Goethe's Wandrers Nachtlied (1780), one of the master's most beautiful short lyrics, was discussed by Raymond Sokolov and avid readers during Ray's stint as our guest blogger (May 13-17, 2013). The poem appears in David Lehman's translation in the July 15 issue of The New Republic -- and here:
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods are quiet.
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
This is an excerpt from Raymond Sokolov's post, "On Goethe in Translation," from May 13, 2013:
Here is the actual poem, routinely acclaimed as the greatest achievement of German lyric poetry, which Liszt, as well as Schubert, Fanny Mendelssohn (sister of Felix) and Charles Ives set:
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, Balde
Ruhest du auch.
Even if you think you cannot read a word of German, you can still get an idea of what is going on in the poem by looking at it carefully. It should be obvious from the spelling alone that this is rhyming verse with the scheme abab cddc. The poet is addressing someone he knows well (Du is the familiar form of the pronoun “you”) But he starts with what looks like a very simple description of a mountain scene: over all the summits is peace. Then his view moves from the distance closer in, like a panning camera, to the treetops. Note, too, the very distinctive rhyming pair, Gipfeln and Wipfeln, peaks and treetops. The rhyming and the syntax keep knitting an apparently simple effusion about nature into a complex, tightly woven verbal device.
With the first word of the fourth line (only the ninth word of the poem!) he introduces an anonymous addressee in a two-word line that also injects the first human note (the camera is now in closeup range), who links the idea of feeling not only in the physical present but also to the poet. Like him, the absent addressee would, if present also feel hardly a breeze.
This clause, which has the first verb in the poem, slides
across two lines, joining the poem’s two quatrains and the two halves of its
rhyme scheme, softening the structural formality. At the same time, Goethe’s
attention has moved from the immense, physically inanimate images of mountain
and treetops, to the living emotion he shares with a friend (lover?) and then
to much smaller living creatures, little birds (Vöglein: lein is the
diminutive, the umlauted o makes the word plural), who are silent in the woods. And then we have the quietly
dramatic shift, which transforms a delicate and intricate nature poem into a
solemn reassurance of impending “peace.” Ruh reappears in the last line as a
verb, ruhest, you will soon be at peace yourself, too. The verse expires like a
Of his translation, Lehman comments that he aimed to preserve the simplicity and economy of the original, though he had to sacrifice most of the rhymes. He incorporated a principle of symmetry: each of the first four lines consists of three words; lines five and six contain six words each; and the closing couplet balances two four-word lines. With the final rhyme and the triple iteration of the word "quiet," he hoped to communicate something of the poem's haunting quality. In its admixture of death and rest and travel, Goethe's lyric might be read alongside Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."