The language of flowers
(Poet's title: Die Blumensprache)
Set by Schubert:
[probably late 1817]
Es deuten die Blumen des Herzens Gefühle,
Sie sprechen manch heimliches Wort,
Sie neigen sich traulich am schwankenden Stiele,
Als zöge die Liebe sie fort.
Sie bergen verschämt sich im deckenden Laube,
Als hätte verrathen der Wunsch sie dem Raube.
Sie deuten im leise bezaubernden Bilde
Der Frauen, der Mädchen Sinn;
Sie deuten das Schöne, die Anmut, die Milde,
Sie deuten des Lebens Gewinn:
Es hat mit der Knospe, so heimlich verschlungen,
Der Jüngling die Perle der Hoffnung gefunden.
Sie weben der Sehnsucht, des Harmes Gedanken
Aus Farben ins duftige Kleid.
Nichts frommen der Trennung gehässige Schranken,
Die Blumen verkünden das Leid.
Was laut nicht der Mund, der bewachte, darf sagen,
Das waget die Huld sich in Blumen zu klagen.
Sie winken in lieblich gewundenen Kränzen
Die Freude zum festlichen Kreis,
Wenn flatternd das ringelnde Haar sie umglänzen,
Dem Bacchus, der Venus zum Preis;
Denn arm sind der Götter erfreuende Gaben,
Wenn Leier und Blumen das Herz nicht erlaben.
Flowers express the feelings of the heart,
They speak many a secret word;
They lean over confidentially on their swaying stalks
As if love were pulling them over.
They shyly hide in the covering foliage
As if their desires might betray them to a thief.
In a gentle, enchanting image they express
The mind of women and girls;
They express beauty, grace, gentleness,
They express what life has to offer:
Because it was so secretly entwined with the bud,
The youth has found the pearl of hope.
They weave together thoughts of longing and of grief
Turning colours into fragrant clothing.
The separation caused by hateful barriers is of no avail,
Flowers proclaim suffering.
What the mouth, being guarded, may not say aloud
Grace dares to lament in flowers.
In garlands that have been plaited with love they summon
Joy into the festive circle,
When they flutter and shine around curly hair,
They are a prize for both Bacchus and Venus;
For the enjoyable gifts of the gods are poor
If the lyre and flowers do not refresh the heart.
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 voiceless find ways to speak. Signing is acquired easily by the deaf (and used to be used surreptitiously when deaf children were being encouraged to use lip reading and vocalisation to communicate with hearing people). Slave traders and slave owners used to discourage people who spoke the same language from mixing (for fear of uprisings etc.) yet the slaves found ways of communicating using pidgins and creoles that soon developed into rich languages that were capable of expressing complex and abstract ideas and emotions. Writers who have worked within the constraints of censorship and terror (such as in autocratic Tsarist Russia or Mao’s China) have always found ways to express and communicate forbidden thoughts.
Thus it has been for some of the most marginalised and the most silenced throughout history: women and girls. In societies in which women have been expected only to speak when spoken to and never to speak of their own feelings or desires, codes have emerged which have allowed them to communicate without breaking the prevailing rules and taboos. The ‘language of flowers’ is therefore a code that is both opaque to outsiders and absolutely clear to those who have to rely on it to release what would otherwise have to be repressed. It may well be that ‘Die Blumensprache’, published anonymously in Taschenbuch zum geselligen Vergnügen in Leipzig in 1805, was written by a woman. It is simply attributed to ‘Pl.’, and there are problems (as explained by Graham Johnson) with both of the suggested attributions so far, Eduard Platner (1786 – 1860) and Anton Plattner (1787-1855). Although not all of the poets who published their work anonymously or pseudonymously in the early 19th century were ‘silenced’ women, there is a realistic chance that ‘Die Blumensprache’ was written by someone who was intimately familiar with the need to be careful when speaking or writing openly.
The first stanza connects flowers in their natural environment with the cultural constraints which encourage reticence, whispering and confidentiality (with elements of coyness and bashfulness, needless to say). Flowers lean over in the wind and look like girls sharing secrets. Bright petals peep out from behind green leaves just as tiny fragments of the female body are enticingly visible behind formal clothing. As eyes are averted some men tell themselves that this is a sign that she really wants to look and be looked at.
The more hidden the message the stronger the emotion. This is the point of the convoluted images in stanza two. The youth or lad who is trying to read the language of flowers is convinced that access to the secrets that are bound into the bud is the greatest prize that he can win in life. As the bud opens up, all of the flower’s power (colour, scent, beauty etc.) that had been hidden away becomes available.
This raises the critical question of whether or not the language of flowers means the same thing to the two interlocutors. Is the girl / bud expressing herself clearly as she opens up to the flower-picking lad, or is he reading too much into what he thinks he is seeing? Can he really understand her when they are communicating in the language of flowers?
There is perhaps the hint of an answer to this question in stanza three, which is about the ability of flowers to express grief rather love. Their beauty means that they ease the pain that they express. Just as different colours make many flowers (such as broken tulips) all the more beautiful, so different painful emotions can be expressed all the more eloquently when they are ‘woven together’ into the sort of clothing that can overcome barriers (or, we hope, mixed metaphors). Perhaps, though, the incoherence of these images is a deliberate effect, pointing out the lack of clarity in conventional descriptive or declarative language. What the poet is struggling to express in words might be clearer if communicated in and by flowers.
 G. Johnson, Franz Schubert. The Complete Songs. Volume Two. Yale University Press 2014 pp. 558-9
Original Spelling and notes on the text Die Blumensprache Es deuten die Blumen des Herzens Gefühle, Sie sprechen manch heimliches Wort; Sie neigen sich traulich am schwankenden Stiele, Als zöge die Liebe sie fort. Sie bergen verschämt sich im deckenden Laube, Als hätte verrathen der Wunsch sie dem Raube. Sie deuten im leise bezaubernden Bilde Der Frauen, der Mädchen1 Sinn; Sie deuten, das Schöne, die Anmuth, die Milde, Sie deuten des Lebens Gewinn: Es hat mit der Knospe, so heimlich verschlungen, Der Jüngling die Perle der Hoffnung gefunden2. Sie weben der Sehnsucht, des Harmes Gedanken Aus Farben ins duftige Kleid. Nichts frommen der Trennung gehässige Schranken, Die Blumen verkünden das Leid. Was laut nicht der Mund, der bewachte, darf sagen, Das waget die Huld sich in Blumen zu klagen. Sie winken in lieblich gewundenen Kränzen Die Freude zum festlichen Kreis, Wenn flatternd das ringelnde Haar sie umglänzen, Dem Bacchus, der Venus zum Preis; Denn arm sind der Götter erfreuende Gaben, Wenn Leier und Blumen das Herz nicht erlaben. 1 Schubert changed 'Mägdelein' (maidens) to 'Mädchen' (girls) 2 Schubert changed 'errungen' (won) to 'gefunden' (found)
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Taschenbuch zum geselligen Vergnügen. Funfzehnter Jahrgang. 1805. Herausgegeben von W. G. Becker. Leipzig, bei Christian Adolph Hempel, pages 165-166. The author is only denoted by “Pl.”. The text has been attributed to Eduard Platner or Anton Plattner, but neither appears likely.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 165 [225 von 476] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ225779001