The moonlit evening
(Poet's title: Der Mondabend)
Set by Schubert:
Rein und freundlich lacht der Himmel
Nieder auf die dunkle Erde;
Tausend goldne Augen blinken
Lieblich in die Brust der Menschen,
Und des Mondes lichte Scheibe
Segelt heiter durch die Bläue.
Auf den goldnen Strahlen zittern
Süßer Wehmut Silbertropfen,
Dringen sanft mit leisem Hauche
In das stille Herz voll Liebe
Und befeuchten mir das Auge
Mit der Sehnsucht zartem Taue.
Funkelnd prangt der Stern des Abends
In den lichtbesäten Räumen,
Spielt mit seinen Demantblitzen
Durch der Lichte Duftgewebe,
Und viel holde Engelsknaben
Streuen Lilien um die Sterne.
Schön und hehr ist wohl der Himmel
In des Abends Wunderglanze;
Aber meines Lebens Sterne
Wohnen in dem kleinsten Kreise:
In das Auge meiner Silli
Sind sie alle hingezaubert.
The sky is pure and friendly as it laughs
Down onto the dark earth.
A thousand golden eyes glow
Lovingly in human breasts
And the bright disc of the moon
Sails serenely through the blueness.
Glittering on the golden rays are
Silver drops of sweet sadness.
With light breath they gently infuse
The quiet heart, filling it with love,
And they moisten my eye
With the gentle dew of longing.
The evening star gleams magnificently
In the light strewn firmament.
With its diamond sparkle it plays
Through the hazy veil of light
And many noble angel children
Scatter lilies around the stars.
The sky is truly beautiful and sublime
In the miraculous glow of evening,
But the stars of my life
Live in the smallest of circles:
In the eye of my Silli
That is where a spell has cast them.
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.
Kumpf, the author of this reflection on perception and light, was a doctor, so he would have been familiar with optics and post-Newtonian theories of how the eye works. It is therefore rather odd that he begins the poem by referring to stars as eyes looking directly (sending their rays) down onto the dark earth. Eyes do not emit their own light, even though we still refer to people having a glint or a sparkle in their eye. What might look like a light source is simply a distorting mirror.
The same is true of the moon and moonlight, of course. In contrast to the thousand golden stars that glow with their own light and enter the human breast directly, the disc of the moon is only available to our perception in its capacity as a mirror. The light that bounces back from it is of a different quality (‘silver’) and it interferes with the light rays coming from the stars (‘golden’), causing diffraction and other optical effects, particularly in the presence of moisture (‘silver drops of sweet melancholy glitter on the golden rays’). Since we can only perceive all of this through our own eyes it is never easy to tell if the distortion is ‘out there’ or in the eye of the beholder. When those eyes are shedding tears we might conclude that the experience is primarily subjective, but who is to say that the inner experience is merely an illusion? Perhaps the juxtaposition of tears and eyes is telling us something about the world they are taking in.
In stanza three Kumpf focuses on refraction. He describes space as a field that has been sown. The stars are seeds, and glowing magnificently amongst this golden corn is Venus, the evening star. We do not need reminding that this most magnificent of stars is no star. That is the point of the image. It is another example of reflected light, which both distorts and illuminates. The playful diamond-like lightning flashes (Demantblitzen) that Venus appears to emit are somewhat obstructed. What gets in the way is something woven (a veil? a web?). A literal rendering of ‘Duftgewebe’ would be ‘something woven from scent’, which is hard to imagine; in literary usage ‘Duft’ here is something like haze or mist. Since this ‘hazy veil’ is made up of light itself it appears that we are being asked to think of a layer of very thin, very high cloud, possibly still illuminated by the sun from underneath but sufficiently transparent to allow vivid flashes from Venus to be seen. The image of lilies being strewn around the stars by the angels may be another attempt to capture specific optical phenomena associated with the last stages of sunset.
The final stanza develops the association already established between the moon and the stars and the eyes that are looking at them. The evening has a miraculous glow, but the word ‘Wunderglanze’ somehow also suggests that we the observers are ourselves being observed by the rest of nature. ‘The evening’s awesome look’ might catch something of the ambiguity of the phrase. We look around, and the dome of the night sky with its points of starlight (and the bright disc of the moon) converge (rather like some diagrams in textbooks on optics) on a single eye. The beloved’s eye has it all. All of my life’s stars (have we reverted to astrology here?) have been spirited off, magicked away, into Silli’s eye. Kumpf the doctor (like Newton himself, who worked on Alchemy as well as Opticks) seems to be suggesting that there are mysteries that are beyond scientific analysis.
Original Spelling Der Mondabend Rein und freundlich lacht der Himmel Nieder auf die dunkle Erde; Tausend goldne Augen blinken Lieblich in die Brust der Menschen, Und des Mondes lichte Scheibe Segelt heiter durch die Bläue. Auf den goldnen Strahlen zittern Süßer Wehmuth Silbertropfen, Dringen sanft mit leisem Hauche In das stille Herz voll Liebe, Und befeuchten mir das Auge Mit der Sehnsucht zartem Thaue. Funkelnd prangt der Stern des Abends In den lichtbesäten Räumen, Spielt mit seinen Demantblitzen Durch der Lichte Duftgewebe, Und viel holde Engelsknaben Streuen Lilien um die Sterne. Schön und hehr ist wohl der Himmel In des Abends Wunderglanze; Aber meines Lebens Sterne Wohnen in dem kleinsten Kreise: In das Auge meiner Silli Sind sie alle hingezaubert.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s source, Selam. Ein Almanach für Freunde des Mannigfaltigen, Herausgegeben von I.F.Castelli, Vierter Jahrgang 1815, Wien, gedruckt und im Verlage bey Anton Strauß, pages 288-289.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 288 [332 von 440] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ255496908