Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

The whole history of art is really a prolonged commentary on human nature. Here, in a world that has managed to send a human-made object out of our solar system but which yet witnesses thousands of deaths every day from starvation and war, Wagner’s art work surely stands for the mightiness of the human endeavour, whatever our beliefs about why or how we got here. As Wagner was intensely human, there are traces of all his humanity in his work. Perfection is an ideal that can be embodied in art, hardly ever lived out as an ethical ideal.

Orpheus is ascending: And maybe we are learning to look at the face of Wagner with not only our love but with compassion too, the same compassion Wagner expressed so nobly in his music. The world must be an alien place for those who can only criticise what has been brought by civilisation to their back door. How strange it is that Wagner should have achieved something so gigantic in one lifetime. We do no honour to Wagner by turning those achievements into a cult and praise, as in a Nuremberg war rally, the outer garments, the actual detritus of biography and performing tradition left behind after the life has been consigned to history. A real love of Wagner means putting aside all the biographical apparatus and listening to the music he composed and the words his characters sing. What we do with that intensity and exaltation is our own affair, but I should say that the experience is a civilising one.

In some of Lucian Freud’s later paintings the artist has concentrated on painting the figures of Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery. They are subjects who have amplitude; they impose their bodies on the visual landscape with a voluptuous certainty; they have a physicality that reaches out beyond the canvas; the details of their skin and hair are painted in loving detail. These paintings of Freud are in total contrast to the anorexic smugness that passes itself off as beautiful in contemporary culture. Wagner’s works are somewhat like these paintings. All of life has been put into them. Beyond the rational, yet not irrational, the music of Wagner provokes with its prodding at the fabric of life, the fabric Wagner found so difficult to wear himself. Past debt, fatigue, depression, nervous exhaustion, irritability and duplicity, Wagner dragged into existence his music dramas with their panoramic transformative power. We cannot always be worthy of rising to the level that Wagner demands, and sometimes those demands, as in the Prologue and Act One of Götterdämmerung on a hot August afternoon, are fearsome.

Orpheus had been given a gift by the gods. Wagner often wanted to hand his gift back; even after his world success he fantasised about luxuriating on the Nile and wished the whole Bayreuth enterprise would go to the devil. Christina Rossetti asked in a poem, ‘Does the road wind up-hill all the way?’ and answered, ‘Yes, to the very end.’ Wagner’s life was lived along a road that wound up-hill to the very end. The extraordinary fecundity of Wagner’s imaginative world is still leading audiences, critics and historians uphill.

I said at the outset that Wagner’s predestined end was the classical imperium we reserve for only a handful of mighty creative spirits. He is still removed from that imperium, but the distance is narrowing. Much still needs to be written about and thought over, and that will only be possible once we have cast to one side our present cultural confusion.

In Theodore Zeldin’s book, An Intimate History Of Humanity, Vintage, 1994, the author states that, with all of our historical understanding and insatiable curiosity, the real age of discovery has hardly begun. Let us try to discover the real Wagner, the Wagner still in advance of a century of new departures, artistic revolutions and experimentation. Wagner saw quite clearly that art was not a throw of the dice across a white abyss of symbolic chance, to use the language of Mallarmé, but a profoundly expressive medium that could embody the complexity of existence. It may seem outrageous to claim that we have not yet discovered Wagner. What with the outpouring of critical works written and a performing tradition that is ‘rich and strange’, perhaps it might be objected that we understand Wagner only too well. I would argue that we are now only just preparing ourselves intellectually and emotionally to confront the reach of the Wagnerian enterprise. The old pro and contra arguments are not sophisticated enough to bring into focus the contradictions and ambiguities that the Wagner music drama presents us with.

Critics who write on Wagner spend a great deal of time wringing their hands at the wailing wall of their own supposed moral superiority. I don’t suppose any of them ever got round to nearly starving or being exiled from their own country, though I imagine one or two of them might have had bad first marriages. It is the individual members of the great unwashed general public who are properly grateful for culture, not the critical fraternity, and who often see beyond the tiresome theoretical monologues to the passion and beauty of the art. It is one of the singular failures of most art criticism, though it is of particular significance in Wagner’s case, that it cannot accommodate itself to the following observation made by Arthur Schnitzler in Casanova’s Return To Venice: ‘had he not leamt a thousand times that in the souls of all persons who are truly alive, discrepant elements, nay apparently hostile elements, may coexist in perfect harmony?’

