Posted by Richard on  UTC 2020-10-21 06:42

XIII Euch, o Grazien, legt die wenigen Blätter ein Dichter [11]

Euch, o Grazien, legt die wenigen Blätter ein Dichter


Auf den reinen Altar, Knospen der Rose dazu,


Und er tut es getrost. Der Künstler freuet sich seiner


Werkstatt, wenn sie um ihn immer ein Pantheon scheint.


Jupiter senket die göttliche Stirn, und Juno erhebt sie;


Phöbus schreitet hervor, schüttelt das lockige Haupt;


Trocken schaut Minerva herab und Hermes, der leichte,


Wendet zur Seite den Blick, schalkisch und zärtlich zugleich.


Aber nach Bacchus, dem weichen, dem träumenden, hebet Cythere


Blicke der süßen Begier, selbst in dem Marmor noch feucht.


Seiner Umarmung gedenket sie gern und scheinet zu fragen:


Sollte der herrliche Sohn uns an der Seite nicht stehn?


To you, O Graces, the poet lays a few sheets on the pure altar, together with buds of the rose,

And does it hopefully. The artist is happy in his workplace, when you appear around him as a pantheon.

Jupiter lowers the divine forehead and Juno raises it; Phoebus strides forward and shakes his curly hair;

Minerva looks down drily and Hermes, the light one, glances to the side, at the same time mischievously and tenderly.

But towards Bacchus, the gentle one, the dreamer, Venus sends looks of sweet desire, moist even in the marble.

She thinks of his embrace with pleasure and seems to question: should the impressive son not be standing at our side?


Grazien: The three Graces (Gratiae in Roman mythology) or Charites (Χάριτες in Greek mythology). They were usually associated with Apollo and the Muses, the various artistic patrons. They were the children of Venus and Bacchus – which fact may or may not tell us something about creative artists – and their 'impressive' son was Priapus, the minor god whose presence pervades the Römische Elegien.

Blätter: 'leaves', 'pages' or 'sheets' in the sense of 'paper'; 'leaves' in the sense of 'plant'. The principal meaning here is the paper product. Since leaves and pages are associated with books, 'sheets' is the most accurate translation. Poet's often do strange things, meaning that plant leaves are also possible – but unlikely.

Knospen der Rose: the 'buds of the rose', the rose being a flower particularly associated from the earliest times with Aphrodite/Venus.

den reinen Altar: 'the pure altar'. The ceremonies to Aphrodite/Venus are not generally associated with the sacrifice of animals (apart from doves), hence the altar is 'pure'.

Der Künstler freuet sich seiner Werkstatt: During his stay in Rome G. took a room in an apartment rented by the German painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829). The situation is not quite as simple as that, since G. occupied a small room in Tischbein's apartment during his initial stay in Rome (11.1786-02.1787). When he returned from his tour of southern Italy he returned to that room for another month (06.06-02.07.1787). By that time, Tischbein decided to relocate to Naples, so G. took over his large room and remained there until he finally left Rome on 24.04.1788.

The title Künstler, 'artist', could be applied to both Tischbein and G. Both of them acquired many sculptures and plaster casts, which were set out in Goethe's well-lit room in the apartment, this becoming the Werkstatt, the 'workplace' or here 'studio'. This is where the cast of the monumental head of Juno Ludovisi, which we discussed in the context of Elegy III was located.

ein Pantheon: a temple to all the gods. G. has taken the concept of the Pantheon in Rome and the collection of sculptures and casts in his own room and merged them to make a mythologised pantheon of the gods of the inner mythology. The idea of this personal pantheon is reinforced by G.'s use of ein Pantheon, 'a pantheon'.

Jupiter…Juno: For his 'pantheon' G. had acquired a cast of a colossal head of Jupiter, which went with the aforementioned cast of the Juno Ludovisi.

Phöbus: Phoebus ('bright') was the principal epithet of Apollo, which related to his function as the god of light.

Minerva: the Roman goddess of wisdom, equated with the Greek goddess Athena. Together with Jupiter and Juno, she makes up the 'Capitoline Triad' of the gods who were worshipped in a large temple on the Capitoline Hill (a place of great significance for G., see Elegy IX). As the goddess of wisdom, we are not surprised to find her gaze described as trocken, 'dry'.

Hermes: the messenger god, a mediator between the gods and mortals. He is a tricky deity, the protector of travellers and thieves, his gaze is thus sidelong, schalkisch und zärtlich zugleich, 'mischievous and tender at the same time'.

Bacchus: the Roman version of the Greek Dionysus, the god of wine making and drinking, fertility and religious ecstasy. Here he is styled 'the gentle one, the dreamer'. The term weichen appears to be an allusion to Johann Joachim Winckelmann's Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums. Winckelmann detects ein Ausdruck der Weichlichkeit, 'an impression of softness', or a wollüstige Weichlichkeit, 'sensual softness' in the representations of the god and his followers.

Cythere: an alternative name for Aphrodite/Venus, the goddess of love and procreation.

in dem Marmor noch feucht: some scholarly ink has been spilled on the topic of the moist eyes of the goddess Venus, but the idea that the goddesses eyes, welling up moistly with passionate emotions, can be reproduced in marble in a way that captures the moistness of the originals is very attractive. It also contrasts with the 'dry look' G. ascribes to the goddess of wisdom.

G. is again alluding to Winckelmann's Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, where he compares the open-eyed expression of the Juno Ludovisi with representations the eyes of Venus:

But of the two goddesses Venus has a different facial expression, which is caused by the slightly raised lower eyelid, through which desire and yearning is represented in the gently opened eyes, which the Greeks called τὸ ὑγρὸν, 'to hygron', 'moist' …

Venus aber hat einen von beyden Göttinnen derschiedenen Blick, welchen sonderlich das untere in etwas erhobene Augenlied verursachet, wodurch das Liebäugelnde und das Schmachtende in den sanft geöffneten Augen gebildet wird, welches die Griechen τὸ ὑγρὸν nennen
Winckelmann, Johann Joachim: Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Band 1, p.166.

Seiner Umarmung gedenket sie gern: 'she remembers fondly his embrace', the 'his' here being Bacchus.

der herrliche Sohn: 'the impressive son' is one of the offspring of the couplings of Bacchus and Venus, the fertility god Priapus, a key figure in parts of the Römische Elegien. In modern, everyday German, the adjective 'herrlich' has been debased to become another wishy-washy synonym for schön, 'beautiful/wonderful' (ein herrlicher Tag). Careful readers will realise that Goethe is using the word accurately in its older, etymological sense of hehr 'worthy of respect', 'impressive', 'awesome'. Now, what would be 'worthy of respect' or 'awesome' about Priapus, should he stand at the side of his parents?

an der Seite nicht stehn: 'standing on our side' The question posed by Venus to Bacchus is a good joke of G.'s, considering that the key, indispensable attribute of Priapus is his permanently standing organ. G. slily took care not to mention the god by name, leaving Venus' question hanging unanswered. Thus this elegy remained in the collection when the two others which named him explicitly were suppressed and remained unpublished for more than a century thereafter.

The technical reason that Priapus is not present in this group portrait of the pantheon of gods is that he occupied a rank below the great gods of Olympus: he was not allowed to live there, nor could he accept blood sacrifices. He was a god of place with strictly circumscribed powers. See our discussion of der letzte der Götter in Elegy XXIV.


We could call this elegy the Venus-Bacchus elegy or the pantheon elegy. It opens with an appeal to the Graces, one set of children of Bacchus and Venus, and closes with Priapus, their rough-hewn brother. The other gods of the pantheon appear statuesquely, in their characteristic forms and poses. In contrast, Bacchus and Venus play a much more active role in the scene: Venus not only sends Bacchus looks of desire, she is the only divinity in this pantheon who is presented as thinking, feeling and questioning.

As we noted, the scene of the elegy seems to have come from a memory of Goethe's room in Tischbein's apartment in Rome, which had filled up with many statues and plaster casts. In a passage from his Italienische Reise, Goethe recalls how this pantheon came into existence – a passage which we reproduce with the usual health warning that this text was written around thirty years after the fact:

[The acquisition of the] new room [from Tischbein on 02.07.1787] gave us an opportunity to arrange a number of plaster casts, which we had collected around us bit by bit, in a friendly order and in a good light. One enjoyed only now an exceptionally worthy collection. When one is continually in the presence of the sculptures of the ancients, as is the case in Rome, one feels in the company in the presence of nature before an infinity, unfathomable.


