Spirit of love
(Poet's title: Geist der Liebe)
Set by Schubert:
[July 15, 1815]
Part of Kosegarten (putative cycle)
Wer bist du, Geist der Liebe,
Der durch das Weltall webt?
Den Schoß der Erde schwängert
Und den Atom belebt?
Der Elemente bindet,
Der Weltenkugeln ballt,
Aus Engelharfen hallet
Und aus dem Säugling lallt?
Wer bist du, Kraft der Kräfte,
Die Greisesaugen hellt?
Der Jünglingswangen rötet
Und Mädchenbusen schwellt?
Der Liebe beut und fodert,
Um Liebe ringt und wirbt
Und Messiaden dichtet
Und Brutustode stirbt?
Bist du nicht Odem Gottes,
Unsträflich, wie sein Licht,
Und stark, wie seine Rechte,
Die Welten baut und bricht?
Bist unsers Kreuzzugs Fahne,
Entflammst mit heil´ger Scham
Den Feigen und den Matten
Ein wehend Oriflam.
Nur der ist gut und edel,
Dem du den Bogen spannst.
Nur der ist groß und göttlich,
Den du zum Mann ermannst.
Sein Werk ist Pyramide,
Sein Wort ist Machtgebot.
Ein Spott ist ihm die Hölle.
Ein Hohn ist ihm der Tod.
Who are you, spirit of love,
Weaving your way throughout the universe,
Impregnating the womb of the earth,
And giving life to the atom?
Who are you that binds the elements,
Creating the spheres of the planets,
Resounding out of angels’ harps
And babbling out of the new born?
Who are you, power of powers,
That makes the eyes of the elderly clear?
That makes red the cheeks of the young
And swells the breast of girls?
Who are you who offer and demand love,
Struggle and get into a tizzy over love,
You who write poems like ‘Der Messias’
And die the death of Brutus?
Are you not the breath of God,
Unimpeachable, like his light,
And strong, like his right hand,
Which builds and breaks worlds?
You are our crusade’s flag,
With the sacred shame you inflame
Cowards and the weak,
A fluttering Oriflamme.
The only one that is good and noble
Is someone whose bow you draw for them.
The only one that is good and divine
Is someone made into a virile man by you.
His work is a pyramid,
His word is a powerful order,
For him hell is just a mockery.
For him death is something to be scorned.
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.
Until half way through the third strophe everything here is a question, or rather appears in the form of a question. How genuine are these questions, though? Is the poet as mystified by things as he claims, or is it just an attempt to turn preaching into poetry?
The first stanza at least seems to centre around areas of real debate. As we contemplate the cosmos, we encounter not just inanimate earth and fixed unchangeing elements, but we are aware of the mystery of life and the other strange forces that move and bind matter. Kosegarten wrote the poem as Lavoisier was beginning to tabulate the then-known elements and only a few years before Dalton started work on atomic theory, but the nature of chemical interactions and bonding was far from being understood. How did it relate, if at all, to the forces of magnetism and electricity? Is there a single force that underlies all the bonding and attracting that is going on in the world? If chemical bonds (the meeting point of physics and chemistry) were on the verge of being understood in Kosegarten’s time, the nature of life itself (the point where chemistry becomes biochemistry and biology) was a greater challenge. Goethe had a few theories (soon to be taken up and tested by Alexander von Humboldt and others), but there was no real prospect of formulating a fully scientific account of the nature of life itself in the late 18th century. Suggesting that it was all to do with the same ‘spirit of love’ that underlay the aesthetic impact of music (‘harps’), religious awe (‘angels’) and the miracle of human communication (the ability of newborn babies to acquire language) might not have clarified much, but it at least identified some of the questions that remained to be answered.
