Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Soft harp-music far away - Eduard Mörike

Eduard Mörike (1804-1875) spent his entire life in southwest Germany, a provincial clergyman and literature professor. He wrote a small number of poems, which were well enough known that more famous writers like Ivan Turgenev came to visit him. A lot of Mörike’s verse is sweet, gentle:

Intimation of Spring

Now again the earth with new
Long-familiar fragrance brings
Its sweet presage, and the spring’s
Sky-borne banner flutters blue.
Violets wake today
Dreaming their time is near.
-Oh listen: soft harp-music far away!
Spring, yes, I have heard you
Coming, you are here!

If this is not beautiful in some way, there is not much else to it. The range of senses is important – the fragrance, then the color of the sky, then the music. Some of the most beautiful poems in the language, Germans say. They say that about a lot of their poets, actually, but mostly because it’s so often true.

A Huntsman’s Song

Daintily a bird’s claw prints the snows
As upon the mountain heights it goes:
Daintily my darling’s little hand
Writes to greet me in a far-off land.

High the heron soars into the blue
Where no shot nor arrow can pursue:
And a thousand times so swift and high
To their goal the thoughts of true love fly.

Two ideas skillfully linked together, moving from the specific (claw and hand) to the more abstract (soaring heron, thought of love). But lest we think Mörike is just a charming nature poet:

Good Riddance

Unannounced, one evening, in came a visitor:
‘I have the honour to be your critic, sir.’
At once he took the lamp in his hand
And my shadow on the wall for a time he scanned,
From close, from a distance. ‘Young man, you must admit:
Your nose – now please, just take a sideways look at it;
That nose is an excrescence, by your leave.’
- What? Now, by God, I do believe
You’re right! Just fancy! How could one suppose,
Never in my life did I suppose,
That my face possessed so monstrous a nose!

The man said a few other things as well;
What they were, truly I now can’t tell;
He expected a confession, I don’t doubt.
Then he got up to go; I lighted him out.
And when the two of us reached the stair,
My high spirits were such that then and there
A parting present from me he got:
Just a little kick on a posterior spot –
Oh, my goodness me, what a tumbling,
What a totter and a clatter and a rumbling!
I never have seen, I do declare,
Never in my life, I do declare,
A man get so quickly to the bottom of a stair!

Meine Frau and I once saw Thomas Hampson sing the Hugo Wolf setting of this song with great energy, including some vigorous kicking.

The translations are from the Penguin edition. The German is on facing pages, to keep the translator honest. Even to the Ignorant Reader, the German is useful. In “Good Riddance” for example, the “tumbling,/… rumbling” line is “ein Gerumpel,/ Ein Gepurzel, ein Gehumpel!” which is surely in the same spirit.

1 comment:

  1. Even I, not one to generally fully understand a poet's words, understand Morike and like him.