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

XVII Zwei gefährliche Schlangen, vom Chore der Dichter gescholten [n2]

Zwei gefährliche Schlangen, vom Chore der Dichter gescholten,


Grausend nennt sie die Welt Jahre die tausende schon,


Python, dich, und dich, Lernäischer Drache! Doch seid ihr


Durch die rüstige Hand tätiger Götter gefällt.


Ihr zerstöret nicht mehr mit feurigem Atem und Geifer


Herde, Wiesen und Wald, goldene Saaten nicht mehr.


Doch welch ein feindlicher Gott hat uns im Zorne die neue


Ungeheure Geburt giftigen Schlammes gesandt?


Überall schleicht er sich ein, und in den lieblichsten Gärtchen


Lauert tückisch der Wurm, packt den Genießenden an.


Sei mir, hesperischer Drache, gegrüßt, du zeigtest dich mutig,


Du verteidigtest kühn goldener Äpfel Besitz!


Aber dieser verteidiget nichts — und wo er sich findet,


Sind die Gärten, die Frucht keiner Verteidigung wert.


Heimlich krümmet er sich im Busche, besudelt die Quellen,


Geifert, wandelt in Gift Amors belebenden Tau.


O! wie glücklich warst du, Lucrez! du konntest der Liebe


Ganz entsagen und dich jeglichem Körper vertraun.


Selig warst du, Properz! dir holte der Sklave die Dirnen


Vom Aventinus herab, aus dem Tarpeischen Hain.


Und wenn Cynthia dich aus jenen Umarmungen schreckte,


Untreu fand sie dich zwar; aber sie fand dich gesund.


Jetzt wer hütet sich nicht, langweilige Treue zu brechen!


Wen die Liebe nicht hält, hält die Besorglichkeit auf.


Und auch da, wer weiß! gewagt ist jegliche Freude,


Nirgend legt man das Haupt ruhig dem Weib in der Schoß.


Sicher ist nicht das Ehbett mehr, nicht sicher der Ehbruch;


Gatte, Gattin und Freund, eins ist im andern verletzt.


O! der goldenen Zeit! da Jupiter noch, vom Olympus,


Sich zu Semele bald, bald zu Kallisto begab.


Ihm lag selber daran, die Schwelle des heiligen Tempels


Rein zu finden, den er liebend und mächtig betrat.


O! wie hätte Juno getobt, wenn im Streite der Liebe


Gegen sie der Gemahl giftige Waffen gekehrt.


Doch wir sind nicht so ganz, wir alte Heiden, verlassen,


Immer schwebet ein Gott über der Erde noch hin,


Eilig und geschäftig, ihr kennt ihn alle, verehrt ihn!


Ihn den Boten des Zeus, Hermes, den heilenden Gott.


Fielen des Vaters Tempel zu Grund, bezeichnen die Säulen


Paarweis kaum noch den Platz alter verehrender Pracht,


Wird des Sohnes Tempel doch stehn und ewige Zeiten


Wechselt der Bittende stets dort mit dem Dankenden ab.


Eins nur fleh ich im stillen, an euch ihr Grazien wend ich


Dieses heiße Gebet tief aus dem Busen herauf:


Schützet immer mein kleines, mein artiges Gärtchen, entfernet


Jegliches Übel von mir; reichet mir Amor die Hand,


O! so gebet mir stets, sobald ich dem Schelmen vertraue,


Ohne Sorgen und Furcht, ohne Gefahr den Genuß.


Two dangerous serpents, cursed by the chorus of poets, horrors to the world for a thousand years,

Python, you and you, the Lernaean Hydra! But you were brought down by the strong hand of the diligent gods.

No longer do you destroy with fiery breath and venom cattle, meadows and woods, golden crops no longer.

Yet what hostile god has sent us in anger the new monster born of poisonous slime?

It crawls into every place, and in the most beautiful gardens the serpent insidiously lurks and attacks the pleasure seeker.

I welcome you, dragon of the Hesperides, you showed courage, defending bravely the golden apples!

But this new serpent defends nothing – and in the gardens where he lurks the fruit is not worth defending.

Secretively he coils in the bush, soils the springs, dribbles venom, turning Love's invigorating dew into poison.

O! how fortunate were you, Lucretius! you could reject love completely and trust everyone's body.

You were blessed, Propertius! the slave fetched you the whores down from the Aventine, out of the Tarpeian grove.

And when Cynthia startled you out of that embrace, she found you indeed unfaithful – but she found you healthy.

Nowadays, who does not take care not to break tedious fidelity! Whomever love cannot hold, is held back by anxiety.

And even then, who knows? every pleasure is a risk, one can never lay one's head free of care in a woman's lap.

The marital bed is no longer safe, adultery is no longer safe; husband, wife and friend, each is injured by the other.

O! the golden age! when Jupiter from Olympus still went quickly to Semele, to Callisto.

It was in his interest to find pure the threshold of that sacred temple which he lovingly and powerfully entered.

