appeared in his poetry during his middle and late periods, a style which, to some, has barely seemed to avoid sentimentalism. “Mountain Ash” (“Ebereschen”) is a late poem, published in 1954, just two years before his death.

In addition to poetry, Benn wrote plays and, more important, prose—memoirs, essays, and published talks, short stories and novellas. He was an early experimenter in and a master of that hybrid genre, the story-essay.

While he wrote both in free verse and in traditional forms, the metrical intricacies of all Benn’s poems reflect his thorough education in the Greek and Roman classics. “Jena” is written in the octet stanza with alternating lines of masculine and feminine rhymes that Benn is best known for. I have tried to make English poems that approximate the rhythms of the German originals, without being an exact metrical match. And since English is less rich in rhyme than other European languages, I have frequently allowed the half- and slant-rhymes common in English formal verse today.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 9, on page 35
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