(Poet's title: Freiwilliges Versinken)
Set by Schubert:
Wohin? o Helios! wohin? “In kühlen Fluten
Will ich den Flammenleib versenken,
Gewiss im Innern, neue Gluten
Der Erde feuerreich zu schenken.
Ich nehme nicht, ich pflege nur zu geben,
Und wie verschwenderisch mein Leben,
Umhüllt mein Scheiden goldne Pracht,
Ich scheide herrlich, naht die Nacht.
Wie blass der Mond, wie matt die Sterne,
So lang ich kräftig mich bewege;
Erst wenn ich auf die Berge meine Krone lege,
Gewinnen sie an Mut und Kraft in weiter Ferne.”
Where to, oh Helios, where to? “Into the cool tides
I want to plunge this blazing body,
Inwardly certain that new flames
Can be supplied to the earth from my rich supply of fire.
I do not take, I am only concerned to give;
And just as my life has been extravagant,
Golden splendour will surround my departure,
I depart majestically as night approaches.
How pale the moon is, how faint the stars
As long as I move so powerfully!
It is only when I lay my crown on the mountains
That they gain courage and power in the far distance.”
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.
‘Helios’ is simply the Greek word for ‘the sun’. Ancient Greeks told a number of stories about him, such as how he travelled in a horse-drawn chariot every day from the East to the West, where he sank into the Ocean that surrounded our land. He later became identified with other gods and cults (notably Apollo and Sol Invictus), but the only place in the eastern Mediterranean where he was the focus of a major divine cult was Rhodes. The Colossus of Rhodes was in fact a statue of Helios.
There are few themes more universal in lyric poetry than the message conveyed by the setting sun, yet Mayrhofer manages to come to the genre with a unique approach. Where most poets offer their own reflections on the significance of the dying day, Mayrhofer simply asks a basic question: ‘Where are you going?’ The rest of the poem claims to be the response of the sun itself. It declares that it needs to depart in order to provide the cold earth with heat and that it remains ‘rich in fire’ since it gives without taking (which is almost a definition of nuclear fusion, the true source of solar power). Yet although it is Helios who is supposed to be speaking, the message is not based on a heliocentric view of the universe. This sun accepts the idea that it is sinking, plunging into the water. Sunset is a process of ‘departure’ and ‘annihilation’. It is even a sort of ‘abdication’ (Helios declares that he lays his golden crown on the mountains, allowing lesser powers to shine in his absence). Things only make sense from the point of view of the humans who are observers of this apparent ‘departure’.
In the end, then, the poem cannot avoid reflecting the subjective experience of the poet, however much it claims to be the objective voice of nature. It would in fact be very strange for any sensitive reader, let alone a depressive poet, to observe a sunset without thinking about our own mortality (even if such thoughts are tinged with elements of awe and hope). In the case of Johann Mayrhofer these thoughts were inevitably linked with his fascination with water and drowning, central to so many of his texts that Schubert set to music (e.g. D 360 Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, D 526 Fahrt zum Hades, D 539 Am Strome, D 536 Der Schiffer, D 553 Auf der Donau, D 585 Atys, D 808 Gondelfahrer). Nor can we forget that the poet is known to have made at least two attempts to kill himself by jumping into a river before his final plunge from an office window in 1836, so it is not only the sun / Helios that is speaking of ‘voluntary annihilation’ here.
According to Graham Johnson, Mayrhofer was writing about the disjunction he experienced between his public ‘day-job’, working for the Imperial government in Vienna, and his nocturnal other self, his poetic identity, the world of shadows where he was able to ‘gain courage and power’ the further he was removed from the conventions that were expected of him. As the day came to an end he felt his inner fires glow more ardently as he plunged majestically into a welcome oblivion.
Original Spelling and Note on the text. Freywilliges Versinken Wohin? o Helios! wohin? In kühlen Fluthen Will ich den Flammenleib versenken, Gewiß im Innern, neue Gluthen Der Erde feuerreich zu schenken. Ich nehme nicht, ich pflege nur zu geben; Und wie verschwenderisch mein Leben, Umhüllt mein Scheiden goldne Pracht, Ich scheide herrlich, naht die Nacht. Wie blaß der Mond, wie matt die Sterne! So lang ich kräftig mich bewege, Erst wenn ich auf die Berge meine Krone lege, Gewinnen sie an Muth und Kraft in weiter Ferne. When this poem was printed in 1824 there were a number of changes from the version as set by Schubert (marked in bold below). It is impossible to know whether Schubert made the changes himself when setting the text to music or whether he was working from an earlier draft of his friend's poem. Freywilliges Versinken Wohin, o Helios? in Fluthen Will ich den Flammenleib versenken, Gewiß im Innern, neue Gluthen Der Erde nach Bedarf zu schenken. Ich nehme nichs, gewohnt zu geben; Und wie verschwenderisch mein Leben, Umhüllt mein Scheiden goldne Pracht, Ich scheide herrlich, naht die Nacht. Wie bleich der Mond, wie matt die Sterne! So lang ich kräftig mich bewege, Erst wenn ich ab die Krone lege, Wird ihnen Muth und Glanz in ihrer Ferne.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Gedichte von Johann Mayrhofer. Wien. Bey Friedrich Volke. 1824, page 175.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 175 [189 von 212] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ177450902