Wednesday, February 23, 2011


A reader of this blog has alluded to a fondness for Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the first part of the novel, when Werther was feeling happy, his favorite reading matter was Homer's Odyssey. When his mind took its southward turn, he began reading the cycle of poems named after Ossian, supposedly the Gaelic bard in the Scottish Dark Ages. Like Homer, Ossian was blind, and he sings, among other things, of the life and battles of a warrior named Fingal. The tone is elegiac, reflecting, Götterdämmerung-like, the end of the warriors' way of life. Though it was discovered that the poems were a fabrication of the Scots poem James Macpherson, they were nevertheless the rage in the 18th century. No doubt the "rudeness" of the more primitive way of life appealed to the growing civilized habits of Europeans. Homer portrayed the world of gods and men; in Ossian a more elementary portrait of nature is conveyed. Herder called Ossian "Naturpoesie." Goethe, with his friend Merck, published an edition of The Works of Ossian (1773/77), and prepared the engraving for the title page himself.

Goethe also translated "the songs of Selma" (Gesänge von Selma) of Ossian, which he included in the Werther novel. The songs of Selma begins with an address to the evening star ("Star of descending night! fair is the light in the west!") and narrates of the days "when the king heard the music of harps, and the chiefs gathered from all their hills and heard the lovely sound."

Why does Ossian sing? Soon shall he lie in the narrow house, and no bard shall raise his fame! Roll on ye dark brown years; ye bring no joy on your course! Let the tome open to Ossian, for his strength has failed. The sons of song are gone to rest. My voice remains, like a blast, that roars, lonely on a sea-surrounded rock, after the winds are laid. The dark moss whistles there; the distant mariner sees the waving trees.

The moment of highest emotional intensity in the novel is preceded by Werther reading aloud from the poems to Lotte, which produces torrents of tears and an emotional embrace, followed by a farewell. Not long thereafter, Werther prepares for his suicide.

I love the painting at the top of this post, Ossian Sings His Swan Song. It is by the Danish artist Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (1743-1809). Interestingly, Abildgaard became familiar with Ossian as a pictorial subject in Rome, where he was a friend of Henry Fuseli, Bodmer's disciple.

Picture credit: Thaumazein


Jonathan Ashleigh said...

“The Sorrows of Young Mike” recently published as a parody of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe. I loved the aspects that were touched on in the updated version. John Zelazny, the writer of the parody, is in no way hiding from the original and makes this very clear. Zelazny’s protagonist is infatuated with Werther but lost and in love while he travels around the world with a copy of his favorite book. Everyone interested in Werther should check out “The Sorrows of Young Mike.”

Goethe Girl said...

Thanks you so much for this recommendation. I will look into this and may do a post on it.