O! how Juno would have raged, if in the combat of love her husband had turned poisonous weapons on her.

But we old heathens have not been completely abandoned, for one god still soars above the earth.

Speedy and busy, you all know him, honour him! The messenger of Zeus, Hermes, the healing god.

Though the father's temple has crumbled, the pairs of columns scarcely revealing the place of the old dominant glory,

The son's temple still stands and for eternity those pleading for help will be followed by those expressing gratitude.

One thing I plead for quietly, I turn myself to you, Graces, and send you this burning prayer from deep in my heart:

Always protect my small, my well-behaved garden, remove every evil from me; should Cupid offer me his hand,

O! when I place my trust in the rogue, grant me always the pleasure without worry and fear, without danger.


Python: A serpent or dragon who arose from the mud left behind after the retreat of the Deucalion Flood. The flood was sent by Zeus to punish humans; it put an end to the Bronze Age. Python was slain by Apollo. The main account here is from Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1:416-451.

Lernäischer Drache: The (Lernaean) Hydra was the water serpent or dragon which lived in marshes of Lerna, at the entrance to Hades. The hydra had many heads and if one were cut off, two would grow in its place. The Hydra was killed by Hercules as his Second Labour.

Geifer: '(angry) venom', 'spittle' or 'slaver'.

Geburt giftigen Schlammes: This new monster is 'born of poisonous slime/mud', as was Python; it is meant as the symbol for the disease of syphilis. G. seems to be alluding to the weeping chancres which initially mark the site of infection and the lesions which occur in later stages of the disease. The fluid from these sites is highly infectious.

Gärtchen: 'small garden', a symbol for sex and love throughout these elegies. It would not have been lost on G. that the innocent 'Paradise' is a term originally meaning a garden – as in the Biblical Garden of Eden.

hesperischer Drache: The dragon who watched over the Garden of the Hesperides, who were the nymphs of evening and sunset. Golden apples grew and were kept there. This dragon, too, was slain by Hercules.

Lucrez dich…jeglichem Körper vertraun: The Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (c.99 BC-c.55 BC) is known for his poem De rerum natura, 'On the Nature of Things'. G. is alluding to 4:1058 f, in which Lucretius rejects all love-based relationships (i.e. Venusian couplings) for a doctrine of emotionless sex with anyone at any time (i.e.'zipless' couplings, ©Erica Jong).

Properz…Cynthia: An allusion to the Propertian Elegy 4.8. Cynthia tells Propertius that she is taking a trip to sacrifice to Juno. Propertius suspects that she is more likely to be going to sacrifice to Venus. In her absence he sends for two cheerful girls who like their drink to party with him, Phyllis from the Aventine (one of the seven hills of Rome) and Tela, from between the Tarpeian groves. Cynthia returns in the middle of the action, sends the girls packing and punishes Propertius for his infidelity, before forgiving him in the usual manner.

das Haupt ruhig dem Weib in der Schoß: 'one can never lay one's head carefree in a woman's lap'. Schoß, normally 'lap', can also mean 'womb' or 'vagina'; poets down the ages have dined out on this ambiguity. Readers can work out for themselves what the 'head' then is.

Semele…Kallisto: alluding to the tales in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Semele: 2:260, and Callisto: 2:401. Both are tales of Jupiter's infidelities and Juno's anger at them.

Hermes, den heilenden Gott: Hermes, the busy messenger and servant of the gods, has many mythological attributes, but 'healer' is not among them. Goethe is playing with words: Hermes' Roman name was Mercurius, 'Mercury', and that name was given (in English) to the metallic element, liquid at room temperature, that also darts about rapidly. Its German everyday name is Quecksilber, etymologically meaning 'living silver', a word derived from the medieval Latin designation argentum vivum. We hear the Old German quec in the English phrase that goes back at least to the 16th century, 'the quick and the dead'. G. would have known its apothecaries' name Mercurius and its use as the traditional treatment for syphilis. To wrap up the wordplay, unlike the latinised names of the other gods, he gives Mercury his Greek name, Hermes.

des Vaters Tempel…des Sohnes Tempel: Jupiter was the father, Hermes/Mercury the son.

ihr Grazien: G. has already invoked the Three Graces in Elegy XIII. As noted in that context, the three Graces (Gratiae in Roman mythology) or Charites (Χάριτες in Greek mythology) were usually associated with Apollo and the Muses, the various artistic patrons. They were the children of Venus and Bacchus. As a creative artist, G. takes them as his protectors, particularly relevant in this context given their line of descent from Venus the goddess of love and Bacchus the god of wine, fertility and mania, the holy ecstasy.

artiges Gärtchen: artig means 'polite', 'well-behaved', 'nice'. G. has already established the symbolism of the garden as sexual adventure; artig tells us that his adventure was no mad libertinage or Bacchanalian excess in the manner of Propertius and his drunken girls for a night, but instead a moderate, polite and above all discreet fornication. He seems to hope that with the help of the Graces that this will save him from the venomous serpent.


