Der Musensohn, D 764

The son of the Muses

(Poet's title: Der Musensohn)

Set by Schubert:

  • D 764

    [early December 1822]

Text by:

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Text written 1774? 1799?.  First published 1800.

Part of  Goethe: the December 1822 settings

Der Musensohn

Durch Feld und Wald zu schweifen,
Mein Liedchen weg zu pfeifen,
So geht’s von Ort zu Ort.
Und nach dem Takte reget
Und nach dem Maß beweget
Sich alles an mir fort.

Ich kann sie kaum erwarten,
Die erste Blum im Garten,
Die erste Blüt am Baum.
Sie grüßen meine Lieder,
Und kommt der Winter wieder,
Sing ich noch jenen Traum.

Ich sing ihn in der Weite,
Auf Eises Läng und Breite,
Da blüht der Winter schön.
Auch diese Blüte schwindet,
Und neue Freude findet
Sich auf bebauten Höhn.

Denn wie ich bei der Linde
Das junge Völkchen finde,
Sogleich erreg ich sie.
Der stumpfe Bursche bläht sich,
Das steife Mädchen dreht sich
Nach meiner Melodie.

Ihr gebt den Sohlen Flügel
Und treibt durch Tal und Hügel
Den Liebling weit von Haus.
Ihr lieben, holden Musen,
Wann ruh ich ihr am Busen
Auch endlich wieder aus.

The son of the Muses

Roaming through the fields and woods
Piping my little song as I go,
I travel from place to place!
And controlled by my beat,
And driven by my rhythm
Everything follows my lead.

I can barely wait for them
Those first flowers in the garden,
Those first blossoms on the tree.
They greet my songs,
And when winter returns
I still continue to sing this dream.

I sing it far and wide,
On the length and breadth of the ice
The winter blossoms beautifully!
This blossom too will vanish,
And new joys will be found
On the cultivated heights.

For when I am by the lime tree and
I find young people
I immediately arouse them.
The down to earth lad swells up,
The stiff lass spins around
Following my melody.

You give wings to my soles
And across hill and dale you drive
Your beloved far from home.
You dear, beautiful Muses,
When shall I rest on your bosom
Too, finally, again, completely?

A reading from the point of view of the author

Goethe (mis)quotes this poem in his autobiography (Dichtung und Wahrheit, Book 16):

Durch Feld und Wald zu schweifen,
Mein Liedchen weg zu pfeifen,
So ging’s den ganzen Tag.

Roaming through the fields and woods
Piping my little song on the way,
That is how it went all day long.

The use of the past tense in the third line must be significant (there is no verb in the past tense in the poem as published). The poet (writing at the end of his life about the dramatic events of the mid 1770’s, when he had shot to fame as the author of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), is explaining that in his youth he experienced his poetry as something natural. Just as he breathed, walked and talked, he produced poems. In his later career, he concentrated on analysing and understanding nature and this then entailed a more critical and reflective attitude to his own writing.

Editors of Goethe’s poems disagree about when the text was written, and therefore how it should be interpreted. If it really was a product of his youth (around 1774 or 1775) it has to be taken as a primarily joyful celebration of the ebullience of creativity. However, the poem was not published until 1800, well into the period of so-called Weimar Classicism (it was sent to the publisher in late 1799). If that is when it was written it seems reasonable to take the final stanza as setting the tone for the whole text: the writer is tired and is longing for rest. Advocates of the earlier dating can argue that the final appeal for rest does not relate to exhaustion or disillusion, but it is simply a necessary device to bring to an end a text which could go on endlessly in the spirit of a perpetuum mobile.

How significant is it that the poet only addresses the Muses directly at the end of the text? Conventionally, epic poems opened with the poet invoking the Muse, asking for help to launch the narrative. In this case, though, there is no beginning. The son of the Muses is always on the move, roving and roaming. The rhythm has already been established. His music (piping, singing, dancing) is integrated into the comings and goings of the seasons. His art (the patterns of the flowers appear in the ice in winter as regularly as in the blossoms in spring) pervades the whole of nature. He is the motivating force for renewal, he is fertility, he is sexuality. Everything follows his rhythm. It seems inconceivable that he could have a beginning or an ending.

