Winterreise Article

Die Wetterfahne

If there is a prototype of a German folk song stanza it is the one Müller uses for Die Wetterfahne: four lines, iambic, four stresses in each line, the last syllables of the first and third line unstressed, the last ones of the second and fourth line stressed, the first and the third line respectively the second and the fourth ones rhyming. This is not only the stanza most often used for German folk songs, but one of the stanza most often used for all sorts of German poems (yes, there are people who count things like these). But the stanza is not really a folk song stanza. It is pretty unknown in the old folk song (14th to 17th century) and began its career as a stanza for Barock songs of anacreontic nature. It were the Romantiker who began to use this stanza for poems which deal with love's happiness and pain connected with displays of nature. Müller's poem Die Wetterfahne speaks of love and loss but nature is only represented by the wind, the rest of the scene is domestic.

The first stanza

Der Wind spielt mit der Wetterfahne
Auf meines schönen Liebchens Haus.
Da dacht ich schon in meinem Wahne,
Sie pfiff den armen Flüchtling aus.
(The wind plays with the weather vane on my
beautiful darling's house. So I thought in my
mania that it hissed at the poor fugitive.)

The situation seems to be very clear: in the last poem, Gute Nacht, our poor hero left the house he wanted to find his happiness in, the house of his "schönes Liebchen". Now being outside, he notices the weather vane. But when does all this happen? The first sentence is present tense, the second past. Is it memory what he tells us here and he is in fact already far away, or is he still outside the house? Both is possible and maybe not that important.

He notices the weather vane by its screeching, whistling, hissing sound. It is not necessarily a weather cock, probably it is a metal flag in arrow shape on a pole. Important is that the wind plays with it. Like the wanderer the vane is a passive object, it is nature's plaything like the poetic I is love's plaything. But the wanderer, in his "Wahne", feels hissed and ridiculed by the sound. He still loves the woman he has to leave (he calls her "mein schöns Liebchen" - my beautiful darling - as if she still belongs to him) and feels deeply wounded and humiliated being forced so unkindly out into the cold, dark, windy winter's night: he calls himself a "armen Flüchtling" - a poor fugitive as if he has to escape from some danger, as if he was helpless and forlorn. His self-assessment reeks of self-pity and gives us a hint why this guy cannot find the way to a new hope. He knows that he is manic, that he exaggerates, he knows that the way he behaves is a "Wahn" - a word that can mean mania, illusion, delusion, which is to be found in the German word "Wahnsinn" - insanity, lunacy, madness. He knows the state he's in but he cannot overcome it.

The second stanza

Er hätt es eher bemerken sollen,
Des Hauses aufgestecktes Schild,
So hätt er nimmer suchen wollen
Im Haus ein treues Frauenbild.
(He should have noticed it earlier, the sign put
up on the house, so he would have never wanted
to look for a faithful woman in the house.)

Aggression and anger at last. He seeks relief in scolding his beloved, calling her unfaithful. But in his aggression against her is self-aggression as well: he scolds himself for having been so naive. The weather vane should have warned him. It is a sign, a symbol for being a changeable, moody, potentially unfaithful person. To be changeable is called "wetterwendisch" in German, and this is exactly what a weather vane or flag does: getting turned constantly ("wenden") by the weather ("Wetter"). Nothing more of his (pretended) stoicism of the previous Lied ("Die Liebe liebt das Wandern" - Love loves to rove).

The poetic I's anger is understandable but nevertheless not a sign of a very ripe person: love is something voluntary, is always a present given to us as a kind of loan. People fall in love and fall out of love and who is to be scolded? It is true as Heine says in "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen" (A lad loves a girl - Lied No. 11 of Schumann's Dichterliebe):

Es ist eine alte Geschichte,
Doch bleibt sie immer neu;
Und wem sie just passieret,
Dem bricht das Herz entzwei
It is an old story,
but it remains ever new,
and the heart of the person to
whom it just happens breaks in two.

The special thing about the Winterreisende that distinguishes him from other wounded, but still sensible ex-lovers is that he deliberately falls from one mania into the next. He does not want to come to his senses - and so the Winterreise can take place.

(For the ones who want to know everything: Frauenbild is an old German word for Frau - woman. Frauenbild literally means "image / idol of a woman". If you want to you can interpret the use of this word here as a sign for the poetic I's desire to idolize his lover, to turn her into an idol.)

Stanza three

Der Wind spielt drinnen mit den Herzen
Wie auf dem Dach, nur nicht so laut.
Was fragen sie nach meinen Schmerzen?
Ihr Kind ist eine reiche Braut.
(The wind plays indoors with the hearts as on the
roof, but not so loudly. What do they bother
about my grief? Their child is a rich bride.)

The wind turns the weather vane around. It also turns people's hearts around, making them moody, changeable and unfaithful. (It is not the best of metaphors: which wind does this? Better not ask. We understand the message.)

It is interesting how the poetic I replaces the object of his scoldings with new ones: in stanza two he scolded his unfaithful betrothed and himself, now he scolds her parents. He and the girl now are shown as victims of the wind, as passive objects of other people's motives and of fate. Obviously the parents preferred a second candidate with more money (and it was not common to ask the girl who she herself wanted to marry). This is the truth if we can trust the wanderer - but we cannot since he himself admits that he is far from being sensible. Again he sees himself as the poor victim, left alone, treated utterly wrong. No one asks for his grief (the German word Schmerzen literally means bodily pain).

The wanderer's attitude is absolutely understandable if he is telling us the truth: being Romeo-like and unjustly rejected is a bitter pill to swallow. But he holds on to his grief by raging so fruitlessly against fate. He holds on to his grief and his beloved and so throws away every chance of becoming happy again - in another place, with someone else. He will continue to do so the whole cycle through. It is not really love he seeks. See Die schöne Müllerin: "Das Wild, das ich jage, das ist der Tod" - the deer I am hunting is Death.

Robert Peters © 2000