The Christianity of that time preferred to see syphilis as being the just desserts for immorality and licentiousness. Goethe, the 'old heathen', portrayed the disease as a random affliction that ruined healthy sex. It represented a fall from the golden age of sexual freedom before the disease came into being, when gods and men could enjoy risk- and worry-free debauchery.

Citing Lucretius' advocacy of stray cat promiscuity was certainly a provocation for his uptight contemporaries. Goethe took the elegy out of the collection and was only published along with the other three censored elegies in 1914.

Goethe's Duke, Carl August, was an heroic philanderer in keeping with his station in life. Around the time Goethe's stay in Italy ended, the Duke was in the Netherlands, having his own case of syphilis doctored [also discussed in the notes to Elegy XXI].

For most of Goethe's time in Italy – with the exception of the last few months, in which he was able to bed down with his well-brought-up young widow – Goethe was making frequent use of the Italian sex trade. In Rome at that time 'nice girls' were well supervised by their parents and consequently unavailable to wandering poets; the lower class whores were cheap but possibly deadly; from somewhere in between it seems he made his choice and hoped for the best.

In the category of things the reader would rather not know is the fact that, in nearly half of female infections, the site of the infection is the cervix, meaning that both the working girl and her customer would have had little idea of the dragon lurking in the darkness, 'coiled secretively in the bush'.

Goethe's faith in mercury as the saviour of mankind was misplaced. Three quarters of syphilis infections cleared themselves up after a year or two and the bacterium then lay dormant, latent or inactive for the rest of the patients' lives – if they survived the onslaught of the mercury 'cure'. For the quarter condemned to years of lingering and abominable decline it is extremely doubtful whether the treatment with mercury in various forms helped them in any way at all – more probably it hastened their demise. We looked at this topic in some detail in the case of Franz Schubert's syphilis.

Goethe's pre-syphilitic 'Golden Age' aligns with an idea of Winckelmann's, that the beauty of the ideal forms of Greek sculpture arose in part from an absence of the disfiguring diseases that so plagued the modern age: smallpox and (late-stage) syphilis in particular:

The diseases which destroy so much beauty and ruin the noblest form were unknown to the Greeks. In the works of the Greek doctors there is no trace of smallpox and in no Greek image, which in the case of the Homeric works display the tiniest details, is there any indication of distinctive features such as smallpox scars.

The veneral diseases and the daughter of them, the English Disease [syphilis], did not yet rage against the beautiful nature of the Greeks.

Die Krankheiten, welche so viel Schönheiten zerstören und die edelsten Bildungen verderben, waren den Griechen noch unbekannt. Es findet sich in den Schriften der griechischen Ärzte keine Spur von Blattern, und in keines Griechen angezeigter Bildung, welche man bei Homer oft nach den geringsten Zügen entworfen sieht, ist ein so unterscheidendes Kennzeichen, wie Blattergruben sind, angebracht worden.
Die venerischen Übel und die Tochter derselben, die englische Krankheit, wüteten auch noch nicht wider die schöne Natur der Griechen.
Winckelmann, Johann Joachim, Gedanken ueber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerey und Bildhauerkunst, Dresden , Leipzig, 1756, p. 7.

The feminist critical theorists we keep in the basement will be shocked by this elegy, written as it is from an 18th-century male perspective. Leaving aside the numerous rape narratives in Goethe's classical allusions and the patriarchalist garden around which he wanders, plucking his fruit at will, there is the monumental egotism of the worry that he may catch syphilis from some girl. What happens to the girl and what she has suffered in the past and what she will suffer in the future is of no apparent interest to him. She is simply the vector of the disease. The man is horrified at the prospect of being infected by the woman, but who is horrified at the prospect of the woman being infected by a man?

The philosophers of science, also muttering to each other in the Figures of Speech basement, are disturbed by Goethe's nonsensical mythologising of natural processes. Goethe had a mind that worked in metaphors and symbolism. Consequently, the syphilis theory behind this elegy is as nonsensical as the mercury treatment of his time: decorating the disease with the heavy symbolism of the Ancient Greeks does nothing for our understanding of the disease or the search for a cure – Paul Ehrlich's dogged synthesis and testing of 605 arsenic compounds was what resulted, in test No. 606, in the creation of the drug Salvarsan, the first effective drug against syphilis. The Greek pantheon played no role in that discovery. For the same reason, Goethe's 'scientific' work in the theory of light, geology and plant evolution is skewed by metaphoric thinking that renders it a pointless waste of time.

XVIII Cäsarn wär ich wohl nie zum fernen Britannien gefolget [15]

Cäsarn wär ich wohl nie zum fernen Britannien gefolget,


Florus hätte mich leicht in die Popine geschleppt!


Denn mir bleiben weit mehr die Nebel des traurigen Nordens


Als ein geschäftiges Volk südlicher Flöhe verhaßt.


