For after the end of the world

The Kickelhahn near to Ilmenau, from here

What book would you take with you to the desert island? If one is not extremely practical – “The Encyclopedia of Tourists and Survivors!” – then he or she immediately thinks of a Big Book. The Bible. The Odyssey. Laozi. Tolstoy. Hafez. The poems of Attila József. Something one perhaps does not read every day, but which would stay as a canon and a memento from the lost civilization.

Different people can have different Big Books. Contemporary literature, however, often proposes a new candidate. Not even a book, just a poem. A poem by Goethe, the Wanderer’s Nightsong.

In Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World (2006) it is the representative of German Classicism, Alexander von Humboldt to penetrate, by sailing upstream the Amazonas, into a world of which we do not know whether it symbolizes the pre- or post-civilization state of humanity, but it certainly lacks any traces of civilization. His four oarsmen Carlos, Gabriel, Mario and Julio – who most probably stand for the idols of Kehlmann, the four great authors of Southern American magic reality – keep treating each other with obscure, bloody and magic stories that contradict every rule of European logic. When Humboldt is also invited to say something, he tells the Wanderer’s Nightsong in a prosaic translation. The awkwardness of the translation indicates well the incompatibility of the two worlds and shows how few can be transmitted from the Winckelmannian “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”, but it also highlights that the text even in this form preserves something from its emblematic nature referring to another, more spacious and sublime world.

Mario asked Humboldt to tell a story, he too.
He does not know any stories, said Humboldt and he straightened his hat which had been turned by the monkey. And he does not even like storytelling. But he can tell the most beautiful German poem in a free Spanish translation. Above the hilltops there is silence, between the trees no wind is felt, birds are silent, too, and you will die soon, don’t worry.
Everyone looked at him.
Ready, said Humboldt.
Pardon, asked Bonpland.
Humboldt reached for the sextant.
Excuse, said Julio. It is not possible that this is everything.
Of course it is no bloody story with wars and transformations, said Humbold with irritation. It has no magic, nobody is changed into a plant, nobody can fly and they do not eat each other.


Tatyana Tolstaya’s anti-utopia Кысь (The Slynx/Kys, 1986) is a survey of humanity living in quasi-paleolithic conditions after the nuclear war, but in fact it is an allegory of the morally and culturally eroded Soviet society. In this world there are no books, and there exist only as many written texts as Fedor Kuzmich, the tyrant of the village hands over to his scribes as his own works for copying and for distributing among the commoners:

А списывает Бенедикт то, что Федор Кузьмич, слава ему, сочинил: сказки, или поучения, а то стихи. Уж такие у Федора Кузьмича, слава ему, стихи ладные выходят, чтоиной раз рука задрожит, глаза затуманятся и будто весь враз ослабеешь и поплывешь куда-то, а не то словно как ком в горле встанет и сглотнуть не можешь… Вот намедни Бенедикт перебелял:

Горные вершины
Спят во тьме ночной;
Тихие долины
Полны свежей мглой;
Не пылит дорога,
Не дрожат листы…
Подожди немного,
Отдохнешь и ты.
And Benedikt copies out what Fedor Kuzmich, glory to him, wrote: tales, teachings or poems. And the poems of Fedor Kuzmich, glory to him, are so beautiful that sometimes the hand trembles and the eyes are clouded and one feels as if all his body were weakened and were swimming somewhere or as if there were a lump in his throat and could not swallow… The other day Benedikt copied out this:

Up there all summits
are still.
In all the tree-tops
you will
feel but the dew.
The birds in the forest stopped talking.
Soon, done with walking,
you shall rest, too.

A look from the Kickelhahn. Drawing of Goethe, 1776. The archive pictures are from the Goethezeitportal.

What qualifies this poem so much for featuring as a Denkmal of European high culture in a world deprived of civilization?

