Sehnsucht is a profound emotional state, often of such significance that it displaces ordinary reality. I use the word for the title of the third poem in the sixth and last taxonomy of Caravaggio’s Dagger. The word is a German compound noun, difficult to translate, but often rendered as “longing,” or “yearning,” or “craving,” with a wider sense of that which is longed or yearned for or craved as being “intensely missing.”
The two formative nouns are das Sehnen, which is an ardent longing or yearning, and die Sucht, which denotes a passion for or an addiction to. Hence, it represents a perception of what is unfinished or imperfect, being a perception which seeks an alternative ideal. The emotion is not only ambiguous but also attached to feelings that are simultaneously positive and negative; for the intimated search seeks an end that is unattainable, and the end is an indication of a kind of distant home, but, not one that is terrestrial.
In music, the sensation is central to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, in which the most obvious delineation of this kind of longing is in the use of harmonic suspension.
The famous Tristan chord resolves repeatedly into another dissonant chord, and, soon after the chord’s introductory statements in the prelude to the opera, the motif that arises in the ‘cellos speaks to me of the simultaneity of belonging and not belonging. Those familiar with Wagner’s opera will detect the influence of this motif in the threefold refrain in my poem.
Wagner termed the opera “eine Handlung,” literally an action, which is exactly how the Spanish playwright Calderón described his plays. It is in Calderón that one encounters the famous lines: ¡Que toda la vida es sueño: For all of life is a dream.
The sheer depth of feeling that is in the music is brought out with great artistry by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra is this broacast of 29 December 1951 from Carnegie Hall.
The poem took a long time to write, over five years of 2003 through 2008, in both Vancouver and in St. Stephen, in New Brunswick. The poem can be heard here. It sprang directly from the influence of Wagner’s opera, which had crept into my mind in the early morning of the first day of May. The day before I had listened to more of Berlioz, especially La Mort de Cléopâtre, and had read further in Willis Barnstone’s translation of poems of Fray Luis de León, and had particularly noted the Del Moderado y Constante (Of Moderation and Constancy) of 1578:
Dichoso el que se mide,
Felipe, y de la vida el gozo bueno
a sí solo lo pide;
y mira como ajeno,
aquello que no está dentro en su seno.
Felipe, happy is
the man of measure, seeking out life’s good
solely in what is his
within. The rest he would
not see except as alien, foreign wood.
The opera’s final aria, sung by Isolde, describes an unattainable vision of love that can only be reached through death. When I first began to know this opera, I found this difficult to accept as a true condition of human existence, but over the years, with personal separations, losses, and encounters with many matters that are unattainable in this life, I have much modified my understanding. When, the year my mother died, I was in Ottawa, where she lived, for a week and some days, the true sensibility of this characteristic of life was brought before me with a splendour and a powerful intensity by my aged, ailing mother’s then, as yet unrequited, yearning to be reunited with her husband, my father, dead those last very long, always lonely, so many eleven years. My mother had Alzheimer’s, and thought I was he.