Winterreise Article


Among the unpublished poems in Goethe's West-Östlicher Divan (West-Eastern Anthology) we find a text in defense of weeping: "Lasst mich weinen" (Let me weep). In this poem we can read the wonderful (and true!) lines:

Lasst mich weinen!
das ist keine Schande.
Weinende Männer sind gut.
Let me weep!
that's no shame.
Weeping men are good.

When I began to think about Winterreise for this cycle of essays I remembered the poetic I as a constantly weeping man. But actually there are only two out of 24 poems which show him crying. Either my memory was very bad or these two poems are very impressive. The one poem is Gefrorne Tränen, the other one is Wasserflut. The rest of the cycle shows a man in the most profound grief but with no tears. Maybe that's part of his problem (because weeping is nearer to "healthy" grief than to self-pity and misguided stoicism), maybe the weeping in these two poems is enough for one cycle.

Wasserflut is the first poem in the cycle with a clear and constant trochee rhythm. All poems before used the iambic foot. For the ones unaccustomed with metre: the iambus means that of two syllables the second one is stressed. Knock this rhythm on your table and you see it's forward pushing. The most famous and brillant example for use of the iambus in German poetry is Goethe's Willkommen und Abschied where the metre displays what the poem tells about: a night ride. The trochee now means that of two syllables the first one is stressed. This foot's character is stately, slow-paced, meditative. Here the most famous German example is Schiller's grave Lied von der Glocke which indulges in wisdom.

Wasserflut is written in the folk song pattern of four-line stanzas (as are all poems of the cycle with the exception of Die Post, Täuschung and Die Nebensonnen) but with a different rhythm. This means that the movement, the wandering has been stopped or altered. Up to now we saw a man leaving a house (Gute Nacht), looking back at the house while wandering (Die Wetterfahne), noticing that he has been crying while wandering (Gefrorne Traenen), rambling through the winter landscape like mad (Erstarrung), thinking back of his happiness while wandering (Der Lindenbaum). Wasserflut now offers no direct movement, the movement is a movement of the imagination: the journey not of the wanderer but of fantasy snow melting in fantasy spring. Let's follow the course of the poem.

The first stanza

Manche Trän aus meinen Augen
Ist gefallen in den Schnee;
Seine kalten Flocken saugen
Durstig ein das heiße Weh.
(Some tears have fallen from my eyes
into the snow; its cold flakes thirstely
suck in the burning pain.)

Nature often is animated and personified in Müller's cycle: we remember the moon-cast shadow in Gute Nacht, the wind playing with hearts in Die Wetterfahne, the linden tree in Der Lindenbaum. Here it is the snow. Starting point of the poem is the sensation of hot tears falling into cold snow. Müller contrasts the "kalte Flocken" of the snow with the "heiße Weh" the tears symbolize. Snow is seen here as a thirsty animal or person who eagerly needs water to quench its or his (or her) thirst. It seems as if Nature feeds on our unhappy friend - or that he is feeding Nature with his grief which probably is nearer to the truth.

The second stanza

Wenn die Gräser sproßen wollen,
Weht daher ein lauer Wind,
Und das Eis zerspringt in Schollen,
Und der weiche Schnee zerrinnt.
(When the grass plants want to shoot a mild
wind blows along, and the ice cracks into
floes and the soft snow melts away.)

This stanza seems to be a very harmless description of spring beginning but there are undertones. Again Nature seems animated. The shooting of the grass is due to a distinct will of the plants: they want to come forth. So they seem to call the wind. It is not that the wind comes anyhow when winter ends: the grass calls it. Nature is animated. - Then ice cracks, snow melts away. That is banal. But Müller deliberately uses two verbs with the prefix "zer-" showing high energy and even destructive powers like in "zerstören" (destroy), "zerreissen" (tear apart), "zerfleischen" (tear to pieces). Something organic and whole is destroyed with forceful energy (the poem is called "Flood" which is not something very comfortable). This is not an idyllic image of spring returning, this is animated, slightly eerie Nature awakening and destroying (every beginning is an end, you know). After all winter is a kind of home for our wanderer and spring will end this home.

Stanza three

Schnee, du weißt von meinem Sehnen;
Sag, wohin doch geht dein Lauf?
Folge nach nur meinen Tränen,
Nimmt dich bald das Baechlein auf.
(Snow, you know of my longing; Tell me, where
does your course go to? Just follow my tears,
the little brook will then absorb you soon.)

The wanderer speaks to the snow, gets into contact with animated Nature. He fantasizes that the time of spring is already there and that the snow begins its course. (But actually it is still in the middle of winter, still everything dead and frozen and cold.) The wanderer gives a kind of advice to the snow as if it didn't know where to go to when spring begins: just to follow the tears of our hero. So the tears also become animated (as in Gefrorne Tränen where they seemed like breaking forth off their own bat). They lead the snow to where it belongs, the little brook (how is it that Müller's heroes are always on good terms with brooks?).

Stanza four

Wirst mit ihm die Stadt durchziehen,
Muntre Straßen ein und aus;
Fühlst du meine Tränen glühen,
Da ist meiner Liebsten Haus.
(You will flow through the city with it, in and out
of lively streets; if you feel my tears glowing
there then is my beloved's house.)

The poem begins with tears falling into snow. It goes on with the image of this very snow melting in spring. The snow does not melt simply, it follows the tears to a little brook. The little brook now leads the snow into a city (now this is what you call poetic licence), into its lively streets. (The words "muntre Straßen" are somehow cynical spoken by the griefing wanderer since "munter" can mean "lively" as well as "merry".) And here the tears, independent beings, begin to heat up again when they pass the beloved's house. Now, this is a really exaggerated image, isn't it? But it matches the wanderer's idea of a world animated by his grief, a world only making sense through his idea. Everything in this dead and cold world applies to him and his miserable situation, in a negative or in a positive way, and everything points back to the one person who gave him meaning: his beloved. All his life, all his ideas have their only ground in his grief, we see the world, animated, eerie, dark, strange, through the eyes of a man totally and - yes - willingly given over to his pain. Strange, but fascinating. Fascinating, but strange.

Robert Peters © 2000