Death Is the Cooling Night

by Heinrich Heine

Death is the cooling night,
Life is the sultry day,
But now darkness settles
And I long for respite.

Outside my window looms a tree;
In it sings the young Nightingale.
She sings only of Love—
Even in dreams, it reaches me.

Translation © David B. Gosselin

Original German

Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,
Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag.
Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.

Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
Sie singt von lauter Liebe –
Ich hör es sogar im Traum.

 

Poet’s Note: See Brahms’ famous setting of this poem to music:

 

Wanderer’s Night Song II.

by Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe

Over the hilltops
Is quietness,
And in the treetops
Emptiness,
There’s hardly a sigh;
The birds are soundless in the forest.
With patience abide
You too will rest.

Translation © David B. Gosselin

Original German

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

 

David is a young translator, linguist and poet based in Montreal. He is the founder of the 21s century poetry website www.thechainedmuse.com

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7 Responses

  1. J. Simon Harris

    Although I usually don’t like rhymes like “forest/rest”, I think your translation of Goethe’s poem is quite beautiful. The other translation is good, too, but I like Goethe’s poem better. Well done.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Yes, J. S., “forest” & “rest” don’t really rhyme, because rhymes are carried on accented syllables, or best carried there, according to Timothy Steele at any rate, and it’s hard not to agree with him. Moreover, “-rest” & “rest” is a self rhyme in the best of circumstances, which almost always indicates to me that a poet has failed to take advantage of the full lexicon available. I suppose, however, that translations sometimes force a writer’s hand.

      Reply
  2. James A. Tweedie

    David,

    Beautiful poems, terse, yet rich and filled with imagery, emotion, and, profound thought (as one would expect from Goethe and Heine). The translations are also lovely, reflecting the rhyme scheme of the originals. It is unusual to find a translation that is even more terse than the original! (Evan also recently seemed to accomplish this with his translation of Mulan). My only wish is that the image in the fourth line of the Heine poem could have been more explicit insofar as the poet is drawn to the night (nacht/i.e. death) because he is so tired of/from the day (tag/i.e. life). The word “respite” hints at this and provides the appropriate rhyme but the sense and source of his angst/ennui is clearer and stronger in the German.

    Regardless, thank you for bringing these two poems to life for those of us whose knowledge and understanding of the German language is limited (also thank you for the link to the Brahms lieder . . . lovely)

    Reply
  3. Uwe Carl Diebes

    1. First off, it is gratifying to find Mr. Gosselin’s translations of two important German poets, Goethe (1749-1832) and Heine (1797-1856). Given his poetic bent, I am not surprised he has chosen these two small lyrics to translate: Heine the lyricist who wrote, “the thousand-year empire of Romanticism is at an end, and I myself am its last and fabulous king, who abdicated the throne,” and Goethe the Faustian author.

    2. Of the two poems Goethe’s small lyric, written on the evening of September 6, 1780, an adaptation itself of a lyric by the Greek writer Alcman, is my favourite. Goethe often referred to himself as “der Wanderer”. There is a simplicity, and a purity to the poem that is not translatable; yet Mr. Gosselin’s attempt is excellent in its own way; for me, the goodness of his work is that he made the attempt. However, I did notice that Mr. Gosselin did not reflect “the rhyme scheme of the original”.

    3. In my twenties, both Goethe and Heine appealed to my growing poetic sensibilities, particularly Heine; so it is nice to come across works of theirs again, as if I am coming across old friends. I also appreciated Mr. Gosselin’s link to Brahms’ setting of Heine’s poem (though this very week I have gone through a Bruckner episode!). Mr. Gosselin (and Mr. Krusch) seem to be aware of the remarkable connection between German poetry and German music; I think of Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s “Wanderers Nachlied” in that context. We have nothing in the English-speaking world that approaches that connection. “Our present age,” Heine wrote, “will go down in the annals of art as the age of music”, and he was right.

