(Poet's title: Mignon)
Set by Schubert:
So lasst mich scheinen, bis ich werde,
Zieht mir das weiße Kleid nicht aus,
Ich eile von der schönen Erde
Hinab in jenes feste Haus.
Dort ruh ich eine kleine Stille,
Dann öffnet sich der frische Blick,
Ich lasse dann die reine Hülle,
Den Gürtel und den Kranz zurück.
Und jene himmlischen Gestalten,
Sie fragen nicht nach Mann und Weib,
Und keine Kleider, keine Falten
Umgeben den verklärten Leib.
Zwar lebt’ ich ohne Sorg und Mühe,
Doch fühlt’ ich tiefen Schmerz genung,
Vor Kummer altert’ ich zu frühe,
Macht mich auf ewig wieder jung.
Let me appear in this form until that is what I have become,
Do not take off my white dress!
I am hurrying away from the beautiful earth
Down into that secure house.
I shall rest there for a brief period of silence
And then a fresh view will open up;
I shall then leave the pure covering,
I shall leave the sash and the garland behind.
And those heavenly figures
They do not ask about male and female,
And no clothes, no folding drapery
Will be wrapped around the transfigured body.
It is true that I lived without cares and worries
But I felt enough deep sorrow.
I aged from grief all too early;
Make me young again for ever.
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.
Towards the end of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Book 8 Chapter 2) Baroness Natalie (‘my Amazon’) tells Wilhelm about the illness of Mignon (another character associated with unconventional gender characteristics). He is not surprised to hear about her serious heart condition, but he does express astonishment that she is now always wearing women’s clothes. He asks how this came about, and Natalie responds with the following anecdote:
"You perhaps know that I always have a number of young girls around me whose conduct I would like to guide in the direction of goodness and justice, since they are growing up near me. From my mouth they hear nothing that I do not consider to be true, but I do not and I would not want to stop them hearing from others what might be considered erroneous in the judgement of the world. If they ask me about these things I attempt, in so far as it is possible, to turn these odd and impertinent ideas towards something which, if not useful, is at least harmless. For quite a while my girls had been hearing farmers' children talking about angels, about Sir Ruprecht and about Father Christmas, who at certain times appeared in person to give presents to good children and to punish naughty ones. They were inclined to think that these must be people in disguise, an opinion which I encouraged them in, and without getting involved in explanations I decided to take the first opportunity to put on a performance for them. It so happened that it was going to be the birthday of a pair of twin sisters who had behaved well. I promised that this time an angel would bring them the little gifts that they well deserved. They were extremely excited about this appearance. I had selected Mignon for the role and on the appointed day she was dressed appropriately in a long, light, white dress. Let us not forget the golden sash around her breast and a similar diadem in her hair. To begin with I did not want to bother with the wings, but the women in attendance who were getting her ready wanted to demonstrate their art and insisted on a pair of big golden wings. So the miraculous apparition stepped in front of the girls, with a lily in one hand and a little basket in the other, and even I myself was astonished. 'Here comes the angel,' I said. The children all took a step back, but in the end they cried, 'It is Mignon', though they were reluctant to come any closer to the miraculous image. 'Here are your gifts,' she said, and handed over the little basket. They assembled around her, they had a good look, they had a feel, and they asked her questions. 'Are you an angel?' one of the children asked. 'I wish I were,' replied Mignon. 'Why are you carrying a lily?' 'If my heart were as pure and open as a lily I would be truly happy.' 'And what about your wings? Let me have a look at them.' 'They represent more beautiful ones which have not yet unfolded.' And in this way she gave serious answers to each innocent, straightforward question. When the curiosity of the young people had been satisfied and the impression of the apparition was beginning to wear off, they wanted to undress her again. She refused this, took up her zither, sat down at this high writing desk and sang a song with incredible grace. Let me appear in this form until that is what I have become, Do not take off my white dress! I am hurrying away from the beautiful earth Down into that secure house. I shall rest there for a brief period of silence And then a fresh view will open up; I shall then leave the pure covering, I shall leave the sash and the garland behind. And those heavenly figures They do not ask about male and female, And no clothes, no folding drapery Will be wrapped around the transfigured body. It is true that I lived without cares and worries But I felt enough deep sorrow. I aged from grief all too early; Make me young again for ever. I immediately decided," continued Natalie, "to leave her the dress and to get similar ones made for her. She now goes about in these and it appears to me that they give a totally different impression of her nature."
