Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I. Illustrationen zu Bürgers Werk..
.The detached pieces of poetry among the Germans are, it appears to me, still more remarkable than their poems, and it is particularly that writing on which the stamp of originality is impressed. It is also true that the authors who have written most in this manner, Goethe, Schiller, Bürger, etc, are of the modern school, which alone bears a truly national character. Goethe has most imagination, and Schiller most sensibility; but Gottfried August Bürger is more generally admired than either…
We have not yet spoken of an inexhaustible source of poetical effect in Germany, which is terror: stories of apparitions and sorcerers are equally well received by the populace and by men of more enlightened minds. It is a relick of the northern mythology; a disposition naturally inspired by the long nights of a northern climate; and besides, though Christianity opposes all groundless fears, yet popular superstitions have always some sort of analogy to the prevailing religion. Almost every true opinion has its attendant error, which like a shadow places itself at the side of the reality: it is a luxuriance or excess of belief, which is commonly attached both to religion and to history, and I know not why we should disdain to avail ourselves of it.
Shakespeare has produced wonderful effects from the introduction of spectres and magic; and poetry cannot be popular when it despises that which exercises a spontaneous empire over the imagination. Genius and taste may preside over the arrangement of these tales, and in proportion to the commonness of the subject, the more skill is required in the manner of treating it; perhaps it is in this union alone that the great force of a poem consists. It is probable that the great events recorded in the Iliad and Odyssey were sung by nurses, before Homer rendered them the chef-d’oeuvre of the poetical art.
Of all German writers, Bürger has made the best use of this vein of superstition which carries us so far into the recesses of the heart. His tales are therefore well known throughout Germany. “Leonora,” which is most generally admired, is not yet translated into French, or at least, it would be very difficult to relate it circumstantially either in our prose or verse.
A young girl is alarmed at not hearing from her lover who is gone to the army. Peace is made, and the soldiers return to their habitations. Mothers again meet their sons, sisters their brothers, and husbands their wives. The warlike trumpet accompanies the songs of peace, and joy reigns in every heart.
Leonora in vain surveys the ranks of the soldiers, she sees not her lover, and no one can tell her what is become of him.
She is in despair: her mother attempts to calm her; but the youthful heart of Leonora revolves against the stroke of affliction, and in its frenzy she accuses Providence.
From the moment in which the blasphemy is uttered, we are sensible that the story is to have something fatal in it, and this idea keeps the mind in constant agitation.
At midnight, a knight stops at the door of Leonora’s house. She hears the neighing of the horse and the clinking of the spurs. The knight knocks, she goes down and beholds her lover.
He tells her to follow him instantly, having not a moment to lose, he says, before he returns to the army. She presses forward; he places her behind him on his horse, and sets off with the quickness of lightning.
During the night he gallops through barren and desert countries: his youthful companion is filled with terror, and continually asks him why he goes so fast. The knight still presses on his horse by his hoarse and hollow cries, and in a low voice says, “The dead go quick the dead go quick.”
Leonora answers, “Ah! Leave the dead in peace!” But whenever she addresses to him any anxious question, he repeats the same appalling words.
In approaching the church, where he says he is carrying her to complete their union, the frosts of winter seem to change nature herself into a frightful omen: priests carry a coffin in great pomp, and their black robes train slowly on the snow, the winding sheet of the earth.
Leonora’s terror increases, and her lover cheers her with a mixture of irony and carelessness which makes one shudder. All that he says is pronounced with a monotonous precipitation, as if already, in his language, the accents of life were no longer heard.
He promises to bring her to that narrow and silent abode where their union was to be accomplished. We see at a distance the church-yard by the side of the church.
The knight knocks, and the door opens. He pushes forward with his horse, making him pass between the tombstones. He then by degrees loses the appearance of a living being, is changed into a skeleton, and the earth opens to swallow up both him and his mistress.
I certainly do not flatter myself that I have been able in this abridged recital to give a just idea of the astonishing merit of this tale. All the imagery, all the sounds connected with the situation of the soul, are wonderfully expressed by the poetry: the syllables, the rhymes, all the art of language is employed to excite terror. The rapidity of the horse’s pace seems more solemn and more appalling than even the slowness of a funeral procession. The energy with which the knight quickens his course, that petulance of death, causes an inexpressible emotion; and we feel ourselves carried off by the phantom, as well as the poor girl whom he drags with him into the abyss.
There are four English translations of this tale of Leonora [as of 1810], but the best beyond comparison is that of William Spencer, who of all English poets is best acquainted with the true spirit of foreign languages. The analogy between the English and the German allows a complete transfusion of the originality of style and versification of Bürger; and we not only find in the translation the same ideas as in the original, but also the same sensations; and nothing is more necessary than this to convey the true knowledge of a literary production. It would be difficult to obtain the same result in French, where nothing strange or odd seems natural.
Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels
Nacht und Träume
Holy night, you sink down;
Dreams also float down
As your moonlight fills the room,
Fills the sleeping hearts of men.
