In 1776, while on a tour to Switzerland, Goethe encountered the Staubbach Falls cascading down the sheer rocks and was motivated to write the poem Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (Spirit Song Over the Waters, 1779). He sent a copy of this ode to a young maiden, Charolette von Stein, and to his close friend and mentor Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch, a German court master in the house of Count von Lindenau.

In Spirit, Goethe compares the soul of man to water, which cycles between Heaven and Earth. The cliffs project the water into “angry foams” (Staubbach Falls), down to the bottom. The streams now flow into a channel into a polished lake in which “each constellation joyously peepeth”. The soul of man is like the water and the destiny of man is like the wind (Bowring, 164).

It was set to song by Franz Schubert and published in 1891 (D.714).

Spirit Song Over the Waters

By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The soul of man
Resembleth water:
From heaven it cometh,
To heaven it soareth.
And then again
To earth descendeth,
Changing ever.

Down from the lofty
Rocky wall
Streams the bright flood,
Then spreadeth gently
In cloudy billows
O’er the smooth rock,
And welcomed kindly,
Veiling, on roams it,
Soft murmuring,
Tow’rd the abyss.

Cliffs projecting
Oppose its progress,–
Angrily foams it
Down to the bottom,
Step by step.

Now, in flat channel,
Through the meadowland steals it,
And in the polish’d lake
Each constellation
Joyously peepeth.

Wind is the loving
Wooer of waters;
Wind blends together
Billows all-foaming.

Spirit of man,
Thou art like unto water!
Fortune of man,
Thou art like unto wind!

Works Cited

Bowring, Edgar A. (1919). Poems of Goethe. Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co.