These are the words of Heinrich Heine's poem often refered to as 'The Lorelei':

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Im Abendsonnenschein.

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr goldnes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.

Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme,
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Gewaltige Melodei.

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh'.

Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lorelei getan.

During the Nazi period in Germany, when Heine's poems and writings were officially banned and his books were publically burned, this poem (which was set to music by Franz Liszt), however, continued to be published but instead of attributing it to its rightful poet it was labled "Volkslied" (folk song).

English translation of Heinrich Heine's The Lorelei:


The Lorelei

I do not know what it means,
That I am so sadly inclined;
A fairy tale of old, it seems,
preoccupies my mind.

The air is cool and darkening,
And peacefully flows the Rhine,
The mountain top is sparkling,
The twilight sunbeams shine.

The fairest maid is reclining,
In wondrous beauty up there;
Her golden jewels are shining,
She combs her golden hair.

She combs it with a golden comb,
And therewith sings a song;
It casts a spell on the gloaming,
Melodious and strong.

The boatman in his little boat
is seized by wild delights;
He looks not upon the rocks,
looks only up to wondrous heights.

Both vessel and man before long
By the waves to their ends were flung;
And none of this if not for the song
The Lorelei had sung.


Attempts at translation are inevitably untrue to the poem. Based on the fable wherein sailors are pitched to their deaths by the distraction of the beautiful woman overhead, this poem is frequently understood as a wry response to Goethe's Faust. The final line of Faust, and perhaps the most famous in the history of German literature, is usually remembered in English as: "The eternal feminine draws us onward/upward." Goethe meant this in the traditional romantic sense: the mystery of woman is compelling, adds something like motivation to man's being (or whatever, it's not a line I can unpack with any confidence). Anyway, Heine is responding wittily to Goethe by drawing a picture of him staring up into the shining mountain top in the last sunbeams of twilight, gaping slack-jawed at the sexy lady, his boat straying to its doom.

Anacreon mentions that not even the Nazis could look away from the poetry of Heine, so seductive it was. But something else springs to mind when I hear Heine's name in this context: outside of Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, the square known as Babelplatz. Here it was that the Nazis held their first official book-burning, and here it is that Israeli artist Micha Ullman's memorial is on display today. A window in the floor of the square opens up to a well-lit, pale white room, the walls of which are lined with empty bookshelves. The inscription quotes Heine. It reads: "Where books are burned, so one day will people be burned as well."

Heine died in 1856.

Translation note: Though the translation above sucks, I find it better than any I'm able to find on the Internet. If you have any advice on potential improvements, I'd be happy to hear it.

The spirit of the Heinrich Heine poem Lorelei was captured marvelously by the Pogues on their 1989 album Peace and Love. I had no idea what this song was about until I went on a Pogues binge (which I do about once a year) and just had to perform some exegesis on some of their songs. Lorelei has great long strumming electric guitar riffs that add a kind of wonderful romantic melody to it.

Although the lyrics are far from a literal translation of the Heinrich Heine poem, it adheres thematically. There’s no specific mention the siren (girl) with a comb in her hand, although another Pogues song, Turkish Song of the Damned from their 1988 album If I Should Fall From Grace With God does reference the lady with the comb at the scene of a shipwreck.

Did you keep a watch for the dead man's wind
Did you see the woman with the comb in her hand
Wailing away on the wall on the strand
As you danced to the Turkish song of the damned

You remember when the ship went down
You left me on the deck
The captain's corpse jumped up
And threw his arms around my neck
For all these years I've had him on my back
This debt cannot be paid with all your jack

The Power of Christ compels you to drop what you're doing and listen to it as soon as possible.

Here's the lyrics:

You told me tales of love and glory
Same old sad songs, same old story
The sirens sing no lullaby
And no-one knows but Lorelei
By castles out of fairytales
Timbers shivered where once there sailed
The lovesick men who caught her eye
And no-one knew but Lorelei
River, river have mercy
Take me down to the sea
For if I perish on these rocks
My love no more I'll see
I've thought of you in far-off places
I've puzzled over lipstick traces
So help me God, I will not cry
And then I think of Lorelei
I travel far and wander wide
No photograph of you beside me
Ol' man River's not so shy
And he remembers Lorelei
River, river have mercy
Take me down to the sea
For if I perish on these rocks
My love no more I'll see
If I should float upon this stream
And see you in my madman's dream
I'd sink into your troubled eyes
And none would know 'cept Lorelei
River, river have mercy
Take me down to the sea
For if I perish on these rocks
My love no more I'll see
But if my ship, which sails tomorrow
Should crash against these rocks,
My sorrows I will drown before I die
It's you I'll see, not Lorelei

According to the legend, Loreley (this is the preferred spelling in German) sat on top of the Loreley Rock (Loreleyfelsen, or just Loreley), an eye-catching 133m (400 feet) high slate rock above the city of St. Goarshausen, situated in a rather sharp bend of the Rhine river. The bronze statue of Loreley is not on the top of the Loreley Rock but on the mole of the harbor of St. Goarshausen.

