Lea Goldberg and her poetry



This is a poetry that recognizes limits—its own limits—to advantage.

Lea Goldberg was born in 1911 in Koenigsberg, Germany (then Eastern Prussia, now Russia) and spent her early years in Kovna (now Kaunas), Lithuania, and in Saratov, Russia, during the first World War. At the end of the war she returned with her parents to Lithuania, completing high school at the Hebrew Gymnasium in 1928. She studied Semitic and Germanic languages, and history, at the Lithuanian University, and later at the universities of Berlin and Bonn, where she received her Ph D in 1933 on the subject of “The Samaritan [Bible] Translation: an examination of extant sources.” She immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1935, the year in which her first poetry collection, Smoke Rings, appeared.

In addition to high school teaching, Goldberg made a living in her new land at first by writing rhymed advertisements, until she began to work as a newspaper editor at Davar, and then on the staff of the newly established Al Ha-Mishmar. She was a devoted children’s book editor at the Sifriyat Po'alim publishing house, and wrote theater criticism and literary columns as well. Among her books of poetry Smoke Rings, Green-eyed Spike, From My Old Home, Village Songs, On Blooming, and Lightning in the Morning are collected in Sooner and Later, with the addition of a section of new poems—"Last Words". Her last book of poems, This Night, appeared in 1964. Goldberg also published a play, The Lady of the Castle, and three books of prose: Letters from an Imaginary Journey; He is the Light, a novel; and a memoir of Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, Encounter with a Poet. She translated Tolstoy, Gorky, Brecht, Chekov, Shakespeare, and Petrarch, among others, as well as popular Russian poetry, into Hebrew. In 1952 she was invited to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, becoming a senior lecturer in Comparative Literature in 1957, and a full professor in 1963. She won numerous awards over the years and died in Jerusalem on January 15, 1970.

Lea Goldberg’s lyric work, in which the western European literary tradition has a more considerable presence than in the poetry of her peers, carried her personal stamp from its earliest days: it is lucidly expressed, well-formed verse with clear rhythms and shapely meters. Her poetry doesn’t use historical or national themes, or, rather, it doesn’t get involved with them other than on the level of landscape: you will find instead in these poems a tree, a field, a thorn, the seasons. Goldberg's poetry perceives the general in the specific: a drop of dew reflecting vast distances—the concrete reflects the abstract. Her poetry is a system of echoes and mild reverberations, voices and whispers. This is a poetry that recognizes limits—its own limits—to advantage. It doesn’t seek to give more than it has. A generation that found itself called on to fight big wars, and social and national battles, here found relief in the hidden desire for a human scale, a private place that doesn’t object to the public world, but, rather, exists legitimately beside it.

This poetry’s glance is directed mainly toward what is minor and modest. A majestic landscape like that of the Jerusalem hills consists here of a stone and a thorn; the eye perceives one yellow butterfly; against the vast sky there is only a single bird and even eternity is only "one eternity". The pairing of the singular with that which is not eye catching is a real source of strength --as the opposite or the negation of authority, indifference, and violence. Opposed to any sort of pathos, Lea Goldberg’s poetry easily connects to the generation that followed her.

Her symbols, images, and phrases do not, in my opinion, offer any surprises to those who have become used to what is called modernist poetry. The element of surprise is missing in her work due to a mix of shyness and pride, love and suffering, which are not meant to surprise. The captivating quality of this poetry lies in its surrender. After all, every surprise contains an overpowering, violent aspect, to which her poetry by its nature objects. The language of Goldberg's poetry is not rich; its beauty lies in its conciseness, like the landscape in Goldberg's poem "My homeland, a poor land of beauty". One already feels in her early poems the trend which is fully realized in her later work: the stripping away of ornamentation.

© Tuvia Ruebner (Translated by Lisa Katz)  
• Editors & Translators (Israel)

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