Translation by Matthew Wildermuth

Note: In the time of its composition—the first decade of the 13th century—Tristan was already a timeless story of heroism and romance, yet in the hands of a great master—Gottfried von Strassburg—the tale of Tristan and Isolde was transformed into the greatest romance of the German Middle Ages. Gottfried prevailed in a transformative era; no longer were marriages to be decided merely by one’s parents or church, rather the echo of the divine found in one’s love was to direct matrimony. As yielded this “tyranny of the heart,” as Joseph Campbell named our lost tradition, there erupted across Europe a poetry of noble love, and the expression of this moment’s power is nowhere to be found expressed to such efficacy than in Gottfried.

Tristan’s author prepared a prologue of startling brilliance, which sets the central ideas of his work in the most evocative and musical expression, to then develop and restate throughout the epic. The work presented today is an excerpt of my translation of Gottfried’s prologue and the accompanying Middle High German as set by Karl Marold in the year 1906.


I thusly have this labor undertaken,
To lay before the world, and to solace
All noble hearts—those hearts so dear to my own,
And that world my own heart so keenly regards.
It is a labor not of the common world,
Nor for its common men, who, as I’ve learned,
Will not endure the heart’s most trivial sorrow,
But wish to revel in their impassioned bliss;
May God justly reward such bliss with His!
All I must say and they must hear but meager
Semblance may bear; the lay they course and that
Which I’ll convey cannot but course astray.
It is that other way, that other life
To which my labor pleads, which in one heart
Divergent ways may yet concede; which jointly
May bear its bitter-sweet,  its dear regret; [line 60]
Its heart’s content, its heart’s lament; its dearest
Life, its lamentful death; its lamentful life,
Its dearest death. That life with the life of my own
Lives in a dear accord; to that world would
I cast my life to live in evermore,
And with it be damned or by it restored.
It is with that world that I’ve held my term,
It’s by that world that I have been informed,
And guided through a life profoundly borne.
I offer then my art, my one true purpose,
My keenest bequest, that the world I love
May win diversion and abate a time
Its long anguish. For when the troubled heart
Permits immersion in some suited task,
The heart’s despair a moment may thus lapse. [line 80]
All surely must this cede: the leisurely,
When overwrought by the heart’s keenest woe,
In languor not but tend and bud their sorrow.
When such men languish in their idleness,
Their heart’s anguish out-blooms in bitterness.
One heart thus by itself so pressed and bound,
Which reveres and preserves its barrier pain,
May, by distraction, to itself thus bestow
A liberty, and brief solace obtain.
Yet would I never to a man who
Pursues diversion thus, advise that man
To look for pleasures ill befit to pure love.
Let then a lover to his love-tale,
And with his heart and with his lips let him
Gently devote an hour.
_________________Often have we  [line 100]
Been moved to believe, and I nearly will grant,
That the love-sick soul, immersed in doleful tales
Of love’s keenest pain, his own hurt through them
Can but gain, that through these tales he’ll submit
To his despair. This sentiment I must,
However near, resist; though love and pain
Be intimately trussed, yet the heart must
Ever persist. For, as the lover’s
Passion, so set to flame by it’s desire,
Must by this flame thrive, so in his passion’s
Relentless gain does the fire ever rise.
This dear grief is the heart’s most ardent will,
Which no noble heart may ever yield.
Of this I am certain as I am of death,
For I have learned it through the same dear distress: [line 120]
All noble lovers love to read of love-tales.
Therefore all those lovers who seek a solace
Need seek no further; I will provide
To noble lovers the tale of purest love
In two noble hearts: a lover, a beloved;
A man, a woman; and a woman,
A man: Tristan, Isolt; and Isolt, Tristan.

The following Middle High German text is taken from Karl Marold’s 1906 edition.