The circumstances in which Mignon first sang this song are thus crucial for making sense of it. She was already dressed up as an angel (though in such a way that it would be clear even to little kids that she was only ‘pretending’) when she took up a zither and sang about how this costume was a prefiguring of a transformation that was soon to take place.
She has never been comfortable in her skin or with her assigned gender, so it is not surprising that she is looking forward to her final ‘transition’. What is surprising is her attachment to a white dress and to the latest role that she has been asked to play. She has come to accept that she will find fulfilment in heaven, where her body will be transfigured, where gender distinctions will lose their significance and where clothing of all kinds will be redundant.
Since the time she was abducted she has performed in a theatrical troupe cum travelling circus, but this is the first costume that she has found truly comfortable: “Let me appear in this form until that is what I have become.” In some sense what she now ‘appears’ to be is a promise of what she is going to become. There is a promise of ‘reality’ after a lifetime of mere ‘seeming’. As Natalie comments at the end of her report, these clothes ‘give a totally different impression of her nature’. She is beginning to find out who she might be.
She is therefore impatient to leave this earth. Although she is looking forward to being transfigured in heaven, she is aware that first she is going to have to go down rather than up. She has to go first to ‘that safe house down there’, i.e. her grave, where she is due to rest in silence for a short while (presumably she means just until the last trumpet, when all the dead will be raised). After that, the covering can be removed.
So now the white dress, the sash and the garland in the hair can be left behind, as can that other costume or covering that we have worn as we strut and fret our ‘hour upon the stage’ (Macbeth Act V Scene 5). As the curtain falls we can stop pretending or ‘appearing’. Life in heaven will be reality rather than role-play. For Mignon, this final transition will be a transfiguration.
Original Spelling and notes on the text Mignon So laßt mich scheinen, bis ich werde, Zieht mir das weiße Kleid nicht aus! Ich eile von der schönen1 Erde Hinab in jenes feste2 Haus. Dort ruh' ich eine kleine Stille, Dann öffnet sich der frische Blick; Ich lasse dann die reine Hülle, Den Gürtel und den Kranz zurück. Und jene himmlischen Gestalten Sie fragen nicht nach Mann und Weib, Und keine Kleider, keine Falten Umgeben den verklärten Leib. Zwar lebt' ich ohne Sorg und Mühe, Doch fühlt' ich tiefen Schmerz genung. Vor Kummer altert' ich zu frühe; Macht mich auf ewig wieder jung. 1 In D727 Schubert changed 'schönen' (beautiful) to 'schönsten' (most beautiful) 2 In D877 3 Schubert changed 'feste' (secure) to 'dunkle' (dark)
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s source, Goethe’s Werke. Zweyter Band. Original-Ausgabe. Wien, 1816. Bey Chr. Kaulfuß und C. Armbruster. Stuttgart. In der J. G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung. Gedruckt bey Anton Strauß page 129; with Goethe’s Werke. Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand. Zweyter Band. Stuttgart und Tübingen, in der J.G.Cotta’schen Buchhandlung. 1827, page 119; and with Goethe’s Werke. Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand. Zwanzigster Band. Stuttgart und Tübingen, in der J.G.Cotta’schen Buchhandlung. 1828, page 159.
First published in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Ein Roman. Herausgegeben von Goethe. Vierter Band. Berlin. Bei Johann Friedrich Unger. 1796, pages 259-260. The poem appears in Book 8, Chapter 2 of Goethe’s novel.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 129 [137 von 350] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ223421905
Carlyle’s English translation of Wilhelm Meister is available online here: http://www.bartleby.com/314/802.html