On the Danube
(Poet's title: Auf der Donau)
Set by Schubert:
Auf der Wellen Spiegel
Schwimmt der Kahn.
Alte Burgen ragen
Und das Herz im Busen
Wird uns weich.
Denn der Menschen Werke
Wo ist Turm, wo Pforte,
Wo der Wall,
Wo sie selbst, die Starken,
Die in Krieg und Jagden
Während frommer Sage
Und im kleinen Kahne
Wird uns bang –
Wellen drohn, wie Zeiten,
On the mirror of waves
Swims the boat.
Old castles reach up
Towards the sky;
Forests of fir trees rustle
Like ghosts –
And the hearts in our breasts
For the things produced by humans
Where is the tower, where the gate,
Where the rampart,
Where are they themselves, those strong men?
Those who were protected by armour
And went to war and went hunting,
Going on the attack.
Is growing rampant,
Whilst pious legends’
Power withers away.
And in this small boat
We become anxious –
Both the waves and time threaten us with
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 begin in the middle. We are floating on a small boat out on the open water, in the middle of the river in both senses. On the banks old castles loom over us; behind us and ahead of us the Danube stretches away to lands beyond even the sway of the Emperor in Vienna. We are surrounded by pine forests and the ghosts of former (and future?) inhabitants of the Empire seem to call to us in the rustling of the trees.
We are all in the same boat, of course. We might not be in exactly the same situation as Mayrhofer, the unhappy servant of the Emperor who had no choice but to work as a censor despite his liberal beliefs, but we all know what it is to find ourselves at some point drifting around with no control over events. We all also seem to begin in the middle; when we first become conscious of our situation we have no idea where we have come from or where we are going. We look around and are similarly intimidated by the achievements of the past or the expanse surrounding us.
Yet the strongholds built by our ancestors have lost their power. The towers have fallen, the walls have crumbled. The mighty strongmen who used to inhabit the land are no more. We could respond to this realisation in two different ways. We could either accept that there is now a power vacuum which would allow us to take control of the situation, or, like the poet, conclude that all human activity is ultimately futile.
A major reason why Mayrhofer never considered the more daring and active option was because, as he put it, ‘pious legends’ were losing their power. Censor that he was, the poet did not dare spell out what he meant by this. Part of it must relate to the stories of heroes and heroic deeds associated with the castles by the Danube (we can no longer credibly pretend to be knights in shining armour) but it is highly probable that the word ‘pious’ is intended to point to doubts about Christianity. In Metternich’s Vienna, where subjection to the Catholic Church and political loyalty to the Emperor were seen as inter-connected, freethinkers who began to doubt the foundations of the power of the Monarch inevitably questioned the authority of Rome and its representatives too. However, although there was nothing dangerous about saying that the ‘pious legends’ about feudal heroes of ancient times were losing their power (this was obvious after the French Revolution and the defeat of the Austrian Empire in the Napoleonic Wars) it was still not possible to suggest openly that the ‘legends’ of Christianity were fictions intended to serve a higher (‘pious’) purpose or that the Christian world view was losing its power or authority.
Yet the poet adrift in his small boat on the Danube must have seen as many church and monastery spires and towers as he saw ruined castles. These too can be seen as ‘human works’ and so they also will fall into ruin and sink. We humans contemplate the ultimate fate of our constructions (physical and cultural) and come to the despairing realisation that in the end it will all come to nothing. The waves (the water below us and the air around us) and time itself both lead to the same conclusion: we are threatened with annihilation.
‘Annihilation’ is only one of numerous possible English translations of the final word of Mayrhofer’s text, Untergang (translated as ‘ruin’ above). The most literal translation would be ‘going under’ (though the famous 2004 film about the last days of Hitler, Der Untergang, was translated as ‘Downfall’). The following list might evoke some of the other possible connotations of the term: descent, sinking, plunge, decline, collapse, ruin, downfall, annihilation, catastrophe, destruction. Would not our hearts too become anxious if we came to share the poet’s realisation that this is what was in store for us?
Original Spelling and note on the text Auf der Donau Auf der Wellen Spiegel Schwimmt der Kahn. Alte Burgen ragen Himmelan; Tannenwälder rauschen Geistergleich - Und das Herz im Busen Wird uns weich. Denn der Menschen Werke Sinken all'; Wo ist Thurm, wo Pforte1, Wo der Wall, Wo sie selbst, die Starken? Erzgeschirmt, Die in Krieg und Jagden Hingestürmt. Trauriges Gestrüppe Wuchert fort, Während frommer Sage Kraft verdorrt. Und im kleinen Kahne Wird uns bang - Wellen droh'n, wie Zeiten, Untergang. 1 In the published edition of this poem the line reads 'Wo ist Thurm und Pforte' (Where are the tower and gate)
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Gedichte von Johann Mayrhofer. Wien. Bey Friedrich Volke. 1824, pages 18-19; and with Mahlerisches Taschenbuch für Freunde interessanter Gegenden Natur- und Kunst Merkwürdigkeiten der Österreichischen Monarchie. Sechster Jahrgang. Wien, 1818. Im Verlage bey Anton Doll, pages 1-2.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 18 [30 von 212] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ177450902