They listen with pleasure;
Crying, when the day awakes:
Return, fair night!
Fair dreams, return!
THE WOMEN OF WEINSBERG
It was the good King Konrad with all his army lay
Before the town of Weinsberg full many a weary day;
The Guelph at last was vanquished, but still the town held out;
The bold and fearless burghers they fought with courage stout.
But then came hunger, hunger! That was a grievous guest;
They went to ask for favor, but anger met their quest.
"Through you the dust hath bitten full many a worthy knight,
And if your gates you open, the sword shall you requite!"
Then came the women, praying: "Let be as thou hast said,
Yet give us women quarter, for we no blood have shed!"
At sight of these poor wretches the hero's anger failed,
And soft compassion entered and in his heart prevailed.
"The women shall be pardoned, and each with her shall bear
As much as she can carry of her most precious ware;
The women with their burdens unhindered forth shall go,
Such is our royal judgment--we swear it shall be so!"
At early dawn next morning, ere yet the east was bright,
The soldiers saw advancing a strange and wondrous sight;
The gate swung slowly open, and from the vanquished town
Forth swayed a long procession of women weighted down;
For perched upon her shoulders each did her husband bear--
That was the thing most precious of all her household ware.
"We'll stop the treacherous women!" cried all with one intent;
The chancellor he shouted: "This was not what we meant!"
But when they told King Konrad, the good King laughed aloud;
"If this was not our meaning, they've made it so," he vowed,
"A promise is a promise, our loyal word was pledge;
It stands, and no Lord Chancellor may quibble or map hedge."
Thus was the royal scutcheon kept free from stain or blot!
The story has descended from days now half forgot;
'Twas eleven hundred and forty this happened, as I've heard,
Translated by Kate Freiligrath-Kroeker
Die Trompete von Gravelotte
Aug. 16, 1870
Death and Destruction they belched forth in vain,
We grimly defied their thunder;
Two columns of foot and batteries twain,
We rode and cleft them asunder.
With brandished sabres, with reins all slack,
Raised standards, and low-couched lances,
Thus we Uhlans and Cuirassiers wildly drove back,
And hotly repelled their advances.
But the ride was a ride of death and of blood;
With our thrusts we forced them to sever;
But of two whole regiments, lusty and good,
Out of two men, one rose never.
With breast shot through, with brow gaping wide,
They lay pale and cold in the valley,
Snatched away in their youth, in their manhood's pride--
Now, Trumpeter, sound to the rally!
And he took the trumpet, whose angry thrill
Urged us on to the glorious battle,
And he blew a blast--but all silent and still
Was the trump, save a dull hoarse rattle,
Save a voiceless wail, save a cry of woe,
That burst forth in fitful throbbing--
A bullet had pierced its metal through,
For the Dead the wounded was sobbing!
For the faithful, the brave, for our brethren all,
For the Watch on the Rhine, true-hearted!
Oh, the sound cut into our inmost soul!--
It brokenly wailed the Departed!
And now fell the night, and we galloped past,
Watch-fires were flaring and flying,
Our chargers snorted, the rain poured fast--
And we thought of the Dead and the Dying!
Like the sun’s uprising light
Shines that maid, before whom fade
Other charms, however bright;
As the stars at break of day,
Late so brilliant, fade away.
When my spirit light had flown
Wanton forth in pleasure’s quest,
Then those beaming have shone
O’er the rover’s path, and led
Home to her from whom it sped.
When again its wing it took
Falcon-like for joy to soar,
Ne’er the gentle spell it broke;
Soon again it sought its home
In that breast it wandered from.
O’er its fear was ever coming
Lest its mistress, at the thought
That for other loves ‘t was roaming,
Vengeful all its joys might blight;
Therefore back it winged its flight.‘
And yet the essential element of him,
As of all such men,
Is not scorching fire…
But shining illuminative light.
CHAMOUNY AT SUNRISE
.From the deep shadow of the silent fir-grove,
I lift my eyes, and trembling look on thee,
Brow of eternity, thou dazzling peak,
From whose calm height my dreaming spirit mounts
And sours away into the infinite!
Who sank the pillar in the lap of earth,
Down deep, the pillar of eternal rock,
On which thy mass stands firm, and firm hath stood,
While centuries on centuries rolled along?
Who reared, up-towering through the vaulted blue,
Mighty and bold, thy radiant countenance?
Who poured you from on-high with thunder-sound.
Down from old winter’s everlasting realm,
O jagged streams, over rock and through ravine?
And whose almighty voice commanded loud,
“Here shall the stiffening billows rest awhile!”
Whose finger points yon morning star his course?
Who fringed with blossom-wreaths the eternal frost?
Whose name, O wild Arveiron , does thy din
Of waves sound out in dreadful harmonies?
“Jehovah!” crashes in the burning ice;
Down through the gorge the rolling avalanche
Carries the word in thunder to the vales.
“Jehovah!” murmurs in the morning breeze.
Along the trembling tree-tops; down below
It whispers in the purling, silvery brooks.