Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Moon Has Risen

When you ask a German on the street to quote a poem you will get various answers. In most cases your counterpart will just know the first line of, e. g., Goethe's Erlkönig (Elf-king) or Schiller's Das Lied von der Glocke (The song of the bell). However, if the person quotes what is known as the Abendlied (Evening Song) you can be sure that he/she will know by heart at least the entire first verse.

Der Mond ist aufgegangen.
Die gold'nen Sternlein prangen
am Himmel hell und klar.
Der Wald steht schwarz und schweiget.
Und aus den Wiesen steiget
der weiße Nebel, wunderbar.

The moon has risen.
The golden stars shine
in the sky, brightly and clearly.
The woods stand black and silent.
And magically, from the meadows
the white mist is rising.

Matthias Claudius' 250th birthday
For me the English translation is missing the romantic touch Germans will feel with the poetry of Matthias Claudius.

Statistics reveal that the Abendlied written in 1773 is more popular than two poems by Goethe: The Erlkönig and Wanderers Nachtlied (Wanderer's Nightsong) come only in second and third place.

The author of  Germany's most famous poem died in Hamburg 200 years ago on January 21. Between 1770 and 1775 Claudius was editor in chief of a Hamburg newspaper Der Wandsbecker Bothe (The Wandsbek Messenger). In its literary section he published works of such prominent authors as Goethe, Lessing, Herder, and Klopstock.


Common German knowledge too is the beginning of Claudius' poem Urians Reise (Urian's Journey):

Wenn jemand eine Reise tut
so kann er was erzählen.
Drum nahm ich meinen Stock und Hut
Und tät das Reisen wählen

Anyone who goes on a journey
will have quite a lot to tell
Therefore I took my stick and hat
and chose to go traveling.

Claudius wrote other and less romantic poems: ‘s ist Krieg! ‘s ist Krieg! (It's war, it's war) where he claimed that he is not guilty ...

Wenn wackre Männer, die sich Ehre suchten,
Verstümmelt und halb tot
Im Staub sich vor mir wälzten und mir fluchten
In ihrer Todesnot?

When brave men seeking glory
wallow in front of me in dust
mutilated and half dead
curse me in their mortal agony?

150 years Wandsbecker Bothe (©McZack/Wikipedia)
Herder called Claudius the greatest genius with a heart glowing like hard coal but when the Wandsbeker Bothe fired Claudius in 1775 his appreciation by the great men of German literature cooled off rapidly. He was confronted with the fact that he was a university drop-out when super educated Wilhelm von Humboldt dismissed him an absolute zero.

When during the Napoleonic rule Claudius jumped on the bandwagon of those Germans criticizing the dictator: Cränz einen Welteroberer nicht, Schlepp lieber ihn zum Hochgericht (Don't crown with a wreath a world conqueror, rather drag him to the place of execution) he, in Goethe's eyes, had gone too far. The lifelong admirer of Napoleon called Claudius einen Narren, der voller Einfaltsprätensionen steckt (a fool full of simplistic pretensions).

Here is the full text of Claudius's Evening Song of 1773. Already as early as 1790 Johann Abraham Peter Schulz set the verses to music, a tune that is still popular with the young:

Abendlied

Der Mond ist aufgegangen.
Die gold'nen Sternlein prangen
am Himmel hell und klar.
Der Wald steht schwarz und schweiget.
Und aus den Wiesen steiget
der weiße Nebel, wunderbar.

Wie ist die Welt so stille,
und in der Dämm'rung Hülle
so traulich und so hold
als eine Stille Kammer,
wo ihr des Tages Jammer
verschlafen und vergessen sollt.

Seht ihr den Mond dort stehen?
Er ist nur halb zu sehen
und ist doch rund und schön.
So sind wohl manche Sachen,
die wir getrost belachen,
weil uns're Augen sie nicht seh'n.

Wir stolze Menschenkinder
sind eitel arme Sünder
und wissen gar nicht viel.
Wir spinnen Luftgespinste
und suchen viele Künste
und kommen weiter von dem Ziel.

Gott, lass uns dein Heil schauen,
auf nichts Vergänglich's trauen,
nicht Eitelkeit uns freu'n.
Lass uns einfältig werden
und vor dir hier auf Erden
wie Kinder fromm und fröhlich sein.

Wollst endlich sonder Grämen
aus dieser Welt uns nehmen
durch einen sanften Tod;
und wenn du uns genommen,
lass uns in' Himmel kommen,
du unser Herr und unser Gott.

So legt euch denn, ihr Brüder,
in Gottes Namen nieder –
Kalt ist der Abendhauch.
Verschon uns, Gott, mit Strafen
und lass uns ruhig schlafen –
und unsern kranken Nachbar auch.

Evening Song

The moon has risen.
The golden stars shine
in the sky, brightly and clearly.
The woods stand black and silent.
And magically, from the meadows
the white mist is rising.

How still is the world
and, wrapped in dusk,
as intimate and lovely
as a still chamber
where you can sleep
while forgetting the day's grief.

Do you see the moon up there?
You can only see half of it,
all the same, it is round and beautiful.
The same goes for many things
that we laugh at without hesitation,
just because our eyes don't see them.

We proud children of man
are vain poor sinners
who do not know much at all.
We spin gossamers of air
and search for many skills
and further depart from our goal.

God, let us see your salvation,
let us neither trust in any transitory things,
nor enjoy vanity.
Let us become naive
and here on earth let us be, in your eyes,
devout and happy like children.

Without grief, will you finally please
take us out of this world
by a gentle death;
and when you will have taken us,
let us get to Heaven,
you, our Lord and God.

So then, brothers,
lie down in the name of God –
The evening breeze is cold.
Spare us punishment, God,
and grant us peaceful sleep –
and also to our sick neighbour.

The famous last words of the last verse: Spare us punishment, God, and grant us peaceful sleep – and also to our sick neighbour are like a prayer. Subsequently the poem of the Protestant author - long since appreciated in Germany's Lutheran hymn book - found its way into the Catholic hymnal in 2013.

Of recurrent relevance are a few lines Claudius sent to his son Johannes in 1799: Don't despise any religion for it is meant for the spirit ... It is easy to despise, son, and it is much better to understand.

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