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Stephen Copley Research Report: Francesco Marchionni on Nietzsche

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Thanks to the Stephen Copley Research Award granted by BARS, I was able to spend a week in Weimar (Germany) to consult Friedrich Nietzsche’s Nachlass and work with manuscripts related to Nietzsche’s reading of Lord Byron, P.B. Shelley and Giacomo Leopardi. My doctoral thesis investigates notions of grief, death and posterity in the works of Byron, Shelley and Leopardi as a result of their readings of the Promethean myth from Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. I avow that the Romantics’ fragmented poetic thoughts between hubris and nemesis anticipate the Nietzschean discourse of modernity as divided and contradictory.

My research residence began with a visit to the Nietzsche Archiv museum, dedicated to Nietzsche’s last days in Villa Silberblick before his death. From the very moment I entered the building, I remembered Nietzsche’s letter from 1884 where he bemoans: ‘Who knows how many generations must pass before people will come who can feel the whole depth of what I have done!’ In retrospect, Nietzsche’s letter seemed to me to echo Virgil’s line from the first book of Georgics, ‘scilicet et tempus veniet’, raising the question of what we can truly know of the time to come.

Nietzsche Archiv Museum

Looking at the portrait of Nietzsche in the museum as a man consumed day by day by an ill-fated disease, it seemed to me that the moribund philosopher silently lamented the paradox of the philosopher, between the deception of ambition derived from knowledge and the unfolding reality of suffering, a dilemma that finds in death an ultimate salvation. The portrait and epistle from 1884 reveal Nietzsche’s uncertainty regarding posterity and his rejoicing in the certainty of death ceasing his anguish. Having left the museum, I contemplated how Nietzsche’s mournful meditations chimed with the scepticism and gloom embedded in the works of Byron, Shelley and Leopardi. We can think, for example, of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (‘O Wind,  / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’), Byron’s Don Juan (‘What is the end of fame? ‘tis but to fill / A certain portion of uncertain paper’) and Leopardi’s Sappho’s Last Song (‘after endless/ Hoped-for honours and enjoyed illusions,/ Only Tartarus remains’).

The visit to the Nietzsche Archiv proved itself beneficial for the later consultation of Nietzsche’s Nachlass. From letters to friends (Erwin Rohde and Marie Baumgarten) and family (his mother Franziska Nietzsche and sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche) I could access, though in brief form, Nietzsche’s commentaries on the poetry of Shelley and Leopardi. In a letter to his sister from 1861, Nietzsche requests a copy of Shelley’s poetry edited by Julius Seybt (1844) and in a letter to Erwin Rohde from 1877, Nietzsche praises the English Romantic for the poetic achievement of Prometheus Unbound. Additionally, the letter to Rohde is compelling because Nietzsche comments how he found in Shelley a version of himself, philosophically and poetically. A few years after reading Shelley, Nietzsche received from Marie Baumgarten a copy of Leopardi’s poetry edited by Paul Heyse (1878). The 1878 epistle to Baumgarten about Leopardi attests to Nietzsche’s fascination regarding the Italian Romantic and his delightfully gloomy poetry. However, later in the epistle Nietzsche points out a philosophical detour from Leopardi’s pessimism. Nietzsche illuminates that Leopardi’s poetry is suffused with a profound sense of resignation regarding the gloom of human existence. By contrast, the German philosopher argues that such gloom should be contemplated in order to apprehend human suffering.

The final days of research were spent reading and working on Nietzsche’s unpublished essay Über die dramatischen Dichtungen Byrons (‘On the dramatic Works of Byron’), written at the age of 17. Though Nietzsche argues that Byron is not a dramatist because his works lack of dramatic objectivity, the essay presents a fond enthusiasm for the English poet. Nietzsche writes that Byron’s poetry resembles the rage of a volcanic explosion that falls into a sinister tranquillity, and also contends that his poetry contains the diseases of the world within the purity of his lyricism. Nietzsche offers an interesting example of Byron’s poetics by looking at Manfred. He comments that Manfred encompasses a Byronic superhuman despair and, through the protagonist of the dramatic poem, Byron is capable of performing, theatrically, the stormy hall of his poetic thoughts. Thus, Nietzsche concludes, Byron deconstructs in Manfred a discourse about knowledge, confessions about a disordered world and the notion of divine self-consciousness.

Reading Nietzsche’s unpublished essay on Byron, and his letters on Shelley and Leopardi, allowed me to assess Nietzsche’s familiarity with the three Romantic poets, who, interestingly, seem to be depicted as poetic titans who were forerunners of the Olympian Pantheon of what Nietzsche calls his ‘Gay Science’. I am deeply grateful to BARS for granting me this opportunity and I am sure the research in Weimar will be of great value for the completion of my doctoral thesis.

Francesco Marchionni (Durham University)