5: The poem
Christian Schubart: The Trout
Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-02-07 16:54.
Those who have managed to stay awake during our marathon tour through the biography of an almost forgotten eighteenth-century figure may just have enough energy left to agree that the poem Die Forelle seems now to be a allegory of its author's capture and imprisonment at the hands of Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg.
The happy trout flashing freely through the crystalline water is Schubart the journalist; the fisherman (Carl Eugen, Scholl and team) muddy the waters and the hapless Schubart-trout takes the bait of a meeting with a renowned academic and ends up 'twisting on the line'.
Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885), The Angler (detail), c. 1860. New Masters Gallery, Dresden.
The indomitable readers of this blog will not be surprised by the next announcement: there is more to it than that.
Let's look at the text of the poem in our usual obsessive-compulsive fashion and see what we turn up. 
Given the circumstances of its composition, the text of the poem has been 'improved' in minor ways by various hands in various unauthorized copies. The text we are using is that of Christian Friedrich Schubarts sämmtliche Gedichte, von ihm selbst herausgegeben. 2 Bde. Stuttgart, 1785/86, vol. 2. p. 139f. The fourth verse has a special status in the text and we will consider that verse separately from the first three. The clunky style of the English translation will be painfully familiar to visitors to this blog.
Verses 1-3, the capture allegory
|In einem Bächlein helle,||In a clear stream,|
|Da schoß in froher Eil||there shot in happy haste|
|Die launische1 Forelle||the cheerful trout|
|Vorüber wie ein Pfeil.||past like an arrow.|
|Ich stand an dem Gestade2,||I stood on the bank,|
|Und sah' in süßer Ruh||and watched in sweet calm|
|Des muntern Fisches3 Bade||the bath of the happy fish|
|Im klaren Bächlein zu.||in the clear stream.|
In einem Bächlein helle,
Da schoß in froher Eil
Die launische Forelle
Vorüber wie ein Pfeil.
Ich stand an dem Gestade,
Und sah' in süßer Ruh
Des muntern Fisches Bade
Im klaren Bächlein zu.
|Ein Fischer mit der Ruthe1||An angler with the rod|
|Wohl an dem Ufer stand,||was indeed standing on the bank|
|Und sah's mit kaltem Blute,||and looking cold-bloodedly|
|Wie sich das Fischlein wand.||at the way the fish turned.|
|So lang dem Wasser Helle,||As long as the clear water,|
|So dacht' ich, nicht gebricht,||I thought, was not disturbed,|
|So fängt er die Forelle||he will never catch the trout|
|Mit seiner Angel nicht.||with his fishing-rod.|
Ein Fischer mit der Ruthe
Wohl an dem Ufer stand,
Und sah's mit kaltem Blute,
Wie sich das Fischlein wand.
So lang dem Wasser Helle,
So dacht' ich, nicht gebricht,
So fängt er die Forelle
Mit seiner Angel nicht.
|Doch plözlich1 war dem Diebe||However, suddenly the thief|
|Die Zeit zu lang. Er macht||was tired of waiting. He made|
|Das Bächlein tückisch2 trübe3,||the stream cunningly muddy,|
|Und eh' ich es gedacht;–||and sooner than I thought;–|
|So zuckte seine Ruthe,||his rod jerked,|
|Das Fischlein zappelt4 dran,||the little fish was twisting on it,|
|Und ich mit regem Blute5||and I with hot blood|
|Sah' die Betrogne6 an.||looked at the victim of the trick.|
Doch plözlich war dem Diebe
Die Zeit zu lang. Er macht
Das Bächlein tückisch trübe,
Und eh' ich es gedacht;–
So zuckte seine Ruthe,
Das Fischlein zappelt dran,
Und ich mit regem Blute
Sah' die Betrogne an.
Verse 4, the camouflage
|Die ihr am goldnen Quelle||Those of you who at the golden fount|
|Der sichern Jugend weilt,||of safe youth linger,|
|Denkt doch an die Forelle;||remember the trout;|
|Seht ihr Gefahr, so eilt!||when you see danger, hurry!|
|Meist fehlt ihr nur aus Mangel||Usually you lack|
|Der Klugheit. Mädchen, seht||wisdom. Girls, watch|
|Verführer mit der Angel!–||seducers with the fishing-rod!–|
|Sonst blutet ihr zu spät.||otherwise you will bleed too late.|
It takes no great lyrical expertise to notice just how different the fourth verse is from its predecessors. Verse 1-3 told a tale with concrete imagery and a charming natural context. The fourth verse just contains vague generalities and abstractions. It is really not worth analysis.
Schubart was writing in prison and was terrified that, should the authorities take exception to his work, his time on Hohenasperg would be extended. We cannot really speak of a 'sentence', since there was no legal definition of the extent of his punishment. His torture was cruelly open ended: he might be freed that day, or tomorrow or in ten years' time or maybe never. Because his openly anti-aristocratic poem Prinzengruft, the 'Crypt of Princes' – much less oblique and allegorical than Die Forelle – had been published by 'friends' whilst he was in prison, when it came to the notice of the authorities it was made clear to him that he could forget about an early release, the poem being a sign that he had not yet fully repented of his troublesome ways.