The distilled simplicity of the poem, cunningly counterpointed by the asymmetries in the rhythm and rhyme structure, plays a great role in it for sure. As if it were an utmostly refined flower of European poetry. It is no coincidence that everyone tries to translate it (here you are a synoptic table of some of the Hungarian translations of the last fifty years), and nevertheless nobody could produce a translation that would be regarded as perfect.

But it is also sure that our Bildung, the way how this poem is presented to us in the course of our studies as a symbol of our culture, has its part in it as well. I remember how in the early eighties, in an intellectual environment very similar to that of Tolstaya our old-school teacher of literature taught to us this poem and  we recited it in German, in the language of the destroyed middle-class culture and as a bequest of this culture, while no more than two boys in the class understood anything in this language.

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


The fact that this poem took on this importance already in the period of Goethe and it has survived like this in the European tradition is due to no small extent to Goethe himself who attributed this same importance to his own poem.

If we have just said that for the Romantic poet only the poem “writ in water” is really everlasting, then this poem fulfills all the necessary criteria. It does not have a proper title: in the first editions of Goethe it followed the Weimar Wanderer’s Nightsong, written four years earlier, under the title Ein Gleiches (“The same”). And it was writ, if not in water, but on decaying plank, the wooden wall of a hunter’s cabin in the Thuringian Forest, on the Kickelhahn above Ilmenau visited by Goethe almost thirty times during his life. And to make the metaphor complete, the handwriting of Goethe was sawed out of the wall at the end of the 19th century. Since then it has been lost.

The Kickelhahn hunter’s cabin today

Goethe wrote this poem on the cabin’s wall on the night from 6 to 7 September 1780, and in 1813 he renewed it. In 1831, shortly before his death he returned here again only to see it once more. His companion, the forest ranger Johann Christian Mahr described this visit in his diary, published shortly afterwards:

Beim Eintritt in das obere Zimmer sagte er: “Ich habe in früherer Zeit in dieser Stube mit meinem Bedienten im Sommer acht Tage gewohnt und damals einen kleinen Vers hier an die Wand geschrieben. Wohl möchte ich diesen Vers nochmals sehen und wenn der Tag darunter bemerkt ist, an welchem es geschehen, so haben Sie die Güte mir solchen aufzuzeichnen.” Sogleich führte ich ihn an das südliche Fenster der Stube, an welchem links mit Bleistift geschrieben steht:

The Kickelhahn cabin
Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch.
Es schweigen die Vöglein im Walde;
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

D. 7. September 1783. Goethe.

Goethe überlas diese wenigen Verse und Thränen flossen über seine Wangen. Ganz langsam zog er sein schneeweißes Taschentuch aus seinem dunkelbraunen Tuchrock, trocknete sich die Thränen und sprach in sanftem, wehmüthigem Ton: “Ja warte nur balde ruhest du auch!”, schwieg eine halbe Minute, sah nochmals durch das Fenster in den düstern Fichtenwald, und wendete sich darauf zu mir, mit den Worten: “Nun wollen wir wieder gehen.”


On entering the upper room he said: “I used to spend here eight days in a summer with my servant and then I wrote a little poem on the wall. I would like to see this poem once more, and if the day on which I wrote it is also noted below, then please be so kind to have a record of it for me.” I immediately led him to the southern window of the room, where this was written with pencil:

Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch.
Es schweigen die Vöglein im Walde;
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

D. 7. September 1783. Goethe.

Goethe read over these few verses and tears flowed down his cheeks. Very slowly he took his snow-white handkerchief from his dark brown cloth coat, he wiped his tears off, and he said in a gentle, mournful tone: “Yes, just wait, soon you will rest, too!” He was silent for half minute, looked through the window at the dark pine forest, and then he turned to me by saying: “Now we can leave.”


