To Chronos the coachman
(Poet's title: An Schwager Kronos)
Set by Schubert:
Spude dich Kronos!
Fort den rasselnden Trott!
Bergab gleitet der Weg!
Ekles Schwindeln zögert
Mir vor die Stirne dein Zaudern.
Frisch, holpert es gleich,
Über Stock und Steine den Trott
Rasch ins Leben hinein!
Nun schon wieder
Den eratmenden Schritt,
Mühsam Berg hinauf!
Auf denn, nicht träge denn,
Strebend und hoffend hinan!
Weit, hoch, herrlich der Blick
Rings ins Leben hinein,
Vom Gebirg zum Gebirg
Schwebet der ewige Geist,
Ewigen Lebens ahndevoll.
Seitwärts des Überdachs Schatten
Zieht dich an,
Und ein Frischung verheißender Blick
Auf der Schwelle des Mädchens da.
Labe dich! Mir auch, Mädchen,
Diesen schäumenden Trank,
Diesen frischen Gesundheitsblick!
Ab denn, rascher hinab!
Sieh, die Sonne sinkt!
Eh sie sinkt, eh mich Greisen
Ergreift im Moore Nebelduft,
Entzahnte Kiefer schnattern
Und das schlotternde Gebein.
Trunknen vom letzten Strahl
Reiß mich, ein Feuermeer
Mir im schäumenden Aug,
Mich geblendeten Taumelnden
In der Hölle nächtliches Tor!
Töne, Schwager, ins Horn,
Rassle den schallenden Trab,
Dass der Orkus vernehme: wir kommen,
Dass gleich an der Tür
Der Wirt uns freundlich empfange.
Get a move on, Chronos!
Get a rattling trot going!
The path leads downhill;
I feel a nauseous dizziness
Around my forehead caused by you holding back.
Gee up! Let’s jolt along whatever we encounter,
Trotting along over logs and stones,
Quickly, headlong into life!
Now, yet again,
We go at a pace that takes the breath away
As we painstakingly go uphill.
Up then, there’s no need to hang about,
Struggling and hoping as we go forward!
Wide, high, majestic is the view
All around taking us into life,
From mountain range to mountain range
The eternal spirit hovers,
Full of intimations of eternal life.
Looking sideways the shade of the canopy
Draws you towards it
Along with refreshment, the warming look
Of the girl standing there in the doorway.
Take a break! – For me too, lass,
That foaming drink,
That fresh health-giving gaze!
Down then, down at a faster pace!
Look, the sun is setting!
Before it sets, before this grey-haired old man
Is trapped in the mist over the marsh,
Before I hear the gibbering of toothless jawbones
And rattling skeletons.
Drunk from the last ray
Pluck me out, with a sea of fire
In my sparkling eyes,
Blinded by vertigo
As I fall into the nocturnal gate of Hell.
Coachman, blow your horn,
Rattle the resounding trot
So that Orcus will hear: we are coming,
So that promptly, at the door,
The innkeeper will receive us in a friendly way.
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 first version of this poem had a note underneath the title: ‘in der Postchaise d. 10 Oktbr 1774’, which points towards the biographical origins of the text. On this level, the ‘Schwager’ is the coachman or the postilion who drove Goethe back from Darmstadt to Frankfurt on that date. The poet had been driven to associate him with Time (the Greek word ‘chronos’ can mean just ‘time’ or Old Father Time himself) since he had just spent a number of days in the presence of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. The 25 year old Goethe (who had recently blazed into fame with Götz von Berlichingen and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) had entertained the 50 year old Klopstock in Frankfurt before travelling with him to Darmstadt, but it appears that the sight and disappointingly banal conversation (about ice-skating and horse riding) of the venerated old poet rather disappointed the young prodigy. He was horrified to see what might be his own future in this prematurely ‘old’ man. He takes the opportunity of his return journey to reflect on the course of his own life and to ask questions about how he can take control of it even though he is not himself in the driving seat (none of us are).
Goethe therefore writes a prospective ‘curriculum vitae’, a term which could even be translated as ‘the chariot race of life’ (the Latin ‘curriculum’ could be a course or a race and survives in words like ‘curricle’, a type of carriage). The carriage that is taking Goethe into the future is associated with the chariots of the ancient world, such as the victorious charioteers hymned in Pindar’s Odes. Kronos is not just chronos (the implacability of ageing, as seen in what has happened to Klopstock) but also Cronus, the Titan who attacked his father Uranus and who devoured his own children. Cronus is frequently evoked in Pindar’s victory Odes and he is used by Goethe in this poem as a way of exploring the constraints on life without equating the coachman with inevitable Fate. Yes, time’s arrow points in only one way, yes, the destination is fixed (Orcus, a common name for Hades or the Underworld), but Cronus can work with us to face the future in an active and determined way. Cronus is our colleague, and almost a relative (since the primary meaning of the word ‘Schwager’ is actually ‘brother-in-law’).
