Posted by Richard on  UTC 2015-12-03 16:12

Part 2 – Poems 1-12

Let us follow the plot of Müller's 'play' through the first twelve poems. Schubert chose not to set one of these, so in Schubert terms these are the first eleven. We will use Müller's numbering, not Schubert's. You will be pleased to hear that we are not going into comprehensive detail about each poem. Our focus is on the overall structure.

1 Wanderschaft (Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust…). NB: Schubert changed the title to Das Wandern.
The miller's apprentice begs his master and his wife to release him from his apprenticeship and let him look for another mill. Great text, great music.
Notes: Nowhere more than in the popular theme of Wandern (there isn't a good English equivalent word) does the Romantic myth differ from the reality. Young men who had learned a trade had few opportunities to carry out that trade for themselves. They would never be able to earn enough by their labour to buy or rent a mill: their wages were low, since the master provided their board and lodging. Setting off on a Wanderung to find a new employer was an act of economic desperation. It was a journey fraught with risks and uncertainty and usually accompanied by hunger and numerous privations. Economic migration was an important and common aspect of European life, but it was not the pleasant stroll through the countryside that is implied by Müller and the Romantics.

2 Wohin? (Ich hört' ein Bächlein rauschen…).
The miller encounters a stream gushing out of a rocky cliff. This is a lucky for him, because, as he notes in the key lines that close this poem, Es gehn ja Mühlenräder / In jedem klaren Bach: 'Mill wheels turn in every clear stream' – 'clear stream' being a quite precise designation of the fast-flowing water a mill requires. The stream is his guide to his next mill.
Notes: Meeting the stream at its source (fresh and new) and following it down to his goal makes a fine structural element. The miller immediately develops a companionship with the stream, calling it Geselle, meaning 'workmate', 'comrade' or 'brother' (in a metaphorical sense). The pathetic fallacy of the talking stream is made more digestible by attributing the voice to the singing of the Nixen, the water-sprites.

3 Halt! (Eine Mühle seh' ich blicken…).
With the help of the stream the miller finds the object of his search. His first glimpse of the mill gives an impression of cleanliness and tidiness – always good in a German poem.

4 Danksagung an den Bach (War es also gemeint…).
The miller thanks the stream for leading him here, not just to a mill but above all to a miller's daughter.
Notes: Taking up the theme of the miller's economic migration, we note that the presence of a nubile daughter is equally, if not more important than finding a mill. The latter would have been just another employer, the former is a chance of social mobility and independence.

The mill

5 Am Feierabend (Hätt' ich tausend Arme zu rühren!…).
The miller is working hard, straining every muscle, wanting to impress the girl. We are shown the master miller's family and the workers assembled in the evening after the day's work. The master tells the group how satisfied he is with their work that day. His daughter bids everyone goodnight.
Notes: This poem tells us two things: firstly that the young man has not only found work at the mill but he has also been accepted by the master miller; secondly that the young man has a passion for the miller's daughter and needs to impress her. Just on a practical level, if she chooses him his economic future is assured.

6 Der Neugierige (Ich frage keine Blume…).
Instead of playing 'she loves me, she loves me not' with flower petals, the miller asks his friend the stream to tell him whether the girl loves him or not. Unsurprisingly, the stream gives him no answer.

7 Das Mühlenleben (Seh' ich sie am Bache sitzen…).
Ten verses describing life in the mill but principally the social graces of the miller's daughter. The young miller is happy in the master miller's family, with the other workers but particularly with the girl, of course.
Notes: This poem was not set by Schubert. We don't know why: perhaps it was just too long or a distraction from the love story or perhaps just unsuitable for music. The first glimpse in the poem of the girl sitting next to the stream 'knitting fly-nets' might have helped him to this decision. Despite this its omission is a pity, since it does put the life of the young miller and his passion for the girl in some context. It also describes the even-handed attention the girl gives to everyone in the house, with no hint of special attention to the young miller.

8 Ungeduld (Ich schnitt' es gern in alle Rinden ein…).
The young miller has now fallen totally in love with the girl. As with young men ever before and ever since, he wants to leave declarations of his love everywhere. No tree is safe.

9 Morgengruß (Guten Morgen, schöne Müllerin!…).
When the girl puts her blond head out of her window first thing in the morning the young man blasts a hearty 'good morning' at her. She pulls her head back inside. The miller is prepared to watch her from a distance. Her eyes are compared to blue flowers soaked with dew.
Notes: This poem illustrates the girl's chaste reticence. Modern correct-thinkers will find the man's creepy behaviour to be tantamount to stalking. Nevertheless, Müller's verse is well written and Schubert's music impeccable. Let's enjoy that and try to forget about randy young men lurking under bedroom windows.


Forget-me-nots by the stream.

10 Des Müllers Blumen (Am Bach viel kleine Blumen stehn…).
The girl is a blue-eyed blond. Along the stream, the miller's best friend, forget-me-nots bloom and become a symbol for her eyes. The miller thinks of planting some along her window ledge. While she sleeps he imagines them whispering 'forget me not' to her in her dreams. When the girl opens the shutters of her bedroom window in the morning she will see the flowers looking at her with tears and love in their eyes.
Notes: The first association of small blue flowers with the girl's eyes was made in the poem immediately preceding this, 'Morgengruß'. The present poem contains a rather odd construction: at the end of the second verse Müller says to us 'you know, though, what I intend'. However, we have no idea of what he intends at that moment. Only at the end of the next verse, where he tells us about the flowers whispering to the girl in her sleep, does he write 'that's what I intend'. The problem is worse, because these two elements are part of a structure based on 'mein' that runs through the whole verse, a structure that Müller probably thought was clever but just feels mannered to the reader, certainly this reader:
End of v1: Drum sind es meine Blumen. Thus they are my flowers.
End of v2: Ihr wißt ja, was ich meine. You know, though, what I intend.
End of v3: Das ist es, was ich meine. That's what I intend.
End of v4: Die will auf euch meinen. I will weep my [tears] on you.
Perhaps this strange construction was intended to be an example of 'German roughness' on the part of its horn-playing author. Who knows? Müller uses a similar technique of echoing end-lines in a number of the poems in this collection.

