By the river / To my songs
(Poet's title: Am Flusse / An meine Lieder)
Set by Schubert:
[February 27, 1815]
[early December 1822]
Verfließet, vielgeliebte Lieder,
Zum Meere der Vergessenheit!
Kein Knabe sing entzückt euch wieder,
Kein Mädchen in der Blütenzeit.
Ihr sanget nur von meiner Lieben,
Nun spricht sie meiner Treue Hohn;
Ihr wart ins Wasser eingeschrieben,
So fließt denn auch mit ihm davon.
Flow on, you greatly loved songs,
Towards the sea of oblivion!
No enraptured lad is going to sing you again,
No girl at the time when flowers bloom!
You only sang about my love;
Now she speaks mockingly of my faithfulness.
You were inscribed into the water;
So you should also flow away with it.
All translations into English that appear on this website, unless otherwise stated, are by Malcolm Wren. You are free to use them on condition that you acknowledge Malcolm Wren as the translator and schubertsong.uk as the source. Unless otherwise stated, the comments and essays that appear after the texts and translations are by Malcolm Wren and are © Copyright.
The twenty year old Goethe who wrote this lyric at around the time when he left Leipzig University to return home (sick) to Frankfurt had never seen the sea. As he stood by any river he could only imagine the fate of the water flowing past. It was not difficult to associate the river with the course of his own life, particularly since he was having to re-evaluate some of his experience and activity so far.
His legal studies at Leipzig had not been as successful as his father had hoped, and he was not satisfied with some of his early attempts at literature. Indeed he consciously burned much of his juvenilia before returning to Frankfurt. For two years he had dallied with Kätchen, the daughter of C. G. Schönkopf, the keeper of the inn where he dined regularly as a student, knowing all along that nothing could come of their relationship because of the social distance between them. In April 1768 they agreed that they could only be ‘good friends’ and by 1770 she was married to a Leipzig lawyer.
We hardly do justice to the power of the poem, though, if we simply equate the songs that are being sent off into the sea of forgetting with Goethe’s Annettenlieder (the muse’s full name was Anna Katharina Schönkopf). The enraptured lad who no longer sings them is not necessarily Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the girl who now speaks disparagingly of his faithfulness is not (or not just) Kätchen Schönkopf. Most of us know the experience of wanting to forget what we once (perhaps even very recently) said or wrote.
The biographical context might, however, help to resolve one tricky image in the text. The poet says that his songs were written into or inscribed in the water, so they should now flow away with the river. ‘Eingeschrieben’ does not simply mean written down, it has connotations of signing up or being registered for something. A ludicrously literal way of interpreting how songs could be written into water would involve the writing being done in winter on the frozen surface of the river, meaning that the thaw would inevitably carry the text into oblivion. So perhaps Goethe really IS writing autobiography when he realises that some of his early poems had been as unsuccessful as his matriculation at Leipzig University. He had signed up but now he realises that simply having his name registered as a student does not mean that he has to stay; he can let it (and them) go.
Original Spelling Am Flusse Verfließet, vielgeliebte Lieder, Zum Meere der Vergessenheit! Kein Knabe sing' entzückt euch wieder, Kein Mädchen in der Blüthenzeit. Ihr sanget nur von meiner Lieben; Nun spricht sie meiner Treue Hohn. Ihr wart ins Wasser eingeschrieben; So fließt denn auch mit ihm davon.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s probable source, Goethe’s sämmtliche Schriften. Siebenter Band. / Gedichte von Goethe. Erster Theil. Lyrische Gedichte. Wien, 1810. Verlegt bey Anton Strauß. In Commission bey Geistinger. page 32; with Goethe’s Werke, Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand, Erster Band, Stuttgart und Tübingen, in der J.G.Cottaschen Buchhandlung, 1827, page 68, and with Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1799, herausgegeben von Schiller. Tübingen, in der J.G.Cottaischen Buchhandlung, page 231.
First published 1799 in Schiller’s Musen-Almanach with the title “An meine Lieder” (To my songs) and with “Justus Amman” as the author’s name.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 32 [46 von 418] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ163965701