Hesse-WanderingHermann Hesse: Wandering, Notes and Sketches (1920); translated by James Wright. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) composed his little book Wanderung: Aufzeichnungen as fiction, but it reads as autobiography, as do most of his little sketches wherein a personable narrator reveals his convoluted emotions. Wandering finds the fictional narrator at a psychological crossroads, and Hesse's clear, simple, and heartfelt prose makes the book a a candid and attractive reflection.

The book is divided into 13 named chapters and almost as many poems completing each section; the sketches of the named sites are in color in the original German edition. The chapters chronicle a day's thoughts on a walking journey between southern Germany and northern Italy -- essentially Switzerland, where Hesse was to become a citizen in a few short years, disillusioned by his homeland and the recent war. The wanderer passes houses, trees, farms, skies. The pithy thoughts of our narrator are often insightful -- at least insightful into a solitary's soul.

The unnumbered chapters are here examined closely,numbered for clarity. The English translation reproduces the original color sketches in black and white.

1. Farmhouse.
Is wandering a type of eremitism? Wandering is a solitary effort, of course, but Hesse shows that it is an avocation, a deep expression of self. and not a mere pastime.

The wandering man becomes a primitive man in so many ways, in the same way that the nomad is more primitive than the farmer. ... I am a nomad, not a farmer. I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic. I don't care to secure my love to one bare place on earth.

Hesse himself wrestled with the staid bourgeois existence of job, house, and family versus the urge to what he here justifies as an aesthetic or moral nomadism. The discovery that he could not abide with domestic responsibilities takes the glamor off the wandering life and shifts it to a remedy for psychological restlessness. The accompanying poem, "Country Cemetery" envies the dead their peace, but hopes that "the dream of death is only the dark smoke / Under which the fires of life are burning."

2, Mountain Pass.

The wanderer admits that spring has passed, his romantic hopes are gone. But the beautiful countryside revives hope, though it remains only in his heart. At least, he says, "I am alone and I don't suffer from my loneliness." 

3. Small Town.

At this point in the journey, writes the wanderer:

the true life of wandering begins, the life I love, wandering without any special direction, taking it easy in sunlight, the life of a vagabond wholly free.

In this chapter, Hesse links wandering, the hankering for adventure, to romanticism. Wandering militates against staid and serious social life and the desire for status. But Hesse goes further. He proposes that wandering is an unconscious drive to dissolve into the erotic, into the wholeness of nature, distinct from others. Wandering is a sense of absolute freedom as goalless, as love without an object. In the accompanying poem "Lost," he draws the image of the wanderer as a sleepwalker and dreamer, reluctant to awaken, filled with memories and unclear desires.

4. The Bridge.

Here are reflections on the effects of war. The narrator had passed this bridge during wartime, but now a reign of peace and quiet lays over it. The poem "Glorious World" delves more deeply into the psychology of the wanderer:

Often I tried the frightening way of "reality."
Where things that count are profession, law, fashion, finance.
But disillusioned and freed, I flee away, alone.
To the other side, the place of dreams and blessed folly.

5. Rectory.

This section presents an excellent juxtaposition. The narrator reflects on the priest who must inhabit a rectory he passes. He wonders what a good priest he himself would make: comfort the dying, appreciate a soft bed, walk in the garden; there would be a dutiful cook, and old books. From his window he would see a wanderer pass, wish him well, admire him as a pilgrim unlike himself, a mere priest. Or perhaps not. Maybe he would just drink too much, scorn his peers and parishioners, obsess about women, sleep late.

6. Farm.

The wanderer is in a good mood: "everywhere the world resonates beautifully." Hesse is preparing us for a contrast, however. The reader begins to know him.

7. Trees.

This is the best chapter in Wandering. The whole section could be quoted. Hesse's identification with trees is expressed well. He makes a telling distinction between the historical hermit and the suffering requited romantic stereotype of literature:

[Real hermits] are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.

8. Rainy Weather.

The psychological counterpart to the wanderer's good mood now falls upon the reader like a dark downpour: "desolate, sad, foul, strings out of tune. All colors faded."

The narrator's depression is skillfully evoked. Depression forces the wanderer to justify himself, to plead his case: one cannot be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen, cannot willingly take the sunshine and joy and refuse the darkness and pain. Both gold and mud are within, both laughter and fear.

In such moods, the narrator feels himself a bird in a storm, and realizes that the whole race has been false about its own dark moods, glorifying its evils, celebrating its heroism and enlightenment. No, states the narrator, there is nothing about dark moods to celebrate. Nothing but wine and sleep will work now to quench the "anxiety, the aversion, the doubt." He continues: "How stupid and comfortless everything is, everything that comes into my mind."

9. Chapel.

The sight of a chapel makes the narrator reflect on religious topics. He reconsiders piety equivalent to simplicity and harmlessness, as trust in self, versus self-mortification over the past, which is asceticism. He redefines prayer as the heart's affirming and trusting attempt to understand reality, if not God, for

The god in which we must believe is within ourselves. Whoever says no to himself cannot say yes to God. ... So the blessed hermits prayed in their oasis among the deer, as they were painted in the churchyard of Pisa -- that loveliest picture in the world. So trees also pray, and animals. In the pictures of a good painter, every tree and every mountain prays.

By journeying, the narrator argues that he will understand more, believe better (though not the same as the chapel-goers), that he will love the world and nature and his striving self better. The poem, "Things Pass," elaborates on these themes.

10. Noon Rest.

The narrator is feeling better. He sings Eichendorff, even the song of death, which does not bother him. He fears nothing, and will be ready to die when the time comes. The accompanying poem, "The Wanderer Speaks to Death," elaborates.

11. Lake, Tree, Mountain. 

The narrator reflects on dreaming of his mother. In the dream, he is a happy child, and his mother is an angel, and God appears in a long brown robe, singing. Clearly, childhood and an idealized mother are contrasted with the unhappy life of Hesse to date. The poem is titled "Magic of Colors."

12. Clouded Sky.

This chapter mirrors "Rainy Weather" in the return of the dark mood.

"From time to time there rises in my soul, without external cause, the dark wave. A shadow runs over the world, like the shadow of a cloud.

Does the weather evoke these moods? The narrator can no longer say. No poem is added.

13. Red House.

The red house startles the wanderer, for it reminds him of his opposite pole, the time when he had a little house like this one. "Like the day between morning and evening, my life falls between my urges to travel and my homesickness," he sighs. Perhaps he will have so many images from travel that he will no longer need to do so, can settle in a house, the house of his self.

To be at home with myself! How different life would be! There would be a center, and out of that center all forces would reach. But there is no center in my life; my life hovers between many poles and counterpoles. A longing for home here, a longing for wandering there. A longing for solitude and cloister here, and an urge for love and community there.

The narrator insists that he has done everything he wanted to. He had a house, a garden, paintings for the walls. He wanted to be a poet and became one, to have a wife and children, nd had them. To impress people, and did. And each thing satiated him and turned against him, and engendered new longings.

Many detours I will still follow, many fulfillments will still disillusion me. One day, everything will reveal its meaning. There, where contradictions die, is Nirvana. Within me, they still burn brightly, beloved stars of longing.

The concluding poem is titled "Evenings."


Hesse's little narrative is quintessentially that of a searcher, the modern's existential dilemma of not being able to turn back to the past but uncertain and ambivalent about the future. The question of whether wandering is eremitism is answered, at least in part. Yes, wandering is solitary, and the longing that springs from wandering is solitary, too. But unlike the hermit, even the strong hermits Hesse alludes to, wandering is restless and the mind is not alone but full of sights, sounds, and haunting memories.