The imprisoned singers
(Poet's title: Die gefangenen Sänger)
Set by Schubert:
Hörst du von den Nachtigallen
Die Gebüsche wiederhallen?
Sieh, es kam der holde Mai.
Jedes buhlt um seine Traute,
Schmelzend sagen alle Laute,
Welche Wonn’ im Lieben sei.
Andre, die im Käfig leben
Hinter ihren Gitterstäben,
Hören draußen den Gesang,
Möchten in die Freiheit eilen,
Frühlingslust und Liebe teilen,
Ach! da hemmt sie enger Zwang.
Und nun drängt sich in die Kehle
Aus der gramzerrissnen Seele
Schmetternd ihres Lieds Gewalt,
Wo es, statt im Wehn der Haine
Mit zu wallen, an der Steine
Hartem Bau zurücke prallt.
So im Erdental gefangen
Hört des Menschen Geist mit Bangen
Hehrer Brüder Melodie,
Sucht umsonst zu Himmelsheitern
Dieses Dasein zu erweitern,
Und das nennt er Poesie.
Aber scheint er ihre Rhythmen
Jubelhymnen auch zu widm
Wie aus lebenstrunkner Brust,
Dennoch fühlen’s zarte Herzen,
Aus der Wurzel tiefer Schmerzen
Stammt die Blüte seiner Lust.
Can you hear the nightingales’ song
Echoing in the bushes?
Look, beauteous May has arrived.
They are all showing affection for their companions,
All the sounds meltingly declare
What happiness it is to be in love.
Others, who live in cages,
Behind the bars that fence them off
Can hear the singing outside;
They would like to hurry into freedom
To share in the pleasure of spring and love:
Oh, they are hemmed in by such narrow constraints there!
And now filling the throat
Out of a soul torn apart by grief,
The weight of its song wells up
But then, rather than flying into the swaying woods
To join in the undulating song, it hits the stone
Of a solid building and bounces back.
Similarly, imprisoned in this earthly valley,
The human spirit listens with anxiety to
The lofty melody of our brothers;
In vain he attempts to seek the cheerfulness of heaven
By expanding this existence,
And that is what he calls poetry.
But if he appears to use these rhythms
In the service of hymns of jubilation too,
As if from a breast that is drunk with life,
Then tender hearts will feel that
From out of the roots of deep pain
The blossoms of his delight will grow.
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.
“Persons keeping canaries for their singing only, should keep them in cages of about a foot in diameter, either round or square; as in a large cage they will not sing so well or constant, having to [sic] much room to fly about and amuse themselves, which in a great degree takes away their attention from singing.” Charles Reiche, The Bird Fancier's Companion, or, Natural History of Cage Birds (1853)1 1 Quoted in Jerry Dennis, 'A history of captive birds', Michigan Quarterly Review Vol. 53 (Summer 2014)
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore— When he beats his bars and would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings! Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sympathy (1899)
Like Dunbar, August Wilhelm Schlegel saw the singing of caged birds as a metaphor related to the power of sympathy, but from the other point of view. It is not that we humans should simply feel sympathy for imprisoned birds (and, thereby, for enslaved and constricted human beings). Rather it is the sympathy of the captive songbirds as they listen and respond to the free song of the birds in the open air that symbolises the power of human art and its ability to bring about liberation. Yes, we are all trapped, and the more constricted we are (as Reiche pointed out in relation to song birds) the more likely we are to sing.
Schlegel’s interest in ‘sympathy’ as a central feature of the human condition is also clear from his ‘Lob der Tränen’ (Schubert’s D 711). Here it is tears rather than songs that initiate a sympathetic response and bring about significant bonding. The principle is the same, though. Song birds and human beings are not just imprisoned; we are also isolated. Seeing someone else cry or hearing other singing allows the spirit to respond and connect with others.
The bars that confine the human spirit are not limited to the political and cultural constraints that might appear to be most obviously inhibiting. The Schlegel brothers were acutely conscious of the impact of the work of Kant, in the previous generation, who had so powerfully demonstrated that all of human thinking is inherently constricted. The human mind, he had shown, is only capable of grasping the world in terms of the sorts of categories that we are set up to perceive and which structure our understanding of reality. Just as human hearing is limited to distinguishing only a certain range of wavelengths (though we can observe that other animals have different capacities, such as dogs being able to hear and respond to much higher pitches), so the human spirit more generally can never grasp the whole range of objective reality. Yet this very assertion raised a paradox. If we can only know what we can know, how can we possibly know that there are things that we can never know?
It was this question which engaged the generation of the Schlegel brothers and their fellow Romantics. August Wilhelm (unlike his brother Friedrich) decided that the question could never really be addressed through discursive philosophy or rational exposition. For him, the answer lay in the arts and in intuition rather than reason. As he puts it in ‘Die gefangenen Sänger‘, we caged human beings are able to hear those who sing in freedom (as we pay sympathetic attention to what we see, hear and read) and in consequence we ourselves sing, and this is what we call ‘poetry’. Hence the aesthetic, the ethical and the epistemological concerns of traditional philosophy come together in an approach to the arts that stresses freedom and understanding as interrelated. We can ONLY grasp reality by means of the artificiality of metaphor and poetry, and understanding and joy will only ‘blossom’ if they emerge from their ‘roots’ in ignorance and pain.
Original Spelling and notes on the text Die gefangenen Sänger Hörst du von den Nachtigallen Die Gebüsche wiederhallen? Sieh, es kam der holde May. Jedes buhlt um seine Traute, Schmelzend sagen alle Laute, Welche Wonn' im Lieben sey. Andre, die im Käfig leben, Hinter ihren Gitterstäben, Hören draußen den Gesang; Möchten in die Freyheit eilen, Frühlingslust und Liebe theilen: Ach! da hemmt sie enger Zwang. Und nun1 drängt sich in die Kehle Aus der gramzerrißnen Seele Schmetternd ihres Lieds Gewalt, Wo es, statt im Wehn der Haine Mitzuwallen, an2 der Steine Hartem Bau zurücke prallt. So, im Erdenthal gefangen, Hört des Menschen Geist mit Bangen Hehrer Brüder Melodie3; Sucht4 umsonst zu Himmelsheitern Dieses Daseyn zu erweitern, Und das nennt er Poesie. Aber scheint er ihre Rhythmen Jubelhymnen auch zu widmen, Wie aus lebenstrunkner Brust: Dennoch fühlen's zarte Herzen, Aus der Wurzel tiefer Schmerzen Stammt die Blüthe seiner Lust. 1 Schubert changed Schlegel's 'es' (it fills) to 'nun' (now filling) here 2 Schubert changed Schlegel's 'von' (from) to 'an' (onto)i 3 Schubert changed this line from 'Hoher Brüder Harmonie' (the harmony of exalted brothers) 4 Schubert changed Schlegel's 'Strebt' (strive for) to 'Sucht' (seek)
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s source, A. W. Schlegel’s poetische Werke. Zweyter Theil. Neueste Auflage. Wien 1816. Bey B. Ph. Bauer, pages 31-32 (with the title Die gefangenen Sänger); and with August Wilhelm Schlegels poetische Werke. Erster Theil. Heidelberg bey Mohr und Zimmer 1811, pages 264-265.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 31 [39 von 252] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ204922008