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The Poetic Hannah Arendt: A Conversation with Arendt Researcher Samantha Rose Hill

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The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture, and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

The Library of Congress has launched a new public access online version of the Hannah Arendt Papers manuscript collection, including an updated framework and an electronic finding aid with active digital content links that can be used to explore and study the collection by anyone with internet access around the world. The Hannah Arendt Papers collection is rich in resources pertaining to both Arendt’s life and work. It include family papers, writings, draft manuscripts, and materials stemming from Arendt’s experience as a political philosopher, wife, colleague, eloquent writer, and professor, including correspondence with other public intellectuals, literary greats, activists, publishers, and friends.

Detail, Hannah Arendt Bluecher U.S. Naturalization certificate, 1951. Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division.

Samantha Rose Hill is the assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and assistant professor of Political Studies at Bard College. She is the author of two forthcoming books, Hannah Arendt (Reaktion 2021) and Hannah Arendt’s Poems (Liveright 2022). Professor Hill has made extensive research use of the Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress and related resources in her teaching and scholarship for many years and works with others in studying Arendt.

Below is a short interview I conducted with Samantha Rose Hill via e-mail about her research and relationship with Arendt’s work.

What does the release of this updated version of the Hannah Arendt Papers digital humanities site by the Library of Congress mean to you? How has access to Arendt primary materials affected your research and teaching?

First, please just let me say thank you to the Library of Congress and Jerome Kohn who oversees Hannah Arendt’s literary estate. This is a tremendous moment for Arendt research and scholarship.

I have been studying Hannah Arendt for nearly twenty years. When I first entered Arendt’s archived materials in 2010, her writing opened for me in new and unexpected ways. Looking through her correspondence, manuscript drafts, and teaching materials, I began to think about the relationship between Arendt’s life and work. While Arendt is often seen as a very serious public figure of thinking, access to her archive complicates that portrait. The moment one dives into the papers they are met with an incredibly funny, vivacious woman who was as engaged in a life of political action as she was in the work of understanding and thinking. Since I stepped foot in the library, my writing has been led by the collection materials. I’ve had the opportunity to tell the story of how Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History survived the war and was published in English. I co-translated Arendt’s correspondence with Theodor Adorno with my colleague Susan Gillespie. And now for the past few years I have turned to the archive to fill in some biographical details of Hannah Arendt’s life in my introductory biography to Arendt’s life and work. Additionally, I have tried to make Arendt a more approachable figure so that people feel free to engage with her work by sharing archival documents with readers—datebooks, letters, shopping lists—the materiality of the archive humanizes the writer.

When Hannah Arendt died in 1975, she was mostly known for her reportage on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker. When the archive was opened to researchers, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl published the first biography of Arendt in 1982, bringing forth a tidal wave of articles, essays, and books that explored Arendt’s manuscripts and correspondence. Opening public access to Arendt’s papers at this moment, when more people are reading Arendt than ever, will allow them to engage more thoroughly in primary sources. There is no shortage of new stories that can be told from the treasures in the collection.

Many people know Arendt as a political philosopher, as a Jewish refugee émigré to the United States in the era of the Nazi regime, as a public voice, and as a writer of seminal societal analysis in such works as The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, and Eichmann in Jerusalem. Fewer people know her in association with poetry. What first drew you to work on a book on Hannah Arendt’s poems? Was she an appreciator of poetry, and would you say in many of her prose writings she herself has a poetic voice?

Text of poem
Arendt poetry, 1942. Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division.

I first discovered Arendt’s poems in the Arendt collection at the Library of Congress. I was working my way through the finding aid and was surprised to come across a collection of 23 poems that she had carried with her from Germany through exile to America. After the war, Arendt told Günter Gaus that it was the language of German poetry that remained, and Arendt wrote all 74 of her poems in German. I immediately began combing through her correspondences and notebooks, collecting her poems and putting them in chronological order. I read the poems as a secondary biographical text. Many of the poems echo parts of her published work, deaths of friends, and travels after the war.

Arendt was a poetic thinker without being a poet. As far as I know she never tried to publish her poems. Young-Bruehl said that they were her most private life. Poems for Arendt were a way of thinking that resisted the crystallizing effect prose can sometimes have. There is no end in thinking, and poetic form allows for a kind of openness and play that defined Arendt’s work. She is constantly drawing together images, metaphors, and quotations in order to facilitate a conversation that provokes one to thinking. And there is no end in thinking.