In the second stanza the questions seem to be more of a rhetorical trick than a real attempt to grapple with mystery. Is there actually a power that makes the eyes of the elderly see more clearly? If there is, it surely only works on a metaphorical level, offering the sort of insight or wisdom that comes with experience. Is this really the same spirit of love that operates much more physically in the blood and hormones of the young as they blush and go through puberty? (‘Swelling the breasts of girls’ seems to be a startlingly unpoetic image, particularly for a pastor to have written in this context). The entanglements of love lead us into complexity, but the poet’s attempt to link this sort of confusion with aesthetics and ethics is hardly a success. He refers to the spirit of love being the inspiration both for Klopstock’s epic poem ‘Der Messias’ (1748 – 1781) and for Brutus’ honourable suicide (falling on his own sword) after the Battle of Philippi (42 BCE). The piety and devotion that underlie Klopstock’s poem seem hard to reconcile with the virtues that were valued in late Republican Rome, but that might be the point. There is something of the spirit of love in them both.
In the third stanza the cultural references become even more startling and extreme. The spirit of love is identified as present in the Crusades, of all things! It is hardly a defence to suggest that Kosegarten might not have known about the violence and hatred that erupted after Urban II preached the First Crusade in 1095; as a native of the Baltic coast he would have been more than familiar with the activities of the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic Crusade. He clearly also knew the legends and the literature, such as the ‘Chanson de Roland’, a text about Charlemagne and the reconquest of Spain (interpreted as a Crusade), with its references to the ‘Oriflamme’, the flag representing the ‘golden flame’ that symbolised the burning ferocity that would befall those defeated in battle. When later Kings of France displayed it (as at Agincourt) in 1415, it was used as a sign that no prisoners would be taken. This is the spirit of love.
Yes, by this point in the text the questions have given way to statements. We continue with further military assertions. Goodness and nobility comes about when we let the spirit of love draw our bow (and fire our arrows) for us. We only become real men when the spirit of love puts some manliness into us. Whatever we build as a result will be as solid and long-lasting as a pyramid, and we can laugh death and hell to scorn. These assumptions about power and masculinity must have appeared unproblematic to the poet, who seemed to have no difficulty linking them to the spirit of love which underlay so many other features of human experience (attempts to find knowledge and understanding, aesthetics, ethics etc.). If that really can be seen as the spirit of love, we have to ask what the spirit of love actually is. It is a genuine question.
Original Spelling and notes on the text Geist der Liebe Wer bist du, Geist der Liebe, Der durch das Weltall webt? Den Schooß der Erde schwängert Und den Atom belebt? Der Elemente bindet, Der Weltenkugeln ballt, Aus Engelharfen hallet1 Und aus dem Säugling lallt? Wer bist du, Kraft der Kräfte, Die Greisesaugen hellt? Der Jünglingswangen röthet, Und Mädchenbusen schwellt? Der Liebe beut und fodert, Um Liebe ringt und wirbt, Und Messiaden dichtet, Und Brutustode stirbt? Bist du nicht Odem Gottes, Unsträflich, wie sein Licht, Und stark, wie seine Rechte, Die Welten baut und bricht? Bist unsers Kreuzzugs Fahne, Entflammst2 mit heil´ger Scham Den Feigen und den Matten Ein wehend Oriflam. Nur der ist gut und edel, Dem du den Bogen spannst. Nur der ist groß und göttlich, Den du zum Mann ermannst. Sein Werk ist Pyramide, Sein Wort ist Machtgebot. Ein Spott ist ihm die Hölle. Ein Hohn ist ihm der Tod. 1 Schubert changed 'jubelt' (rejoices) to 'hallet' (resounds) 2 NSA entflammt (probably a misprint)
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s source, L.T.Kosegarten’s Poesieen, Neueste Auflage, Dritter Band, Berlin 1803, pages 10-11; and with Kosegarten’s Dichtungen. Fünfter Band. Lyrischer Gedichte Erstes, zweytes, drittes Buch. Greifswald, gedruckt beym königl. Director J.H. Eckhardt. 1812, pages 113-115.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 10 [14 von 274] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ184217108