Der greise Kopf, D 911/14

The grey head

(Poet's title: Der greise Kopf)

Set by Schubert:

  • D 911/14

    [October 1827]

Text by:

Wilhelm Müller

Text written 1822.  First published March 13, 1823.

Part of  Winterreise, D 911

Der greise Kopf

Der Reif hat einen weißen Schein
Mir über’s Haar gestreuet.
Da glaubt’ ich schon ein Greis zu sein,
Und hab mich sehr gefreuet.

Doch bald ist er hinweggetaut,
Hab wieder schwarze Haare,
Dass mir’s vor meiner Jugend graut –
Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!

Vom Abendrot zum Morgenlicht
Ward mancher Kopf zum Greise.
Wer glaubt’s? und meiner ward es nicht
Auf dieser ganzen Reise!

The grey head

The hoar frost has taken a white glow
And scattered it over my hair.
I then believed that I had already become an old man
And I was very pleased.

However, it soon melted away,
I have black hair again,
With the result that I am appalled by my youth –
The funeral bier is still so far away!

From sunset to dawn
Many heads have become grey.
Who would believe it? And it has not happened to mine
On this whole journey!

It has become something of a pattern. He is struck by something promising but is deflated as soon as reality dawns: he dreamt it was Maytime and he was in love, but he awoke to winter and loneliness; he heard the sound of a posthorn but soon realised that nobody had written to him; he catches a reflection of his white hair one morning and is thrilled that he has aged, but then he has to accept that it was another illusion / delusion. It is a mark of Müller’s skill as a poet that each of these images is simple and vivid in its own terms. They are sufficiently similar to signal to the reader that the traveller has a recurrent problem and seems to be stuck in a sort of rut as he attempts to accept unwelcome reality, yet they are also sufficiently different to allow fresh insight with each poem.

In this case the traveller comes to a realisation that the journey he is on is not a simple escape from an unhappy experience. He is beginning to understand that his only destination is death itself: ‘Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre’ / ‘The funeral bier is still so far away!’ It is interesting that he sees the time ahead of him in terms of spatial distance. Death is ‘far away’ because he still has to travel there. He is only in the middle of the long trudge. If his death were seen as an event in future time (rather than space) his final hour would eventually ‘come to’ him, he could wait. As it is, he needs to go there. He has to keep walking.

He cannot expect to encounter any ‘adventures’ on his journey, though. In most narratives of travel (from ‘Don Quixote’ to Hollywood road movies) things happen to the protagonists. Other characters and events ‘come to’ the travellers (Latin: ‘ad’ to, towards, ‘venire / ventum’, to come, hence ‘adventure’). How those people respond determines their inner psychological journey. Müller’s traveller woke in the belief that something had actually happened to him, that his hair had turned grey overnight. However, when he realised that this was nothing but a surface phenomenon because of a temporary change in the ambient temperature, he had to accept that this lacks any real significance. His hair is still black; he is still young. Adventures might happen to other people (plenty of heads turn grey between sunset and sunrise, he insists), but not to him. Death will not just ‘come to’ him. It remains his responsibility to continue the journey, to live his life. That is what is so terrifying.

Original Spelling and notes on the text

Der greise Kopf

Der Reif hat einen weißen Schein1
Mir über's Haar gestreuet.
Da glaubt'2 ich schon ein Greis zu sein,
Und hab' mich sehr gefreuet.

Doch bald ist er hinweggethaut,
Hab' wieder schwarze Haare,
Daß mir's vor meiner Jugend graut -
Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!

Vom Abendroth zum Morgenlicht
Ward mancher Kopf zum Greise.
Wer glaubt's? Und meiner ward es nicht
Auf dieser ganzen Reise!

1  Schubert changed Müller´s line from the past (had) to the present (has). Müller wrote hatt' not hat. 
2  Schubert changed 'meint'' (thought) to 'glaubt'' (believed)

Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten. Herausgegeben von Wilhelm Müller. Zweites Bändchen. Deßau 1824. Bei Christian Georg Ackermann, page 91; and with Deutsche Blätter für Poesie, Litteratur, Kunst und Theater. Herausgegeben von Karl Schall und Karl von Holtei. Breslau 1823, bei Graß, Barth und Comp. No. XLI. 13. März 1823, page 161.

First published in Deutsche Blätter (see above) as no. 1 of the installment of Die Winterreise. Lieder von Wilhelm Müller.

To see an early edition of the text, go to page 91  Erstes Bild 105 here: