Christian Morgenstern –
– taking the “P” out of poetry
Now for something totally different!
A little while ago, on a visit to Germany, a friend introduced me to a poet whose work seems to defy attempts to translate it into English. His name was Christian Morgenstern (the poet, not the friend) and he lived around the turn of the twentieth century. Morgenstern’s specialty was nonsense poetry, rather in the style of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. Among his best known work, and popular in Germany is his collection of Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) that takes a humorous look at life and at the German language.
Among these strange poems, and an all-time favourite, is Der Werwolf, in which he plays word games with ‘Wer‘ (English: who), which is of course like nearly every German noun and pronoun is declined. It goes something like this:
Ein Werwolf eines Nachts entwich
von Weib und Kind und sich begab
an eines Dorfschullehrers Grab
und bat ihn: ‘Bitte, beuge mich!’
[One night a werewolf abandoned his wife and child and repaired to the grave of a village schoolmaster, where he requested ‘Please decline me!’]
Der Dorfschulmeister stieg hinauf
auf seines Blechschilds Messingknauf
und sprach zum Wolf, der seine Pfoten
geduldig kreuzte vor dem Toten:
[The schoolmaster rose up onto the brass plate of his tomb and addressed the wolf who had patiently crossed his paws in front of him.]
‘Der Werwolf’, sprach der gute Mann,
‘des Weswolfs, Genitiv sodann,
dem Wemwolf, Dativ, wie mans nennt,
den Wenwolf, — damit hats ein End.’
[Here the schoolmaster makes fun of the German cases of the word ‘wer’ (who); it doesn’t really bear translating.]
Dem Werwolf schmeichelten die Fälle,
er rollte seine Augenbälle.
»Indessen«, bat er, »füge doch
zur Einzahl auch die Mehrzahl noch!«
[The werewolf was flattered by the declension of his name and rolled his eyeballs. ‘But,’ he asked, ‘you have to go on and give me the plural forms too.’]
Der Dorfschulmeister aber mußte
gestehn, dass er von ihr nichts wußte.
Zwar Wölfe gäbs in grosser Schar,
doch »Wer« gäbs nur im Singular.
[But the schoolmaster had to confess he knew nothing about that. There are certainly a huge number of wolves, but you find ‘wer’ only in the singular.]
Der Wolf erhob sich tränenblind–
er hatte ja doch Weib und Kind!
Doch da er kein Gelehrter eben,
so schied er dankend und ergeben.
[The wolf got up blinded by tears – after all he still had a wife and child. However, since he was no scholar, he took his thankful and humble leave.]
I have only just recently discovered (while researching something completely different) that attempts HAVE been made to translate this poem into English. Not quite literally of course – that wouldn’t make sense – but by making fun of some of the English language’s peculiarities. Anyone who, like me, finds the eccentricities of language and grammar great fun, can find two of these English efforts at the following links:
and on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Morgenstern
I understand there may also be a musical version of the poem, though whether in German or English I don’t know!