Winterreise Article

Gute Nacht

Gute Nacht consists of four stanzas with eight lines each. They rhyme alternately, there are three stresses in each verse, the stresses are iambic which means that every second syllable in each line is stressed. But this metric pattern must not be taken as a dictatorial poetic guideline because it is not possible to speak (or sing!) for example the famous first two lines without giving the first word in both ("Fremd") a minor stress. This system of major and minor stresses adds a certain singing quality to the lines and reduces their strictness.

The used stanza itself is not a folk song stanza, it comes from a different area: O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden is written exactly in the same pattern. The stanza is an old protestant Kirchenliedstrophe (church song stanza). The stanza got more and more used in worldly poetry, especially, beginning with the Barock, the stanza was very often used as an ideal form for cheerful, convivial poems about friendship and joy, love and happiness. Goethe used the stanza for this, and Müller (like the whole literary world) noticed attentively everything the Weimar giant did. The Romantiker now took this merry stanza and used it for texts about desire and loss, most remarkable in poems like Sehnsucht by Eichendorff or Der Lindenbaum by Müller (yes, you can sing Der Lindenbaum to the music of Gute Nacht - although it makes no sense at all). The stanza reminded people where such poems came from, from ironic and witty society games. Müller himself gave his Schöne Müllerin a frame of ironic and distanced spoken prologue and epilogue thus saying to his readers: it is only a game, do not take it too seriously. There is no such frame in the Winterreise. This time it is serious.

The first stanza

Fremd bin ich eingezogen,
Fremd zieh ich wieder aus.
Der Mai war mir gewogen
Mit manchem Blumenstrauss.
Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe,
Die Mutter gar von Eh', -
Nun ist die Welt so trübe,
Der Weg gehüllt in Schnee.
(I moved in as a stranger, I am
moving out as a stranger. May was
favourably disposed towards me with
many a bunch of flowers. The girl
spoke of love, the mother even of
marriage, - now the world is so dull,
the path covered in snow.)

The poem begins with a nicely used rhetorical device (it is not a folk song but the work of a skilled writer): the anaphora, the deliberate beginning of several sentences or lines or stanzas with the same word or words (think of Kennst du das Land by Goethe). Here it is the word "Fremd" which starts the first and second verse and which is given a special importance by using this device.

"Fremd" is an adjective and means being unknown and unaccustomed (strange) or being from a different country or area (alien, foreign). The poetic I says he moved in as a stranger and is now moving out as a stranger. "Einziehen" and "ausziehen" can mean to move into (and out of) a town, a house or apartment. He is maybe a journeyman like his soul brother from the Müllerin who travels from workshop to workshop, staying in the houses for some time. So it is clear that he comes as a stranger since it was forbidden for journeymen (and still is!) to get close to their hometown for a given time. They are obliged to go away to people who have never seen them. But how can the guy say (and he says it most expressively) that he is leaving as a stranger? Actually this can't be true because although he's to go away there are people now who know him: his ex-betrothed, her parents, propably colleagues. Obviously a psychological truth is expressed here, not a realistic one: the poetic I feels like a stranger and utterly alien. He came as a stranger and presumably hoped to change this status - but he failed. To be a stranger, a foreigner, an alien seems to be an inner quality of this person, not a temporary state of being (and this is a distinctive Romantiker feeling puzzling and disturbing for Klassiker like Goethe and Schiller).

The poetic I thinks of what there was, of the hope he had of overcoming the stranger's status: May, the month of love, behaved like a gentle king towards him ("gewogen sein" can mean two things in German: "Sie ist ihm gewogen" - She likes him a lot, she tends romantically and erotically towards him; "Der Herr ist uns gewogen" - The master or sovereign has a favourable opinion about us). The girl declared her love for him, the mother already made plans for marriage. What strikes me is that the poetic I has a clear tendency to speak like someone who is not an active subject but a passive object: May is personified as a (luckily magnanimous) ruler, girl and mother planned his life. What did he do? Obviously nothing but hoping: Now the world is dull, he is surprised. The two last lines of the first stanza have a certain air of self-pity about them. It is the "so" which adds to this effect, it overemphasizes the poetic I's feelings of mourning and loss. But then his situation is far from plesant: May is gone, the poor guy finds himself outside in a dull, dim and - yes - alien winter world where he has difficulties to find his path because Nature, being now no longer magnanimous but particularly hostile, has covered it in snow.

So we have a man here who tends to be passive, who behaves and feels like a victim. Everything just happens to him and he seems to be utterly dumbfounded. Maybe it is that what Goethe deeply disliked being himself a very active person. Being loved and losing love are seen as fateful occurrences, man as fate's and nature's plaything.

The second stanza

Ich kann zu meiner Reisen
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit;
Muss selbst den Weg mir weisen
In dieser Dunkelheit.
Es zieht ein Mondenschatten
Als mein Gefährte mit,
Und auf den weissen Matten
Such' ich des Wildes Tritt.
(I cannot choose the time for my
journey; have to show the path to
me by myself in this darkness. A
mooncast shadow is going along with
me as my companion, and on the white
meadows I am looking for the deer's
footprints.)

After stating what happened to him the poetic I now is totally indulged in his current pitiful situation: being forced to travel in wintertime (and obviously he has not the money to use coaches) and being forced to travel in the middle of night. The night is pitch black except for a dim mooncast shadow.