Ich hân mir eine unmüezekeit
der werlt ze liebe vür geleit
und edelen herzen zeiner hage:
den herzen den ich herze trage,
der werlde in die mîn herze siht.
ine meine ir aller werlde niht
als die, von der ich hœre sagen,
diu keine swære müge getragen
und niwan in fröuden welle sweben:
die lâze ouch got mit fröuden leben!
der werlde und diseme lebene
enkumt mîn rede niht ebene:
ir leben und mînez zweigent sich,
ein ander werlt die meine ich,
diu sament in eime herzen treit
ir süeze sûr, ir liebez leit, [line 60]
ir herzeliep, ir senede nôt,
ir liebez leben, ir leiden tôt,
ir lieben tôt, ir leidez leben,
dem lebene sî mîn leben ergeben,
der werlt wil ich gewerldet wesen,
mit ir verderben oder genesen.
ich bin mit ir biz her beliben
und hân mit ir die tage vertriben,
die mir ûf nâhe gêndem leben
lêre unde geleite solten geben.
der hân ich mîne unmüezekeit
ze kurzewtîe vür geleit,
daz sî mit mînem mære
ir nâhe gênde swære
ze halber senfte bringe,
ir nôt dâ mite geringe.
wan swer des iht vor ougen hât,
da mite der muot zunmuoze gât,
daz entsorget sorgehaften muot,
daz ist ze herzesorgen guot. [line 80]
ir aller volge diu ist dar an:
swâ sô der müezige man
mit senedem schaden sî überladen,
dâ mêre muoze seneden schaden.
bi senedem leide müezekeit,
dâ wahset iemer senede leit.
durch daz ist guot, swer herzeklage
und senede nôt ze herzen trage,
daz er mit allem ruoche
dem lîbe unmuoze suoche:
dâ mite sô müezeget der muot
und ist dem muote ein michel guot;
und gerâte ich niemer doch dar an,
daz iemer liebe gernder man
dekeine solhe unmuoze im neme,
diu reiner liebe missezeme.
ein senelîchez mære
daz trîbe ein senedære
mit herzen und mit munde
und senfte sô die stunde. [line 100]
nu ist aber einer jehe ze vil,
der ich vil nâch gevolgen wil:
der senede muot, sô der ie mê
mit seneden maeren umbe gê,
sô sîner swaere ie mêre sî.
Der selben jehe der stuende ich bî,
wan ein dinc daz mir widerstât:
swer inneclîche liebe hât,
doch ez im wê von herzen tuo,
daz herze stât doch ie dar zuo.
Der inneclîche minnenmuot,
sô der in sîner senegluot
ie mêre und mêre brinnet,
sô er ie sêrer minnet.
Diz leit is liebes alse vol,
daz ubel daz tuot sô herzewol,
daz es kein edel herze enbirt,
sît ez hie von geherzet wirt.
ich weiz ez wârez als den tôt
und erkenne ez bî der selben nôt: [line 120]
der edele senedære
der minnet senedie mære.
Von die swer senedaer maere ger,
der envar niht verrer danne her;
ich wil in wol bemæren
von edelen senedæren,
die reine sene wol tâten schîn:
ein senedære und ein senedærîn,
ein man ein wîp, ein wîp ein man,
Tristan Isolt, Isolt Tristan.


Matthew Wildermuth is a father, poet, and video artist. His work has appeared in Concentric Literary Magazine.

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4 Responses

  1. Lew Icarus Bede

    Mr. Wildermuth has heartily brought forth the prologue of “Tritan und Isolde” to the SCP, that work which touched the harsh vision of T. S. Eliot in “The Wasteland”—”Oed’ und leer das Meer”. I remain amazed to this day at the flourishing of Middle German literature in the middle of the Hohenstaufen dynasty around 1200. The epic tragic vision of those times is staggering. In addition to Gottfriend von Strassburg’s epic poetic narrative, there were minnesinger Walther von der Vogelweide, the great narrative poet Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach, the author of “Parzival”, and the Austrian “Nibelungenlied”. To attempt to bring any large part of that stupefying vision would be remarkable indeed, if not stupendous. It makes so much of what we do in the New Millennium seem pale indeed. I suppose that is why Wagner’s maniacal operas were so invigourating to many in the 19th century; for such an interpretation of that era is not only dreadful, it is also impressively grandiose. I am always amazed at how hard it is to embrace the profound aspects of World literature, as writers and translators. At times it can be absolutely excruciating, and yet, heroic. That is the main reason, if any were ever needed, as to why I shall remain to the end of my life impressed by the classical literatures of Greece and Rome.

  2. Carl Uwe Diebes

    It seems that lowly Mr. Bede has mistyped “Tristan und Isolde” and its author “Gottfried von Strassburg”. Of those writers in English who have drawn material from the Hohenstaufen period, the one who comes first to mind is Longfellow, who, in “The Golden Legend” draws upon Hartmann von Aue’s “Der arme Heinrich”. The late Romantics and the Victorians did enjoy a flowery tale.

    • Matthew Wildermuth

      I’m very disappointed to see such poor behavior taint my work. All who come to read this beautiful work will conclude their experience by witnessing the utter disrespect you laid before a fellow patron. Please edit your comment.

  3. BDW

    These were the only two to comment, and to tell the truth,
    that just because two disagree, stout hearts are not uncouth;
    no harm was meant on words they spent on Matthew Wildermuth.

    Hence, a token dodeca:

    Matthew Wildermuth
    by Lew Icarus Bede

    He brings his love of ancient lit to gamework that he does,
    from hymns of the Rig Veda to the Ancient Greek savants.
    He is a narrative designer, poet, essayist,
    who specializes in world-building and the choice-based quest;
    with OnceLost Games, providing in-game books and documents,
    and more for the upcoming RPG, the Wayward Realms.

    Is he the acting editor of Call of Saregnar?
    Is his first poem-book “The Ruin” from The Red Salon?
    Is he a literary critic at odds with his times,
    a valiant, mighty knight in fields of dread, explosive mines?
    Did he who found rhymed couplets in Herr Gottfried’s poetry
    turn “Tristan” into blank verse near Missouri’s banks, ND?


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