Driving along in a comfortable car
On a rainy country road
We saw a raggedy man at nightfall
Who waved to us to give him a lift, and gave a deep bow.
We had a roof and we had room and we drove on past
And we heard me say in a surly voice: no
We can’t give anyone a lift.
We had gone some distance further, a day’s march perhaps
When I suddenly took fright at this voice of mine
This behaviour of mine and this
Notes on this poem
Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), well known as a dramatist and a theorist on drama, is also one of Germany’s three or four greatest poets. He is abundant, various, and a complete master of poetic forms, many traditional, many of his own devising. He lived through the worst years of the twentieth century, and was always in revolt: first as an anarchist hedonist, then as poète engagé against Hitler’s fascism. And he was, besides, the author of some of the best love poems in the German language. After the war, choosing to sele in the East rather than the West, he continued to write for a humane socialism, though fully aware that the new GDR, within the Soviet bloc, was falling far short of it. Like many of his generation he defended the bad against what he perceived to be the worse.
Translating the more than 1200 poems that comprise the Complete Poems of Bertolt Brecht, to be published by Norton later this year, we knew him to be a poet for our times. He saw the markets treat the working poor as (his word) mince-meat. He was the citizen of a highly civilised country that voted in a champion of barbarism. With his Jewish wife and their children he went into exile, so as not to be murdered. After the war, among millions of displaced persons, he returned to a city in ruins.
The poems we present here are from two distinct periods in Brecht’s writing life. David translated the earlier, Tom the later ones.