When one opened one's eyes in the morning, one felt oneself moved by the greatest excellence; all our thinking and reasoning is then accompanied by such forms and it will thus be impossible to fall back into barbarism.

Diese neue Wohnung gab nun Gelegenheit, eine Anzahl von Gipsabgüssen, die sich nach und nach um uns gesammelt hatten, in freundlicher Ordnung und gutem Lichte aufzustellen, und man genoß jetzt erst eines höchst würdigen Besitzes. Wenn man, wie in Rom der Fall ist, sich immerfort in Gegenwart plastischer Kunstwerke der Alten befindet, so fühlt man sich wie in Gegenwart der Natur vor einem Unendlichen, Unerforschlichen.

Wenn man des Morgens die Augen aufschlägt, fühlt man sich von dem Vortrefflichsten gerührt; alles unser Denken und Sinnen ist von solchen Gestalten begleitet, und es wird dadurch unmöglich, in Barbarei zurückzufallen.
Italienische Reise II.

In our commentaries to Elegy II and Elegy VII we took up the theme of the cultural shock that accompanied Goethe's Italian journey in general and his two stays in Rome in particular. In the present elegy we find our Universal Genius surrounded by and confronted with the artefacts of a great civilisation.

This immersion and confrontation was not only necessary for him to 'understand the marble' (Elegy VII) but to understand, however fragmentarily, classical civilisation. Marble is a synecdoche for the ruins of Rome, which are in turn a synecdoche of that civilisation itself. As a result of that immersion, like every good tourist, every bedächtiger Mann, every thinking person, he was able to understand his own times better – he saw them far more clearly after his time among the ruins of the Roman Empire.

Klopstock et al. – well, what can we say? Their classical world would only ever smell of the lamp, of decades of swotting. Schiller sank into a bog of allusions to classical authors, demonstrating reading and second-hand learning but no understanding; Hölderlin – still to emerge on the poetic scene – would rave in complex Greek metres about a fantasy Greece he never saw that somehow gave meaning to his crabbed, Pietist life. Wilhelm Müller – 'Greek Müller' – read the dispatches in the newspapers and became upset about the fate of a Greece he had never seen.

In contrast to them and so many other writers of the time, Goethe slept among a civilisation's artefacts and a few of its female descendants for nearly two years. To what purpose? Let him tell us:

The impression of the sublime, the beautiful, as beneficial as it may otherwise be, discomforts us, we want to express our feelings, our conceptions in words: but in order to do that we must first perceive, discern, comprehend; we begin to sound out, to differentiate, to order and this, too, we find, if not unmöglich, then extremely difficult and so we return finally to an observing and enjoying admiration.

Der Eindruck des Erhabenen, des Schönen, so wohltätig er auch sein mag, beunruhigt uns, wir wünschen unsre Gefühle, unsre Anschauung in Worte zu fassen: dazu müßten wir aber erst erkennen, einsehen, begreifen; wir fangen an zu sondern, zu unterscheiden, zu ordnen, und auch dieses finden wir, wo nicht unmöglich, doch höchst schwierig, und so kehren wir endlich zu einer schauenden und genießenden Bewunderung zurück.
Italienische Reise II.

The feeling of discomfort at an experience which transcends everyday reality is an emotion which scholars of phenomenological sociology and philosophy have investigated in some detail – that feeling of being out of time and out of place. The great artists were often expatriates for some length of time, looking back at their countries of origin from a safe distance.

Cultural questioning and distancing always begins with discomfort. Whereas the interest of the simple, unquestioning observer is piqued or merely entertained, that of the bedächtiger Mann feels only unease at the challenge to the massive reality of the everyday. Here is what Goethe gained and his stay-at-home, book-reading contemporaries missed:

But above all this is the most decisive effect of all works of art, that they confront us with the conditions of their time and those of the individuals who created them. Surrounded by antique statues, one seems to be in a moving natural life, one becomes aware of the diversity of the forms of man and led back to humans in their purest condition, through which the observer also becomes alive and purely human.

Überhaupt aber ist dies die entschiedenste Wirkung aller Kunstwerke, daß sie uns in den Zustand der Zeit und der Individuen versetzen, die sie hervorbrachten. Umgeben von antiken Statuen, empfindet man sich in einem bewegten Naturleben, man wird die Mannigfaltigkeit der Menschengestaltung gewahr und durchaus auf den Menschen in seinem reinsten Zustande zurückgeführt, wodurch denn der Beschauer selbst lebendig und rein menschlich wird.
Italienische Reise II.

The 'moving natural life', of course, is exactly cognate with the animated pantheon in whose presence he would wake up every morning and which he describes here. He was a long way from grey Weimar.

XIV Hörest du, Liebchen, das muntre Geschrei den Flaminischen Weg her [12]

Hörest du, Liebchen, das muntre Geschrei den Flaminischen Weg her?


Schnitter sind es; sie ziehn wieder nach Hause zurück,


Weit hinweg. Sie haben des Römers Ernte vollendet,


Der für Ceres den Kranz selber zu flechten verschmäht.


Keine Feste sind mehr der großen Göttin gewidmet,


Die, statt Eicheln, zur Kost goldenen Weizen verlieh.


Laß uns beide das Fest im stillen freudig begehen!


Sind zwei Liebende doch sich ein versammeltes Volk.


Hast du wohl je gehört von jener mystischen Feier,


Die von Eleusis hieher frühe dem Sieger gefolgt?


Griechen stifteten sie, und immer riefen nur Griechen,


Selbst in den Mauern Roms: „Kommt zur geheiligten Nacht!”


Fern entwich der Profane; da bebte der wartende Neuling,


Den ein weißes Gewand, Zeichen der Reinheit, umgab.


Wunderlich irrte darauf der Eingeführte durch Kreise


Seltner Gestalten; im Traum schien er zu wallen: denn hier


Wanden sich Schlangen am Boden umher, verschlossene Kästchen,


Reich mit Ähren umkränzt, trugen hier Mädchen vorbei,


Vielbedeutend gebärdeten sich die Priester und summten;


Ungeduldig und bang harrte der Lehrling auf Licht.


Erst nach mancherlei Proben und Prüfungen ward ihm enthüllet,


Was der geheiligte Kreis seltsam in Bildern verbarg.


Und was war das Geheimnis? als daß Demeter, die große,


Sich gefällig einmal auch einem Helden bequemt,


Als sie Jasion einst, dem rüstigen König der Kreter,


Ihres unsterblichen Leibs holdes Verborgne gegönnt.


Das war Kreta beglückt! das Hochzeitsbette der Göttin


Schwoll von Ähren, und reich drückte den Acker die Saat.


Aber die übrige Welt verschmachtete; denn es versäumte


Über der Liebe Genuß Ceres den schönen Beruf.


Voll Erstaunen vernahm der Eingeweihte das Märchen,


Winkte der Liebsten — Verstehst du nun, Geliebte, den Wink?


Jene buschige Myrte beschattet ein heiliges Plätzchen!


Unsre Zufriedenheit bringt keine Gefährde der Welt.


Can you hear, Beloved, the cheerful hubbub from the Via Flaminia? That is from the harvesters; they are going back to their homes…

…far away. They have completed the harvest for the Romans, who scorn the job of weaving the garland of Ceres for themselves.

There are no more celebrations nowadays dedicated to the great goddess, who, instead of acorns, bestowed as food the golden wheat.

Let us observe the celebration together in quiet pleasure! Two lovers are still an assembly of people.

Have you ever heard of that mystical festival, which followed the victors back here from Eleusis?

The Greeks founded it, and only Greeks called out, even within the walls of Rome: 'Come to the night made sacred!'.

The profane shrank back; but the waiting novice, wrapped in a white robe, the symbol of purity, trembled.

Then the initiate wandered baffled through circles of strange forms; in a dream he seemed to be floating: for here

Snakes writhed around across the floor, closed boxes richly wreathed with ears of corn were carried past by young women,

The priests bore themselves unfathomably and buzzed; impatiently and fearfully, the apprentice strained towards the light.

Only after several trials and tests was it revealed to him what the sacred circles hid strangely in images.

And what was the secret? That Demeter, the great one, obliging herself once also gave herself to a hero,

When she once treated Jasion, the vigorous king of the Cretans, to the beautiful pleasures of her immortal body.