In 1924 an English edition of Schubert's Lieder, Schubert's Songs Translated, was brought out by the resoundingly named pair, Fox Strangways (1859-1948) and Steuart Wilson (1889-1966). Calling most of these 'translations' was a bit of a stretch, but the singer Steuart Wilson was there to ensure that the results were at least singable. The 'translation' of 'Des Müllers Blumen' is on the whole questionable: they turn the four verses into three and there is little in their text that can be attributed to Müller. Except, that is, for the second verse, where they produced something that, for six lines at least, exceeded the original.

Some seedlings from the water's edge
I'll plant along the window ledge;
And when the miller's daughter fair
Leans out to breathe the summer air,
Surely she'll then forget me not.
Surely she'll then forget me not.

11 Thränenregen (Wir saßen so traulich beisammen…).
The miller and the girl are sitting ('intimately together') under the alder trees in the evening watching the stream flow past. The moon and stars had come out and were reflected in the stream. The young man has eyes only for her reflection in the water. She nodded to the stream and the blue flowers on the edge nodded back. The entire sky seemed to be reflected in the surface, as though to pull him in. The stream seemed to be flowing over the clouds and the stars. Her eyes turned to him and she said: 'It's starting to rain. Goodbye, I'm going home'.
Notes: This poem presents us with a problem that even the great Rolf Vollmann, a noted German literary critic and the editor of the Reclam edition of Die schöne Müllerin found puzzling.[1] After all the metaphors, the heavens reflected in the water (that frequent conceit of Romantics), the blue eyes, the whole thing concludes with a few spots of rain, upon which the girl says, in the most matter of fact way possible 'Goodbye, I'm going home'.
If, however, we stick to our analytical principle and read the text as it is and not merely project our assumptions into it, the solution to this problem becomes more apparent. This abruptness only makes sense if we view the girl as being completely indifferent to the young miller. His passionate frenzy is entirely unrequited. It is fantasy. We have never been shown any occasion on which the girl has given him any encouragement at all.
We must also consider the fact that the miller never looks directly at the girl in this poem: he gazes deeply not into her eyes but into their reflection in the stream. Those readers of a philosophical bent are invited to consider the situation we find here, a situation in which the stream, the miller's constant friend, has become the modality of his perception. Neoplatonists will be excited by the idea of this watery mediator of reality, its changeable moon, clouds, stars and eyes. Once you start listening to water-sprites who knows where it will end? There are depths to this poem that are not in the least rustic.
We have a cool blond and a hot blond with a hyperactive imagination. We can say now that this will not end well – and, as we shall see soon, it doesn't.

12 Mein! (Bächlein, laß dein Rauschen sein!…).
The young miller is jubilant: the girl is 'mine'!
Notes: We would like to see some evidence for this assertion. From the reader's position there is none. In the previous verse the young man suffered a serious case of indifference from the girl. Now he is shouting to the world around him that the girl is his, which, on the basis of everything we have read so far cannot be the case. The girl is careful not to give his passion any encouragement: we have her even-handed treatment of everyone in 'Das Mühlenleben', her modesty in 'Morgengruß', her detachment in 'Thränenregen'. On what basis can she now be his? This poem confirms that the young miller is completely deluded in his passion. It forms the end stop to the first part of the cycle.

Conclusion, Chapter 2: poems 1-12

Müller has developed a narrative progression through twelve poems. He has taken us from the young man's first mill and sent him off on his travels. He follows a stream from its rocky source down to a clearing with a mill. There he finds acceptance and the miller's daughter. His love for the girl grows from first sight until he is besotted with her and deludedly believes she is his. In the development of this delusion the girl apparently plays no part: she does not in anyway encourage the miller in his desires, on the contrary, her behaviour is chaste and proper. There is not the slightest hint that the girl reciprocates his feelings.

As mentioned in the notes to 7, 'Das Mühlenleben', Schubert did not set the poem to music. Perhaps its ten four-line verses made it too long, or its muddled sequence of themes – the girl, the noisy workings of the mill, the girl again, the noisy mill again – seemed musically unpromising to Schubert. But because of this omission we lose the longest description we have of the girl and the impression she has made on the young man.

In my opinion the narrative of the poem cycle suffers: without this poem the girl – such an important character, the object of desire, the cycle is named after her, after all – appears only briefly in the first half of the poem: the merest hint in 4, 'Danksagung an den Bach'; a couple of inconsequential lines in 5, 'Am Feierabend'; a quick dive back into the house in 9, 'Morgengruß'; a puzzlingly abrupt 'goodnight' in 11, 'Thränenregen'. In the first part of the cycle, therefore, losing 7, 'Das Mühlenleben' has turned the girl into a mere cipher for the person just listening to Schubert's version.

Despite this deficiency and the small problems mentioned in the analysis of the individual poems, there can be no doubt that the first part of the cycle, poems 1-12, is a triumph. Müller's text, although not the greatest German poetry ever written, maintains a good standard over twelve poems and provided Schubert's genius with the stepping stone needed to create this ground-breaking development of the song-cycle. Schubert frees the work from Müller's affectations and his impeccable and inventive music lifts the work into immortality.


  1. ^ Wilhelm Müller, Franz Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin, Die Winterreise, Nachwort: Rolf Vollmann, Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart, 2001. ISBN 978-3-15-018121-8, p. 67f.

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