Sunday Pages: "Wanderer's Nightsong"
A poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Greetings from Berlin!
I came here Thursday on business, but stayed an extra night with ulterior motives: If the fascists really do take over, if even New York is not safe from their insidious tyranny, where in the world to fly to? Just as the best hiding spot in hide-and-seek is where the seeker began counting, so the surest place to avoid modern-day Nazis, it seems to me, is the erstwhile capital of the Third Reich, the seat of Hitler’s power, the site of the 1936 white supremacist Olympic games, and the location of the Führerbunker, where the hateful author of all that woe, the spittle-flecked proto-Putin, met his Maker. Blitz will not strike twice in the same spot, surely?
Unlike the United States of Turn the Page, where the denial of the original American sins of genocide and slavery are so longstanding that Republicans are, in 2022, actively attempting to prevent their teaching in public school, Germany has gamely faced its Nazi past head on. While nothing can forgive the atrocities of the Third Reich, the German government and the German people have tried to atone. And that matters.
Today, Berlin is a beautiful, hip, livable city: sprawling, green, with marvelous architecture, excellent restaurants and nightlife, winding streets, parks all over the place, hidden gardens, rivers and waterways, and, for some reason, ample graffiti. It is not handsome, like Paris, or particularly elegant, but lived-in, warm, inviting. Less Upper West Side pre-war co-op, more converted loft apartment building in the Meatpacking District. There is tremendous creative energy here. It is palpable. And enough people speak English that the language barrier is not much of a problem.
For “Sunday Pages,” then, I wanted to share something suitably Teutonic. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is far and away the most famous German literary figure. He was a true Renaissance man: poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, naturalist, celebrity. His first novel, written in a five-and-a-half-week fury of inspiration when he was 24 years old, is called The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both title and plot sound like something Christopher Guest would cook up for some mockumentary of German art: the eponymous Werther is madly in love, his love is not requited, and he cannot stand it. There’s a lot of “If you don’t love me I’ll throw myself into the sea” energy going on. Lots of passion, lots of intensity of feeling. In the German States of the early 19th century, this was known as Sturm und Drang; nowadays, we call it “emo.” If Goethe were alive in 2022, he’d wear a lot of eyeliner and stan Lana Del Rey.
In 1780, as our American Founding Fathers were preparing to put their bewigged heads together to draft a Constitution that Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas would eventually use as toilet paper, Goethe scrawled a poem on the wall of a log cabin in the woods on a mountaintop in Ilmenau, Thuringia (which, come on, sounds like a place Tolkien made up). The Second “Wanderer’s Nightsong” is, I’m told, his most popular poem. Here it is in German:
Über allen Gipfeln Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
This translates roughly to:
There is peace over all the peaks,
the treetops you
hardly feel a breath;
The birds are silent in the forest.
Just wait! Soon
you will rest too.
But that literal translation pretty much ignores the A/A/B, C/C/B rhyme scheme, and the meter, and the intentional repetition of the word ruh—rest—in the first and last lines. Longfellow tried his hand in the mid-19th century, offering a pretty solid English language version:
O’er all the hilltops
Is quiet now,
In all the treetops
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait, soon like these
Thou too shalt rest.
But I think something is lost in both cases. The original seems to be about resting after a long hike through nature—a “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening” kind of thing—but also about the eternal rest of death. Certainly it affected Goethe that way, when he revisited the cabin late in life and was moved to tears reading his old poem.
Here is my stab at it:
Far above the sleepy hills,
The clatter of the forest stills—
Nary a peep.
All the birds have stopped their song,
And so will you, before too long—
Go to sleep.
There is another possible reading of the poem, one Goethe cold not possibly have understood. Last night, I fell asleep at 8 pm, woke up at 12:30 am, tossed and turned for a few hours, and sat down to write this at 3:30 in the morning. My laptop is still on New York time, my phone is on Berlin time, and my body has no idea what’s going on. How would you explain the concept of jet lag—a wonderful and poetical phrase!—to someone who cannot even conceive of a jet?
Warte nur, balde Ruhest du auch.
Photo credit: Panoramic photo of the Spree, near remnants of the old Berlin Wall.