Und noch schöner von heut an seid mir gegrüßet, ihr Schenken,


Osterien, wie euch schicklich der Römer benennt;


Denn ihr zeiget mir heute die Liebste, begleitet vom Oheim,


Den die Gute so oft, mich zu besitzen, betrügt.


Hier stand unser Tisch, den Deutsche vertraulich umgaben;


Drüben suchte das Kind neben der Mutter den Platz,


Rückte vielmals die Bank und wußt es artig zu machen,


Daß ich halb ihr Gesicht, völlig den Nacken gewann.


Lauter sprach sie, als hier die Römerin pfleget, kredenzte,


Blickte gewendet nach mir, goß und verfehlte das Glas.


Wein floß über den Tisch, und sie, mit zierlichem Finger,


Zog auf dem hölzernen Blatt Kreise der Feuchtigkeit hin.


Meinen Namen verschlang sie dem ihrigen; immer begierig


Schaut ich dem Fingerchen nach, und sie bemerkte mich wohl.


Endlich zog sie behende das Zeichen der römischen Fünfe


Und ein Strichlein davor. Schnell, und sobald ichs gesehn,


Schlang sie Kreise durch Kreise, die Lettern und Ziffern zu löschen;


Aber die köstliche Vier blieb mir ins Auge geprägt.


Stumm war ich sitzen geblieben und biß die glühende Lippe,


Halb aus Schalkheit und Lust, halb aus Begierde, mir wund.


Erst noch so lange bis Nacht! Dann noch vier Stunden zu warten!


Hohe Sonne, du weilst, und du beschauest dein Rom!


Größeres sahest du nichts und wirst nichts Größeres sehen,


Wie es dein Priester Horaz in der Entzückung versprach.


Aber heute verweile mir nicht und wende die Blicke


Von dem Siebengebirg früher und williger ab!


Einem Dichter zuliebe verkürze die herrlichen Stunden,


Die mit begierigem Blick selig der Maler genießt;


Glühend blicke noch schnell zu diesen hohen Fassaden,


Kuppeln und Säulen zuletzt und Obelisken herauf;


Stürze dich eilig ins Meer, um morgen früher zu sehen,


Was Jahrhunderte schon göttliche Lust dir gewährt:


Diese feuchten, mit Rohr so lange bewachsnen Gestade,


Diese mit Bäumen und Busch düster beschatteten Höhn.


Wenig Hütten zeigten sie erst; dann sahst du auf einmal


Sie vom wimmelnden Volk glücklicher Räuber belebt.


Alles schleppten sie drauf an diese Stätte zusammen:


Kaum war das übrige Rund deiner Betrachtung noch wert.


Sahst eine Welt hier entstehn, sahst dann eine Welt hier in Trümmern,


Aus den Trümmern aufs neu fast eine größere Welt!


Daß ich diese noch lange von dir beleuchtet erblicke,


Spinne die Parze mir klug langsam den Faden herab,


Aber sie eile herbei, die schön bezeichnete Stunde! —


Glücklich! hör ich sie schon? Nein, doch ich höre schon Drei.


So, ihr lieben Musen, betrogt ihr wieder die Länge


Dieser Weile, die mich von der Geliebten getrennt.


Lebet wohl! Nun eil ich und fürcht euch nicht zu beleidgen:


Denn ihr Stolzen, ihr gebt Amorn doch immer den Rang.


I would never have followed the Emperor to the distant land of the Britons, Florus would have easily dragged me into the tavern!

For I hate the fog of the dismal north even more than I hate a nation of busy southern fleas.

And even more beautiful from today onwards I greet you, you inns, osteria, as the Romans so fittingly call you,

For today you showed me my loved one, accompanied by her uncle, whom she often deceives in order to possess me.

Here stood our table, surrounded by Germans familiar with it; over there the girl took a place next to her mother,

She shifted the bench several times, craftily making sure that I saw half her face and the whole of her neck.

She spoke more loudly that Roman women usually do, made to serve herself the wine, turned and looked towards me and, pouring, missed the glass.

Wine flowed onto the table and she, with a delicate finger, sketched circles of wetness on the wooden tabletop.

She wove my name into hers; I gazed transfixed with longing at the finger, and she clearly noticed me.

Finally she drew the character of the Roman 'five' with a line in front of it. As soon as I had seen it,

She quickly intertwined circle upon circle, in order to erase the letters and numbers; but the delightful 'four' remained imprinted on my sight.

I sat in silence and bit my burning lip until it bled, half from mischievous pleasure and longing, half from desire.

But oh so long until night! Then four hours more to wait! Lofty sun, you are tarrying, gazing at your Rome!

Greater things you cannot see nor will you ever see anything greater, as your priest Horace once prophesied in his ecstasy.

But today don't dawdle; turn your view away from the seven hills earlier and more willingly than normal!

