Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar;
Ihr goldnes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.
Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lore-Ley getan.
I know not what it should imply,
That I am so forlorn;
A tale from times so long gone by
From my thoughts will not be torn.
The air is cool and it darkens,
And the Rhine does calmly flow;
The peak of the mountain sparkles
In the sinking sun’s last glow.
The most beautiful maiden so
Alights, but wondrously up there.
It blazes, her golden bow,
She combs her golden hair.
She combs it with golden comb
And thereby sings a song;
A seeming wonder-tome
With a melodye violent-strong.
The seaman in his tiny yacht
It grasps with wilding woe,
He looks not at the rock-reefs as he ought,
He looks only up from below.
I believe the swells do devour,
In the end, both skipper and skiff;
Smitten, in his final hour,
By the Lore-Ley with her riff.
– translated Robert Clarke, 2001
"Die Lore-Ley” by Heinrich Heine
Translated by Robert Clarke
Is it not overwhelming, the beauty and the terror of Heinrich Heine’s Lore-Ley poem? A reader cannot help but to empathize with the plight of the poem’s melancholic narrator, confronted by a language so slippery and multi-valent in its ability to signify, to trigger memories both from life and from the deep literary past. Are we not all a bit like the skipper in his little skiff, carried along by the flowing song of a river, of golden hair, until its riffs and reefs combine to dash the beauty of the melody, causing it, its narrator, and its reader, to die--just a little, when faced with the shifting foundations that inform it?
Is the “Märchen aus alten Zeiten” one of these terrifying children’s monster-tales from the deep past, as the narrator implies? Or is Heine already at play with his famous post-Romantic, indeed, nearly post-modern irony? The first written evidence of the tale to which the poem refers, the tale of a beautiful sea maiden with the tail of a fish, perched upon the rocks overlooking the Rhein near St. Goar, is found in a poetic interlude in Clemens Brentano’s "Godwi," written a scant eleven years earlier. Shortly thereafter, numerous prose versions emerged to tell the tale of the mysterious siren whose voice lured men to their death in the depths below. It is quite possible that this is no invention of Brentano. Besides the obvious parallels to Homer’s Odyssey, indeed a tale full of fatal women from the oldest of times, this particular story may have circulated in oral form long before it was set to paper at a time when so many folktales were being collected as a means of creating a unified German national identity. Indeed, the “golden hair” of the maiden stimulates memories of numerous old tales, such as Rapunzel, collected and refined by the Grimm Brothers at the same time in German history. All these possibilities for the apparent “meaning” of the poem’s opening stanza yield pathways into the poem that could occupy many a scholar for many years (and so have done). In fact, the poem sings forward as well, to the golden-haired Margarete of Paul Celan’s "Todesfuge." His echo of Heine’s famous mermaid gains tremendous resonance, as one delves into the many possibilities of its genesis.
One is also never sure when Heine’s sense of irony (one that is developed beyond the limits of German Romanticism) is at play. Upon first glance, the poem, with all its tropes of nature and death, seems perfectly to fit the category of Romantic “Volkslied,” or folksong-poem. But, as the reader draws nearer to the language of the poem, it veers sharply, like the sudden twist in the Rhein beneath the famous outcropping known as the Lorelei (which is the real reason so many seamen perished there). With the sudden appearance of the older, obsolete form “Melodei,” ostensibly used for the purpose of staying within the bounds of proper rhyme, the song begins to break loose from the bonds of expected Romantic discourse. The poem, like the river, begins to run its own, different, direction; to find its own dis-course. It begins to challenge those same, culturally dangerous tropes that had led Germany to a moment of unified nationalist identity. One begins to question whether those flowing golden waves of hair and melod-y might not be a dye-job that could lead to people (or an entire people) dying.
Heine was well aware of the ambiguous potential of language to either heal or kill. It was he who noted, over a hundred years before Auschwitz, that where one burns books, one will soon burn humans. Looking back, from Homer’s sirens to Kleist’s St. Cecilia, or looking forward, from Kafka’s Josephine to Günther Grass’ Oskar, Heine’s awareness of the explosive potential of the voice for good and evil, sometimes simultaneously, is borne by the simple inversion of the diphthong at the end of this word: “Melodei.” This not only generates a recursive awareness of the instability of the preceding “ie” diphthong in the word “Lied” (song) and its subsequent connection to the word “Leid” (sorrow, suffering, passion); it transforms the melody in question into the literal image of that metaphorical process being described; one which simultaneously expresses artistic creativity and destruction: “Ei” (Egg, ovum). As if to verify that a reader is not wondering astray among the sights and sounds evoked by the poem’s twists and turns, Heine has already inseminated this wonderful (“wundersame”) ovular melody with a magic semen (“Wunder-Same”), which gives birth to a song that, ultimately, breaks violently (“gewaltig”) out of its shell. Thus shattering the structure and confines that have nurtured it to this point, Heine’s poem points the way into the straits ahead; straits sounded by Paul Celan with his fugues of death; his “Todesfuge” and his canon, “Engführung” (“Stretto,” or “tour of the straits”). These straits are dire, narrow, twisted, and deep--like Heine’s over-golden vision of the waves of pure song, and hair, and Rhein, whose depths I’ve barely sounded; which threaten to dash my own attempts to grasp the poem’s meaning, like the seaman upon the rocks below.