April is National Poetry Month, so, naturally, it is imperative to blog about poetry. Last year in Slate Ron Rosenbaum made a convincing argument that Keats' Ode to Autumn is the most beautiful poem in the English language. So that got me thinking: what is the most beautiful German poem? The list of candidates is long: Mörike's Auf eine Lampe, or Denk es, O Seele!, Abendlied (Claudius), virtually any poem in Rilke's Neue Gedichte. Quickly, though, my search focused on Goethe. But here, too, there were many possibilities: Auf den Mond, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, Wanderers Nachtlied, and a dozen others. Finally, I made my choice: Auf dem See (1775). The poem achieves an exquisite harmony of rhythm, sound, and meaning that, for me, in incomparable German poetry. Here is the poem, English translation below the break:
Und frische Nahrung, neues Blut
Saug ich aus freier Welt:
Wie ist Natur so hold und gut,
Die mich am Busen hält!
Die Welle wieget unsern Kahn
Im Rudertakt hinauf,
Und Berge, wolkig himmelan,
Begegnen unserm Lauf.
Aug, mein Aug, was sinkst du nieder?
Goldne Träume, kommt ihr wieder?
Weg, du Traum! so gold du bist:
Hier auch Lieb und Leben ist.
Auf der Welle blinken
Tausend schwebende Sterne,
Weiche Nebel trinken
Rings die türmende Ferne;
Die beschattete Bucht,
Und im See bespiegelt
Sich die reifende Frucht.
The poet's exuberant response to maternal nature in the first stanza is emphasized by the upbeat "Und" in the first line, before settling into a steady iambic beat. The middle stanza changes abruptly into a more reflective trochaic rhythm, with the double stress in the last line "Hier auch" shaking the poet from his reverie. The final two stanzas maintain the trochaic rhythm, combined with the rhyme scheme of the first section, which, however, is subtly modulated - asymmetry within the symmetry - signifying the progress of the poet's development in the poem.
A boat ride across Lake Zurich becomes a journey of emotional maturation. The infantile ego of the first stanza (an earlier version began "ich saug an meiner Nabelschnur" "I suck from my umbilical cord") rocking within nature's bosom is suddenly disturbed by dreams from the past. By the last stanza the "I" dissapears, or, rather is contained within the reflexive "sich" of the "ripening fruit". Nature, as well, becomes diffused from the towering mountains and the sun ("Aug"), to the reflection of a "thousand stars", while the mountains become obscured in the morning mist. By the final stanza the poet has reached the safe habor of the alliterative "beschattete Bucht" putting his infantile dreams behind him.
Bonus: Listen to Franz Schubert's rendition of Auf dem See.
On the Lake
And I draw in fresh sustenance,
New blood from the untrammeled world:
How gracious and generous is nature,
Who holds me to her bosom!
The wave sways our boat
To the rhythm of the oars,
And mountains, nebulously reaching for heaven,
Meet our course.
Eye of mine, why are you downcast?
Golden dreams, have you returned?
Away dream, golden though you are:
Here, too, there are love and life.
A thousand hovering stars twinkle on the wave,
Soft mists drink the towering horizon around us,
The morning breeze flutters over the shaded bay,
And the lake reflects the ripening fruit.