Thursday, December 01, 2016

A Toast To Winter: Part I, Matthias Claudius

The days have become so short now, and as grey as if dredged up from the seabed on a hazy northern morning, and at -6°C so cold by the measure of early German winters, that one solution to the chill fog that invades the mind too might seem to be to dive into summer literature. But instead I will try the cure by 'hair of the dog,' and mention books and poems and plays that celebrate, or at least describe, winter.

FIRST, a poem. Matthias Claudius is a German poet whose subjects take him through the everyday of a time span that seems broader, because I think it is still so relatable, than the swathe of the 18th and 19th century (1740 to 1815) that he personally knew. Transformed into songs, like Der Mond ist aufgegangen and, in the realm of the classics, 'Death and the Maiden,' his verse made him familiar even in my Canadian-German household in the 1990s.

To illustrate the poem I have chosen here, a figure of Winter would be far more appropriate, gnarled and foreboding or gleefully hard as described. But instead I have chosen some rather more tame and cheerful pictures by Ludwig Richter.


Ein Lied hinterm Ofen zu singen

Der Winter ist ein rechter Mann,
    Kernfest und auf die Dauer;
Sein Fleisch fühlt sich wie Eisen an,
    Und scheut nicht süß noch sauer.
War je ein Mann gesund, ist er's;
    Er krankt und kränkelt nimmer,
Weiß nichts von Nachtschweiß noch Vapeurs,
    Und schläft im kalten Zimmer.
Er zieht sein Hemd im Freien an,
    Und läßt's vorher nicht wärmen;
Und spottet über Fluß im Zahn
    Und Kolik in Gedärmen.
Aus Blumen und aus Vogelsang
    Weiß er sich nichts zu machen,
Haßt warmen Drang und warmen Klang
    Und alle warme Sachen.
Doch wenn die Füchse bellen sehr,
    Wenn's Holz im Ofen knittert,
Und um den Ofen Knecht und Herr
    Die Hände reibt und zittert;
Wenn Stein und Bein vor Frost zerbricht
    Und Teich' und Seen krachen;
Das klingt ihm gut, das haßt er nicht,
    Denn will er sich tot lachen. –
Sein Schloß von Eis liegt ganz hinaus
    Beim Nordpol an dem Strande;
Doch hat er auch ein Sommerhaus
    Im lieben Schweizerlande.
Da ist er denn bald dort bald hier,
    Gut Regiment zu führen.
Und wenn er durchzieht, stehen wir
    Und sehn ihn an und frieren.


A spur-of-the-moment translation by me. (The last verse is pure guesswork.)

A Song
to be sung behind the stove

Winter is an honest man,
Sound as a nut and long enduring;
His flesh feels firm as iron
And fears not sweet nor sour.

If ever a man was well, he is;
He falls sick or sickens never,
Night sweats or vapors knows he not,
And sleeps in a chilly chamber.

He pulls his shirt on in the open
And lets it not be warmed before;
And jeers at seepages of teeth
And colic of the bowels.

For flowers and the song of birds
He has no use whatever,
Hates warm throngs and hates warm tones
And hates warm things altogether.

Yet when the foxes bark in force,
The logs in the stove are crackling
And around the stove the man and master
Rub their hands and shiver;

When stone and bone crack in the frost
And ponds and lakes do shatter;
It pleases his ear, he hates it not,
For he wants to die of laughing.

His ice palace lies far away
At the North Pole near the shore;
And yet he has a summer house
In dear old Switzerland.

There he is — now there, now here —
To mount his regime well.
And when he passes through, we stand
And look at him and freeze.


Wikipedia: "Matthias Claudius" (English language)
Spiegel Online: Project Gutenberg: "Matthias Claudius: Der Wandsbecker Bote - Kapitel 164" (German language)

The poem was written in 1782 — "Ein Lied hinterm Ofen zu singen" (September 18, 2013) on the blog "Gedichtauswahl begründet"

Illustration of Der alte Turmhahn by Eduard Mörike
Adrian Ludwig Richter, 1855
Via Wikimedia Commons
Auszug der Sennen
Adrian Ludwig Richter, 1827
Oil on canvas
Via Wikimedia Commons
Matthias Claudius: Der Wandsbecker Bote
Lead pencil sketch by Adrian Ludwig Richter (1803-1884), Winter landscape with snowman and sleigh
via Wikimedia Commons

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