The German poet Heinrich Heine fell ill in 1848, with what was eventually diagnosed as chronic lead poisoning, and spent the last eight years of his life confined to what he called his ‘mattress grave’ (Matratzengruft), from where he wrote a series of poems chronicling his situation with a lacerating blend of candour and irony. Here are two of them. The translations that follow are my own.
Erstorben ist in meiner Brust
Jedwede weltlich eitle Lust,
Schier is mir auch erstorben drin
Der Hass des Schlechten, sogar der Sinn
Für eigne wie für fremde Not –
Und in mir lebt noch nur der Tod!
Der Vorhang fällt, das Stück ist aus,
Und gähnend wandelt jetzt nach Haus
Mein liebes deutsches Publikum,
Die guten Leutchen sind nicht dumm;
Das speist jetzt ganz vergnügt zu Nacht,
Und trinkt sein Schõppchen, singt und lacht –
Er hatte recht, der edle Heros,
Der weiland sprach im Buch Homeros’:
Der kleinste lebendige Philister
Zu Stukkert am Neckar, viel glücklicher ist er
Als ich, der Pelide, der tote Held,
Der Schattenfürst in der Unterwelt.
Now in my breast has died the fire
Of every earthly vain desire,
My hate for wrong has vanished clean,
Likewise as if it had not been
Care for my own and others’ ill.
Now only death lives in me still.
The curtain falls, the play is done,
And my dear German public’s gone
Yawning on their way back home.
Those little folk are not so dumb:
They’ll eat, drink, laugh and sing tonight,
And take full pleasure. He was right,
That noble hero, he who said
In Homer’s book, as I once read,
The meanest Philistine alive
In Stuttgart town may better thrive
Than I, Achilles, in this bed,
A prince of shades among the dead.
Gross ist die Ähnlichkeit der beiden schönen
Jünglingsgestalten, ob der eine gleich
Viel blässer als der andre, auch viel strenger,
Fast möchte ich sagen viel vornehmer aussieht
Als jener andre, welcher mich vertraulich
In seine Arme schloss – Wie lieblich sanft
War dann sein Lächeln, und sein Blick wie selig!
Dann mocht es wohl geschehn, dass seines Hauptes
Mohnblumenkranz auch meine Stirn berührte
Und seltsam duftend allen Schmerz verscheuchte
Aus meiner Seel – Doch solche Linderung,
Sie dauert kurze Zeit; genesen gänzlich
Kann ich nur dann, wenn seine Fackel senkt
Der andre Bruder, der so ernst und bleich. –
Gut ist der Schlaf, der Tod ist besser – freilich
Das beste wäre, nie geboren sein.
How alike they are, two beautiful
Forms of young men, though at the same time one
Much paler than the other, more severe,
I might even say, much more distinguished-looking
Than this, the other, who took me in his arms
So trustingly. How soft his smile, how loving
That gaze of his. Almost one might say
That poppy-wreath he wears around his head
Touched my own temples too, and drove out pain
With that strange scent it brings. But such relief
Lasts little time: now I can be quite well
Only when the other dips his torch,
The older brother, serious and pale.
Sleep is good, death better, but indeed
The best of all, never to have been born.
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Hi David, thanks for translating these poems. I don’t read German but Heine is clearly a fine poet. When you have time would you like to do another post about Heine? One of many poems I like are the lines from “Poems 1853 and 1854” where he rejects Paradise, beginning as follows (in a translation by Aaron Kramer):
I’m not allured by a lofty field
In Paradise, on holy ground.
No ladies there could be revealed
More fair than I’ve already found.
Thanks Chris. I’ll certainly think about another Heine post – plenty of good poems there to choose from.
In the “Morphine” passage I think the two brothers must be Sleep (Hypnos) and Death (Thanatos).
That’s right: in Greek myth two of the children of Nyx (night) and Erebus (Darkness). Hypnos dwelt in a dark cave, the source of the river Lethe (Forgetfulness), and at the entrance to the cave grew poppies. There is a famous passage in Homer’s Iliad, where Apollo charges the twin brothers to carry the body of the slain hero Sarpedon, killed by Patroclus fighting in the armour of Achilles, back to his own country of Lycia.
Hi David, thanks for the extra info. I looked the Homer passage up. Here it is (in Chapman’s translation):
Then Jove thus charg’d the Sun:
“Haste, honour’d Phœbus, let no more Greek violence be done
To my Sarpedon; but his corse of all the sable blood
And jav’lins purg’d; then carry him, far hence to some clear flood,
With whose waves wash, and then embalm each thorough-cleanséd limb
With our ambrosia; which perform’d, divine weeds put on him,
And then to those swift mates and twins, sweet Sleep and Death, commit
His princely person, that with speed they both may carry it
To wealthy Lycia; where his friends and brothers will embrace,
And tomb it in some monument, as fits a prince’s place.”
Then flew Apollo to the fight, from the Idalian hill,
At all parts putting into act his great Commander’s will;
Drew all the darts, wash’d, balm’d the corse; which, deck’d with ornament,
By Sleep and Death, those feather’d twins, he into Lycia sent.
Chapman is a bit wordy, isn’t he? I think I prefer our modern, plainer Robert Fitzgerald:
‘At this point, to Apollo
Zeus who gathers cloud said: ‘Come, dear Phoebus,
wipe away the blood mantling Sarpedon;
take him up, out of the play of spears,
a long way off, and wash him in the river,
anoint him with ambrosia, put ambrosial
clothing on him. Then have him conveyed
by those escorting spirits quick as wind,
sweet Sleep and Death, who are twin brothers. These
will set him down in the rich broad land of Lycia…’
I wonder what Keats would have made of the Fitzgerald version. Would he have happily rewritten his sonnet as ‘On First Looking Into Fitzgerald’s Homer’, or would he have found it a bit flat? He was of course only 20 when he first read Chapman, and in love with the richness of language…
Hi David, I don’t think I’d want to read long passages in Chapman’s translation but I like his translation here and prefer it to Fitzgerald’s. I haven’t checked the context carefully in the Iliad. I’m reading it (not much in context) as grieving father giving directions for the burial of a noble son.