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The Pathos of Everyday Life 3 (Goethe: “Die Nacht schuf tausend Ungeheuer”)

Having Sunday breakfast before the crack of dawn at my neighborhood eatery (as is my wont), seated adjacent to the Jack and Jill of earlier posts, I was reminded of a line from a famous Goethe poem, “Willkommen und Abschied” (Welcome and Farewell; set to music by Schubert, among others), that I had memorized in my German course at Hollywod High. Here is the strophe in which the line appears [trans. Edgar Alfred Bowring]:

Der Mond von einem Wolkenhügel
Sah schläfrig aus dem Duft hervor,
Die Winde schwangen leise Flügel,
Umsausten schauerlich mein Ohr.
Die Nacht schuf tausend Ungeheuer,
Doch tausendfacher war mein Mut,
Mein Geist war ein verzehrend Feuer,
Mein ganzes Herz zerfloß in Glut.

[From out a hill of clouds the moon
With mournful gaze began to peer:
The winds their soft wings flutter’d soon,
And murmur’d in my awe-struck ear;
The night a thousand monsters made,
Yet fresh and joyous was my mind;
What fire within my veins then play’d!
What glow was in my bosom shrin’d!]

One’s mental set at any given point in life is determined by the cumulative weight of reminiscences such as these, deposited at different levels in the mineshaft of the psyche, and one’s surroundings at any given moment may serve as the stimulus that brings a particular reminiscence to the surface. Since language is the vehicle of thought, nothing else has the power to frame one’s emotions to the same degree, and poetry of all linguistic products is the most powerful repository on which to draw in realizing the inner dialogue that Plato calls the silent converse of the soul with itself.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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