Around the 6th of September, 1780, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was nearing the end of a hike in the wilderness surrounding the German city of Ilmenau. Coming upon a traveller's shack, now called Goethehäuschen, he paused to rest. The sun had almost set, showering the forest with brilliant light as a parting gift. Goethe felt overwhelmed by this scene of natural wonder. He became possessed with a sudden, passionate desire to express his feelings of reverence. Quickly, he took out a knife and scratched a brief poem on the wall of the little hut. Whether the words had been with him all day, slowly taking form from the hectic interplay of thoughts and sensations, or whether they struck him that very moment with a force too strong to withstand, his minor act of vandalism grew to be the most beloved poem of his exhaustive and brilliant canon—Wandrers Nachtlied II, the second of two poems called Wanderer's Nightsong.

Near the end of his life, Goethe returned to that wooded hut once more. Reading again his own faded etchings, he broke down in sobs. With so few words, he had evoked an impression and experience that seemed to touch not only himself, but his readers as a whole. He captured the repose of German nature in twilight and distilled it into an ideal vision of a human being's dying moments. Through the simple structure and flow of the poem, he disarms death of its most potent weapon—fear. Only a sense of resigned, yet hopeful melancholy remains in its wake, a peace accord with this truly universal of human experiences. The poem's exquisite balance of technical precision, fine-tempered language, and artistic meaning has earned it a permanent and prominent place in the history of German literature.


In its original German, the poem runs:

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
My own literal translation (and therefore improper, as it does not well approximate the poem's effect on German-language readers) follows.
Over all peaks
Is quietness,
In all treetops,
You perceive
Hardly a breath;
The little birds keep silent in the wood.
Wait only, soon
you are also at rest.
The English translation of H. W. Longfellow captures the poem's essentials, but sacrifices accuracy in the process. 'To be asleep,' for example, is an extremely poor choice for translating schweigen, which only means 'to be silent' or 'to keep silent' and implies nothing of sleepfulness. This introduction of information and meaningful associations never present in the original poem does subtle damage to the English approximation.

Longfellow's translation is also marred by forced rhymes. This does reflect the structure of the original, but Longfellow found himself resorting to slant-rhyme in the poem's last line, derailing the momentum of a rigid rhyme scheme. Lacking the impact of Goethe's concluding one-syllable rhyme, Longfellow's rhyme scheme distracts, rather than enhances, an English-language reader's appreciation of the poem.
O'er all the hill-tops
Is quiet now,
In all the tree-tops
Hearest thou
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait; soon like these
Thou too shalt rest.
Because I'm dissatisfied with Longefellow's translation, I give my own English rendition of the poem that aims to capture as much of both the thematic force and the beautiful soundplay of the original. I forward the caveat, however, that I am competent, but not fluent in literary German. I'm also no Goethe by any stretch of vanity.
Over every peak
It stills.
Through every treetop
you hear
barely a breath;
The little birds hold hush in the wood.
Wait now. Soon,
you too will still.

The elegant architecture of Wandrers Nachtlied II traces to its technical foundations. In contrast to the habit of contemporaneous German prose (and sometimes poetry), Goethe kept the poem's sentence construction lucid and uncomplicated. There are no grammatical acrobatics to the language: a preposition/definite article contraction appears where it would in the spoken German, word order conforms to the most common patterns of the language, verbs remain in the present tense.

This elegance of simplicity emerges likewise in word choice. For example, Goethe relied on root verbs instead of multi-element verbs. Just as in English there are certain verbs—usually of Anglo-Saxon origin— that imply a concise, grounded set of meanings and other verbs—usually of French, Latin, or ancient Greek origin—that seem more refined and florid, so too does German posess such a vocabulary distinction. A set of inseparable and seperable prefixes, marking nebulous meaningful or grammatical extensions to the original verb, occupy a similar intellectual high-ground to that of foreign-origin words in English.

Goethe used none of these. He chose core and common words without recourse to elevated grammatical or formitive constructions. The poem lacks any garish intellectual-garment to cover over its flaws or accentuate its meaning. It stands naked before the reader, its beauty inseparable from its body.

Rhyme and line divisions give this body its shape, guiding the reader's attention with the precision of detail vital to a poem of so few and simple words. The schema of the German language poem runs ABABCDDC and its distribution of one-syllable and multi-syllable rhymes runs likewise: FMFMMFFM. More symmetry emerges in the vowels that define the rhyme. The stressed sounds of Ruh/du and Hauch/auch are vocalized twice as long as the sounds of Gipfeln/Wipfeln and Walde/balde, producing a schema of SLSLLSSL.

The three rhyme elements work in concert to ensure a reader's awareness of the general pattern. The importance of this rests with the poem's break of rhyme scheme from couplets to a Petrarchian quatrain, which proves to be the hinge that the poem's meaning pivots upon. Tension builds with the introduction of one rhyme in line 5 that does not resolve in line 7 as it should. Like the plot of a novel reduced to microscopic size, the poem dashes toward a clearly-expressed climax, the full weight crashing in at the last line.

The structural pattern of tension/release implies a plot worth mapping—content built upon the solid foundation. Image, rich with opportunities for interpretation, provides this content. Readers move from the mountaintops downward through a progressive zoom that takes in the tips of trees, the birds flying just above, the forest all around, and finally the individual human, standing both at the very center and at the very bottom of the image. Goethe draws a continuity of experience between nature at its most majestic and humanity at its most mundane. The speaker addresses the individual with the second-person pronoun du instead of Sie, a sign of familiarity or superiority in relation to the listener paralleled by the tu/vous distinction in French or the tu/usted distinction in Spanish*. Someone both far above and right beside this human being is telling this story. The stillness of the individual, with connotations of mortality due to the association in solemn contexts of ruhen with death, unites with the stillness of the distant peaks. The poem's subject will also rest, the same rest described with the same word at the poem's beginning.

Combining structure and content, Goethe divens out a resevoire of astonishing depth from his experience of nature. He introduces Death, humanity's ultimate curse, with the same suddenness that often accompanies it in real life. An unexpected end to everything tangible. His Death strikes an individual in the lonely moment when friends, family, and all past acquaintances fade beyond reach. There is nothing rose-colored about this descending darkness.

Yet there is also nothing to fear. Death is part of the natural process, a universal like gravity or momentum or time. It brings rest from not only life's joys, but also its sufferings. It is the return to where we came from, whatever one believes that place might or might not be. There is reason for sadness in this wandering's end, but there is also reason for hope and comfort.

It is this comfort, so beautifully expressed in an instant of inspiration, that imbues the poem with such power—Goethe's gift to the generations of readers he would never know.

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