Yet he is only the SON of the Muses. He may be the motivating force in others, but what drives him? Is the poet simply an empty vessel who channels the inner force of creativity, or does he himself make a personal contribution to his art? If so, how could he not suffer from some sort of burn-out? Why should he not long for a rest?

A reading from the point of view of a reader

By the River Cam in Cambridge, England, and along the banks of the Charles River separating Boston and Cambridge, Massachusets, they run: the driven characters who are determined to push themselves ever onwards, physically and mentally. Such personalities might be found outside of the hothouse of university towns too. In the business world managers who are ‘drivers of change’ usually need to be ‘self-starters’. What they all have in common is an inner drive which is perceived as an external force.

They are driven. They have drive. The English word is related to the German verb ‘treiben’ and noun ‘der Trieb’ (an urge or an instinct). Siegmund Freud wrote extensively on the primacy of ‘Trieben’ in our psychological development. Mathilde Wesendonck’s poem ‘Im Treibhaus’ uses the image of a hothouse, a place where plants are forced to grow. Before there were cars or trains to drive, there were beasts to be driven to market (by drovers). Carpenters drive nails into wood and when smiths beat metal the German verb used is the same, ‘treiben’. All of these usages and meanings keep the idea that ‘driving’ is about urging something (including ourselves) to change.

Goethe’s ‘Son of the Muses’ is a driver who is driven. The muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, preside over the arts and the sciences, and so their sons are driven to excel in these fields. The effect of their excellence is that they in turn drive further creativity and discovery in a vortex of improvement.

There is linear development and the effects ripple out. The combination of the linear and the circular appears in the first verb of the poem, schweifen, to roam, or to wander. A ‘Schweifstern’, a wandering star, is a comet, and a comet’s orbit is eliptical, with elements of the line and the circle, so this son of the muses may be on course to return regularly, although this may not be an endless loop.

This tension between a drive towards a goal (rest) and a more circular view of time (the recurring seasons) appears throughout the poem. Stanza 1 is about motion (durch, zu, von . . . zu) towards a goal. After 3 verses in which the prepositions take the dative rather than the accusative, since they refer to static location, stanza 5 again is about motion (durch, weit von), ending with the most extraordinary line for anyone with the slightest interest in grammatical analysis: ‘Auch endlich wieder aus?’ This is a line of four words, all adverbs, and seemingly contradictory. The final word ‘aus’ is the adverbial particle from the separable verb ‘ausruhen’, and so has a sense of ‘completeness’ or ‘ending’ (like the ‘out’ in such English phrasal verbs as ‘to put a light out’, ‘to work something out’), but is linked with ‘wieder’, again. How can the narrator be ‘put out of his misery’ AGAIN, unless there is some circularity challenging the linear narrative? Auch  (also)  + endlich (finally) is also an odd juxtaposition.

It is never easy to distinguish between ballads (narratives in which the situation at the end has changed from that at the beginning) and lyrics (verses reflecting on points of time with unchanging significance). If we classify ‘Der Musensohn’ as a ‘lyrical ballad’ we can see the end as driving us back to the beginning. Stanza 5 both leads into and reflects Stanza 1, since the theme of both is the poet’s mission. The middle of a 5 stanza poem can serve as a hinge, and indeed the centre of Stanza 3 relates to a turning point as winter gives way to spring:

Da blüht der Winter schön!
Auch diese Blüte schwindet

The oxymoron of the ‘beautiful’ blossoming of winter gives way to the sadness of spring and the vanishing of the short-lived blossoms. So, these flowers that the narrator could hardly wait for now vanish as nature takes its relentless course, thereby challenging the idea of setting specific goals for a finishing point in the future. Half way through Stanza 3 we are therefore at an end point and a turning point. Stanza 4 takes us back through spring (as it mirrors Stanza 2). The whole text is structured as an elipse. It is comet like.

