Becalmed at sea
(Poet's title: Meeres Stille)
Set by Schubert:
Part of Goethe: The April 1816 collection sent to Goethe
Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser,
Ohne Regung ruht das Meer,
Und bekümmert sieht der Schiffer
Glatte Fläche rings umher.
Keine Luft von keiner Seite!
In der ungeheuren Weite
Reget keine Welle sich.
A deep calm holds sway in the water,
The sea is at rest, motionless,
And the sailor looks out anxiously and sees
A flat expanse all around.
No air from any direction!
A terrible, deathly silence!
In the monstrous breadth
Not a single wave stirs.
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.
Themes and images in this text:
Air  Boats  Circles  High, low and deep  Not moving  On the water – rowing and sailing  The sea  Surface of the water  Waves – Welle  Wind
Goethe’s first sea voyage (from Naples to Palermo, 29th March to 2nd April 1787) was eventful, with contrary winds, storms and (inevitably) sea-sickness. The return journey, leaving Sicily from Messina, was easier until the afternoon of 13th May, when the passengers noted that their boat had failed to enter the Bay of Naples and was at risk of being driven onto the rocky coast of Capri.
The following (anonymous) English translation from Goethe’s letter cum diary entry dated 14th May 1787 (published in his Italian Journey) appeared in ‘The Literary Gazette or Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Politics, etc.’ on 6th December 1817:
Readers of such reports cannot fully enter the mood of ominous fear that must have been experienced since they know that the writer survived! This may be one reason why Goethe later decided to capture the moment in poetry. The resulting verse distills the sense of dread by removing the narrative context and presenting everything in a fixed present (there are no verbs in the past tense and no adverbs of time or sequence, such as ‘next’ or ‘then’). Time itself is put on pause.
The first four lines concentrate on the water and the second on the air (so essential for a sailing vessel). The language of ‘deep calm’ and the sea being ‘at rest’ belie the true danger, which comes from the unseen currents that will decide the ship’s fate. Only the professional sailor is sensitive to this risk, which is why he is so anxious. His foreboding means that we are not allowed to read the language of ‘calm’ as applying to the humans on the boat, who cannot experience the moment of stillness with any serenity.
“The afternoon passed away without us entering, as we wished, into the Gulf of Naples. On the contrary, we were constantly driven westwards, and our vessel, as it approached the island of Capri, left Cape Minerva more and more at a distance. Everybody was vexed and impatient, but we two [Christoph Heinrich Kniep, the artist, and I] who looked at the world with the eyes of lovers of the picturesque, had reason to be perfectly satisfied, for at sun-set we enjoyed the most glorious prospect that the whole voyage had afforded us. . . .
Amidst the enjoyment of these welcome scenes, we had not observed that we were threatened with a great misfortune; but the confusion among the passengers did not leave us in uncertainty. They, better acquainted with sea affairs than we were, bitterly reproached the master of the vessel and his pilot, that by their want of skill, not only the Strait was missed, but the people, goods, and every thing entrusted to them, were in danger of perishing. We enquired the reason of this alarm, as we could not conceive, that in a perfect calm, any misfortune was to be feared. But it was this very calm which rendered the people inconsolable: we are, said they, already in the current, which goes round the island, and by a singular motion of the waves, draws a vessel slowly, but irresistably, to the steep rocks, where neither projection nor indenture of a foot breadth is given for escape.
Our attention being excited by this language, we considered our fate with horror: for though the night did not allow us to see the increasing danger, we remarked that the vessel, wavering and unsteady, approached the rocks, which stood darker and darker before us, while the broad expanse of the sea still glimmered in the last rays of the evening twilight: not the slightest motion was perceptible in the air; every body held up handkerchiefs and light ribbons, but not the slightest sign appeared of the desired breeze. . . . “‘The Literary Gazette or Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Politics, etc.’ on 6th December 1817
Only a breeze will be able to save them, but there is no hope. No easterly, no westerly. Licking your finger and holding it up to feel which way the wind is blowing suggests that there just isn’t any. The handkerchiefs and ribbons that Goethe’s prose account refer to must have told the same story. The calm is not now ‘deep’, it is ‘deadly’ (Stanza 1: Tiefe Stille; Stanza 2: Todesstille). The expanse is no longer just ‘flat’, it is ‘monstrous’ (Stanza 1: Glatte Fläche; Stanza 2: ungeheuren Weite). Depth (the current in the water) and breadth (the lack of current in the air) have combined to create the perfect [non] storm.
The absence of any reference to the future, the failure to tell us what happened in the end, leaves us all at sea.
Original Spelling Meeres Stille Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser, Ohne Regung ruht das Meer, Und bekümmert sieht der Schiffer Glatte Fläche rings umher. Keine Luft von keiner Seite! Todesstille fürchterlich! In der ungeheuren Weite Reget keine Welle sich.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s source, Goethe’s sämmtliche Schriften. Siebenter Band. / Gedichte von Goethe. Erster Theil. Lyrische Gedichte. Wien, 1810. Verlegt bey Anton Strauß. In Commission bey Geistinger, page 37; with Goethe’s Werke, Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand, Erster Band, Stuttgart und Tübingen, in der J.G.Cottaschen Buchhandlung, 1827, page 73; with Göthe’s neue Schriften. Siebenter Band. Berlin. Bei Johann Friedrich Unger. 1800, page 18; and with Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1796. Herausgegeben von Schiller. Neustrelitz, bei dem Hofbuchhändler Michaelis, page 83.
Note: The poem’s title in the first edition (Schiller’s Musenalmanach 1796) is “Meeresstille”, from the second edition on (1800) it is “Meeres Stille”.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 37 [51 von 418] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ163965701