Roman Elegies

Römische Elegien; Roman Elegies (written 1788-90, published 1795)

Goethe wrote the Roman Elegies between 1788 and 1790. The poems combine a celebration of his time in Italy (1786-88) with a celebration of his new relationship with Christiane Vulpius, which began in the summer of 1788. The Roman Elegies are love poems with a difference: they express not frustration or heartbreak (as is typical in Western love poetry), but sexual satisfaction. The poems are influenced by classical models, particularly the Satires of Horace.

The following poem, the tenth poem of the cycle when first published, is in the form of dactylic hexameters and pentameters. Sometimes there are trochees. The line always begins with a stressed syllable. In the final line, two stresses come together (‘Fuß’ and ‘schauer’) causing a jarring effect.

Alexander und Cäsar und Heinrich und Friedrich, die Großen,

Gäben die Hälfte mir gern ihres erworbenen Ruhms,

Könnt ich auf eine Nacht dies Lager jedem vergönnen;

Aber die Armen, sie hält strenge des Orkus Gewalt.

Freue dich also, Lebendger, der lieberwärmeten Stätte,

Ehe den fliehenden Fuß schauerlich Lethe dir netzt.

Alexander and Caesar and Henry and Frederick, those great ones,

Would gladly give me half of their acquired fame,

If I could yield this bed to each of them for just one night;

But those poor ones, the power of Orcus holds them fast.

Therefore enjoy, you who are alive, the couch warmed with loving,

Before the awful water of Lethe wets your fugitive foot.

[Orcus = the Underworld; Lethe = river in the Underworld]

English Translation

Goethe, Erotic Poems, trans. by David Luke, intro. by Hans Rudolf Vaget (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Further Reading in English

David Barry, ‘“Sollte der herrliche Sohn uns an der Seite nicht stehn?”: Priapus and Goethe’s “Römische Elegien”’, Monatshefte 82:4 (1990), 421-34

Eva Dessau Bernhardt, Goethe’s Römische Elegien: The Lover and the Poet (Bern: Peter Lang, 1990)

K. F. Hilliard, ‘Römische Elegien XX: Metapoetic Reflection in Goethe’s Classical Poetry’, in Goethe at 250: London Symposium. Goethe mit 250: Londoner Symposium, ed. by T. J. Reed, Martin Swales, Jeremy Adler (München: Iudicium, 2000), pp. 223-32

Florian Krobb, ‘Priapean Pursuits: Translation, World Literature, and Goethe’s Roman Elegies’, Orbis Litterarum 65:1 (2010), 1-21

Roger Paulin, ‘Römische Elegien V, VII’, German Life and Letters 36:1-2 (1982-83), 66-76

S. S. Prawer, German Lyric Poetry: A Critical Analysis of Selected Poems from Klopstock to Rilke (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 73-77

T. J. Reed, Goethe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 40-43

T. J. Reed, The Classical Centre: Goethe and Weimar 1775-1832 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 65-67

Eleanor Ter Horst, ‘Masks and Metamorphoses: The Transformation of Classical Tradition in Goethe’s Römische Elegien’, German Quarterly 85:4 (2012), 401-19

Further Reading in German

W. Daniel Wilson, Goethes Erotica und die Weimarer ›Zensoren‹ (Hannover: Wehrhahn, 2015)