That brought good fortune to Crete! the bridal bed of the goddess swelled with cereal and the seed pressed richly in the field.

But the rest of the world decayed; for in the enjoyment of love Ceres neglected her beneficial task.

The novice heard the tale full of astonishment, beckoned his loved one – do you now understand, Beloved, that wave?

That bushy myrtle shades a sacred place! Our own satisfaction does not endanger the world.


Flaminischen Weg: the Via Flaminia, the great road leading north out of Rome which crossed the difficult terrain of the Apennines in Umbria to end up at Ariminum (Rimini) on the Adriatic coast.

Schnitter sind es: The slave economy of the Roman Empire collapsed with the empire after 500 AD as the native Romans lost their sources of slaves. Rich farmers went over to hiring journeymen harvesters as seasonal labour.

Léopold Robert, 'L'Arrivée des Moissonneurs dans les marais Pontins', 1830.

The foreign labour force of the journeymen harvesters arriving in (unfortunately not departing from) Rome. Léopold Robert (1794-1835), L'Arrivée des Moissonneurs dans les marais Pontins, 'The arrival of the reapers in the Pontine Marshes', 1830. ©Musée du Louvre, Paris. Online.

Der für Ceres den Kranz selber zu flechten verschmäht: 'scorn the job of weaving the garland of Ceres for themselves'. G. seems to be suggesting that hiring strangers to perform agricultural labour is a violation of the intimate relationship that should exist between Man and Nature. This is why the great poet himself spent so much time reaping his own grain, gathering his own fruit, treading his own grapes and growing his own vegetables.

Eicheln…Weizen: Just as Prometheus brought humans fire, Ceres/Demeter taught humans the arts of agriculture, allowing them to abandon their hunter-gatherer existence, create settled communities and have leisure enough to develop an advanced culture with division of labour. In this, G. is probably following Ovid's Amores:

In earlier times the shaggy peasants did not bake the corn and knew nothing of threshing. But the oaks, the first oracles, bore acorns; these, and the grass of the field, were the food of men. Ceres was the first to teach that the seed swelled in the fields, and with the sickle she cut her yellowing locks; she was the first to force the bulls to place their necks beneath the yoke; and she with curved tooth tore up the fallow ground.

Ante nec hirsuti torrebant farra coloni, / Nec notum terris area nomen erat, / Sed glandem quercus, oracula prima, ferebant; / Haec erat et teneri caespitis herba cibus. / Prima Ceres docuit turgescere semen in agris / Falce coloratas subsecuitque comas; / Prima iugis tauros supponere colla coegit, / Et veterem curvo dente revellit humum.

Tibullus, the Latin elegist with the greatest affinity for country life, also described the evolution of human civilisation from the early hunter-gatherers to the arable and livestock farmers, though without explicitly mentioning Ceres, just gesturing to 'the country's gods':

I write of the country and the country's gods. They were the guides when man first ceased to drive away his hunger with the acorns from the oak. They taught him first to put planks together and cover his humble dwelling with green leaves. They too, we are told, first trained bulls to servitude and placed wheels under their carts. Then their savage habits faded: then the fruit-tree was planted and the fertile garden drank water from the irrigating streams. Then the bunches of golden grapes yielded their juices to the trampling feet, and sober water was mixed with cheering wine. From the country comes our harvest, when in the glowing heat of the dog-star the earth is yearly shorn of its shock of yellow locks. Across the land the bee flits in spring-time, heaping the hive with flowers to fill the combs with the sweet honey.

illi compositis primum docuere tigillis / exiguam uiridi fronde operire domum: / illi etiam tauros primi docuisse feruntur / seruitium et plaustro supposuisse rotam. / tum uictus abiere feri, tum consita pomus, / tum bibit inriguas fertilis hortus aquas, / aurea tum pressos pedibus dedit uua liquores / mixtaque securo est sobria lympha mero. / rura ferunt messes, calidi cum sideris aestu / deponit flauas annua terra comas. / rure leuis uerno flores apis ingerit alueo, / compleat ut dulci sedula melle fauos.
Tibullus, Elegiae, 2.1:39:50.

das Fest im stillen freudig begehen: G. is too discreet to mention what quiet pleasures in particular he has in mind, but we probably know already. It is a little surprising that G. takes a celebration of Ceres as an opportunity for his own fertility rituals, since Ovid's Amores, his source for much of this elegy, reproaches Ceres for demanding sexual abstinence during the period of her rites:

The annual time of the rites of Ceres has come: my girl sleeps apart on a solitary couch. Flaxen Ceres, your locks crowned with ears of corn, why do you with your rites interfere with my pleasures?

Annua venerunt Cerealis tempora sacri; / Secubat in vacuo sola puella toro. / Flava Ceres, tenues spicis redimita capillos, / Cur inhibes sacris commoda nostra tuis?
P. Ovidius Naso, Amores, 3.10:1-4.

In the Metamorphoses, we learn that this period of abstinence lasted nine days and was seemingly strictly observed:

It was the time when pious mothers celebrate the annual festival of Ceres. Then, robed in demure snow-white garments they bring garlands of precious wheat, the first sacrificial offering; and for nine nights they must forgo Venus and shun the touch of man.

Festa piae Cereris celebrabant annua matres / illa, quibus nivea velatae corpora veste / primitias frugum dant spicea serta suarum / perque novem noctes venerem tactusque viriles / in vetitis numerant.
P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses, 10:431f.

Hast du wohl je gehört: On various occasions so far we have suggested that G.'s lover had as good as no education. We see it in the note she wrote to Goethe and we know that it would be surprising if a woman without (or even, with) aristocratic background had anything more than the most rudimentary education. In this elegy we find G. schooling her on a point of classical mythology.

By herself, she would hear the noise of the reapers' departure and think nothing more about it, her education left her concerned only with the perceptible surface of the world. Her educated and metaphorically-minded German Universal Genius lover therefore attempts to explain his multilayered mental construct to her.

Our health warning is still applicable: this dialogue did not necessarily take place; using her ignorance, G. is avoiding lecturing his reader directly. Ultimately, we vulgarians realise that the whole 'explanation' is only aimed at getting his lover to get down and dirty with the mythology thing under a myrtle bush.

mystischen Feier: the Eleusinian Mysteries, part of the cult of Demeter and Persephone. The proceedings during the event had to be kept secret under pain of death, which accounts for our lack of knowledge of what exactly went on and our scepticism about the uncorroborated reports that we do have. The condition of secrecy was taken very seriously throughout the classical world and there are numerous accounts of mobs attacking those thought to have breached the proscription. G. confects in this elegy his own vague, poetic account of the rites during the Eleusinian festival. The Mysteries, particularly as carried out in Eleusis itself, enjoyed a remarkably high reputation throughout the classical world.

dem Sieger gefolgt: The Eleusinian Rite was a Greek invention based in Eleusis in Greece. As the Greek states declined and fell under Roman hegemony ('the conqueror') the cult reached Rome via Sicily and was enthusiastically absorbed into the mixed pickles of Roman religious practices.

We should not allow the brand name of 'Eleusinian Mysteries' to obscure the archaeological fact that Sicily itself was an ancient home of the Persephone/Demeter-Ceres cult. Its close association with Ceres is understandable when we consider that fertile Sicily was the traditional breadbasket of the Roman Mediterranean. Eleusis was held to be the capital of the Demeter-Ceres cult as a result of the branding myth: it was there that Ceres bestowed the gift of cereal growing on mankind. The Roman military absorption of Greece began with the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC and was completed about a century later, when the now fully romanised Greece became the Roman province of Achaea.

Griechen…nur Griechen: G.'s assertion here that the Eleusinian festival was an exclusively Greek affair is incorrect. The Eleusinian cult became popular among Romans and many became initiates; the emperor Hadrian established an Eleusinian cult centre in Rome. The only lasting Greek element seems to have been the requirement to understand Greek, which remained the language of the rites. The rich Romans may not have been interested in the back-breaking work of harvesting their own cereal crops, but they were superstitious cultists who warmed to every passing fad – some even to Christianity.

Readers may recall G.'s remark about the eclectic Roman pantheon in Elegy VI. By the first century AD all classes of the Roman population – even most of the great thinkers – were manically superstitious, creating fertile ground for whatever crackpot belief arose. The Christians of today should reflect that the cult of the Nazarene only germinated and put forth its first shoots when its seeds fell on the soil of Roman credulity.

