No Comment, Quotation — August 3, 2008, 10:08 am

Mörike’s To a Lamp

moritz_von_schwind_morgenstunde

Noch unverrückt, o schöne Lampe, schmückest du,
An leichten Ketten zierlich aufgehangen hier,
Die Decke des nun fast vergeßnen Lustgemachs.
Auf deiner weißen Marmorschale, deren Rand
Der Efeukranz von goldengrünem Erz umflicht,
Schlingt fröhlich eine Kinderschar den Ringelreihn.
Wie reizend alles! lachend, und ein sanfter Geist
Des Ernstes doch ergossen um die ganze Form —
Ein Kunstgebild der echten Art. Wer achtet sein?
Was aber schön ist, selig scheint es in ihm selbst.

Yet unmoved, you beautiful lamp, gracefully suspended
Here by light chains, you adorn
The ceiling of this almost forgotten folly
About your cup of white marble, whose rim
Is enshrouded with a wreath of ivy golden-green,
A group of children join hands in a circle dance.
How charming is this! Smiling, a gentle spirit
Of gravity descends indeed about the image –
An artwork of the authentic form. Who notices it?
True beauty radiates from a light within.

Eduard Mörike, Auf eine Lampe (1846) in Sämtliche Werke vol. 1, p. 735 (H. Unger ed. 1974)(S.H. transl.)


I present here an original translation of Eduard Mörike’s short poem “Upon a Lamp,” which occupies much the same position in the German poetic tradition that John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” does in the English. Both are prime examples of what the Greeks called ekphrasis (??-??????), namely the practice of one art form imitating another through definition, description and imagery. Among the writers of classical antiquity, ekphrasis had many understandings, but one included the notion that artistic concepts by force of their very universality could be restated, adapted and appreciated anew by subsequent generations, even by other peoples and civilizations; indeed, that the process may be one of gradual perfection of the artistic narrative. But in both cases, the poem can be appreciated on a simple plane, namely as the description of a specific object, or in a more multidimensional framework which includes a measure of irony (the spectator who does not appreciate, or at least not deeply, the artistic virtues of the object) and a assessment of the object within a philosophical system of esthetic judgment. So for Keats, that Grecian urn is contemplated in a manner that later finds its expression in the writings of John Ruskin. But Mörike’s take reflects the esthetic values and perspectives of the German Romanticists and Classicists. It’s common among the scholarship to place Mörike as a late Romanticist, or perhaps as the progenitor of the Neoromanticists–but in fact Mörike draws heavily from the classical school and in many respects his writing reminds one of transitional Classical-Romanticist writers like Friedrich Hölderlin (who crossed paths with Mörike at least once, when Mörike was a student in Tübingen). The imagery taken is decidedly classical and drawn from antiquity. But it is seen through an ironic perspective—the disconcerting clash between the ideal and the reality of the modern day—like many writers of Mörike’s own generation, and that which preceded him. This poem reminds of Hölderlin, Schiller and Winckelmann at least as much as of Schlegel, Wackenroder or Hoffmann. The poem features language of irony and the unexpected at several levels. In the first line, for instance, the word “unverrückt” plays to a secondary meaning—unmoved—of a word more commonly taken to refer to the state of a person’s mental health. From the juxtaposition of these two meanings follows an ironic comment, namely that the viewer anchored in the values of classical antiquity is an odd bird in current society. The lamp which reflects the classical ideal likewise is “suspended by light chains.” In the poem, Mörike gives the chains the sense of being ornamental (“zierlich”), but the word “chains” is of course usually associated with captivity, imprisonment, separation from society. Again the subtle choices of language send a clear message.

This poem achieved its greatest celebrity in the early fifties, when a debate erupted between the great Swiss philologist Emil Staiger and the philosopher Martin Heidegger over its meaning. Both focused on the celebrated last line, probably the best known line from any poem by Mörike. Their difference turned on the word “scheint” which is susceptible to two different interpretations in German. For Staiger the word “scheint” was to be understood in the sense of external appearance (videtur), and hence the poem is a comment on the classical concept vanitas. But for Heidegger, the word had the meaning of the English term which derives from it, namely “shine,” or the Latin that Heidegger mentions, lucet. In this case, of course, the poem takes quite a different sense, namely a reference to an inner beauty following a classical ideal—an ideal that also matches the esthetic perception of writers such as Schiller. In my interpretation, I have adopted Heidegger’s perspective on the poem and its meaning, though I have not been too literal. In fact, I think either view of the poem works. But the Heidegger view is also supported by one of the stranger turns in the last line, where Mörike writes “selig scheint es in ihm selbst.” In normal modern High German, one would have expected the word “sich” where Mörike offers “ihm.” Staiger and Heidegger, both—like Mörike—speakers of the Swabian dialect, say that the use of “ihm” for the reflexive is a Swabianism. But this is strange, because Mörike’s classical-formal poetry, of which this is a prime example, does not use dialect. Another possibility is that this surprise shift is designed to change the perspective entirely, from the object to the viewer (that is, not an artistic object, but a human being). This transformation certainly also follows from the total development of the poem and its remarkable and ironic weave of perspectives.

The artwork taken for this poem is also a Romantic study in perspectives in a framework of bourgeois comfort, done by Moritz von Schwind—a very close friend of Mörike’s, especially in his later life.


Listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Eduard Mörike’s “Der Genesene an die Hoffnung” (“He Who Recovers Through Hope”)(1838) in a setting by Hugo Wolf (Mörike-Lieder, 1888).

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Factor by which single Americans who use emoji are more likely than other single Americans to be sexually active:

1.85

Brontosaurus was restored as a genus, and cannibalism was reported in tyrannosaurine dinosaurs.

Moore said he did not “generally” date teenage girls, and it was reported that in the 1970s Moore had been banned from his local mall and YMCA for bothering teenage girls.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today