For the sake of a poet shorten the wonderful hours, which the painter blissfully enjoys with an eager view;

Inflamed, take one last look at the lofty facades, then the domes and columns and obelisks;

Then plunge into the sea, in order to see earlier, what already centuries of divine delight have been granted to you:

These damp shores overgrown with reeds for so long, these darkly shadowed heights.

In the beginning there were only a few huts to be seen there; then all at once you saw them come to life with a swarm of carefree robbers.

They dragged everything to this place: soon the rest of your round was scarcely worth your attention.

You saw a world come into being here, then you saw a world in ruins, then again an almost greater world arose anew!

That I still may look long at this in your light, may the Fates spin the thread slowly down for me,

But may it arrive soon, the hour that was so beautifully signified! – Joy! is that it? No, but I have already heard three strokes.

So, dear Muses, you have yet again cheated the length of this time, which had separated me from my loved one.

Fare well! now I shall hurry with no fear of insulting you: for you proud ones, you always give precedence to Cupid.


Cäsarn…Flöhe verhaßt: G. is offering us a very free translation of an item from Chapter 16 of De Vita Hadriani, part of the Scriptores Historiae Augustae. It is a surprise to find G. alluding to this obscure and questionable (in modern scholarship) work, but there is no doubt that this is the source of this passage, which is a supposed exchange between someone called Florus and the Emperor Hadrian [tr.: David Magie]:

Floro poetae scribenti ad se: Ego nolo Caesar esse, / ambulare per Britannos, / latitare per … / Scythicas pati pruinas,
I don't want to be a Caesar, / Stroll about among the Britons, / Lurk about among the … / And endure the Scythian winters,

Hadrian, in turn, responded with:

Ego nolo Florus esse, / ambulare per tabernas, / latitare per popinas, / culices pati rotundos.
I don't want to be a Florus, / Stroll about among the taverns, / Lurk about among the cook-shops / And endure the round fat insects.

If only by the use of the Latin idiom Popine, it is clear that G. is alluding to this passage and signalling to us this fact. There seems no deep reason for him to do this, apart from the need to get the subject on to that of Roman taverns. It is, however, an interesting exercise to observe him at work as a gifted translator/paraphraser of Latin.

Osterien…schicklich: The etymology of the word Osteria, meaning now 'an unpretentious tavern serving wine and usually modest food' is not as simple as G.'s remark schicklich 'appropriately' suggests, since its passage through time involves numerous intermediate stages, Old French included. G. is using the word as a hook to tie the Latin source in his introduction to the Rome of his day. The word indeed bears elements of Latin hospes, 'host' as well as hostis, 'stranger'.

Even modern Italians get emotional over this term, which some of their countrymen (it's always men) prefer to write as hosteria, taking the usage of the 13th and 14th centuries. English-speaking tourists can amuse themselves on a tedious journey by telling the hospes that the title of the establishment has been spelled wrongly (whichever way).

Hier stand unser Tisch, den Deutsche vertraulich umgaben: Zapperi put much effort into finding the osteria in which this scene took place but concludes that the scene was simply made up by G., who took the osteria of ancient Rome and created the continuity of old and new by reconstructing the modern scene from a generic osteria out of contemporary examples.

It is true that it would satisfy our curiosity (and help the tourist industry in Rome) if there had been a real osteria and we could identify it, but ultimately that knowledge would bring us no further. So what? we could only say.

In his thorough way, Zapperi discovered that the favourite watering hole for the German artistic colony in Rome was actually owned and run by two German brothers called Roesler, Franz and Vinzenz. Franz died in 1765 and the business was carried on by his brother Vinzenz. It was located in the Via Condotti, close to the Spanish Square (with the famous Spanish Steps), about 600 m from Goethe's room in the Via del Corso.

The osteria was the first port of call for new German arrivals in Rome. The gregarious painter Tischbein was without doubt a frequent visitor and he would have in turn introduced Goethe to this institution. 'Vincenzo's' may have supplied the image of the noisy German Stammtisch for G.'s fictional osteria. Along with Tischbein, G. made a number of German-speaking aquintances during his stay in Rome.

From G.'s account book, Zapperi discovered that G. had been a frequent patron there, particularly in January 1787. That was the month in which G. was attempting to seduce Roesler's daughter Costanza. The attempt failed: the girl was no fool, despite her young years.

Lauter sprach sie…verfehlte das Glas: G.'s artfully constructed and very concise German description demands some expansion in the English translation in order to convey the scene properly. In G.'s poetry every word counts – often several times over – meaning that the speed reader will clatter over this distich and miss its masterly nuances.

G. has taken his place at the noisy Stammtisch frequented by some of the large German colony in Rome. His loved one has not only staged herself attractively at a nearby table in his line of sight, but she is speaking louder than usual in order to attract his attention among the noisy Teutonic hubbub. The verb kredenzen is, given the context, fittingly used, derived as it is from the Italian credenza 'serve something or lay a table'. It implies that she is serving out the wine to her chaperones (her mother and uncle, at least). When she finally comes to serving herself, she glances back at Goethe to make sure that she has his attention, which distraction allows her to 'accidentally' pour some wine onto the table.

