The way that Ulfru fishes
(Poet's title: Wie Ulfru fischt)
Set by Schubert:
Der Angel zuckt, die Rute bebt,
Doch leicht fährt sie heraus.
Ihr eigensinngen Nixen gebt
Dem Fischer keinen Schmaus.
Was frommet ihm sein kluger Sinn,
Die Fische baumeln spottend hin,
Er steht am Ufer festgebannt,
Kann nicht ins Wasser, ihn hält das Land.
Die glatte Fläche kräuselt sich,
Vom Schuppenvolk bewegt,
Das seine Glieder wonniglich
In sichern Fluten regt.
Forellen zappeln hin und her,
Doch bleibt des Fischers Angel leer,
Sie fühlen, was die Freiheit ist,
Fruchtlos ist Fischers alte List.
Die Erde ist gewaltig schön,
Doch sicher ist sie nicht.
Es senden Stürme Eiseshöhn,
Der Hagel und der Frost zerbricht
Mit einem Schlage, einem Druck,
Das goldne Korn, der Rosen Schmuck.
Den Fischlein unterm weichen Dach,
Kein Sturm folgt ihnen vom Lande nach.
The tackle twitches, the rod quivers,
But the fishing line is pulled out easily.
You stubborn water-nymphs are not going to give
This fisherman anything to feast on!
What is the use of his cunning mind?
The fish mockingly slip away –
He stands on the bank, stuck firm,
He cannot go into the water, the land is holding on to him.
There are ripples on the smooth surface
Caused by the twisting of the scaled beings
As their body parts happily
Move about in the safe flowing waters.
Trouts scud this way and that,
Yet the fisherman’s rod remains empty.
They can feel what freedom is,
The fisherman’s old ruses bear no fruit.
The Earth is startlingly beautiful
Yet it is not safe!
Ice covered heights send storms;
Hail and frost destroy
(At a stroke, with a single push)
The golden corn, the jewellery of roses –
As for the little fish under their soft roof,
No storm can leave the land and follow them.
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.
It might be better to get the smut out of the way first. Who knows? Mayrhofer could hardly not have been aware of the double entendres so he might have expected a few titters at the beginning before readers and listeners started to tackle the challenge of grasping the slippery material that forms the substance of this strange poem. The fisherman feels something stirring at the end of his rod. There is some jerking and excitement, but when he gives it a tug nothing happens. The fish might have had a bite but they have not taken the bait and have escaped. The hook is empty; the line is still light. The mermaids or water-nymphs who control the underwater realm are not going to allow him to catch any of their own creatures.
This non-event sets up the main theme of the text: the fisherman belongs to the realm of the earth and the fish are citizens of another dimension to which, he discovers, he has no access whatsoever. Having stood up to pull in the line he now finds that he is fixed, rooted on the river bank. However well equipped he is (he might even have waders) he finds that he cannot enter the water. Nor can any of the water’s inhabitants escape into his world. All of his sly tricks (he is said to be an old-hand at fishing) have proved useless on this occasion. He has been outwitted by the slippery fish (or the nymphs that control them).
The movement of the fish is not quite confined to a totally unknowable or unreachable dimension, since it has a noticeable effect on the surface of the water in the form of light ripples. The movement is caused by ‘Schuppenvolk’ (literally ‘scaled folk’), a shoal whose twisting movement is made up of the actions of individual fishes while appearing to be that of a massive individual creature (with each individual fish being a scale on the surface of the shoal itself). The fish are being portrayed as embodying the features of crowd behaviour, in which individual identities fuse into a greater whole. They are ‘folk’ (plural); it is ‘the folk’ (singular). The different parts of the shoal or school seem to bend and twist, just as the individual fish swim by moving different parts of their own bodies. All of this adds to their safety (schooling and shoaling behaviour clearly protects fish and marine mammals from predators), but modern biologists might not agree with Mayrhofer’s assertion that this movement is anything to do with ‘happiness’ or feeling ‘free’.
There is a strange mirroring underway. The angler prides himself on his ability to trick the fish, but his cunning is only significant if the fish in their turn can be said to be teasing and tricking him. The more devious and slippery they seem to be, the greater the challenge (and the satisfaction) of angling. Although it is the fish that are said to have a sense of what freedom is, what this really means is that the fisherman is beginning to feel trapped himself. He has lost that sense of freedom that the complete angler is supposed to enjoy.
He has become aware that he is fixed on the river bank, in the domain of the dry land, the solid earth. The ability of the fish to swerve and avoid capture is a freedom he cannot know. He is at risk of being caught himself. Any sudden storm could strike him down, just as a freak hailstorm can flatten a field of corn or a late frost can destroy a blooming rose in all its glory. He envies the fish their roof.
On one level, then, this non-story inverts the traditional ballad narrative of a fisherman being lured to the depths by mermaids or water-nymphs (as in Goethe’s ‘Der Fischer’, Schubert’s D 225). He remains firmly on the land. Yet the tone of the poem is clearly tragic. For him, his inability to enter the realm of the water makes it all the more desirable and alluring. It is not nixies or nymphs that he desires down there, though. What he longs to attain is ‘freedom’. As so often with a Mayrhofer text, we hear pre-echoes of his own suicide attempts when he jumped into deep water, presumably in the hope of finding such freedom for himself.
Who is Ulfru? Thierry Morice’s hypothesis
In The Schubertian of April 2018 Thierry Morice published an intriguing theory about the significance of the name Ulfru. He argues that it is a Norse name (Úlfr means ‘wolf’ in Icelandic and Old Nordic) that Mayrhofer used with the expectation that only a small number of initiates would have been able to see the significance of it. These initiates, according to Morice, might have been a Viennese group that was sympathetic to the ‘Carbonari’, the liberals agitating against the reactionary governments of the restoration after 1815. On this reading Ulfru the wolf is Count Metternich, who, in his passion to restore the authority of the Habsburg Emperor did his best to ‘catch’ fishy liberals. The fish are people like Mayrhofer and his friends, who have the agility and the guile to escape from him. Mayrhofer worked as one of Metternich’s censors; he was part of the fishing tackle!
Original Spelling Wie Ulfru fischt Der Angel zuckt, die Ruthe bebt, Doch leicht fährt sie heraus. Ihr eigensinn'gen Nixen gebt Dem Fischer keinen Schmaus! Was frommet ihm sein kluger Sinn, Die Fische baumeln spottend hin - Er steht am Ufer fest gebannt, Kann nicht in's Wasser, ihn hält das Land. Die glatte Fläche kräuselt sich, Vom Schuppenvolk bewegt, Das seine Glieder wonniglich In sichern Fluthen regt. Forellen zappeln hin und her, Doch bleibt des Fischers Angel leer, Sie fühlen, was die Freyheit ist, Fruchtlos ist Fischers alte List. Die Erde ist gewaltig schön, Doch sicher ist sie nicht! Es senden Stürme Eiseshöh'n; Der Hagel und der Frost zerbricht Mit einem Schlage, einem Druck, Das gold'ne Korn, der Rosen Schmuck - Den Fischlein unterm weichen Dach, Kein Sturm folgt ihnen vom Lande nach.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Gedichte von Johann Mayrhofer. Wien. Bey Friedrich Volke. 1824, pages 42-43.
Note by Peter Rastl: In Schubert’s (and Mayrhofer’s, and Goethe’s) time there was a distinction between “die Angel” (= door-hinge) and “der Angel” (= fishing tackle). Only in current German are both feminine.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 42 [54 von 212] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ177450902