In this bubbling cauldron of mad superstition, the classical Greek Olympian cults managed to avoid disintegration for several centuries, largely because of their aesthetic dominance arising from the imposing relics of the high art of Greece and Rome. Now, in the last quarter of the 18th century, we find Goethe, the polytheist/pantheist, clambering around these relics in an attempt to put his own baser drives into a mythological framework.

'Kommt zur geheiligten Nacht!' / Fern entwich der Profane: 'Come to the night made sacred!' G. has telescoped the events of the mysteries, which actually consisted of two parts: the Lesser Mysteries, a rite of preparation held in the spring, and the Greater Mysteries, held in the autumn (around the middle of September in our time reckoning). The alignment of the ceremonies with the crop seasons will be no mystery to anyone. The Greater Mysteries lasted for a full week and were opened with a warning to the impure, the unworthy and those who could not speak Greek to depart now.

The first event in the Greater Mysteries was a night-time procession followed by an open-air feast at midnight – hence the shouted invitation. Note that the text does not speak of a 'sacred night', which would imply some fixed calendar feast; the night is 'made sacred' for the purposes of the initiation. Many fragments record the 'holy' or 'luminous' nights of the Mysteries.

da bebte der wartende Neuling, Den ein weißes Gewand, Zeichen der Reinheit, umgab: 'the waiting novice trembles … sign of purity'. The ceremony was taken seriously, probably more than most modern Christian ceremonies. Suetonius, taking a political swipe at the monster Nero, tells us that when the Emperor was in Greece he thought better of attending the ceremonies, presumably having an insight into his own depraved state and fearing the worst.

im Traum schien er zu wallen: 'seemed to float in a dream'. By embedding the ritual elements in a dream sequence G. sidesteps the problematic reporting of their details. Although we write of the 'ceremonies' of the Eleusinian rites it is probably more accurate to think of them as pieces of Greek drama.

Schlangen: 'snakes', here symbolically associated with the earth and thus with Ceres, also symbolising sex, danger and death.

verschlossene Kästchen: 'closed', 'locked' or 'sealed' boxes' played some role in the ceremony; they seem to have contained objects that were revealed at stages during the initiation procedure. The 2nd-century Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, in his rant against the heathen superstitions of his time and the Eleusinian Mysteries in particular, mocked these boxes:

Consider, too, the contents of the mystic chests; for I must strip bare their holy things and utter the unspeakable. Are they not sesame cakes, pyramid and spherical cakes, cakes with many navels, also balls of salt and a serpent, the mystic sign of Dionysus Bassareus? Are they not also pomegranates, fig branches, fennel stalks, ivy leaves, round cakes and poppies? These are their holy things? In addition, there are the unutterable symbols of Ge Themis, marjoram, a lamp, a sword, and a woman’s comb, which is a euphemistic expression used for a woman’s secret parts. What manifest shamelessness!

Protrepticus II.

mit Ähren umkränzt: 'wreathed with ears of corn'. The grammar of the line does not make it clear whether it was the boxes or the girls carrying them who were wreathed in corn.

Vielbedeutend: this is a word that had a boom in the 18th-century then steadily declined in popularity until its present desuetude. For G. it would have been a known but nevertheless slightly exotic word that could help him overcome the metrical rigours of the start of an hexameter. The present line of the poem was even used as a example text in the magnificent Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm – unfortunately without the Grimms telling their readers precisely what it means in this context.

The problem is that the word has two possible meanings: 1) something having many meanings (i.e. viel as 'many' e.g. 'polysemous', 'ambiguous' or 'multifaceted' in modern parlance) or 2) something having a deep meaning (viel as 'much' e.g. 'profound', 'significant').

Philologists, who have to take their pleasures when they come (i.e. few and far between) will take finding the self-referencing Gödel recursion of a word which defines itself as a highpoint of their day. So, which is it here, 'polysemous/ambiguous' or 'profound'? Or why not both?

And then the key problem, how to render this in English without making readers burst out laughing? It doesn't help that G. has used the word as an adverb to describe the comportment of the Eleusinian priests. Your translator has lighted upon 'unfathomably' in the knowledge that there are half-a-dozen almost equally bad options available; if the reader knows a better one, he or she should go to it. Nevertheless, G.'s formulation is effective, particularly when we view the rites as Greek drama as opposed to mere religious ceremonies.

summten: 'hummed' or 'buzzed'. Some sources identify a group of virgin priestesses as participants in the rite, who were known as the melissae, the 'honey bees' – presumably they were the source of this noise.

Bees and their honey were profoundly important symbols in Gnostic philosophy – fans of W. B. Yeats, a student of all things mystical and Neoplatonic, may recall the phrase 'honey of generation', which he acquired from Porphyry (c.234-c.305) via the English Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor (1758-1835 – thus from a close contemporary of G.'s).

Porphyry took a passage in Homer’s Odyssey 13.102-112 and interpreted it as a Gnostic text. The result was On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey (De Antro Nympharum), which was rendered into English by Taylor in 1823. Returning to the timeframe of the Römische Elegien, in 1790 Taylor published his work Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries: A Dissertation.

Your author is not suggesting that G. read any of Taylor's works, but Neoplatonism was certainly in the air at that time – the writings of Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus were read and studied across Europe.

G. certainly must have come into contact with Neoplatonic ideas during his time as an Illuminat, a member of a Masonic lodge, which he joined in 1783. Duke Carl August was also a member, as was Herder (the Protestant pastor!) and some other Weimar lights. G. took the name Abaris, from the legendary sage and miracle worker, Abaris the Hyperborean, a figure on the outer edges of Neoplatonism.

There seems to be a deep-seated human attraction in the feeling of belonging to some small group in possession of hermetic knowledge that is inaccessible to the many. The jump from Masonic mumbo jumbo to Neoplatonist mumbo jumbo is hardly a jump at all:

I, as a result of the many varied directions of my nature, cannot be satisfied with only one way of thinking; as a poet and artist I am a polytheist, but a pantheist as a natural scientist, each as decisively as the other. If I need a god for my personal nature, as a moral man, that is already provided for. The heavenly and the earthly things are such a broad realm, that only the organs of all beings are able to comprehend it.

Ich für mich kann, bey den mannigfaltigen Richtungen meines Wesens, nicht an einer Denkweise genug haben; als Dichter und Künstler bin ich Polytheist, Pantheist hingegen als Naturforscher, und eins so entschieden als das andre. Bedarf ich eines Gottes für meine Persönlichkeit, als sittlicher Mensch, so ist dafür auch schon gesorgt. Die himmlischen und irdischen Dinge sind ein so weites Reich, daß die Organe aller Wesen zusammen es nur erfassen mögen.
Note: G. is using Persönlichkeit in a specific philosophical sense which cannot be translated simply with the trivialised English word 'personality'.
Goethe to Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, 6 January 1813.

A deep dive to recover G.'s sources for his understanding of the Eleusinian Mysteries is quite outside our scope; we are currently dipping our toe on the edge of a great ocean of Gnostic ideas – a few small steps further and it will be a long time before we return to this shore. At a minimum, however, it is essential to realise that under the carapace of G.'s carefully curated work there are ideas that even modern Goethe research has yet to probe properly. Some have argued, for example, that Faust itself is as much a Gnostic ritual or journey as the Eleusinian rites.

'Do you now understand, Beloved, that wave?'

harrte der Lehrling auf Licht: the core element of the Ceres/Demeter myth is Ceres' journey to Hades to retrieve her daughter Persephone. The novice 'straining towards the light' in this context seems to be an allusion to this spring journey back to the light.

Und was war das Geheimnis?: 'and what was the secret?' G.'s language on this point prefers the course of decent obscurity over vulgar realism: in the printed version we read that the secret is that Demeter (G. surprises us with a return to Ceres' Greek name) Sich gefällig einmal auch einem Helden bequemt 'obliging herself once also gave herself to a hero'. The manuscript draft, intended for circulation among friends, was mercifully more direct: Sich gefällig einmal auch auf den Rücken gelegt. Even beginners in German can translate that in a way that today's ten year olds can understand: 'obliging herself by once lying down on her back'.

