Sehnsucht is a German word that means “deep longing”. It describes a fleeting state experienced by everyone from time to time—a profound yearning as real as it is intangible, a mysterious longing that sends the heart searching for something it can neither define nor find.
The strange and lovely thing about sehnsucht is that it is like grief and joy mingled together. It makes us feel sad, but we do not want it to stop. It is a sweet sadness, a paradox.
And it is paradoxical in operation, too. For we can only experience it as long as we remain unconscious of it. The moment we recognise its presence, it vanishes, as cuteness vanishes from the small child who becomes aware that she is cute. If we try to hold onto it, it turns into a parody of itself. It changes into something falsely sentimental, maudlin.
We cannot summon sehnsucht, nor can we know when (or even why) it will come. It may surprise us through children or nature or art. It sometimes accompanies moments of insight or reflection. It resembles the groaning in creation and in our spirits that Paul speaks of in Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 5. It is always related to our mortality and our fallenness. It underlies passages in Scripture like 1 Chronicles 29:15: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.”
Why do we experience this sad, sweet longing? Its purpose, I believe, is to awaken us to the spiritual world, to assert that we are more than matter and less than master. And its ultimate object is our Lord Jesus Christ, “For he satisfies the longing soul” (Psalm 107:9).
I have tried to explore and express this exquisite, desolate emotion from time to time in poetry, the language of the heart; and in doing so I have hoped to stir not only my readers’ feelings but also their reflections. I have hoped through my poetry to help others sense and see that here we have no abiding homeland and yet a Homeland exists where we may abide (cf Hebrews 13:14).
The following three poems are examples of my attempts to ensnare and share sehnsucht.
The first poem, “Kyoto Blossoms”, is a set of three haiku I wrote last year (2013) after visiting Japan with my wife during the cherry blossom season. It was first published earlier this year (2014) in Quadrant. 1
Lovely, the flowering
cherries … and yet, near the end
somehow lonely, too.
The falling petals—
almost they make us forget
we are immortals.
No weeping, dear heart—
they are just petals and they
were lost from the start.
The second poem, “The Colour of Life”, I wrote at the beginning of the 1990s in a café in Bridgetown. It was first broadcast on ABC Radio National in 1990 and first published in a Scottish literary journal, Verse, in 1991.2
The Colour of Life
Why is it that here in this cafe,
a hard wind harmless on the window,
a bright fire coughing in the grate,
scones and tea on the table, I feel
suddenly, strangely sad? Why is it,
and what? A loneliness, a longing—
not, it seems, in spite of, but
because of, the loveliest of things.
It is the colour of life. Sabi
the haiku poets would say. I say
too much. I break a scone and steam
wafts from the wound, like
the spirit of a just man, going home.
The third poem, “Sehnsucht”,3written at the end of the 1970s, is one of my earliest attempts to speak of this ache sometime after I had discovered the word for it in the writings of CS Lewis.4
Everyone else is asleep
and I am up this early
only to keep my small son from crying.
I carry him down to the river.
A slight mist lingers by the bend.
Trees stand on their heads in the still water.
Has he seen a river before?
I can’t remember.
He raises his hand,
reaching for it.
He looks back at me
to make sure I have seen it.
How can anyone find anything so amazing?
Yet it’s not just the river:
stones, leaves, chickens, fire—
things I still love
though they’ve fallen familiar—
fill him continually with joy and wonder.
‘Oo! Oo!’ he says
as if it hurts him
here in my arms, seeing the river
for the first time.
And a familiar strangeness
grips my heart
and I sing to him,
‘Jesus loves the little children’,
to keep from weeping.
1. When accepting “Kyoto Blossoms” (then provisionally titled “Kyoto Sakura Haiku”) for publication, the literary editor of Quadrant, Les Murray, wrote, “One at least of the Sakura haiku may be the best thing you’ve ever done—I refer to no. ii, the ‘forget we are immortals’ one.”
2. “The Colour of Life” was also published in Quadrant in 1992, Antipodes (USA) in 1992, Studio in 1994, The West Australian “Big Weekend” in 1994 and The Alternative in 1997. It has been collected in my books Between Glances (William Heinemann Australia, 1993), Primary Loyalties (with Peter Kocan & Hal Colebatch, Arawang Communication Group, 1999), and The Colour of Life (in Two Poets, Fremantle Press, 2011).
3. “Sehnsucht” was first published in On Being in 1982 and first broadcast on ABC Radio National in 1986 and again in 1987. It has been collected in my books Counterpoise (Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1982), Windfalls (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984), Far From Home (Wombat Books, 2010) and Gestures of Love (Wombat Books, 2013). It was most recently published earlier this year (2014) in the Irish literary journal, Poetry Ireland Review.
4. It was CS Lewis, in his book Surprised by Joy, who almost forty years ago gave me the name and the explanation for this emotion-cum-perception that I have experienced all too keenly from the days of my youth.
To learn more about Andrew’s poetry and fiction, visit his website: www.andrewlansdown.com