The Wanderer in the Sawmill
by Justinus Kerner (1786 – 1862)
translated by William Cullen Bryant
In yonder mill I rested,
And sat me down to look
Upon the wheel’s quick glimmer.
And on the flowing brook.
As in a dream, before me,
The saw, with restless play,
Was cleaving through a fir-tree
Its long and steady way.
The tree through all its fibres
With living motion stirred,
And, in a dirge-like murmur,
These solemn words I heard—
Oh, thou, who wanderest hither,
A timely guest thou art!
For thee this cruel engine
Is passing through my heart.
When soon, in earth’s still bosom,
Thy hours of rest begin,
This wood shall form the chamber
Whose walls shall close thee in.
Four planks—I saw and shuddered—
Dropped in that busy mill;
Then, as I tried to answer,
At once the wheel was still.
Justinus Kerner was a complex man, a poet, a physician, a mystic, he was fascinated by the manifestations of the natural world and the supernatural. He took an interest in exorcism as well as the scientific study of disease, while being an accomplished writer, poet and artist. His methods and breadth of talents were not considered eccentric for his time as an interest in spirits and the occult were common place in Europe and the United States during the latter stages of his career.
Kerner moved in wide circles with friendships of other renown scientists, nobility and poets, often attracting other eccentric and bold personalities among his circle of friends. Kerner built a large home that served as sanctuary for some of his patients as well as family and friends and was supported in part through the largess of friends in high places within German aristocracy.
Although Kerner published several volumes of poetry late in his life including, Die letzte Blütenstrauss (The Last Flowers to Blossom, 1852) and Winterblüten (Winter Blossoms, 1859), he is best known for his klecksographs, Kerner’s term for ink blots. Die Klecksographien. This charming combination of inkblots and short poems were first published after his death in 1890 by his son Theobald Kerner. Theobald published in the introduction of this book his father’s words on how his process of creating his art began:
“The worsening of my partial blindness was the reason for my resuming this youthful play since drops of ink very often fell on the paper as I wrote. Sometimes I didn’t notice them and folded the paper without allowing it to dry. When I separated them again I saw the blots, especially if they had landed near a fold of the paper and formed symmetrical drawings, namely arabesques, animal and human shapes, and so on This also gave me the idea of developing this phenomenon to a somewhat greater level through practice.” This “practice” included the addition of small embellishments by Kerner himself that turn the inkblots into a kind of folk art and the black and white sinister quality of them lend itself to his favorite subjects; death, spirits, ghosts and the macabre. “
The idea of play as adults, with art and words is something to be admired. As a child there was in our kitchen a small book case, that had an unending supply of paper, brushes and water color paint, that could be used at any time, as long as we put some newspaper down over the kitchen table. I remember on rainy afternoons, getting out the paint and being as fascinated by the turning shades of colors in the small bowls of water used to clean the brushes as what happened on the paper. The magic of ink blots and water colors, where the pigments flow in unexpected patterns with the grain of the paper help enrich the mind’s eye in taking us on a journey.
I am in awe of poets that can combine visual art with words. Kerner is an inspiration that creativity is more than an ability to control the outcome of an image, it is the ability to embrace the unexpected and let it flow into new creations. Kerner investigated ideas as a physician that would go on to be known as hypnosis and psychotherapy but in his time was called mesmerism. I think of mesmerism as a concept of being overcome by beauty. In the swirling kinetics of Kerner’s inkblots, it is easy to be mesmerized, even in their darker qualities. When was the last time you played with ink blots or water colors? Do you have a water color set sitting in a drawer somewhere waiting for you to remember how fun it is to paint on a rainy afternoon?
A Poet’s Solace
By Justinus Kerner
When I am dead, no eye of love
May drop a tear upon my grave;
Yet weeping flowers shall bloom above,
And sighing branches o’er me wave.
Though near the place where I shall lie
The passing traveler linger not,
Yet shall the quiet moon on high
Look, mighty down up on the spot.
In these green meadows, where I rove,
By man I may forgotten be;
Yet the blue sky and silent grove
Forever shall remember me.