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Review: Nightwalker's Song, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sphinx Review, April 2023

Nightwalker’s Song, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Translated and introduced by John Greening
Arc Publications, 2022 £6.30

The brief is ‘be brief’

The trouble with Goethe is that he’s in every sense huge. In Germany, he is as famous, as influential, as Shakespeare. His output (in novels, stories, plays, poetry, and even scientific writing) was enormous, his influence unparalleled. So where do you begin, if the aim is to produce a slender pamphlet of his poetry, both in German and with facing translation? Goethe’s Wikipedia page alone extends to more than seven thousand words!

But John Greening makes the preface to his selection brief, vivid, and personal, and that works: ‘As a child [Goethe] heard Mozart perform; as a man he knew both Beethoven and Mendelssohn.’ While conceding that there is ‘a bewildering amount’ of material, even for poetry, Greening aims to show how the great man’s poems ‘can still have a powerful impact’. For this translator, ‘Harzreise im Winter’ is the ‘touchstone […] not least because it’s in free verse.’ (Most readers new to the bard will, nevertheless, start with the unintimidating little lyric ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’.)

I do like the way each piece of translation is prefaced with an italicised comment. It gives context, and it is genuinely educative. But ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’ (which Greening renders as ‘Nightwalker’s Song’) is probably untranslatable. English cannot, and does not, evoke the sound of a poem which — if you can hear the original German — breathes its way across the page like the evening air. Nor does Greening’s English version of ‘Harzreise in Winter’ really sound like contemporary verse to me: the syntax feels faintly archaic:

After all, it is a god
has designated
each of us a path,
which the luckier
rush along towards
their happy ending

It is in rhyming form where, to me, Greening really conveys what Hopkins called ‘the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation’. ‘Nature and Art’, a sonnet, is beautifully rendered (why did the pamphlet not open with that?) and in the extract from Faust, Part One, the sheer bounce is nothing less than a delight:

So having read Philosophy
and Medicine and Law and run
the whole length of Theology
in hot pursuit of truth (such fun!)
I stand here now, my IQ score
exactly what it was before.

Helena Nelson, 1 April 2023