„Uber allen Gipfeln“
by Goethe Longfellow’s translation
Ueber allen Gipfeln O’er all the hill-tops
Ist Ruh, Is quiet now,
In allen Wipfeln In all the tree-tops
Spürest du Hearest thou
Kaum einen Hauch; Hardly a breath;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde. The birds are asleep in the trees:
Warte nur, balde Wait; soon like these
Ruhest du auch. Thou too shalt rest.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had a gift of language acquisition which began early in his years of education as a student of Latin and continued throughout his career as he became fluent in French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian. He could read at least a half a dozen other modern languages and two ancient ones.
He was first introduced to these languages and cultures as he traveled and lived abroad and consequently infused his poems with his experiences. Longfellow consequently became the Librarian and a Professor of Modern Languages at his alma mater, Bowdoin University in 1829 and began translating textbooks in French, Spanish and Italian. He soon returned to Europe to live in Germany and consequently visited England, Sweden and the Netherlands and wrote poetry and prose reflecting his travels as seen in the Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, and the Belfry of Bruges.
A few years ago, I stood atop this medieval tower, the Belfry in Bruges, and viewed the towns and hamlets as Longfellow had in 1842 with “streams and vapors gray” of the ghosts of Flemish past [see blog post]
As a prolific and resourceful translator, Longfellow uses the tool of language to enrich his characters in his poems. For example, in The Song of Hiawatha, the title character invents Picture-Writing to help identify the unmarked graves of his tribe: “On the grave posts of our fathers are no signs, no figures painted/ Who are in those graves we know not” (In Poems and Other Writings, 228).
Of course, Longfellow’s linguistic gifts are perhaps best recognized in his translation of The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri which led to his writing of six prolific sonnets on Dante. Longfellow told George Washington Greene that translation “seizes people with irresistible power and whirls them away till they are beside themselves” (Irmsher). It is no wonder that Longfellow himself was one of the most translated authors of his time.
For the purposes of this blog, I would like to highlight Longfellow’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Uber allen Gipfeln. This poem is part of Goethe’s most famous work entitled, Wanderers Nachtlied (Wanderer’s Nightsong). Goethe often took time to climb the highest hill in Weimer, Kickelhahn, to escape from the busyness and stress of his life. Written in 1776, Wanderers, along with Ein gleiches, was set to music by Franz Shubert. Goethe wrote this poem in a letter to his friend Charolette Von Stein while sitting under a large oak tree (later named “Goethe Oak”). Goethe and Stein were good friends and they had deep and intimate correspondence with each other.
Already an admirer of all things Longfellow, I became interested in the writings of Goethe and the compositions of Shubert after visiting their homeland of Vienna last Spring. How exciting that these two passions of mine have collided! In my novice attempt to learn the German language, I have started reading the poetry of Goethe with Longfellow’s translation to aid in the translation. Uber allen Gipfeln will be my first Goethe poem.
In the Nightsong, Goethe is sitting on the highest point of the city, where all is quiet. There is no wind, blowing through the treetops; no birds singing as they are asleep. He can’t even hear his own breath-total silence. What is the song of the night then? What does one hear when all nature ceases to speak? Can silence be a song? We do know that he will soon be able to rest. This brings comfort.
According to the New York Times Book Review of 1955, “Longfellow’s translation of Wanderers Nachtlied , like the original, it is perfection; not a syllable can be changed (Silz).” Walter Silz, who was a Professor of German language and literature, disagrees with this statement, however. He believes that even an accomplished linguist as Longfellow could not completely capture the magic of Goethe: “…great lyric poetry is simply untranslatable (Silz, 344).” He believes that to translate any work of Goethe to English would be “bald, trite and all but childish.” Silz states that “ornate poems can be more satisfactorily translated than simple ones—just as ornate signatures can be more easily forged!” Just as great art cannot be reproduced, great thoughts cannot as well. Interesting and true!
Irmsher, Christophe. Public Poet, Private Man, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200. Houghton Library Collections. hcl.harvard.edu. 2008
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. In Poems and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 2000.
Silz, Walter. “Longfellow’s Translation of Goethe’s ‘Ueber Allen Gipfeln…”.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 71, no. 5, 1956, pp. 344–345. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3043452. Accessed 24 Apr. 2020.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)