Kurt Eissler's psychoanalytic biography of Goethe has an illuminating chapter on the famous poem "Über allen Gipfeln," which he finds nothing short of a miracle. Here is the poem in German (an English translation can be found here):
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
Eissler contends the poem could have been written by anyone who had mastered German and was strongly under the influence of nature. It represents, he writes, both the highest art (Kunst) and total artlessness. At the same time, such poems are seldom written. "The creation of the poem did not demand so much a poetic gift as the coincidence of both definite outer conditions and a specific mood." Eissler then sets out to identify these.
The quietness of the scene in the poem is one we have all experienced in a natural setting, at the end of a day, when the earth seems totally still. In the 18th century (and earlier) the experience must have been much more intense, though it was also likewise a daily happening. For us moderns -- I speak for myself in any case -- this quiescence of nature is very soothing, though we are likely to experience it with some background noise. Like many scholars, Eissler finds that the quiescence is about death. For myself, I think the mood could also suggest simply the quieting of the heart when it has been gripped by an intense feeling. The way that nature seems to rest, so naturally one might say, was once a reflection of the rhythms of human and natural life. Not for us moderns anymore. Now it is an aesthetic moment, yet still perhaps a moment of profound feeling.
For Eissler it is a specific kind of death, that of eros. He brings the poem into connection with Maria von Branconi, a German-Italian woman said to have been the most beautiful woman in Germany in her time. She and Goethe first met when he was in Zurich in 1779. He wrote to Charlotte von Stein about his impression. "In the evening I went to visit Madame Branconi. She is so beautiful and pleasant that I quietly asked myself several times in her presence whether it were true that she could be so beautiful. And such a spirit [Geist]! life [Leben]! openness! that one did not know what one was about."
(Interesting, one might think, that he confided in one woman about the beauty of another woman. Oh, well, back to the interpretation of "Über allen Gipfeln.")
Mme Branconi next visited Goethe in Weimar, on August 26 and 27, 1780. Within a week, on September 5, Goethe began an inspection tour of Thuringia with Carl August, spending the first two days by himself on the highest mountain of the area, the so-called Kickelhahn, lodging in the hunter's cabin. What we know about the genesis of the poem again derives from a letter to Charlotte von Stein, dated September 6. He mentions that the sky is clear and that he will go out to enjoy the sunset: "The view if great, but simple" (Die Aussicht ist gross aber einfach). After his return he continues the letter:
"The sun has set. It is the same area of which I once made a drawing for you, the one of shifting haze; now it is so pure and quiet, and as uninteresting as a great, beautiful soul when it feels itself most content. Were it not for some vapors here and there from the charcoal burners the entire scene would be unmoving." Such was the effect on Goethe at that moment.
It was very common for Goethe to start a letter, then continue it later. Thus, he begins anew, apparently after taking a nap: "After 8 p.m." While he was sleeping he received the "provisions" he expected from Ilmenau, which did not include a letter from Charlotte. But, he writes, "a letter from the beautiful woman arrived, to awaken me from my sleep."
Later on the night of September 6 he apparently wrote the famous poem on the wooden wall of the hunter's hut (pictured here is the "Goethehäuschen" on the Kickelhahn); the poem was still be seen there in the late 19th century).
According to Eissler the landscape Goethe described in the letter describes a woman's body, one that he associated with a "schöne Seele," a woman who -- like Charlotte von Stein -- while having a passionate nature, nevertheless subordinated it to higher ethical and social purposes. That is what Goethe saw while viewing the sunset. But, later, the letter from Madame Branconi provoked feelings of desire, which, if he was to be successful with his work in Weimar, he had to suppress, somewhat like "die schöne Seele."
Clearly Goethe was attracted to Madame Branconi. Eissler quotes from his letter of September 20, 1780, to Lavater, who had inquired about her visit in Weimar. Goethe referred to her as "die Schöne" and then continued:
"I behaved toward her as I would toward a princess or a saint. Even if this is an illusion, I would not like to besmear such an image with any transient desire. And God preserve me from a more serious liaison, in which she would unwind my soul from my limbs [mir die Seele aus den Gliedern winden würde]. The daily portion [of work] that has been assigned to me, which becomes both lighter and heavier, demands my presence waking and sleeping; this duty become daily more dear, and in this I wish to behave like the greatest of men, and greater in nothing else."
Thus, if Goethe were to function in Weimar, he had to kill great passion in himself and let himself be led instead by Charlotte. Eissler is of the opinion that the poem expresses "indirect hostility to her," whom he may love but cannot possess sexually. Considering that it was September in Germany, the above photo may accurately represent the "deadness" of the scene.
Goethe made two visits to Madame Branconi's estate in Langenstein in 1783 and 1784, during his famous Harz journeys. The 1783 visit in particular forms the centerpiece of Bernd Wolff's novel Im Labyrinth der Täler, about which I have already posted. (My review of those novels will appear in the next issue of Goethe Yearbook.) Wolff portrays Goethe as very attracted by Madame Branconi who, until 1777, had been the mistress of Crown Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick, one of the most important German princes. Wolff makes much of her unhappiness. The daughter of a German father and Italian mother, she grew up in Naples. Married off at the age of 12 to the 20-years-old Signor Branconi, she was a widow at 20 and mother of a son and a daughter already. A month later she met the Brunswick crown prince and, after their separation, became mistress of several properties in Germany, including the estate at Langenstein.
Photo credit: Rudolf Henckel