Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Wanderer's Night Song

There is a great tradition of poets contemplating the landscape from mountain huts.  I've talked here before about Gary Snyder 'looking down for miles / through high still air' from his hut on Sourdough Mountain.  One of the most famous Japanese examples is Kamo-no-Chomei who in the early thirteenth century built his own modest hut (like Thoreau) above a valley thick with trees, with a view of the Western heavens.  Earlier still, in China, there was Hsieh Ling-yün's retreat on Stone-Gate Mountain (although most of the time he lived 'in a comfortable mountain-side house, which included an enormous library and vast landscape gardens').  But it is not necessary to live in a mountain hut - a fleeting visit can suffice for a poet to make a permanent imprint on the landscape:

                          Über allen Gipfeln
                          Ist Ruh,
                          In allen Wipfeln
                          Spürest du
                          Kaum einen Hauch;
                          Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
                          Warte nur, balde
                          Ruhest du auch.

In September 1780 Goethe wrote these lines on the wall of a mountain hut in Ilmenau. 'The Wanderer's Night Song I' is now one of the best known German poems and has been set to music many times, by composers such as Schubert, Liszt, Schumann and Ives.  Here is a recent version by Peter Viereck which can be found at the Poetry Library site.  Viereck says that 'along with Pushkin’s ‘On the Hills of Georgia’, this is the simplest great poem in history.'

                     To every hill crest
                     Comes rest.
                     In every tree crest
                     the forest
                     scarcely draws breath.
                     Each bird-nest is hushed on the heath.
                     Wait a bit; soon you
                     will find rest too.

Goethe revisits the mountain hut
Goethe didn't return to Ilmenau until August 1831, seven months before his death, but was then moved to tears to see his poem still there.  During the nineteenth century, the hut became a place of literary pilgrimage - you can see a collection of old postcards like the one shown above at the Goethezeitportal.  According to David Luke (who has translated the poem for Penguin Classics) 'in the nineteenth century a forester is said to have discovered a literary English tourist attempting to saw the poem out of the wooden wall, and this led to a photographic record being made.  The hut was burnt down in 1870, and later exactly restored; Goethe's lines are there again, engraved on a brass plate.'

 The restored hut today
Source: Wikimedia Commons

You can see a recent interior image of the hut in a post on Goethe's poem at the Poemas del rio Wang blog.  As mentioned there, Goethe drew inspiration for 'The Wanderer's Night Song' from a fragment by the Spartan poet Alcman, which had been published in 1773.  Alcman does not address the listener, unlike Goethe's Wanderer; he simply describes all of nature asleep - the mountains, the ocean, the birds and beasts.  Nor, in what we have of Alcman's verse, does he contrast the hushed landscape with the busy activities of people, a poetic theme which (as C. M. Bowra points out) begins with Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis:

  Agamemnon: The birds are still at any rate and the sea is calm; hushed are the winds, and silence broods o’er this narrow firth.

  Attendant: Then why art thou outside thy tent, why so restless, my lord Agamemnon?

The restlessness of men like Agamemnon was gladly left behind, far below, by Goethe and the other poets seeking rest and tranquility in a simple hut high up in the mountains.


Stan said...

Lovely post, thank you. There are some wonderful photos at the Goethezeitportal; fascinating to examine the subtle differences in such similar images.

Although my German is now far from fluent (or even conversational), I'm not enamoured of Viereck's translation.

Plinius said...

I confess I only chose the Viereck because of that quote about Pushkin, which caught my fancy.

Another connection I might have made here: in the 'Urfaust' (c 1774) Goethe has Faust say 'Oh, take me to the hilltops, there / To wander in the sweet moonlit air...', so as to be 'cleansed of book-learning's fog'. Very reminiscent of Gary Snyder's 'Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout'.

Stan said...

Snyder's poem is beautiful.

Saint Andrew's Bower said...

Thanks for you writing. Good to remember that awareness of nature/existence sometimes needs to be slow/still. Faisal.