By the sea
(Poet's title: Am Meer)
Set by Schubert:
Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus
Im letzten Abendscheine,
Wir saßen am einsamen Fischerhaus,
Wir saßen stumm und alleine.
Der Nebel stieg, das Wasser schwoll,
Die Möwe flog hin und wieder;
Aus deinen Augen, liebevoll,
Fielen die Tränen nieder.
Ich sah sie fallen auf deine Hand
Und bin auf’s Knie gesunken,
Ich hab von deiner weißen Hand
Die Tränen fortgetrunken.
Seit jener Stunde verzehrt sich mein Leib,
Die Seele stirbt vor Sehnen; –
Mich hat das unglückseel’ge Weib
Vergiftet mit ihren Tränen.
The sea was glistening far into distance
In the last of the evening glow;
We were sitting by a solitary fisherman’s house,
We were sitting mute and alone.
The mist rose, the water swelled,
The seagull flew back and forth;
From your eyes, full of love,
Tears fell down.
I saw them fall onto your hand,
I sank onto my knees;
From your white hand I
Drank up your tears.
Since that moment my body has been decaying,
My soul is dying from longing; –
The unhappy woman has
Poisoned me with her tears.
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.
We were sitting by the sea, we were silent. Tears fell from your eyes onto your hand. I drank the tears from your white hand. That woman has poisoned me with her tears.
It could be Bill Clinton talking about Monica Lewinsky (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”), but only if we decide that the overall tone of the text is angry and defensive rather than rueful and self-critical. However, we simply do not have enough information to allow us to determine this. We need to consider various scenarios to speculate about what might have happened previously, always bearing in mind that we have only heard one side of the story.
It will help if we think about why they were sitting in silence and why she started crying. Was the silence a result of embarrassment or ecstasy? Did they have nothing to say to each other or were they so emotional that words could not express their feelings? What made her cry? Was it something he had said or done, or something he had not said or done? What were the constraints that were closing in?
All that the poem tells us about the tears is that they came from eyes that were ‘liebevoll’, full of love. Love for whom, though? Has the girl decided that she has to break off relations with the narrator (with whom she is genuinely in love) out of a sense of duty (perhaps she feels she has to marry someone else, perhaps she is already married to someone else), in which case these would be tears over lost love? Is she genuinely in love with a different person altogether and crying out of a sense of guilt at having raised the poet’s hopes? Or has the narrator just told her that their relationship has to end?
What if he did have sexual relations with that woman and she has just told him that she is now pregnant? She might then be crying with shame or distress. That might explain why he kneels down. He perhaps feels that he has to ask her to marry him. He kneels, takes her hand, drinks her tears and makes his proposal. Their lives are transformed for ever, and from the man’s point of view he has become trapped in a conventional marriage that is destroying him physically and emotionally. This might explain the way in which he tells the story, with its sudden shift from the intimate second person (‘your white hand’) to the alienating third person (‘that woman’).
What if she had been resisting his advances, though? The poem might then be recalling their final meeting, when in a last desperate attempt to win her over he had offered marriage and she had turned him down. In this case it would be the rejection that has poisoned him, and his bitterness would be explained by his unrequited passion.
Are we even supposed to be asking these questions at all? Perhaps we would do more justice to the poem by concentrating on what it says rather than what it does not. After all, there is a clear narrative. Stanza one establishes the background in time and space and it sets the mood. Something begins to happen in stanza two leading to a climactic incident in stanza three. The final stanza summarises the effect in the present of what happened at that crucial moment. The narrative as a whole leads from the wide expanse of the sea to the poisonous drops of the girl’s tears. It begins in silence and solitude with a calm sea, but then the mist appears and the waters rear up (corresponding with the emotional eruption that is about to take place). By the end of the text the external details have disappeared completely.
Yet without those details we have no indication of the nature of the inner experience. It somehow matters that they were sitting as a couple (‘we’) by a ‘solitary’ fisherman’s house. They were sitting ‘alone’ and the only thing they noticed, apart from the change in the weather, was a solitary seagull flying back and forth. Somehow that single seagull takes us directly back to that critical moment, the moment when ‘we’ became ‘I’ and ‘that unhappy woman’.
Original Spelling Am Meer Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus, Im letzten Abendscheine; Wir saßen am einsamen Fischerhaus, Wir saßen stumm und alleine. Der Nebel stieg, das Wasser schwoll, Die Möve flog hin und wieder; Aus deinen Augen, liebevoll, Fielen die Thränen nieder. Ich sah sie fallen auf deine Hand, Und bin auf's Knie gesunken; Ich hab' von deiner weißen Hand Die Thränen fortgetrunken. Seit jener Stunde verzehrt sich mein Leib, Die Seele stirbt vor Sehnen; - Mich hat das unglückseel'ge Weib Vergiftet mit ihren Thränen.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s source, Buch der Lieder von H. Heine. Hamburg bei Hoffmann und Campe. 1827, page 193; and with Reisebilder von H. Heine. Erster Theil. Hamburg, bey Hoffmann und Campe. 1826, page 19.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 193 [199 von 384] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ180399009