‘Lament’ by Hermann Hesse is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains conforms to a consistent rhyme scheme. The pattern progresses as follows: abab cdcd efef ghgh.
Hesse has chosen not to repeat any of the end sounds outside of their respective stanzas. There are moments though in which one rhyme resembles another. This is called a half of slant rhyme. One can see this taking place between “wave” and “cave” in the first stanza and “stay” and “way” in the fourth. They do not rhyme, but a repetition of the vowel sound, or assonance, makes them similar.
A reader should also take note of the metrical pattern Hesse has chosen to make use of. The lines conform to iambic pentameter, the most popular of rhythmic patterns. This means that each line is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
This poem first appeared at the end of Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game. It was credited in the work as having been written by the character, Joseph Knecht.
Summary of Lament
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there is no “permanence” in “our” life. He is speaking to a listener who is never defined. This person could be someone specific, or a larger group who feels the same as the speaker does. He cannot find a place that allows him to dig deep into one emotion. Everything he is is in constant flux. His life is like a “wave.”
In the next stanzas, he describes how there is “no home” for him “where joy or grief runs deep.” He has yet to experience a true, full emotion, everything is surface level.
Above all else, the speaker is looking for the “right to stay.” He wants to be made into a solid, immovable statue.
The poem concludes with the speaker saying that there is one thing that has remained in his life, and the life/lives of his listener/listeners: fear. This emotion is always present, no matter what one’s individual situation is.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Lament
No permanence is ours; we are a wave
We pass forever, craving form that binds.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by making the statement, “No permanence is ours.” This line, although placed at the very beginning, acts as a summary of the entire text. It outlines the emotional state that the speaker finds himself and his listener/s in. From the first lines of the poem, it appears that the speaker is bothered by the fact that he, and his intended listener, are “a wave.” They can’t take a steady consistent form. Instead, they move through the “day or night” trying to find a “form that binds.”
The speaker and his listener, who remains undefined, are in a state of constant transformation. Sometimes where they end up is dark, like a “cave” and other times it is beautiful and light like a “cathedral.”
Mold after mold we fill and never rest,
No field nor plow is ours; we do not reap.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes how it’s not just their physical location that changes but their own mental and emotional states. They are filling “Mold after mold,” unable to find a resting place. Their personalities and emotions are in a constant state of flux that has become uncomfortable and likely exhausting. This is emphasized by the fact that the speaker starts that they have been seeking and unable to find a,
[…] home where joy or grief runs deep.
Initially, this seems like a positive thing, one should not want a home filled with grief. But it applies to joy as well. They have no place of true, full emotion. Everything is surface level and transitory.
The speaker describes himself and the listener as being “everlasting guest[s].” There is no land they are tied to or which it is their job to “plow.” Due to this fact, there is nothing for them to “reap.” There are no benefits from constant movement and transition.
What God would make of us remains unknown:
He kneads, but never gives us to the fire.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker moves on to trying to figure out what it is that “God” wants from him. The speaker wants to know what they are supposed to do with the life they have been forced into. The speaker feels like God “plays” with him and his listener/s like they,
[…] are the clay to his desire.
Plastic and mute…
They are easily transformed into whatever shape God feels like making at one specific moment. This is a reference more to their emotional transitions rather than anything too physical. God is not changing their bodies or their immediate environments. He is changing the way the speaker sees the world.
This line about “clay” relates directly back to the second stanza in which the speaker mentions the “molds” he is filling. His form as clay is perfect for this task.
In the last line of this stanza, the speaker’s desperation over the situation is hinted at. God keeps him on the edge of happiness and devastation at the same time. It would be better for this speaker if he was just given “to the fire.” He would be able to feel something real.
To stiffen to stone, to persevere!
And we shall never rest upon our way.
In the final quatrain of this piece the speaker longs for the “right to stay.” This could take any form. He would not mind it if he was suddenly to “stiffen to stone” and stay in one shape forever. In fact, that is what he is seeking out above all else.
There is a turn in the poem in the final two lines. Here it becomes clear that there is one constant emotion in the life of the speaker and his listener, “fear.” It is the only thing,
[…] that ever stays with us…
Their other emotions and mental states might shift, but fear will always be there. There is no explanation for this constancy except that it the speaker’s own very human nature. The speaker could be addressing one particular person in this piece, or a broader group that feels the same as he does.