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Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser,
Ohne Regung ruht das Meer,
Und bekümmert sieht der Schiffer
Glatte Fläche ringsumher.
Keine Luft von keiner Seite!
In der ungeheuern Weite
Reget keine Welle sich.
Die Nebel zerreißen,
Der Himmel ist helle,
Und Äolus löset
Das ängstliche Band.
Es säuseln die Winde,
Es rührt sich der Schiffer.
Es teilt sich die Welle,
Es naht sich die Ferne;
Schon seh’ ich das Land!
Deep quiet rules the waters;
motionless, the sea reposes,
and the boatsman looks about with alarm
at the smooth surfaces about him.
No wind comes from any direction!
A deathly, terrible quiet!
In the vast expanse
not one wave stirs.
The mist is torn away,
The heavens turn bright,
And Aeolus unfastens
The bonds of fear.
There, the winds rustle,
the boatsman stirs.
The waves rise up again.
The distant view draws close,
Land ho, I call!
–Johann Wolfgang Goethe, “Meeresstille” and “Glückliche Fahrt” (1795) in Sämtliche Werke vol. 4.1, p. 666 (K. Richter ed. 1988)(S.H. transl.)
These two short poems were composed at least as early as 1795, when Schiller published them, though perhaps a bit earlier. They were clearly intended as a pairing, and they consistently appeared published together during Goethe’s lifetime. The image they present is an unusual one, but highly evocative of the thinking of the early Romantic period. Normally we would associate danger at sea with a violent storm. But Goethe points to just the opposite: complete quiet. For a ship stuck in a listless latitude, the absence of wind could be every bit as threatening as a storm, though also combined with a greater measure of mystery. The image that Goethe presents is a masterful study in contradictions: the utter peace of the motionless sea provokes fear and alarm. But the fear associated with the calm sea gives way to joy as a mist is dispelled and the wind kicks up. The tension is finally dispelled when land is sighted. The poem gives life to the ideas about nature that Edmund Burke brought to paper in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful from 1757. Burke developed a distinction between the beautiful, something that flows from immediate sensory perceptions, and the sublime, forces of which we have little understanding though we recognize their ability to dominate or destroy us. Nature, for the post-Burkean Romanticists, encompasses these concepts, and no example is better than the one Goethe took: the ocean. A brisk wind and a bright sky bring prosperity and happiness. But a storm or a vacuum presented peril; the mirror like surface of the sea might be beautiful, but beneath that surface lurked untold and mysterious dangers.
Almost as soon as the poems were published, composers saw its thematic potential. Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn are among those who drew inspiration from it. Beethoven sent Goethe a letter dedicating the work to the poet, but Goethe, suffering a serious heart ailment, never responded. Here is a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s cantata “Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt” opus 112 (1815). The performance was recorded in Mexico City in June 2005 featuring the Symphony and Chorus of the Mexican Navy and the Symphony Orchestra of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Zuohuang Chen conducts.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:
A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.
Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”