Thursday, February 11, 2010

Goethe Skates!

Last weekend we were promised snow in New York, and yesterday morning it finally arrived. I could tell it was there when I woke up, because you could hear people out shoveling, clearing the sidewalks or trying to get their cars out. Mid-morning I had to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to do some work. We live on the West side of Central Park, so I walked in the falling snow across the park to the museum. I live such an urbanized existence that I am happy to have at least this minimal contact with "the elements." Below are interspersed a few pictures I took. Kids (and adults) were out in force with their sleds on the hills of the park.

The weather here is seldom cold enough that the rivers or lakes freeze, unlike in northern Europe, but the snow yesterday reminded me that Goethe had been fond of ice skating. A Victorian-era portrait of him by Wilhelm von Kaulbach shows Goethe on the ice, at the center of a group of ladies, one of whom is about to throw a snowball at him.

German poets from Klopstock to Novalis and Jean Paul have celebrated ice skating in poetry and prose. Friedrich Klopstock's "Der Eislauf" seems to have inaugurated enthusiasm for the sport among poets. In Poetry and Truth Goethe recalled his fondness for ice skating back in Frankfurt. That would have been in 1773/1774, when he was enamored of Maximiliane von La Roche (later Brentano). According to a later report of that period by his own mother, Goethe was like a young god on the ice ("Da fährt er hin wie ein Göttersohn auf dem Eiß") which is probably what Kaulbach's image memorializes. Goethe brought ice skating to Weimar when he went there in 1775. A letter from Goethe to Lavater mentions a visit to Wieland after a day of skating ("Nach Mittag mit Wieland ... ziemlich müde und ausgelüfftet von der Eisfahrt").

Goethe induced many from the court to skate, including Herder, who commemorated the experience in poetry as well ("Wir schweben, wir wallen auf hallendem Meer,/ Auf Silberkrystallen dahin und daher"). Charlotte von Stein, someone wrote, was a somewhat "ridiculous figure" on the ice.

Goethe wrote a beautiful poem cycle, entitled Four Seasons, which appeared in 1800. It contains 100 distichs. "Winter" (distichs 84-99), which according to my copy of Metzler's Goethe-Lexikon, can be read as "an allegory of the journey through life," opens with a lovely image of skating, First in German, then in my rather miserable translation of the first two distichs:

Wasser ist Körper, und Boden der Fluss. Das neueste Theater
Tut in der Sonne Glanz zwischen den Ufern sich auf.

Wahrlich, es scheint nur ein Traum! Bedeutende Bilder des Lebens
Schweben lieblich und ernst über die Fläche dahin.

(Water is the body, and the river the ground. The newest theater
Premiers between the banks in the brilliant sun.

In truth, it seems to be only a dream! Meaningful pictures of life
Float with charm and gravity back and forth over the surface.)

To make up for my own lack of translation ability, I include here distichs 30-33 and 35 of David Luke's beautiful translation of "Summer" from Four Seasons:

Do you know the splendid poison of unsatisfied love? It burns and refreshes, devours the marrow and renews it.

Do you know the splendid effects of love at last satisfied? It ties bodies with a beautiful bond, and sets spirits free.

True love is that which remains for ever the smae whether all that it asks is granted or all refused.

I should like to have everything that I might share everything with her; I would surrender everything if she, who is all I love, were mind.

Beauty asked: "Why must I perish, oh Zeus?" "Why, I gave beauty," answered the god, "only to perishable things."

Picture credit: eBay

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