Jasion…dem rüstigen König der Kreter: G. is alluding to a tale from Ovid's Amores, which was also the source for the account of Ceres' role in bringing the knowledge of arable farming to humans:

The Goddess saw Iasius on the slopes of the Cretan Mount Ida, as he pierced the wild beasts with unerring hand. She saw him and her marrow turned to flame; Love drove her and battled Modesty. Modesty was conquered by Love; now one could see the parched furrows of earth, and only a small proportion of the seed grew. The well-aimed mattocks turned over the land, the curved plough broke the soil and the well-scattered seed fell evenly over the broad fields; yet the prayers of the cheated farmers were in vain. The Goddess, the guardian of corn, was dallying in the tall woods; the garland of corn slipping from her flowing locks. Only fertile Crete had a fruitful year; wherever the Goddess appeared there was harvest. Ida, the place of forests, was white with corn and the wild boar fed on the ears of corn in the woods. Minos the law-giver prayed for many such years; he wished that Ceres love might be eternal.

Viderat Iasium Cretaea diva sub Ida / Figentem certa terga ferina manu. / Vidit, et ut tenerae flammam rapuere medullae, / Hinc pudor, ex illa parte trahebat amor. / Victus amore pudor; sulcos arere videres / Et sata cum minima parte redire sui. / Cum bene iactati pulsarant arva ligones, / Ruperat et duram vomer aduncus humum, / Seminaque in latos ierant aequaliter agros, / Inrita decepti vota colentis erant. / Diva potens frugum silvis cessabat in altis; / Deciderant longae spicea serta comae. / Sola fuit Crete fecundo fertilis anno; / Omnia, qua tulerat se dea, messis erat; / Ipsa, locus nemorum, canebat frugibus Ide, / Et ferus in silva farra metebat aper. / Optavit Minos similes sibi legifer annos; / Optasset, Cereris longus ut esset amor.
P. Ovidius Naso, Amores, 3.10:25f.

Hochzeitsbette der Göttin: in mythological terms, the 'bridal bed' was the soil/earth metaphorically seeded by the human hero. The Iasius/Iasion story comes down to us in many tellings with many plot variants. G. could have known this tale from the Odyssey:

Thus too, when fair-tressed Demeter, yielding to her passion, lay in love with Iasion in the thrice-ploughed fallow land, Zeus was not long without knowledge thereof, but smote him with his bright thunder-bolt and slew him.

Homer, Odyssey, V.125f.

or Hesiod's Theogeny:

Demeter, bright goddess, was joined in sweet love with the hero Iasion in a thrice-ploughed fallow in the rich land of Crete, and bore Plutus, a kindly god who goes everywhere over land and the sea's wide back, and he makes rich the man who finds him and into whose hands he comes, bestowing great wealth upon him.

Hesiod, Theogeny, ll. 969.

G. may also have noticed the very oblique reference in Ovid's Metamorphoses, IX.422f.

The key element in both the Homeric and the Hesiodic tales is the copulation of Demeter/Ceres with Iasion in a 'thrice-ploughed fallow field'. In Greek agriculture the field was first ploughed in the spring and simultaneously sowed, then, after the summer harvest, ploughed crosswise with a lighter share and finally ploughed again during the autumn. Thus the beast with two backs romped in the autumnal furrows.

Good old Hesiod, in his Works and Days, has left us the fullest account of the agricultural background:

Mark, when you hear the voice of the crane who cries year by year from the clouds above [in November], for she gives the signal for ploughing and shows the season of rainy winter; […] So soon as the time for ploughing is proclaimed to men, then make haste, you and your slaves alike, in wet and in dry, to plough in the season for ploughing, and bestir yourself early in the morning so that your fields may be full. Plough in the spring; but fallow broken up in the summer will not belie your hopes. […] Pray to Zeus of the Earth and to pure Demeter to make Demeter's holy grain sound and heavy, when first you begin ploughing, when you hold in your hand the end of the plough-tail and bring down your stick on the backs of the oxen as they draw on the pole-bar by the yoke-straps. Let a slave follow a little behind with a mattock and make trouble for the birds by hiding the seed; for good management is the best for mortal men as bad management is the worst. In this way your corn-ears will bow to the ground with fullness if the Olympian himself gives a good result at the last […] And so you will have plenty till you come to grey springtime, and will not look wistfully to others, but another shall be in need of your help.

Hesiod, Works and Days, 448f.

Any students of English Modernist poetry who have wandered into this article will probably hear the strains of Ezra Pound's magnificent Canto XLVII, itself an extended Eleusinian fertility rite:

Begin thy plowing
When the Pleiades go down to their rest,
Begin thy plowing
40 days are they under seabord,
Thus do in fields by seabord
And in valleys winding down toward the sea.
When the cranes fly high
think of plowing.

Voll Erstaunen vernahm der Eingeweihte das Märchen: the initiates are 'full of astonishment' when they hear this tale, the supposed 'secret' of the 'mystery'. Note G.'s use of Märchen, 'fairy tale' – a time comes when mythology runs out of empirical road.

It is important, though, to note the observation made frequently by commentators then as now, that the result of the initiation process was not the acquisition of a particular doctrine or the performance of a particular ritual but the elevation of the initiate to a heightened emotional state.

With that in mind, describing the ceremonies themselves as a kind of Greek drama makes much sense. That heightened emotional state seems to have persisted long after the ceremonies themselves and even for the rest of the initiates' lives. G. is right that the great finale of the Mysteries seems to have involved some sort of sacred marriage, mimetic of the sex and fertility constellation of Ceres, Pluto, Venus and Iasius, which was associated with the fertility of the crops.

Given the moral climate of his time, G. had to treat this aspect with some delicacy, which is why modern readers, drowning in moral decadence – I did not have sex with that goddess! – have difficulty disentangling G.'s obfuscations of the copulation at the centre of the Iasius 'fairy tale'.

Winkte der Liebste: 'beckoned' or 'waved' to the loved one. The affirmation of sacred marriage as the core of the myth does not imply that the finale of the highest level of initiation was a grand orgy, the Mysteries were held in too much esteem for that to be the case, but after their enlightenment and seven days of sexual abstinence, the initiates would probably have been quick to summon their loved ones and do their bit for the harvest.

Verstehst du nun, Geliebte, den Wink?: the 'secret' in the 'fairy tale' seems to be that copulation is good for the crops, which appears to be the message now being sent to the loved one.

Jene buschige Myrte beschattet ein heiliges Plätzchen: In the manuscript version of the Römische Elegien this line was: Folge mir eilig ins Röhrgebüsch unten am Weinberg, 'follow me quickly into the reed bed below the vinyard hill'. The allusion to reeds and to wine may conclude the elegy on a Bacchic note, but G. changed this in the printed version to the 'sacred spot' in the shade of the myrtle bush.

The myrtle bush is a plant associated particularly with Venus but also with Ceres. Tibullus, for example, writes of the Elysian fields, where Illic est, cuicumque rapax mors venit amanti, / Et gerit insigni myrtea serta coma, 'Those whom Death snatched because of love live, wreaths of myrtle woven in their hair'. (Tibullus 1.3:65-66).

That 'sacred spot' would represent the association of sex with fertility. Here are two representations of the association of sex with fertility which illustrate the old saying, 'Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze':

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Hendrick Goltzius (fl.1558-1617), Sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus / Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze, c. 1600. Venus is warmed by the flame of the torch held by Cupid, who is looking pointedly at the observer. Bacchus is holding a fine bunch of grapes and Ceres is cradling the other fruits of the harvest in her bosom swash. The tight grouping of hands in the centre of the image and the beautiful circular composition of the heads express the key relationship: interdependency. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art. The commentary on the painting by the Philadelphia Museum is reproduced here as an example of what happens when you let the new affirmative action apprentice catalogue the paintings:
The source of illumination in the painting — Cupid's torch — is also the focal point of the narrative [?]. The flame rouses Venus, the goddess of Love, from a deep slumber [?]. Two satyrs [!!] offer her grapes and fruits of the harvest, illustrating the painting's title theme: without food and wine, love cannot flourish [!].

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Bartholomäus Spranger, (1546-1611), Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus, c. 1590. Goethe's description of the look of love between Bacchus and Venus, their fingers entwined, in his pantheon in Elegy XIII applies exactly to this painting, even down to the 'moist eyes' of Venus. Image: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.


Everyone knows to some extent the attributes of the principal members of the mythological pantheon: Venus is the goddess of love, Mars the god of war, Ceres the goddess of (arable) agriculture and so on.

