Goethe Killed Adjectives

“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
ist Ruh’,
In allen Wipfeln
spürest du
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)

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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