Frederic Kind: “Körner’s Oak”
Excerpt, “The Life of Carl Theodor Körner: With Selections from his Poems, Tales and Dramas.” In Two Volumes. Christian Gottfried Körner. Translator: G.F. Richardson. 1827.
Among the various poetic effusions, which have been consecrated by the bards of Germany, to the memory of the youthful soldier and poet, I have selected for translation the following singular but spirited effusion of the poet King. I have chosen this from the other tributes to Körner, not only because it serves to exemplify, in a peculiar manner, the veneration of his countrymen for his memory; but because it also embodies and illustrates passages of some of his own most admired compositions. The extracts from Körnerare printed in italics.
By Frederic Kind
Time, Twilight, the sky all obscured with thick clouds. Under an old oak is a fresh-dug grave. A grey-headed old man, wrapt in a dark robe, is leaning on the stem of the oak. From the distance approaches a host of warriors singing strains of mournful tone, and bearing, in the midst, a coffin on a bier.
CHORUS OF WARRIORS CONCLUDES
“God, I yield myself to thee!
When the thunders of battle are loud in their strife,
And my opening veins pour forth my life,
God, I yield my life to thee!
Father, I call on thee!”
THE OLD MAN
Stand, warriors! And report: Whose corse is this
Which, with that lovely, but terrific song,
Ye bear, among you, to its mother earth?
For know, this oak o’ershadows holy ground:
A valiant band hath chosen me to guard
This grave, and keep it for as brave a heart
As ever beat within the breast of youth.
Say, who appointed thee to guard this grave?
Nor we – not we – Ghost of the tomb – avaunt!
Nay, rev’rence age, halt, and set down the bier.
Whoe’er thou art, whose voice thus chilly sounds
Through night’s deep gloom, know, ‘twas a noble heart
That beat within our parted brother’s breast.
See’st thou yon oak-wreath on his coffin placed?
He who won that – won, too, a freeman’s grave!
Yet must I bar your access to this grave:
For I was not unhonour’d in my day,
And all those deeds that I in youth beheld,
That live in deathless songs of fight and fame,
The present age hath wond’rously restored.
Our fathers live, the old world wakes again;
Many have well deserved the oaken crown,
But he, whom here our mother earth awaits,
Yes, he was; yet, good old man,
I pray thee rouse not thus my comrades’ ire.
Knowest thou the youth here mantled in his pall?
The winged steed of song could not suffice him,
Nor e’en earth’s narrow circle; he aspired
To nobler flights, and soar’d beyond the stars!
Speak, friends! That from your several witnessing
This Rhadamanthus may extract the truth.
He who sleeps in his coffin here
Obey’d the call to glory’s strife,
And his minstrel art he counted dear,
As the noblest gift of mortal life.
And he sung, in youthful fancy’s dreams,
Of the gifts of nature’s glorious dower;
And still his sweetest, fondest themes
Were of love and of beauty’s magic power!
But when the youth, with patriot ire,
Beheld his country desolate,
He bade sublimer strains aspire,
And praised and envied Zriny’s fate!
He woke again Alcaeus’ lyre,
He pointed to blest views on high;
And wide as’rung his notes of fire,
Did weapons gleam and banners fly!
The power of song is not unknown to me.
The bards of old – believe the tale, young man!
Were never idle when the time required;
And often have their echoes met my ear,
When ‘mid the ripen’d harvest songs of fight,
Through field and wood, from hill and valley, rang.
Our fathers too were worthy of their bards,
Yet he whom here our mother earth awaits
Was nobler still! The minstrel’s song of fire
Awakes the warrior’s steel, itself no weapon,
And well ye know the strife requires the sword.
All this felt he, who sleeps within this bier.
THIRD AND YOUNG WARRIOR
He flew through smoke and fire,
To where the danger prest;
And cross’d the sword and lyre
Upon his warrior breast!
He shone like one of those
Bright forms, to whom ‘tis given
Against his hellish foes
To guard the King of heaven.