From the very tooth and claw of nature Wagner drew down onto the stage uncanny representations of fire, water and birdsong, moonlight, rainbow and wind. From his own knowledge of human frailty he gave us Marke’s grieving and Brangaene’s incomprehension, Alberich’s lust for power and Wotan’s abnegation of that very same power, Loge’s ironic detachment and Parsifal’s spiritual commitment, Kurwenal’s steadfastness and Ortrud’s treachery. From within a reservoir of sympathetic intellectual interest he fashioned the epic-poetical, political-aesthetic, republican-mediaeval art work of the future. There is revolutionary fervour in the music dramas, just as there is resignation, passionate abandonment to divine fate and existential aloneness. In other words, there is life, not an image of life, but the thing itself in all its ambiguity and complexity. How perplexing it is that an artist captured it all with such intensity and verisimilitude. And how remarkable it is that it should have been possible when circumstance so often conspires to defeat what is worthwhile in this world. The Wagnerian music drama continues to thrive because, for one thing, it is all-inclusive. The young sailor at the beginning of Tristan und Isolde is winged with the same yearning humanity as its protagonists; the apprentices who request silence at the beginning of the song contest in Meistersinger know they are asking for the quiet needed for all to properly participate in a festival of poetry and song. Wagner does not compartmentalise his characters either. Nothing could betray a greater misunderstanding of Wagnerian dramaturgy than a comment such as this in the notes for the CDs of the Met’s 1942 Tannhäuser: ‘Wolfram is so goody-goody. No wonder . . .  nobility has died out . . . he’s too pure to procreate’. Such vulgar reductionism cannot begin to comprehend Wagner’s theatrical world which, whilst seldom achieving equanimity, sees into the heart of the human experience, and in doing so, attempts to reconcile all of its fragmented splendour. Now, one must take account of someone like Marc Weiner who proposes that Wagner’s works are riddled with anti-Semitic intention. There can be no question of the shameful prevarications still practised by those who would like to rewrite history after their own unjust deserts. Art worthy of the name will always withstand critical scrutiny; it has nothing to fear from it. But intellectual justice has to be exercised on behalf of art too. Trying to contain Wagner in an ideological straightjacket simply doesn’t work. The music dramas are too big and too many depth charges are set off in the course of the Wagner experience for there ever to be much plain sailing. Simplifying the biographical facts of the matter doesn’t help our understanding of Wagner either. Just as Cosima’s haughty obsequiousness can make us feel queasy, so can her service to the composer fill us with amazement at its dedicated far-sightedness. If the lamentable intellectual shenanigans Glasenapp got up to have challenged contemporary Wagner scholarship to rebalance the scholarly equation, so too must we come to a clear-sighted estimation of what really was achieved by Wagner and what is now being achieved by the inheritance of Wagnerism.

Are our ideals capable of being fulfilled by us, here, now, practically. Or are our lives exercises in hypocrisy, and all our humanitarianism a charade to cover over the traces of an adamantine egotism. Is not the example of Wagner a compelling witness for the defence of Western culture, which latterly can be seen to have not been up to scratch. Why is it that the world of Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall and AIDS can appear to fit the Wagnerian music drama so aptly whereas our own art can seem so indifferent, unconcerned and mediocre by comparison. Well, I would argue that Wagner was open to the enormity of our existence and that he lived out the polar and tropical entirety of the mysterium that got put into its elliptical orbit as the third rock from the sun. If there is an underlying racist or sexist agenda in the works themselves, it must be of the kind that is transformed in the very effort of the life lived and the art created. Beauty and truth to be realities must have dipped their purity into the muck of life, the ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ as Yeats has it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’. Wagner certainly knew that bone shop in all of its complexities—its disappointments, hatreds and failures. Transcendence and redemption were freely optioned by a volatile sensibility at the epicentre of the Romantic agony.

