Saturday, August 21, 2010

''The Castle of Boncourt''

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Adalbert von Chamisso

I dream of the days of my childhood,
      And shake my silvery head.
How haunt ye my brain, O visions,
      Methought ye forgotten and dead!

From the shades of the forest uprises
      A castle so lofty and great;
Well know I the battlements, towers,
      The arching stone-bridge, and the gate.

The lions look down from the scutcheon
      On me with familiar face;
I greet the old friends of my boyhood,
      And speed through the courtyard space.

There lies the Sphinx by the fountain;
      The fig-tree's foliage gleams;
'Twas there, behind yon windows,
      I dreamt the first of my dreams.

I tread the aisle of the chapel,
      And search for my fathers' graves--
Behold them! And there from the pillars
      Hang down the old armor and glaives.

Not yet can I read the inscription;
      A veil hath enveloped my sight,
What though through the painted windows
      Glows brightly the sunbeam's light.

Thus gleams, O hall of my fathers,
      Thy image so bright in my mind,
From the earth now vanished, the ploughshare
      Leaves of thee no vestige behind.

Be fruitful, lov'd soil, I will bless thee,
      While anguish o'er-cloudeth my brow;
Threefold will I bless him, whoever
      May guide o'er thy bosom the plough.

But I will up, up, and be doing;
      My lyre I'll take in my hand;
O'er the wide, wide earth will I wander,
      And sing from land to land.

-trans. Alfred Baskerville
-German title: Das Schloß Boncourt.

The scion of a noble French line, Adalbert von Chamisso was forced to flee France during the calamity of the French Revolution. He settled in Prussia, entered the military, and composed his most famous works in German. In this poem he laments the loss of his former ancestral castle, which was levelled by the resentment-driven revolutionaries.

(Illustration is Ernst Ferdinand Oehme, Burg Scharfenberg by Night, 1827.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

''Song of the Fatherland''


Ernst Moritz Arndt

God, who gave iron, purposed ne'er
      That man should be a slave;
Therefore the sabre, sword, and spear
      In his right hand He gave.
Therefore He gave him fiery mood,
      Fierce speech, and free-born breath,
That he might fearlessly the feud
      Maintain through blood and death.

Therefore will we what God did say,
      With honest truth, maintain--
And ne'er a fellow-creature slay,
      A tyrant's pay to gain!
But he shall perish by stroke of brand
      Who fighteth for sin and shame,
And not inherit the German land
      With men of the German name.

O Germany! bright Fatherland!
      O German love so true!
Thou sacred land--thou beauteous land--
      We swear to thee anew!
Outlawed, each knave and coward shall
      The crow and raven feed;
But we will to the battle all--
      Revenge shall be our meed.

Flash forth, flash forth, whatever can,
      To bright and flaming life!
Now, all ye Germans, man for man,
      Forth to the holy strife!
Your hands lift upward to the sky--
      Your hearts shall upward soar--
And man for man let each one cry,
      Our slavery is o'er!

Let sound, let sound, whatever can--
      Trumpet and fife and drum!
This day our sabres, man for man,
      To stain with blood, we come;
With hangman's and with coward's blood,
      O glorious day of ire
That to all Germans soundeth good!--
      Day of our great desire!

Let wave, let wave, whatever can--
      Standard and banner wave!
Here will we purpose, man for man,
      To grace a hero's grave.
Advance, ye brave ranks, hardily--
      Your banners wave on high;
We'll gain us freedom's victory,
      Or freedom's death we'll die!


-trans. H.W. Dulcken
-German title: Vaterlandslied.

(Image shows the Arminius sculpture atop the Hermannsdenkmal near Detmold; photographed by the author during his latest pilgrimage to Germany, in August, 2009.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

''The Hostess' Daughter''

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Ludwig Uhland

Three students had cross'd o'er the Rhine's dark tide;
At the door of a hostel they turned aside.

"Hast thou, Dame hostess, good ale and wine?
And where is thy daughter, so sweet and fine?"

"My ale and wine are cool and clear;
On her death-bed lieth my daughter dear."

And when to the chamber they made their way,
In a sable coffin the damsel lay.

The first — the veil from her face he took,
And gazed upon her with mournful look:

"Alas! fair maiden — didst thou still live,
To thee my love would I henceforth give!"

To second — he lightly replaced the shroud,
Then round he turned him, and wept aloud:

"Thou liest, alas! on thy death-bed here;
I loved thee fondly for many a year!"

The third — he lifted again the veil,
And gently he kissed those lips so pale:

"I love thee now, as I loved of yore,
And thus will I love thee forevermore!"


-trans. W.W. Skeat
-German title: Der Wirtin Töchterlein.

(Illustration is Carl Philipp Fohr, Knights before a Charcoal Burner's Hut, 1816.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

''The Chorus of the Dead''


Conrad Ferdinand Meyer

We dead men, we dead men can muster more legions
Than all of you mortals in all the world's regions!
Where we plowed the fields for the deeds we were sowing
There now sinks the harvest your sickles are mowing.
And what we completed or merely decided
Up there keeps your fountains with water provided.
And all our loving and hating and yearning,
Up there warms your blood, and you still feel it burning.
By laws and by measures which we once erected
Still all that you do in your world in directed.
And what we in stone, sound, or word once created
Is crowned in the light by the world it elated.
We still are pursuing the goals of the living.
Revere our numbers. We still are the giving.

-German title: Chor der Toten.

