The storm winds flutter, like great vultures gazing
From out his great locks, in his wrath all horrid.
His butcher fist into the dark he soars.
He shakes it so. A sea of fire hunts
The length of one street. And the hot smoke roars
Consuming it, until the morning comes.
Summary, analysis and interpretation
„Der Gott der Stadt“ by Georg Heym was written between 1910 and 1911. The poem’s subject is the dark sides of the town, which ‘Gott der Stadt’ is a symbol for. It is about the god Baal, who observe a town up from a roof of a city block at nighttime and lets a street burn down during dawn.
The poem consists of five stanzas, each stanza is composed of four lines. It can be divided into two units of meaning. Stanzas one to three describe Baal’s position and impressions of the town. Stanzas four and five are about his reaction, namely rage, which leads to the destruction of a street by means of fire.
The rhyming scheme as well as the poem’s metre are regular, it is written in crossed rhymes and in iambic pentametres. Apart from line 13 and 15 all lines are written in male cadences1 leading to a regular rhythm that stresses the poem’s acoustic elements such as “Kirchenglocken” (line 7) or “Musik der Millionen” (line 9f.). This regularity creates a consistent rhythm when reading the poem aloud, creating a certain kind of gravity and threat.
It is interesting to note that the strictly consistent form of the poem contrasts to its apocalyptic-seeming content. Content-wise not order but chaos and missing controllability are dominant. This contrast between form and content aims to unsettle the reader and to give the poem a special character.
The impression of greatness and threat is also visible by the use of stylistic devices. Due to Heym’s wording, a gloomy atmosphere is created. He uses numerous nouns and adjectives that can be associated with hell: “Rauch” (line 11), “Meer von Feuer” (line 18), “Glutqualm” (line 19) (fume) that is moving through the streets.
Images of the underworld are created by means of vivid colours running through the poem. The colour black is mentioned several times (line 2, 8) and darkness in general is a consistent motif (line 14, 17). Baal’s belly is red (line 5), the flames are supposed to be orange and red although this is not directly mentioned (line 5). Not only are the colours black and red a symbol for hell but also they are associated with apocalypse.
These vivid colours as well as the word fields of fire and fume create images of hell and apocalypse in the readers’ minds.
Moreover, expressions from the word field of religion are used. “Kirchenglocken” (line 7) (church bells) and “Dunst von Weihrauch” (line 12) (incense) can be associated with Christianity. God Baal can refer to either Jewry or Christianity. While his name refers in the Old Testament to a great number of local deities, Christianity sees him as a demon. As Heym mentions the great number of bells (“ungeheure Zahl”, line 7) and the fume of incense only as a comparison to “Wolken der Fabrik” (line 11) (clouds of the factory), it can be assumed that the religious expressions are used ironically.
Furthermore, there is nothing sacred about the town that is described in the poem. Its music is compared to the dancing of Korybanten, who adore the rites of Kybele, the Greek goddess of nature and fertility (line 9). Pagan gods have taken over the control over the town and its people. Hence, it seems obvious to see the disruptive events at the end of the poem as apocalypse.
The existence of great threat is conveyed by Baal’s emotions, too. At the mere sight of his surrounding he feels “Wut” (line 3) and “Zorn” (line 16) (rage/fury), which motivates him to burn down a street (line 5). This word choice creates a threating atmosphere and an impression of violence evoking the images of hell and apocalypse.
