Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Awakens

How bright, how splendid
Is everything!
How the sun shines down,
How, the meadows sing!
Buds burst from every
Twig, and from all
The bushes a thousand
Voices call,

And all hearts pour forth
Their joy and delight
Oh the earth, oh nature,
Oh dear sunlight!

These are the opening lines of Goethe's "May Song" (Mailied, translation by David Luke). It is not May, of course, but, as I experienced myself as a student in Germany, May was when you had the first signs of what we know of as spring. For instance, the crocuses in my rather pathetic urban garden.

I went to Germany when I was a junior in college, still very young, not yet eighteen (I had skipped a year of school many years earlier). This was back in the days right before the German "economic miracle," when there was still plenty of rubble on the streets, reminders of World War II. Back then the exchange rate was 4 DM to the dollar, and so an American like myself could live quite well as a student in a town like Marburg for $100 a month. Wanting to live like a "real" German student, I rented a room in the "Altstadt" (old city), only a few minutes' walk from the main buildings of the university for the grand sum of DM40 -- $10 -- a month. My room, located in the lowest level of the house next to the storeroom that held the coal for the building, was reached only after I navigated an unlit, rickety flight of steps. The bed in the room sagged, the walls were covered with faded tapestries to hide the peeling wallpaper, and in one corner, concealed behind a likewise faded fabric curtain, was a small sink with running cold water, an item of comparative luxury.

Yet, it has to be said that when my room was warm, when orange peels, spread on the iron plate atop the coal stove, gave off their sweet fragrance, when I was sitting at the wobbly table that served as a desk, with a cup of tea within reach while reading a German novel and looking up words I didn't know (in the big Cassell's dictionary I kept close by) -- at those times, it was  a very charming room, and nothing could match my sense of contentment. If I had been a cat, I would have purred.

The major problem was that coal stove. The trick was to get a decent fire going and then lay on a supply of coal, with the air hole open just wide enough, so that the fire would not die. In that way, when I returned from my classes I only had to open the flue, prod the glowing ashes to life with the poker, add a few lumps of coal, and -- presto -- my room would soon be warm enough to be able to sit an my desk and read. My landlady could get a fire going in my stove with a few quick gestures, but a childhood spent in gadget-rich America, used to having only to flip a switch for light to read, to turn a faucet for warm water, meant the atrophy of many of those inner muscles that otherwise helped humans to survive through the millennia.

By the end of the winter, with lots of experimentation and helpful advice, I learned how to keep a fire going. The German winter inched forward, however, with pockets of warmth, and I awakened many a morning with my nose and ears cold. I would cautiously test the stove, but its iron body was resolutely cold and the heap of ashes held no spark that could be coaxed to life.

It was via that iron stove that a kind of pre-modern consciousness entered into my thinking. Getting a fire going certainly enlightened me to the peculiarities of much folk literature. It was no doubt the task of Cinderella -- emblematic of poor household servants through the centuries -- to keep a fire going for days on end, indeed the entire winter, over which her masters could warm their hands in the morning. If nothing else, my hardships, such as they were, led me to appreciate the joy a person felt who made it through a German winter in an age when coal was not mined and delivered to your house. When spring finally arrived I did indeed feel a visceral appreciation for the sentiments expressed in Goethe's "May Song," including the exclamation marks. Here the rest of the poem:

Oh love, more lovely
Than break of day
On those golden hills
Where the clouds play!
In a mist of blossoms
Your fields renew
Their fullness, your world
Is blessed with dew.

Oh dearest girl,
Oh I love you so!
And you love me too
As your bright eyes show!
As the lark loves singing
And soaring high
As the morning flowers
Love the breathing sky,

So I love you
With my heart's warm blood,
For you give me youth
And joy, and a mood
For new songs and dances.
Oh may you be
Ever happy, as ever
Your love for me!

Picture credit: Mike Allen (Marburg pic); Valentine Cameron Princep (Cinderella, 1899)

1 comment:

3tlite said...

You have an exquisite prose style. I really enjoyed being eased into Goethe's poem by this post about Germany's winters.