Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Journey

It is ten years since the untimely death of W. G. Sebald and earlier this month there was a special event to celebrate his work and launch Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001. There were contributions from Iain Sinclair, A. S. Byatt, Andrew Motion and others who knew him (like poet Will Stone, whose recollections of studying with Sebald were particularly poignant).  It was sad to reflect that the last time I had seen translator Anthea Bell on stage it was next to Sebald himself, reading from the recently-published Austerlitz.  The crumbling Victorian Wilton's Music Hall was a particularly resonant setting for the readings, and for the performance of songs from Schubert's Winterreise by Ian Bostridge.  Hearing the Winterreise in this context prompted thoughts of all the journeys and sadness in Sebald's writings.  

There are many clips online of Ian Bostridge performing the Winterreise - the one I've included above is the opening song in the sequence.  I thought it would be interesting to provide here short summaries of the cycle's twenty-four songs, to show how many of them start with some aspect of the winter landscape - the rustling sound of linden trees, ice on a frozen river, a tree's last few leaves trembling in the wind.  Many of these natural elements are evoked in Schubert's piano score (for example, in 'Der Lindenbaum', 'the piano’s fluttering triplet figuration in E major which opens the song evokes the gentle breezes and whispering leaves of summer: the figure returns later, altered with chromatic harmonies, to depict the cold wind and eerie rustling of the tree in winter, and the young man’s growing sense of delusion'.)  Rather than do a plain synopsis I've turned the Winterreise below into a set of tanka-style verses - I know this is a complete travesty (as Mrs Plinius was quick to point out when she saw what I was doing) but I just found it more fun than writing a set of bullet points... I've based this on the English translation at the Lied, Art Song and Choral Text Archive, using Arthur Rishi's titles; you can follow the link to read proper translations, or the original German poems by Wilhelm Müller. 
Good Night

I leave, a stranger -
Remembering the flowers
And the talk of love
As I walk this path in snow
And write “Good Night” on the gate.

The Weathervane

The weathervane blows
Whistling at this fugitive.
In that house, the wind
Plays quietly with people’s hearts.
What is my suffering to them?

Frozen tears

Frozen teardrops fall
Like morning dew turned to ice
But spring from a heart
That’s burning hot enough to
Melt all the ice of winter.


No trace of her now
Walking on this once green field.
Pale turf, dead flowers.
And if my dead heart should thaw,
Her image would melt away.

The linden tree

By a fountain, near the gate:
A linden tree. Though it’s dark
I try not to see
The words of love we carved there.
Still, I hear the tree rustling.


The snow drinks my tears,
But when the grass starts to grow
And the ice breaks up
A brook will carry them through
The town’s streets and past her house.
On the stream

Wild stream, with a hard
Solid crust of ice on which
I carve her name, and
A broken ring.  Underneath
There is a surging torrent.

Backward Glance

I’ll not pause until
The town is out of sight where
Once the windows shone,
The linden trees were blooming
And a girl’s eyes were glowing.


A will-o'-the-wisp
Led me astray. Now I walk
Down a stream’s dry course.
Every stream will find the sea,
Every sorrow finds its grave.


Too cold to stand still
I’ve walked this desolate road.
Sheltering now in
A coal burner’s narrow hut
I cannot rest, my wounds still burn.

A Dream of Springtime

Dreaming of flowers
And the song of birds in May,
I wake in the dark
With ravens shrieking above.
When will all these leaves turn green?


A dark cloud passing
Through clear skies, I make my way
Through bright, joyful life.
When the tempests were raging
I was not so miserable.

The post

What makes my heart leap
At the sound of a posthorn
Coming from the street?
Why would I want to look there?
There is no letter for me.

The grey head

My frost coated hair
Soon thaws and leaves me grieving,
Sad to think that death
Is still far off.  This journey
Has still not turned my hair to grey.

The crow

A crow is circling.
It’s been with me since the town
And won’t leave until
The end.  Not much further now.
Fidelity to the grave.

Last hope

A few coloured leaves
Are visible on the trees.
If that one I choose
Is caught and blown to the ground
I too will sink down and weep.

In the village

The hounds are barking
Whilst men sleep and dream of things
They do not have. Bark
Me away, you waking dogs.
I am finished with all dreams.

The stormy morning

Weary shreds of cloud
Flit across a storm-torn sky,
Red flames among them.
This morning is to my taste -
It is nothing but winter.


Before me a light…
I follow it eagerly
Through the ice and night
Imagining a warm house…
But it is all delusion.

The signpost

I search hidden paths
Over cliff tops and wastelands -
One sign before me,
My eyes fixed upon the road
From which no one returns

The inn

I reach a graveyard,
Its death wreaths tempting to
The weary traveller.
But all the rooms are taken
And I must go further on.


Snow flies in my face.
I shake it off.  My heart cries,
But I sing brightly.
I have no ears for laments
And stride on against the wind.

The phantom suns

Three suns in the sky
They seem to stare down at me.
Gone, the best two suns,
And I do not need the third:
I’m better left in darkness.

The hurdy-gurdy man

Barefoot on the ice,
An old hurdy-gurdy man.
Nobody listens.
Shall I go with him and let
Him play along to my songs?


uair01 said...

This is not meant as a pedantic comment ... but your remark about the linden tree made me think.
If it is a "Winterreise" with snow and ice, the certainly the linden tree cannot have any dry leaves left on its branches. These leaves fall very reliably and massively in late autumn, just like the poplar leaves.
Threes that keep their withered leaves are oak and beech.

Did the poet ignore his botany?
Or does the poem stretch from late autumn into deep winter?

Plinius said...

It's the branches rustling, rather than the leaves. They're saying "Come here, to me, friend,
Here you will find your peace!"

Natasha said...

It is 26th December and in my garden just outside Paris I have a linden tree still laden with dry leaves rustling in the wind....

snarlerson said...

Although some most modern-day lovers of music and poetry, Winterreise brings a sense of romantic beauty and melancholy, to medievalists it has a far more sinister connotations.
The Winterreise was an almost organised ‘sport’ carried out every winter by the Order of Teutonic Knights. When the winter weather was good; that is not too cold for a man to relieve himself in the open air or too snowy to ride, the frost would have congealed the bogs, hardened the ground and frozen over the rivers. This gave ideal conditions for raids made between 200 and 2000 men of the Order whose aim was to ravage, devastate and depopulate pagan lands. They struck without warning and mercy. The raids were not intended to capture lands permanently but to leave their inhabitants badly weakened and demoralised. Foreign knights might also come to join in the sport; the future Henry IV of England took part in the summer equivalent in 1390, whilst Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy wrote to the Grand Master in 1394 asking whether there was likely to be a reysa in the following year.

You can read much more in Eric Christiansen’s, The Northern Crusades ( second edition, 1997) .

Mike C. said...

I have to say I like your "tanka" approach, Plinius -- it brings out something very contemporary in Mueller's verses, and clarifies the idea of it as a sequence.

By coincidence I've been listening to the recording by Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson -- very different to the Bostrich -- in an attempt to engage with this work, which friends have been urging on me for 30 years.

Thanks for the insight,


Plinius said...

Thanks Mike. I think I had in the back of my mind the way Japanese poems tend to deal with similar themes, the Imagists' rejection of Romatic poetry and the Oulipian 'haikuization' process.

The Guardian has a review of the 'Winterreise' version you mention.

Thanks also to Snarlerson - this kind of dark history is in keeping with the Sebaldian theme that set me off on the 'Winterreise'.