Numerous hyperboles2 put emphasis on this impression, too. The number of churches is enormous (“ungeheu[…]er” (line 7) and the masses of houses is stressed by the words “schwarzer Türmer Meer” (line 8). The “laut[e]” (line 10) (loud) music that “dröhnt” (line 9) (roars) through the streets is produced by millions (“Millionen” line 10). By this exaggerated depiction the town is illustrated as a gigantic, multitudinous and out-of-control entity that awes respect to foreigners. The more personifications3 in the context of the town are used the more this entity ‘town’ seems to be multitudinous. Several houses “kniien um (…) [den Baal] her” (line 6) (kneel in front of Baal) stressing the greatness of Baal. Some houses “verirrn” (line 4) (get lost) in the direction of the countryside, which gives the town almost human features. The town almost seems to be aggressive: “der Kirchenglocken ungeheure Zahl wogt auf zu (…) Baal” (line 8), “die Wolken der Fabrik ziehn auf zu ihm” (line 11f.). These expressions ascribe the town to spread and occupy a great area. The powers of nature are also personified: “die Winde lagern schwarz um (…) [Baals] Stirn” (line 2) (winds hunt around Baal’s forehead), “die Stürme flattern” (line 14) (storms flutter), “ein Meer von Flammen jagt durch eine Straße” (line 17f.) (a sea of flames hounds through the street), “Glutqualm braust und frißt sie auf” (line 19f.) (Fume roars and eats everything up). Due to these personifications, natural forces appear as basic and disruptive powers that cannot be stopped. At the same time the greatness and omnipotence of Bale is stressed (line 13ff.). The alliteration4 of Baal’s belly (“Bauch (…) Baal[s]) (line 5) as well as the neologism5 “Fleischerfaust” (line 17) underline the brute violence of Baal. As Baal is a god that demands human sacrifice, these stylistic devices have a significant effect. By comparisons Heym stresses the slyness of storms (“wie Geier” (line 15) (like vultures) as well as the shape of the industry’s fumes (“wie Dunst von Weihrauch” line 12).
With reference to the syntax, it has to be mentioned that many enjambments6 are used (line 9, 11). However, they are never across stanzas. Nevertheless, the poem’s sentences are rather short and simple and are mostly only within one line (line 13ff.). Hence, the poem seems to be short and concise, highlighting the dynamics of the events.
The character of Baal, god of the town, is the basis of the interpretation of the poem. He is a symbol for norms and values that control the town. In the Old Testament Baal was god of the town Tyros, who was depicted as an evil and human scarifying creature. In the poem these features are emphasised by Baal’s fury (“Wut”, “Zorn”) as well as by his destruction of a street (line 5). In German the term “Gott” is mainly referred to the god of Christianity. Baal, however, is only described as “Gott der Stadt” (see title), his territory, hence, only being the town. It can be assumed that the common laws do not exist within this town. The chaos within the town supports this assumption. It is a place of unleashing, both spatial as well as social. On an external view the town is characterised by church towers (line 7) and industrial plants (line 11) making it appear threatening. Nighttime can be seen as a symbol for the sinfulness of the town as the events happen during evening time (“Abend” line 2) and dawn (“Morgen”, line 20).
The most significant lines in the final stanza are “ein Meer von Feuer (…) durch eine Straße [jagt]” (line 19) (a sea of flames hunting through the street and that is eaten up by fumes of embers). This fire was made by Baal symbolising the town’s sacrifices. When the poem was written, at the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of the industrial revolution three decades ago, first cities of over a million inhabitants arose in Germany. Society was on the move and new lifestyles that were previously unknown developed. The dream of pleasant life and wealth were only fulfilled by the minority, which left the rural home to move into large industrial centres such as Berlin or the Ruhr area. Life in towns was shaped by lack of space and housing shortage so that many people had to live on the streets. Numerous employees were unqualified, which led to exploitation. The outward appearance of the towns was unattractive, dominated by industrial plants, traffic and dirt (line 11). The caused noise was intense and many suffered by it (line 9f.). Hence, people had to make huge sacrifices as can be seen in Heym’s poem. The town appears as an ungovernable, wide spreading entity and its god as a furious and cruel creature destroying human life. Thus, the god of the town is more likely to be an anti-god, the opposite of the god created in Christian-occidental moral concepts. Heym’s poem describes the spectrum of threats that people in cities had to face.
Urbanization was a significant problem of those times. It was often taken up by poets of the literary period Expressionism such as Trakl or Lichtenstein.
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