From what little we know of G.'s affair with this girl, her mother appears to have been a compliant chaperone – though the uncle was not (see the next elegy, XIX). In the present elegy G. specifically tells us that the uncle is regularly duped by his niece in order to meet her German poet, whereas nothing of the sort is said about the mother, who probably has a more instinctive understanding for the situation of her widowed daughter with young child. Tibullus enjoyed the active assistance of Delia's mother:

I do not spare you, it is your aged mother who moves me; my anger fades at her golden nature. She brings me to you in the dark and in fear and trembling joins our hands secretly and silently. Close by the door at night she waits for me and knows the noise of my approaching feet.

Non ego te propter parco tibi, sed tua mater / Me movet atque iras aurea vincit anus. / Haec mihi te adducit tenebris multoque timore / Coniungit nostras clam taciturna manus, / Haec foribusque manet noctu me adfixa proculque / Cognoscit strepitus me veniente pedum.
Tibullus 1.6:56-62.

After all these nuances we become aware that the image of the affair between the poet and his Italian lover that is being presented to us is not a one-way seduction of some poor, simple girl by one of the great minds of the age; she is an equal party in the affair, playing a part worthy of the scheming females in Le nozze di Figaro, women who are well ahead of the hapless male characters in intellectual capacity and cunning. An opera which, by the way, Mozart and Da Ponte produced just a few months before G. left Karlsbad for Italy. There must have been something in the air – perhaps that damn Zeitgeist again.

Kreise der Feuchtigkeit: note that G.'s lover is not drawing in the puddle of wine, but drawing with the wine on the rest of the table. Wine (Bacchus) is here the medium of sexual attraction (Venus) and the helpmeet of Cupid.

der römischen Fünfe Und ein Strichlein davor: 'IV', in other words. Now, traced out in wine on the tabletop we have the names of the two lovers (presumably their initials) and the Roman numeral for four. When she is sure that G. has read the message, she obscures it by drawing entwined circles over it: Schlang sie Kreise durch Kreise. She does not obliterate the message by simply rubbing it out – that would be unpropitious – but she reinforces it by drawing the entwined circles over it.

There are numerous antecedents for this formulaic scene in Latin literature: e.g. Ovid's Amores, 2.5:17f. and particularly in 1.4:20, which presents a scene not very dissimilar from the situation in G.'s osteria. This form of discreet communication between lovers, even in the presence of the jealous husband, also occurs in Tibullus' Elegies, 1.6:19f. In 1.10:32 we read of the warrior returned from the war, telling of campaigns and 'drawing the camp in wine on the table-top'.

Two impressions done around the mid-19th century by men of the north of life in the Italian osteria. In both paintings the tables are covered with tablecloths, removing all possibility of discreet, wine-based communications:

FoS image, size 708x569

Two Italian girls at the next table flirting with us; the young gentleman is not happy. Carl Bloch (1834-1890), In a Roman Osteria, 1866. Image: Statens Museum for Kunst.

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The mother, keeping a careful eye on things and hoping for a good solution; the girl at the front clearing a space for the newcomer. Wilhelm Marstrand (1810-1873), Italian Osteria Scene, Girl welcoming a Person entering, 1847. Image: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

Zapperi maintains that the Roman osteria at the time of Goethe's presence in Rome, even the basic ones, would have had tablecloths (as we see in the paintings). Your author is not convinced on this point: even today in many taverns in Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy there is a two-class tradition of laying tablecloths on only some of the tables and leaving the others for the drinkers and snackers. Washing tablecloths was a tedious and expensive task at that time.

Dann noch vier Stunden zu warten: thinking back to the Roman time reckoning recounted in Elegy XVI, we realise that G. has to wait for nightfall (signified by the ringing of the bells) and then four more hours.

Hohe Sonne…nichts Größeres sehen: G. is quoting almost directly from Horace's Carmen Saeculare 9f: 'O kindly Sun, in your shining chariot, who brings the day then hides it that it may be born again, new yet the same, you will never see anything greater than Rome!'

Volk glücklicher Räuber: 'a people of carefree robbers'. The rape/kidnapping of the Sabine women was one of the key events in the founding mythology of Rome. Later imperial domination brought the Roman state many opportunities for profitable acquisitions, plunder and freebooting. Lurid portrayals of this mythological event today clutter the walls of art galleries around the world. Glücklicher here could could mean 'happy', 'lucky' or 'fortunate' – unable to choose, your translator has opted for 'carefree'.
G.'s allusions to the history of the rise of Rome all point towards the account of the Roman Historian Livy in his work Ab urbe condita libri, 1.8f.

