Poetry

Frederick the Great

When he was young, Frederick the Great tried to flee his tyrannical father

By conspiring with his best friend, 

A young officer, Hans Hermann von Katte, to escape.

When caught he was imprisoned, and feared he would be executed,

Something his father probably considered, though he eventually relented.

His friend, however, was sentenced to death and executed cruelly 

Beneath the window of Frederick’s prison cell.

His father commanded that Frederick watch the execution.

Frederick pressed up against the bars and reached his arm through

To try and touch his doomed beloved friend.

What exact words did these men use when planning their escape,

One marked out but unwilling to be king

And the other a career soldier from a modest background?

What exactly did they say to one another?

What did they name this love they would give themselves for,

One to lose his crown, the other his life?

Later, Frederick wrote sonatas that are not so bad,

And Immanuel Kant chose his poetry as an excellent example of the aesthetic.

He reformed the bureaucracy along rational lines

And was famed for his military victories

And deft masterstrokes of diplomacy.

When old and dying, and asked what wisdom he could leave behind

He said simply that in all things, whether it be military strategy

Or the administration of the state,

That one thing should follow another in a direct and uncomplicated manner

As the events of a life followed one after another 

In a simple and necessary objective sequence.

He knew that this insight was banal,

But nothing, even the unreserve of the dying

Would make him say anything more.

He was haunted by himself, you see.

If he saw himself coming towards himself from the future

He knew no impulse that could protect him 

From the levelling consequences of reason;

But if he saw himself coming from the past,

Then he would have to admit that he was already dead,

And that reason was his way of punishing the world.

Whichever of the two it was, or even if it was both,

It was his painful awareness of his separation from his most dangerous self

That today makes us call him great, even if, to his sorrow

It is not for his poetry or music he is most admired,

Because the poetry could not capture what this man was and was not really like.

 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review