Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann

The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

– Lisel Mueller


I like how this poem brings alive how small gestures could have a great deal of symbolism in a time when manners dictated restraint in public – the flash of an ankle, a dropped fan were all matters of import. The final image we’re left with is melancholy and lovely (“sad and lavish”, as she says) – roses, a garden, and two people sitting in silence.

I read this poem at Poetry Foundation and had this niggling sense of familiarity with the tone of voice employed – gentle, tender, with gorgeous imagery and a palpable love for the subject.

I’ve always liked poetry, and in medical school there was this one anthology of poetry, short stories and essays titled On Doctoring that introduced me to some of the poems I am most fond of and some of the poets I love – The Five Stages of Grief, The Woman Who Could Not Live With Her Faulty Heart, The Stethoscope Song and others.

Imagine my delight when I found that the author of Monet Refuses the Operation, a poem I love, is someone I stumbled on again because I liked another of her poems. The way she describes him talking about color, light – it lingers.

Here is some biographical information about the lives of Brahms and Schumann. You can read about Lisel Mueller here and a transcript of an interview with her here.

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  1. By Sometimes, When the Light – Fiat Camena on September 14, 2012 at 08:03

    […] run another poem by Lisel Mueller on the site, Romantics. You can read about Lisel Mueller here and a transcript of an interview with her here. Be […]

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