Sahst eine Welt hier entstehn, sahst dann eine Welt hier in Trümmern: the Sun saw the beginning of the classical age, 'a world come into being' and its end, 'a world in ruins'. From the ruins of that age a new Roman hegemony has arisen in the Rome of the Church, in the feudal system one of the three (or four) estates.

die Parze: the three Fates, Parcae in Roman mythology, the Moirai in Greek mythology. Each of them had a distinct role in measuring out human destiny: Nona (Gk. Clotho) spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle; Decima (Gk. Lachesis) measured the thread of life with her rod; Morta (Gk. Atropos) cut the thread of life and chose the manner of a person's death. G. is alluding here to the actions of Nona, spinning the thread downwards. G. is asking for a long life of many transits of the sun. In contrast, he prays that the hours of waiting for the assignation of the lovers should be short.

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A popular theme for artists down the ages. This painting, commonly titled Les Trois Parques (1540-1550) is attributed to either Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, 1477-1549) or Marco Bigio (fl. 1523-1550), an imitator of Bazzi's. The composition shows Nona spinning the thread on the right with her distaff and drop-spindle, the fingers of her right hand are twirling the spindle; Morta in the centre, cutting the thread of life with her shears; and Decima on the left winding and measuring the thread on her frame. Readers with time on their hands can spend it decoding all the symbolism in this picture, but your author's thread is too far gone for that. Image: Galerie nationale, Villa Barberini in Rome. It is possible that Goethe saw it there.

die schön bezeichnete Stunde: 'the hour that was so beautifully graphically signified' in the wine doodles on the table top.

So, ihr lieben Musen…Denn ihr Stolzen: It seems that G. has passed the time in the anxious wait for the appointed hour to arrive in literary effort; with the help of the Muses he has thus betrogen, 'cheated' the duration of this time. When the hour finally arrives he breaks off from that labour with an apology to the Muses whom he had invoked: such a breaking off following the involvement of Cupid has always been acceptable.

What was this literary labour which distracted G. so? In the context of the flow of time in this elegy it appears to be the mythological history of Rome in eleven distichs that is sandwiched between Erst noch so lange bis Nacht! and Spinne die Parze. G. had to write something here to get him through the many hours from the moment in the osteria to the departure for his assignation; he chose to write a brief history of Rome on the theme foundation-collapse-rebirth.

Nun eil ich: 'now I shall make haste', which tells us now that four o'clock was the hour at which G. should go to his lover; he is not expecting her to visit him. This expression forms a counterpoint to sie eile herbei, die schön bezeichnete Stunde from two distichs before, the two 'bookends', taken together giving us the opposition: the moment hurries towards me – NOW it is my turn to hurry.


This elegy exhibits a very clear overall structure.

The first three distichs form a bridge between the rather strained allusion to the Latin osteria and the Roman osteria of Goethe's time. In many instances during the Römische Elegien the times of the ancient and the modern world are overlaid and simultaneously available in the present – not quite with the consistency of Joyce's Ulysses, but not very dissimilar.

Once Goethe has got us into the bustling scene of the osteria, the next nine distichs describe the secretive communication of the time for the assignation of the lovers in the coming night. This scene introduces the figures of the mother and the uncle of the beloved, thus setting the stage for the elegy which follows it.

The next ten distichs, dealing with the rise and fall of Rome, form a sort of 'play within a play': a literary effort with the help of the muses to pass the time until the moment comes when Goethe goes off to visit his beloved.

The last four distichs of the elegy describe the passing of time and the moment of departure to the assignation.

XIX Warum bist du, Geliebter, nicht heute zur Vigne gekommen [16]

„Warum bist du, Geliebter, nicht heute zur Vigne gekommen?


Einsam, wie ich versprach, wartet ich oben auf dich.” —


Beste, schon war ich hinein; da sah ich zum Glücke den Oheim


Neben den Stöcken, bemüht, hin sich und her sich zu drehn.


Schleichend eilt ich hinaus! — „O welch ein Irrtum ergriff dich!


Eine Scheuche nur wars, was dich vertrieb! Die Gestalt


Flickten wir emsig zusammen aus alten Kleidern und Rohren,


Emsig half ich daran, selbst mir zu schaden bemüht.” —


Nun, des Alten Wunsch ist erfüllt: den losesten Vogel


Scheucht’ er heute, der ihm Gärtchen und Nichte bestiehlt.


'Why, my love, did you not come to the vineyard today? I was waiting for you at the top, alone, as promised.' –

Dearest, I did go there; but luckily I saw your uncle, next to the posts, attempting to turn himself back and forth.

I hurridly crept out! – 'O, what a mistake you made! It was just a scarecrow that drove you away! The figure…

…we industriously patched together from old clothes and sticks, I helped busily with it, too, to my own detriment.' –

So, the old man's wish is fulfilled: he can frighten away the the wildest bird who tries to steal from his garden and steal his niece from him.


den Oheim: 'the uncle' of G.'s lover, the elderly man mentioned in the previous elegy, whose vigilance she frequently escapes through trickery. The contrast between her daring risk-taking and her female cunning displayed in that elegy and G.'s timorous conduct in this elegy cannot be missed, but is understandable: he has much more to lose than she has.

