The shepherd and the man on horseback
(Poet's title: Der Schäfer und der Reiter)
Set by Schubert:
Ein Schäfer saß im Grünen,
Sein Liebchen süß im Arm,
Durch Buchenwipfel schienen
Der Sonne Strahlen warm.
Sie kosten froh und heiter
Da ritt bewehrt ein Reiter
Den Glücklichen vorbei.
»Sitz ab, und suche Kühle!«
Rief ihm der Schäfer zu,
»Des Mittags nahe Schwüle
Gebietet stille Ruh.
Noch lacht im Morgenglanze
So Strauch als Blume hier,
Und Liebchen pflückt zum Kranze
Die schönsten Blüten dir.«
Da sprach der finstre Reiter:
»Nie hält mich Wald und Flur.
Mich treibt mein Schicksal weiter,
Und ach, mein ernster Schwur.
Ich gab mein junges Leben
Dahin um schnöden Sold;
Glück kann ich nicht erstreben,
Nur höchstens Ruhm und Gold.
Drum schnell, mein Ross, und trabe
Vorbei, wo Blumen blühn,
Einst lohnt wohl Ruh im Grabe
Des Kämpfenden Bemühn.«
A shepherd was sitting in the greenery
With his sweet darling in his arms;
Shining through the top of the beech trees
Were the warm rays of the sun.
They were merry and cheerful as they petted each other
And indulged in love’s dalliance.
Then along came an armed man on horseback
Who rode past the lucky couple.
“Sit down and find yourself somewhere cool!”
The shepherd called out to him.
“The approaching sweltering heat of midday
Calls for quiet rest.
Still laughing in the glow of morning are
These bushes and flowers here,
And my love will make a garland by plucking
The most beautiful blossoms for you.”
At this the gloomy horseman said,
“Forests and meadows will never detain me.
I am driven further onwards by my fate,
And oh, by my solemn oath!
I gave my young life
Away in exchange for base payment;
I can never aspire to happiness,
I can only hope for the highest renown and gold.
So quick, my horse, and trot
On, where the flowers are in bloom.
One day the real reward of rest in a grave will be paid
To the warrior in exchange for his troubles.”
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 poet makes the choice much more clear-cut than it is in real life. Can we settle down and find contentment in the world that we know, like this lucky shepherd, or are we more like the knight, always on the go, unable to find rest? The shepherd is grounded, he sits with his back against beech trees looking out at shrubs and flowers; the rider insists that for his part he cannot be held by woods or meadows. We are therefore dealing with two characters from opposite extremes of European literature: the adventurer, the traveller, the central figure of romance and many novels versus the shepherd, the embodiment of the pastoral tradition of much poetry. In Lieder terms, the ballad is meeting the lyric.
Two other domains are coming into contact too. The shepherd represents the realm of the aesthetic, the human urge to enjoy and to create beauty, whereas the knight is a figure from the realm of ethics, of action within the world. Philosophers continue to work on the dichotomy or the tension between these two domains. Is delight in beauty (natural or artistic) irresponsible and selfish? Is it a form of escapism, a way of avoiding the demands of living in society, or is it rather a vital part of living the good life? Should not we all be encouraged to ‘take a rest’ and put our immediate concerns into a wider perspective? Might not that ultimately help people live together more successfully?
Although the shepherd greets the knight and wants to make a human connection with him, and the horseman attempts to reply by explaining himself, ultimately there is no meeting because the two figures are not really at different extremes of the same scale. Their lives simply cannot be compared because they value different things. From this perspective, the shepherd represents those of us who see the purpose of life as the pursuit of happiness. That is not the same thing as selfishness, since the shepherd’s idea of happiness involves affection for his girlfriend and concern for a passing stranger. It is simply that his sense of fulfilment means that he is not motivated to leave his current situation. For the soldier, though, life is obligation and obedience. He represents those of us who are aware that the human condition binds us to duties and obligations. Like him, at an early age we probably took a solemn oath (or made a particular decision) which continues to constrain our behaviour. We perhaps cannot hope for happiness in a world where we have to do unsatisfying work in order to afford to protect and feed our dependents. We might not have signed our freedom away as explicitly as a mercenary soldier did during the Thirty Years’ War, but most of us know what it is to be constrained by a contract and we feel the frustration of not being able to escape from the restrictions of never-ending duty. Yet it is the need to stick to the oath, to perform the contract, that is what motivates the knight in the poem. This is what he values above the pursuit of happiness.
We are almost certainly not each of us all shepherd or all knight. We are pulled in both ways: inclined to feel sympathy with the man on horseback who simply cannot dismount but also to realise the wisdom of the shepherd’s advice to take a rest. At times we are pastoral, reflective, sensual; at other times (or even simultaneously) we are high-minded, active and driven. We are the shepherd and the man on horseback.
 Many of Susan Sontag’s essays revolved around this tension.
Original Spelling and notes on the text Der Schäfer und der Reiter Ein Schäfer saß im Grünen, Sein Liebchen süß im Arm; Durch Buchenwipfel schienen Der Sonne Strahlen warm. Sie kosten1 froh und heiter Von Liebeständeley. Da ritt bewehrt ein Reiter Den Glücklichen vorbey. »Sitz' ab, und suche Kühle!« Rief ihm der Schäfer zu. »Des Mittags nahe Schwüle Gebiethet stille Ruh'. Noch lacht im Morgenglanze So Strauch als Blume hier, Und Liebchen pflückt zum Kranze Die schönsten2 Blüthen dir.« Da sprach der finstre Reiter: »Nie hält3 mich Wald und Flur. Mich treibt mein Schicksal weiter, Und ach, mein ernster Schwur! Ich gab mein junges4 Leben Dahin um schnöden Sold; Glück kann ich nicht erstreben, Nur höchstens Ruhm und Gold. Drum schnell, mein Roß, und trabe Vorbey, wo Blumen blüh'n. Einst lohnt wohl Ruh' im Grabe Des Kämpfenden Bemüh'n.« 1 Schubert changed 'Er kos'te' (He petted her) to 'Sie kosten' (They petted each other) 2 Schubert changed 'frischen' (fresh) to 'schönsten' (most beautiful) 3 Schubert changed 'Nie hielt' (have never detained) to 'Nie hält' (will never detain) 4 Schubert changed 'frisches' (fresh) to 'junges' (young)
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s probable source, Gedichte von Fridr. Baron de la Motte-Fouqué. Neueste Auflage. Wien 1816. Bey B. Ph. Bauer, pages 77-78.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 77 [89 von 242] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ160625502