“When you catch an adjective, kill it,” Mark Twain once said. Writing one of the most atmospheric, soothing, calming poem in the German language, Johann Wolfgang Goethe followed this advice 55 years before the American writer’s birth. Reading Wanderers Nachtlied in a quiet voice, you will find rest after a long march and stillness inmidst nature but you will not find even one adjective in this poem.
You may have arranged its lines in the correct order with the help of Schubert’s Vertonung* in the last posting:
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
kaum einen Hauch;
die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
ruhest du auch.
Imagine standing on the Kickelhahn mountain in the Thuringia forest at dawn just before sunset. Nothing moves. Even the air is quiet; you barely feel it on your skin. It is not some action you notice first but things: The mountain-tops (die Gipfel) on the other site of the valley and the tree-tops that surround you. You must start your poem with things, with the Gipfel and the Wipfel and with their location (über). The verbs, always appearing in the second position of a sentence, speak a subdued language: sein, spüren, schweigen, warten, ruhen. Although all things (nouns) and verbs express peace, solitude, and silence, the poem is not a static, lifeless creature. It is dynamic. It tells us of a process, the approach of the night, because it is driven by three adverbs—kaum (almost), bald (soon), auch (also)—and one particle—nur in connection with warten; warte nur = just wait.
Wanderers Nachtlied is not the only poem of that title Goethe wrote. Four years before Über allen Gipfeln, during a hiking tour he had jotted down Der du von dem Himmel bist, set to music by Schubert as well. We will examine it in the next post.
* die Vertonung = scoring, text being set to music; vertonen = to set a a text to music (der Ton = sound, tone)