A perfectly arranged scene. I would be surprised if it were not yet adapted for the screen. “Since this description of Mahr the poem has been linked to the image of the old man sitting on the Kickelhahn and being absorbed with melancholy and with a presentiment of death in the contemplation of nature turning to night”, writes Wulf Segelbrecht in his monograph about the reception history of the poem. *

Goethe as an old man on the Kickelhahn, with the texts of both Wanderer’s Nightsongs below.
Thüringerwaldverlag Rich. Zieschank, Rudolstadt

Goethe’s cabin and the Kickelhahn look-out tower. Verlag v. W. Zinke, Friedrichroda, 1906

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the sea of fog, c. 1818

Paul Hey, Volksliederkarten: “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh”

However, the tradition of this poem as an icon of European culture reaches back not only to Goethe but even much further in time.

The Greek poet Alcman came from Anatolia to Sparta in the seventh century before Christ, during the archaic period of Greek culture. In Sparta he composed choir hymns for the parthenias, the religious associations of young girls. This fragment was left to us from one of his hymns (the English is by Lionel Casson):

Εὕδουσι δʹ ὀρέων κορυφαί τε καὶ φάραγγες
πρώονές τε καὶ χαράδραι
φῦλά τʹ ἑρπέτʹ ὅσα τρέφει μέλαινα γαῖα
θῆρές τʹ ὀρεσκῴοι καὶ γένος μελισσᾶν
καὶ κνώδαλʹ ἐν βένθεσσι πορφυρέας ἁλός·
εὕδουσι δʹ οἰωνῶν φῦλα τανυπτερύγων.
The mountains sleep, the valleys and peaks
the jutting headlands, the tumbling creeks
the black earth’s teeming creatures that crawl
the beasts of the forests, the swarms of bees
the monsters deep in the purple seas
the wide-winged birds, asleep, one and all.

The fragments of Alcman were published in one volume in 1773, producing a great effect in contemporary classical philology. Goethe wrote his Wanderer’s Nightsong seven years later. His poem attests the knowledge of Alcman’s hymn. As in a medallion, it sums up the very first description of a European sunset, inheriting its sacrality and universality and transmitting them until the last sunset of European culture and further.


Goethe – Schubert: Wandrers Nachtlied – Wanderer’s Nightsong D.768 (1823). Barbara Hendricks, soprano; Radu Lupu, piano (1986). This song can be found in several versions on YouTube, but I prefer this one because of the fine play of Radu Lupu.


9 comentarios:

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Captivating!
I have the impression that it was Stanley, the great explorer and journalist that brought up first the issue of having to chose only one book in a situation “post” or “pre” civilization as Africa (The Amazon of Daniel Kehlman/Anti –utopian Tatyana Tolstaya ) appeared in his mind.
Unfortunately, we are on Easter Holidays on Mount Mainalon (Just like Poussin shepherds) and I cannot consult my library on what was Stanley’s choice. I also believe that Gustave Flaubert had his own suggestions on the subject but again, I cannot rely on my memory…
With my best wishes for a Happy Easter for both of you and all your beloved please accept my congratulations for this excellent post.
The childhood memories of the poem’s recitation, the reflections on the context on the content of the poem and its history – tracing influences back to Alcman – and the association of the “writ in water” with the wall of the cabin on which the poem was engraved reveal a personal stamp – a personal mythology through which we receive the poem, which is indulging and rewarding!

Studiolum dijo...

I’m absolutely sure that “unfortunately” and “being on Mount Mainalon” are incompatible with each other. ;) Et ego… would like to be that unfortunate one day. Will you tell me which book you took with you to your Arcadian solitude? (apart from your notebook, of course)

I did not know that the “what-book-would-you-take-with-you” test goes back to Stanley – or that it had any definable historical root at all. I would be curious of the various personal preferences of various people over times. (On second thought, this is a quite real problem to me as well each time when I leave from home and want to take one book with me on the way. True, in this case the main point is its legibility, but, strangely enough, it also has to be somehow “worthy” to spend so much time in my company as the only book. Therefore on such occasions it takes an unusually long time to choose the appropriate traveling companion.)