Though arm’d with glittering spear,
And flaming sword of might;
The monsters disappear,
And sink in endless night.
With a face like a face of light,
And a form like those above,
So shone he to our sight,
So lives he to our love!
Who sings of noble deeds, in noble strains,
Deserves great honour; but far greater he
Who dares, himself, achieve the deeds of song.
Yet must I bar your access to this grave:
For have not youth and age unsheathed the sword
Prepared for freedom and her holy band?
And have not German sire and son gone forth,
And burn’d with ardour for the patriot strife?
Yet all have not deserved the noblest meed!
The phoenix flies, from instinct, to the flames,
Seeks death, and finds it. Venerable sage!
Look on our dead one! See the crimson gore!
He sung, he fought, he fell but for his country.
He draws back to the covering of the coffin.
Several warriors draw near with torches. The bloody corse
Is seen covered with oak-leaves.
OLD MAN (after a pause)
Yes, lay the honour’d youth in honour’d dust;
And lay a sword, too, with him in the tomb!
That thus, when many suns have run their course,
Should shame and slav’ry threaten our loved land,
The peasant, when he ploughs the sabre up,
May know what deeds his ancestors have done.
Yet, not his sword, — each sword is needed now:
And see! His steel is keen, and fit for war.
Ye’ll find another sabre; search and see.
A GRAVE-DIGGER (to the LEADER)
Yes, in the twilight, as we dug this grave,
And found it deep, and cover’d stone with stone,
Hoping to find a treasure buried there,
We only found, at length, this iron sword,
Weighty and strong, and half consumed with rust.
The old man bows his head slowly and significantly,
Yields a step backward, and then remains fixed.
How strange is this! Obey the hoary sage.
The sword is placed in the coffin: While this is done,
And as it is covered with earth
“He wakes us now to prospects blest
Of happier days and brighter skies;
He inspires each warrior’s breast;
Germans all, awake! Arise!
He leads us through the path of night,
He the guide of all our ways,
To youthful Freedom’s dawning light:
To Him alone be all the praise!”
Now carve our dead one’s name upon the stem,
That future ages may know Körner’s Oak.
Come, comrades! Haste, and bear your torches here!
At this moment, before the torches approach, the
Moon beams from behind a cloud, and lights the
Stem: The old man disappears.
Where is the old man now?
Dissolved in air!
The very moment that the moon shone out.
I saw him as he vanish’d; his white beard
Flow’d like a stream of silver on his breast,
And mildest looks were gleaming from his eye;
An oak-wreath twined around his hoary brow,
And a harp echoed in his waving hand!
See! The tree trembles! And its lofty boughs
Shake in the blast, while all around is calm!
VOICE from the Oak
At the moment the bark is carved with his name.
This oak o’er-shadows now two sleeping bards.
Hark! Hark! The earth speaks!
Sounds are heard on high,
Like songs of spirits or wind-harmonies.
Soft music is heard,
which soon becomes mingled with song.
A VOICE from above
Cease to mourn the will of Heaven;
Know, a sacred cross of light
The Lord, himself, to me hath given,
To hear before you in the fight.
CHORUS on high
And our banner beams bright in the heavenly field,
And heaven must conquer, and hell must yield.
Glory to God!
Welcome, breathen! Come with sword,
Come with lances in your hand;
Descend, ye warriors of the Lord!
Descend and save your native land!
We stand by your side in this holy strife,
And lead you to glory and endless life.
Honour to God! Gloria! Gloria!
Music and singing are heard
Hark! Heard ye what the choir of angels sang?
He throws himself on the ground; and, while praying,
Lifts up his sword to heaven. All kneel ‘round him
In a circle.
O lead us through life, and through death, we pray;
To success, and to Freedom’s dawning day!
In the distance a long continued peal of thunder.
Rising up with enthusiasm.
Now, comrades draw your swords! God is with us!
(joyfully uniting in song)
“The marriage-morn of strife
Dawns for the soldier’s wife.”