But our neat mental organigram cannot survive the onslaught of reality when we consider the scatterplot of attributes applied to these deities by poets and writers down the ages. Add to that the many sometimes very odd opinions that people in various localities around the classical world applied to these deities and we move beyond fuzzy logic into the world of the insane.

After two and a half millennia, a Reformation, a Scientific Revolution and an Enlightenment, the European mind – the educated part of it, that is – left this subject behind for poets, fantasists and polytheists such as Goethe to poke around among the mythological rubble.

If mythology is your theme, then you are free to pick and mix bits of stories and hammer them into whatever form you like, which is what Goethe is doing in the present elegy. He has come up with a mythology that validates his current sexual motivation.

When we recover Goethe's Ovidian source, we realise what he is driving at in his description of the moment of illumination for the Eleusinian initiates. In the overwhelming desire Ceres felt for Iasius (we recall the three steps of Elegy V: sight-desire-action) she was overwhelmed by Venus; that is, Venus is the most powerful deity of the pantheon, who not only can overwhelm Ceres but, as we saw in Elegy III, also Jove (through the instrumentality of Juno's girdle). Love – at least the mania of sexual attraction – really does seem to conquer all.

By leveraging his own interpretation of the Eleusinian Mysteries using the myth of the coupling of Iasius with Ceres, Goethe has turned the pagan festival of Ceres, characterised (for some reason) by nine days of sexual abstinence, into an opportunity for couples to do their bit to get the crops growing, paralleling the idea of the sacred marriage in the Eleusinian Mysteries. The myrtle, dedicated principally to Venus, is the symbolic expression of her supremacy over Ceres. In the manuscript text the symbols were those of Venus' consort, the Bacchic reeds and the Bacchic vineyard. It all comes out as the same.

XV Amor bleibet ein Schalk, und wer ihm vertraut, ist betrogen [13]

Amor bleibet ein Schalk, und wer ihm vertraut, ist betrogen!


Heuchelnd kam er zu mir: „Diesmal nur traue mir noch.


Redlich mein ichs mit dir: du hast dein Leben und Dichten,


Dankbar erkenn ich es wohl, meiner Verehrung geweiht.


Siehe, dir bin ich nun gar nach Rom gefolget! Ich möchte


Dir im fremden Gebiet gern was Gefälliges tun.


Jeder Reisende klagt, er finde schlechte Bewirtung;


Welchen Amor empfiehlt, köstlich bewirtet ist er.


Du betrachtest mit Staunen die Trümmer alter Gebäude


Und durchwandelst mit Sinn diesen geheiligten Raum.


Du verehrest noch mehr die werten Reste des Bildens


Einziger Künstler, die stets ich in der Werkstatt besucht.


Diese Gestalten, ich formte sie selbst! Verzeih mir, ich prahle


Diesmal nicht; du gestehst, was ich dir sage, sei wahr.


Nun du mir lässiger dienst, wo sind die schönen Gestalten,


Wo die Farben, der Glanz deiner Erfindungen hin?


Denkst du nun wieder zu bilden, Freund? Die Schule der Griechen


Blieb noch offen, das Tor schlossen die Jahre nicht zu.


Ich, der Lehrer, bin ewig jung und liebe die Jungen.


Altklug lieb ich dich nicht! Munter! Begreife mich wohl!


War das Antike doch neu, da jene Glücklichen lebten!


Lebe glücklich, und so lebe die Vorzeit in dir!


Stoff zum Liede, wo nimmst du ihn her? Ich muß ihn dir geben,


Und den höheren Stil lehret die Liebe dich nur.”


Also sprach der Sophist. Wer widerspricht ihm? und leider


Bin ich zu folgen gewöhnt, wenn der Gebieter befiehlt. —


Nun, verräterisch hält er sein Wort, gibt Stoff zu Gesängen,


Ach, und raubt mir die Zeit, Kraft und Besinnung zugleich;


Blick und Händedruck, und Küsse, gemütliche Worte,


Silben köstlichen Sinns wechselt ein liebendes Paar.


Da wird Lispeln Geschwätz, wird Stottern liebliche Rede:


Solch ein Hymnus verhallt ohne prosodisches Maß.


Dich, Aurora, wie kannt ich dich sonst als Freundin der Musen!


Hat, Aurora, dich auch Amor, der lose, verführt?


Du erscheinest mir nun als seine Freundin und weckest


Mich an seinem Altar wieder zum festlichen Tag.


Find ich die Fülle der Locken an meinem Busen! das Köpfchen


Ruhet und drücket den Arm, der sich dem Halse bequemt.


Welch ein freudig Erwachen, erhieltet ihr, ruhige Stunden,


Mir das Denkmal der Lust, die in den Schlaf uns gewiegt! —


Sie bewegt sich im Schlummer und sinkt auf die Breite des Lagers,


Weggewendet; und doch läßt sie mir Hand noch in Hand.


Herzliche Liebe verbindet uns stets und treues Verlangen,


Und den Wechsel behielt nur die Begierde sich vor.


Einen Druck der Hand, ich sehe die himmlischen Augen


Wieder offen. — O nein! Laßt auf der Bildung mich ruhn!


Bleibt geschlossen! Ihr macht mich verwirrt und trunken, ihr raubet


Mir den stillen Genuß reiner Betrachtung zu früh.


Diese Formen, wie groß! Wie edel gewendet die Glieder!


Schlief Ariadne so schön: Theseus, du konntest entfliehn?


Diesen Lippen ein einziger Kuß! O Theseus, nun scheide!


Blick ihr ins Auge! Sie wacht! — Ewig nun hält sie dich fest.


Cupid will always be a rogue and whoever puts his trust in him will be cheated! He came to me dissembling: 'This time just trust me.

I am being sincere with you: you have dedicated your life and your writing to honouring me, I can certainly see that.

Just look, I even followed you to Rome! I would like to do you a favour in the foreign land.

Every traveller complains about bad food and lodging; but whomever Cupid recommends is entertained delightfully.

You look in wonder at the rubble of old buildings and wander deep in thought through this sacred place.

You venerate even more the worthy remains of the work of particular artists, whom I always visited in their studio.

These figures, I formed them myself! Forgive me, I am not boasting this time; you must admit that what I say is true.

Now that you are serving me so indolently, where are the beautiful figures, where the colours, the radiance of your invention?

Are you thinking now of becoming creative once more, friend? The school of the Greeks has stayed open, the years have not closed its doors.

I, the teacher, remain eternally young and I like the youngsters. You who are wise beyond your years, I do not love you! Cheer up! Understand me carefully!

Antiquity was still new, when those happy ones lived! Live happily and the ancient times will live in you!

Your lyric material, where do you get it from? I have to give it to you and only love can teach you the high style.'

Thus spoke the sophist. Who can gainsay him? Unfortunately I am used to obeying, when this commander gives orders. —

Now, treacherously he keeps his word, gives material for songs whilst robbing me of time, power and senses;

A loving pair holds hands, exchanges glances, kisses, pleasant words and sounds of delicious sense.

There, whispers become chatter, stuttering becomes gentle talk: without prosodic measure such a hymn fades into silence.

You, Aurora, I used to know you as a friend of the muses! Aurora, has Cupid, the mischief maker, seduced you, too?

You appear to me now as his friend and you wake me up once more at his altar for the festive day.

I see the abundance of her ringlets on my chest! the head rests still and presses on the arm upon which the neck has settled.

What a joyful awakening you keep for me, quiet hours, that memorial to pleasure, which rocked us to sleep! –

She moves in her sleep and sinks across the width of the bed, turning away from me; but still she keeps her hand in mine.

Heartfelt love obliges us to constant and faithful longing, and only lust reserves the right to change.

A press of the hand, I see the heavenly eyes open again. – O no! Leave me to my contemplation!

Stay closed! you make me confused and intoxicated, you steal the quiet pleasure of pure contemplation too soon.

This shape, how grand! How nobly the limbs lie! If Ariadne had slept so beautifully, Theseus, would you have been able to leave?

For these lips just one kiss! O Theseus, leave now! Look into her eyes! She awakens! – now she will hold you forever bound.


köstlich bewirtet ist er: the pure in heart probably need to be told that the sense of the distich is that, whereas travellers complain of bad accommodation, the traveller with Cupid on his side will always find a good bed – in the arms of the lover.

