The Fifth Element or the Quintessence
On Ernst Meister’s poem ‘The Old Sun’

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The old sun
does not budge
from its position.

in the
turning time at twilight
live the fear or the heavy joy.

Love –
Trust and turn,

we have
known of it
on our trabant,

before everything
was past.


Here, between the sun and its trabant, the earth, a universe (2) is displayed – in its meaning derived from „unus“ and „versus“ – as being turned towards us in its entirety and at the same time facing us in a related way. Close to and very far away from it, we live in a state of fear and joy in the face of the immensity of the cosmos: not only with a heavy, dark expression at the change-over of dusk and dawn, but also in gaining awareness, as thoughts „dawn“ on us about our relationship with the world.Given Meister’s interest in primal images, the “old sun” could be seen in a mythic sense as an image of the primal energy, the original source of existence. We must ask, however, whether this primal image is still valid for our human understanding of ourselves, given our present scientific knowledge. For if we continue to see the sun as the center of the universe, our knowledge of the existence of distant galaxies is rendered impossible.

While it is the center of our solar system, it is just one star among many in our galaxy, the Milky Way, a flat, disc-shaped formation. The structure of the Milky Way is a spiral, the mass concentrating towards its center and the entire Milky Way rotating around that center. Our solar system, too, out on the edge of the Milky Way, moves around this center. Moreover, it is regarded as likely that the earth itself will become a grain of dust and an insignificant planet. As such it will exist as a lost star within universes characterized by countless constellations. And besides since 1998 we know that human beings, stars and galaxies account for no more than four percent of the mass of the universe (3).

On the mythical level, on the other hand, we describe this primal energy in phenomenological terms. Meaning we conceive of this primal energy as something that cannot be quantified because it is the very source beyond space and time. In a condition of infinite density turned inside out as a cyclical universe without beginning and end, it appears to us as though it does not move. “The old sun / does not budge / from its position”, which is in line with Aristotelian philosophy that postulates a mover who is himself unmoving.

In ‚The Thoughts of a Year’, Ernst Meister speaks in a particular way about the spirit of the cosmos: “Earth-water-air-sun-flower: a context, an organon, being but not being aware of itself. One may think: the sun as darkness and less than darkness to itself , the vast glowing sphere nothing to itself. One learns here what the spirit of the cosmos is, how consciousness is not necessary for something to exist, react, fall into place, agree.”

In the face of this “spirit of the cosmos”, mankind, as in this poem, is enhanced with consciousness, moved and touched by what it perceives in a process of being safe as well as abandoned and taking leave, “before everything / was past”. Such a fundamental human state of being as consciousness: – safe and „solitary in empty space” (4) dependent upon it and in relation to it – often associated with clarity and the sun, is embedded within us so deeply that we maintain our hold on this primal image in spite of all the growth in our scientific knowledge. Namely we hold on a symbol we recognize as real because it accords with our experience of being. Ernst Meister constructs from this a natural idea of the world which engenders itself, that enables us to find our way back to being in accordance with the world of human existence, by acknowledging an evolving cosmos free of purpose in which mankind is in finite modification.

In the composition of this poem, which is kept laconically tight, is is noticeable, however, that a crucial addition is proclaimed in the spirit of Paul Valéry (a poet much admired by Ernst Meister), who writes like „ a cool scientist, almost a mathematical wizard in the service of a refined dreamer” (5).
The six stanzas are accordingly arranged so that couplets alternate with triplets and one sextet. The first triplet deals with looking at the sun, while the other five deal with the human situation on earth in relation to the sun. In the numerology of the Cabbala, the One stands for the Uniqueness and Wholeness of Being that has its existence in nature; in this poem the One stands for the image of the sun, for the original source, for that which precedes and has aready been completed. Two is the number of polarity, of opposition, of dualism; three as the divine number implies the symbol of the life force; five – the conjoining of two and three – is the number of mankind as quintessence; and six signifies the complete number and the joining of opposites. Exactly in the middle of the stanzas dealing with mankind, placed between six lines above and six lines below, attached with a hyphen, is the word love. Elsewhere, Meister has written about love in the following ways: “We have known of it” and “Love is prophecy of love”, an entity that expresses and reveals itself through language, “The feelíng seems to be immanent in every great love that we, you and I, have always known each other. Why is that? Because the loving harmony remembers its infinity, the original source recognizes itself in every new manifestation (6).”

Thus the quintessence for the poem can be stated as follows: consciousness or the “I” is created anew with every human being and is therefore in principal only accessible through introspection of one person. At the same time it is literally transcendent. This process is masterfully reflected in the poem, both in its form and content. As to put it in cosmological terms one can state: the earth is dependent on the sun for its existence and both inextricably intertwined to the entire cosmos; in like fashion the human beings find in corresponding form their natural relation to the world in the act of love, thought and poetry.

(1) Ernst Meister, Wandloser Raum, Darmstadt 1979, p. 21

(2) Universe= cosmos, world, space, a) the totality of all things, b) the space in which all material objects exist.?Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at Cambridge: Das Rätsel unseres Universums Beck, Munich, 2003 (Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe, Basic Books, 2001)
Interv. by Stefan Klein (biophysicist), Die Zeit 24.7.09 ‘Wir alle sind nur Sternenstaub’ [We are all just stardust]: “The stars are much nearer to us than we think. They are governed by the same laws of nature as apply here on earth, only under much more extreme conditions. After all, the cosmos is where we live … and in the end, we ourselves are stardust.”

(3) Marcus Chown, Das Universum und das ewige Leben [The Universe and Eternal Life], Munich 2009

(4) Ernst Meister, ’Dichten ist identisch mit Denken’ . Ein Gespräch mit Ernst Meister.[Writing poetry is identical with thinking’. An interview with Ernst Meister] Interv. with J. Wallmann, in: Ernst Meister Lesebuch [An Ernst Meister Reader], Cologne 2005, p. 121

(5) Paul Valéry, Über die literarische Technik, in: Paul Valéry, Werke, Vol. 5, Zur Theorie der Dichtkunst und vermischte Gedanken, ed. J. Schmidt-Radefeldt, Frankfurt 1991, pp.12-16, passage cited on p. 13

(6) Ernst Meister, Gedanken eines Jahres [Thoughts of a Year] in: Prosa, Darmstadt 1989, p. 243 (passage cited p. 493) and p. 257 (passage cited p.553)

©Rosemarie Zens in: Hidden Patterns, Berlin 2011