Auf dem See; On the Lake

Auf dem See; On the Lake (written 1775, published 1789)

Und frische Nahrung, neues Blut

Saug ich aus freier Welt;

Wie ist Natur so hold und gut,

Die mich am Busen hält!

Die Welle wieget unsern Kahn

Im Rudertakt hinauf,

Und Berge, wolkig himmelan,

Begegnen unserm Lauf.

Aug, mein Aug, was sinkst du nieder?

Goldne Träume, kommt ihr wieder?

Weg, du Traum! so gold du bist;

Hier auch Lieb und Leben ist.

Auf der Welle blinken

Tausend schwebende Sterne,

Weiche Nebel trinken

Rings die türmende Ferne;

Morgenwind umflügelt

Die beschattete Bucht,

Und im See bespiegelt

Sich die reifende Frucht.

And fresh nourishment, new blood

Suck I from the free world;

Nature is so fair and good

She holds me at her bosom!

The wave rocks our boat

Upwards with the rhythm of the oars

And mountains, cloudy heavenwards,

Meet our course.

Eye, my eye, why do you sink down?

Golden dreams, do you come again?

Away, you dream! As gold as you are,

Here too are life and love.

On the wave blink

Thousands of hovering stars,

Soft mists drink

The towering distance all around;

Morning wind envelops

The shadowed bay,

And in the lake is reflected

The ripening fruit.

The first stanza is iambic; the second and third stanzas are trochaic. The iambic metre conveys the sense of the waves lapping leisurely against the boat, whereas the trochaic metre is more incisive and is arguably better suited to the sense of crisis and decision in stanzas two and three.

This is a poem about the process of maturing. At the beginning the ‘I’ sucks nourishment from the breast of mother nature, and is gently rocked by the waves. There is a crisis of confidence in the second stanza, as dream threatens to supplant reality, but the dream is rejected in favour of life and love. The third stanza shows a new sense of precision: the personal pronouns of the first two stanzas are gone, suggesting that the ‘I’ is no longer so self-absorbed. The use of metaphor has been replaced by acute observation. Notable in this third stanza are adjectives formed from present participles ‘schwebend’ (hovering), ‘türmend’ (towering), ‘reifend’ (ripening), expressing an awareness of ongoing, moving processes in the surrounding nature. The final image of the ripening fruit reflected in the water conveys a sense of gradual maturity through the word ‘reifend’ (ripening); also the reflexive verb ‘sich bespiegeln’ (to mirror itself) suggests that self-reflection is an important aspect of this process.

Further Reading

Nicholas Boyle, ‘“Maifest” and “Auf dem See”’, German Life and Letters 36:1-2 (1982-83), 18-34

Charlie Louth, ‘Reflections: Goethe’s “Auf dem See” and Hölderlin’s “Hälfte des Lebens”’, Oxford German Studies 33 (2004), 167-75

Brigitte Peucker, ‘Goethe’s Mirror of Art: The Case of “Auf dem See”’, Goethe Yearbook: Publications of the Goethe Society of North America 2 (1984), 43-49

S. S. Prawer, German Lyric Poetry: A Critical Analysis of Selected Poems from Klopstock to Rilke (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 63-67