When it was later published, Schubart added some oleaginous lines to the end of Prinzengruft to make it clear that the poem was not condemning aristocrats in any way at all.
In Die Forelle, we find that he did something similar: he added a worthy sexual moral as a fourth verse so that we can now pretend that the allegory in those verses was not about Schubart, the free and happy trout, being lured to his doom in Blaubeuren. It is really just an improving allegory for young girls in danger of losing their virginity. Coming from the womanising Schubart this moral advice may be taken as a fine jest.
Of course, anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear immediately recognizes the fourth verse as alien to the rest of the poem. The writing is risibly bad, the grammar and syntax execrable. Can there be any doubt that Schubart, the man who was capable of the sublimities of the first three verses, actually tried to write this verse as badly as possible so that his real meaning would not be misunderstood?
The observation that verse four of Die Forelle is terrible has led most commentators to assume that Franz Schubert took one look at verse four and dumped it without further ado. Schubert was a sensitive reader of verse – what else might we expect from the Liederfürst, 'The Prince of Song'? – and was quite prepared to take his red pencil to passages that could be improved.
It's a nice story. Unfortunately it is probably not true (we ruin a lot of good stories on this blog).
In 1993 Dr Lucia Porhansl  discovered a Viennese edition of Schubart's poems, Gedichte von Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, which appeared as part 67 and 68 of the series Deutscher Parnaß, 'German Parnassus'. The two volumes were based on the poems from the Frankfurt Edition of 1803. Ludwig Schubart, the son of the poet, who expended much filial piety on preserving his father's work, selected the contents and wrote an introduction.
Porhansl was able to show that the texts of the Schubart poems that Franz Schubert set to music corresponded with the texts in An mein Klavier D 342, Grablied auf einen Soldaten D 454, An den Tod D 518 and – our ears prick up – Die Forelle D 550. The texts of these printed poems correspond very closely with the lyrics to Franz Schubert's songs.
Of particular interest for us, we note that in this Viennese edition Die Forelle does not have the fourth verse. This verse was originally added in Christian Schubart's handwriting in an early version of the poem. Ludwig Schubart, his father dead (1791) and Carl Eugen dead (1793), seems to have felt no further need to keep the fourth verse – this camouflage blot on the poem – any longer. We can only say: well done, that man!
Conclusion: Schubert did not cut the fourth verse out of the poem: he never even saw it.
How much did Schubert know of Schubart?
From this one unanswerable question flow so many others. Franz Schubert would almost certainly know of Christian Schubart's work on musical theory Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (Ideas for an Aesthetic of Music). Did Schubert know of Schubart's political journalism? Of his entombment in Hohenasperg for ten years? Of Schubart's own setting of Die Forelle? Most intriguingly: did Schubert, who also lived in repressive times, view Schubart's ordeal with political sympathy?
The short answer to each of these questions is: 'probably not'. For fully reasoned answers I have no space or time. In brief, though, Schubert was more than a generation removed from Schubart. Much of great political importance had happened in that time: the French Revolution, the Jacobin Conspiracy in Vienna, the turmoil and slaughter of the Napoleonic decades, the settlement of the Congress of Vienna. For Schubert, the past was indeed a different country and its population was long gone.
In our age of digital multimedia almost all our recent history is contemporaneously present. Today's generation has instant access to the documents and media of up to about a century ago. We have cheap books and almost free access to information via the internet. It was not like that in Schubert's time: the past disappeared rapidly, events rushed over a waterfall and once over that, they were almost inaccessible. Voltaire, for example, spent a lot of time writing and publishing the history of recent centuries. I believe he did this not just because he was an insatiable scribbler – which he certainly was – but because this information had to be gathered together in one place so that subsequent generations might remember their past and not be condemned to repeat it, to paraphrase George Santayana.
Schubert was an overworked and poverty-stricken teenager trying to make his musical mark. Is it reasonable to imagine that he managed to find a copy of Schubarts Leben und Gesinnung and so familiarised himself with Schubart's ordeal? The reasonable answer is no. We can say with some confidence that, by the time Schubert in his insatiable search for poems stumbled across Schubart's work, their author was almost as obscure as he is today.
That said, Schubert was not apolitical and moved in a circle of friends, some of whom were politically extremely active. Only a couple of years after the composition of Die Forelle his great friend Johann Chrysostomus Senn was imprisoned and maltreated for a year before being exiled into penury for the rest of his life. At the time of Senn's arrest Schubert nearly got himself arrested, so vocal were his protests. Other friends had connections with political troublemakers, a topic which exceeds our boundaries in this piece.
The young Schubert was busy doing what he did best, composing and performing music, so he remained an observer when it came to stirring up trouble. There is some evidence of his participation in 'free thinking' circles, but because of the repressive atmosphere of the time – spies and narks were everywhere, as the case of Senn showed – it was best not to write anything down and to be circumspect in what you said in public. The writings of his friends were often cryptic and hermetic; they were not printed but circulated in handwritten copies. What little has come down to us requires much exegesis.
So, in sum, some time in late 1816(?) Franz Schubert stumbled across an edition of Christian Schubart's poems. Four of them he set to music, guaranteeing that the Swabian hothead would not fall completely out of the mind of man. Beyond that, one of those four and its later variations made Schubart immortal: Die Forelle.