Poets and poems play an important role in the body of Arendt’s work. She could recite Homer, Goethe, Schiller, and others by heart. She was fond of quoting the French resistance fighter and poet Rene Char’s line, “Our inheritance was left to us by no testament.” Arendt left the world of professional philosophy in 1933 after the burning of the Reichstag and was free to think the world anew, liberated from the tradition of intellectual inheritance. Poems were just as important for her as Immanuel Kant.

Some of my favorite folders of materials in the Hannah Arendt Papers are those pertaining to poets Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and W. H. Auden. Do these resonate for you as well? What do you think of Arendt’s relation to these three poets?

Oh yes! Some of Hannah Arendt’s earliest English writing was edited by Randall Jarrell. She learned to write in American English from the New York poets. Arendt met Randall Jarrell in 1945 when he moved to New York to edit The Nation’s book review. She was impressed by his war poems and had asked him to translate some German poems into English. He introduced her to Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, and W.B. Yeats, and Arendt helped him with his translations of Goethe, Rilke, Heine, and Hölderlin. As she described it, he read her English poetry for hours, and opened up a whole new world of sound and meter.

Letter from Hannah Arendt to Randall Jarrell
Letter, Hannah Arendt to Randall Jarrell,
Oct. 24, 1947. Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division.
Photo of Randall Jarrell
Randall Jarrell at the National Poetry Festival, 1962.
Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ds-10192.

Her correspondence with W.H. Auden is exquisitely beautiful. There is an exchange about forgiveness; Auden types his poems on the backs of his letters and sends them to Arendt; and late in life he proposed marriage (platonically) to her after her husband Heinrich Blücher died. And then there is Arendt’s essay for W.H. Auden written after his death and published in The New Yorker. When Auden reviewed The Human Condition in 1958, he said he felt as though it had been written especially for him. They were kindred spirits in so many ways, free and open to the possibilities and messiness of life.

Letter to W.H. Auden
Hannah Arendt to W.H. Auden, Feb. 14, 1960. Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division.
Photo of W.H. Auden
W. H. Auden. Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-93465.

Arendt was introduced to the writer Hermann Broch shortly before she went to work for Schocken Books. They were immediately taken with one another. Broch tried to seduce Arendt, but she implored him, “Hermann, let me be the exception!” He was a bit of a Lothario. Arendt reviewed The Death of Virgil in 1945, and in his writing she found her conception of the “no longer and not yet,” which gave form to her work Between Past and Future. She wrote that the character of Virgil tried to span the abyss of empty space between the world that had disappeared with the war, and the world that was yet to come. When Broch suddenly died from a massive heart attack in 1951, Arendt wrote a short poem for him:


But how does one live with the dead? Say,
where is the sound of their company,
or the gestures they once made?
We wish they were still near us.

Who knows the cry that took them away
and drew the veil before their empty gaze?
What helps? That we send ourselves to them,
and turning this feeling around, learn to survive.

Text of poem by Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell, “Pigeons.” English adaptation of Rilke, “Taube, die draußen blieb.” Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division.
Photo of Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell. Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-60875.

Robert Lowell described Hannah Arendt as “an oasis in the fevered, dialectical dust of New York.” They met in the late fifties or early sixties, as he recounts it, in Mary McCarthy’s apartment. She told Lowell their first meeting was “an occasion.” They spoke on the telephone once or twice a month. Jarrell had turned Lowell onto the work of Hannah Arendt, recommending he read The Origins of Totalitarianism. They would sit for hours in her apartment at 370 Riverside Drive and Arendt always greeted him in the doorway with a kiss. In 1961 Lowell wrote what he called his “finest poem” for Hannah Arendt, and dedicated it in her honor. It was a translation of one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s last poems, “Taube, die draußen blieb.” Lowell added an extra stanza and ended his book Imitations with the poem “Pigeons” for Hannah Arendt. It is a meditation on home and homelessness.


Related Resources

  • Peter Armenti, W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. From The Catbird Seat. Nov. 25, 2013 blog post.
  • Randall Jarrell. Edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux [1967].
  • Robert Lowell, Imitations. “A small anthology of European poetry [freely translated and adapted]”. New York, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy [1961].
  • Robert Lowell, U.S Consultant in Poetry, 1947-1948. “Biography” feature with Lowell resources.
  • The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress. Virtual webinar hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, Roger Berkowitz, academic director. Recorded June 16, 2021.
  • Additional information on archival collections and published research using Arendt primary sources, including edited editions of her writings and letters and a list of her published books, is available in the Related Resources section of the Library of Congress Hannah Arendt Papers digital presentation.