- Form and Contention:Sati as Custom in Günderrode's "Die Malabarischen Witwen"
In Die Günderode, her fictionalized biography of the poet Karoline von Günderrode,1 Bettine von Arnim conspicuously excludes her beloved friend's suicide from the plot. In its place, she intersperses the novel with previously unpublished texts by Günderrode, and ends the novel with the image of a rose bush full of life—so much life, in fact, that the number of its blossoms corresponds to the years in Günderrode's life: "mit siebenundzwanzig Knospen, das sind Deine Jahre, ich habe sie freudig gezählt und daß es grad Deine Jahre trifft das freut mich so" (with twenty-seven buds, exactly your years, I counted them happily, and the fact that they perfectly match your years—that cheers me so).2
I cite this moment for its stark contrast to the legacy Karoline von Günderrode has since gone on to possess in literary history. As Liesl Allingham has pointed out, it is difficult to find a piece of scholarship on this poet that does not include at least passing reference to the circumstances of her death: the foremost woman poet of German romanticism—forever associated with her final moments.3 Von Arnim's rose blossoms inspire brilliant optimism in the face of loss. That which may have appeared to be merely decorative (indeed, what could compare with the aesthetic potential of a red rose—the beloved trope of so many literary works?) assumes all the weight and energy of Günderrode's life. Following von Arnim, I hope to pursue two possibilities suggested by this image of the rosebuds. First, on a fundamental level, I will prioritize Günderrode's literary work, as it continues to sound a marginalized voice even within German romanticism and the Goethezeit. Second, I want to highlight another possibility for re-thinking lives that were rendered decorative.
My focus is Günderrode's "Die Malabarischen Witwen"4 and its romanticizing depiction of sati, otherwise known as widow immolation, or the burning of the bereaved widow upon the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. While immolations have occurred in a variety of contexts, sati is the name of the event ascribed, with dubious accuracy,5 to Hinduism in India. Günderrode begins by describing the women in their procession, "[g]eschmücket festlich, wie in Brautgewanden" (l. 4; ornamented festively, as if in bridal garments). The poem, like the women's clothes, makes festivity and splendor of a deeply controversial event, and through the sonnet form sati itself, like the women in their garments, appears "geschmücket festlich." [End Page 197]
Günderrode is one of those many women writers from as many canons and traditions whose early death has threatened to overshadow all she accomplished while alive. In this sense, she has something in common with (though of course not directly comparable to) the women she describes in this poem. She also appears to be the only woman writer of German romanticism to have depicted sati. The overall fascination with that notoriously amorphous region dubbed "the Orient" in German romantic literature is well documented,6 yet the involvement of women writers in this trend is less researched. As I will discuss in greater detail later in this paper, many of Günderrode's best-known works involve re-imaginings and re-writings of disparate mythologies, stories, and locations that fascinated contemporaneous authors: she wrote longingly of distant countries like Egypt and Persia, as well as the India she envisions in "Die Malabarischen Witwen."7
"Die Malabarischen Witwen" was published in the volume Melete of 1806, a collection which features experimentation with a variety of themes and poetic forms. I will pay close attention to Günderrode's adaptation of and innovation with regard to the sonnet, while also taking care to note how these stylistic accomplishments come at the price of participating in the same exoticizing language of some of her better-known contemporaries. First, I will look at the context of the sonnet in German literature of the nineteenth century, connecting Günderrode's objectification of the widows to conventions of the genre, while...