Again the poetic I is shown (or presents himself) as a victim: "Ich kann ... Nicht wählen" - this is in four words the poetic I's problem: I cannot choose. Other people choose (girls speak of love, mothers speak of marriage), Nature chooses for him (giving him gifts like gentle May, treating him harshly like fierce wintertime). Even the mooncast shadow he follows is seen as active, as a companion who has chosen him. Indeed the poetic I now has to be active, being in such a calamity: he has to show himself the path, the way. So he follows the deer's footprints. Well, I am no experienced hiker but to me this seems a doubtful way of finding a good and usable path. Obviously the meaning is a different one: here we have a person who desperately seeks friends and company and may it be a dim mooncast shadow or the deer which is actually not there, only its footprint - the poetic I is totally left alone and, as it seems, is, being used to his passive role, totally unprepared for this situation.

Stanza three

Was soll ich länger weilen,
Dass man mich trieb' hinaus ?
Lass irre Hunde heulen
Vor Ihres Herren Haus!
Die Liebe liebt das Wandern -
Gott hat sie so gemacht -
Von Einem zu dem Andern,
Fein Liebchen, gute Nacht!
(Why shall I tarry longer so that
they drive me out? Let mad dogs
howl outside their master's house!
Love loves to roam - God made it
so - from the one to the next,
fine little love, good night!)

Well, one should think the poetic I had better things to do now (looking for shelter etc.) but he begins to meditate his fate. He was no longer welcome in his lover's house, he had to go, she found someone new. In a rhetorical question he tries to convince himself (and us!) that to go is the only sensible thing to do. This sentence is written in present tense - and this is most interesting. In stanza two the poetic I gave us a most moving image of the plights he has to endure on his way. And this was sheer fantasy respectively anticipation! He is not outside in snow and darkness, he is still in the house, maybe packing his things, looking out of the window into the dead winter scenery. I think this is a crucial point: the poetic I expects nothing but the dreadful loneliness of stanza two to come. The present tense of stanza two must be read as a kind of future tense. It will be like that, he is totally convinced of it: I will be lonely, there will be only a mooncast shadow as my companion, I will be forced to look for the deer's footprints. This man is not only passive, he is fatalistic.

And more: Why has he to go in the middle of the night? He says they will drive him out of the house, probably in the morning. So he goes in the middle of the night thus adding to his pitiful situation (imagine yourself walking through a pathless cold winter scenery). They will drive me away: I do not believe the poetic I. They maybe will ask him to go but by using such an exaggerated expression (why should the girl's family drive someone away they wanted to give their daughter to?) the poetic I can indulge a little bit more in his passive and fatalistic attitude.

The first two lines are a rhetorical question, the next two lines uses alliteration (Hunde - Herren - Haus): here someone tries desperately to convince himself of something. The mad dog lines mean: Only mad dogs are mad enough to still cling to their masters who want them not. I am not such a mad dog. I have still got my pride! - And the next 23 poems the poetic I will do nothing but this: howl like a mad dog outside his sweetheart's house respectively heart.

The next comfort the poetic I tries is wise resignation by using a banal epigram which is meant to sound profound, to show the one who uses it as a man known to the ways of the world. Life's like that, you know, love comes and love goes, so what? But there is one word that gives the guy away: "Feinsliebchen". This is not Sweetheart but a much more tender pet name: "fein" means the outer beautiful appearance but also an outstandingly good character, and "Liebchen" is the tender diminutive form of "Liebe", "Liebling". By using this pet name and wishing his ex-betrothed a good night the poetic I expresses that he is not the stoic he wants to be: he still loves her and he is not agreed.

The last stanza

Will dich im Traum nicht stören,
Wär' schad um deine Ruh',
Sollst meinen Tritt nicht hören -
Sacht, sacht die Türe zu!
Schreib' im Vorübergehen
Ans Tor Dir: gute Nacht,
Damit Du mögest sehen,
An Dich hab' ich gedacht.
(Don't want to disturb you in your
dream, would be a shame about your
rest, you're not meant to hear my
footstep - softly, softly shut the door!
Write in passing upon the gate for you:
good night, so that you may see I have
been thinking of you.)

I read this poem and especially this last stanza to some of my female friends. They reacted all in the same way: first pity (the poor guy), then bewilderment and beginning cooling (well, he is strange, isn't he, and he is a little bit too nice), then anger (he is trying to give her a sense of guilt, the bastard). I am kinder to the wanderer than my friends thinking that he can't help it but nevertheless they are absolutely right: this man can't let go, he clings to his ex-sweetheart with all his might. And he does not do it aggressively but (and this explains the furious reactions of my friends) being the kindest and most tender guy in the world: avoiding any noise when he opens the door, caring about her rest and dreams (maybe dreams of the new lover!), writing a tender farewell upon the gate. Why does he write this? So that she is still reminded of him, so that he is still present in the house, so that there is still a connection between him and her, so that he cannot cure and overcome his loss. He doesn't go and say to himself: Well, it hurts me deeply but this wound will heal. I will go and find someone new.

What prevents me from shrugging my shoulders and saying: Well, there you have a guy who is ripe for the therapist? It is a demonic quality in the Winterreise cycle: more and more the wanderer becomes a sheer medium for a lament, a pain which is bigger than the actual cause, bigger than life, which means more, much more than just the broken heart of one single person. The cycle (and the poem Gute Nacht, too) shows a human being who is totally given over to despair and loss, who is utterly helpless. The man's pain is not temporarily, it is total, absolute. And the Romantik is about the absolute, the total. This is weird, this is fascinating, this is very frightening.

Robert Peters © 2000