Emsig half ich daran: the conceit of the elegy, that the woman's diligence has been to her own detriment.


The present elegy and its predecessor present two scenes from a love affair. However, whereas the charming narrative incident in the previous elegy is wrapped within layers of mythologising involving numerous allusions to classical authors, the charming narrative incident in the present elegy is completely free of mythological wrappers. The elegy seems to be there simply to expand on the role of the protective uncle introduced in the previous elegy.

Goethe's fright at seeing his lover's uncle apparently keeping watch over the location of the lovers' trysts, though superficially comical, is based on a hard reality. In Rome at that time extramarital chastity was strictly enforced by the clerical authorities. If his affair with his Roman lover had been reported to them by the uncle or even some nark such as a nosy neighbour (cf. Elegy VIII) he could have been summarily forced to marry the woman. If he refused, he could expect to be thrown in to prison and/or expelled from Rome for good.

XX Manche Töne sind mir Verdruß, doch bleibet am meisten [17]

Manche Töne sind mir Verdruß, doch bleibet am meisten


Hundegebell mir verhaßt: kläffend zerreißt es mein Ohr.


Einen Hund nur hör ich sehr oft mit frohem Behagen


Bellend kläffen, den Hund, den sich der Nachbar erzog.


Denn er bellte mir einst mein Mädchen an, da sie sich heimlich


Zu mir stahl, und verriet unser Geheimnis beinah.


Jetzo, hör ich ihn bellen, so denk ich mir immer: sie kommt wohl!


Oder ich denke der Zeit, da die Erwartete kam.


Some noises annoy me, but more than anything I hate the barking of dogs: it splits my ears.

But the frequent barking of one dog I hear often with great pleasure, the dog my neighbour reared.

For he barked once at my girl, as she stealthily visited me, almost betraying our secret.

Now, whenever I hear him barking, I always think: she must be coming! Or I think of the time when the expected one arrived.


den Hund, den sich der Nachbar erzog: This line and its context makes it clear that the lovers sometimes trysted at G.'s residence. We learned in Elegy VIII and Elegy XVIII that intimate moments of love took place in her residence as well.

verriet unser Geheimnis beinah: 'nearly betrayed our secret'. G. is toying with his reader by creating the tension of a contradiction: the only barking dog he likes, which once nearly betrayed him. The resolution of the puzzle comes in the final distich.

denk ich…ich denke: a distich of Goethean subtlety. The phrase with the first denke, here '~imagine', could well be expanded as '[whenever the neighbour's dog barks] I think that it might signal that she is about to visit me, unexpectedly'. The phrase with the second denke, here '~recall', could well be expanded as 'I think of [what happened] the [last] time she came [when I was expecting her]'. The ambiguity in the meaning of the parenthetical denken is classic Goethe.


Another charming, well-told scene from a love affair. Goethe opens with an unexceptional remark about the noise of barking dogs, but develops it through a startling contradiction into another instance of the anticipation and the memories of passion.

The group of three elegies XVIII, XIX and XX are five finger exercises on the joys and pains of love: the tantalising secrecy of making assignations, the tension of the impatient wait for the moment of union to come, the fear of discovery, the continuing tension of the memory of past assignations and the longing for new ones.

As we might expect, this theme is well represented among the Latin elegists who served as Goethe's inspiration, Tibullus above all:

Or [the girl] promised, then didn't turn up, leaving me alone, and I have to lie awake in torment? Only in my dreams will she come and whatever sound I hear I will take to be her footstep approaching.

Vel cum promittit, subito sed perfida fallit, / Est mihi nox multis evigilanda malis. / Dum mihi venturam fingo, quodcumque movetur, / Illius credo tunc sonuisse pedes.
Tibullus 1.8:63-66.

Or, this time from the girl's point of view:

[Cupid] guides the girl to step over the sleeping watchmen and make her way alone to her lover in the darkness, in fearful suspense, her feet feeling the way ahead, her hand stretched out blindly before her to find the way in the dark.

hoc duce custodes furtim transgressa iacentes / ad iuuenem tenebris sola puella uenit / et pedibus praetemptat iter suspensa timore, / explorat caecas cui manus ante uias.
Tibullus 2.1:75-78.

We have already mentioned the clever women of Le nozze di Figaro. But the opera also writes the playbook for the erotic tension surrounding the longed-for moment: the secret messages, the complex assignations, the impatient longing and the anticipation of joys to come. In scene 27 of the final act of the opera, Susanna's recitative and aria in the garden, Guinsi alfin il momento incoronar di rose encapsulate all the emotions we find in these three elegies.

But, of course, anyone who knows the opera will point out that Susanna is faking this passion in the sight and hearing of her betrothed, Figaro, just to arouse him and also soften him up with some well-crafted jealousy.

Let that be a timely warning to readers of Goethe's Römische Elegien: we are reading carefully crafted accounts of carefully curated scenes written some time after the fact. However, like Susanna's aria, it is still enjoyable, even if fake.

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