(Poet's title: Erstarrung)
Set by Schubert:
Part of Winterreise, D 911
Ich such im Schnee vergebens
Nach ihrer Tritte Spur,
Wo sie an meinem Arme
Durchstrich die grüne Flur.
Ich will den Boden küssen,
Durchdringen Eis und Schnee
Mit meinen heißen Tränen,
Bis ich die Erde seh.
Wo find ich eine Blüte,
Wo find ich grünes Gras?
Die Blumen sind erstorben,
Der Rasen sieht so blass.
Soll denn kein Angedenken
Ich nehmen mit von hier?
Wenn meine Schmerzen schweigen,
Wer sagt mir dann von ihr?
Mein Herz ist wie erstorben,
Kalt starrt ihr Bild darin:
Schmilzt je das Herz mir wieder,
Fließt auch ihr Bild dahin.
I search in vain in the snow
For a trace of her footprints
Where, on my arm, she
Swept across the green fields.
I want to kiss the ground,
Penetrating through the ice and snow,
With my hot tears,
Until I can see the earth.
Where can I find a single blossom,
Where can I find green grass?
The flowers have died,
The turf looks so pale.
So is there nothing to remember her by that
I can take with me from here?
When my sorrows have fallen silent,
Who is going to speak to me about her?
It is as if my heart were dead,
Her image within it is stiff with cold:
If my heart ever melts again,
Her image will flow away too.
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.
He is afraid that she is going to disappear without trace. Disappear from his memory, that is, even though he is still in the depths of a trauma that cannot possibly be forgotten. He therefore retraces her tracks, both physically across the fields where they used to walk, and mentally in his own recollections of the days in May when the grass was green and the blossom was fresh.
This is how memory works. We need a trigger, a smell or a colour associated with an intense moment of emotion in the past, to allow us to rebuild the whole picture. Without that we lose access to much of our past. By definition it is no longer here for us to be able to be in contact with. ‘She’ remains present for him only as a pronoun. ‘She’ used to walk on his arm but we cannot picture her, and neither can he.
It is as if there is only some blurry film of them moving stored in his memory. In order to focus it or to create a still image that he can hold on to he needs some more direct memento that will take him back in time.
We talk now about ‘freezing’ or ‘capturing’ special moments, but that is partly a result of our technological ability to stop time for a second as we take a photograph. We are left with a ‘snapshot’ that we can use to help us reconstruct a broader experience, allowing memories from other times to be associated with this one specific moment. This was not an option in the early 19th century. To create a static image of a person, you needed time: time to look carefully, time to draw or to paint. Even if the subject were posing and trying to stay still, the whole experience was played out over time. Perhaps, then, people before the invention of photography did not see images of people in the way that we do now. They could not look at a portrait (or even picture an individual in their minds) as a ‘still’ frame from a moving film or as a ‘frozen’ moment embodying the person’s flowing life. They looked more carefully, they gazed, at images and reconstructed the temporal reality that was not immediately apparent.
This may explain why the traveller is so alarmed that he no longer has access to a true image of the beloved. All that is inside his mind is ‘stiff with cold’. She has been ‘frozen’, but not in the sense we imagine of an effective image. He has no way of linking her image to any of the emotions that give her life. He experiences this lack as a state of paralysis or numbness (Erstarrung).
Comments and other points of view
Malcolm, I really like this poem and your writing about it, reminding us of how people remembered before factitious photography. The poem does perfectly capture the partial (bitty) nature of memory – so agonzingly factual and fictional. All he can get of her and that beautiful moment is perhaps her feet and the hem of her dress ghosting over the grass, and the sensation (not even a picture or full presence) of her on his elbow – in that oh so expressvie restraint of former times: how intense, just the sensation of the beloved on his arm. Death and life are contrasted, obviously – the green to yellow grass of winter, the sense of a life vanished like prints in the snow. The transience of life is there. I can’t help noticing he kisses the ground and wishes to penetrate to the earth through the cold snow. Before, she swept across the fields – which is both a signifier of emotion/desire but also the fleeting nature of life and happiness. The poem cleverly shifts from the frozen ground where that spring beauty is hard to recapture or believe, to the ‘stiff‘ memory, as if frozen, two dimensional and agonizingly incomplete. It is truly painful how we can ‘see‘ the past so vividly but not feel it, especially the physical aspect. We cannot get back the experience, cannot get back to the past, only watch it as if behind glass. Then there’s the ultimately private nature of love (it cannot be conveyed to another, only a semblance or trace of it) (Who is going to speak to me about her?) – we do not talk about it because on one level “everybody knows” what it is like, yet nobody knows what it is like for us. And maybe it’s a forbidden love, which doubles the isolation – I have certainly known that. Did Müller? Like you said to me on the phone, so much is suggested by these simple lyrics. John
Original Spelling and notes on the text Erstarrung Ich such' im Schnee vergebens Nach ihrer Tritte Spur, Wo sie an meinem Arme Durchstrich die grüne Flur. Ich will den Boden küssen, Durchdringen Eis und Schnee Mit meinen heißen Thränen, Bis ich die Erde seh'. Wo find' ich eine Blüthe, Wo find' ich grünes Gras? Die Blumen sind erstorben, Der Rasen sieht so blaß. Soll denn kein Angedenken Ich nehmen mit von hier? Wenn meine Schmerzen schweigen, Wer sagt mir dann von ihr? Mein Herz ist wie erstorben1, Kalt starrt ihr Bild darin: Schmilzt je das Herz mir wieder, Fließt auch ihr2 Bild dahin. 1 Schubert changed 'erfroren' (frozen) to 'erstorben' (dead) 2 Schubert changed 'das' (the) to 'ihr' (her)
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten. Herausgegeben von Wilhelm Müller. Zweites Bändchen. Deßau 1824. Bei Christian Georg Ackermann, pages 81-82; and with Urania. Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1823. Neue Folge, fünfter Jahrgang. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus. 1823, page 213.
First published in Urania (see above) as no. 4 of Wanderlieder von Wilhelm Müller. Die Winterreise. In 12 Liedern.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 213 Erstes Bild 251 here: https://download.digitale-sammlungen.de/BOOKS/download.pl?id=bsb10312443