Denkst du nun wieder zu bilden: G.'s pun on bilden is impossible to translate into simple English equivalents. G. uses the word in multiple senses in this elegy: the figurative work of an artist, the creation of a work of the imagination, the act of imagining. In the present distich he merges these with another meaning of (sich) bilden, to educate oneself, which is essentially what G. is doing during his Roman stay. This then leads elegantly into 'the school of the Greeks'. G. also uses the noun Bildung, 'education', 'imagination', 'form', in a similarly protean way in this elegy. Modern German speakers encounter an expression such as die bildende Künste, in the sense of the visual, representational or plastic arts, and think no more about it.

der Sophist: The Sophists (not really a philosophy, more a job description) flourished in Greece from around 5 BC onwards. They developed as itinerant didacts, skilled in expounding on whatever subject they professed. The use of specious argumentation without any moral conviction behind it is now characterised as sophism.

verräterisch hält er sein Wort: G.'s oxymoronic joke that Cupid 'treacherously keeps his word'.
gibt Stoff zu Gesängen: the 'material for songs' is, of course, a love affair.

und raubt mir die Zeit, Kraft und Besinnung: a return to the theme explored in Elegy VII, the waste of time spent in physical love contrasted with its educative effects.

verhallt ohne prosodisches Maß: the preceding lines emphasised the non-verbal characteristics of physical love and, when speech is involved, the mutilation of language. Unless preserved and shaped by poetry, the evanescent speech of love (e.g. grunts) would simply fade away (i.e. as a sound does).

Freundin der Musen…seine Freundin: the dawn as the moment for artistic inspiration. Its goddess, Aurora, the 'friend of the muses', appears now to be the friend of Cupid, in that she wakes G. early in the morning not to poetry but to the contemplation of his lover's body. G. was indeed a 'morning person'.

Since Tibullus informs much of the Römische Elegien it is possible that the fine passage which concludes Carmen 1.3, in which Tibullus imagines his homecoming to his Delia, was in G.'s mind. If it wasn't, it is still a beautiful piece of writing which shows the heights that the Latin elegists could attain:

Then you will rise, just as you are, with long hair untied, and run, my Delia, barefoot to meet me. For this I pray: that soon lucent Aurora's pink steeds will bear the morning star that heralds that day.

Tunc mihi, qualis eris, longos turbata capillos, / Obvia nudato, Delia, curre pede. / Hoc precor, hunc illum nobis Aurora nitentem / Luciferum roseis candida portet equis.
Tibullus 1.3:90-94

Denkmal der Lust: a memorial to the preceding passion.

den Wechsel behielt nur die Begierde sich vor: the knotted construction of this distich is difficult to disentangle. The sense seems to be that heartfelt love generates a 'constant and faithful longing', but one which can always be disrupted by the force of erotic desire. Consider once more the three steps, 'see-desire-possess' and the need to seize the 'opportune moment' described in Elegy IV and Elegy V.

den stillen Genuß reiner Betrachtung: Some commentators see G.'s choice of words as alluding to Johann Joachim Winckelmann's (1717-1768) epochal work Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1755), in which the contemplation of the simplicity and nobility of Greek statues is a principal theme.

The relation between the human figure and the sculpture is at the core of Goethe's observation of his lover's sleeping body, particularly the transition from the quiet contemplation of her sleeping body in the distanced way one might look at a statue to the active desire for the living person. We recall Elegy VII, which also mentioned the interface between the real woman and the statue: 'only then do I understand marble properly'.

The eyes play an important role here. As long as the lover's eyes remain closed, G. can contemplate her body as a passive object, almost as a statue – the relationship is one-way, as it were. Once the lover's eyes open, the two-way process of erotic communication (and lust) takes over. Eng. Lit. types will think of John Donne's (1572-1631) poem The Extasie: 'Our eye-beames twisted, and did thred / Our eyes, upon one double string'.

In the Italienische Reise, written long after the fact, G. expanded Winckelmann's theme in his own manner:

The impression of the sublime, the beautiful, as beneficial as it may otherwise be, discomforts us, we want to express our feelings, our conceptions in words: but in order to do that we must first perceive, discern, comprehend; we begin to sound out, to differentiate, to order and this, too, we find, if not unmöglich, then extremely difficult and so we return finally to an observing and enjoying admiration.

Der Eindruck des Erhabenen, des Schönen, so wohltätig er auch sein mag, beunruhigt uns, wir wünschen unsre Gefühle, unsre Anschauung in Worte zu fassen: dazu müßten wir aber erst erkennen, einsehen, begreifen; wir fangen an zu sondern, zu unterscheiden, zu ordnen, und auch dieses finden wir, wo nicht unmöglich, doch höchst schwierig, und so kehren wir endlich zu einer schauenden und genießenden Bewunderung zurück.
Italienische Reise II.

Diese Formen, wie groß! Wie edel gewendet die Glieder!: The words groß, 'grand' and edel, 'nobel' are reminiscent of Winckelmann's use of the same terms to describe Greek statuary in his Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst, for example: Das allgemeine vorzügliche Kennzeichen der griechischen Meisterstücke ist endlich eine edle Einfalt und eine stille Größe, 'The general outstanding characteristic of the Greek masterpieces is finally a noble simplicity and a quiet grandeur', or later Die edle Einfalt und stille Größe der griechischen Statuen, 'The noble simplicity and the quiet grandeur'.

Edle Einfalt became a popular term among 18th-century authors such as Herder, Lavater and Sulzer (who used it often enough to create his own private boom), but the complete phrase appears to have become a kind of Homeric formula for Winckelmann. It, too, became a frequently quoted phrase among contemporaries. Thus it would be no surprise if the phrase also lingered in the mind of Goethe, his careful reader.

Ariadne…Theseus: the story of Theseus and Ariadne is most famously retailed in Ovid's Metamorphoses, 8.15. Another source is Catullus' renowned epithalamium Carmen 64, in which the legend of Theseus and Ariadne is recounted in the form of a lengthy description of the covering of the bridal bed, which is embroidered with scenes from the tale – in effect forming a story within a story.

G. may have had the one or the other or probably both sources in mind, but the Catullan version is a more generous source for the particular role of Cupid in the tragic tale. Catullus describes him as heu misere exagitans immiti corde furores, sancte puer, curis hominum qui gaudia misces, 'Ah, you cruel hearted one, who brings crazed passion, holy boy [= Cupid], and who mingles the sorrows of humans with their pleasures' [94-95]. Theseus, the Greek hero, just like Odysseus, pursues his course undeflected by sideshows such as Ariadne, regardless of whatever collateral damage is left behind.

The essence of the story is that Ariadne, the daughter of the tyrannical King Minos of Crete, falls in love with the hero Theseus and aids him in slaying the Minotaur and finding his way out of the labyrinth. Theseus then sets sail with Ariadne and those he has rescued. They land on the island of Naxos and fall asleep. Athena, the goddess of wisdom that every hero needs to keep onside, woke Theseus and told him to leave early that morning. He was also to leave Ariadne behind for the pleasure of Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of the island. Theseus did as he was told and left Ariadne on Naxos.

G. uses the myth to contrast the demands of wisdom and reason with the force of erotic desire. Since the events on Naxos took place in the early morning, Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, is also present. G. maintains that, had Ariadne looked like G.'s sleeping woman, he could not have sailed away, especially once she had opened her eyes.

However, in this section of the elegy, G. has also taken Propertius Elegies, 1.3, as his inspiration. Propertius' elegy opens with a list of sleeping girls, first among them Ariadne, snoozing whilst Theseus' ship sailed away. The poet, arriving at Cynthia's home drunk – 'with much Bacchus' – observed his Cynthia asleep on the bed. Unlike the cerebral G. in Rome, Propertius, seized both by Cupid and Bacchus wants to get straight down to business but, fearful of waking her, remains instead captivated by her beauty. When she finally wakes up, she gives Propertius a piece of her mind for abandoning her the previous evening, before they finally get it together.


This elegy can be divided into four sections.

The first section is effectively the first half of the poem, from the beginning to Bin ich zu folgen gewöhnt, wenn der Gebieter befiehlt. —. The dash which concludes the section indicates the substantial break with the subsequent sections. This section centres on Cupid's 'sophistry' in his speech to G.: Cupid stands behind all the great works that G. sees in Rome; G.'s poor productivity means that he clearly needs a bit of erotic pepping up; Cupid will therefore supply him with erotic adventure.