There have been few more ‘driven’ characters in history than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition to his contributions to literature he felt an obligation to the muses of art and science. He attempted to link these interests, for example in his work on colour. It was in working on his ‘Farbenlehre’ that he came to believe that Isaac Newton had misunderstood the nature of light. Since Newton had expressed uncertainty about how the eliptical movement of comets might be compatible with his theory of universal gravitation Goethe may be hinting that the solution can be found in the synthesis hinted at here. Although propelled, the son of the muses is also self-propelling; he is less passive, less subject to impersonal forces than the planets and billiard balls of classical physics. What Newton had left out of the equation was creativity.

The grammatical structure of the poem helps to convey this. A text which is on the surface about causality, about being taken for a ride, is full of reflexive (‘self-starting’) verbs (stanza 1 – reget sich, beweget sich, stanza 3 – findet sich, stanza 4 – bläht sich, dreht sich). These actions have their own momentum. (Goethe was fascinated by this mystery of motivation in both art and science –his novel Die Wahlverwandschaften [Elective Affinities] explores these connections). In opposition to these examples of ‘sich’ is the narrator’s ‘ich’ (I). Yet even here, although everything moves ‘nach dem Takte’ etc – after the beat (in English we say ‘with the beat’) of the narrator’s song, the narrative subject is strangely inactive: the first two verbs of the poem are not finite (Durch Feld und Wald zu schweifen, Mein Liedchen weg zu pfeifen) and the remaining verbs in the first stanza are in the third person. The narrator uses ‘ich’ in stanza 2, but not to initiate action. When the narrator does claim to intervene and cause change, in stanza 4 (Sogleich erreg ich sie), the actions that happen as a result are expressed by reflexive verbs. At the beginning of Stanza 5 the narrator clearly sees himself as an object more than a subject – he is the ‘Liebling’ who has been driven away, whose feet have been given wings. The final prayer is therefore a request on the part of the subject – ich – to be allowed to attain an object. This therefore seems to be a poem about the terrible frustration of being subject to mania, being moved (like a comet? like a creative artist?) by forces outside our own control. At the same time it is a celebration of the urges that produce this creativity. That drive means that the rest of us might be driven.

Original Spelling

Der Musensohn

Durch Feld und Wald zu schweifen,
Mein Liedchen wegzupfeifen,
So gehts von Ort zu Ort!
Und nach dem Takte reget,
Und nach dem Maaß beweget
Sich alles an mir fort.

Ich kann sie kaum erwarten,
Die erste Blum' im Garten,
Die erste Blüt' am Baum.
Sie grüßen meine Lieder,
Und kommt der Winter wieder,
Sing' ich noch jenen Traum.

Ich sing' ihn in der Weite,
Auf Eises Läng' und Breite,
Da blüht der Winter schön!
Auch diese Blüthe schwindet,
Und neue Freude findet
Sich auf bebauten Höhn.

Denn wie ich bei der Linde
Das junge Völkchen finde,
Sogleich erreg' ich sie.
Der stumpfe Bursche bläht sich,
Das steife Mädchen dreht sich
Nach meiner Melodie.

Ihr gebt den Sohlen Flügel
Und treibt, durch Thal und Hügel,
Den Liebling weit von Haus.
Ihr lieben holden Musen,
Wann ruh' ich ihr am Busen
Auch endlich wieder aus?

Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s probable source, Goethe’s sämmtliche Schriften. Siebenter Band. / Gedichte von Goethe. Erster Theil. Lyrische Gedichte. Wien, 1810. Verlegt bey Anton Strauß. In Commission bey Geistinger pages 9-10; with Goethe’s Werke, Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand, Erster Band, Stuttgart und Tübingen, in der J.G.Cottaschen Buchhandlung, 1827, pages 25-26; and with Göthe’s neue Schriften. Siebenter Band. Berlin. Bei Johann Friedrich Unger. 1800, pages 6-7.

To see an early edition of the text, go to page 9 [23 von 418] here: