Goethe and ‘Mailied’

So not only is today the first anniversary of the blog, but this will be post number 100! I think I can safely say that I’ve finally made a fairly good grounding for ‘thoughtofVG’, so without further ado, onto my 100th post.

Today, I’m exploring the work of a magical writer, that most native English speaker will no doubt have heard heard of, but most will not have had the joy of knowing his work – at least, written in it’s original German. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I’ll begin by saying that the first time I read a Goethe poem, it was an English translation of ‘Der Erlkönig‘, or in English ‘the Erlking‘. Truth is, it’s an incredible poem, having even been turned into dramatic, heart-thumping opera music, but in English it had lost it’s power and to be completely honest, wasn’t very good. In this post, i’ll be exploring his poem ‘Mailied’, providing you all with the original German and my translation into English, then analysing the poem to reveal it’s true genius.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at age 69

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at age 69 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Wie herrlich leuchtet

Mir die Natur!

Wie glänzt die Sonne!

Wie lacht die Flur!

Es dringen Blüten

Aus jedem Zweig

Und Tausen Stimmen

Aus dem Gesträuch

Und Freud und Wonne

Aus jeder Brust.

O Erd, O Sonne!

O Glück, O lust!

O Lieb, O Liebe!

So golden schön,

Wie Morgenwolken

Auf jenen Höhn!

Du Segnest herrlich

Das frische Feld,

im Blütendampfe

die volle Welt.

O Mädchen, Mädchen,

Wie lieb ich dich!

Wie blickt dein Auge!

Wie Liebst du mich!

So liebt die Lerche

Gesang und Luft

Und Morgenblumen

Den Himmelsduft

Wie ich dich liebe

Mit warmen Blut,

Die du mir Jugend

Und Freud und Mut

Zu neuen Liedern

Und Tänzen gibst

Sei ewig glücklich,

Wie du mich Liebst!

Song of May

How gloriously shines

Nature to me!

How the sun gleams!

How the open field smiles!

The blossom forces

Out of every branch

And a thousand voices

Out of the bush

And joy and bliss

Out of every breast

Oh Earth! Oh Sun!

Oh joy! Oh desire!

Oh love! Oh lover!

So beaut’fully gold,

How morning winds

Up at those heights!

You gloriously bless

The fresh field,

In blossom-mist

The whole world

Oh Lady, Lady,

How I love you!

How your eyes look!

How you love me!

So love the larks

The song and the air

And morning flowers

The heaven’s scent

How I love you,

With warm blood,

That you bring me youth

And courage and joy

To new songs

And dancers give

Be blessed Happy

As you love me!

As you can see, i made no attempt to keep the rhyme pattern, and little attempt to keep the rhythm, but what’s important is that those of you who don’t know German you can now understand at least what the words mean! (except for the one or two translation mistakes i’ve no doubt made..) Unfortunately, by translating it, alot of the genius of the poem is lost, but i will at least be able to show some of that in my analysis.

Goethe is renowned for his mastery of form, and this is clear in ‘Mailied. It is arranged in a very distinct yet different meter, that I actually have no idea what it is, but holds firmly throughout the poem, elegantly keeping the poem flowing. even the lines where excessive exclamation marks are used, “O Erd! O Sonne!, O Glück! O Lust! (oh earth! oh sun! oh joy! oh desire!)” flows along without much hindrance to the flowing rhythm. The rhyme however isn’t so strict, some stanzas rhyming lines 1 and 3, others rhyming 2 and 4 and some only containing half-rhymes. Interestingly,  this style of rhyme scheme doesn’t detract from the strict form of the rhythm, but rather adds to it. It contributes a sense of freedom that is only added to by the strong yet gently stress patterns. this freedom and lulling nature works perfectly for the themes of nature and love that run through the poem, and perhaps their differing yet intertwining natures mirror the relationship between the themes.

Perhaps the most interesting point about the structure of ‘Mailied’ is lost in translation. Notice how in German, the first and last lines end begin with the word ‘wie’. This word has multiple purposes in German and can act as both an exclamatory word (how….!) or as a comparative word (like). When translating, I had to choose which meaning i considered more important, as it actually has the power to completely change the meaning of the poem. I chose to translate it as a comparative. This way, the poem is the speaker comparing his lover to the beauty and wonder of nature, and I believe is the most widely accepted view. However, if we translate the final ‘wie’ of the poem as an exclamatory word, we could consider all the imagery of a woman to be a metaphor, as nature becomes described as a woman rather than woman being described in terms of nature. One could also argue that both meanings are intended. After all, Goethe was very careful in the words he chose, always using words that perfectly fit their situation, which leads onto a later point I will make.

Now let us discuss the imagery in the poem that describes nature in human terms. Even as early as the very first stanza there is a suggestion of this in the line “wie lacht die Flur! (how the open field smiles!)”. Describing a scene from nature as a facial expression gives us our first glimpse that nature’s attributes are being used to describe a person, supporting that the ‘wie’ we explored earlier is being used in its comparative form. One could however still argue that it actually nature being personified, the large expanse of a ‘Flur’  being used to emphasise that it is nature as a whole which metaphorically smiles at the poet. Goethe certainly was fascinated by nature, so this view finds support in the way Goethe describes nature in many of his other poems. A second person (or personified nature) other than the speaker is only clearly introduced in stanza 5 with the introduction of “du” instead of “es”Du segnest herrlich (you bless gloriously)”. There is no doubt after this point in the poem whether there is another figure, be it nature as a person, or a lover. The feminine imagery continues in this stanza with “Das frische Feld, im Blütendampfe (the fresh field in the blossom-mist)”. As seen earlier, the fields could be seen as the whole of nature, and this was given human attributes by smiling. “das frische Feld” here could therefore be seen as a woman and its “Blütendampfe” as her sweet scent or perfume. This repeated combined and interchangeable imagery creates a mutual respect between the beauty of nature and a woman, helped and emphasised by the dual meaning of the word “wie”. What begins to become strikingly clear is how intertwined each and every technique used by Goethe in the poem is. 

One word is, I personally feel, an anomaly in ‘Mailied’“dringen ( to penetrate/force). The entire poem is other than this lone word is both graceful and gentle, yet dringen is a harsh word with a harsh and forceful meaning, seemingly having no place in the calm nature of the poem. Everything is done with such ease other than the blossom ‘forcing’ it’s way out of the branches, so why such a strong word? The answer lies later in the poem in the already discussed lines “Das frische Feld im Blütendampfe”. If the “Blütendampfe” is the scent or presence of the woman of the poem, the blossom forcing its way from the branches is surely the inescapable presence and force of the woman (or nature, depending on your interpretation). The passion of the language in which the speaker describe the lover shows this inescapable force; “Wie ich dich liebe mit warmen Blut, die du mir Jugend und Freud und Mut”

And finally, allow me to talk about the actual title of the poem, which is of course incredibly important too. ‘Mailied’ or ‘song of may’  in english, explains exactly what state of nature the woman is being compared to. Spring; the time of life returning to nature, of energy, of rejuvenation. These attributes can be used to describe the passion of new love as well as the life giving season, and for me, this makes the overruling theme an actual woman rather than a metaphor for nature. Although the title refers to a season and therefore nature itself, the nature of the month perfectly describe love and hence the passionate relationship between poet and lover.

So there you go. You can enjoy a translated poem or text, but you’ll miss out on the true beauty and genius which goes on in the background. Thanks for reading, and remember, as is said in one of the old star trek films (don’t quote me, i’m not a big star trek fan), You can’t appreciate Shakespeare until you’ve heard it in the original klingon.


Erlkönig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Blog anniversary to me!

Word press has reliably informed me that today, is the first anniversary of my blog! Well, I must say that it’s been a journey, full of surprises and new discoveries. So here are some stats from the first year, and I consider them pretty good as I have never been in the blogosphere prior to starting ‘thoughtofvg’, and for that matter had never put any of my work into a public domain.

Posts – 98 (99 after this one, and 100 after i’ve posted today’s main post)

Views -2137

Comments – 331 (excluding the over 1000 of spam…)

Best ever views for a day – 102

Followers – 124

Most comments by – Pouringmyartout (thank you!)

And views from across the world, from every continent, from an incredible range of countries!

So thank you all for the first year of blogging, and now onwards to better things!



You’re closer now

You won’t sink

To the shifting sands of time

They say

It consumes everything

Though I know

It only takes the shell


You were always far away

Out of reach

Out of sight

And somehow now

You’re closer now

Than you ever were before


I think back

To that place that never was

To favourite memories

Of which I dreamed

But never truly had


You were always far away

Out of reach

Out of sight

And somehow now

You’re closer now

Than you ever were before


Life will fade

From flesh and loving eyes

But life transcends

Love won’t fade

From time or space

And love holds life


Faun-Zeitgeist Translation

I said a little while back that I was going to start putting translations of songs on to the blog. Today, i’m finally getting round to starting this. Although this blog is first and foremost for my poetry, I believe the work of others to be much more important than my own. Which is why I have chosen to translate German songs into English and share them with you. I will only be doing literal translations and will not attempt to turn them into neat English poetry; I’m very rarely impressed by poetry translations that choose to keep the form and rhyme as meaning is lost and the power of each word is weakened. It’s certainly true that the rhythm and flow…which I just happened to talk in about in my last post… can be easily lost in a literal translation, but whatever one does, a translation of poetry will never be as good as the original. So, Below is the original and a translation of the first song I have chosen to look at. Zeitgeist by Faun. All thanks goes to Faun!

Oliver Sa Tyr, Faun

Oliver Sa Tyr, Faun (Photo credit: fluffy_steve)

Das Rad dreht sich weiter
Doch alles bleibt stehn
Wir versuchen im Dunkeln
Das Licht zu verstehen
Hab keine Angst und
Fürchte nur was dich
Nicht versteht

Das Rad dreht sich weiter
Doch alles bleibt stehen
Wir schließen die Augen,
Als wenn wir nicht sehen
Die alte Welt versinkt
In einem Meer
Aus Ideen

Wohin wollten wir gehen
Wo sind wir nun
Zu tief geschlafen
Um weiter zu ruhn

Noch eines wollen wir
Wenn alles anders wird
Noch eines wollen wir
Uns wieder finden

The Cycle turns further

Yet all stays the same

We try in the dark

to understand the light

Have no worry

and don’t fear what you

Don’t understand


The cycle turns further

Yet all stays the same

We close our eyes

as if we don’t see

The old world sinks

Into a sea

without ideas


Where did we want to go?

Where are we now?

too deeply asleep

to rest further


Still we want one thing

when everything changes

Still we want one thing;

find us again.

Below are two links to the same song-one the studio version and the other a live version. It’s worth listening to both as they have a very different feel live, and are one of the best live acts I’ve come across. If you aren’t familiar with the modern  style of ‘mittelalter’ music be aware before listening that it is rather different to most styles about at the moment.

Faun-Zeitgeist (studio) 

Faun-Zeitgeist (live)

And one last thing. Have a go at naming all the instruments used by this band. Luckily, it’s easier to get all the instruments on this song than some of their others!

Don’t worry about the stress! It’s part of the poetry.

On my way back to Cambridgeshire from Edinburgh, I was sat on the train reading the introduction to the book of German poetry I was so lucky to get for Christmas and it got me thinking about something. What really needs improving on my current poetry style? Obviously there is a lot of work to be done, but I just want to talk about a few points which this introduction brought clearly into perspective for me.

For those who have read a fair bit of my poetry you will probably know by now that, most of what I write follows rhyming patterns and (relatively) strict meter. I have ventured out of that occasionally, but not very often at all. This German poetry book however changes my idea there. There is no doubt that rhyme and meter are hugely important aspects of the German styles, yet as some of the early lines in the introduction to ‘German Poetry- an anthology from Klopstock to Enzenberger’ points out, ‘Poetry  is claimed as carefully wrought, compact, stylised. The very term ‘lyric’ implies in its etymology that Poetry is linked with music and with song.’ It then continues to talk about the importance of rhythm and pattern that poetry consequently shares with music. In short, rhyme, a part considered so important to poetry to many – including myself originally – has little importance in comparison to the flow and feel of poetry. Rereading some of my own work, I notice that it severely lacks the smoothness and ease of movement of my favourite poets, and it is because of my neglect of rhythm and flow. The introduction draws parallels between the English styles and German,  stating the importance of stress patterns in both languages, whereas other languages are more focused on syllable count or vowel sounds. I have no experience of poetry outside of English or German (or old Norse…but that’s another story) so I can’t state my opinion on this idea, Therefore I shall assume its true…after all, the editor of the anthology works at the university I have an interview for in February, so I should definitely be nice to his commentary.

What I can however do, is give an example of that importance of stress in English poetry that Martin Swales, The editor of the Anthology, speaks about. Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven‘ contains a very strong example of the ‘trochaic’ form. That is, an alternating strong stress to weak stress.

“Once, upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered 

weak and weary

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten 


This is of course only one example, and the iamic form (weak strong alternating) is much more common. What it highlights however, is how essential stress is to English poetry. In the excerpt of The Raven I gave above, other than internal rhyme, the rhyme hasn’t yet appeared as the section is too short, but it is still clearly recognizable as poetry. It isn’t the rhyme that does that. It’s the stress. So back briefly to the quote from the anthology’s introduction I added at the start. “Poetry is linked with music and with song.” Do songs rhyme and have strict meter? some of them do, but certainly not all. (I say as my next planned post should be a translation of a Ballad…) Songs of the modern day are more concerned with the rhythmic form and hence the stress, than with rhyming every line.

What’s my point then? Instead of writing within rules and structures, bend them to make way for the natural flow of rhythm. That by no means demands the rejection of strict rhyme and meter – they have their place and are hugely powerful techniques – but instead reminds that they are just that: techniques. And just like music, the more techniques you know, the more you can express what you truly meant.