The etymology of the name "Loreley" or "Lorelei" is disputed. While lei is an obsolete word for "slate rock", lore is said to either be derived from Middle High German lûre "look-out" (Lauer in modern German) or related to "Laura", a name for Holda, the Germanic goddess of winter (IMHO, the first explanation makes more sense).

The view from the top of the Loreley Rock is splendid but if you don't have the time for the trip you can also see the rock from below, from the window of one of the many trains that run past it on the opposite bank of the river, such as the Intercity between Koblenz and Mainz (it comes between two tunnels; if you want to take a picture you have to be prepared).

There is an open-air theater on the rock plateau above St. Goarshausen, where opera performances and rock concerts are held during the summer months.

She is the Goddess of the Rocks.
I hear her sweet song calling to me.
I've tried to head back out
to the safety of the open sea,
yet her voice trickles through my waking dreams
and ensnares my heart.

My crew has told me she is a mirage,
that she is not really there
an illusion.
And still I can't turn away.
They have abandoned ship
and left me to this doomed voyage.

The wind whips my face
as I lean into the salty spray.
The shore looms closer
the jagged rocks guarding the sandy beach beyond.
I pass the water logged wreckage of ships
who came before me and were lost.
Seeking that which is unattainable.

I hear her song
whispering over water
ever so slightly off key.
She must be there.
She cannot be an illusion
for it is perfection that is a fantasy.
I must be strong
and not stray from my course.

Her words are becoming clearer
as I near certain destruction.
She sings of loneliness
and of heart-break
of sweet and wistful longing.
So many ships have come before
only to crash upon her rocks.

She is in my sight now
my breath catches
as I gaze into her dark flashing eyes.
Tears glisten on her cheeks
and I understand her fear.
So many times she has felt the crushing despair of hope
as she watches ship after ship approach only to be left alone.

I cannot give up
I cannot leave her here alone.
I long to press my lips to hers
and hold her in my arms.
To swim back to that sandy beach
and dance under the moon.
She is my heart
I will succeed

The Lorelei is a small Italian restaurant in Soho, London.

Trips to the Lorelei started when we were sixteen. Unable to enter pubs to drink, The Lorelei initially presented a warm location in which we could drink bottles of wine and enjoy the company of each other. From then, the experience grew into something far more encompassing.

The Lorelei is a remnant of 60s Soho. At the door are bags of flour piled on top of each other, inside, old creaky furniture, scratched glass plates and a large mural of a mermaid - the Lorelei herself - across one of the walls. The portions are not large, but the food is cheap and delicious. It seats under twenty and doesn't pay attention to reservations, which meant our trips were limited to around six people at most times. Three of us remained the core, with a number of other regulars. It glows with acceptance and amiability - something that isn't easily found for 16-year-olds getting drunk.

Lorelei trips became a figurehead of teenage life, often happening once or twice a week and never disappointing.

The meal is as you would expect, good food, plenty of wine and loud raucous conversation. By closing time we might have even provoked the other patrons into looking and sniggering, but no one seemed to mind.

Things to do after the meal, too, became an institution. Drinking on the south bank, watching the Thames. Singing and dancing Pogue Mahone all the way down the Northern Line to Tooting Broadway, sitting in my kitchen till 4am talking about philosophy and drinking cheap port bought down the road from the off license. And later once pubs opened their doors to us - Pints of London Pride in the Dog and Duck, Smoking cigarillos in the garden of Garlic and Shots, and squeezing into a table at the Coach and Horses. Memories and stories over the four years merge into one, and become impossible to recall. Like an old retold folk story, thoughts of The Lorelei were pushed into the realm of myth and legend.

We began to try and construct the ultimate Lorelei trip, which, after several sessions of discussion, was generally agreed upon:

Needless to say, we managed it. And it was good.

At the age of 20, and away at university, Lorelei has become the definition of returning home.

The Lorelei is now one of the last remaining historic restaurants in Soho. The couple who run it are heading fast toward retirement. The large Nandos around the corner is a sharp reminder of the day when we will turn up, bottles of wine in hand, and the doors will be shut and the lights off. And I guess at that point it's time to hit Soho square with a box of cigars and a bottle of champagne.

Still I feel privileged, in the sixty years or so this restaurant has been open, we are perhaps the last generation, group of friends, to live our lives through it. It isn't just a shabby little restaurant in Soho, or a pretentious statement against redevelopment and chain restaurants in London. The Lorelei is drinking wine, eating good food, talking with your friends, and feeling like you belong. The Lorelei is happiness.

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