Goethe sees that the first stage of the journey has been an uncharacteristically easy downhill. He has taken it at quite a pace, so it has been a bumpy ride. Uphill sections are harder but it is worth struggling on in hope because the view at the top allows a vision of eternal life. Having reached the highpoint (does the author of Werther think he is already there, or has he seen that he is still facing the climb, that there is still a Faust to be written?) it is time to take refreshment (in the form of a girl holding out a large glass of beer). The downhill after lunch is a race against time. Before sunset it might become misty on the moors . There will be mental and physical decline but he is determined to arrive at the inn still blinded by light, drunk with the last ray of the sun. Apart from the ‘mists’ (there was no mental decline in his later years) this is an uncanny prediction of Goethe’s career. He made a bumpy but confident start, but his struggles with all the major genres of literature (as well as science, politics and art) allowed him to survey his world and achieve a more than fleeting understanding of aspects of it. Christiane Vulpius (and some women in Rome) offered him refreshment in middle life, but he continued later as energetically as ever. The foaming drink was transformed into a sea of fire in a foaming eye (Faust Part Two?).
Even though we are on a much duller journey, most of us who read An Schwager Kronos or listen to Schubert’s setting of it (D 369) manage to identify with the writer. Few of us share Goethe’s determination to set his course and stick to it. Few of us could imagine seeing ourselves as being in a position to decide where life is going to take us. It is probably not just because travel arrangements have changed (or that not many of us are rich) that we do not see ourselves as private travellers giving instructions to a coachman on where to go and how to treat the horses. Although we might feel that life is more a matter of ‘being taken for a ride’ than something we can direct ourselves, we need to tell ourselves that we could (or should) act like this. We allow the poem to remind us that our journey is worth taking and that the more effort we put into life the more we will get out of it. Of course we all slow down but we need to spur ourselves on.
 Goethe uses the word ‘moor’ very much as it would have been used in 18th century English, to refer to any patch of infertile or uncultivated land, not necessarily on high ground. Since the mist appears after the carriage has been going downhill it almost certainly refers to low-lying marshy or boggy ground here.
Original Spelling An Schwager Kronos Spude dich, Kronos! Fort den rasselnden Trott! Bergab gleitet der Weg; Ekles Schwindeln zögert Mir vor die Stirne dein Zaudern. Frisch, holpert es gleich, Über Stock und Steine den Trott Rasch in's Leben hinein! Nun schon wieder Den erathmenden Schritt Mühsam Berg hinauf. Auf denn, nicht träge denn, Strebend und hoffend hinan! Weit, hoch, herrlich der Blick Rings ins Leben hinein, Vom Gebirg' zum Gebirg' Schwebet der ewige Geist, Ewigen Lebens ahndevoll. Seitwärts des Überdachs Schatten Zieht dich an, Und ein Frischung verheißender Blick Auf der Schwelle des Mädchens da. Labe dich! - Mir auch, Mädchen, Diesen schäumenden Trank, Diesen frischen Gesundheitsblick! Ab denn, rascher hinab! Sieh, die Sonne sinkt! Eh' sie sinkt, eh' mich Greisen Ergreift im Moore Nebelduft, Entzahnte Kiefer schnattern Und das schlotternde Gebein. Trunknen vom letzten Strahl Reiß mich, ein Feuermeer Mir im schäumenden Aug', Mich geblendeten Taumelnden In der Hölle nächtliches Thor. Töne, Schwager, in's Horn, Rassle den schallenden Trab, Daß der Orkus vernehme: wir kommen, Daß gleich an der Thüre Der Wirth uns freundlich empfange.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s probable source, Goethe’s Werke. Zweyter Band. Original-Ausgabe. Wien, 1816. Bey Chr. Kaulfuß und C. Armbruster. Stuttgart. In der J. G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung. Gedruckt bey Anton Strauß pages 75-76; with Goethe’s Werke. Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand. Zweyter Band. Stuttgart und Tübingen, in der J.G.Cotta’schen Buchhandlung. 1827, pages 68-69; and with Goethe’s Schriften, Achter Band, Leipzig, bey Georg Joachim Göschen, 1789, pages 198-200.
Note: Goethe wrote the initial version of this poem in the stagecoach on Oct. 10, 1774, and the manuscript of the poem became part of a poetry collection given to Charlotte von Stein in 1777, posthumously published as Goethes erste Weimarer Gedichtsammlung.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 75 [83 von 350] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ223421905