I am fascinated by the interpretations inseparably wrapping the works of art like this one, suggested to Goethe by Alcman, incorporated into his personal mythology by him, and elevated to the rank of a cultural icon by his admirers. A chain of interpretation without which it would be a charming little poem for sure, but nothing comparable to its present importance. It reminds me of Chinese literature whose history is full of similar chains of interpretations and evaluations inseparably intertwined with the poems themselves and co-influencing the works inspired by them. Sometimes I feel that in “correctly” understanding such a poem, its very text plays the least role.

I also wish a happy and peaceful Easter for you and all your beloved, and a full spiritual charging in these days in the homeland of all poets!

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

It may also appear incompatible (like the unhappiness of the vacations in Arcadia) but I am so happy having nor read Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and so I am in a bliss reading it now. This is the book I carry with me.

a/ I don’t know whether the “what-book-would-you-take-with-you” test has a definable historical root. Alexander the Great used to carry Homer with him but this was not because he had to choose. I have also indulged with the idea in Kalvos’ bees (having Stanley in mind), when young Petros, preparing for his journey to England had to choose which of his favourite books has to abandon, since he could carry a heavy backpack.
I promise, to tell you the answer for Stanley as soon as possible.

b/I absolutely agree with you. It appears that the chain of interpretations of a work of art is longer than we think. Since along with the author’s associations and influences (past tense) we have also the reader’s personal mythologies (future tense) influencing and inspiring new books like Kehlman’s and Tolstaya’s and brilliant posts such as yours.

Thank you so much for your wishes for Easter and spiritual charging!

francesca dijo...

Beautiful post.

Franco Fortini, an Italian poet, dared to translate it like this:

Quiete tutte le cime.

Su tutte le rame alte
appena un fiato.

Muti i piccoli uccelli del bosco.

Fra poco, guarda
requie anche per te.

Obwohl "Warten nur" komplett verschwunden ist, finde ich es wunderschön.

Studiolum dijo...

A beautiful version.

I think “Warte nur” has not disappeared. In fact, in colloquial German it does not exactly mean “just wait”, but rather a more general imperative of consideration, and “guarda” is a perfect equivalent for it.

What I do miss, however, is “die Ruhe” über allen Gipfeln. Somehow the personification of Quiet hovering above the mountains is more German and more faithful to the Einstellung of the period than the Italian version transforming it to a simple adjective.

Studiolum dijo...

and yes – it immediately came to my mind right after the comment but then I had to leave – there’s also the beautiful archaic etymological connection between warten & guardare.

francesca dijo...

You're right, I was too fast and imprecise, sorry. Still, I am not sure of the perfect equivalence.

Despite Italians do not have that Einstellung (as the word itself indicates :-)), what is maintained - I feel - is the global sense of general suspension and the strong connection (in terms of meaning and of sound) between "quiete" and "requie".

As to the connection between "warten" and "guardare", it is really fascinating (and most Italians would have missed it).

Language dijo...

Thanks for this wonderful post! "Wandrers Nachtlied" (no -e-, by the way) has always been one of my favorite poems; I once called it "the most beautiful poem in German," though of course I should have said the most beautiful poem I know in German (particularly since German poetry is not one of my specialties). It is spectacularly hard to translate, and sounds so great in the original I'm not surprised you were required to memorize it in German. Repeating it to myself gives me the same kind of deep pleasure as hearing, say, the trio "Soave sia il vento" from Così fan tutte, another perfect nugget of esthetic pleasure.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you, Language, both for your opinion and for the correction. Yes, the poem is in fact a gem, and it is really interesting to discover that it has penetrated our culture on so many levels exactly like a perfect musical invention.

I have just seen what a misfortune has fallen on you. I cross my fingers so you could get your domain name back before any vulture swoops down on it. The daily reading (and occasional commenting) of your blog has become such a strong habit that I cannot imagine to miss it for a long time.