Bonhoeffer as Poet

photo of various books by Bonhoeffer or about himDietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing takes many forms – from theological statements to personal letters – prose and poetry, much of which was written towards the end of his life from a prison-cell. His poems provide a valuable and dynamic insight for all of us into Bonhoeffer the man – his ideas, his faith and his discipleship.

Since his death, poems such as the one below have also provided inspiration for artists and musicians. This English translation by JB Leishman of one of Bonhoeffer’s most well-known poems appeared in Letter and Papers from Prison [SCM Press 1953].

Who am I?

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I need to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

 

Am I really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath as though hands were compressing my throat,

Yearning for colours, for flowers for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

 

Who am I?  This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

 

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

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