I am all too aware of the unsatisfactory nature of this commentary on Wagner, just as I am aware that its contents could easily be dismissed as a rhetorical trope by one of our latter-day linguistic exegetes. What matters now is our commitment to art; that we have learned from it, been taught to feel and think in new ways by it. If we look on the Wagnerian endeavour as entertainment we have entirely missed the point; Wagner would have had nothing but contempt for us. It is not a matter of entering the theatre with bowed heads and an air of hysterical solemnity, as with the old guard at Bayreuth, but of an active and intelligent engagement with one of the most fertile and challenging artistic oeuvres that Western civilisation has given us. If that means rejecting the art work of the future or reducing it to the level of our own present straightened circumstances, so be it. It is often the function of great art to wait beyond decades and even centuries of neglect for its torso to emerge before newly-cleansed and awakened eyes.

On the last night of his life Cosima hears Richard talking ‘volubly and loudly’, as always.’ “Once in 5000 years it succeeds!” “I was talking about Undine, the being who longed for a soul.” He goes to the piano, plays the mournful theme “Rheingold, Rheingold”, continues with “False and base all those who dwell up above.” “Extraordinary that I saw this so clearly at the time!”—And as he is lying in bed, he says, “I feel loving towards them, these subservient creatures of the deep, with all their yearning.” ‘ [Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, February 11th, 1883] What a profound leave-taking of life with its clear presentiment of death these final comments are. And how truthful to his whole artistic endeavour is this final adieu. It was extraordinary that Wagner felt and composed as he did; no artist does themself a favour by indulging in false modesty. His final comment is one that expresses love; on the eve of his death Wagner foresees the ocean of life ready to take him, Licht-Alberich/Schwarz-Alberich, down to the depths on the immense wave of feeling he expressed in his music so profoundly. And as he prepares to descend, before a final historical ascent, he sheds his mortality, becoming, like Undine, a spirit of infinite yearning and patience.

In ‘The Critic as Artist’ Oscar Wilde writes in his amusing way, ‘A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal’. Well, perhaps never in the whole history of art was an artist more sincere than Wagner. Maybe it is that sincerity we find so unsettling. We now live in a culture that will pay millions of dollars for a baseball and that espouses the celebrity interview as a via media of significance. In contrast, we have Wagner to show us, in his life and work, what the upper limit for significance can be in this world. The great achievement of democracy gives us a personal freedom to fulfil our humanity to the best of our capacity. Wagner shows both the glories and limitations of this enigmatic human enterprise. His work also stands defiantly as a challenge to all that is unachieved or too-easily achieved in art and culture. Once in five thousand years it succeeds? No, certainly not. But it did succeed gigantically, once. Against all the odds, the poetic ideal became a reality. Wagner ascended the terrain we have yet to traverse, step-by-painful step, and he is waiting for us now.


The following poem was written in 1997. Ernest Newman, the Wagner scholar and music critic, mistakenly believed that Wagner had composed a string quartet while staying near Lake Starnberg, the lake in which Ludwig II subsequently drowned. My suggestion is that we can complete the ‘quartet’ begun by Ludwig, Nietzsche and Wagner through our involvement in, and commitment to, the creative act.

       Starnberg Quartet
      Ludwig, Nietzsche, Wagner

Here a gold symposium
Was summoned by a swan:
A king unsure of kingship, but who found
In art the solace we would give it now
If we believed in it as he had done;
A thinker near truth’s wound,
Bitter in rejecting what he loved,
A mind at the end of its strength,
Yet leaving Attic tracings
Of philosophic joy;
And a composer, worthy of our need,
Moving beyond failure
To ideals not betrayed.

It ended with drowning and madness,
An argument over sex.
Laughing death now names the fourth
Making the markings of this score—
That is you and I.
Matching what we have
With what they had to give,
Our reach might equal theirs.

We were never so foolish
To think redemption could come
From music heard in the dark
Or use ambiguous logic
To challenge our modern redoubt,
And we know if a god came to earth
Its name would sound like Mandela,
Not Wotan with his strife.

If we reject a part
Of what they were or said
And would never wish to become,
Then too we honour their greatness—
From highest bliss to the social debt,
Manoeuvring to find
All the human allows.

A mountain stands before us
Beneath a radiant Muse
And we would climb it still,
If we could give our best
And serve art as we know we should.
We wait now near their limit
For courage to reshape
The image of our magnitude
In work that’s undismayed.

Written 1997 Published 2001