    4. Goethe’s poem is important, because it shows, albeit as a small instance, the German desire, like that of the Roman, to capture the power of ancient Greece, which is partly what made German culture of the 19th century, so extraordinary. Heine’s poem is important, because it is a reminder that, after Heine, German poetry lost its way. As Heine himself wrote, agreeing with Hegel, the world “had entered the age of prose”. For the English-speaking world this began in the 17th and crescendoed in the 18th century. It is one of the hardest aspects the poet of the New Millennium must deal with. How does one face that? is a question we in the English-speaking world must be able to answer, and to answer deeply and completely. It is one of the reasons I spent so long in both nonmetrical and nonrhyming poetry at the beginning of my poetic career, and why I have worked so vigourously on poetic prose in these last two decades.

    Reply
    • David B. Gosselin

      The lied has been considered by some to be the Rosetta Stone of poetry:
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rYBtSb72nW8

      That approach has been a great help in terms of figuring out how to think about a poem and thus to attempt to do the original justice in the form of a new authentic English poem. Nothing in the poem should be forced.

      What I think is also notable with these two poems is the meter and construction. There is a tendency by some at the Society to want to see poetry where everything has to be perfectly clipped and fitted. Yet if you look at Goethe’s little poem, it breaks all their rules and yet it flows even more nicely as a result.

      What guides the poem is the movement of the idea, from Heine’s use of both trochaic and iambic meter, similar to the major and major modes in music, to both Goethe and Heine’s lines that run off and break with the meter. While an adequate meter is necessary for unfolding that idea, it is not the case that to the degree meter, syllables and all are not perfectly tallied that somehow the poem or poet is less accomplished. It is often the opposite. Almost none of the lines in Goethe’s poem are consistent. Heine’s is also very original.

      By breaking from formulas, in a lawful way, they gain a new degree of freedom to develop beautiful ironies.

      Brahms made the following analysis of Goethe’s poem, which I found very refreshing and am indebted to his analysis for informing the approach to translating it.

      Memo by Brahm’s friend Bill Roth, who interviewed Brahms:

      Sunday forenoon with Brahms. I wanted to hear from him about the formation of melodies, about the indicators of “beauty” in a melody. He countered with a Goethean poem:

      “Über allen Gipfeln
      Ist Ruh;
      In allen Wipfeln
      Spürest Du
      Kaum einen Hauch.
      Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde.
      Warte nur, balde,
      Ruhest Du auch.”

      …and analyzed the same in an interesting way. The beauty and greatness of the overall. From the heavens over the summits down to the treetops of the forest. The silence as well in bustling nature; the allusion to sleep and the death of the person. Man as a part of nature, yet containing and assimilating all of nature in himself. Now the beauty of the form. The lovely cadences “Ist Ruh”, “Spürest Du”. The lovely interruption of the verse length-pattern in the sixth line, and then the return to shorter verses. The lovely sound of the rhymes, the “Hauch” that lies over the whole: one could not change one word, without destroying. The simplicity and brevity of the whole.”

      Reply
      • William Krusch

        Not that I was a part of this conversations before, but thank you for the link to Haight’s video – it reconfirmed numerous poetic ideas I had once held, but then let wander astray as I got caught up in Lisztean showmanship and fabrication. You do a great service to the world of poetry, David.

    • William Krusch

      Bruce, my name shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as Mr. Gosselin’s – his understanding of poetry and lieder so far excel mine that I am embarrassed by my ignorance. I might have been a better poet when I was younger and more quixotic, but personal loss has worn me down for worse, and my poetry has suffered as a result – I fear that I am becoming like Wordsworth as I get sucked into politics at the university and make artistic sacrifices for the sake of ephemeral glory. I openly confess that while my own poetry may have the superficial glimmer of Keats, it lacks the metaphor that is the hallmark of genius. Romantic imagery requires nothing but a dictionary, but poetic counterpoint requires blessings from the divine.

      Reply

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