The second section runs from Nun, verräterisch hält er sein Wort to ohne prosodisches Maß. Here G. sets out the evanescent, non-literary character of love: its physicality and the defects of the language of love. Without the efforts of the poet to put this sighing and grunting into 'prosodic measure', all this would be lost.

The third section runs from Dich, Aurora to zum festlichen Tag. It introduces the goddess of the dawn and uses her to set the time for a variation upon Propertius' Elegy 1.3, the lover admiring the loved one's body.

The fourth section runs from Find ich die Fülle der Locken to the end of the poem, Ewig nun hält sie dich fest. Propertius opened his elegy with a reference to the sleeping Ariadne on Naxos, Goethe closes his homage with a conceit based on that incident.

Goethe returned to the theme of the dangers of placing one's trust in Cupid in a poem included in his prose work, Italienische Reise:

Cupid, you wild, wilful boy! You asked me to give you lodging for a few hours. How many days and nights you have stayed; now you have taken over as master and are lording it over the house!

I have been driven out of my wide bed; now I squat on the ground through the night, tortured. Your mischief is fanning the flames in the hearth hotter and hotter, burning up my reserves of winter fuel and scorching poor me.

You have moved all my things around; I search, thinking that I must have gone blind or crazy. You make such a racket that I fear my poor little soul will flee just to get away from you, and will leave my hut altogether.

Cupido, loser, eigensinniger Knabe, / Du batst mich um Quartier auf einige Stunden! / Wie viele Tag' und Nächte bist du geblieben, / Und bist nun herrisch und Meister im Hause geworden.
Von meinem breiten Lager bin ich vertrieben, / Nun sitz' ich an der Erde Nächte, gequälet, / Dein Mutwill' schüret Flamm' auf Flamme des Herdes, / Verbrennet den Vorrat des Winters und senget mich Armen.
Du hast mir mein Gerät verstellt und verschoben, / Ich such' und bin wie blind und irre geworden. / Du lärmst so ungeschickt, ich fürchte, das Seelchen / Entflieht, um dir zu entfliehn, und räumet die Hütte.
Italienische Reise, 'Bericht, Januar'.

The elegy as a whole explores themes of sex and artistic creation, of the feelings aroused by inanimate objects compared with the feelings aroused by human objects of desire and of sex as the motor for artistic creation.

It seems to have been a particularly important elegy for Goethe, since he published it as a free-standing poem in the Deutsche Monatsschrift, July 1791, p. 185-188 under the title Elegie, Rom, 1789, the only elegy with which he did this.

It is a mistake though to imagine, as the excitable Goethe scholar Karl Eibl did, that because of that free-standing publication this elegy is somehow a Zusammenfassung, a 'summary' of the whole of the Römische Elegien and that this solo publication lends extra weight to it. One only has to consider all the other strands contained in the other elegies that are not mentioned in this elegy to realise how absurd that suggestion is.

This elegy fulfils the two criteria for that free-standing publication: it must be comprehensible independently of all the other elegies – which fact alone rules out too much interdependence – and it must be sufficiently decent to be printed in a public journal.

XVI Zünde mir Licht an, Knabe! [14]

Zünde mir Licht an, Knabe! — „Noch ist es hell. Ihr verzehret


Öl und Docht nur umsonst. Schließet die Läden doch nicht!


Hinter die Häuser entwich, nicht hinter den Berg, uns die Sonne!


Ein halb Stündchen noch währts bis zum Geläute der Nacht!” —


Unglückseliger! Geh und gehorch! Mein Mädchen erwart ich.


Tröste mich, Lämpchen, indes, lieblicher Bote der Nacht!


Light the lamp for me, boy! – 'It is still light. You will be using up oil and wick for nothing. Just don't close the shutters!

The sun is setting behind the houses, not behind the hills! There is still half an hour left before the night bell rings!' –

Wretch! go and do what you are told! I am waiting for my girl to arrive. Until then comfort me, little lamp, dear herald of the night!


Knabe: In Goethe's time and before, male menials might be referred to as Knabe, 'boy', even when they were in fact young adults. This usage of Knabe is cognate with the word Knappe, applied in former times to young male servants such as 'pages', 'squires' etc.

Some commentators have taken Knabe here to be intended as one of the traditional epithets of Cupid. This would make sense in the general context of erotic elegies, but makes no sense in the specific context of this elegy. On the contrary, we would not expect Cupid, the 'wild boy' to be worrying about the impact of half an hour's candlelight on the household economy; we would rather expect him to be cranking up the tension before the arrival of the girl – he would certainly not need to be informed that she was on her way.

Our interpretive position, therefore, is that Knabe here simply refers to a young, male, domestic servant. In Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, Werther's manservant is consistently referred to as a Knabe.

Schließet die Läden doch nicht!: 'Just don't close the shutters!' It will become clear in the final distich why G. has closed the shutters prematurely. We need to add that G. had to be extremely discreet in his liaison with his beloved: in Rome at the time, dominated by the presence of the Catholic church, both the man and the woman involved in immoral behaviour if caught would be tried and be severely punished; narks and spies were everywhere and foreigners in particular were under constant surveillance.

Geläute der Nacht: the ringing of the church bells to mark the beginning of the night. Goethe himself wrote a short piece on the idiosyncratic counting of time in Italy, Stundenmaß der Italiener, which was published in Der Teutsche Merkur in October 1788. Here is the relevant section:

How many artisans work in front of the houses in the street! how many shops are fully open to the street! how so many things take place in the markets, the squares and the courtyards! That with such a lifestyle, the moment that the sun sets and night falls must in general be more important than it is for us [in the north], where sometimes there is no day during the whole day, can easily be seen. The day is really at an end, all the business of a certain type must also be concluded and this epoch has, as is appropriate for a sensual people, year in, year out the same name. Now it is night [notte], for the 24th hour is never spoken of, just as in French one says [midi] and not twelve o'clock. The bells are rung, everyone says a short prayer, the servant lights the lamps, brings them in the room and wishes: Felicissima notte! Between this moment, that of the sunset and the next sunset, time is divided into 24 hours; …Naturally, this way of counting the hours is very convenient for all those actions which have the most direct relationship to day and night and one can see how the time of a large sensual mass of people can be divided up.

Wie viele Handwerker arbeiten vor den Häusern auf freier Straße! wie viele Läden sind ganz gegen die Straße zu eröffnet! wie mancherlei geschieht auf den Märkten, Plätzen und in den Höfen! Daß bei einer solchen Lebensart der Moment, wo die Sonne untergeht und die Nacht eintritt, allgemeiner entscheidend sein müsse als bei uns, wo es manchmal den ganzen Tag nicht Tag wird, läßt sich leicht einsehen. Der Tag ist wirklich zu Ende; alle Geschäfte einer gewissen Art müssen auch geendigt werden, und diese Epoche hat, wie es einem sinnlichen Volke geziemt, jahrein jahraus dieselbige Bezeichnung. Nun ist es Nacht [notte], denn die vierundzwanzigste Stunde wird niemals ausgesprochen, wie man im Französischen Mittag [midi] und nicht zwölf Uhr sagt. Es läuten die Glocken, ein jeder spricht ein kurzes Gebet, der Diener zündet die Lampen an, bringt sie in das Zimmer und wünschet: Felicissima notte! Von dieser Epoche an, welche immer mit dem Sonnenuntergang rückt, bis zum nächsten Sonnenuntergang wird die Zeit in 24 Stunden geteilt;… Natürlicherweise findet sich die Bequemlichkeit dieser Art die Stunden zu zählen bei allen Handlungen, welche auf Tag und Nacht die reinste Beziehung haben, und man sieht, wie auf diese Weise die Zeit einer großen sinnlichen Masse Volks eingeteilt werden konnte.

Unlike us, the readers of Der Teutsche Merkur in 1788 had no idea of G.'s life of sensual abandon in Rome and so would have thought nothing of G.'s heavy hints of the importance of nightfall for a 'sensual people'. We also now understand the way the impatient poet is expressing his frustration at waiting for the night to begin and for his lady to arrive, and the unease of the servant at breaking with tradition in this way.


In these six seemingly simple lines Goethe's supreme competence as a poet is on display. Although the reader might skip past this elegy, thinking it trivial, in fact every line, every word has its justification and each sentence makes its contribution to the narration of a scene full of meaning.

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