(Illustration is Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death as a Fiddler, 1871-74.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

''The most heroic subject ever chosen''

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From William Hazlitt, "On Shakespeare and Milton," from Lectures on the English Poets (1818):

Satan is the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem; and the execution is as perfect as the design is lofty.

He was the first of created beings, who, for endeavouring to be equal with the highest, and to divide the empire of heaven with the Almighty, was hurled down to hell. His aim was no less than the throne of the universe; his means, myriads of angelic armies bright, the third part of the heavens, whom he lured after him with his countenance, and who durst defy the Omnipotent in arms. His ambition was the greatest, and his punishment was the greatest; but not so his despair, for his fortitude was as great as his sufferings. His strength of mind was matchless as his strength of body; the vastness of his designs did not surpass the firm, inflexible determination with which he submitted to his irreversible doom, and final loss of all good. His power of action and of suffering was equal.

He was the greatest power that was ever overthrown, with the strongest will left to resist or to endure. He was baffled, not confounded. He stood like a tower; or
“As when Heaven's fire
Hath scathed the forest oaks or mountain pines!”
He is still surrounded with hosts of rebel angels, armed warriors, who own him as their sovereign leader, and with whose fate he sympathises as he views them round, far as the eye can reach; though he keeps aloof from them in his own mind, and holds supreme counsel only with his own breast.

An outcast from Heaven, Hell trembles beneath his feet, Sin and Death are at his heels, and mankind are his easy prey.
“All is not lost; th' unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what else is not to be overcome,”
are still his. The sense of his punishment seems lost in the magnitude of it; the fierceness of tormenting flames, is qualified and made innoxious by the greater fierceness of his pride; the loss of infinite happiness to himself is compensated in thought, by the power of inflicting infinite misery on others.

Yet Satan is not the principle of malignity, or of the abstract love of evil — but of the abstract love of power, of pride, of self-will personified, to which last principle all other good and evil, and even his own, are subordinate. From this principle he never once flinches. His love of power and contempt for suffering are never once relaxed from the highest pitch of intensity. His thoughts burn like a hell within him; but the power of thought holds dominion in his mind over every other consideration. The consciousness of a determined purpose, of “that intellectual being, those thoughts that wander through eternity,” though accompanied with endless pain, he prefers to nonentity, to “being swallowed up and lost in the wide womb of uncreated night.” He expresses the sum and substance of all ambition in one line: “Fallen cherub, to be weak is miserable, doing or suffering!”

After such a conflict as his, and such a defeat, to retreat in order, to rally, to make terms, to exist at all, is something; but he does more than this — he founds a new empire in hell, and from it conquers this new world, whither he bends his undaunted flight, forcing his way through nether and surrounding fires.

The poet has not in all this given us a mere shadowy outline; the strength is equal to the magnitude of the conception. The Achilles of Homer is not more distinct; the Titans were not more vast; Prometheus chained to his rock was not a more terrific example of suffering and of crime.

Wherever the figure of Satan is introduced, whether he walks or flies, “rising aloft incumbent on the dusky air,” it is illustrated with the most striking and appropriate images: so that we see it always before us, gigantic, irregular, portentous, uneasy, and disturbed — but dazzling in its faded splendour, the clouded ruins of a god. The deformity of Satan is only in the depravity of his will; he has no bodily deformity to excite our loathing or disgust. The horns and tail are not there, poor emblems of the unbending, unconquered spirit, of the writhing agonies within. Milton was too magnanimous and open an antagonist to support his argument by the bye-tricks of a hump and cloven foot; to bring into the fair field of controversy the good old catholic prejudices of which Tasso and Dante have availed themselves, and which the mystic German critics would restore. He relied on the justice of his cause, and did not scruple to give the devil his due.

(Illustration is John Martin, The Bridge over Chaos, 1827.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

The Ring excepted, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the greatest opera ever written. This video shows its stirring finale, in which Hans Sachs persuades Walter von Stolzing, who has just won the contest of song (and with it Eva's heart) not to scorn Nürnberg's Mastersingers, but to honour their art.

Regrettably, Herbert von Karajan's definitive staging was never filmed, so no ideal video of the opera is available. This Met production is the best that currently exists, despite imperfect leads and a politically correct chorus who more closely evoke downtown Harlem than medieval Germany. A Sydney Opera video boasts a superior cast, but is blighted by a Leftist, revisionist ending that undermines the entire performance.

The Metropolitan Opera clip shown here is distinguished by fine costumes and props and a magnificent set design. This is truly the Mastersingers of Nürnberg, with the Sinnwell Tower of the Imperial Castle visible in the distance. Also, the staging of the finale conforms more closely to Wagner's instructions than does any other performance currently on video, offering a moment that is deeply touching for those who know the complete opera and recall the hints of an attraction between Sachs and Eva.

One cannot help but be moved by Sachs's final admonition to the audience: "Honour your German Masters." His words are as timely today as they were when Wagner penned them in 1868. The following translation, by yours truly, attempts to include as much rhyme as is possible while preserving the meaning of the original text.

SACHS: Beware! Evil plots threaten us all.
Should the German empire and people one day fall
Under a false, foreign rule,
No prince his people would understand.
And foreign intrigue and vanity
They would plant in German land.
What is German and true would soon be forgot
If it did not live on in the German Masters' art.
So honour your German Masters, I say to you!
Then you will summon spirits good and true.
If you give their works your favour
Then should the Holy Roman Empire
One day fall apart,
We would, even then, still possess
Our holy German Art!

DVD of this performance
Complete opera on CD (definitive Karajan version)